Charles de Gaulle and the Return of the Nation

In an age when supranational technocrats, utopian globalists, leftists contemptuous of patriotism, and tribal populists seem locked in relentless struggle with each other, we need individuals like Charles de Gaulle more than ever.

“All my life I have had a certain idea of France.” Thus famously begins the first volume of General Charles de Gaulle’s best-selling Mémoires de guerre (1954). What’s clear from a new and comprehensive biography of the general authored by the British historian Julian Jackson is that de Gaulle’s conception of France as a nation had a very specific character. This, Jackson argues, is key to understanding de Gaulle’s long public life as a soldier-intellectual, resistance leader, politician, author, and, ultimately, founder and president of the Fifth Republic.

Neither a hagiography nor an exercise in deconstruction, Jackson’s De Gaulle achieves that hard-to-attain balance between conciseness and depth. The amount of documentation, speeches, correspondence, and memoirs to be covered by any serious de Gaulle biographer is enormous. Much of it is also colored by hostility to or adulation of de Gaulle. Separating ideology, grudges, and hero worship from facts is always difficult, but Jackson succeeds.

De Gaulle isn’t written with an eye to current debates surrounding globalization, supranational institutions, and the reemergence of forms of nationalism. It’s difficult, however, not to reflect on these matters when reading this book, given the central place accorded by de Gaulle to the nation when approaching topics ranging from economic questions to foreign policy.

A Complicated, Contradictory Figure

While de Gaulle is constantly invoked by right and left in today’s France in support of contradictory positions, Jackson reminds us that the man was positively loathed by large segments of the population during his lifetime. This antagonism crossed the spectrum from corporatist supporters of Marshal Philippe Pétain to Marxists like the writer Jean-Paul Sartre.

In a way, de Gaulle was born into conflict. He grew up in the shadow of the Dreyfus Affair: the political scandal surrounding a Jewish army officer falsely accused of spying for Germany. The subsequent controversy radically divided France. On one side were nationalists, monarchists, and Catholics. Against them were arrayed republicans, anti-clericals, and self-styled heirs of Voltaire and Rousseau.

According to Jackson, one way to understand the many twists and turns of de Gaulle’s life is to recognize him as being at the center of two civil wars that tore the French nation asunder. Most English-speaking audiences will be familiar with the 1940 split between those who opted for Pétain and Vichy France and those who chose de Gaulle and Free France. Fewer will know of France’s second twentieth-century fratricidal conflict: the brutal Algerian War, which began in 1954 and ended with Algeria’s independence in 1962.

As the Algerian rebels fought for independence, the conflict assumed the character of an internal clash among Frenchmen, which spiraled into outright violence. At the time, many French citizens strongly favored ongoing French control of Algeria. It was, after all, home to more than a million Frenchmen. Parts of Algeria had been departments of France since 1848. As no less than one of de Gaulle’s fiercest critics, François Mitterrand, said in 1954: “L’Algérie, c’est la France.”

Supporters of what was called Algérie française increasingly found themselves at odds with those—including, eventually, de Gaulle—who believed that the real issue was the terms of France’s departure. The results included the Fourth Republic’s collapse, a failed army putsch, terrorism by Algérie française activists and Algerian rebels, and the mass exodus of a million French from North Africa in 1962.

De Gaulle’s shifting positions complicate his place in these national quarrels. At the end of World War II, for instance, he insisted on maintaining France’s colonial empire. Hence, in May 1945, de Gaulle ordered a severe repression of anti-French rioters in North Africa and sent troops to reassert France’s control of Indochina that same year. Yet upon returning to office in 1958, de Gaulle accelerated the process of decolonization and eventually granted Algeria its independence in 1962.

De Gaulle explained this change of mind by concluding that what he thought made sense for France in 1945 no longer made sense for France in the 1960s. We see a similar pattern in de Gaulle’s thinking about economic questions. Following France’s liberation in 1944, de Gaulle implemented a range of mildly dirigiste policies. Fourteen years later, he forced through a significant liberalization of France’s economy, according to specifications developed by the free market conservative Jacques Rueff.

The nation’s pivotal place in de Gaulle’s thought explains these shifts. Jackson points out that de Gaulle’s attitude toward Nazi Germany throughout the 1930s was not primarily driven by concerns about fascism or threats to democracy. While not against democracy and never a fascist, de Gaulle was “first and foremost” worried about Germany—a living national entity that he had studied closely and that he believed transcended and would outlast any particular regime.

Likewise, de Gaulle’s strident advocacy of the gold standard in the 1960s wasn’t principally about international monetary stability. Again, though he strongly supported monetary stability, de Gaulle believed that the postwar Bretton Woods arrangements, which effectively made the US dollar the world’s reserve currency, had provided America with powerful advantages over other nations. For France, de Gaulle concluded, this was unacceptable.

Restoring a Nation

Throughout his long life, de Gaulle referred loudly and endlessly to his country’s distinctive character and formidable record of civilizational achievement. Jackson underscores, however, that de Gaulle privately regarded France as a damaged nation, and emphasizes just how much this assessment influenced de Gaulle’s actions.

In de Gaulle’s view, the French were exhausted. Longstanding wounds left by France’s eighteenth-century struggle with Britain for global supremacy, the Revolutions of 1789 and 1848, the Napoleonic Wars, endless conflict between church and state, the Dreyfus Affair, the sharp economic divisions that replaced those of birth, two devastating world wars, and the humiliating defeat of 1940 had compromised France’s capacity to maintain its “rank.” This is why, Jackson states, “de Gaulle challenged the way the French thought about their history and politics.”

De Gaulle didn’t, however, believe that the solution to France’s malaise lay in subordinating it to supranational entities. Such organizations, he thought, might have technical uses. From de Gaulle’s perspective, however, they fundamentally lacked, to use one of his favorite words, “legitimacy.” By this, he meant they didn’t have the historical and cultural depth possessed by nations.

Nations like France, for de Gaulle, were real in a way that supranational bodies could never be. Supranational entities couldn’t generate loyalty from their members. Thus, they left people unable to defend themselves against the technocrats who invariably dominate such institutions. It’s safe to say that de Gaulle would be no fan of today’s European Union. As Jackson gently observes, “his intuition that a European project built by technocrats would have difficulty in creating a durable sense of common destiny and collective identity seems more compelling than it did thirty years ago.”

De Gaulle sought to heal his injured country in two ways. First, he sought to project a vision of France as stronger than it really was.

The de Gaulle who emerges in Jackson’s book comes across as insufferably arrogant and downright petty in many of his dealings with allies and opponents. This, however, wasn’t just an issue of temperament. It was also about (1) trying to play an often weak hand to maximum effect when dealing with more powerful nations and (2) seeking to restore France’s belief in itself as a great nation.

The second approach involved de Gaulle drawing on a range of historical and cultural sources to provide France with a regime of ordered liberty that would stabilize the country’s longstanding political fractures. He knew that this would be especially difficult, given the extent to which France’s primary political traditions were at odds with each other.

Monarchy and Republic

A devout Catholic all his life, de Gaulle’s family background was one of conservatism, royalism, and hostility to many of the forces unleashed by the French Revolution. One would think that this might have impeded him from embracing France’s secularist and republican traditions. Yet de Gaulle never let his heritage obstruct him from gleaning what he could from “the other France.”

If de Gaulle had an intellectual mentor, it was Colonel Émile Mayer, a patriotic Jewish officer forced to retire early from the French army in 1899 for defending Dreyfus. De Gaulle also admired figures like the infamously anti-clerical Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau, because of his indomitable will to lead France to victory in World War I.

De Gaulle was also influenced by the poet, essayist, socialist, and ardent Dreyfusard, Charles Péguy. In 1908, Péguy shocked his friends by converting to Catholicism. In many respects, however, he never ceased being a man of the left. Six years later, Péguy died in combat at the Battle of the Marne. But what mattered for de Gaulle was that, in his person, Péguy had integrated apparent opposites through his patriotism: something very different from the type of raw nationalism that invariably distorts one’s grasp of reality.

A prominent instance of de Gaulle’s talent for drawing on competing traditions to provide France with a desperately needed political equilibrium is what Jackson regards as de Gaulle’s “most lasting achievement”: the constitutional regime of the Fifth Republic. While its 1958 constitution has been amended several times, France remains very much de Gaulle’s regime. His thought and actions between 1958 and 1969 provided lasting form to the constitution’s text and breathed life and substance into the office of president.

But de Gaulle’s constitutional order also managed to achieve something that had eluded Napoleon. It integrated the monarchical principle associated with the ancien régime into the republican framework bequeathed by the Revolution. The effect, Jackson concludes, was to reconcile “the left to authority and the right to democracy.” For most political leaders today, I suspect that achievements on this scale are well beyond their capacities.

Charles de Gaulle had many flaws. Indeed, as Jackson demonstrates, they were legion. But de Gaulle was also a cultured and patriotic man with a powerful intellect, a deep religious faith, a profound grasp of history, and a resolute will to act. People with this combination of qualities are always hard to find. In an age when supranational technocrats, utopian globalists, leftists contemptuous of patriotism, and tribal populists seem locked in relentless struggle with each other, we need such individuals more than ever.

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