Charles de Gaulle: The Last Romantic

"The facts may prove me wrong," Charles de Gaulle one day declared to his Finance Minister, Antoine Pinay, "but history will prove me right." To which M. Pinay replied: "But, mon Général, I thought history was written with facts." Today many of the facts are known, but President de Gaulle's ultimate historical destiny is as unpredictable as ever. Curtis Cate, who represents the Atlantic in Europe, here probes the strengths and failings of one of the most complex Frenchmen of our times.
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Léon Noel, the former ambassador who is today president of the French Constitutional Court, enjoys recalling how one day daring Dr Gaulle's exile from power he happened to be talking to some workers in an industrial suburb of Paris. Suddenly he switched the conversation to the General, whose admirer and friend he had long been. There was a moment of silence, and then, to his amazement, one of the workers pulled off his rap, and one after the other followed suit. It was as though the ghost of the "Grand Charles" bad walked by in person, tearing from these freethinking proletarians an unexpected, grudging gesture of respect.

This incident is typical of a career which has flouted every canon of political success in our vote-cajoling, demagogic age. Charles de Gaulle has always understood that the quest for immediate popularity and power is an essentially ephemeral pursuit and can at worst be a betrayal of a nation's trust. For a dozen years after World War II, he sat out the petty bickerings and intrigues of Paris parliamentarians. He lived in provincial simplicity on a colonel's meager pension in the little village of Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises, not out of any love for the hermit's life but because he knew, with that mixture of prophetic genius and personal self-magnification which is so peculiarly his, that he must remain the undimmed mirror of his country's self-respect. Already in 1944, while the guns were still firing, he could announce to Pierre Bertaux, the Resistance leader: “Iam retiring. I have a mission, and it is coming to an end… France may still one day need an image that is pure. the must be left this image. If Joan of Arc had married, the would no longer have been Joan of Arc.''

In these lapidary words, in which politics is implicitly treated as defiling and marriage as sullying, is distilled the heroic, pathetic grandeur of a man whose philosophy owes as much to the inspiration of the classic French stage as to the mundane exigencies of twentieth-century politics. This philosophy is clearly the opposite of Dale Carnegie's; it is a gospel of heroic intransigency, not one of suppliant blandishment, and it is based on an ever-readiness to antagonize rather than on a relentless desire to please. To no other statesman of one time would it have occurred to preface a bank on file act of leadership with this quotation from Hamlet: "Rightly to be great is … greatly so find quarrel in a straw." In his memoirs he recalls how Anthony Eden one day chided him on this singularly mulish gift: "Do you knew that you have caused us more trouble than all the rest of our European allies?" "I do not doubt it," was the superb reply. "France is a great power."

It is characteristic of De Gaulle that he should have made a virtue of his notable lack of the usual political graces. He has none of the expansive charm of a Franklin Roosevelt our the sweeping oratorical power of a Winston Churchill. He is better at writing speeches than making- them, and his delivery, usually deliberate and unemphatic, is seldom more inspiring than a schoolroom lecture on the declension of Greek nouns. He lacks that personal bonhomie which is a prime political prerequisite in this democratic age, and he has, very likely, never slapped a hack fit his life. The statesman he most resembles, in his stiffness and in the intensity of his inner, prophetic vision, is doubtless Woodrow Wilson.

One of his classroom notebooks, preserved from the days when he was a nineteen-year-old cadet at the Military Academy of Saint-Cyr, contains this revealing quotation from a book, Le Reveil de la Race, written by an eccentric uncle: "In a camp surprised by a night attack, where each fights alone against the enemy no one asks the rank of the one who raises the flag and utters the first rallying cry." Twenty years laser, we find him, now an obscure major in the Defense Ministry, with his eyes still trained on the heights. "Nothing great is dune without great men, and these are great because they willed it," he proclaims in Le Fil de l'Epée. "From adolescence on Disraeli accustomed himself to thinking like a Prime Minister. In Foch's classroom lessons the Generalissimo is already apparent."

What we encounter here is not simply a relentless ambition; it is a deliberate magnification of the ego, which has no French equivalent unless we go back to the Romantic Age, which made such a cult of what Sainte-Beuve railed l'exaltation du moi. The turbulent France into which De Gaulle was born in 1890 seems to have impelled him early in his life toward the kind of inflated pride and inward-looking self-reliance typical of the Frenchmen of the chaotic post-Napoleonic years. Here was a country which had taken a disastrous second fling at being an empire, had lost a star, been amputated of a province; a land torn by the hitter feuds of monarchists and republicans, Catholics and anticlericals, militarists and pacifists, and held together by one aspiration: the reconquest of Alsace-Lorraine. Add to this the hitter disappointment an ardent young lieutenant must have felt having to sit out must of the long-awaited War of Revenge in German prison ramps; the disillusionment of having to witness the postwar repudiation of Clemenceau by his fellow politicians; the personal exasperation an ambitious military theorist must have suffered at having to endure the somnolence of the French general staff, entrenched behind time turrets of the Maginot Line, while the Germans adopted his own ideas of warfare, reoccupied the Rhineland, end unlid every guarantee and protection France had fought and bled for in four terrible years of trench warfare— and it is possible to get a fair idea of the pressures which helped to forge one of the most exalted and determined egos of this century.

 

In a report on his behavior which has been preserved et the Ecole de Guerre in Paris, one of De Gaulle's instructors noted: "Looks like a king in exile." The author of this caustic comment could not have guessed that in less then a dozen years this haughty major would pick up the tattered mantle of French sovereignty end wrap himself in it as proudly and intransigently as any Bourbon proclaiming the divine right of kings. Nor could he foresee that once this mystic investiture had been accomplished, no poster on earth could persuade him to relinquish it.

When, in August of 1944, De Gaulle made his triumphal entry into the Hotel de Ville in Paris, one of his companions regretted that the windows were not open so that the General might receive the acclamations of the crowd messed outside to hail the re-establishment of the Republic. "It is unnecessary," the General answered calmly, "for the Republic has never ceased to exist. I was the Republic." Three years later he wrote to Léon Blum, Prime Minister for one month, to refuse the Médaille Militaire which the French government wished to confer on De Gaulle, as well as Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin, on the grounds that it was inconceivable that the French state, which he had "personified end directed" from June 18, 1940, to January 22, 1946, should decorate itself. Nor has the passage of time done anything so temper this monarchical pretension; in his televised speech of last January 29, which quelled the Algiers uprising, the old words crept beck as naturally, as inevitably as though they were enunciating a self-evident truths: "By virtue of the mandate the French people have given me and of the national legitimacy have incarnated for twenty years. …”

Taken literally, this can mean only one thing, and that is that the twenty-five governments which ruled France from February, 1946, to May, 1955, were illegitimate. And there can be little doubt that this is the General's intimate conviction. They were illegitimate because, though officially invested by parliamentary majorities and votes of confidence, they did not end could net faithfully express that exalted vocation, that "general will" which Charles de Gaulle is persuaded only he has the force of character, the perspicacity, and the prestige to define and implement.

To see in this simply a dictatorial pretension is to miss the pathetic irony in the conflict which lies at the heart of the General's political philosophy. For if Charles de Gaulle is destined to become a dictator, it can only be, at Moliere would have depicted him, as a Dictateur malgré lui. There are two principles, two instincts, two natures within De Gaulle which have never been quite reconciled. On the one hand three is the man of letters, the ton of an instructor of philosophy and history, who has a deep reverence for the literature of France and who believes, like Voltaire, in freedom of speech— that freedom of speech for which he offered a stirring apologia in his Bayeux speech of June, 1946. On the other hand there it the wouldbe man of action, the prophet, the "guide," as he designates himself in his memoirs, who, like Rousseau, bewails the crippling divisions of opinion which have so often paralyzed his country’s politics, inhibited its foreign policy, and fatally undermined its prestige abroad.

The impatience the General has frequently displayed toward the French Assembly is not simply due to a personal unfamiliarity with and distaste for the rough-and-tumble of parliamentary life; it stems no less strongly from his deep-rooted conviction that it is here that France's "ferments of dispersion" find their most active and potentially destructive expression. It was for this reason that, immediately after the war, he adamantly opposed the re-establishment of an omnipotent French parliament. He rightly foresaw that in a country with such a spectrum of political opinion an omnipotent assembly was doomed to be impotent.

On this score we need have few doubts: the French Assembly's vote of last February which granted the government full powers to deal with the Algerian crisis was the logical outcome to a preordained development. It was, in fart, little more than a formality, for the French parliament had long ceased to be a really vital force in French polities; the legislature had surrendered to the executive. And we may, be reasonably sure that should the Assembly ever dare to reassert its old prerogatives, De Gaulle would not hesitate to dissolve it and to call for new elections.

De Gaulle is too shrewd a judge of the temper of his people not to know that the suppression of freedom of expression in the press— it has already been seriously curtailed in the government-controlled radio and television— would plug a vital safety valve and provoke an explosion. But he is no less convinced that only he is endowed with sufficient elevation of vision to give the French that push, that "breath from the summits," as he calls it in his memoirs, which will poll them out of their national rot and forward and upward toward the fulfillment of that grandiose, cloud-girt destiny he has not ceased to preach and prophesy.

One day, aboard the steamer Caledonien which was carrying him front the French Antilles to Tahiti, the General offered his companions a rare glimpse into his youthful past: "When we were children," he reminisced, "we often played war. We had a fine collection of lead soldiers. My brothers would take different countries: Xavier had Italy; Pierre, Germany. Or they would swap around. Well, I, gentlemen, always had France."

Charles de Gaulle’s romance with France has undoubtedly been one of the great love affairs of this century, and it has exhibited all the blindness, site jealousy, the selfishness that a grand passion invariably engenders. During his twelve years of exile from potter, he never once set foot on foreign soil. the only trips hr made abroad being limited to French overseas possessions. It was not just that leaving the toil of France 'would have seemed to him a betrayal of his trust as the self-appointed guardian of French grandeur; but why he tempted to visit foreign countries when one has the good fortune to be a citizen of a universal land like France?

What foreigners have found unforgivable about this passion has been the General's consistent claim that France's greatness demands out only the acknowledgment of her traditional pre-eminence at the mistress of the mind, the arts, and of haute couture, but recognition, in every sense—politically, militarily, colonially— as a great power.Critics, both inside France and abroad, have ridiculed this pretension at a case of national megalomania, a pathetic effort to emulate the frog which, in La Fontaine's fable, wanted to blow itself up to the size of a bull. They have denounced the pretentiousness of the heavy franc; they have raved against the inanity of exploding a French atomic bomb, arguing, at Antoine Pinay argued against De Gaulle, that it represents an absurdly wasteful duplication of scientific effort, that any country with the money and the technicians, even Switzerland or Holland, could explode an atomic bomb if it so determined, and that the explosion, once it occurred, could only prove dramatically, conclusively, pathetically that "France is twenty-five years behind the United States." They might all just at well have been addressing a stone wail. For De Gaulle politics it not primarily the are of the possible; it is  the art of the willed.

The General's view of France and the world is, indeed, no more than an amplification of his own personal creed. For him, life it essentially Darwinian. Is it a never-ending struggle for the survival of the fittest, and the fittest are those possessed of the greatest will to assert themselves. "The iron role of states," he writes in the third volume of his memoirs, "is to give nothing for nothing." No love is lost in this jungle of conflicting egotisms. Each state must, as in Machiavelli's The Prince (andDe Gaulle is, in the profoundest sense, a Machiavellian), rely solely on itself for its survival and success. There is no use in counting on the friendship or generosity of any foreign country, not even of an ally like Britain, nor of a long-standing and generous friend like the United States, far the friendship or generosity that they may manifest is not disinterested and is exhibited first of all to promote their own various national interests.

It is an ancillary axiom with De Gaulle that different countries' interests vary, above all, according to the particular circumstances of their geography. There is a revealing sentence in his memoirs in which he remarks that the interests and policies of the United States, Britain, and France will never completely coincide; the United States, as a continent, always tending to think in terms of air power; Britain, as an island, in terms of naval power; and France, in terms of land power. This passing observation not only explains the General's persistent effort to get France accepted as a full-fledged member of the guiding triumvirate of the Western alliance; it also explains the emphasis he has placed on a rapprochement between France and Germany, a rapprochement which it would be a mistake to say he inaugurated, since it was inaugurated years ago by such eminent Europeans as Winston Churchill, Robert Schumann, and Jean Monnet, but which he has undoubtedly greatly furthered. This rapprochement,which may turn out in be De Gaulle's greatest contribution to the present international scene, has not been motivated by any sentimentality, or even by his admiration for the sterling qualities of Chancellor Adenauer, an ex-resister against Nazism like himself; he has been motivated quite simply by his realization that France and Germany, as the two most important territorial units of Western Europe, share the same fundamental vital interests, and thus are doomed, whether they like it or not, so live or die together.

It is the same line of reasoning which has led the General to anticipate the day when the United Stases will no longer wish to maintain an army in Europe; nor does he believe that it is healthy for a country like France so rely passively no others fee its defense. It would be a miracle for the interests of the United Stases and of France always to coincide, and since as Suez the proof was dramatically afforded that they do not, France mutt be the mistress of her fleet in the Mediterranean.

Just at no human being becomes great without constantly willing it, so no nation can become great, or even stay great, without a ceaseless exercise of the national will. It is because of the will so freedom of the people of Berlin that this bastion of liberty must be defended to the bitter end and that no concession must be made to Soviet pressure. It is on the collective will of the African peoples that the structure of the French Community reposes. Where, as in Algeria, a hostile will has manifested itself, it must he opposed by a counterwill, an Algerian will, which is nevertheless sympathetic so France. And if, as in France itself, no such will seems to exist, then it must be creased and inculcated, if necessary, by artificial respiration.

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