HIST 276: France Since 1871
- Charles De Gaulle
Charles de Gaulle’s importance in postwar French political life was matched by his importance in the nation’s collective imagination. This authority was consciously contrived by de Gaulle, who wished to bear upon his figurative body the will of the French people to maintain the power of their nation in the face of a political environment characterized by the opposition between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Ultimately, de Gaulle’s symbolic originality proved more lasting than his political innovations.
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France Since 1871
HIST 276 - Lecture 22 - Charles De Gaulle
Chapter 1. Current Unrest in the Parisian Suburbs: Villiers-le-Bel, December 2007 [00:00:00]
Professor John Merriman: This is all relevant. What happened at Villiers-le-Bel was that you got your basic cop car, coming along, and it wasn’t rolling aggressively, it was about fifty kilometers an hour, and these two young North-African extraction youths, without helmets, didn’t yield to the car. They were on a scooter, sort of essentially a motorcycle, not a big one but a scooter. And, so, they hit the car on the left side and unfortunately they were both killed. And then the police stayed a bit and made calls but the calls that they made were more, “we have something spinning out of control,” it’s not about how are these two kids who — and you see, they left it there for two days, they circled it all away.
So, you still see these little guys’ tennis shoes and you see — you can see traces of their having expired. And, so, Villiers-le-Bel, which is about eighteen kilometers north of Paris — it’s near Roissy, it’s near Sarcelles, where there was a lot of trouble before, it’s near Gonesse; it’s in the Val d’Oise — went up in flames basically, and unfortunately a lot of people were hurt in the fighting. And yesterday they burned, somebody stupidly burned the library, and the library is not associated with the flics, with the cops, it’s not associated with the State even, it is the municipal library where lots of kids go and study in the municipal library. And, so, this was just la connerie, this is not possible to do stuff like that. But, anyway, part of the problem is that Sarkozy denigrated the people in the suburbs as racaille, as scum, by implication, that — and was Minister of the Interior during the big troubles, a couple of years ago; which I’m going to talk about on Wednesday, the troubles, which started in Clichy-sous-Bois.
But there’s a lot of — in Toulouse where there had been trouble two years ago, now it’s happening in Toulouse, too, but I didn’t — I’ll watch it this afternoon. It’s a problem, it’s going to be a big problem for awhile. And what makes it a little more scary is that this wasn’t an incident, where there have been incidents where the police are — the police systematically control people of color, systematically, in France, systematically. I go through Barbès-Rochechouart, which is a metro stop famous for the first place that somebody shot and killed a German officer during Vichy and — or the Gare de Lyon. I was in the Gare de Lyon, not the other day but at the end of November — or for that matter after Sarkozy was elected; you go to the Gare de Lyon metro stop and all of a sudden you turn the corner and then you’ve got ten policemen there, controlling people.
I’ve lived — I’ve spent half my life in France for the last thirty years. I have never been controlled, not once, not once. And I’ve been with people going through, and you turn the corner, and all of a sudden you’ve got all the police there. And who do they pick out? They don’t pick out whites carrying little academic briefcases, they pick out everybody, practically, who is young and who is not white. And so this rubs people the wrong way, to say the least, and it’s part of the way this works in the suburbs.
And, so, this incident, which involved a police car, was not coming in and sort of saying “up against the mall MF” and all this but, “let’s see your papers.” Because that’s what happens, and I’ve seen that happen. It was just unfortunately these two policemen — who weren’t doing anything wrong, they were just — it was a banal trip through a banal suburb — happened to hit these two kids who were not wearing helmets and so they were killed. But this is — who knows what’s going to happen in this. But this is part of when you see La Haine, hate, you see — that’s the best translation simply of it is hatred or hate. And to understand how people in the suburbs feel you have to understand the relationship between both — and I’m going to do this again, in more detail; I better get to what I’m doing today. But that it’s not just young people with not much of a future, it also is, mostly has to do with under-privileged and under-appreciated minorities pitted against the CRS, the national kind of military police, as well as the municipal police.
And of course what the government of Chirac did was take away all the money virtually for voluntary associations that are bridges to helping integrate people into the communities in which they live and into the State in which they live. Butce n’est pas évident, comme on dit en français, it’s just — oh, well, there we go. How did we get on that? We got on that because it’s important to talk about. Allez.
Chapter 2. The Death of Charles de Gaulle: Legacy of French Nation [00:04:48]
So, today I’m going to talk about Charles de Gaulle. In November 1970, ça passe vite, les temps, I was a student in Paris, just a little older than you, and living in an eleven-franc-a-night hotel, on rue Monsieur le Prince — that was about two dollars a night. My hotel room wasn’t worth that, actually, but it was kind of an interesting place to live for — again, I was living in Limoges for a lot of the year too.
I went to the Archives one day about — get there early, which I always do, and this little man who was a World War Two veteran who had lost most of his arm in the war, who would check my ID, but he knew me so there was no problem — my wife used to come in looking for me, when she was my wife, carrying our baby and the groceries, and it’s all verydécontracté, very informal; it’s not that way any more. And he said, “we’re going to close because the general, il est mort” — the general is dead. And Charles de Gaulle died, had died. And I, I think, infuriated my Gaullist friend by saying that he died of boredom watching French TV; but he was off in Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises, and he had died at age — he must’ve just been eighty; wasn’t he eighty when he died, do you remember? You don’t remember, but anyway I think he was eighty when he died.
And, so, later my Gaullist friend, who’s a lawyer, a Parisian lawyer, called me up and said, “look, why don’t we go down to Notre Dame and go to the Mass?” De Gaulle didn’t want to have a Mass, and I didn’t particularly want to go down to Notre Dame and go to the Mass for Charles de Gaulle, but he said that it’ll be — it’s a historical event, we should be there, you should see it. And so I went down, we went down at three in the morning and waited in line, and then they’d flown in all these people. Haile Selassie was there, that was kind of amazing to see Haile Selassie, and the odious Richard Nixon was there and all these leaders, with rather minimum security. This was not in a high security time. You could see people who were carrying machineguns up on the towers, you could see people in the cathedral up — I was about the only person anyone saw get frisked, going in. They looked at me and said we want to check you out; so they checked me out, with the long hair and all that.
But we got in there, and it was a moment of — as a moment of history, and it was something to see. His influence on French life and the memory of French life can hardly — the collective memory, of collective memory in French life, can hardly be underestimated; yet it was so long ago that he died, and the party that bore his name disappeared, that even if someone like Sarkozy or, before him, Jacques Chirac, would go to Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises, this village in the Haute-Marne, in the east of France, to have their picture taken in front of his tomb with the Croix de Lorraine — de Gaulle seems like a long time ago. But what he did in 1958 is of course to rescue the French State and to define, in his own personage, a certain idea of France that he represented.
And to borrow a Catholic image, de Gaulle who was born in Lille, right near, as I said the other day, right near the fortress — Lille is a pretty Catholic town — he was not himself a practicing religious man, but I suppose it’s a religious image that I somehow have retained in the back of my mind from the days at a good old Jesuit high school in Portland, Oregon, that he saw himself as the mystical body of France, that somehow the whole, that is his body, his personage, his very being, was bigger than all of the parts that constituted the body of France, and that he represented France with his very existence, and that this was how he wanted to be remembered. And when he leaves power in 1969, after a rather obscure election, plebiscite really, that that image still was retained.
There are really three elements that represented his image and the myth of Charles de Gaulle after World War Two. That he was the providential figure who through his own determination had saved France and its honor after the blowout of May/June 1940; that as his voice crackled over the BBC on the 18th of June, 1940, a date that’s still commemorated every year when there’s a Gaullist in power and a mayor of France such as Chirac there’s always a little event to commemorate that; that he had restored the integrity of France. My friend Bob Paxton, as I reminded you the other day, argued that Pétain might have saved the French State but he did not save the French nation; he destroyed it by destroying liberty, fraternity, equality, and what that means.
That Charles de Gaulle had restored the integrity of France, had restored the sovereignty of French over their own political existence, which is obvious, and the republic itself, by being involved in the creation of the Fourth Republic, but then repudiating the way it was established, wanting centralized executive authority and all of that, and then would go off pouting to Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises. That he’d then he’d reunified the nation after the civil war that was Vichy. But, again, with a Gaullist twist is that everybody had basically resisted, or wanted to resist, that they were always ready with the gun nearby to go and kill the German when they could and to restore France, and that hardly anyone had collaborated. So, this was sort of the Gaullist take on this.
Chapter 3. De Gaulle and the Napoleons: The Republican Monarchy [00:11:22]
And that he had restored the centralized state — not after World War Two, because the Fourth Republic was this sort of swinging door ministry; it’s rather like the Third Republic — which as in the case of the Third Republic gave the illusion that French political life was more unstable than it was, because the deputies of the Fourth Republic, like the deputies of the Third Republic, it was a club where the same people were re-elected time and time again from the same constituencies. But de Gaulle’s thing was that the only form of government that could restore the integrity of France and end the factions of parliamentary quarrels, and quarreling, and he hated the communists, of course, was a strongly centralized government. And for that he had to wait, as you now know, until cinquante-huit, until 1958, with a constitution written for him by Michel Debré, who personified Gaullism itself, and whose son is an important figure in contemporary France.
This is very important for de Gaulle’s view of France, is that he had freed France, in his mind, from the anarchy of political parties that were quarreling, a parliamentary government that he didn’t think had worked, that was incapable of restoring the “grandeur” of France — a word to which he returned constantly; more about that in awhile — strengthening the French state under a new constitution that — written by Debré — that gave France a strong executive with a president who would be in power for seven years, and who had strong executive authority.
Now, those of you who know anything about France before 1871, if this doesn’t sound like Napoleon, both N-I, Napoleon the First, and N-III, Napoleon the Third — it’s an obvious thing to say, but it’s still true — that in — there’s no need you should know this, but some of you do — 1799 on the 18th of Brumaire, Napoleon, with the help of the wily Abbe Sieyes, the priest, Sieyes, who wrote “What is the Third Estate,” overthrow the Assembly. Napoleon had a bit of a faltering and his brother Lucien helped him out there, because he lost — the only time in his life he really lost his courage — they overthrow the government and impose a consulate in which Napoleon becomes the first council and finally snatches the crown, it is thought, from the Pope and crowns himself emperor.
And Napoleon adopts what would become the most Gaullist political strategy, shared by that of governments of North Korea, among other dictatorships, that is the plebiscite, where you ask people with a cagy question, “Do you agree” — for example, Napoleon III, just before the fall of the whole mess at the end of the 1860s, in 1870 there was a plebiscite, “Do you agree with the reforms that have been undertaken by our glorious Emperor?” et cetera, et cetera. If you write “no,” you’re saying, “well, I don’t really like reforms,” and so therefore do you say “yes” because you like reforms or “yes” because you like Napoleon III? And, so, naturally the plebiscite is like a North Korean plebiscite where ninety-nine percent of the people say oui — that’s what Napoleon III did after he overthrew the Second Republic.
So, there are strong continuities between Napoleon and the idea of a centralized state overcoming the sort of quarreling factions of France. And Napoleon I put an end to what was called, rather colorfully and an unfortunate phrase, but “the war of the chamber pots” that was the French Directory, before this whole thing is overthrown. And, so, there’s an appeal to the nation. And Napoleon was one of the originators of an aggressive kind of nationalism. But Napoleon was perceived as somebody on the Left. Napoleon III, before he was Napoleon III, in 1841, wrote a little pamphlet called “Property,” about property, called “The Extinction of Pauperism”; and the idea that somehow the caring State cares about all people in France and that all people in France find part of their identity in the notion of being French.
And as you already know from things we’ve talked about, that part of nationalism was this sort of aggressive carrying of the French language into corners in which it was not spoken, or spoken only as a second way of speaking, language, dialect, patois, et cetera, et cetera. So, the idea of a national will represented in the body of a strong executive authority is a Napoleonic idea that became part of the political existence of de Gaulle, and ultimately of Gaullism. But you had to have the idea of it being ratified by the people — thus plebiscites. Now, Pétain, the difference is that Pétain in World War Two, the “national revolution,” in quotes, with the Marshall — again the military connection, Napoleon, Pétain, as he saw it, and de Gaulle — it was never ratified by any kind of popular vote because it was an even more authoritarian government under Vichy.
The 1920s and the ’30s, and the first half of the 1940s, was the wave of authoritarianism that cost the lives of so many millions of people, I need not remind you. And that Bonapartism, as in Gaullism, involved the kind of stamp of popular approval seen in the plebiscites of 1958, and in subsequent plebiscites. And he goes out in 1969, after he loses — they lose the plebiscite. On January 18th — no, I must’ve written this wrong, it must be the dix-huit de juin, it must be June 18th, 1940 — he says “I” — he often said “we,” the royal “we,” but in this case he said “I,” because he wasn’t yet running the show — “I, General de Gaulle, French soldier and leader, am conscious that I am speaking in the name of France” — that I represent France; again the mystical body.
Michel Debré — again d-e-b-r-e — who wrote this constitution of ‘58, said that the only chance for French democracy, if that term may be used, is to have a republican monarch, and that was the Gaullist view of de Gaulle. And he resigns on the 20th of June, 1946, and the Fourth Republic comes into existence without him. Now, when he returns to power, in ‘58, it was after — because of the chaos of what was happening in Algeria that republican institutions seemed to have been discredited. And, so, he has the upper hand there to identify himself with the strongly centralized French state. It was clear in 1958, as it had been clear with Napoleon — but this is a different case — Napoleon I, that it was only de Gaulle at that moment who could impose discipline on the French Army; thus the howls of betrayal when the other generals say he’s going to let Algeria become free.
And thus the sense of betrayal, and they try to kill him. And, so, but for all of his verbal — his respect for and endorsement of popular sovereignty, but his tool of State is really often the plebiscite, which you can argue is sort of a sham tool of democracy. What he does — and reflecting the fact that the 1880s and the 1890s are the period of mass politics when the first political parties are created. Napoleon I and Napoleon III did not create political parties. Political parties did not exist in France; they existed, the Whigs and the Tories existed in England already, but that is a long, complicated story that starts with the run up to the English Civil War at the middle of the seventeenth century.
But he creates a political party that will support him, and his support, the people, a lot of the people who were Gaullists in the late 1940s were part of what is called the MRP, or whatever, the big mass Catholic political party which was extremely conservative. But he — the essence of this was strongly centralized authority. Did he consciously pattern himself after the Napoleons, or after Boulanger for that matter? He’d been born in 1890, in Lille, but brought up in — I think he was born in Lille, I’m sure I’ve seen this house in which I thought he was born, in Lille, but he was brought up in Paris. He loved the Arc de Triomphe and he loved Invalides, which is where Napoleon is buried.
I’ve got to just give you one small story, which I don’t think I’ve related. There is a famous American tennis player who the first time this tennis player was in the French Open, which is sponsored the Banque Nationale de Paris, they took this tennis player on a tour of Paris, and that tour got kind of old for this particular player; after about an hour and a half this person had seen enough. And then finally they said, some journalists said, “what do you like best about what you saw in Paris?” and the tennis player said, “Oh, I really liked the tomb with the little dead dude;” and the little dead dude is of course Napoleon, and that image is still…
Napoleon’s tomb, which you see from above, you can’t see in the tomb, it’s not like when you’re looking at Lenin or something but — is a massive tourist draw, and that is something that’s always happened, that’s always been the case since then. He was a lecturer at the Military College of Saint-Cyr, near Paris, and he lectured on Napoleon’s military campaigns and particularly that of 1805. When he organized the French Free Forces in North Africa in ‘41 he referred to Napoleon’s campaigns that he’d studied very carefully. But he knew also that because the French Constitution had been written — that is the Third Republic, end of the Fourth Republic — had been written reflecting the fear of people like Napoleons, the Napoleons, of Caesarism, that he realized that that was always a possibility and always spoke highly of things like popular sovereignty.
He always used a kind of appeals to the French masses that Napoleon himself had done so effectively — more about that in a minute, and his sort of plunging into the crowds, to the horror of his guards. Something happened when Gorbachev came to the United States, and Gorbachev was such an impressive person and such an under-appreciated great man. And Gorbachev just shocked his guards by getting out of the big, black limousine near the mall in Washington and sort of plunging and giving high-fives, the Russian equivalents of high-fives, to people in the crowd, where the guards were just scared to death because we had lost a Kennedy and all this, two Kennedys, indeed, and because of security issues. And de Gaulle who had survived these various assassination attempts, and one in which, as I said, just this huge man, this car which is riddled by machineguns, a couple of guys firing in Clamart, and he escapes absolutely unscathed.
Napoleon was only wounded three times, very lightly. Napoleon seemed to have this view that comes out of saintly romantic battling figures in the medieval times that they were — that God had made them immune to physical danger, and that if somebody fired in the seventeenth century a bullet at such a person that they could catch the bullet, as if Superman or some ridiculous video thing, catch them in their teeth. But part of this is the popular appeal of this man who was full of famous things that he said. But he never intended it as witticisms; the man had virtually no sense of humor. He’s a cynic but a very smart man. But he’s probably best remembered for saying, “how can you possibly run a country” — I don’t think he used the word rule, that would’ve been a mistake, that would’ve been lapsing to the royal we, which he used constantly — “How can you run a country that has 268 different kinds of cheese? It’s all so complex.”
In fact, there are many more than 268 kinds of cheese; there’s probably 268 different kinds of picodons, which are small goats’ cheeses produced in the southeast of France and in other places. But what organized all this stuff together in his thinking is that France cannot be France without grandeur, without grandeur.
Chapter 4. Maintaining French Greatness in the Cold War World: Third World Influence and Military Independence [00:26:03]
So, one of the compelling aspects of his existence was that how you keep a power, that is no longer really a great power, in a world that had been divided among two great powers, how you keep a diminished great power a great power, how do you do that? So, there were two ways, very vehemently anti-communist through the whole thing, but more realistic than the Americans, always more realistic than the Americans — and this we’ll tie together in a minute.
Two ways: one is that you maintain this forceful independence vis-à-vis the Americans and the Soviets. The clash of these two civilizations, both with their monumental exaggerations and both with their monumental problems; the Americans’ problems less bloody than the traditions in the Soviet Union — how do you do that? So, you become independent, you leave NATO, you throw the Americans out; thus these huge airbases that were once full of American planes, full of American Air Force people and soldiers in Chateauroux and all these places — I mentioned this before — now empty, just big parking lots essentially. You can still see them all over the place. Or Lyon, there’s another good one.
You’re independent, and you insist on having the force de frappe, force, like force, and then de, d-e, and then frappe, f-r-a-p-p-e; and frappe, it sounds like something that’s served at Coffee Too or Starbucks, but it is the nuclear capacity. And, so, France is going to be independent, it’s going to have nuclear capacity. The Americans had the atomic bomb, the Soviet Union had the atomic bomb. The Americans had used an atomic bomb. The Israelis probably did not yet have the atomic bomb but soon would, and India would later and the Pakistanis and as you know the Chinese, as well.
So, that leads to point number two, that is by being independent and by being French, that you maintain your influence in places even as they are being decolonized — places like Mali, for example, or Senegal, or ex-Zaire, the Congo, which was the awful Leopold’s private territory before the Belgian parliament took it over at the end of the nineteenth century, the beginning of the twentieth century, because of just the massacres, the slaughter of local people by sort of Belgian mercenary types, and all of this; that these places, that even after Algeria, and before that Morocco and Tunisia, become independent that the influence of la belle France in places like Vietnam, after the French leave, because of French civilization, the civilizing mission, the French language — Lebanon, another very good example, French influence in Lebanon, terribly, terribly important.
And that this kind of influence, a cultural influence and a political influence of being an honest broker between these two big colossal powers will help accentuate France’s existence as a great power, continued to exist as a great power. But there was a contradiction there because France was no longer a great power, but wanted to be a great power. And, so, that was essential in the way that de Gaulle viewed France’s role and personally his role; that France would maintain its influence in what they called in those days the Third World, tiers monde, that were — had just been freed from the colonial imperial experience but were economically disadvantaged. And that France’s historical mission of carrying civilization, French civilization, the civilizing mission, et cetera, et cetera, would continue in that context.
Now, you even saw this very recently in the case of the Bulgarian nurses who had been in Libya accused of — it’s a terribly complicated case — of infecting Libyan children with HIV, and who had been condemned to death and had been in prison for I don’t remember how long. And one of the first things that Sarkozy does is he sends his wife, who’s no longer his wife, to Libya to use the influence, that old French influence, in the Middle East to obtain the release of these Bulgarian nurses. And indeed they were able to pull that off. I think one of the nurses was Palestinian but I think the other ones were Bulgarian, I’m sure they were Bulgarian; I’m not sure about the Palestinian but I think so. And it works. But this is an idea that we can be there, we can intervene in these cases and get things happened because of that.
And no one — if you travel in Africa and in Francophone countries, nobody should have any illusion about the continued influence of France in these places; and it is very, very important, and this is something that de Gaulle believed very much. He feared the domination of Europe and France by Britain and the United States, using NATO as a tool. And, so, you can argue now that Europe, quote/unquote Europe, the European Union, the European community and all this stuff, that the basis of this lies certainly in what would’ve seemed in the 1920s and the ’30s, or for that matter the 1880s and ’90s, a horribly unusual alliance between Germany and France. And de Gaulle moves in that direction.
And, so, that is a way of — working against is the wrong term — but sort of circumventing the kind of domination of the U.S. and of Britain in all of this. And what he helps do — and this is very important — is it ends all that animosity between Germany and France. I can remember going up to the Normandy beaches, the Norman beaches, and try waiting in there — imagine all these people shooting at you on the 6th of June, 1944 when you go to Omaha Beach, or Utah Beach, or one of these places, and it’s full of Americans going there; it’s full of very old Americans going there, to see where they had lost a lot of friends. But I remember going there with German plates — this is in the early 1970s — and still getting stares and insults, that I could understand perfectly well; they thought we were German, and we weren’t, we were your age and just kind of traveling around, and sleeping on beaches, and eating a little, and drinking some wine along the way, and all that stuff.
But de Gaulle helped put an end to that, and now if you ask almost anybody, if you ask one of the Germans going into Strasbourg to buy foie gras, or all the French going over to Germany to buy what is slightly cheaper gasoline, this is an alliance, and a cornerstone of Europe, particularly given the attitude of the British and all the anxieties that they have about losing their integrity, national integrity, of losing the pound and all that stuff. And, so, de Gaulle helped make that possible. He never forgot the humiliation of France having been excluded from the Allied conferences at Yalta and Potsdam. You’ve all seen those pictures of Stalin with Churchill and sometimes Roosevelt as well. But France was not invited.
Both Roosevelt and Churchill just hated de Gaulle’s guts, they hated his arrogance. And he was not a person who lacked confidence, and he was not rigolo, he was not a good-time guy. His own family, by the way, his own family vous-vous-ed him, his children did. They didn’t use tu they used vous — that’s amazing. And they hated him, they had contempt for him. And de Gaulle never forgot those personal humiliations and the humiliations that la France, great power, was not invited to participate in essentially the fate of Europe. And, so, that leads to 1966, France withdrawing from NATO by forcing it to transfer its headquarters from Paris to Bruxelles, to Brussels, and these army and air force bases in France were closed; and armed forces radio was moved away, so it became more difficult to listen to football games on armed forces radio because you had to get them from Frankfurt, which is an extraordinarily minor point.
And again he insisted on the development of an arsenal that was nuclear. And he angered the U.S. government by refusing to support the U.S. policies in Vietnam. And of course the French had already seen how stupid policies lead to bad results. But the Americans did not see that, for a very long time, until 70,000 American soldiers and God-knows how many people in Vietnam died in all of this. He outraged — and I remember this; I wasn’t in Quebec — but he went to Quebec on a state visit, and he suddenly blurts out, “long live free Quebec!” And, so, this caused all sorts of problems. This was in the late — it was about 1967, if I remember correctly.
Why free Quebec? Because Quebec is nouvelle France, and that’s where you had 60,000 French men, women, and children living. At the time there were 2.5 million English people living in what was the colonies in the U.S., and a very one-sided war. But again the idea that if Quebec is free, if it’s independent — my own personal view is it ought to be independent; ça n’a rien à voir avec. But it’s just my feeling, but I don’t know enough about it to say that’s a good idea, but I have the same kind of cultural feelings that he does about it. But this is not what you do, you do not go on a state visit and suddenly announce “long live Quebec!” Americans, this is the same thing, if somebody came from, I don’t know, a Serb ambassador or an Italian prime minister suddenly arrives and says, “long live free New Mexico and Texas!” or something like that — people didn’t view it very well.
But although he was vehemently anti-communist, he did not want — he saw himself as again this honest broker in negotiating between these powers. His legacy were of these imperatives that he had; they were backed by deeds or at least attempts to restore the grandeur of France, its efficient, kind of active independence, as I guess Stanley Hoffmann called it that once. And this diverged from other parts of the French Right — Le Figaro magazine, for example, which is always just almost comically pro-American on every issue. The French Right couldn’t — what de Gaulle did is he took the nationalism of Napoleons, the Napoleons, which was a nationalism associated with the general liberal Left — the State will do good things for people — he transforms that in the evolution that you see in the Third Republic, the nationalism, moving to the nationalism of the Right, into the equivalent of the Sacred Union of World War One, into a nationalism, fundamentally a nationalism of the Right in France.
And part of that, to make a long story short, as you already have seen, is based upon his anti-communism. But at the same time you have all this business about grandeur and glory, et cetera, et cetera — grandeur more than glory; but inattention to — even at the end of what’s called the glorious thirty years, the French economy takes off, that you’ve read about — inattention to how you modernize France, how you make it more economically competitive, and what do you do about the education system, the university system in particular? And that would come crashing down on his head in 1968. So, his deeds, his legacy in — I’ve already said I think what there is to say about the practical consequences of his legacy. But he did, France’s influence did remain, has remained in the world, which I think is a very good thing.
Chapter 5. A Man above: The Stylistic Unity of de Gaulle [00:39:32]
But the most, the greatest legacy that he left is probably his style, that of the monarchical president, the monarchial president, the king of the republic, the idea that he represented France in a way that the Sun King had represented France, towering over France, and that overriding the interests of those he considered to be talkers, mere posers or talkers, including technocrats, the kinds of people who had emerged in part out of World War Two and out of the Fourth Republic. And, so, he left unsolved the question of how you educate France for a new society, how you train and modernize people. What do you do with the poisonous relations between a very powerful patronat, that is employers, and a working class that in the 1960s was still extremely influenced by the CGT, the Confédération Général du Travail, and by the Communist Party?
So, there were contradictions in all of this, the idea that France is a great power when France still — France wasn’t yet a great power. The idea that France can be independent and therefore maintain itself as a great power by intervening, in terms of its cultural influence, its political influence in the Third World and that sort of thing. And the reality, when push came to shove, that there were two great powers. So, it kind of, the contradictions are there. He said over and over again that he was not of the Left nor of the Right; he was above the Left or the Right — he used the “above” word, the word “above” all the time. He said “je suis un homme de la guerre de quatorze/dix-huit” — I’m a man of the War of 1914-1918; he was wounded on Belgian Bridge in Dinant, as I said the other day.
And that was the Sacred Union, when in the interests of France these quarreling fragments would give up their quarrels with each other and would rally around big France — that France’s historical mission was so especially said on the 11th of December, 1969, “I don’t want to repose, I don’t want to even triumph, I want to bring people together.” He saw his own party as being above these. He said that the parties — in 1965 — he said parties are organizations constituted to show off particular tendencies and to support the interests of such and such categories of people, or interests, or desires, and all this stuff, time and time again. But he wasn’t just someone who was going to pronounce foolishly, revert to the same eventually tired phrases, he was somebody who believed that he could pay particular attention to circumstances. In this he was rather like Bismarck, and saw himself in that way, I think it’s possible to argue.
In this maybe he saw himself a little bit, though I hate to make the comparison, but maybe with Henry Kissinger a little bit too, in the old days. But one of the results of the way he viewed France is that he didn’t really give a damn about the existence of ordinary people. He once said that — he said this literally — “steak frites,” that is steak with French fries, “is okay, it’s fine, but it does not add up to national ambition”; that’s an exact quote. And the business of how do you bring together, how do you retain the importance of a people with 268 kinds of cheese, was a part of all of that. And, so, his style was more original than his doctrine.
Take the press conference — he used to have press conferences. American presidents often have press conferences, though the current one really doesn’t because the questions get too difficult to handle. But de Gaulle wasn’t one for press conferences, he hated them, he couldn’t stand them. But the press conferences in the old day were orchestrated, they were appearances. They were not a rock concert appearance, but they were appearances nonetheless, in which the questions had been planted. It was rather like FEMA, whatever they called it — did an amazing thing just a couple of weeks in California, they planted — the people in the room weren’t reporters they were FEMA employees, and they presented it as a press conference where one guy raised his hand and he said, “why is FEMA doing such a remarkable job this time around?” And then the guy says, “well, I think we’re very doing well, thank you for saying that.” It turned out that he was an employee of FEMA and there weren’t real journalists there.
But de Gaulle would do the same thing except he would do it with real journalists; he wouldn’t do it with Helen Thomas, who was a wonderful person. I once had her as a guest at the tea in Branford; she was always able to ask the first question — I don’t think this is the case anymore — because she was the senior person. But you had real journalists, but they were told what questions to ask, and then he would say — he would give the same kinds of responses that I just said — “steak-frites do not end up with national ambition.” At the time of the Algerian War somebody forgot to ask a question about Ben Bella. So, he said — he suddenly looks up and says, “did I hear somebody ask a question about Ben Bella?” And then he gives the response, but he turns and reads a response that had already been written for him, and sometimes by him. And, so, it was the kind of style.
So, appearances were important, the idea that somehow this mystical body was connected in a real way to all of you, by national glory. And when he would go to any town, and he liked doing that, he would go and he would say, “as I stand in the shadow of your magnificent cathedral,” or “next to your smiling river” — French rivers are always described as smiling, even if they’re polluted, by politicians. “I am thinking of you, and seeing you here, here to welcome me, your hearts beating just as mine for France and its grandeur and its civilization, I am reminded that” — and then he launches into his two or three minute bit. And then he is in the big limousine and out of Lussac-les-Deux-Eglises or wherever it is.
And it all was like that, where style increasingly overwhelmed substance, and in a man who was extremely elderly, but by no means, by no means senile, not one bit, and who could still treat with contempt anybody who came and told him something he didn’t want to hear — but could be charming as well — the stage was set for his departure, as time moved on. And that would swirl around the events of 1968, la revolution manquée, the revolution that didn’t really happen in France and involved an awful lot of people of your age. And it’s to that, after I hope a glorious weekend, that I will return on Monday.
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