A Certain Idea of France: The Life of Charles de Gaulle, by Julian Jackson, Allen Lane, 887 pp, £38, ISBN: 978-1846143519)
The well-known opening sentence of Charles de Gaulle’s War Memoirs (1954) ‑ “All my life I have had a certain idea of France” ‑ still sustains a certain idea of de Gaulle that seems to have taken on a renewed life in the France of President Macron and has always been a key quotation for those who believe (like de Gaulle) in the Great Leader theory of history. Julian Jackson’s splendid biography tries to include all the possible nuances of any estimate of de Gaulle’s achievement, but the very genre of biography is ultimately disqualified from choosing between the centrality of its subject and that of structural, long-term and impersonal forces in the creation of what we call history. The choice has already been made in the very writing and publication of such a book. We can argue as much as we like on the evidence so thoroughly presented here about de Gaulle’s ultimate success or failure in establishing postwar France as a “Great Power” after the catastrophe of 1940, in avoiding a general civil war over Algeria in 1964, in making the Fifth Republic such a remarkable blend of presidential and parliamentary protocols, in stalling the British application to join the EEC in 1967 or modifying the militarist US-led “Anglo-Saxon” domination of the Cold War era (including Vietnam, the former French colony) ‑ and so on. Yet all such discussion has to begin and end with de Gaulle himself, what he intended, what he thought, when and where he led “the people” of France to a realisation of “grandeur” or of “gloire” or how he was abandoned by them, as Jackson quotes him saying in 1968, to the “mediocrity” that they ineptly chose over “the affirmation of France that I have practised in their name for thirty years”.
The French people are constantly hauled on to a Corneille-like stage with and by de Gaulle, two characters in search of a destiny, with soliloquies, debates, monologues, conducted in newspapers, radio and television although, such is the nature of a biography, “the people” are really the audience that listens and is moulded, enchanted or aroused to sublimity by the suasion of that resonant, nasal, rhythmic voice. As was noticed on several occasions, de Gaulle was a traditional Catholic Christian; he rarely spoke of or even mentioned God but rarely failed to speak instead of France, the great stained-glass rose window in which the divine light had glowed through the centuries in radiance or in sombre melancholy, picking out at irregular intervals the ranged silhouettes of a Clovis, a Charlemagne, an Henri IV, a Joan of Arc, Louis XI, a Colbert, Richelieu, Louis XIV (or his great general Louvois), a Napoleon and, at last, a de Gaulle. Régis Debray in 1990 is quoted: “In my dreams I am on terms of easy familiarity with Louis XI, with Lenin, with Edison and Lincoln. But I quail before de Gaulle. He is the Great Other, the inaccessible absolute … Napoleon was the great political myth of the nineteenth century; de Gaulle of the twentieth. The sublime, it seems, appears in France only once a century.” Debray had once regarded Mitterrand as a saviour ‑ rather hard to believe now in any retrospective light ‑ but this literary-political canonisation would have pleased de Gaulle, for he certainly believed it to be true, true as only a myth can be.
De Gaulle had great reverence for writers and some of them, like François Mauriac and André Malraux, had (eventually) great reverence for him. But it was the dangerously eloquent monarchist conservatives, Charles Maurras (1868-1952), arrested in 1944 for treason, and Maurice Barrès (1862-1923), both sponsors of “organic” or “integral” nationalism, who mattered much more both to de Gaulle and to the First War and interwar generations. From the earlier of these came the only contemporary who ever rivalled de Gaulle in France, le maréchal, Philippe Pétain (1856-1951), the hero of Verdun in the First War, who became the disgraced leader of Vichy France in the Second. Sentenced to death for treason, his sentence commuted by de Gaulle, formerly his protégé in the army, to imprisonment for life, Pétain cuts a sorry and stained figure in comparison and yet, even yet and perhaps always, is a necessary element in the myth of de Gaulle, the “Great Other”. The man who collaborated with the Nazis and had de Gaulle sentenced to death in absentia is a weirdly symmetrical partner to the man, who, in de Gaulle’s self-description from exile in London in 1941, “recreated France from nothing, from being a man alone in a foreign city”. Jackson goes on to quote his refusal of the offer of military promotion and the highest rank of the Legion of Honour because “I am not a victorious general. One does not decorate France.” This is the precarious and outrageous blend that Pétain never had; the plain fact (also missed by Churchill and Roosevelt) that de Gaulle was not (merely) a victorious general; he was “France”. Pétain, on the other hand, was French, not “France”. The difference is not merely between patriot and traitor; it is that between a man who incarnates a people and one who has no idea of le peuple as a faith, a “close communion”, as Jackson cites one admirer saying, “with the soul of France”. It is an apparently slender distinction at one level; some people, like Mauriac, could see it plain. Others found it elusive. Others found it nonsensical. De Gaulle never did. “There was,” he said, “a person named de Gaulle who existed in other people’s minds and was really a separate person from myself.”
This is the world of Joan of Arc, delusion as conviction, then conviction making of the apparent delusion a reality. Yet between Pétain and de Gaulle it was always a close-run thing. Pétain’s inaugural and famous address to the French people on June 16th, 1940, widely welcomed (by Mauriac and Gide among others) as the saving of France, anticipated de Gaulle’s little-noticed but now far more famous broadcast from the BBC by two days only; by that address de Gaulle in effect created the Free French and, in Jackson’s phrase, “saved the honour of France”. Pétain’s nostalgia for a Catholic and rural France matched that of de Gaulle, as did his anti-communism. Pétain’s contempt for the democratic procedures of the Third Republic, which he abolished, was echoed in de Gaulle’s similar contempt for those of the Fourth Republic, which he abolished in 1958. One career is the shadow of the other. Pétain’s brutal authoritarianism and his antisemitism certainly differentiate him from de Gaulle. So too of course does his age. Pétain was eighty-four when he became the leader of Vichy France. When he died in 1951, he was incontinent, unaware, completely senile. Still, only seven years earlier, in April 1944, he was enthusiastically welcomed and cheered by a vast crowd on a visit to Paris. A few months later, downfall; the Germans brought him to Sigmaringen in Germany; he asked Hitler for permission to leave, resigned, was ignored and finally, in his last gesture as Le Vieux Maréchal, presented himself for arrest in 1945 to the new French authorities, now led by de Gaulle. The wheel had turned with a sudden velocity. But it is a sweet irony that de Gaulle had many years before decided that Pétain had “died” in 1925 when he allowed politicians to manipulate him by a military appointment in Morocco; this was when Pétain, in de Gaulle’s words, “became a prisoner of his own legend”. Thus de Gaulle’s distinction between himself and the old military hero stood. Pétain had never become anything more than a general. De Gaulle was never just that. He took his own legend prisoner and never allowed it to escape; death merely allowed it to flourish.
De Gaulle himself underwent sudden reversals of fortune. The British and the Americans were forced to reverse their estimate of him and of his capacity to make France great again (so to say) for the first time since Waterloo. Then in 1953, the French electorate rejected him and his new political party. Indo-China was lost at Dien Bien-Phu in 1954.Then in 1958 he returned to “solve” the Algerian crisis, itself inflamed by the loss in Vietnam, to push for European union by a new friendship with Germany and to try to modify American power in Europe by ultimately taking France out of NATO. There was also the claim that France was leading decolonisation throughout the world. France, as the leader of the European Six, would counter the Anglo-American dominance of the Two. Then came 1968, resignation in 1969, death in 1970. And throughout those years from 1945 to 1975, the trente glorieuses, the French economy boomed as never before or since for reasons that were opaque to de Gaulle and not at all peculiar to France.
France could in fact have been comfortably able to afford the costs of the Algerian war; it was a different matter for the Algerians, whose economy had been ruined and who had suffered unsustainable casualties. The only leverage they had was world opinion and that was led by the French intellectual élite who proved to be more valuable to them as friends than was the French military élite as enemies. They also had in the FLN (Algerian National Liberation Front) a military-political organisation that had learned, in the long negotiating battles at Évian, how to exploit the fissures in the French position and the increasing French fear of having their tactics of massacre and torture exposed to a shocked international audience. All the Western powers had done and were to do the same, especially in Africa (Britain in Kenya) and in Asia (the USA in Korea and Vietnam). But none had to face an indictment comparable to Pontecorvo’s 1966 film The Battle of Algiers, not seen in France until 1971. De Gaulle may have had a long-term policy for Algeria; he may have simply responded to the events as they unfolded. But he outfaced thirty-one assassination attempts, the hatred of formidable enemies like Jacques Soustelle and the paratroop commander Jacques Massu, the right-wing fanatics and the left-wing commentariat and he pitilessly presided over the massacres of Algerians, carried out in Paris in 1961 by Maurice Papon’s police as well as in Algeria over several years by the army. Ultimately, it looked like a master class in political control; but it can also seem a terrible mess that could hardly have been bloodier or more divisive. The war that ended for the French in 1945 with the liberation of Paris began for the Algerians on V-Day with the massacre of 20,000 in Sétif. France’s ambition to keep the oil-rich Sahara by partitioning Algeria was frustrated. Instead, he had the embittered million of pieds noirs colonists who fled to France, filled with the hatred of betrayal, the slaughtered harkis, Algerians who had fought for the French army, and the vast immigrant Muslim population already living in the physical and political ghetttos of metropolitan France to which they had been told they belonged. If this was a solution, what would a catastrophe have looked like?
Jackson doesn’t mention this, but perhaps Hitler’s most perceptive remark in his Zweites Buch (Second Book), written in 1928 but not published until 1961, was that “France has always known how to mobilise sympathy for herself adroitly. Thus she has always played Paris as her most remarkable auxiliary weapon.” This was certainly true at the Liberation. Initially, General Eisenhower was, for military reasons, going to bypass Paris in his assault on Germany, but de Gaulle was determined to march at the head of the liberating army down the Champs Élysées on his way to Mass at Notre Dame, drawing the oceanic tide of French delirium in his wake. This was politics, no matter what the wider military situation demanded. “Whoever,” wrote Hitler in that same book, “will not be a hammer in history, will be an anvil.” In 1945, de Gaulle, for five long years an anvil of both Germany and the Allies, finally became a hammer.
But what could he forge as an alternative to German or British or, above all, American civilisation? The EU, with France politically and Germany economically predominant? That might re-emerge as a reality under Macron and Merkel now that the British, in thrall to a dank national-imperialism, have chosen to remove their obstructive presence. Yet always, especially for an anglophone audience, the idea of a social solidarity deeper than the national in a political community often seems to verge on the mystical; hence the element of derision in its response to de Gaulle. But France is the country in which, more than any other, the phenomenon of communal solidarity and its basis has been explored by Émile Durkheim, Marcel Mauss, Ernst Kantorowicz and Georges Bataille, to name some of the most notable. Then, in the thirties, the rise and fall of the Popular Front had to be understood as a matter of urgency. Why had a solidarity that transgressed different forms of political allegiance blazed up and then died? Jackson does not explore this at all, a rare weakness. Bataille and his colleagues at the Collège de Sociologie formulated in 1937-39 the notion of the “elective community” or “secret society” as “a secondary form of organisation” in which solidarity can be found when primary forms, like political allegiances to parties and ideologies, fail to provide it. This is de Gaulle’s territory, his “France”, also transposed to the Germany of Weber and Carl Schmitt, where it mutated into what came to be called “political theology”. On that ground, totalitarianism and political solidarity fought a bitter struggle; obviously the first won in Germany, the second in France, although they were very different flowerings from the same stem.
Jackson seems, quite understandably, to consider it beyond his remit to explore a recent extension of the Gaullist imaginary which still lives for some as a seductive political alternative to the present state of affairs. In 1945, the Russian émigré Alexandre Kojève, already famous for his Paris lectures on Hegel in which he proposed a sophisticated version of the end-of-history thesis that, after the collapse of the Soviet system in 1989, Fukuyama coarsened into the declaration of the ultimate triumph of western neo-liberalism, wrote an aide-mémoire, perhaps intended for de Gaulle, “The Latin Empire: Outline of a Doctrine of French Policy”. This, in effect, suggested that France, Italy and Spain combine to form a new Latin-Catholic empire as an alternative to the exclusively economic-financial civilisation of Protestant America. Its aim would be peace in Europe and the renovation of a civilisation ideal. This is regarded as one of the contributory documents to the foundation of the European Union. In March 2013, Giorgio Agamben published an article “If a Latin Empire took shape in the Heart of Europe” in La Reppublica. Most recently, the German intellectual Wolf Lepenies, published Die Macht am Mittelmeer: Französische Träume von einem anderen Europa; Power on the Mediterranean: French Dreams of a Different Europe (2016), a caustic and entertaining account of the European Union’s failed attempts to integrate Eastern Europe properly, to make up for a political deficit with effusions about (their) “culture” and to find a “Latin” alternative to the current German domination of the continent and American domination of the world. The New Left Review has just published, in its May/June issue for 2018, an essay of 1937 by Simone Weil (yet another French “mystic”), on the collapse of the Popular Front, in which she excoriated the failures of social democracy, especially of the Front’s civilised leader Léon Blum.
One can find everything in the ranks of social democracy, apart from genuinely free thinking … But it is never good to rely on a doctrine, above all when it relies on the dogma of progress and unswerving faith in history and the masses. Marx is not a good thinker for decision-making. Machiavelli is worth infinitely more.
The editor’s introduction concludes that here Weil “had sketched with uncanny accuracy just the skills with which de Gaulle would rule his country in the years to come”. To be Machiavellian and yet to be regarded as a serial mystic is a peculiar legacy. Julian Jackson has, in this biography, opened to us the opportunity to comprehend more fully than ever before a career that almost managed, against insuperable odds, to open to the English-speaking world the spectacle of a globality that would be specifically French; he cites de Gaulle’s own words:
Everyone feels it obscurely in the world; France is the light of the world, her genius is to light up the universe.
He did find a companion soul in Ireland, in Daniel O’Connell, whose birthplace at Derrynane House he visited in 1969. De Gaulle’s maternal grandmother had written a biography of the Liberator; he himself had from early years known a great deal of this career which had been so exemplary to so many nineteenth century French Catholics. In 1920, Jackson tells us, he wrote of O’Connell: “this man was in himself an entire people”. As was de Gaulle.
Seamus Deane, formerly of UCD and now emeritus professor of Irish Studies at Notre Dame, USA, has published widely on Irish and French themes of the post-Enlightenment era.