In Memoriam, Michel Richonnier

Fons Vermorken

The Pioneer and first Head of the Europe against Cancer Programme has sadly left us on Monday 25 February 2019. He showed us that partnership at the European level can help defeat cancer.

Michel Richonnier was an engineer and economist by training. He has dedicated most of his professional career to questions related to European integration, taking their social dimension into particular account. He did this at the European Commission (1973-1981 and 1985-2008) and at the Commissariat général au Plan à Paris (1981-1984). At the same time he remained active in the academic field: at the Institut d’études politiques (1981-1985),the Collège d’Europe (1986-1990), and the Center for International Affairs of Harvard University (1990-1991).

After major programmes related to “Europe of the Citizen” had been launched, including Erasmus and Europe against Cancer, he managed the European Programme for applied research in informatics and telecommunications from 1992-2002 and the European Programme for education and professional training from 2003-2008. While he contributed to several dimensions of European integration, notably the one of Public health, the Economic and the Technological ones, the Citizen’s interest and the social dimension always remained the focus of his attention.

In that context, many of us will remember him in particular for his exceptional role in the implementation of the Europe against Cancer Programme. Fully aware of its particularly strong social dimension he managed it as a war against cancer rather than only as a Programme. His way of working made the Programme unique in its dynamism, its efficacy and its capacity to counterbalance the fatalism associated with this disease. He was probably not aware of the extent to which his approach gave hope to patients, their loved one’s, doctors, scientists but also to us, the civil servants who surrounded him and helped contribute to the Programme. He was highly efficient in shielding his staff from the loss of time, energy and creativity often caused by the burden of administrative procedures. He had an incredible capacity to work, also beyond working hours, and he expected his staff to do a comparable effort. He motivated by applying the ISO 9001 principles: “Say what you do”; “Do what you say” and “Assess what you have done”. To this end he clearly explained the goal to reach, the strategy to follow and the tactics to use. The goal was concrete: reduce mortality from cancer by 15 % between 1985 and 2000 (corrected for the effect of ageing of the population). The strategy included two approaches:-developing European legislation for helping actors in the fight against tobacco related cancers, a particular challenge in view of the very forceful tobacco lobby, and the second approach:-providing financial support for cooperation of actors in the anti-cancer field at the European level. The tactical approach chosen was that of partnership, both within the Commission services and with and between all actors in the anti-cancer field including, of course, the Citizen. Continuous efforts were made to inform the European public about prevention guidelines, about early symptoms of the disease, etc. Television programmes about cancer prevention, early diagnosis and treatment were regularly financed and some were broadcasted Europe-wide. 

At regular intervals the knowledge and opinions of Citizens about the programme, its goal and its prevention guidelines were studied in the so called Eurobarometer surveys. Changes in the smoking behaviour of the public were measured. Scientists were asked to  assess to which extent the goal of the Programme had been met. The result showed a good success of the Programme. Between 1985 and 2000, around 92,500 deaths by cancer had been avoided (a reduction by 9.2 %).

Today the Europe against Cancer Programme continues but is it still a battle? Does it still have the same impact? In 2015, at the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the political initiative for the Europe against Cancer Programme, Michel Richonnier expressed his disappointment about the reduced involvement of the Citizen in the Programme: “Why has there no longer been support for (Europe-wide) TV programmes since 1992? Why was the last Eurobarometer survey in 1998? Why had there been no impact assessment about the results obtained after 2000?” He explained that the impact of a Programme for prevention unavoidably diminishes if the Programme does not catch the Citizen’s interest! He formulated suggestions and these were brought to the attention of the relevant authorities. The above demonstrates his career-long commitment to the social dimension of the European project.

As a person he was a highly gifted communicator. He brought people together. He enjoyed entertaining friends and (ex-)colleagues with fine dinners at his home. He developed a large network of friends because he was genuinely interested in people. When I met him a month ago, shortly after his diagnosis of inoperable pancreatic cancer, he asked about my health and about my forthcoming trip to China. About his own condition he said: “We know what it is; C’est la vie”. He, the man who always saw solutions rather than problems, kept a positive attitude. He wished that his friends and colleagues would be informed of his condition. Nevertheless he was ready to “fight” for any gain that could be reached. The rapid progression of his disease shows how far we are from winning the fight against cancer and how much we need men like him, ready to take up whatever arms one can find to defeat this disease and others that continue to cause so much grief for so many.

After his retirement Michel Richonnier enjoyed travelling around the world with his wife. They saw multiple landscapes, cultures and people, wealth and poverty, health and disease. They saw life in all its dimensions. He concluded that the fight of Europe against Cancer was but a first step. The real battle will be a global one. He looked forward to see that fight take shape.

In his last weeks, he was at home, surrounded by his wife and children. At the doorstep of eternity he chose for a ceremony in a church. He brings his family and friends together, one more time, in yet another dimension, the existential one. Does he invite us for a prayer for him and his loved ones? If so, I am convinced that he wants us to include all cancer patients in our prayer. Michel Richonnier showed us not only how to fight cancer but also how to undergo it in great dignity. We will always remember him.


by Fons Vermorken

Professor, College of Life Sciences, Northwest University, Xi’an, P.R. China.

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