Georges Pompidou was the second president of the French Vth Republic. A symbol of the French meritocracy, he was an academic man, a businessman, a statesman. However, he will always remain in the shadow of his predecessor, Charles de Gaulle.
He was born in 1911 in Montboudif, in Cantal, a département of the Massif Central, France's heartland. His parents were teachers, his grandparents farmers. But little Georges would exceed all expectations of accademic success. At 15, he won the Concours Général in Greek translation; after obtaining his baccalauréat, he was admitted to the prestigious Ecole Normale Supérieure to study Literature; finally, he finished first in the national Agrégation in Literature competitive exam. He made many friends at the ENS; more specifically, he befriended Léopold Sedar Senghor, another would-be president - but of Sénégal. Anecdotically, he met the French president at the time, to invite him to the school dance.
A successful career as teacher in French Literature was the logical path for his life. After three years in Marseilles, he began to teach to the hypokhagne class at the Lycée Henri IV, the most prestigious prep school for literature. In 1939 he was drafted as an officer for the upcoming war; one year later, he was back to teaching. He kept a low profile during the German occupation; didn't join the Résistance, but didn't work with the Nazis. However, when Charles de Gaulle needed men to organize France after the liberation in 1944, he joined in, and quickly became one of the general's most entrusted men. From 1948 to 1953, after de Gaulle had quit the government, Pompidou was his chief advisor.
He then joined the Rotschild bank, and for a few years was the administrator of some of the corporations owned by the bank. A welcome contact with the business life to someone who until then had mostly worked for the State. But in 1958, in a political climate where everyone feared a putsch, De Gaulle was called back to power; during the crucial first months of De Gaulle's rule, he was again his chief advisor. However after that he refused to enter the first Cabinet of the newly wrought Vth Republic, and went back to his previous occupation, although he also became a member of the Conseil Constitutionnel.
However in 1962, after the end of the "Algerian troubles", the president nominated him to the position of Prime Minister, and warned him that a negative answer wouldn't be accepted. Pompidou remained in this position until 1968, a rather weak Prime Minister under a president of near legendary status. The times were anyway mostly peaceful after the instability and strife of the previous years; it was an era of prosperity, of technological advances, of planified centralized development.
What wasn't peaceful was the end of these years; May 1968, a violent and revolutionary student revolt that quickly extended to the working population. De Gaulle nominated a new Prime Minister; but after a lost referendum, he quit; Georges Pompidou was one of the candidates to the election. The left wing was in ruins, and none of its candidates passed the first round; the other candidate of the right wing, the president of the Sénat Alain Poher, was easily beaten as Pompidou seemed to be the heir of the still popular de Gaulle.
His time as president would mark the end of the era of prosperity known as the Trentes Glorieuses. Joblessness was still nearly nonexistant, salaries were on the rise, material wealth was becoming more easily accessible. It was the apex of the statist French way of governing. Most major companies were closely linked to the State, the media included. Freedom of speech was far from absolute. French towns were forcefully adapted to the new car world. Yet French technology was on the rise : it was the time of the first flight of the Concorde, among many other examples. In culture the influence of the president, a book lover who had published an Anthology of French Poetry, a fan of contemporary art who had the interior of the Elysée Palace redecorated by various artists, commissioned the creation of a museum of art in Beaubourg, that would come to be named after him - the centre Pompidou; he chose the architect, Renzo Piano, by himself.
On the international level he continued De Gaulle's policy of preserving the French independance, not fully integrating into the Nato, collaborating with the USSR economically (not too much though; they weren't able to properly copy the Concorde) and with continental China. European construction was continued, in the hope of balancing the USA's superpower (which might have seemed frightening at the time of Nixon's presidency).
He was always seen with a cigarette in his mouth, somehow smiling; looking like the common man, he was quite fat. He died of cancer on April the 2nd 1974, thus ending his presidency; his successor was to be Valéry Giscard d'Estaing.