Death of a Legendary Hero

Death of a Legendary Hero

The riots of 1968 are bound to change the way that history views the political career of Charles de Gaulle.


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.

But however genuine, the original legend lies at the root of many subsequent troubles and misunderstandings. To present France as an ally, it was necessary to describe collaboration as an exception and resistance as the rule. Far from being a traitor to his class, de Gaulle proved its savior. He limited the scope of reforms to what was unavoidable and prevented a more radical transformation of society–a vision which had inspired many a fighter in the underground. Altogether, the fiction of national unity, transcending all class conflicts, suited General de Gaulle better than it did the French Left that dominated the resistance. Contemptuous of parties and “intermediaries,” the General was not going to settle for less than his own concept of the divine right of elected monarchy. A clash seemed inevitable. De Gaulle’s departure in 1946 was a miscalculation. He expected to be called back with enhanced powers. When that failed to happen, he had to form a party–the Gaullist Rally or RPF–and launch it against the regime. The Fourth Republic, however, showed an unexpected capacity for passive resistance. After the assault, Gaullism seemed a spent force and the General doomed to exile. He might have stayed at Colombey but for the inability of the French bourgeoisie to extricate itself from the colonial war and for the Putsch of military commanders in Algeria.

That the General used the Putsch seems undeniable. On one side, he was encouraging the rebels to step up their threats; on the other, he was pressing the regime to call him in as a savior. A couple of weeks was enough to force the cowardly rulers of the Fourth Republic to surrender. Despite the legal trappings, it was a shotgun transfer of power. Vae Victis, retort the Gaullists, and besides the transition was legalized by an overwhelming vote. The argument sounds rather strange coming from men who are, by now, Agnew-like upholders of law and order. Still, it is wiser to assess the Fifth Republic on its record rather than on its original sin.

Like the General in his last book, one may best start with institutions. After years of merry-go-round, when the average government lasted about six months, the stability of the French Republic is impressive. Two governments in a decade and really only one ruler. But how much was it due to constitutional change? A system of “direct democracy,” based on the master’s “communion” with his subjects and occasional referenda, requires a charismatic figure at the top. De Gaulle himself was to discover that it yielded diminishing returns as his support dwindled from the initial 80 per cent. A heavy price also had to be paid: parliament was reduced to a rubber-stamp institution, the television to a government tool, while official propaganda and pressure reached unprecedented proportions. The absence of safety valves and warning signals may have had something to do with the May explosion.

Political stability was indispensable to economic recovery; so runs the Gaullist argument, and it has some validity when not overplayed. The empty vaults of the Bank of France were refilled with gold; trade expanded and production grew. But Gaullist France carried out no major structural reforms; it merely widened the gap between rich and poor. The outcome was the biggest general strike the country had ever known.

The failure of France to introduce more radical reforms than did its neighbors should put an end to a once fashionable theory that Gaullism is a superior form of capitalist rule, liberal democracy being no longer able to cope with monopolistic competition. The theory was linked with the dream of French technocrats that the regime would allow them to speed up the process of economic concentration and rationalization. The dream did not come true. De Gaulle had to gather votes for his referenda from somewhere, and a great deal of his support came from the very people, such as small farmers and shopkeepers, who were supposed to be squeezed out. Gaullism was a response to a specific situation, in a country faced with colonial complications and a militant working class. Indeed, the French experiment confirms that parliamentary democracy is a more efficient defense mechanism, whenever capitalism can afford it. After de Gaulle comes a Guizot, with his slogan, “enrich yourselves,” though whether neo-Gaullism can provide the safety valves and avoid an explosion remains to be seen.

Are the external achievements more solid? The fact that Algeria, once a cancer on the French political body, can now be treated as an external matter must be cited as an achievement. Here, again, however, the critics have their points. It is true that the war lasted as long–four years–under each Republic. It is equally true that the delay under the Fifth Republic was due not only to de Gaulle’s need to come to terms with the French military commanders, with the barons who had made him king. For a time, he also clung to the illusion that he could force the FLN to accept his conditions. Yet when all this is said, he did make peace in the end, unlike his allegedly Socialist predecessors, and his experience is relevant for America. France, after all, had half a million men in Algeria; it also had native troops and a better control of the military situation than Americans have in Vietnam. It took General de Gaulle quite a time to realize that this was not enough, that war against a determined liberation movement was pointless. His strictures against American policy in Vietnam were no less valid because they were the fruit of bitter experience.

Foreign policy proper was the General’s favorite field and here the verdict is difficult. To dispel some ambiguity, one must recall that the now classical image of de Gaulle as the champion of détente with the Russians and the darling of the Third World really arises from the second half of his reign. In the first four or five years, admittedly handicapped by the Algerian war, he pursued quite a different policy. He was trying to gain the leadership of a continental coalition, based on the Paris-Bonn axis, which was to put him on a par with the superpowers. Adenauer, the cold warrior, was then his chief ally. The scheme had logic. The snag was its basic premise–the assumption that Germany could be forced into a junior partnership, particularly in an enterprise aimed at the United States. Yet by about 1963, when his edifice was obviously in ruins, de Gaulle showed his extraordinary capacity for recovery and his skill in performance. Within a short period he was opening lines to Eastern Europe and challenging “American hegemony,” to applause echoing from Asia to Latin America.

Performance, nothing but performance, claimed the critics, but they were only half right. To take France out of NATO, to keep Britain, the “Trojan Horse,” out of the Common Market, to slow down the process of European integration were themselves achievements of a negative kind. The strength and weakness of Gaullist foreign policy were connected with the role of the nation-state in our time. Having grasped how strong the state still was, the General defied the United States, putting to shame his European colleagues who had never dared say No to Washington. But the nation-state, particularly one of medium size, can no longer transcend the imperatives of internationalism. His was, thus, an anachronistic realism. To say that de Gaulle did not have the means to match his ends does not mean simply that France was too small. Internally, he did not have the instruments ready to resist the American invasion; externally, he could not turn to the people of Europe, offering them a different life, a society radically different from the American model. You cannot expect a General, however skillful and bold, to propose the foundation of the United Socialist States of Europe.

As heads of state filed into Notre Dame for a last tribute, many thoughts crossed one’s mind. These included strange reflections on the role of the individual in history, remembering that De Gaulle, having so dominated his country for a decade, then vanished almost without a ripple. One recalled his stature, if only by contrast with surrounding dwarfs. His foreign policy, for what it was worth, showed up the failure of the European Left, the bankruptcy of social democracy. Finally, with the last of the old heroes gone, one also felt that the postwar period was at last over. The General’s own reign had really come to an end in May 1968, when the master tactician seemed utterly bewildered for a while by new political and social forces. That was not yet a change of the guard, but for Europe, at least, it marked the beginning of a new age of conflict in which we shall need not the deceptive protection of a legend but the more potent weapon of political consciousness.

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