Lecture outline: Charles de Gaulle 1500 words

Lecture outline: Charles de Gaulle

  1. Reputation
  2. Biographical notes
  3. Politics and policies
  4. Leadership
  5. What is Gaullism
  6. Legacy



Why do we study de Gaulle today?

The man – his ideas, his leadership, and his influence: impact on France and Europe after the Second World War


What he did, how he thought, what he stood for – and how these issues are still being thought about and / or are being used in politics


In other words – knowing a bit of what the person did and thought and thinking about it: facts – context – concepts


  1. Reputation
    • Contested figure, also a much maligned figure
    • At the time of his leadership and even afterward, unclear what the politics of de Gaulle were:
    • Left or right, fascist or latent sympathiser with communism, dictator or democrat, European visionary or rigid nationalist?
    • Reputation is also a symbol for a particular kind of politics, and a sign of continued questioning; reputations can also be used in political language, for instance to pigeonhole an opponent


  1. Biographical notes
  • 1890 – 1970
  • Family: Roman Catholics, nationalist, traditionalist but also progressive

Military career:

  • World War I veteran: in the twenties and 30s de Gaulle came to the fore as a proponent of armoured warfare and advocate of military aviation
  • Tactical success during World War II, although de Gaulle had initially antagonised the leaders of the military through the 1920s and 1930s with his bold views, meant that he was promoted to the rank of brigadier general, hence General de Gaulle
  • He became undersecretary of state for national defense and was in charge of coordination with the United Kingdom and unsuccessfully proposed a political union between France and the K.
  • De Gaulle and allied officers rebelled against the new French government headed by Field Marshall Pétain, who was planning to seek an armistice with Nazi Germany – built the Free French Forces
  • De Gaulle’s Appeal of 18 June exhorted the French to continue to resist the occupation of France and work against the Vichy regime, which had allied itself with Nazi Germany.
  • De Gaulle: “France has no friends, only interests.” : mirrors de Gaulle’s mistrust of both British and S. intentions with regards to France. Rooted in a mistrust of the Free French among the U.S. political leadership, who preferred to deal with representatives of the former Vichy government.

Political career:

  • France was liberated in 1944 and de Gaulle became prime minister in the French Provisional Government, resigning in 1946, citing as the main reason the conflict between the political parties and his disapproval of the draft constitution for the Fourth Republic – believing that parliament held too much power, the danger being shifting party alliances
  • He returned to power with military support following the May 1958 crisis – the collapse of the Fourth Republic – due to political instability, failures in Indochina and inability to resolve the Algerian question.
  • De Gaulle led the writing of a new constitution founding the Fifth Republic, and was elected the President of France.
  • De Gaulle has been credited with ending the political chaos and violence and bringing stability to France and French politics
  • During his term, de Gaulle also faced controversy and political opposition from Communists and Socialists, and a state of widespread protests in May 1968.
  • De Gaulle retired in 1969, but remains the most influential leader in modern French history.
  1. Politics and Policies


     Post / Colonial policies:

  • The colonies (Algeria was officially a part of France, not a colony) were given the choice between immediate independence and the new constitution. All colonies voted for the new constitution and the replacement of the French Union by the French Community, except Guinea, which thus became the first French African colony to gain independence, at the cost of the immediate ending of all French assistance.
  • Although he initially supported French rule over Algeria, he controversially decided to grant independence to Algeria, ending an expensive and unpopular war.


Economic stability:

  • A new currency was issued to control inflation and industrial growth was promoted.

Foreign Policy:

  • De Gaulle oversaw the independent development of atomic weapons – still an important feature of the French economy and foreign policy
  • Compare with Britain’s close development of nuclear power with the US
  • he promoted a pan-European foreign policy, seeking to diminish S. and British influence
  • This meant withdrawing France from the NATO military command
  • – Objecting to Britain’s entry into the European Community
  • – recognising the Communist China


  • EUROPE: from a speech in 1959 – vision for Europe, often cited in the history of European integration:

Oui, c’est l’Europe, depuis l’Atlantique jusqu’à l’Oural, c’est toute l’Europe, qui décidera du destin du monde. (“Yes, it is Europe, from the Atlantic to the Urals, it is Europe, it is the whole of Europe, that will decide the destiny of the world.”)

  • This vision was in contrast to the Atlanticism of the US and Britain, preferring a Europe that would act as a third pole between the US and the Soviet Union
  • De Gaulle was seen as offering détente to the Soviet Union and excluding Britain from Europe

Empty Chair Crisis in 1965

  • Responsible for one of the EC’s greatest crises – the Empty Chair Crisis, involving the financing of the Common Agricultural Policy and voting methods
  • Outcome: making the use of Qualified Majority Voting meaningless for many years (favouring unanimity), halting more federalist plans, vetoing Britain’s entry again in 1967
  • 1962–68: Politics of grandeur
  • Entails: reforming and developing the French economy
  • Promoting an independent foreign policy and a strong French international presence (politique de grandeur)
  • Also based on the concern that the US post Vietnam would hesitate to intervene in Europe in case of a Soviet attack – pragmatic consideration
  • De Gaulle was convinced that a strong and independent France could act as a balancing force between the United States and the Soviet Union, a policy much criticised in Britain and the United States
  • Relations with the US: good connection to Nixon
  • He and de Gaulle shared the same non-Wilsonian approach: belief in nations rather than in ideologies, international organizations, or multilateral agreements, including the UN
  • Otherwise troubled, i.e. voicing French disapproval of the US involvement in the Vietnam War, even though the war had its roots in French colonialism in Southeast Asia
  • Israel: arms embargo against Israel was declared three days before the Six Day War broke out – meant to keep peace with oil producers
  • Pro-Arab politics
  • Pro independence of Quebec
  1. Leadership
    • ‘Nothing great is achieved without great men and they are only great for having willed it.’ (Charles de Gaulle, The Edge of the Sword, 1932)


  • Question for the seminar: Did de Gaulle frame a particular idea of leadership or did he reflect a particular idea of leadership?



  • Let us look at notions of leadership that abounded in Europe in the inter-and post-bellum period:
  • Idea of intellectual and moral excellence (Aristotelian roots, favoured by the liberals of that generation)
  • Differentiating between authority and authoritarianism: strong leadership is to be based on legtimate authority, based on the lessons learnt and fear of the combination of state authoritarianism and an apathetic populace – the ingredients of an authoritarian regime


  • Conditions of a successful leadership were seen to be – strong will – strong moral founding – universalising outlook in the face of social divisions – emphasis on accepting the legitimacy accorded to insitutions and leaders based on the so-called will of the people


  • De Gaulle can be seen to represent both the strong and the self-effacing, subject to the notion of a greater good, in de Gaulle’s case, the glory and power of France – by then already a depleted international power, in the throes of decolonisation movements and economic restructuring


  • In his biography, he uses both the first person (moi/je) and the third person – General de Gaulle, a figurehead of history and its contingencies. A particular leader for a particular period in time


  • Self-mastery and the presence of passion for a cause were de Gaulle’s basis for his self-belief as a leader



  1. What is Gaullism
    • A term used by de Gaulle – not seen as a doctrine or an ideology but a set of beliefs which inspired his political and military achievements


  • Question for the seminar: does Gaullism exist independently of de Gaulle?
  • Gaullism is built around a vision of France, how the country should eventually be, i.e. a nationalist vision of independence, unity and strength
  • Gaullism therefore incorporates the policy of grandeur, i.e. a vision of power and strength
  • Gaullism also incorporates the idea of plebicitary
  • Gaullism is built on the idea of legitimacy, derived from a) a regime’s capability to ensure national independence and b) from popular support qua affirmation of national unity, rather than an expression of conflict and opposition
  • Gaullism is a rejection of the legitimacy of political parties, as they represent particularist interests
  • Gaullism in the economy means a rejection of laissez-faire capitalism as well as socialism but strives for the so-called third way
  • Gaullism means technocracy and modernisation by the state



  1. Legacy
    • Legacy will be assessed differently, in different times


  • Seminar question: how would we view the legacy of Charles de Gaulle today?




  • Politics of grandeur: too ambitious for France? But a defining era of modern French policy, and still inspires French foreign policy: emphasis on French independence + alignment with former rival Germany, still seen in both countries as a foundation for European integration




  • Domestic politics: de Gaulle’s government is remembered as heavy-handed – the state had a monopoly on TV and radio broadcasts




  • Challenge to the regime by the 1968 movements



  • Pro de Gaulle views: the epitome of a roi juste (“just king”) — the embodiment of the qualities of a just and righteous ruler, taking into account a lingering feeling for a strong, central, single political position


  • De Gaulle’s opponents: saw the president wielding almost monarchical powers


  • The associated dirigisme (state economic interventionism) of the Fifth Republic’s early decades remains at odds with the current trend of western economic orthodoxy; yet those decades coincided with unprecedented growth and much-improved standards of living for the French population.