Julian Jackson’s new biography of Charles de Gaulle—simply entitled DeGaulle—is a welcome addition to Anglo-American studies of modern statesmen. Our intellectual tradition teaches us about English-speaking statesmen on both sides of the Atlantic, but seldom ventures across the Channel. Where General de Gaulle is concerned, we know that he was a towering military and political figure. Yet we insufficiently appreciate who he was or what he accomplished.
Three times he was a man of great providence.
In May 1940, France had suffered an immense military disaster. The Germans had completely routed the British and French armies. Continuing the fight on the European Continent was impossible. The British had their prime minister to vow to fight on from Britain’s beaches, and from the British Empire across the seas if the island fell.
If at the same time there had been any major figure in the French government bold enough to offer the same, to fight on from French Algeria and the French Empire, then doubtless there would be a better history of the Second World War. No one did. So it fell to a junior minister in the government, the recently appointed General de Gaulle, with only a few thousand francs and access to BBC radio, to call for resistance. Four years later, he was marching through Paris before jubilant millions, his voice having saved the honor of France.
In May 1958, France was on the verge of civil war. With the Algerian crisis intensifying, the military no longer obedient to civil authority, and the Fourth Republic lacking the constitutional powers to handle it, de Gaulle returned to political power. He founded a new constitutional regime without the defects of the last, closed the chapter on Algeria, and reordered the army. As president for the next decade, he unified France around an ambitious political program of national greatness.
In May 1968, a revolution threatened to destroy the president and the republic. Paris burned and mass strikes paralyzed the country. After initial tactical missteps, de Gaulle mysteriously disappeared from Paris. This extraordinary vanishing act made those who had grown weary of him realize they still needed him.
He returned, his voice was heard once more, and on May 30, millions of French—more than ever participated in the protests and strikes—appeared in the streets in support of de Gaulle. The size of his subsequent electoral triumph in the legislatives was without historical precedent. France chose not to destroy, but to conserve.
The Measure of the Man
We must admit his limitations at each moment, or we would think this providential man to be superhuman. During the Second World War, de Gaulle’s haughtiness about French independence frustrated the British and the Americans, who wished and attempted on several occasions to be rid of him. De Gaulle did not forget. He went out of his way to annoy les Anglo-Saxons in unproductive ways when president, such as endorsing separatist movements in Nigeria or Canada.
During the Algerian crisis, he maintained a deliberate ambiguity about his intentions. Then, suddenly, he announced Algerian independence and granted it on brutally swift terms. This forced more than a million pieds noirs (French settlers of Algeria), as well as the harkis (Muslim supporters of France), to flee for their lives. De Gaulle’s Machiavellian handling of Algeria ended with a bloody finale.
Lastly, the solution to May 1968 relied on a Gaulliste political party; yet in what Jackson describes as an act of “bad faith,” de Gaulle persistently kept the party at a distance from himself. After he departed, the “conservatism” of the Gaulliste party was ambiguous and ill defined. Ambitious and opportunistic politicians exploited this, so that Gaullisme after de Gaulle increasingly became a history of departures and distortions of his legacy.
In a rare feat for biographies of statesmen, Jackson’s biography succeeds on the subject’s own terms. It is a triumph of de Gaulle’s virtue of mesure, acknowledging the subject’s limitations while sustaining the subject’s greatness. All the major events of de Gaulle’s period have been covered in detail by other authors.
Jackson, however, has a genius for describing these events concisely without sacrificing historical or intellectual complexities. De Gaulle is portrayed not as a man swept up in impersonal historical forces, but as someone who sought to “create events” or create history. De Gaulle is not just an account of the general’s life; it also serves as an introduction to the key themes of his thought and action.
Lessons In Leadership
Past as Transmissible and Applicable to Present. De Gaulle’s core philosophy hinged on transmitting “a certain idea of France” into the circumstances of the present. His whole life, he absorbed and studied France’s history.
When president, he read two or three books a week. This gave him unmatched insight into the long-term historical trends of geopolitics and of the French national character. His press conferences were grand performances, almost university lectures, where he would speak to the French about France. He implored them to inherit the past they were disposed to forget.
Greatness Agenda. The reason to study the past was to discover how France could be great in the present. De Gaulle’s political agenda was one of uncompromising national greatness. He heaped scorn on those who thought the nation obsolete or a cause of bad wars. Love of the nation had saved France in 1914; disdain for it had led to the defeat of 1940. Greatness was less a goal then a disposition, a call for the French to recover the self-respect essential to their character: “France could not be France without grandeur.”
Challenge to entrenched political elite. De Gaulle put himself forward as a champion of the “real France” against political elites that subverted it with ideological sectarianism. De Gaulle saw a political class so focused on special-interest quarrels that they disregarded the interests of France as a whole. This critique of the regime on behalf of “real France” exposed de Gaulle to the charge of populist authoritarianism or Bonapartisme. De Gaulle rejected authoritarianism. However, he was uncompromising about the need for a constitutional re-founding to smash the political elites: “Only the Republic is possible. But we need to finish with the regime of parties.”
Ordered Economic Modernisation. On the domestic front, de Gaulle sought to modernize the French economy. He did not attempt to cling to obsolete socioeconomic forms in the face of technological transformations. Empire abroad and a peasant class at home were things of the past. Contrary to the political elite, de Gaulle never succumbed to despairing romanticism, which consigned France’s greatness to the past and resigned itself to a pedestrian present where the demands of market efficiency set the agenda for all of politics and society.
For de Gaulle, the old French ethos should still order a modern life: “France is like a household. The housewife wants a fridge, a washing machine, and even, if possible, a car. That is change. But at the same time, she does not want her husband out on the town, her boys putting their feet on the table and her daughters coming home at all hours. That is order… [France] wants progress but not chaos.”
Social Conservatism. De Gaulle preceded the onslaught of the sexual revolution and the concurrent culture wars, but unlike many post-1945 politicians, he never winked in its direction. He opposed the legalization of the contraceptive pill: “One must not reduce women to machines for making love! This goes against all that is most precious in women: fecundity…if one tolerates the pill nothing will hold any more! Sex will invade everything.”
It may surprise contemporary commentators to see that this stance did not hurt de Gaulle electorally. In the first round of the 1965 presidential election, women voted for de Gaulle over his opponents by an astounding margin of 35 points.
Foreign Policy of ‘Upsetting the Applecart.’ It was the realm of foreign affairs that most fascinated de Gaulle, because there were opportunities to challenge the assumptions of international relations with a greater role for middle-powers like France. When he became president, the post-war institutions were already operating in changed circumstances and needed readjustment. NATO no longer operated in a condition of unrivalled American hegemony, but the means for how European states could bear more of the burden for defense was unclear, involving delicate questions like West German rearmament or a common European army. The European project had become a process of integration for its own sake; yet as de Gaulle grasped, a process is not a policy. De Gaulle aspired to force these and other international organisations to reconsider their first principles.
The means to do so were quasi-theatrical provocations: “When one wants to do something, first one has to upset the applecart. Otherwise people will just say, ‘it can be arranged; you must not do that.’ If you give a big kick, the problem is posed and it has to be solved.”
De Gaulle’s foreign affairs drama had mixed results. He saw the world through the lens of nations with permanent interests, which meant he underestimated the ideological ambitions of the Soviet Union. But his vision of the European project as a Europe of independent nations is the best resource for challenging the ambitions of the European federalists who aim to make the nation-states vanish into a vast imperial super-state.
As for American Greatness
These themes of de Gaulle deserve serious discussion in the present. Observing the myriad of discussions now taking place within American conservatism, two conclusions are possible. First, there must be a courageous endeavor to rethink what conservatism means, all the way down to its first principles. But second, there is also uncertainty about what sources this endeavor should draw upon. The canon and the stories it teaches are familiar. The best on offer are revisionist readings of the canon: Buckley, Kirk, Burke, and Reagan (maybe even Nixon).
Yet discussants hold back from considering other sources. This intellectual shyness keeps the canon constant and gives the old orthodoxy the upper hand; they still direct much of the political agenda. To sustain the courageous endeavor requires looking further, even beyond the Anglo-American tradition. That endeavor stands to gain from the study of General de Gaulle.