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.

Several mouths before his return to power in 1958, De Gaulle was visited by the journalist Jean-Raymond Tournoux. In the course of  their conversation, the General recommended that his visitor ponder the passage in Roger Vailland's La Loi in which the retired officer and country landlord, Don Cesare, reflects on the "Portugalization" of his country:

One summer, as his way beck from London and before taking the boat from Valencia to Naples, he had stepped off in Portugal. He had given much thought to the decline ofthis nation whose empire had once girdled the globe. He had come to know writers who wrote for no one; politicians who governed for the British; businessmen who were packing their affairs in Brazil and living off small incomes in the towns and provinces, without aim in life. It had occurred to him that being born Portuguese was the worst of misfortunes. In Lisbon, for the first time, he had gotten to know a people who had less interest.

Today, he thinks that the Italians. the French, and the English have lost interest, in their turn. Interest has emigrated toward the United States, Russia, China, India. He lives in a country that has disinterested itself, with the sole exception of the  Northern provinces— but this is only an appearance, the Northern Italians, like the French, smothering their disinterest in the noise al their automobiles and scooters. The Italians and the French began to Portugalize themselves alter the Second World War.

"For the moment," the General observed to Tournoux, in commenting on these paragraphs, "the French are thinking about their standard of living. This is not a national ambition. In the meantime, other peoples are thinking less about their standard of living, are conquering the world, and are conquering it without even having to fight for it. … The mainspring of a people is ambition," he continued. "France has successively had the ambition of the unity of its frontiers, the gospel of the Revolution, the domination of Europe, the restoration of Alsace-Lorraine, and finally, the liberation. Today there is no collective ambition." These words reveal an acute understanding of the dynamics of French history, and they conjure up that huge question mark which has long haunted the historical imagination of Charles de Gaulle: How it France to avoid such a "Portugalization" in its turn?

It is here that we first glimpse that gap between thought and action, between analysis and program, which has perhaps been the salient characteristic of the General's exalted experiment in roman tic statesmanship. The analysis, here, as in virtually everything he has attempted, has been surer than the prescription; the diagnosis more pertinent than the cure. Try at he might, De Gaulle has never really managed to give this national ambition a clear definition or direction. For a while, together with his intellectual disciple, André Malraux he toyed with the idea that at the Voltairian haven of the most unorthodox, heretical, and revolutionary ideas, France has the mission of providing a philosophical synthesis between East and West, between capitalist America and Communist Russia. But the tentative efforts that have been made, both after the war and, more recently, at the time of Khrushchev's visit to France, to implement this philosophy have done little to excite the imagination of the French people.

The General has also been much tempted by the idea that France has an African destiny. This is, almost certainly, a more realistic notion, and the Franco-African Community is, along with the new Constitution, one of De Gaulle's few concrete realizations since his return to power. But just what the future of this Community is likely to be it a mystery, and here, too, in the face of practical difficulties, the ideal has tended to dissolve in a mist of Gallic skepticism.

Still, the General is persuaded, the country must be galvanized, the national heart stimulated, the people exhorted, even if it is not quite clear what the exhortation is for. This is the explanation for that often vapid and pompous grandiloquence which has characterized many of his speeches, an oratorical style relying heavily on what an irreverent critic, Jean-Francois Revel, has aptly called the use of "hyperbolic truisms."

"We are the great, the only, the unique French people," he declares at Vichy on April 16, 1958. "France is on the march toward a great destiny," he informs the population of Nevers on April 17, 1959, "All France, the whole world it witness to the proof which Mottaganem has brought us today, that all the Frenchmen of Algeria are the same Frenchmen," he proclaims to his Algerian public on June 6, 1956. These rhetorical incantations are employed to make the people of France and ofthe French Community feel that in some mysterious stay they are embarked no an exalted enterprise and that in some glorious, though intangible, way, France it climbing out of the abyss and toward the "heights"— a favorite De Gaulle word. Though the precise geography of these heights is misty, what matters is momentum.

After the war there were Frenchmen, like Jean Monnet and Robert Schumann, who thought that the one cause which could enlist general enthusiasm in France and transcend the sterile doctrinal quarrels of the past was the creation of a United States of Europe. De Gaulle refused to lead his prestige to this undertaking, out only because of his military conviction that all patriotism is essentially local and that without patriotic fervor nothing worth while can be accomplished; not only because he saw in European integration a threatened leveling of all those national, provincial, and cultural diversities which have been the source of the peculiar richness ofEuropean civilization; but also because he detected in the establishment of a European executive and parliament a threat to that national sovereignty which he had so jealously and intransigently assumed in June of 1940, all inadmissible intrusion oil his private, passionate lute affair with France.

Had the General remained in power after 1946, it is quite conceivable that he, would have done nothing to oppose the establishment of the Steel and Coal Community or, later, the European Common Market. As early at 1946 De Gaulle was talking about the need to "organize Europe" and, more specifically, to create a "Western bloc" comprising the present members of the Common Market, with the addition of Spain. The political and economic pressures resulting from the crippling divisions of Western Europe vis-à-vis the monolithic Soviet bloc would almost certainly have forced him along this path. Those who were apprehensive that he would take France out of NATO and the Common Market overlooked a cardinal tract in his political philosophy that France, or any nation, must respect its international treaties. It was because the Pétain government unilaterally abrogated the solemn wartime pledges made to Britain by its predecessor that De Gaulle raised the standard of revolt in 1940. He did not need to be told that if France were to repeat this performance in 1958 or 1959 by walking out of NATO or the Common Market, no one could ever take the word of a French government seriously again.

The new Constitution which De Gaulle pushed through in the summer of 1958 has momentarily given France a more stable form of government. The Debré ministry, which has already lasted longer than any of the twenty-five previous French governments, would, under the Constitution of the Fourth Republic, already have foundered. This longevity has given France a rank in the international councils of the world that it has not enjoyed since the days of Clemenceau and Poincaré; yet this standing is essentially precarious, simply because beneath a surface mask of tranquility the French body politic is in a state of unrest which only the tall, commanding figure of Charles de Gaulle has kept under control. Now, as in former times, France is living from day to day.

The cause of this unrest is the problem of Algeria. We may well have to leave it to future historians to determine whether in the summer of 1958 it was still possible to wrench some peaceful settlement of the Algerian imbroglio with a minimum of bloodshed. But it already seems clear that the General complicated an arduous task by the hesitations he displayed in tackling the problem. Instead of forming a government primarily designed to deal with the Algerian crisis, he composed one which seemed more tailored for business as usual. The inclusion in it of such familiar holdovers flout the Fourth Republic as Guy Mullet and Pierre Pflimlin, the stubborn Alsatian whose ill-guarded suggestions of negotiating with the rebel organization had precipitated the Algiers putsch, destroyed any illusion that the new government— ''one half 'graveyard, one half administration," as André Malraux aptly described it— might represent a clean slate. It seemed designed to proclaim that the new regime wished not to break with the hated system but to perpetuate it.

The key Ministry of Defense was entrusted to a technocrat, Pierre Guillaumat, only too well known for his sympathies for Mendès-France, the French politician most hated by the army. This was as open challenge so the military rebels in Algiers, and it immediately aggravated the already difficult task of overcoming local resistance and of re-establishing the authority of the Paris government on the other side of the Mediterranean. To compensate for this appointment, De Gaulle was forced to offer the key Ministry of Information to Jacques Soustelle, one of the principal plotters of the May 13 uprising, who did not hesitate to use his office to give the General's Algerian policies an extremely tendentious and at times deliberately fallacious interpretation. In a similarly offhand manner, De Gaulle offered the premiership to Michel Debré, who has probably outdone Soustelle in trying so torpedo the General's efforts to obtain a negotiated settlement of the Algerian problem. The present administration has thus degenerated into a private civil sear fought out between two clans, one faithful to De Gaulle and the other to Debré and the "ultras."

This almost studied carelessness in the choice of his political associates is the General's cardinal failing as a statesman. Administrative questions and problems of execution are irksome to him. "I always take the most elevated point of view," he one day explained so Rene Mayer, the former Premier. "It is the least encumbered." "I never concern myself with the quartermasters. It's their job to follow," he declared on another occasion. In itself, this unconcern would not be too damaging— for it is a fact that De Gaulle has managed to enlist two able Finance Ministers to help him—were it not accompanied by such a disdain for problems of human administration. It seems to be De Gaulle's conviction that the privilege of serving under his orders is enough to transform the most humdrum politician or unqualified bureaucrat into a loyal and effective leader of men. When Paul Delouvier, a financial expert who had no qualifications for the job, was invited so become Delegate General in Algiers and dared to suggest that he was not big enough for the post, he was promptly silenced. ''You will grow," was the Generals Olympian commandment.

Presented by

Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

Video

Pittsburgh: 'Better Than You Thought'

How Steel City became a bikeable, walkable paradise

Video

A Four-Dimensional Tour of Boston

In this groundbreaking video, time moves at multiple speeds within a single frame.

Video

Who Made Pop Music So Repetitive? You Did.

If pop music is too homogenous, that's because listeners want it that way.

More in Global

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In