Why everyone wants a bit of France's General de Gaulle

·7-min read

It's been half a century since the death of General Charles de Gaulle, the man who saved France in its darkest hour and restored a sense of pride after the disaster of WWII. But despite being a reactionary, authoritarian leader who struggled to move with the times, he continues to inspire politicians from across the political spectrum.

De Gaulle was literally a towering figure. His 1m96 earned him the nickname "the giraffe".

Like it or not, you had to look up to him. Which people did, and still do. To quote De Gaulle’s culture minister André Malraux: “Everyone is, was, or will be Gaullist”.

“General De Gaulle is most probably the last, great legendary figure in France’s national narrative,” political scientist Arnaud Benedetti told RFI.

That legendary place in the national saga can be summed up in three key dates: 1940, 1958 and 1968.

In 1940, in exile in London, De Gaulle embodied the French republic which, back home, had capitulated to Nazi Germany. Then in 1958 he seized power, with the help of the army, to put an end to the crisis in Algeria. In 1968 he ceased the left-wing student revolts by gathering close to a million conservative counter-protestors on the Champs-Elysées. On each occasion De Gaulle presented himself as the man of the moment, a singular figure who saved France from disaster.

His efforts earned him the title “father of the nation". In a televised address following his death on 9 November 1970, President Pompidou solemnly declared "France is a widow".

De Gaulle's 'immense heritage'

Judging by the 20 or so recently-published books on De Gaulle, the aura around Le Général seems to have increased over time, especially as France's faith in itself and its place in the world has waivered. Most political parties, barring the Communists and the Greens, have actively endeavoured to underline their filiation with Gaullism. France’s right-of-centre Republican party can make the strongest claim to descend directly from the Gaullist tradition.

“Gaullism is a modern and strong idea which defends both national sovereignty and a strong Europe”, said Republican MP Daniel Fasquelle.

Commemorating the 40th anniversary of De Gaulle’s death in Colombey-les-deux Eglises in 2010, former Republican president Nicolas Sarkozy said: “Bringing the French together, over and above everything that divides them, seems to be the political lesson of Gaullism”.

“He has left us an immense heritage: the certitude that France always knows how to overcome ordeals, to find her vocation of grandeur once more”, tweeted Bruno Retailleau, head of the Republican group in the Senate.

Everyone's a Gaullist

Even the hard-right National Rally whose historical links to Maréchal Pétain and French Algeria should rank it among De Gaulle’s enemies has claimed Gaullist credentials. Leader Marine Le Pen has praised the general saying France needed to "take inspiration" from him and that her party was the only one to defend his line.

On the left, François Hollande became, in 2016, the first socialist president to officially visit De Gaulle’s resting place in Colombey-les-deux-Eglises, though the opposition accused him of using the trip for political gains.

“Any party that aspires to power in France has to swallow Gaullism,” wrote political commentator Thomas Legrand.

“The right does so because of tradition, nostalgia for authority and France’s place in the world,” Legrand said, “the left out of admiration for the resistance, and wariness of capitalism.”

Support from the hard right is, he believes, “opportunistic”. It reflects a “desire for order” and the fact that "supporters of pétainism and French Algeria no longer make people dream”.

And yet the ability to make people dream is important in politics, as De Gaulle himself understood.

“Maybe politics is the art of putting pipe dreams in their place? he told André Malraux in Les Chênes qu'on abat (1971). “If you give into to pipe dreams you’ll achieve nothing substantial, but without them you won’t do anything great.”

Opposition

De Gaulle had his detractors, and still does. Communists resented the way he tried to take all the credit for the Liberation of Paris in August 1944, parading down the Champs-Elysées ahead of everyone else; French nationals in Algeria (the so-called pieds noirs) never forgave him for allowing the independence of Algeria; the left decried his authoritarianism and use of the army to return to power in 1958; protesting students railed against an old reactionary who refused to see that social mores had to change and sent in the heavies to silence those calling for reform.

But few could deny De Gaulle’s strength and determination, which together with his unwavering self-belief served him particularly well during the Algerian war. For historian Julian Jackson, author of “De Gaulle”, the General’s triumph was to make the French believe “that he had controlled the process; and to create a compelling narrative that explained France’s disengagement from Algeria and turned it into a victory rather than a defeat".

From Gaullism to Macronism

Since De Gaulle retired from political life in 1969 no one has filled his shoes, though there have been many attempts.

For his official photo, President Emmanuel Macron chose to pose with an open copy of De Gaulle’s Memoires de guerre on his desk. Just like De Gaulle, Macron is experiencing his own set of crises: the Covid epidemic, economic woes and, most recently, Islamist terror attacks.

More than ever Macron is looking to associate his presidency with the wartime leader, hoping to rally the French around him. He used Gaullesque tones in his “We are at war” against coronavirus speech in March, and following the beheading of teacher Samuel Paty, his prime minister Jean Castex said: “an enemy had declared war on France, and that enemy was political, radical Islamism”.

Macron clearly likes to invoke the general's “spirit of resistance” as being an essential part of the “French spirit”.

Commemorating the Appeal of 18 June in London in June this year, Macron said of De Gaulle: “The rebel of London had nothing left, he was nothing, and yet he had nearly everything: an invincible faith in the destiny of his country… and he took something with him into exile: French spirit”.

In May, Macron also paid tribute to De Gaulle's “spirit of resistance” during the Battle of Montcornet when the then-unknown colonel courageously but unsuccessfully led an armoured division.

"De Gaulle tells us that France is strong when it knows its destiny, when it stands united, when it seeks the path of cohesion in the name of a certain idea of France, which brings us together beyond the discord," said the president.

A monument

There are undoubtedly limits to Gaullism today. While the French tend to be attracted to strong, authoritarian figures, people no longer accept that decrees come from on high as both the Yellow Vests protest movement and opposition to the government’s use of legislation by decree, ignoring parliament, have shown.

“Today everyone praises him, sees him as a reference, but when you look at the way he governed, very few people would approve that nowadays,” Eric Roussel, author of De Gaulle, monument français, told RFI. “He was a military man and he governed in a military, authoritarian way.”

But for the public at large, he remains a popular figure, an incorruptible politician who served the nation before thinking of himself.

“His selflessness is one of the elements which serves the De Gaulle legend,” Roussel said. “He was never suspected of pursuing his own objectives, other than personal glory. He was totally disinterested in material wealth."

As he was to the luxury offered by the Elysée palace where he lived with broken furniture "like a soldier in his barracks".

For Thomas Legrand, Gaullism should be kept in its place, and in perspective.

“Let’s take De Gaulle for what he is: a historical figure from a bygone age with a relationship to power that has thankfully disappeared; as a historical monument you should visit from time to time to remind us not to despair of France."