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.

In failing to put together a government primarily designed to deal energetically with the Algerian crisis when he took office in 1956, the General no doubt feared, as he had feared in 1945, that a period of authoritarian rule would he denounced on all sides as a form of Gaullist dictatorship. Yet it now seems clear that it would have been wiser to have taken this risk than so allow the situation to drift along aimlessly in a strange twilight mood. Thanks to this indecision,the General allowed the enthusiasm generated on both sides of the Mediterranean in May and June of 1958 to congeal at a timewhen he could have demanded considerable sacrifices from his people for a more intensive prosecution of the war, as for a bolder pursuit of the peace. So slow and ineffective was he in imposing the authority of his government over the dissidents that he allowed General Salan, who had as many enemies as friends in Algiers, to remain in charge of the Algerian military apparatus for more than six months, and when he finally succeeded in removing this devious political general, he could find no one better to replace him than an Air Force general totally lacking in prestige.

De Gaulle's early trips to Algeria— the first that any French Prime Minister had dared to make to this turbulent laud since Guy Mollet's disastrous reception of February, 1956— served the essential purpose of demonstrating the unique prestige enjoyed by the "great white Marabout of peace," as the General was then known to many Algerian Muslims. His visits to the army in the field, whom he found full of bellicose ardor and fired with a positively missionary zeal for the building of a new Algeria in which Muslims would enjoy equal rights with Europeans, inevitably awoke a nostalgic echo in a man who has always regarded the French army as the chief instrument of France's glory and the guardian of its patriotic flame. He retained sufficient sang-froid to avoid, save in one speech, endorsing the cabalistic slogan "Algérie Française," thus clearly intimating that he had serious reservations about the feasibility of turning Algeria into a land of ten million Frenchmen. At the same time, he met the apostles of integration more than halfway by declaring that Algeria's Muslims must become "equal-sharing Frenchmen" and by allowing them to advance their cause on the terrain of deeds.. The Constitution of tire Fifth Republic, which did not mention Algeria, made it clear by implication that Algeria's departments were simply a trans-Mediterranean extension of metropolitan France, a status which was confirmed when the population of Algeria was invited to take part in the September referendum and to elect some seventy deputies to the new National Assembly in Paris. The fact that two thirds of these had to be Muslims could not mask the truth that this was integration in everything but name.

The General's Algerian policy was henceforth in open contradiction with his African policy, which he had founded on the right of self-determination. Any attempt to adopt a policy other than that of integration was now bound to demand either a revision of the Constitution or, as has in fact happened, a bland disregard for the Constitution. Naturally, these measures were interpreted by the rebel leadership in Tunis as a victory for Jacques Soustelle and the partisans of a French Algeria, and they reacted to them, first by declaring a boycott of the September 28 referendum and then by establishing a provisional government in exile, a fateful move which was bound to hamstring all subsequent attempts to reach a meeting of minds between Tunis and Fans.

Everything De Gaulle has done since then has been a prolonged endeavor to escape the implications and to reverse the tides of this policy. His refusal to clarify his own position on the Algerian question created a vacuum in the election of November, 1958, into which rushed the vociferous champions of Algerian integration. Since the Sphinx would not speak, they mould speak for it. The result was that incredible spectacle of a raggle-taggle caravan of genuine Gaullists, die-hard chauvinists, and carpetbagging ramp followers who rode into the Assembly brandishing the tricolor of integration and noisily proclaiming their eternal lore of General de Gaulle, and the on less incredible dismay evinced by the General before the sweeping success of his own supporters.

As the General could not repudiate his own followers overnight, ten months had to pass before he could finally undertake to make it clear, as he did in a speech in September, 1959, that the future of Algeria must be settled by the Algerians themselves in a free vote. Even then, four more months and an abortive putsch in Algiers were needed so force him to come out definitely and to state what had been his convict ion all along: that the Muslims are not Bretons or Alsatians (a phrase he had used long before his return to power), that Algerian integration was a utopian hope, and that site only feasible solution as an Algeria associated with France. In retrospect, it seems clear that he missed a historic opportunity in the autumn of 1958, immediately ,after his impressive referendum triumph of September, in not inviting the Sultan of Morocco and Bourguiba of Tunisia to Paris to help lay the groundwork for a possible long-term solution of the Algerian problem along federal Swiss or Lebanese lines, which he could have taken to the country for approval in the elections of that November and which he might eventually have been able to negotiate with the rebel leaders in Tunis.

Such an initiative might well have precipitated an uprising in Algiers similar to that which was touched off last January by the removal of General Massu; but there can he little doubt today that the great mass of the French people and a sizable portion of the army would have reacted to such an event as they did last January— by lining up behind De Gaulle. The General would have gained a whole year that was dissipated in ambiguous statements and governmental cross-purposes, which have had the unfortunate result, with the Muslims in Algeria and with the F.L.N. leaders in Tunis, of gravely weakening his prestige and the belief in his liberal intentions.

No conceivable course of action could have been exempt of risk. It must also be said, in the General's defense, that the Arab rebels have done little to aid him in a thankless task. One of the tragedies of the Algerian conflict is that it has been unable to produce a Makarios, still less a Bourguiba, invested with the prestige needed to channel the destructive forces of a ravage revolt toward a feasible diplomatic or political solution; all it has brought forth is an insecure leadership, which has usually been too frightened to meet De Gaulle halfway or to renounce publicly its murderous vendetta with the rival Muslim independence movement of Messali Hadj, for fear of being denounced as selling out to the enemy by the combatants in the field.

And so today the task of ending an interminable war is heaped more than ever on the lonely head of Charles de Gaulle. Destiny scents to have decreed that he must carry his country's cross to an end which is more likely to be bitter than glorious. This spectacle has in it some of the inexorability of Greek tragedy, as though the avenging Furies were not to be cheated of the vengeance they would wreak on this egregious mortal for his overweening ambition.

"This is my home," he writes in the last, lyrical pages of his memoirs, where he describes his postscar retreat to the little rustic village of Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises. "In the tumult of men and events, solitude was my temptation. Now it is my friend. With what other should one content oneself when one has made a rendezvous with history?"

These solemn words were premature, for that exalted encounter is not yet finished. Nor can one say for sure just how it will end. But should it end in tragedy, it will be more than one man's lot; it will be that of an entire people. For, to his heroic failings as in his virtues, Charles de Gaulle is typical of France. He is the product of a hyper-intellectual country whose entire educational system for the past two generations has been geared to the hothouse cultivation of 'thinking reeds."

It has been France's peculiar lot— out once, but twice in two decades – to have brought forth in the supreme hour of need not a leader of men, but a man of ideas; not a practical politician, like a Clemenceau or a Churchill, but a visionary seer; not a man of action, but  a man of the mind, who by an awesome effort of will made himself into a man of the sword.

"Nothing enhances authority more than silence. … Prestige cannot exist without mystery," De Gaulle could write some thirty years ago. Though it was the example of the great Napoleon which inspired this reflection in Le Fil de l'Épée, it is clear that this is essentially a theatrical prescription for inspiring awe and hero worship. The General's predilection for lofty, sibylline statements, the deliberately Bourbonic pomp with which he has invested his presidential functions at the Elysée Palace, and above all, his systematic refusal to sully his hands with petty problems of human administration— all are characteristic expressions of a romantic's philosophy of government; a philosophy which probably owes less to the practical counsels offered in Cardinal Richelieu’s Political Testament than to the heroic models of Corneille and Racine, whose stately Alexandrines De Gaulle is so fond of quoting.

Only too often, indeed, it has seemed as though for the General the art of political leadership was not so much a matter of action as of representation, less a question of energetic decision than of dramatic pretence. It is this tendency to view his office as essentially ceremonious and symbolic which has caused the General's numerous critics— and they include Frenchmen as experienced and astute as Pierre Mendès-France and the political economist Raymond Aron— to diagnose him as a toaster of political camouflage. For France's lung-term problems, he has provided not genuine solutions hot tranquilizing palliatives. The Algerian problem continues to fester, and in the bellicose climate it engenders, all sorts of evils and abuses continue virtually unchecked, from torture and intimidation in Algeria to utterly arbitrary sciences of critical newspapers and weeklies in Paris. The new Constitution is so full of ambiguities and contradictions that, though unquestionably an improvement over its predecessor, it is not expected to outlast the man for whom it was tailor-made. The French Community, which the General launched in a rather precipitous fashion and on the risky assumption that it could be established prior to and apart from a solution of the Algerian question, has all but burst apart at the seams.

Even France's economic and financial stability owes as much to the programs and initiatives undertaken by governments which immediately preceded De Gaulle's—notably Felix Gaillard's program as Finance Minister and Jean Monnet's trip to Washington in January of 1958— as to the orthodox financial policies which Antoine Pinay imposed on a General who has always been socialistically inclined in his economic beliefs. So, too, the exploitation of the oil of the Sahara and the development of an atomic bomb owe their realization, at least in part, to earlier governments' initiatives. Only in the foreign, and particularly European, field— and this is the one area of government in which De Gaulle is truly interested— has the General given France's policy a personal impulse, direction, and steadfastness of purpose worthy of a Clemenceau or a Richelieu.

We can only hope that the Cassandras are bring too somber in their pessimistic predictions. But often of an evening, when De Gaulle can escape to the sylvan quiet of his beloved Champagne, the suspicion may arise in the mind of this essentially diffident, introverted man that the motto he chose as a preface for his little gospel of leadership some thirty years ago ("Rightly to be great is … greatly so find quarrel in a straw") might one day be destined, by a cruel twist of fate, to receive a mocking echo in this no less Hamletian postscript:

The time is out of joint; O cursed spite,
That ever I was born to set is right!
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