Charles in Charge
Why is de Gaulle suddenly back in vogue?
It increasingly seems that French statesman Charles de Gaulle was right when he proudly claimed in 1952 that “everyone has been, is, or will be a Gaullist.” Certainly, France is experiencing a surge of interest in its former president: The country has just lavishly celebrated the 70th anniversary of de Gaulle’s launch of the French Resistance on the BBC airwaves, and the public has been bombarded with conferences, exhibitions, radio and television programs, and publications of all kinds, from hagiographic works to novels (Benoît Duteurtre’s Return of the General, in which de Gaulle comes back from the dead to save France once again) to comic-strip adaptations (Jean-Yves Ferri’s De Gaulle at the Beach). The third volume of de Gaulle’s War Memoirs has even been put on the standard high school curriculum.
But France is not alone in actively kindling admiration for its former president; political leaders around the world have long looked to de Gaulle’s stalwart style of statesmanship for inspiration and guidance, and the last few years have seen a flowering of their interest in the old general. His memoirs have been translated into 25 languages, and statues have been erected in his honor in Brazzaville, Bucharest, London, Moscow, Quebec, and Warsaw. Along with Mahatma Gandhi and Che Guevara, de Gaulle is one of the few truly global historical figures from the post-World War II era: His fervent admirers include monarchists and conservatives in Europe, nationalists of various hues in the Arab world (Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi posthumously decorated de Gaulle with the highest medal of the Libyan state), and Marxist revolutionaries (Fidel Castro waxed lyrical about the general in his recent autobiography). The latest recruit to this eclectic band of admirers — if the memoirs of his former bodyguard are to be believed — is Osama bin Laden, who is apparently known to quote War Memoirs in conversation.
If the Anglo-Saxon world is somewhat less aware of de Gaulle and the way he earned his renown as a statesman, it perhaps shouldn’t come as a surprise: He devoted much of his time challenging what he called “Anglo-Saxon dominance,” and he had a famously difficult relationship with U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who thought he was delusional and suffered from a Joan of Arc complex. Although the general did have great admirers in the United States, most notably President Richard Nixon, de Gaulle’s prideful efforts to make the most of France’s peripheral position on the global stage were never much appreciated in the corridors of Washington.
But the vastness of de Gaulle’s political achievements in the years between 1940, when he inaugurated the French Resistance to Nazi occupation, to 1969, when he resigned decisively from the presidency, ought to command more than grudging respect: He directed France’s struggle against German occupation, saved his country from civil war at least twice, founded the new (and lasting) political regime of France’s Fifth Republic, healed a number of age-old French divisions (notably on the issue of religion), and liquidated France’s colonial empire in Algeria. When he died in November 1970, the cartoonist of Le Figaro simply drew an image of an enormous, uprooted oak lying on the ground.
Along the way, he fundamentally changed France’s mission in world politics: National honor would henceforth lie not in the trappings of status quo great-power status, but in its ability to carve out an autonomous role as an alternative to the Cold War camps. De Gaulle was especially keen to circumscribe Anglo-Saxon hegemony across the globe: He supported the developing world in its aspirations for greater power and self-determination because he wanted France to become the leading intermediary between the developed and the developing worlds. He was not entirely successful in this endeavor — and it was, in some respects, self-serving rhetoric (de Gaulle’s policy toward former French colonies was highly paternalistic) — but it remains an ideal that inspires French political elites to this day. In his final conversation with one of his most trusted companions, writer André Malraux, de Gaulle likened France to “the little one who does not let himself be bullied by the big guys.”
His political achievements notwithstanding, de Gaulle’s greatest talent was in developing and propagating myths that fortified the nation. By refusing to accept defeat in the depth of World War II and demonstrating a willingness to fight to the death to defend his homeland, he restored pride and grandeur after the disgrace of occupation. (He glossed over the fact that France was largely liberated thanks to U.S. and British armed forces; de Gaulle always preferred falsehoods that elevated the spirit to truths that debased it.) Yet, in a sense, he was France’s Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln all rolled into one — perhaps the only reason the Lincoln analogy is incomplete is that he survived multiple assassination attempts, lending him an additional air of invincibility.
But the latest surge in French interest in de Gaulle is not motivated as much by his lofty rhetoric or wartime valor, as by the moral values which he was said to incarnate: a sense of honor and righteousness, an instinctive refusal of injustice, a disinterested commitment to the public good, a contempt for materialism and money, and a sense of civic responsibility (de Gaulle insisted on paying his own electricity bill at the Élysée Palace when he was president). His rectitude offers a stark contrast with Nicolas Sarkozy’s presidency: his vulgarity, his exploitation of the politics of fear, his unsavory connections with the business world. Under the reign of President “Bling Bling,” the absence of de Gaulle is felt all the more keenly. As an editorial in Le Monde put it in June, today’s politicians are all pygmies compared with the Gaullist giant.
In France, de Gaulle is now inescapable, a myth as much as a man. The once-controversial leader is celebrated by political groups across the entire spectrum, from die-hard conservatives to socialists and communists. More French streets and public squares bear his name than that of any other historical figure, and several major museums across the country honor his memory — including a grandiose, high-tech museum in the Hôtel des Invalides in Paris, adjacent to the tomb of Napoleon Bonaparte. This proximity is more than an accident: The general has effectively replaced the emperor as France’s national icon.
Outside Paris, in those parts of the world that contest the global dominance of Washington, de Gaulle is especially appealing as an emblem of anti-Americanism. In Latin America, for example, de Gaulle’s image has been grafted upon a powerful native tradition of anti-imperialism, economic nationalism, and cultural resistance to gringo hegemony. This populist, occasionally authoritarian tradition is embodied with panache by Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, and it is no coincidence that de Gaulle has featured among El Jefe’s intellectual references. In Africa, meanwhile, de Gaulle is viewed as a political predecessor to leaders like Nelson Mandela: a strong leader who worked for the general interest as opposed to his own personal enrichment and successfully created a set of durable democratic institutions that could operate independent of charismatic leadership.
It is in the Middle East, though, that
de Gaulle’s legacy is most frequently invoked and appropriated. Turkey’s recent moves, for example, toward becoming a regional power acting autonomously of Europe, the United States, and Israel, can be seen in this light. As Omer Taspinar put it in Today’s Zaman: “If current trends continue, what we will see emerging in Turkey is not an Islamist foreign policy but a much more nationalist, defiant, independent, self-confident and self-centered strategic orientation — in short, a Turkish variant of ‘Gaullism.'”
De Gaulle’s shadow also looms prominently over the Israel-Palestine conflict. He criticized Israel’s capture of Arab lands after the 1967 war, warning the Israelis that their continued presence as an occupying power would only breed “oppression, repression, and resistance.” For those frustrated with the stalling tactics of successive Israeli governments, France’s comprehensive withdrawal from Algeria in the early 1960s (which involved the repatriation of 1 million French settlers) made optimists hope that a putative Israeli de Gaulle might one day trade land for peace. Unfortunately, no prime minister has really grasped the nettle on this issue, and as Stephen Walt has noted on ForeignPolicy.com, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is certainly no Israeli de Gaulle.
Palestinians also draw inspiration from de Gaulle, though of an earlier incarnation as the national liberator, who despite lacking material resources and being reviled as a terrorist by his adversaries, managed against all odds to create a powerful resistance movement and embody his people’s aspirations to self-determination and sovereignty. As Oxford University academic and former PLO representative Karma Nabulsi has rightly noted, the late Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat’s most striking parallel with de Gaulle lay precisely here, in his ability to articulate the collective will of his people at a time when they had no representative institutions of their own. In his later years, Arafat wore a small Cross of Lorraine, the symbol of Gaullism, on a chain around his neck.
Like all great leaders, de Gaulle was a complex figure: At his worst, he was contemptuous of elected politicians, authoritarian, and egotistical. Like an ancien régime monarch, he sometimes seemed to think he was France. But he was also capable of inspiring his people to achieve great things, and this is the most important reason why he remains an international icon, with broad appeal to political leaders across the globe. The general symbolizes a conception of politics that rejects all forms of fatalism — especially when this inevitability is presented as a justification for inequality. He also represents a nostalgia for a time when leaders stood for real principles, irrespective of the pronouncements of political spin doctors. When de Gaulle’s entourage brought in a professional election manager to advise him in the run-up to the 1965 presidential election, he was promptly shown the door. Simpler times, indeed. Yet above all, de Gaulle incarnates an ideal that has taken some battering in this age of globalization and hegemony, but that will remain central to world politics in the 21st century: the desire of peoples to determine their own fate entirely free from foreign intervention — whether economic, political, or military.
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