In the English-speaking world, we tend to place Charles de Gaulle and his confrontational style of politics, filled with strops and tantrums, into a category marked “The French”, where we can alternatively laugh at and be a bit scared by it. Yet behind his uncooperativeness lay plentiful general lessons on how to do politics — not least in how to respond to being unappreciated, mocked and ignored, as he was in exile in London during the war.
Any idea of an “Anglo-Gaullism” would no doubt make the man himself howl with laughter. But despite his frequent bursts of Anglophobia and jabs at the “Anglo-Saxons”, I suspect he would have quite liked the idea. As he looked over the Channel in the post-war years, he commented that Britain was giving up its self-respect and sense of responsibility. Now under attack over everything from museum artefacts to Brexit, Ireland, colonialism and slavery, our traditional diplomatic sang-froid is looking ever more like quiescence, sometimes blending into agreement as the activists work their way through the institutions. Britain today appears often as an opponent of itself: a self-cancelling entity ripe for dissolution and dismemberment.
This is pretty much how de Gaulle saw France during the Second World War — and even how he presented it during Les Trente Glorieuses, the 30 years of growth and prosperity that followed. During that time, as President, he told Harold Macmillan that he had been so tiresome during the war because he was representing a country that was ruined and dishonoured.
Now, ruin and dishonour are concepts we aren’t really used to in the Anglophone world. But they were central to de Gaulle’s success in politics. Comparing him to Philippe Pétain, the military hero who headed the Vichy dictatorship, Julian Jackson, in A Certain Idea of France, observed: “The core of Pétain’s appeal to the French people in 1940 was his decision to remain on French soil to defend his compatriots, to defend French lives, while de Gaulle left France to defend what he later called his ‘idea of France’.” De Gaulle, in other words, put honour above life.
This may sound pompous and ridiculous, but it was what elevated him from obscure general to national symbol during the war years. It was what framed French resistance to Nazi tyranny. Its sources were spiritual, concerned with what it meant to win or lose, to be present or absent. As Jackson wrote, for de Gaulle, “conflict was the oxygen of politics”. In this, he was strongly informed by writers such as Henri Bergson (who privileged élan vital over frozen doctrine), Émile Boutroux (“the importance of the heart and the soul in thinking about the world”) and Maurice Barrès (who “gave back to the elite a consciousness of national eternity by revealing the links that attached it to its ancestors”).
During his final spell in government in the Sixties, de Gaulle read two or three books a week, and he regularly corresponded with their authors. In his own book on leadership, he wrote that great leaders needed to display mystery, ruse and hypocrisy. After all, in a world of conflict and struggle, it pays to keep your opponents wrong-footed. De Gaulle did this with great skill throughout his political life, especially in foreign relations (something the French continue to excel in, notably in their responses to Brexit and the Aukus pact). Crucially, de Gaulle succeeded in this by transcending Left and Right: attracting and repelling figures from both sides at various times. “Gaullisme” appears not so much as a political philosophy or ideology as a politics, a praxis, one that gathers around the nation and adjusts for “circumstances”, which is to say threats and opportunities.
However, for him the nation wasn’t just any old nation. De Gaulle embraced the common idea of his generation that France, in Jackson’s words, “had a mystical vocation to bring enlightenment to humanity”. During the war years he presented himself as the embodiment of this France that was still standing, retaining its honour. He forced himself into the spotlight when necessary, such as when he spoke of taking up arms against Britain over its intervention in Syria during the war. As he put it, “to count on us they must take account of us” and “with the English you need to bang the table, they will flatten themselves before you”. In 1965-6, he used similar tactics, boycotting the institutions of the European Community in order to secure generous terms for French farmers via the Common Agricultural Policy.
The contrast with Anglophone post-politics of the present day is striking. Our politicians and bureaucrats often behave as if they have reached a place beyond conflict, or at least that should be insulated from it. This makes them singularly ineffective when confronted by it. De Gaulle would no doubt have been contemptuous of our leaders, from their failure to confront the ongoing revolution within our institutions to the failure of Boris Johnson and leading Leavers to defend and see through Brexit after going to the trouble of securing it.
Le général was never keen on ceding French sovereignty. However, he embraced European unity as a way to embed French power in the post-colonial world: Europe as an extension of France. In this way, he tended to see the world through a colonial lens, leading him to some rash interventions, such as his comparison of Québec’s situation in Canada to that of France under the Nazis. But he was not an inflexible headbanger. In the early Sixties, he admitted that the French game was up in Algeria, that the local Arabs had reason for grievance and that he must stand up to his army, which had gotten out of control in its attempt to maintain Algérie française.
None of this is to detract from his occasional racist outbursts. He regularly slammed the English and “Anglo-Saxons”, but also the “Negroes” of Africa. He criticised Israelis as Jews who were predisposed to exaggerate as a result of their religious upbringing. He claimed Arabs and French were like oil and vinegar who could never properly integrate; and he mulled mass deportations of Algerians from France. Perhaps the best you might say of all this is he didn’t seem to like anyone, seeing each national and ethnic or racial group in a negative light. Indeed, some observers have maintained that he didn’t really like people. And in his brooding depressions, like those of his old sparring partner Churchill, he damned the French as much as anyone.
At its most useful, then, Gaullism is best thought of as a style and an attitude which attaches itself to the nation as a primary unit. And any Anglo-Gaullism would be characterised by a greater assertiveness in British politics and diplomacy: seeking to reform our institutions and being prepared to annoy other governments, particularly the Americans. It would accept the need to walk away from international bodies and agreements that no longer work such as the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) — ideally in order to reform them; a classic Gaullist tactic.
Among the first confrontations of such an attitude would likely be with France, particularly over Channel migration. However, such a stance might at least inspire a little recognition and respect from the old adversary across the Channel: something in short supply in recent years. A Gaullism with British characteristics would, you would hope, have more moderation, tolerance and humour than the man himself showed much of the time. However, it would also have a sense of history, geography and realism that he consistently demonstrated.
The alternative — the old laconic British diplomatic style — seems lazy in the context of a world we live in, where prime ministers, seemingly by default, choose to avoid conflict. But de Gaulle saw conflict as the essence of politics, so unavoidable and to be managed in a serious fashion. This helped him to see problems before they arose. Yes, this made him insufferable to both colleagues and allies. But, whether they were asking for it or not, he provided leadership — and, in response, they started treating him as a leader. In an era defined by widespread despair and defeatism, we could do worse than follow his example
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Source: UnHerd Read the original article here: https://unherd.com/