The Generalist: On Charles de Gaulle
Picture him as a legend, Joan of Arc in drag.
A great nation is conquered by its historic enemy and the General is forced to flee. From a foreign shore, he rouses his people to resistance. Four years later, he marches through the capital in triumph, determined to reunite a country torn apart by faction. But these are democratic times, and he requires more power than the Constitution allows. The people balk at his requests. After a long tug of war, he retreats to his country estate. The nation fails to heal, and its colonies begin to seethe with discontent; the people agitate for the General’s return, and he answers their call. He makes the nation great again—and, in an unexpected twist, he unravels the empire in the name of universal liberation. The nation becomes a shining example of how to conduct international affairs in a new world, as the General charts an independent course between two rival superpowers. But the people fail to acknowledge their debt to him. Only after they have pushed him out of power for the last time do they come to see him as their savior.
This is more or less how Charles de Gaulle wanted to be remembered, and against considerable odds he very nearly achieved his wish. De Gaulle, who died in 1970, was the most polarizing figure in France during his lifetime—half of the country hated him and more than a few tried to kill him—but his story has become a kind of collective fairy tale that the French have agreed to believe in. The resurgence of his reputation might have surprised the Vichy collaborators who dismissed him as a rebel in 1940, or the generation that demanded the end of his rule in 1968, or the electorate that swept his longtime antagonist, the Socialist François Mitterrand, into power in 1981. It would not, however, have surprised the General. “Everyone has been, is, or will be a Gaullist,” he once declared, and so it seems to have come to pass. On the major questions of how France should orient itself toward the world, the cardinal points of the compass remain de Gaulle’s. In the French presidential election earlier this year, both main contenders claimed the Gaullian mantle: the incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy, by parading his shoddy version of “grandeur” on the international stage, and his Socialist challenger François Hollande, by fitting out his campaign with fulsome tributes to de Gaulle. Even Marine Le Pen, leader of the National Front, who did not survive the first round of voting, has conceded that while she’s “not a Gaullist,” she is “certainly Gaullian.”
The myth of de Gaulle is all the more remarkable considering the number of contradictions it has absorbed. The French Army commander who grew up in a Catholic household spent most of his career squaring off against the military and the church. The leader who desperately clung to the French empire in the 1940s vigorously dismantled it in the 1960s. The patriot who evinced skepticism toward supranational institutions is now sometimes hailed as a visionary of the European Union.
Consider, too, the array of admirers de Gaulle has attracted: men of the left like Régis Debray, who converted from Guevarism to Gaullism in a Bolivian jail; men of the right like Henry Kissinger, who has told Americans to become students of the French statesman; Osama bin Laden, who liked to quote from de Gaulle’s War Memoirs; Newt Gingrich, who compared his time in the political wilderness in the 2000s to de Gaulle’s retirement to Colombey-les-Deux-Églises in the 1950s; and Yasir Arafat, who at diplomatic summits made a point of sporting the Cross of Lorraine sent to him by de Gaulle. In his sharp new contribution to Gaullology, In the Shadow of the General, Oxford historian Sudhir Hazareesingh tells of a French filmmaker in a remote corner of Bengal stumbling upon a group of Naxalite guerrillas, who greeted him by shouting a tribute to the French president’s famous anti-imperialist speech in Cambodia in 1966: “De Gaulle–Phnom Penh!” As de Gaulle told the novelist André Malraux, who served as his minister of cultural affairs, “In the end, you know, my only international rival is Tintin!… No one has ever noticed that, because of my size.”
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How is this global Gaullian phenomenon to be explained? Hazareesingh argues that the answer lies, naturally enough, somewhere between the perfect storm in French political life that made consensus around de Gaulle possible and the French statesman’s skill at navigating the crosswinds. “For de Gaulle is the only great national mythical figure who not only had a sense of history,” Hazareesingh writes, “but was himself moving in the direction of history.” The genius of de Gaulle was less that he made history happen, Hazareesingh contends, than that he was able to give the impression that he was always operating at its edge, keeping France in the front rank. De Gaulle achieved this in part by assigning the vague but supple notion of “grandeur” to whatever condition he wished to equate with the national interest. In this sense de Gaulle was, as he liked to refer to himself, “a poet of action,” though not always in the way he intended. His enduring political achievement was to persuade broad swaths of the French public that he had restored the nation to greatness when, in real terms, the French Republic was becoming a less powerful place.
By putting de Gaulle’s persona above the man himself, Hazareesingh has trespassed into the territory cultivated twenty years ago by the historian Pierre Nora and the scholars Nora assembled to write the monumental three-volume history of French national memory, Les Lieux de mémoire. For Nora, the vying memories of postwar France were communism, which disappeared with barely a trace, and Gaullism, the traces of which are everywhere. But rather than accounting for the origins of these mythologies, Nora took it as his duty to safeguard the memory of them from the demystifying ambitions of other, more conventional historians. “Memory is always suspicious in the eyes of history, whose true mission is to demolish it,” he wrote. In a country that supposedly likes to think of its past as unified and seamless, Nora’s desire to rescue buried traditions is perhaps understandable, though at times it risked reducing Les Lieux de mémoire to an elegiac inventory of the ideological bric-a-brac of French national life.
In the case of de Gaulle, Hazareesingh shows that Nora’s line between myth and history cannot be drawn too neatly. De Gaulle was more adept at using historical symbols—and forging new ones—than any figure in modern French history. In his Memoirs, press conferences and masterful televised addresses, he was able to put forward a version of certain events—the Liberation, the Algerian War, the founding of the Common Market—that decisively shaped their outcomes. By poring over his prolific correspondence with the public, Hazaree-singh reveals how de Gaulle appeared in the minds of ordinary French men and women. The result is a nimble study that revels in de Gaulle’s uncanny feel for the national pulse and grasps the reasons for his enduring appeal. This is rare, for a surprising number of contemporary historians are still caught in his thrall: they see de Gaulle as a grand strategist operating above domestic partisan constraints, with his mind fixed on the fate of France and Europe. The only shortcoming of In the Shadow of the General is that Hazareesingh doesn’t push his demystifying impulse far enough against this last illusion.
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To appreciate the power that de Gaulle still exercises over the French imagination, it helps to recall the state of sheer powerlessness in which he found himself in 1940. As the son of a minor aristocratic family that refused to sing “La Marseillaise,” he was not an obvious candidate for protector of the Republic. As Hazareesingh stresses, only a very small number of people actually tuned in to de Gaulle’s now legendary BBC broadcast of June 18, in which he called on the French to resist the German occupation and declared himself de facto head of state. The Resistance itself was already a myth in the making: though many reacted negatively to the collaboration of Marshal Pétain and his Vichy regime with Hitler, de Gaulle was able to count on only a smattering of rebels in the cities, a handful of anti-Vichy colonies, and an island of Breton fisherman who heeded his orders and rowed across the channel. As for the Allies, they treated de Gaulle with contempt. Franklin Roosevelt referred to him as “the Bride” and “Joan of Arc” and at one point tried packing him off to Madagascar to serve as its governor. Churchill, though closer temperamentally to de Gaulle, made no bones about where the interests of Britain lay: “Each time we must choose between Europe and the open sea, we shall always choose the open sea. Each time I must choose between you and Roosevelt, I shall choose Roosevelt.”
With friends like these, de Gaulle was forced to create international legitimacy out of nothing—a peculiar form of political legerdemain at which he excelled. Two examples will suffice. Less than a year after Pétain had made his peace with Hitler, de Gaulle sent an expeditionary force to capture Saint Pierre and Miquelon, the two pro-Vichy islands off the coast of Newfoundland. The attack enraged the Americans and Canadians, who were shocked to see a prospective ally meddling in their backyard, but the operation succeeded in turning the motley Free French soldiers into an actual (if largely symbolic) fighting force, and it also pressured the Allies to be more forthright in their support of the Resistance.