The riots of 1968 are bound to change the way that history views the political career of Charles de Gaulle.
The verdict of history is the one that really mattered to Charles de Gaulle, and we obviously shall not get it amid the current chorus of genuine and hypocritical praise. Had the General departed, say, three years ago, it would have been easier for his admirers to make of his second reign a saga of unmitigated success: the miracle worker switching his country from chaos to stability, from the brink of civil war to unity, from near bankruptcy to prosperity. And, having thus consolidated his base, successfully defying the American giant. But this image was shattered by the political crisis and social upheaval of May 1968, which showed the divisions, the depth of discontent, hidden beneath the glittering surface. Indirectly, they also revealed the limited means of Gaullist foreign policy. Instinctively, the General must have felt that the days of grandeur were gone. His official exit–in April of last year, after a lost referendum–had all the elements of political suicide. Nevertheless, he managed to use even this retreat to boost his image: Cincinnatus was returning to the plough–in his case, to the writing table at Colombey.
Nothing is more sickening than the sudden outpouring of love on funeral occasions. With de Gaulle now closely following Nasser, we have had our ration. Let me, then, state quite bluntly that, whatever my occasional sneaking admiration for the General as a performer, I have never, as a Socialist, shared his nationalist outlook or his political conceptions. Even when in sympathy with some of his struggles–not just against the Nazis but also against French colonials in Algeria or the American war in Vietnam–I always remained suspicious of his motives. This openly admitted, I see only more reason to try to understand why it fell upon a conservative military man to extricate France from its colonial ventures; or why a man, who at home was a pillar of the capitalist Establishment, was hailed abroad as a champion of the anti-imperialist struggle. One should not minimize de Gaulle’s stature for polemical purposes. The only duty is to seek a proper balance and historical perspective; to disentangle, if one can, fact from fiction and reality from myth. But in the case of Gaullism, the task is difficult because the legend itself was vital for the General and he himself was its artful keeper. Mastery of the spoken and the written word were among his key weapons.
One of the legends will stand the test of time. It is the original one, presenting him as a symbol of French resistance, which was born on June 18, 1940, when, from a London studio, he urged the French people to carry on the fight. He was an acting brigadier and a junior minister, nearly 50 at the time. He found the courage to dissociate himself from his fellow officers, most of whom were rallying around Pétain, and to break with his class–the bulk of the French bourgeoisie having chosen collaboration with the Germans. The London episode, as recorded in his Memoirs, hovers perilously between the sublime and the ridiculous. De Gaulle, in those first days in England, had few forces at this disposal and probably more conflicts with his allies than with the enemy. His very weakness dictated a policy of intransigence and, for once, the man was really destined for his role. In the end, he achieved his objective: France was one of the victors and, officially, one of the big powers.