Jean-Marie Balestre, the FIA President, was a strange man. He was passionate about motor racing, he was very patriotic, he fought hard for what he believed in and yet, at the same time, his life history suggested that he was not a man who could be believed or trusted. There were too many contradictions – and too many people who swore blind he was a charlatan. Balestre sued whenever he was challenged and he won, but judges often gave him derisory sums in damages, a way for them to tell the world that they didn’t believe a word of it. But, legally, his defence could not be beaten.
Balestre’s strange stories, which were included in his cv, began with a claim that he fought with the communist-organised International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War, which began in June 1936. At that time Balestre, born in 1921, had only recently turned 15. The International Brigades were disbanded in September 1938, when Balestre would have been 17.
At the same time he claimed to have studied law before becoming a sports journalist in 1938, which makes no sense at all, as he was barely out on school and too young to study law at university. His cv says he was then in the French military during the Battle of France, but French police records show he was arrested for “escroquerie” (fraud) in 1940 and was only liberated when the Germans arrived in Paris in June. Two months later he helped Robert Hersant establish the Jeune Front, a pro-Nazi organisation, funded by the Germans. After that the two men set up a pro-Vichy training camp named after Marshal Petain in the Paris suburbs. Then in May 1943, at the age of 22, Balestre joined the Waffen SS. Of this there was no doubt. There are official SS documents, photographs and even articles in the French SS magazine, signed by SS Sergeant Balestre.
After the war Balestre claimed that he had joined the SS, working undercover for the resistance, but explained that all those who could verify his story had been killed. No one could prove this was not the case – with defamation it is not a question of reasonable doubt.
Balestre claimed he was arrested by the Germans in May 1944 and was sent to Dachau. Others insist he was arrested by the Americans a few months later and was in Dachau after it had become an Allied detention centre. Resistance people insisted he was SS and not a resistant. When he returned to Paris in May 1945, he was arrested and would spend two years on remand before being sentenced to a 10-year loss of civil rights for collaboration. Hersant suffered a similar fate, but was rehabilitated by an amnesty in 1952. He admitted what he had done and said it was down to youthful errors. Balestre denied everything and sued anyone who suggested otherwise. During the 1950s he collected various official certifications that he had been a resistant. His critics said these had been purchased.
Balestre and Hersant went into business together in the publishing world in the late 1940s, and built up a publishing company that would ultimately include the newspaper Le Figaro. Together they formed AutoJournal and Balestre followed his passion for motorsport and played a huge role in establishing karting in France. He was the first President of the International Karting Commission of the FIA (CIK) and a founder member of the Federation Francaise du Sport Automobile (FFSA) and became its President in 1973. He quickly became a major player with the FIA, getting control of the sporting commission and turning it into the Federation Internationale de Sport Automobile (FISA). This then battled for control of the commercial rights of F1 with FOCA, led by Bernie Ecclestone and Max Mosley. The result was a compromise which gave Ecclestone commercial control of F1, but the FIA retained ownership of the rights.
In 1986 Balestre became president of the FIA and did much to fight for safety, despite opposition from teams and the industry. He was bombastic and hated those who stood up him. He once labelled Jean Todt, “the Napoleon of the sands” after a dispute over the Dakar Rally. Todt called him “the Emperor Bokassa of the Place de la Concorde”. But his involvement in post-race politics after the famous collision between Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost in 1989 undermined his credibility and he was beaten in an election for the role of FISA President by Mosley although the two then worked together to merge the FIA and FISA and Mosley became FIA President. Balestre stayed on as president of the FFSA until 1996 and then quietly retired.
He never did manage to convince people he had not been a Nazi and, now and then, at the end of a long evening, he might quietly admit that he had done things in his youth that he regretted in later life. He died in 2008, at the age of 87. By then the world had moved on and no-one bothered to write a biography – without any fear of being sued.
Please think about donating to the Jill Saward Fund, which aims to continue the work of my sister Jill Saward (1965-2017), who campaigned to help rape victims and to reduce the number of rapes in the world.