The Magazine

France’s de Gaulle

Or de Gaulle’s France. Are the two interchangeable?

Mar 25, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 27 • By ROGER KAPLAN
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In downtown Algiers, on June 4, 1958, Charles de Gaulle expressed himself clearly, as usual. The conventional wisdom has it that he was “ambiguous,” even “duplicitous.” But what he said was that the page had to be turned in Algeria: Political and civil institutions had to be reformed; there could not be two classes of citizens. He said it clearly. He said there must be educational and career opportunities for all.  

de Gaulle

Katherine Messenger

Algeria, formally, was administratively and politically part of France, divided into three “departments.” In practice, it was treated like a colony in which just under a million European settlers (about a quarter of whom were of French background) had a distinctly better deal than the 10 million indigènes (as non-Europeans were called), a large majority of whom were Muslim (with some Jews and Christians). The indigènes were divided about equally between Arabs and Berbers, with both groups subdivided along tribal, sectional, and clan lines. 

It was a complicated country, but by no means incomprehensible; Tocqueville had grasped the essence of the situation when he visited during the early stages of the military conquest in the 1830s and ’40s. Tocqueville, with a ruthlessness that shocks us who are used to his acute but approving analyses of the balancing acts and politics-is-always-local features of American democracy, said that the colonial enterprise was a lousy idea, but if you must do it, you either repress without pity or you assimilate systematically. 

He actually favored the latter but thought the French would not like that, for all manner of reasons of racial and religious snobbery. Moreover, he said, if you export a system of rigidly centralized administration, which was already proving to be a failure in France, you could be sure it would fail in Algeria. Tocqueville predicted that it would all end badly.

It was certainly going badly in the 1950s. De Gaulle took advantage of a movement by army officers in Algeria who were frustrated by the inability of the government to end what was commonly called the Algerian War (official statements referred only to “acts of terrorism” and “measures to maintain order”). De Gaulle did not overthrow the Fourth Republic, notwithstanding his decadelong opposition to its constitution; but he did accept the invitation of the parliamentarians to form a government. Admittedly, there was something of an offer-you-can’t-refuse quality to those dramatic May days, but de Gaulle was a stickler for legality and constitutional continuity. He considered it his duty to become the last president of the council (prime minister) of what he referred to as “le régime des partis.”

After announcing that a new constitution would be drafted and submitted to the nation for approval, the 68-year-old general traveled to Algeria and made that famous—or notorious—speech, leading with a line whose meaning Frenchmen of a certain age—as well as historians—still debate: “Je vous ai compris” (“I understand you”).

He did not say what he understood—and why should he? He understood that they were upset and insecure and wanted order to be restored in the context of an Algeria associated with France. Everyone knew that the audience—mainly composed of Algerians of European extraction who were opposed to the independence demands of an insurrectionary movement called the National Liberation Front (FLN)—desired the maintenance of a French-controlled Algeria.  

De Gaulle continued, in this characteristically short and pointed speech: 

I know what has been going on here. I know what you are trying to do. I see that you are on the road to renovation and fraternity. And that is why I am here, because you understand that we must begin at the beginning, which means that from this day, in Algeria, there can be only one class of Frenchman, with the same rights and duties.

He referred to the dignity and civil and political rights and opportunities that had to be granted to “those who previously did not have them,” making it clear that he considered the whole segregationist structure of governance in Algeria a thing of the past. He used words that were essential to his political thinking: ensemble, fraternité, France. He did not say that French Algeria, with all that implied at that time, was viable or worth defending. But many chose to hear him say exactly that.

The willful misunderstanding of de Gaulle’s important statements by the French—or, more precisely, by various French constituencies at different times—was one of the characteristics of his political life. Was it his fault, or theirs? De Gaulle was devoted to the idea of a constitutional, representative government supported by a strong republican state; his whole life proves this. But he was partial to a plebiscitary style that he believed necessary to maintain the bond between citizens and executive. He inspired passionate loyalty and support as well as intense opposition, even hatred. Quite a few of his strongest supporters felt, in time, that he had betrayed France’s higher interests.    

This is the Gaullian paradox: The most important historical figure in 20th-century France was, throughout his career, the most controversial. However, according to Sudhir Hazareesingh, after de Gaulle retired from public life, and soon thereafter died, a consensus took hold in France that the whole country really was Gaullist. The thesis advanced by this book is that Charles de Gaulle, quite apart from the policies he promoted, was and remains the incarnation of the national genius, somewhat like Vercingetorix, Joan of Arc, or (as de Gaulle himself said in jest) Tintin, the Belgian comic book reporter and champion of justice with whom millions in France identified for decades.

In the Shadow of the General is a study of how the Gaullists, the general foremost among them, quite deliberately and assiduously built the legend of a Gaullist France in such a thorough way that it became an integral part of French political—one can almost say cultural—reality. True, the only “Gaullist” in last year’s presidential election, Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, won less than 2 percent of the first-round vote, largely because “Gaullism” as a political movement ended with de Gaulle. But the hatred that de Gaulle inspired among leftists who mistook him for a military dictator, and among certain rightists attached to the dream of French Algeria, gradually was replaced by a consensus that he had left France in better shape than he had found it—and no more need be said.  

As Hazareesingh sees it, the key to his project was to insist on a kind of secular cult of the great national efforts of the century, the great moments of what de Gaulle himself called (as he did on that June day in Algiers) “redressement” and “renouveaurebuilding and renewal. The third “r” here would be résistance; a fourth would be rayonnement (influence). There were also grandeur and gloire—and indeed, there is a whole industry devoted to the study of de Gaulle’s rhetoric. This would, in itself, be evidence of the Gaullists’ success, and, while acknowledging this, Hazareesingh subtly and gently (for he does not hide his admiration for his subject) notes that it may also be a sign that Gaullism has run its course. (He notes, for example, that recent commemorations of the “Appeal of June 18” have required a cumbersome explanation, suggesting that the French, or at least those under 50, do not know what happened in their country during May-June 1940.)  

Notwithstanding the mean-spirited nature of the recent presidential campaign, Hazareesingh believes that France owes to de Gaulle a vast deal of appeasement, or pacification—that is to say that de Gaulle was the agent and, in the collective memory of France, the personification of the reconciliation of contrary impulses in French political history. Republicans and royalists, bourgeois and proletarians, Roman Catholics and secularists, colonialists and liberals, these and many other opposites in French political life eventually rediscovered a center in the institutions, the economic growth, and the political culture that developed in the half-century following World War II. De Gaulle was the man who best understood how to calm France’s historical passions.

Which, of course, is the irony of the story. For if de Gaulle—a man of the right who fought the political right all his life; a devout Catholic who, more than anyone in his time, fought for the sanctity of the values and institutions of the secular Republic; a social Christian and statist who never gave an inch to what he viewed as the totalitarian tendencies of the left—aimed to calm things down by calling off the ancient civil wars of French history, he was also a man of romance and passion, whose life was described as a medieval geste, and who wrote of France as a country of fairytale legend. And yet, he also called the French a bunch of slippers-wearers. 

So the question is whether, in reconciling opposites, he overlooked his own contradictory goals of creating stable institutions while playing an epic role in the affairs of nations.

François Mitterrand was the most overtly and concretely hostile to de Gaulle among the Fifth Republic presidents, and it is fitting that he was also the one who most relished and took advantage of the regal aspects of the presidential office. De Gaulle himself, though in favor of a strong executive, had no taste for luxury. He did not believe in expense accounts. While in office, he paid the utility bills of the residential quarters at the Élysée Palace, a home he would have readily traded for the barracks at the École Militaire. “At my age,” he said upon returning to power in 1958, “would I want to embark on a new career as a dictator?”

At moments of crisis, however, de Gaulle wore the uniform of the brigadier general he had been during the epic of Free France—and that he remained for the rest of his life. When, in 1961, desperate and despairing soldiers rebelled against his Algeria policy (which, by then, accepted the principles of majority rule and independence), he went, once again, before the nation—and the enlisted men in Algeria, to whom he had with foresight distributed transistor radios—and was terse, as usual, with a strong lede: Un pouvoir insurrectionnel s’est établi en Algérie par un pronunciamiento militaire .  .  . 

He denounced the coup as a foursome of retired generals. (Actually, its leader, General Maurice Challe, was the officer most responsible for defeating the FLN on the ground.) De Gaulle also announced the application of Article 16—having been approved, he took care to remind listeners, by parliament, in keeping with the constitution—giving him full power to deal with the crisis. He did so by ordering French soldiers to disobey any orders emanating from the junta. With only the First Foreign Legion joining the mutiny, and the popular pro-French Algeria generals Jacques Massu and Marcel Bigeard gone from the theater (though it is unlikely they would have opposed his orders), the coup collapsed, only to degenerate into the appalling irredentism of the OAS and its terrorist campaign.  

This broadcast was more immediately and directly effective than the June 18 Appeal of 21 years before, and Hazaree-singh is right to underscore the work Gaullists put into turning such “gestures” into historically iconic moments. He is right, too, to stress the symbolic value that Gaullists recognized in such deeds, however insignificant they may have seemed at the time.

The French eventually turned de Gaulle into a representative figure of their recent history. He was that, of course; but he was also at his best in opposition, and therefore in controversy. Today, few observers seem terribly interested in questioning his foreign policy choices: Did he help the Soviet Union maintain its grip on Central and Eastern Europe? Did he encourage the North Vietnamese victory in Indochina? Was his Africa policy in practice a form of neocolonialism that contributed to the continent’s failure in the half-century that followed decolonization—or was it the best that could be done? 

These kinds of questions will eventually become the normal stuff of France’s understanding of its own history. Hazareesingh is surely correct that, for this to happen, a “certain idea” of Charles de Gaulle, a certain serenity about his role in French history, needs to be achieved.

Roger Kaplan is a frequent contributor to The Weekly Standard.