The Last Days of Charles De Gaulle

The campaign run by France’s center-right has cut any last ties between the general and the party that claims to defend his legacy.


When the French Fifth Republic was launched by Charles de Gaulle in 1958, and embraced by a crisis-rocked nation, it was powered by two engines: a constitution to codify de Gaulle’s vision and a party to carry out de Gaulle’s will.

By then, the general had accepted the need for the latter — but only grudgingly. Modern France’s most legendary politician was deeply allergic to political parties. Having lived through the twilight years of both the Third and Fourth Republics, one could hardly blame him. France’s surrender to Germany in 1940 and its precarious hold on Algeria in 1958 were, he insisted, the result of the political parties seeking particular and selfish goals.

Parties, de Gaulle believed, led to parliamentary paralysis and national division. “Gaullism” — a term the general himself used sparingly indeed — by contrast, rejected partisanship and particularism. It was a national platform large enough for everyone, regardless of province or profession, race or religion. It was a means to prolong the epiphany of Aug. 26, 1944, when de Gaulle walked down the Champs-Élysées in liberated Paris. In the vast throng of men and women who nearly submerged him “like the sea,” de Gaulle later wrote, he witnessed “one of those miracles of national consciousness which, at times, illuminate our history. In the crowd, there was just one thought, one élan, one cry while all differences gave way and individuals disappeared.”

Even in France, de Gaulle nevertheless discovered, one still must govern in prose and, thus, through parties. The new president of a new republic required a vehicle to produce the votes that could carry out his popular mandate. And so, de Gaulle oversaw the building of a new political party, L’Union pour la nouvelle république, or Union for the New Republic (UNR). Over the course of the 1960s, the UNR allied with other conservative and centrist parties, creating the ideological stew that, despite the various name changes it underwent, always simmered in the same pot — and always claimed to be the general’s heir.

Today, the current iteration has been dubbed Les Républicains. And it, along with the Fifth Republic itself, appears to be crumbling.

But crumbling implies there was once something solid. Some specialists have long wondered if there is such a thing as “Gaullism” — whether it is, as some have put it, an “ism” in search of an ideology, whether there was ever anything to it besides the man himself. Frédéric Grendel, an early Gaullist himself, pronounced: “In Gaullism, there is de Gaulle. The rest is silence.” Less portentously, the renowned specialist of French politics Stanley Hoffmann dismissed Gaullism as “ideologically empty.” But if Gaullism were simply a silent void, the current collapse of Les Républicains would not be such a noisy and dense affair. Something real, if elusive, is being lost.

At its most basic level, Gaullism entailed a strong and highly centralized state, one prepared to nationalize key industries and intervene in the national economy. Led by a president invested with vast powers — de Gaulle rightly called his republic an “elective monarchy” — under Gaullism, the state’s ultimate raison d’être was to yoke the nation to les grands travaux (“great projects”) that would unify the people and maintain France among the premier rang, or first rank of nations.

Since de Gaulle’s death in 1970, various politicians in France could reasonably lay some claim to this legacy. During the 1980s and 1990s, for instance, there were larger-than-life political figures like Philippe Séguin and Charles Pasqua, who represented the left and right wings of the movement, respectively. Séguin stressed the social element to Gaullism, the state as guarantor of health and social rights; Pasqua, on the other hand, emphasized the authoritarian facet to Gaullism, the state as the guarantor of social stability (which, in Pasqua’s case, was often aimed at keeping immigrants in their place). In 2003, Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin’s speech at the United Nations, denouncing the George W. Bush administration’s rush to war, also channeled the Gaullist spirit by affirming France’s independence and willingness to criticize allies.

With the presidency of Nicolas Sarkozy, the meaning of Gaullism became even more elusive. Though Sarkozy made a great show of his attachment to the man and movement, his presidency revealed little more than a feverish attachment to power and its perks. The radical Gaullist Jean-Pierre Chevènement observed that whereas de Gaulle was “equal to his statue,” Sarkozy is not “for the simple reason that he doesn’t have a statue and has difficulty being equal to his duties.”

The process of ideological fission has now reached critical mass with Sarkozy’s former prime minister and Les Republicains’ current presidential candidate, François Fillon. As the French now know, Fillon is a man incapable of saying “non” to family members seeking fat paychecks for sketchy work, as well as to shadowy figures showering him with suits and watches whose price tags dwarf the monthly salary of most French workers. In the best of circumstances, these instances — now being investigated by the French courts — would taint an authentic Gaullist, which Fillon vociferously claims to be.

But Fillon’s indifference to certain political principles distances him from Gaullism, as much as his personal sleaziness, and this indifference, in turn, distances Les Republicains yet further from its founding father. Fillon’s campaign vows to make France great again would be accomplished on the backs of public and private sector employees. His pledges to cut taxes on the wealthy and unshackle industry from state regulations, as well as pare down the welfare state, run counter to the “social Gaullism” espoused by Séguin. Though a devout Catholic, de Gaulle never posited Catholicism as a defining trait of Frenchmen or women or made his faith a campaign issue; though a French patriot, de Gaulle warned that while patriotism is the love of one’s own country, nationalism, of the sort that Fillon has encouraged, is the hatred of others.

Fillon appeared to make one last effort to channel the general when, last month, faced by mounting judicial pressures, moribund polling figures, and metastasizing doubts within the party, he invoked the crisis that confronted de Gaulle in 1968. Fillon trumpeted that he would not resign as the candidate for Les Republicains and called upon the people to help him defend democracy by rallying behind him — a pantomime of the events of 1968 when de Gaulle, faced with rebelling students and striking workers who had paralyzed the nation, vowed to defend democracy against “tyranny” and rallied nearly a million supporters in Paris, who surged down the Champs-Élysées, singing “La Marseillaise” and chanting “De Gaulle is not alone.” Miraculously, the political tide turned and swept away the barricades. It was the last time de Gaulle would prove equal to his myth.

Fillon’s rallying efforts, too, served their purpose, to a degree: On March 5, about 40,000 supporters gathered under pelting rain at the Place du Trocadéro in Paris to support their beleaguered candidate. Though far fewer than the 200,000 announced by his spokesperson, not to mention the 1 million who backed de Gaulle, there were enough to silence Fillon’s critics within the party, who fell back into line. The larger effect, however, drew an even starker contrast between the general and the party that now claims to guard his legacy: As the astute political observer Claude Askolovitch puts it, in 1968 Charles de Gaulle was the state and rightly presented himself as its last rampart against chaos. Fillon, however, is a candidate who, caught in a pathetic trap of his own making, has attacked the state itself, casting doubt on the work of the police and courts. Fillon has thus stood Gaullism on its head, Askolovitch says: “A besieged right, instead of defending the republic, now challenges it.”

The polling numbers, for a while, at least, suggested that French voters knew a faux Gaullist when they saw one. Last fall, the widespread assumption was that Fillon was France’s next president in waiting; polls showed him winning 32 percent of the vote in the first round. Following the series of revelations about his misdeeds, however, Fillon’s standing plummeted; an Ifop poll published on April 11 showed that he risked finishing as low as fourth, putting him still behind Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen, and even behind Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the candidate of the far-left La France Insoumise.

In the days since, Fillon appears to have recovered some ground, and the first round of voting this Sunday looks poised to be a nail-biter. But even if he successfully salvages this election, the fate of Les Républicains, and the party’s relationship with the founder of modern France, will remain unresolved. Torn between those, like Alain Juppé, who defend its inclusionary and universal calling and those, like Fillon, who rally to its exclusionary and sovereignist tendency, the party lacks a figure who, like de Gaulle, projects a clear and powerful dedication to the general interest of the republic. There is no one, at least for now, who seems a likely heir to the Gaullist legacy. (In fact, the one figure who can invoke the general without igniting laughter or yawns is Mélenchon. No other figure speaks as persuasively as does Mélenchon about the republic and its people, and no other figure can electrify as he does the entire gamut of social and professional classes. As more than one observer noted about his remarkable speech at the Bastille on March 18, Mélenchon rose to Gaullist heights in his gestures and language.)

But even the general himself would be hard-pressed to bridge the abyssal divisions in today’s France. As president, he always aspired to represent not only a majority of French, much less a political party. At the heart of Gaullism beats the ideal of national unity without exclusion. But with the ephemeral exceptions of 1944 and 1958, this inevitably proved to be an impossible ideal. In 2017, this ideal is even more far-fetched, especially when the Gaullist candidate aspires to unite through exclusion while representing barely a majority within his own party. It may well be, after the first round of the presidential election, that the heartbeat of Gaullism will stop altogether.

Photo credit: Getty Images/Foreign Policy illustration

Robert Zaretsky is a professor of history at the University of Houston’s Honors College and the author of a forthcoming book on Simone Weil.