Charles De Gaulle - Legacy


According to a 2005 survey, carried out in the context of the tenth anniversary of the death of Socialist President François Mitterrand, 35% of respondents said Mitterrand was the best French President ever, followed by Charles de Gaulle (30%) and then Jacques Chirac (12%). Another poll by BVA four years later, showed that 87% of French people regarded his presidency positively.

Statues have been erected in his honor in Warsaw, Moscow, and Quebec. The first Algerian president Ahmed Ben Bella, said of de Gaulle that before granting Algeria independence, that while he was the "military leader who brought us the hardest blows" he also "saw further" than other politicians, and that his "universal dimension that is too often lacking in current leaders." Likewise, Léopold Sédar Senghor, the first President of Senegal, said that few Western leaders could boast of having risked their lives to grant a colony independence.

In 1990, his old political enemy, the Socialist President Francois Mitterrand presided over the celebrations to mark the 100th anniversary of his birth. Mitterrand, having once written a vitriolic critique of him called the ‘Permanent Coup d’Etat’, quoted a then recent opinion poll, saying; "As General de Gaulle, he has entered the pantheon of great national heroes, where he ranks ahead of Napoleon and behind only Charlemagne."

Although he initially enjoyed good relations with U.S. President John F. Kennedy, who admired his stance against the Soviet Union - particularly when the Berlin Wall was being built - and who called him "a great captain of the western world", their relationship later cooled. De Gaulle was Kennedy's most loyal ally during the Cuban Missile Crisis and supported the right that the United States claimed to defend its interests in the Western Hemisphere, in contrast to then German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer who doubted Kennedy's commitment to Europe and thought the crisis could have been avoided. Nevertheless, de Gaulle was a prominent figure at Kennedy's funeral. De Gaulle was very much admired by the later President Nixon, however. After a meeting at the Palace of Versailles just before the general left office, Nixon declared that "He did not try to put on airs but an aura of majesty seemed to envelop him... his performance - and I do not use that word disparagingly - was breathtaking." On arriving for his funeral several months later, Nixon said of him "greatness knows no national boundaries".

The French professor and academic Régis Debray, who served as Foreign Affairs adviser to President François Mitterrand, in his book Charles de Gaulle: Futurist of the Nation (1994), wrote: "I cannot hope to get Charles of France intact across the Channel. The cliché-covered gravestone is too heavy. And how does one preserve some freedom of thought between the pomposities of official courtesy on the one hand and, on the other, the unshakeable suspicion with which many of my British friends regard an archaic, ungrateful xenophobe, authoritarian and vaguely fascist ? Neither the worldwide dissemination of images and capital, nor the digging of the Channel Tunnel, alters the fact that caricatures travel better than portraits. After all, the bowlers, umbrellas and thin drizzle of the City do not travel either, any more than the morning sfumato in the hills of Siena or the bouquet of great Bordeaux. I am afraid that, like them, this victorious soldier, who disdained the military and placed the writer above the warrior, may have to be consumed in his country of origin".

Debray called de Gaule "super-lucide" and pointed out that virtually all of his predictions, such as the fall of communism, the reunification of Germany and the resurrection of ‘old’ Russia had come true since his death. Debray compared him with Napoleon ('the great political myth of the nineteenth century'), calling de Gaulle his twentieth century equivalent, "The sublime, it seems, appears in France only once a century… Napoleon left two generations dead on battlefield. De Gaulle was more sparing with other people blood; even so, he left us, as it were, stranded, alive but dazed… A delusion, perhaps, but one that turns the world upside down: causes events and movements; divides people into supporters and adversaries; leaves traces in the form of civil and penal codes and railways, factories and institutions (the Fifth Republic has already lasted three times as long as the Empire). A statesman who gets something going, who has followers, escapes the reality of the reports and statistics and become part of imagination. Napoleon and de Gaulle modified the state of things because they modified souls”. However, Debray pointed out that there is a difference between Napoleon and de Gaulle : «How can the exterminator be compared with the liberator ?... The former ran the whole enterprise into the ground, while the latter managed to save it. So that to measure the rebel against the despot, the challenger against the leader, is just glaringly idiotic. You simply do not put an adventurer who worked for himself or his family on the same level as a commander-in-chef serving his country… Regrettably, Gaullism and Bonopartism have a number of features in common, but Napoleon and de Gaulle do not have the same moral value. ... the first wanted a Holy French Empire without the faith, a Europe under French occupation. The second wanted to rescue the nation from the emperors and establish a free France in a free Europe".

Debray continued that he could not say if the general ever loved Britain, but that ironically, as a result of reading his account of his time in exile in his autobiography, "Probably no Frenchman since Hastings has done more to create a familiar, attractive and romantic image of the hereditary enemy Britain in the minds of Frenchmen of a certain age than this champion of the French self-interest".

On Algeria, the Australian historian Brian Crozier has written "that he was able to part with Algeria without civil war was a great though negative achievement which in all probability would have been beyond the capacity of any other leader France possessed." In April 1961, when four rebel generals seized power in Algeria, he "did not flinch in the face of this daunting challenge", but appeared on television in his general’s uniform to forbid Frenchmen to obey the rebels' orders in an "inflexible display of personal authority".

The historian K. Perry, while referring to his handling of the Algerian settlement as "a masterly performance", went on to say that "his impatient shedding of the problem increased the price in human terms that had to be paid. He was so possessed by a burning ambition to restore French greatness and break American leadership in western international affairs that he wished for a speedy end to the Algerian problem, which had become a tiresome distraction for him". A number of commentators have been critical of de Gaulle for his failure to prevent the massacres after Algerian independence while others take the view that the struggle had been so long and savage that it was perhaps inevitable.

De Gaulle was an excellent manipulator of the media, as seen in his shrewd use of television to persuade around 80% of Metropolitan France to approve the new constitution for the Fifth Republic. In so doing, he refused to yield to the reasoning of his opponents who said that, if he succeeded in Algeria, he would no longer be necessary. He afterwards enjoyed massive approval ratings, and once said that "every Frenchman is, has been or will be Gaullist".

In its obituary, TIME magazine said;

"He rescued his nation not once but twice, the first time from the shame of its capitulation to the Nazis in World War II, the second from its own quarrelling factions. With the Fifth Republic, he gave France its first strong governmental framework since the days of Louis Napoleon. He was indeed ‘l'homme du destin,’ (the man of destiny) as Winston Churchill once called him, and even his name, suggestive of both Charlemagne and ancient Gaul, was perfectly suited to the role he took upon himself. But the fact was that France offered de Gaulle too limited a scope and power base. Try as he might, he could not change the basic reality that France simply lacked the specific gravity to offset the force of a superpower.

"Like most crusaders, de Gaulle was extraordinarily farsighted but sometimes, maddeningly, his imperious manner and fragile sensibilities infuriated his nation's closest allies. In a vain effort to force French leadership on Europe, he twice vetoed Britain's entry into the continent's first economic cooperative, the Common Market. At home, he stinted on public welfare in the form of new roads, telephones and a thousand other needed improvements, to pay for symbolically important but ultimately hollow shows of prestige, like the nuclear Force de Frappe"

In Britain, his apparent betrayal at twice preventing the British attempt at joining the EEC was keenly felt for many years. That de Gaulle did not necessarily reflect mainstream French public opinion with his veto was suggested by the decisive majority of French people who voted in favour of British membership when the much more conciliatory Pompidou called a referendum on the matter in 1972. His early influence in setting the parameters of the EEC can still be seen today, most notably with the controversial Common Agricultural Policy.

Some writers take the view that Pompidou was a more progressive and influential leader than de Gaulle because, though also a Gaullist, he was less autocratic and more interested in social reforms. Although he followed the main tenets of de Gaulle’s foreign policy, he was keen to work towards warmer relations with the US. A banker by profession, Pompidou is also widely credited, as de Gaulle's Prime Minister from 1962–1968, with putting in place the reforms which provided the impetus for the economic growth which followed.

In 1968, shortly before leaving office, de Gaulle refused to devalue the Franc on grounds of national prestige, but upon taking over Pompidou reversed the decision almost straight away. It was ironic, that during the financial crisis of 1968, France had to rely on American (and West German) financial aid to help shore up the economy. Perry has written "The events of 1968 illustrated the brittleness of de Gaulle’s rule. That he was taken by surprise is an indictment of his rule; he was too remote from real life and had no interest in the conditions under which ordinary French people lived. Problems like inadequate housing and social services had been ignored. The French greeted the news of his departure with some relief as the feeling had grown that he had outlived his usefulness. Perhaps he clung onto power too long, perhaps he should have retired in 1965 when he was still popular."

Brian Crozier has said "the fame of de Gaulle outstrips his achievements, he chose to make repeated gestures of petulance and defiance that weakened the west without compensating advantages to France"

However, Daniel Mahoney writes that "such is the level to which de Gaulle has now passed into mythology in France that he is now claimed by all the political parties, though some more than others. No account of de Gaulle that wishes to capture the man and his works can simply be a profile of his time in power, for Charles de Gaulle was undoubtably one of the great human beings of the twentieth century, a member of that distinguished elite who deserve the appellation ‘statesman’."

Writing in 1995, another commentator, Pierre Manent attempted to explain why he remains so popular in France, yet not in the United States;

"It is true that de Gaulle wanted France to take its destiny into its own hands and wished it would cease to depend on American protection. As such, this ambition was legitimate, even if one disagrees with the manner in which it was formulated and put into practice. As for the wartime difficulties with Roosevelt, the great American president was simply mistaken about de Gaulle, whom he took to be an aspiring despot, and this error of judgement was the principal cause of grave political differences that could have been avoided."

Despite spending virtually his entire political career at odds with de Gaulle and his policies, the eminent diplomat and economist Jean Monnet had no doubt about the positive role he played in leading the Free French during the first years of the war and immediately after the liberation. Speaking in 1965 he told a journalist; First things first, before a united Europe and an Atlantic partnership there had to be a united France, strong, mobilized and able to assume a leading role among the Western allies. Without de Gaulle or against de Gaulle, we could not have liberated or reconstructed France. There was no one but de Gaulle. Whatever his faults, he was a tower of strength and inspiration.

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