Michel Debré

Michel Jean-Pierre Debré[1] (French pronunciation: [miʃɛl dəbʁe]; 15 January 1912 – 2 August 1996) was the first Prime Minister of the French Fifth Republic. He is considered the "father" of the current Constitution of France. He served under President Charles de Gaulle from 1959 to 1962. In terms of political personality, he was intense and immovable, with a tendency to rhetorical extremism.[2]

Michel Debré
Member of the National Assembly
In office
26 November 1962  14 May 1988
French Minister of Defence
In office
22 June 1969  5 April 1973
Prime MinisterJacques Chaban-Delmas,
Pierre Messmer
Preceded byPierre Messmer
Succeeded byRobert Galley
French Minister of Foreign Affairs
In office
31 May 1968  16 June 1969
Prime MinisterGeorges Pompidou,
Maurice Couve de Murville
Preceded byMaurice Couve de Murville
Succeeded byMaurice Schumann
French Minister of Finances
In office
8 January 1966  31 May 1968
Prime MinisterGeorges Pompidou
Preceded byValéry Giscard d'Estaing
Succeeded byMaurice Couve de Murville
Prime Minister of France
In office
8 January 1959  14 April 1962
PresidentCharles de Gaulle
Preceded byCharles de Gaulle
Succeeded byGeorges Pompidou
Personal details
Michel Jean-Pierre Debré

(1912-01-15)15 January 1912
Paris, France
Died2 August 1996(1996-08-02) (aged 84)
Montlouis-sur-Loire, Indre-et-Loire, France
Political partyRadical-Socialist Party
Rally of the French People
Union for the New Republic
Union of Democrats for the Republic
Rally for the Republic
Anne-Marie Lemaresquier (m. 1936)
ChildrenVincent (b. 1939)
François (b. 1942)
Bernard (b. 1944)
Jean-Louis (b. 1944)
Alma materÉcole Libre des Sciences Politiques
University of Paris
Awards Legion of Honour
War Cross
WebsiteGovernment profile site
Military service
Allegiance Vichy France
 Free France
Branch/service French Army
Years of service1939–1945
RankCommissioner of the Republic
UnitFrench Cavalry
Battles/warsWorld War II


Early years

Debré was born in Paris, the son of Robert Debré, the well-known Jewish professor of medicine, who is today considered by many to be the founder of modern pediatrics. His grandfather was a rabbi.[3] Michel Debré himself was a Roman Catholic.[1][3]

He studied at the Lycée Montaigne and then at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand, obtained a diploma from the École Libre des Sciences Politiques, and a Ph.D. in Law from the University of Paris. He then became a Professor of Law at the University of Paris. He also joined the École des Officiers de Réserve de la Cavalerie (Reserve Cavalry-Officers School) in Saumur. In 1934, at the age of twenty-two, Debré passed the entrance exam and became a member of the Conseil d'État. In 1938, he joined the staff of the Economy Minister Paul Reynaud.


In 1939, at the beginning of the Second World War, Debré was enlisted as a cavalry officer. He was taken prisoner in Artenay in June 1940 during the Battle of France but managed to escape in September of that year. He returned to the Conseil d'État, now under the administration of the Vichy regime, and was sworn in by Marshal Philippe Pétain. In 1942 he was promoted to maître des requêtes by the Minister of Justice. After the German invasion of the free zone in November 1942, Debré's political pétainisme disappeared, and in February 1943 he became involved in the French Resistance, joining the network Ceux de la Résistance (CDLR).

During the summer of 1943, General Charles de Gaulle gave Debré the task of making a list of prefects, or State representatives, who would replace those of the Vichy regime after the liberation. In August 1944 de Gaulle made him Commissaire de la République for Angers, and in 1945, the Provisional Government charged him with the task of reforming the French Civil Service. Debré created the École nationale d'administration, whose idea was formulated by Jean Zay before the war.

Under the Fourth Republic, Michel Debré at first supported the Democratic and Socialist Union of the Resistance, but defected to the Radical-Socialist Party on the advice of General Charles de Gaulle, who reportedly told him and several other politicians, including Jacques Chaban-Delmas,"Allez au parti radical. C'est là que vous trouverez les derniers vestiges du sens de l'Etat" – "Go to the radical party. It is there that you will find the last vestiges of the meaning of the state".[4] He then joined the Rally of the French People and was elected senator of Indre-et-Loire, a position he held from 1948 to 1958. In 1957, he founded Le Courrier de la colère, a newspaper that fiercely defended French Algeria and called for the return to power of de Gaulle. In the 2 December 1957 issue, Debré wrote:

This explicit appeal to the insurgency led the socialist politician Alain Savary to write that "In the case of the OAS insurgency, the soldiers are not the culprit; the culprit is Debré."[5]


Michel Debré had four sons: Vincent Debré (1939–), businessman; François Debré (1942–), journalist; Bernard Debré (born in 1944), urologist and politician; and his fraternal twin, Jean-Louis Debré, politician. See Debré family.


Michel Debré became the Garde des Sceaux (Minister of Justice) in the cabinet of General de Gaulle on 1 June 1958.[6] He played an important role in drafting the Constitution of the Fifth Republic, and on its acceptance he took up the new position of Prime Minister of France, which he held from 8 January 1959[7] to 1962.

After the 1962 Évian Accords referendum that ended the Algerian War and gave auto-determination to Algeria was approved by a nearly ten-to-one margin, de Gaulle replaced him with Georges Pompidou. In November, during the parliamentary elections that followed the dissolution of the National Assembly, he tried to be elected Député for Indre-et-Loire. Defeated, in March 1963 he decided to go to Réunion, an island he had visited for less than twenty-four hours on 10 July 1959 when on a trip with President de Gaulle. This choice reflects Debré's fear that what remained of the French colonial empires would follow the path trodden by Algeria – that of independence, towards which he was not sympathetic. Debré wanted to take action against the Communist Party of Réunion that had been founded by Paul Vergès a few years earlier. The movement sought self-determination for the island and the removal of its position as an overseas department, and had staged demonstrations on the island a few days earlier. He also noted that the invalidation of Gabriel Macé's election as Mayor of Saint-Denis rendered the post open to the opposition, so he took the decision to win over this mandate.

He returned in the government in 1966 as Economy and Finance Minister. After the May 1968 crisis, he became Foreign Minister, then, one year later, he served as Defence Minister of President Georges Pompidou. In that role, he became a hated figure of the left, because of his determination to expropriate the land of 107 peasant farmers and shepherds on the Larzac plateau, to extend an existing military base. The resulting civil disobedience campaign was ultimately victorious. Considered as a guardian of the Gaullist orthodoxy, he was marginalized after the election of Valéry Giscard d'Estaing as President of France in 1974. He criticized with virulence his foreign policy. In 1979 he took a major part in the Rally for the Republic (RPR) campaign against the European federalism and was elected member of the European Parliament in order to defend the principle of Europe of nations. But later, he accused Jacques Chirac and the RPR lead to moderate their speech, and so, he was a dissident candidate in the 1981 presidential election. He obtained only 1.6% of votes.

Politics in Réunion

Michel Debré arrived on the island of Réunion in April 1963, and succeeded in being elected Député for Saint-Denis on 6 May despite local opposition to the Ordonnance Debré law he had introduced in 1960, that allowed civil servants in the overseas departments and territories of France to be recalled to Metropolitan France if suspected of disturbing public order.[8] Supported by those who rejected autonomy, he immediately became the leader of the local right-wing. This state of affairs would be challenged by Pierre Lagourgue that during the next decade.

To justify the departmentalization of the island that occurred in 1946 and to preserve its inhabitants from the temptation of independence, Debré implemented an economic development policy, and opened the island's first family planning center. He personally fought to get Paris to create a second high school on the south of the island, in Le Tampon, when at the time there was only one, the Lycée Leconte-de-Lisle, that catered for many thousands of inhabitants.

For a period of around two decades in the twentieth century (1968-1982), 1,630 children from Réunion were relocated to France, particularly to Creuse. These children, known as Les enfants de la Creuse, were brought to light in 2002 when Réunion exile Jean-Jacques Martial made a legal complaint against politician Michel Debré (who organized the controversial displacement) for "kidnapping of a minor, roundup and deportation".[9] In 2005, a similar case was brought against the French Government by the Association of Réunion of Creuse.[10]

Political career

Governmental functions

  • Prime Minister: 1959–1962.
  • Keeper of the Seals, Minister of Justice: 1958–1959.
  • Minister of Economy and Finance: 1966–1968.
  • Minister of Foreign Affairs: 1968–1969.
  • Minister of Defense: 1969–1973.

Electoral mandates

European Parliament

Senate of France

  • Senator of Indre-et-Loire: 1948–1959 Became Prime minister in 1959. Elected in 1948, reelected in 1954.

National Assembly

General Council

  • General councillor of Indre-et-Loire: 1951–1970. Reelected in 1958, 1964.

Municipal Council

  • Mayor of Amboise: 1966–1989. Reelected in 1971, 1977, 1983.
  • Municipal councillor of Amboise: 1959–1989. Reelected in 1965, 1971, 1977, 1983.

Debré's Government, 8 January 1959 – 15 April 1962


  • 27 March 1959 – Robert Lecourt enters the Cabinet as Minister of Cooperation.
  • 27 May 1959 – Henri Rochereau succeeds Houdet as Minister of Agriculture.
  • 28 May 1959 – Pierre Chatenet succeeds Berthoin as Minister of the Interior.
  • 23 December 1959 – Debré succeeds Boulloche as interim Minister of National Education.
  • 13 January 1960 – Wilfrid Baumgartner succeeds Pinay as Minister of Finance and Economic Affairs.
  • 15 January 1960 – Louis Joxe succeeds Debré as Minister of National Education
  • 5 February 1960 – Pierre Messmer succeeds Guillaumat as Minister of Armies. Robert Lecourt becomes Minister of Overseas Departments and Territories and of the Sahara. His previous office of Minister of Cooperation is abolished. Michel Maurice-Bokanowski succeeds Cornut-Gentille as Minister of Posts and Telecommunications. Louis Terrenoire succeeds Frey as Minister of Information.
  • 23 November 1960 – Louis Joxe becomes Minister of Algerian Affairs. Pierre Guillaumat succeeds Joxe as interim Minister of National Education.
  • 20 February 1961 – Lucien Paye succeeds Guillaumat as Minister of National Education.
  • 6 May 1961 – Roger Frey succeeds Chatenet as Minister of the Interior.
  • 18 May 1961 – Jean Foyer enters the ministry as Minister of Cooperation.
  • 24 August 1961 – Bernard Chenot succeeds Michelet as Minister of Justice. Joseph Fontanet succeeds Chenot as Minister of Public Health and Population. Edgard Pisani succeeds Rochereau as Minister of Agriculture. Louis Jacquinot succeeds Lecourt as Minister of Overseas Departments and Territories and Sahara. Terrenoire ceases to be Minister of Information, and the office is abolished.
  • 19 January 1962 – Valéry Giscard d'Estaing succeeds Baumgartner as Minister of Finance and Economic Affairs.


  1. David Wilsford, ed. Political leaders of contemporary Western Europe: a biographical dictionary (Greenwood, 1995) pp 97-105
  2. Poliakov, Léon (1960). "FRANCE". American Jewish Year Book. 61: 204. JSTOR 23605151.
  3. ladepeche.fr. "Radical Party" (in French). Retrieved 16 December 2007.
  4. de-gaulle.info. "La Cendre Et La Braise" (in French). Retrieved 16 December 2007.
  5. Décret du 1er juin 1958 portant nomination des membres du gouvernement
  6. Décret du 8 janvier 1959 portant nomination du Premier ministre, Journal Officiel de la République Française, 9 January 1959
  7. Ordonnance n°60-1101 du 15 octobre 1960 relative au rappel d'office par le ministre dont ils dépendant des fonctionnaires de l'État en service dans les DOM dont le comportement est de nature à troubler l'ordre public
  8. Jean-Jacques Martial (2003). Une enfance volée. Les Quatre Chemins. p. 113. ISBN 978-2-84784-110-7. Retrieved 13 September 2012.
  9. Châtain, Georges (18 August 2005). "Les Réunionnais de la Creuse veulent faire reconnaître leur " déportation " en métropole "". Le Monde. Retrieved 13 September 2012.

Further reading

  • Wahl, Nicholas. "The Constitutional Ideas of Michel Debré." Theory and Politics/Theorie und Politik. Springer Netherlands, 1971. 259-271.
  • Wilsford, David, ed. Political leaders of contemporary Western Europe: a biographical dictionary (Greenwood, 1995) pp 97–105

Primary sources

  • Debré, Michel. "The principles of our defence policy: Revue de Défense Nationale (Paris) 26 année August/September 1970." Survival 12#11 (1970): 376-383.
  • Debre, Michel. "Michel Debré on French population policy." Population and Development Review 12.3 (1986): 606-608. in JSTOR
Political offices
Preceded by
Robert Lecourt
Minister of Justice
Succeeded by
Edmond Michelet
Preceded by
Pierre Garet
interim Minister of Reconstruction and Housing
Succeeded by
Preceded by
Vincent Badie
interim Minister of Veterans and War Victims
Succeeded by
Edmond Michelet
Preceded by
Charles de Gaulle
Prime Minister of France
Succeeded by
Georges Pompidou
Preceded by
André Boulloche
interim Minister of National Education
Succeeded by
Louis Joxe
Preceded by
Valéry Giscard d'Estaing
Minister of Economy and Finance
Succeeded by
Maurice Couve de Murville
Preceded by
Maurice Couve de Murville
Minister of Foreign Affairs
Succeeded by
Maurice Schumann
Preceded by
Pierre Messmer
Minister of National Defense
Succeeded by
Robert Galley
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