Never short of a bon mot, Charles de Gaulle was particularly creative when it came to journalists, especially French ones. 'Mr It's-got-to-go-wrong' was his pet name for Hubert Beuve-Mery, the journalist who founded Le Monde, the French newspaper of reference after the Second World War. Raymond Aron, an influential columnist at the right-wing Le Figaro, didn't fare much better: 'A journalist at the College of France and a professor at Le Figaro', de Gaulle grumbled.
Admiration must therefore go to Jean Mauriac, who spent twenty-six years (from August 1944 to de Gaulle's death in November 1970) reporting the general's every move for the French news agency, Agence France Presse (AFP). At the grand age of eighty-four, Mauriac has become the talk of Paris with Le General et le journaliste, a book of conversations with the historian JeanLuc Barre which brings de Gaulle vividly to life in all his curmudgeonly splendour.
Mauriac's luck was to have been in the right place at the right time. AFP had just been created as a public corporation in the months that followed the Liberation. De Gaulle's aim was to provide France with a news agency to rival its anglocentric competitors on the world stage.
Only twenty, Mauriac was offered and immediately accepted a post at AFP after his older brother Claude, who had intended to take up the position, was appointed de Gaulle's personal secretary, a position he held until 1949. It was only a matter of weeks before Mauriac was assigned to cover the General.
In Mauriac's favour was his pronounced Gaullism, which even at that early date was at odds with most of his profession. He was also the youngest son of Francois Mauriac, a writer de Gaulle held in such esteem that he was moved to quote him in one of his famous radio addresses from London.
'Yes it's true he (de Gaulle) liked me because I was the son of a writer he admired,' said Mauriac in a recent interview with History Today. 'Of course it helped that I was a true believer. I've stayed a Gaullist and a journalist all my life. I think I managed not only to keep my devotion to the general intact, but also to do my job properly. If I hadn't, my editor would never have kept me so close to de Gaulle for so long.'
Mauriac's study overlooking the Seine is lined with an extraordinary collection of antique books, most of them bequeathed to him by his father, who won the Nobel prize for literature in 1952. Also in the study is a framed photograph of de Gaulle.
'You have to understand that he was a unique person, a monument of history', said Mauriac. 'Like all browbeaters, in private he was kind, even indulgent.' Nonetheless Mauriac's book is interspersed with some famous dressings-down.
In 1956 de Gaulle embarked on a Pacific cruise with his wife and entourage. Mauriac was the only journalist on board. 'My General, come and see the moon', said the journalist, one particularly fine evening. 'Get shoved with your moon, Mauriac!' replied de Gaulle, who we are later told was far more interested in people than in landscapes.
Another later conversation was no more fruitful for Mauriac. 'Do you know perhaps the most beautiful of [Charles Trenet's] songs, Douce France?' he asked the general. 'Douce France? There's nothing douce about France!' replied de Gaulle.
Far from being offended, Mauriac wore these slights as a badge of honour, content that the General should even acknowledge his existence. Such an unflappable nature was bound to reap its own rewards. …