A report

"These are hard days for authority. Current custom attacks it and legislation tends to waken it. In the home and in the factory, in the state and in the street it arouses impatience and criticism rather than confidence and obedience. Jostled from below whenever it shows its head, it has come to doubt itself, to feel its way, to assert itself at the wrong moment; when it is unsure, with reticence, excuses and extreme caution; when it is overconfident, harshly, roughly and with a niggling formalism.”

Charles de Gaulle wrote these observations on the French scene back in the 1920s, in the aftermath of the First World War. They first appeared in print in 1932 in The Edge of the Sword, a slim volume of his essays on the problems and application of power which remains basic reading for any appreciation of the General and how he operates. The events of last May and June accurately mirrored the picture of hard days for authority drawn by De Gaulle of France forty years before. In the wake of those events, the French president acted completely in accordance with the principles he laid down in The Edge of the Sword.

He saw as his first task the reconsolidation of his personal power and authority. It had been badly shaken by his own miscalculations of the mood of his country and the seriousness of the troubles which engulfed his government, by hesitation and uncertainty in the handling of the crisis, and above all, by the shattering economic effects of one of the most complete strike shutdowns which any democracy has suffered in normal peacetime. The device which De Gaulle chose to reassert his personal power, once the crisis had been overcome, was simple, typical, and ruthless. He fired the man who had been his greatest strength and the architect of his victory, Prime Minister Georges Pompidou.

Pompidou served as Prime Minister for six and a half years, longer than any other Premier in this century. Moreover, he was closer to being a "friend" of General de Gaulle's than anybody else in the country. He was an intimate personal and financial adviser of the General's for years before De Gaulle picked him from the Rothschild banking organization to run the government. At key moments during the worst of the May-June troubles, Pompidou was the lone symbol and instrument of government authority. De Gaulle remained silent, aloof, and apparently uncertain. (According to his own subsequent testimony, he debated whether to remain in office or not.) It was Pompidou who decided on reform concessions to the student demonstrators, Pompidou who kept the police from using gunfire, Pompidou who negotiated almost nonstop for twenty-eight hours to put together the vast wage package which became the basis for the strike settlements. Then, when De Gaulle came down out of the clouds and announced his decision to remain at the helm and dissolve the National Assembly, it was Pompidou again who organized the election campaign, roused the "bourgeois backlash" against the French Left, and led the Gaullist Union for Defense of the Republic to an incredible victory which gave De Gaulle control of Parliament by over 200 seats for the next five years.

But precisely because of all these services and successes, he was dismissed. In the philosophy of the author of The Edge of the Sword, power which is shared is power diminished. The abrupt removal of Pompidou was the most effective and dramatic way De Gaulle could possibly have chosen to demonstrate to his unruly nation and to the world who was still the boss here. As one of his former ministers once wrote: "On the chessboard on which he plays, there can be no friendship between the knight which is moved and the hand that moves it."

Son et lumière

Thus the surface effect which De Gaulle desired has been achieved, for the time being anyway the image of France once again calm and obedient after its brash escape from authority; Gaullist power supreme, intact, unchallenged, and undisturbed. The only trouble is that De Gaulle often seems to be more concerned with the accouterments of power rather than with its substance. Since the May-June events, Gaullism has looked more than ever like a son et lumière production.

De Gaulle had mounted the heights before the troubles broke. In early May, Paris was about to play host to the Vietnam peace talks, a clear diplomatic victory for De Gaulle after four years of denouncing the American course in Southeast Asia. He was ready to take off on a state visit to Rumania part of his strategy for breaking the hold of two power blocs over Europe. When the storm broke, it was said in Paris of the President's mission to Rumania, "De Gaulle intervenes internal affairs of every country France."

Emotional chemistry

De Gaulle's descent was rapid and dramatic, accompanied by violence and economic disaster. Not since the days of the Paris Commune in 1871 had the country witnessed such an uprising of students and and labor, dominating the streets and the factories. Some spontaneous emotional chemistry achieved overnight what no trade union movement could have done: a strike of more than 10 million workers, tying up almost factory of any size throughout the whole country.

It was, however, a revolution with a difference. In Paris, not a shot was fired during the entire turbulent four weeks, except tear-gas concussion grenades launched from rifles by the police. There were of course endless postcrisis tales of police brutality, and plenty of students were beaten up and ruthlessly handled on the streets and in the police stations. But the Republican Security Company men are not hired for brains or charm; the handling of the affair from beginning to end does not compare too unfavorably with similar operations in the United States in recent months.

In the end, while Pompidou directed the tactical battles of the street and the conference table, General de Gaulle waited and watched for the moment to stage his counter-attack. For the third time in his life—1940, 1958, 1968- De Gaulle showed his ability to turn n disaster into personal triumph.

The government which Maurice Couve de Murville then formed after Pompidou's dismissal turned out to be almost indistinguishable  from the Cabinet which he inherited. The new Prime Minister is a man of great intelligence and ability, with a vast and intimate knowledge of the workings of diplomacy, finance, and government. But he is first of all De Gaulle's faithful servant and would never regard himself as anything As a Protestant in a Catholic country, he scarcely registers at all political1y.

Presented by

Join the Discussion

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

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


Cryotherapy's Dubious Appeal

James Hamblin tries a questionable medical treatment.


Confessions of Moms Around the World

In Europe, mothers get maternity leave, discounted daycare, and flexible working hours.


How Do Trees Know When It's Spring?

The science behind beautiful seasonal blooming
More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In