Few may celebrate the half-century since Charles de Gaulle’s triumphs of 1958, says Robin Harris, but this realist genius understood that, in geopolitics, the nation-state was all
Almost exactly half a century ago, on 1 June 1958, Charles de Gaulle became the last Prime Minister of the French Fourth Republic and immediately began the construction of the Fifth. The Fourth Republic, be it said, was not as bad as it was painted, not least by de Gaulle. The economy had grown, the communists were kept out, and France took the first steps to becoming a nuclear power. But the system was incestuous and unstable, a small group of small men swapping posts in nominally different governments — all incapable of decisive action. Inflation corroded the franc, while collapse abroad, first in Vietnam but imminently in Algeria, corroded French self-respect far more.
Yet it was, above all, the old man’s cunning — he was already 67 — which saw him first, in June, enter the Palais Matignon and then, in December, the Elysée. As civil war threatened in May 1958, the General stood prominently aloof. But his agents were in hourly touch with the military leaders in Algiers as they semi-publicly planned their coup to topple the Republic. De Gaulle’s contempt for his political enemies was, as usual, justified. They crumbled and begged him to rescue France, and he promptly agreed.
Yet 50 years on, the French still find it difficult to come to terms with their self-appointed saviour. He is too large a figure for either critics or admirers to gain a purchase on. No French leader, except Napoleon, has had such an impact. In 1944 the General single-handedly devised the incredible but salutary public myth that France achieved its own liberation by its own efforts. His brief postwar government introduced social security, gave women the vote, and created the Ecole Nationale d’Administration, whose alumni have ruled (and misruled) ever since. Then, after 1958, de Gaulle launched France on more than a decade of rapid growth, industrial modernisation, low inflation and social reform. The technocrats provided the means, but he provided the direction, for his will was law.
The Fifth Republic’s constitution created what de Gaulle himself described as an ‘elective monarchy’. But change is now in the air. Nicolas Sarkozy’s plans to shake up France involve not just economic reforms, of which the General, a reformer himself, might approve, but also the demystification of the presidency, of which he certainly would not. And de Gaulle’s intuition of what the French nation will wear looks increasingly correct.
On this side of the Channel, let alone on the other side of the Atlantic, no Gaullist anniversary is likely to draw a crowd. The British, depending on their age group, consider de Gaulle a war-time prima donna, or an obstacle to Europe, or simply the least cool of an uncool political generation. The Americans just rate him as anti-American, which for them is enough. All are right. But all miss the point.
Charles de Gaulle cared about France and only France (not, be it noted, the contemporary French, whose whims he mistrusted); it was the idea, that ‘certain idea’, which mattered. Otherwise, he was cold. Though fond of his family, he was distant to friends, suspicious of allies, manipulative of colleagues, harsh to subordinates. He did not even care for himself. He was without physical fear. After escaping the most nearly successful of 14 assassination attempts, in August 1962, he merely observed to a jittery Pompidou: ‘They shoot like pigs!’ All his passion was reserved for France.
But despite that romantic core, he was in foreign affairs a realist, perhaps the most eloquent exponent and constant practitioner of that much maligned doctrine. Realism involved the speedy completion of decolonisation. It also implied a re-orientation of French military strategy around the nuclear weapon, a policy very reluctantly accepted by other powers. The Force de Frappe allowed (and allows) France to count at the top table, despite regularly displeasing its neighbours.
De Gaulle enjoyed grand gestures, especially rude ones. They won him obloquy at the time and since. His withdrawal from the central command structure of Nato, his public insistence that the United States should get out of Vietnam, his dabbling in Third World politics, and his attempts at détente with communist countries — all are held against him by today’s Atlanticists. He certainly made misjudgments. But, taken as a whole, his policy made sense for France. It was also subtler than it looked.
It was never de Gaulle’s intention to pursue a policy of neutrality between East and West, but rather a policy of independence. At the same time he recognised that France was part of the Free World and would live or die with it. He also believed that Moscow’s threats must be swiftly and strongly resisted. He was tougher than anyone else when the Soviets threatened Berlin. And he gave stronger backing to Kennedy in the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 than did the wavering, super-diplomatic British.
The principal difference between de Gaulle’s foreign policy and that of any other Western leader was his conviction that, as he put it, ‘the only international realities are nations’. It was the basis on which he conducted policy in Europe, resisting supranational pressures, insisting on national — above all, French national — interest. It was also the assumption on which he directed wider diplomacy, not least in Cold War politics. He did not believe that communism would last. ‘Russia will absorb communism as a blotter absorbs ink,’ he once observed — meaning that the underlying national traits of the Russians would overcome any ideology. And he has been proved right.
He was also right about Britain, though the British then and since have been small-mindedly reluctant to admit it. He grasped that France was a rival but lesser power, and that British closeness to America made it still more difficult for him to restore the balance. His response was to keep us out of French-led Europe — at least for as long as Britain remained in hock to the United States. He disliked the Americans, and with some reason, given the enthusiasm with which Roosevelt had tried to oust him from leadership of the Free French. His attitude, though, was less hostile to the British than is depicted. He knew what he owed us, even if he did not like to remember it. The question, anyway, was a matter not of sentiment but of strategy — ‘to know’, as he put it, ‘whether the English want to give preference to Europe, or [consciously echoing Churchill] to the open seas’. Man of destiny though he was, de Gaulle was fully aware that he could not decide ours.