The Generalist: On Charles de Gaulle | The Nation


The Generalist: On Charles de Gaulle

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But all of this reshuffling amounted to little more than a series of gestures meant to please de Gaulle’s domestic audience. The Eisenhower administration was relieved at no longer having to station forces in France and pleased to see the French taking responsibility for their nuclear defense. Meanwhile, de Gaulle’s call for a return to the gold standard failed to win favor internationally (and earned him the epithet “de Gaullefinger” in the American press), while his supposed pullout from NATO was little more than a publicity stunt, padded with covert agreements that effectively kept it within the military alliance—which in any case had never stipulated that any member’s forces would come under supranational command. De Gaulle’s anti-imperialist tirades at Phnom Penh may have aggravated the Johnson administration, but the cooler heads at State knew that they could count on him when the cold war chips were down (after all, de Gaulle had given President Kennedy unstinting support during the Cuban missile crisis). As the political scientist Marc Trachtenberg has pointed out, regardless of how much de Gaulle publicly blamed the White House for the cold war division of Europe, his underlying views were remarkably consonant with US policy in the 1960s: neither wanted a nuclear Germany, both agreed that Western Europe needed US defense, and both were determined to limit Soviet influence in Eastern Europe.

In the Shadow of the General
Modern France and the Myth of de Gaulle.
By Sudhir Hazareesingh.
Buy this book.

About the Author

Thomas Meaney
Thomas Meaney, a doctoral candidate in history at Columbia University, is co-editor of The Utopian.

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One of the few persistent myths about de Gaulle that Hazareesingh leaves unexplored is how he managed to acquire his reputation as a grand strategist among today’s historians and policy-makers. “I believe that sooner or later the United States will have to develop some operational concept of the national interest. And when that happens, we will have to be, whether we like it or not, students of de Gaulle,” remarked Henry Kissinger in a breathless 1990 tribute. But any close inspection of de Gaulle’s policies reveals an implacably pragmatic politician who was as much constrained by domestic pressures as any leader of the period. De Gaulle never hesitated to delay his grand plans for Europe in order to satisfy more local concerns, as when he held the EEC hostage to the whims of French farmers. (De Gaulle threatened to leave the Common Market unless it included the massive subsidies he thought were necessary for the modernization of French agriculture.) That the political scientist Andrew Moravcsik was roundly dismissed by scholars across the spectrum for showing this more mundane side of de Gaulle is indicative of the reverence he still commands. Hazareesingh, who has written a study of Napoleon, takes every opportunity to compare de Gaulle and Bonaparte, who admittedly shared a similar national stature in their respective centuries. But here the difference between the unconstrained executive and the democratically elected politician comes into full view: unlike Napoleon, de Gaulle was a man of limits. Each time he could have reached for extraordinary powers—1946, 1958 and 1968—de Gaulle refrained. Never one to force a Waterloo, he was a general content with one star and one country.

* * *

The other, stranger side of the Gaullian myth is the love affair that de Gaulle enjoys with the French left. Why do so many soixante-huitards who once spoke of him in the same breath as Franco and Salazar now revere him? A whole phalanx of French leftists—Debray; Serge July, the founder of Libération; Max Gallo, author of a novelized biography of de Gaulle—have quasi-religious views of his political powers. “In my dreams I am on terms of easy familiarity with Louis XI, with Lenin, Edison and Lincoln,” writes Debray, with a characteristically bloated sense of proportion, in his apoplectic homage, Charles de Gaulle: Futurist of the Nation (1994). “But I quail before de Gaulle. He is the Great Other, the inaccessible absolute.” For Debray, de Gaulle was not only the last great Frenchman but “the archetypal non-trendy”—one who holds out the lesson that the French left, despite its inveterate suspicion of great men, cannot do without them. Lacking de Gaulle’s readiness to use the full power of the state, his gift for incorporating dissidents into a consensus, as well as his sense of “the worldwide dynamic of peoples,” the left, Debray argues, “missed its rendezvous” with the hero it deserved. In the figure of de Gaulle, Debray not only found a sterling example of republican moral rectitude but the ideal counterpoint to Mitterrand, that Socialist Frankenstein assembled piece by piece in the Gaullian shadow, who liquidated the French left and sent it in search of a new fetish.

Then again, to blame Mitterrand is perhaps too easy a way to explain why the Gaullian legend has taken such strong root. Ever since de Gaulle stood up against fascism and refused to buy into the murky justifications for collaboration, it has been possible to be a left-wing Gaullist in good standing in France. Unlike his right-leaning offspring, de Gaulle’s political agenda always incorporated leftist components, which could be traced back to his sympathy for the social program of the Resistance and his view of himself as standing above petty divisions. Even after Gaullism became a garden-variety European right-wing movement under Georges Pompidou, the Gaullian myth has been able to accommodate leftists like Debray whose ideologies have petered out. Meanwhile, “social Gaullism”—a dissident form of right-wing nationalism that calls for France to turn its back on the EU and globalization—shows no signs of weakening. The irony is that de Gaulle presided over many of the changes that made this sort of nostalgia possible. The rapid modernization and centralization of the country, the founding of the EEC, the further secularization of French education—all of these changes hastened the vanishing of much about France that de Gaulle himself held dear.

Today, it is hard not to view the France of the past decade as a parody of its postwar self. The country that was once the unique preserve of the most diverse political and intellectual fauna in the West, and whose revolutionary heritage inspired the world, has become a kind of cultural funhouse. In the place of Jean-Paul Sartre, the public face of French intellectual life is now Bernard-Henri Lévy, who casts himself as preener in chief for military interventions around the world when he is not unloading tripe on talk shows. The high tide of French cinema has ebbed into a film scene obsessed with the rituals of French family life and its own cultural sterility in a global film market. In the place of the General, who made a show of personally paying his own electricity bill at the Elysée, there was until recently Sarkozy, a leader passionately devoted to his own profligacy and philistinism. Sounding like a poor man’s Charles de Gaulle, he once boasted, “For as long as I can remember, I have wanted to do something.” Whatever the hopes of Debray and company, the Gaullist myth has become a snuggly blanket in which anyone and everyone can wrap themselves.

This may be the price of the General’s triumph, but then he did not always expect much. When asked what the French would do without him, de Gaulle quoted Proverbs: “They will return to their own vomit.”

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