Robin Harris

De Gaulle understood that only nations are real

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

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.

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