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

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.