There is an excellent review of Julian Jackson’s A Certain Idea of France in the London Review of Books. A major theme throughout is the inflated mythos of French president Charles de Gaulle. Here are a few of my favorite passages:
Other defeated nations, such as Norway and the Netherlands, retained their dignity and regained their independence without de Gaulle’s strutting umbrageousness. While they were quietly recruiting pilots, soldiers and sailors to fight with the Allies, de Gaulle repeatedly failed to attract more than a handful of the millions of Frenchmen he claimed to speak for. Of the thousands who finished up in Britain after the fall of France, the vast majority opted to be repatriated. Of the 1600 men in the White City camp, for example, only 152 signed up with de Gaulle. After the armistice in Syria, only 5500 of the Vichy troops rallied to the Free French; the other 30,000 chose to return to France. De Gaulle’s speech on D-Day+1 was magnificent:
The supreme battle has begun … It is of course the Battle of France, and the battle for France … For the sons of France, wherever they may be, whoever they may be, the simple and sacred duty is to fight the enemy by all the means available … Behind the heavy clouds of our blood and our tears, the sunshine of our grandeur is re-emerging.
As Churchill wrote to Roosevelt the next day, the speech was ‘remarkable, as he has not a single soldier in the great battle now developing.’
De Gaulle’s coup of 13 May 1958 was equated by many, including de Gaulle himself, with Napoleon’s 18 Brumaire, and led to intensified misery for huge numbers of people. By encouraging the pieds noirs with his famous words ‘je vous ai compris,’ the war was prolonged for another four years and led to such horrific bloodshed that there could be no question of the settlers and the Muslims living side by side after independence. De Gaulle not only betrayed the whites who had brought him to power, he did nothing to help them when they decamped en masse to the mainland, bedraggled and destitute. Nor did he ‘raise a little finger’ to help the harkis – the Algerians who had fought loyally for France and who were murdered in their thousands after independence. These horrors are recounted more fully in Alistair Horne’s unforgettable A Savage War of Peace, but Jackson certainly does not underplay them. The creepy Foccart remained with de Gaulle to the end, as his adviser on Africa, wheeling in assorted francophone tyrants to be flattered by his master, who still had a cloudy vision of la gloire continuing to permeate sub-Saharan Africa. Some of the worst brutes – such as Bongo père et fils of Gabon and Bokassa of the Central African Republic – continued to enjoy French patronage. So much for de Gaulle the decoloniser.
‘Treaties,’ he famously said, ‘are like young girls and roses; they last as long as they last.’ More than a hint of Donald Trump in all this. He actually wanted World War Two to go on longer, so that the rapidly growing Free French forces could earn a greater share of the glory. The sacred egoism of the nation was all that mattered, and what sustained it was a triple link between the nation, the army and the leader: ‘If the remaking of the nation has to start with the army, that is altogether in conformity with the natural order of things. The military is the most complete expression of the spirit of a society.’ But that remaking demands leadership: ‘A master must appear … A man strong enough to impose himself, skilful enough to seduce, great enough to carry out great things.’
I’m in full agreement, and I think much of France’s current identity crisis and perennial, though futile, attempts at convincing the world it is still a great power can be attributed to de Gaulle. Indeed, de Gaulle to me is the literal personification of French insecurity. As the reviewer, Ferdinand Mount, notes, “My eye falls on a blog headlined ‘Macron is restoring France’s dignity.’ What sort of polity is it that needs to have its dignity restored so frequently? Is not the quest for grandeur insisted on by de Gaulle likely only to perpetuate a sense of always falling short?” Spot on!