The Generalist: On Charles de Gaulle
But nothing better captures de Gaulle’s gift for political theater than the liberation of Paris in August 1944, when he persuaded Gen. Dwight Eisenhower to allow the Free French Forces to enter the city ahead of the Allies (the US strategic command agreed, on the condition that no black French soldiers be part of the pageantry). After striding down the Champs-Élysées, de Gaulle first visited his old office at the Defense Ministry—where he later claimed that “not a rug, not a curtain had been disturbed”—before making a speech at the Hôtel de Ville, where he proclaimed that there was no need to restore the Republic because “it had never ceased to exist.” By dramatizing a sense of national continuity when little of one remained, de Gaulle in effect encouraged his countrymen to forget the dark years of Vichy, which they were more than happy to do.
De Gaulle’s provisional government of 1944–46 was adamant about three issues: strengthening the French empire, rebuilding the devastated national economy and making the fractured nation whole. On each of these fronts, de Gaulle adopted positions that he would reverse completely in the 1960s. Throughout the war, Roosevelt had urged the French to prepare for decolonization, but de Gaulle resisted. At a conference in Brazzaville in 1944—sometimes mistakenly taken as the inception of de Gaulle’s anti-imperialist phase—he called for a series of reforms that would knit far-flung pieces of the empire closer together. The French were soon setting the pace for colonial violence: in 1945, thousands were massacred in the northern Algerian city of Sétif in order to crush a bloody rebellion and secure the Mediterranean foothold; in 1946, the French Navy shelled the harbor of Haiphong, killing thousands of Vietnamese; and the following year, the French Army—now under the watch of socialist Paul Ramadier—suppressed the Malagasy Uprising, in which some 80,000 Madagascarans were killed, all in the name of keeping the French Union intact. Far from acknowledging these atrocities, however, de Gaulle either breezed over them in his Memoirs or ignored them altogether. He would later call for the independence of all three nations.
While the US leadership grudgingly came to accept the revival of the French empire as a necessity for France’s economic recovery, de Gaulle undertook a drastic laissez-faire policy in 1945 that sent inflation soaring for much of the period that followed. But if anything characterizes his economic strategy over the long term, it was his constant shuttling between a commitment to trade liberalization and the protectionist policies that earned him his reputation as an indomitable statist. His crowning economic achievement, retailoring the Treaty of Rome, which established the European Economic Community (EEC), to suit Franco-German needs in the late 1950s, now appears in retrospect to have been the first step in securing their dominance over the European economic system. On the political front, de Gaulle’s grand vision was for a postwar republic centered on a strong president elected by Parliament and free from the grip of political parties. When it became clear that the people would reject such a concentration of power—it reeked of Bonapartism—de Gaulle formed his own version of a political movement, which he called not a party but “the gathering of the French people.” At a time when fascism was still thriving in Europe, “the gathering” was viewed by many as an ominous force. But de Gaulle made surprisingly little use of it. Instead, he performed the first of his many vanishing acts, returning to Colombey in 1948 to write his memoirs and watch from the sidelines as the French Fourth Republic foundered.
The three volumes of de Gaulle’s War Memoirs, written from 1949 to 1958, remain the central planks of Gaullist mythology. “If the years of the Resistance and the Liberation gave birth to the Gaullian legend,” writes Hazareesingh, “it was undoubtedly the War Memoirs that carried it over the baptismal font.” The volumes accomplished this feat by becoming de Gaulle’s primary means of communication with his supporters during his long internal exile. He knew that his absence could be more powerful than his presence, and the policy of splendid isolation he conducted in the 1950s kept him above the fray throughout the follies of the Fourth Republic and crystallized his reputation as “the Man of the 18th of June.” In effect, de Gaulle assumed the part of Coriolanus, ready to return only when the country was on its knees, begging for him to do so. But the Memoirs would not still be read today—and form part of the standard lycée syllabus—were it not for de Gaulle’s justly famous style. By meting out his romantic vision of France in cool, classical sentences, he fashioned one of the great works of twentieth-century French prose. The reader of the Memoirs takes in world events from an incredibly high altitude—with de Gaulle slipping in and out of the third person—until the bursts of turbulence come, reminders that the author is a delicate man who remembered every slight he ever suffered.
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The old-fashioned turns of phrase in the Memoirs may have drawn smirks from the generation of 1968, but its substance marked a major break with the dominant worldview of the French right. “The book decisively rejects fatalism,” writes Hazareesingh, “seeking to regenerate the republican tradition and rebuild the political and social order by means of a centralized civil power capable of avoiding the excesses of the previous Republics.” There are no hymns to the peasantry in the Memoirs, no hostility to rationalism, no glorification of God, no aristocratic disdain for the state. From its opening line, with its faint echo of Proust, de Gaulle sounds a distinctive note: “All my life I have had a certain idea of France.” For him, France has always been an abstraction, a view partly attributable to the time he spent seeing the country from the outside during the war. As the historian Julian Jackson has argued, de Gaulle was an “existential nationalist” whose idea of France was bound up with whatever particular position he happened to be committed to at any given moment. “Grandeur” for him was a moveable feast: what was “grand” for France in the 1940s—holding on to its empire at all costs—could be traded in for a new conception in the 1960s, when casting off the colonies suddenly seemed imperative. The power of the Memoirs derives from de Gaulle’s determination to smooth out the unruly contingencies of his time into providential history, in which providence was always heading wherever de Gaulle was leading France.
By 1958, as copies of the Memoirs were selling briskly, the Fourth Republic was in a tailspin. French forces had been routed at Dien Bien Phu, French designs had been thwarted at Suez, and the government faced a revolt of the officer corps in Algeria. It was just the sort of crisis de Gaulle needed. In a series of stealth maneuvers, he took control of the government in what appeared to many as the sort of coup d’état that Generalísimo Franco could have applauded (and we know that the outright overthrow of the regime was an option entertained by de Gaulle). Nevertheless, when it came to Algeria, de Gaulle worked with remarkable finesse. First, he placated the pieds-noirs, the French colonial community in Algeria, with his ambiguous “Je vous ai compris” speech in Algiers in June 1958. (Whipped into a frenzy at finally having been “understood” by the metropole, the pieds-noirs mistakenly assumed this meant de Gaulle would honor their grievances.) Then, realizing within the year that the war was lost, he began making noises about Algérie algérienne and edged toward negotiations for a peace.
In the end, de Gaulle had never had a “certain idea” of Algeria except to be rid of the country, and by the time his government was willing to make vague offers of more political representation for Algerian Muslims, it was too late. In any case, de Gaulle was not about to let Algerians immigrate en masse into France or, as he joked, to see the name of his home town changed to “Colombey-les-Deux-Mosquées.” The price of withdrawal from Algeria was steep for de Gaulle, but worth paying: it earned him the eternal hatred of the pieds-noirs, who felt betrayed, but it also reversed France’s position in international politics. By the early 1960s, de Gaulle was chiding the Americans for not drawing down faster in Vietnam.
If the credo of the Gaullian myth was that “France is not really herself unless in the front rank,” then France could be no one’s lackey—especially not the United States’. Throughout the postwar period, the “grandeur” of de Gaulle’s France was predicated on carving out an independent course vis-à-vis the new global superpower while establishing its own unsupervised relationship with the Soviet Union. With this in mind, de Gaulle undertook a series of seemingly daring initiatives. In 1960, France tested its first atomic bomb after demanding that all foreign forces and nuclear installations be removed from the country. De Gaulle further aggravated the White House by insisting that France’s nuclear arsenal would have its warheads pointed “in all directions,” because “one did not know from where the next threat would come.” In 1965, he demanded that the US Treasury exchange France’s dollars for gold from Fort Knox, openly challenging the economic dominance of the US currency. In 1966, he withdrew France from NATO, insisting the country could never be under anyone else’s command.