The General Jonathan Fenby

Simon & Schuster, pp.707, 30

The study of history is a subversive calling. All countries make up a story that suits their idea of themselves. Authoritarians stamp out independent historical scholarship; extreme nationalists simply vilify those who try to tell the tale of what really happened.

Charles de Gaulle stands at the heart of what France likes to think about itself; Winston Churchill plays a similar role on this side of the Channel. Even a Francophile like me concedes that there is a deal more fiction about the French story than the British. The distinguished historian Robert Gildea has helped to tear the covers of what he has called the ‘redeeming, unifying heroic story’ of France’s wartime years. But one part of the story remains largely intact — the providential mission of de Gaulle, ‘l’homme qui dit non’.

Those familiar with Jonathan Fenby’s earlier books, not least his very accessible History of Modern China, will not be surprised that he tells the story of the ‘Constable of France’ so well. A fine journalist, he pulls together very capably the threads of wartime and Third, Fourth and Fifth Republic politics, with an eye for the telling detail and anecdote. De Gaulle has been written about many times before, but those with time in their lives — perhaps this summer in the French countryside — for only one book about the general could happily make it this one.

Most Britons are familiar with the life of a man who, it sometimes seems, was put on earth to irritate us and confirm our prejudices about ‘l’hexagon’. Proud though not vain, stiff-necked and bloody-minded, he made himself the symbol of a country whose aspirations to glory often appeared over the last century to exceed its capacity to earn it. He spent the war years annoying Churchill, and even more Roosevelt, by insisting that France should be treated as an equal partner of the principal wartime allies. Excluded from the conferences at Yalta and Potsdam, his mission at the war’s end was to sweep away the corruption and debris of Fourth Republic politics and to establish that France was still a great power, something that opinion polls suggest was believed by the French people even in 1944. They might, as the general once suggested, be sheep but they were the citizens of a country that was, he said, ‘the heart and soul of European culture’ and was meant, through its geography and history, to shape the destiny of the whole continent.

It was in this role that de Gaulle magisterially rejected the United Kingdom’s application to join what was then called the Common Market in 1963. To have allowed the UK in would have turned it into an Atlantic community, dependent on America. ‘France and her government’, said Harold Macmillan, ‘are looking backwards; they seem to think that one nation can dominate Europe and, equally wrong, that Europe can or ought to stand alone.’ In private he opined, ‘the French always betray you in the end’.

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Among the many questions raised by this excellent biography, four stand out. First, was Charles de Gaulle a democrat, or was he at heart another General Boulanger, a man on a white horse promising national revival through the exercise of his own authoritarian will? Asked this question, the Resistance leader, Jean Moulin, professed not to know the answer.

That de Gaulle regarded the manoeuvring of politicians and their parties with contempt is plain. He saw himself as a Republic monarch. ‘I do not agree. I decide yes or no.’ Yet while he used the Algerian crisis to help destroy the leaders and structures of the Fourth Republic, he always drew back from anything that might look like a coup d’état. André Malraux noted during de Gaulle’s years in the desert, as the existing political class clung on to majority popular support, that the general had led his troops to the Rubicon but only to fish.

Once installed in the Elysée Palace, de Gaulle was able to act for a time above and beyond politics, an Olympian figure who belonged to nobody and therefore to everybody. It was only when he was obliged himself, in order to secure the objections of his government, to descend into this ‘bassesse’ of politics, that his authority began to flake. He was in politics just like those for whom he had such contempt. When his failure to show a fragment of the loyalty he demanded in plenty from others created a plausible and willing successor in Georges Pompidou, he was finished, finally seen off in the scarcely heroic riots of 1968. Soon after leaving office, he was dead and France was widowed.

The second question is how indelible was the mark he left on France? The constitutional structures that he created still exist; they even survived the presidency of one of their foremost critics, François Mitterrand. His government’s policies certainly contributed to what a former official of the French economic planning agency called ‘les trentes glorieuses’, a period of growth and prosperity. The economy was modernised, its leading industries the privileged beneficiaries of a targeted strategy of government support. French exceptionalism internationally enabled its leaders to cut a dash on the world stage, though it was increasingly unclear whether there was any coherent purpose to foot-stamping in Nato or blowing hot and cold over America’s superpower role. No leader since de Gaulle has enjoyed a fraction of his global status; no leader has acted far outside the language and confines of his own vision.

Third, was de Gaulle right about Europe? He was certainly correct to see the democratic legitimacy and the political energy of its institutions and ambitions resting on the nation states that comprise today’s European Union. Its Founding Fathers were not party to the creation of a super-state like Madison and Hamilton in Philadelphia in 1787. But some of what the European Union has achieved, its single market for example, does depend on more than intergovernmental centralisation; it requires a real, if occasionally rickety, sharing of sovereignty.

Moreover, France is not the political motor of Europe any more. German economic strength has given it the right to lead, though it does not know where it wants to go. Nor, for that matter, does France. What is French European policy today? The principal aim seems to be to save the Common Agricultural Policy and to block further enlargement, especially the membership of Turkey, a country with a history as proudly remembered as that of France itself and with a willingness to be cussed which is also of French dimensions.

Finally, Jonathan Fenby reminds us at every turn of Charles de Gaulle’s belief that nationalism shapes and explains history. Sometimes this could lead him to be peevish and mean-spirited, as when he ordered a Free French ambulance unit that contained British members to be disbanded. Paradoxically, the man who helped save a country broken by two bloody episodes of the intoxication of nationalism became himself the symbol of the romantic tryst between history and the nation state.

Today the nation state remains the main focus for the loyalty and affections of citizens who often at the same time well understand its limitations in securing their well-being and ambitions. Globalisation be dammed. We are all today still a little Gaullist.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Tags: Europe, France, History, Non-fiction, Politics, World War 2