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.”