A decade ago, in a series of dark chambers beneath the Invalides in central Paris, the French government inaugurated what it called the “Historial” Charles de Gaulle. Historial is a French neologism meaning something between a museum, a monument, and an educational exhibit. This example, however, all too clearly reflected the middle-aged designers’ vision of what would attract a generation raised on computers and video games. Quotations from de Gaulle literally glow on walls in massive, multicolored fonts. Film clips play on the ceilings. There are several “audiovisual portals.” Interactive screens, offering up yet more clips as well as short articles, stand available for those who want to learn more.
The intention of the Historial was to provide a site of homage and learning that would instruct visitors about the man who led the Free French in World War II and founded the Fifth Republic in 1958. The overall effect, however, is strangely sinister. When I visited in June, the Historial was nearly deserted, and the shadowy underground spaces filled with glaring displays reminded me of nothing so much as the nuclear-command bunker in Dr. Strangelove. In fact, the remains of an actual Nazi bunker on the site had to be cleared away for its construction. De Gaulle himself, whose cultural tastes tended toward the deeply traditional, would almost certainly have loathed the place.
But precisely because it is such a commemorative misfire, the Historial inadvertently captures some of the difficulty of memorializing Charles de Gaulle. He played an undeniably heroic role during World War II. But his postwar career was just as important, and had far more ambiguous consequences for contemporary France. After briefly heading the provisional government after liberation, de Gaulle retired to his country home in the early 1950s. In 1958, after army officers seized power in what was then French Algeria and threatened to overthrow the government in Paris, he became premier, ruling by decree, in what many described as a coup d’état. He then proceeded to found a Fifth Republic with an outsize presidency tailored to his own outsize ego and occupied the position for more than a decade. The qualities of arrogant determination and inflexible patriotism that had served him well during World War II proved far more troubling in this later role. They turned positively toxic in the 1960s, when de Gaulle utterly failed to understand youthful frustrations with the rigid, outdated institutions that dominated French society—especially in the educational sector. The result was an explosion of protest in 1968 that for several weeks seemed likely to pitch the country into a new revolution.
De Gaulle remains France’s most important political figure since Napoleon. Over 3,600 French localities have a public space named for him. President Emmanuel Macron, who posed for his official photograph in 2017 with de Gaulle’s war memoirs prominently displayed on his desk, is only the most recent French leader to cast himself as de Gaulle’s heir. But the veneration of de Gaulle owes more to his wartime role than to his subsequent political one. And it is becoming increasingly obvious, as Macron’s presidency follows several of his predecessors’ into the nether regions of unpopularity, that the political system de Gaulle created is serving the France of the 21st century quite poorly. If de Gaulle did more than anyone else to create the France we know today, many of the problems it now faces have roots in his legacy.