Maurice Couve de Murville, 92, a consummate French civil servant and politician who will be best remembered for the decade he spent as President Charles de Gaulle's foreign minister, died Dec. 24 in Paris. The cause of death was not disclosed.
Mr. Couve de Murville, a gifted and coolly unflappable technocrat, was a diplomat, lawyer, and economist by training. He served as foreign minister from 1958 to 1968, longer than any other person to hold that post. He then served several months as finance minister, and as premier in 1968 and 1969. He held a seat in the French parliament from 1973 to 1995.
As foreign minister, he was the suave, polished and unsmilingly aloof diplomatic right hand of the imperiously autocratic de Gaulle. He had been a close friend of de Gaulle's since World War II and loyal member of the Gaullist RPR Party. The charismatic former general and unsmilingly aloof diplomat made a brilliant and seamless foreign policy team.
During that decade, the president most often proclaimed French foreign policy and the foreign minister conducted the diplomacy that attempted to make everything work. As foreign minister, Mr. Couve de Murville was in the forefront of a decade of momentous diplomatic events.
Among those events was the diplomacy surrounding the independence of Algeria, an event that allowed France to suffer a "defeat" many thought would plunge France into civil war at home and utter unimportance abroad. In fact, de Gaulle kept order at home and France went from seeming triumph to triumph abroad.
Another event was the continuing improvement of relations between Germany and France, begun with the historic Schuman Plan, and the struggle for a lasting peace in western Europe. Mr. Couve de Murville was to write: "The Franco-German Treaty of 1963 was the symbolic incarnation of reconciliation and the desire for an entente between France and Germany. I was very much a partisan of this reconciliation."
Mr. Couve de Murville also was a proponent of de Gaulle's actions to make France an independent player in the bipolar world of East-West relations. Fearing that France--and the rest of an unthinking Europe--had become a prisoner of American foreign policy and dependence on American strategic arms, the two Frenchmen worked to make France the voice of a third force. Mr. Couve de Murville called this approach "good for France, because it led to a renewal of our national spirit."
Some American policy makers pointed out that what it also did was divide the Western camp, with the French insisting on an independent dialogue with the Soviet Union and with French withdrawal from the integrated NATO military command, if not from the Atlantic alliance itself.
Mr. Couve de Murville wrote: "The whole question is this: Are all our responsibilities in the international arena going to be based on the U.S., or will the other countries conserve their personal responsibility and have their own policies?"
Mr. Couve de Murville, who was fluent in English, was a champion of European unity and a leading proponent of successfully blocking Britain's entry into the Common Market in the 1960s. It also was during his years in office that France extended diplomatic recognition to Communist China.
Another example of French policy evolution was its actions in the Middle East. Once the leading supplier of sophisticated military aide to Israel, France worked toward a more pro-Arab set of policies. Prior to 1967, Mr. Couve de Murville worked to cut military aide to Israel, believing that Israel was about to launch a war.
A famous anecdote illustrates both his loyalty to de Gaulle and his skill as a diplomat. It is supposed to have taken place during a visit between the French president and Soviet leader Nikita S. Khrushchev in which they supposedly compared their loyal foreign ministers.
Khrushchev, referring to Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko, reportedly said: "Mine is so loyal that if I told him to sit on a block of ice, he would do so until it melted."
De Gaulle supposedly replied, "Mine would too--but the ice would not melt."
Upon learning of Mr. Couve de Murville's death, French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine issued a statement hailing him as "a great ambassador."
"I salute his memory, his professionalism, his world vision, his conviction in the service of the interests and values of our country, his elegance," Vedrine said.
Maurice Jacques Couve de Murville was born in Reims, to an old Protestant banking family. His father was a judge. The future diplomat received degrees in law, history and economics from the University of Paris before beginning his government career in 1930 as an inspector in the Finance Ministry. By 1940, he was the ministry's external finance director, one of its senior posts.
After France's defeat in the early days of World War II, he served in the cabinet of the pro-German Vichy regime before escaping to North Africa in 1943 and becoming finance commissioner in the Free French government of Gen. de Gaulle.
At war's end, he became director general for political affairs in the Foreign Ministry. He was ambassador to Egypt from 1950 to 1954, to NATO in 1955, and then to this country in 1955 and 1956. He was ambassador to West Germany from 1956 to 1958.
After the French student riots of 1968, Mr. Couve de Murville was named finance minister, a post he held from May to July. He then served as de Gaulle's last premier, holding that job from July 1968 to June 1969. After that, in addition to his legislative career, he served on the French delegation to the United Nations from 1978 to 1981, and was a presidential emissary to Lebanon, at the request of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, in 1976, during the Lebanese civil war.