CRB: A certain idea of France

In the third installment of our preview of the new (Fall) issue of the Claremont Review of Books (subscribe here), Angelo Codevilla reviews Julian Jackson’s new one-volume biography of Charles de Gaulle. De Gaulle was one of the great men of our time. As Professor Codevilla writes:

Charles de Gaulle famously said of Henri Petain—the French Army’s savior in the Great War who then betrayed his country to the Nazis in the Second World War, and whose death sentence for treason de Gaulle himself commuted to life imprisonment—that he had been a great man who had died circa 1925. Had de Gaulle died in 1945, his biography would have been one of unalloyed success: his every quirk and misjudgment buried by the near-infallible prescience, intellectual brilliance, tactical skill, massive integrity, and grit by which a relatively junior army officer placed himself at the head of a defeated country that ended the war ranked among the world’s victorious powers.

That’s not quite the impression many of us had growing up with de Gaulle playing on the world stage. Professor Codevilla explains:

[D]uring the years between his 1946 resignation as chief of France’s provisional government and his second resignation in 1969 after a decade as president of the Fifth Republic, he compiled a far more checkered personal and professional record. De Gaulle’s ideas and objectives for his country remained what they had been. And as before, his immanent task was to assemble popular consensus and marshal officials’ and politicians’ cooperation to serve those objectives. Absent the war and Nazi occupation’s compelling focus, however, that task was inherently more difficult and the proper path ahead was less clear. There wasn’t the same pressure on those involved to compromise—much less to sacrifice. Under these circumstances de Gaulle courted support by telling, or leading people to believe, what they wanted about his intentions—the oldest and most short-legged of political tactics. He also sought to dispense with persuasion by seeking and exercising discretionary power. That sufficed substantially for dealing with the technocratic aspects of government. But since the problem that brought de Gaulle back to power in 1958—the Arabs’ war against France’s 130-year presence in Algeria—raised the most inherently divisive political passions, handling it as he did injured France severely. It also produced a de Gaulle very different from the man who had liberated Paris a quarter-century earlier.

We have much to learn from the life of de Gaulle, from his memoirs and from his other writings. Professor Codevilla’s review — “A certain idea of France” — suggests why this is the case (along with the limits of the case): “De Gaulle will be studied for centuries because of what he did during World War II, and how he did it. France’s entire socio-political establishment—its government, bureaucracy, armed forces’ leadership: in short, the state—had abdicated the historical entity they were supposed to represent…. He understood, as no one else did, that power in France would flow to whomever the people identified with the idea of a France unbowed, honored, and ultimately victorious.”

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