Until I walked past it, I didn’t know that a huge bronze of Charles de Gaulle stands in frozen mid-stride half way along the Champs Élysées. Why should I? The French hardly mention it. They may talk about other things that they imagine burnishes their national gloire. It is therefore legitimate to conclude that French people who have access to the world megaphone think that this statue does not burnish anything worth burnishing. And if the French don’t recognise this statue, why should I?
Patrick Bishop, on 19/06/2001 reported on the unveiling of de Gaulle’s “unmistakable, lanky silhouette” of General de Gaulle was seen on the Champs-Elysees yesterday, 30 years after his death.
Bishop mentions the airport and innumerable squares, gardens, avenues and schools around France named after de Gaulle. It seems that de Gaulle wanted no statue. Perhaps he didn’t want to be associated with the many forgotten identities whose effigies do populate public squares and other nooks and crannies around Paris.
But there he is, thanks to his family. This is what he looked like the day he loped down the Champs-Élysées on 26 August 1944, the day the Allies wrested Paris from Hitler’s forces.
The occasion of the unveiling of the statue, Bishop remarked at the time, provoked French opinionators “to wonder whether Gaullism still had any real meaning”. “What’s left of Gaullism?” asked Le Figaro, dedicating eight pages to the ruminations of partisans and opponents. According to Bishop, the Left-wing Gaullist Jean-Pierre Chevenement concluded ruefully: “Apart from the inspiration that still lives in the heart of many, 30 years after General de Gaulle’s death his achievements lie in ruins.”
M Chevenement, until 2001 the maverick interior minister in the Socialist-led coalition government, blamed France’s engagement in Europe for undermining de Gaulle’s concept of French sovereignty. And what was de Gaulle’s vision? A peculiar French presence in the world aloof from the Anglosphere and the Communist world, but willing to work with either to blunt the hegemony of the other. France was to be the fulcrum about which the world swung. And the rationale for this pivotal role was to protect and promote France’s civilising mission in the world. André Malraux, De Gaulle’s, and France’s, first Minister of Culture, had the special task of reminding the French of the gloire of their culture and then to tell the world all about it.
De Gaulle’s idea of “grandeur” entailed behaving and spending as if France could match it with the world’s major powers, especially Britain, but if necessary, the United States. As well as a large, disciplined, trained and compliant generation of technocrats, this national dream involved hardware — notably nukes and their delivery systems — and a rationale that justified this expenditure. France would have to make sacrifices and would have to come to heel behind a strong executive. If necessary, constitutional government would have to allow for emergency rule. The French voters gave de Gaulle this right in 1958.
But were the French of 1968 the same people as the French of 1958? Yes and no.
In order that everything remain the same, everything would have to change. A new, technologically progressive France working under effective government direction required an educational revolution. De Gaulle understood this. His government invested heavily in new universities. French youth flocked to these campuses. But these kids were less interested in grandeur than in sex. At the University of Nanterre in March 1968, Danny Cohn-Bendit entranced fellow student with the promise of easy access to sex. This idea caught fire. Students across France demanded a wide syllabus of cultural and educational reforms. The powerful French union movement called for a general strike. The country ground to a halt. Police battled protesters in the streets of Paris. De Gaulle was alarmed. The youth of France shrugged the role that their president assigned them.
What to do? Amazingly, de Gaulle emulated Louis XVI in 1792 and sought to remove himself from France. Louis sought the aid of foreign friends. De Gaulle resolved to seek the aid of French enemies. Louis’ flight to Austria ended when his sumptuous coach was arrested at the French town of Varennes. De Gaulle’s helicopter flight landed as planned in Baden Baden, West Germany. De Gaulle told his son-in-law Alain de Boissieu “I do not want to give them a chance to attack the Elysée. It would be regrettable if blood were shed in my personal defense. I have decided to leave: nobody attacks an empty palace.” At 11 am de Gaulle told Pompidou, the Prime Minister, “I am the past; you are the future; I embrace you”. The government announced that de Gaulle was going to his country home in Colombey-les-Deux-Églises before returning the next day, and rumors spread that he would prepare his resignation speech there. The presidential helicopter did not arrive in Colombey, however, and de Gaulle had told no one in the government where he was going. For more than six hours the world did not know where the French President was.
But Pompidou might have suspected something. He requested that military radar track de Gaulle’s two helicopters. The military refused their prime minister. Clearly, government in France was in a state of collapse. Where was the grandeur in scuttle out of the country, leaving the entire government to scratch its collective head?
In Baden Baden, de Gaulle sought out General Jacques Massu. De Gaulle’s motive is mysterious. Leter events suggest that de Gaulle sought Massu’s aid to impose a military solution. However, it is also possible that de Gaulle left Paris with the intention of relinquishing his presidency. By implication, de Gaulle, therefore was inviting a military coup. Nevertheless, whatever his motives, General Massu persuade de Gaulle not to abdicate but rather to return to France with the confidence provided by military support.
Massu was an odd ally. He had opposed De Gaulle’s withdrawal from Algeria in 1962. This was an issue that caused deep and violent divisions in France and almost cost de Gaulle his life.
Massu recognised he had de Gaulle over a barrel. Now it was time to exact a bitter price. Rebels and assassins must be pardoned. These rebels called themselves the OAS – l’Organisation de l’Armée Secrète. In the early 1960s, the OAS blew up government buildings and was almost successful at assassinating De Gaulle.
Here was the end of de Gaulle’s dream. The situation on the streets in May 1968 induced de Gaulle to let bygones be bygones. De Gaulle, preferring assassins to dissidents, conceded to Massu. It’s one thing to attempt to assassinate the President. It’s quite another to demand that he curtail his own power. In return, Massu promised to support the government with force if necessary.
With Massu’s support in his pocket, De Gaulle returned to Paris and called on the people of France to oppose the striking students and workers. He promised a national election which would act as a referendum on the issue. De Gaulle’s appeal worked. The parliamentary left in France — the Socialists and the Communists — withdrew their support for the students and the student revolt collapsed. The Right won the election but de Gaulle was an embarrassment. He was the past. He soon retired.
De Gaulle and the students lost to the same enemy. The insurgents of 1968 were famous for their memorable graffiti. Some of it was memorable for good reasons. Much was self-righteous hissy fit.
Since 1936 I have fought for wage increases. My father before me fought for wage increases. Now I have a TV, a fridge, a Volkswagen. Yet my whole life has been a drag. Don’t negotiate with the bosses. Abolish them.
Here the graffitist attempts to see the world through the eyes of a consumer. If you want the Volkswagen do you need a boss? The graffitist doesn’t care. But the voters of 1968 suspected that no boss meant no Volkswagen. Further, they concluded that repudiation of Gaullism would endanger his boss. The voters chose Gaullism.
But did de Gaulle threaten a military coup and pardon his assassins to make France safe for Volkswagen owners? Where was the gloire in that? The French people had shrugged and moved on. They were not the raw material for national grandeur.
So, what about grandeur? Not much there. De Gaulle and the Communists found a cause that bound them together. The French people joined the ranks of the world’s consumers and home makers. Dreams of a new society faded into poor memory. No one wanted to be reminded of what they once wanted France to be. France continued to blow up Pacific atolls deep into the 1980s. but they forgot what they were doing it for. Eventually, they came to their senses.
France is now the uncomfortable sidekick of Germany. Germans, seared by failed megalomania, learned to dream smaller dreams and worked harder to realise them. Can France be better than Germany at anything? No. But France can be better than anyone else at being like Germany. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. The world is a slightly happier place because of it.