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
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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.