To What Extent was Charles de Gaulle both a French Nationalist and a European Visionary?
The lasting effects that Charles de Gaulle had on France and on the European Community at large are demonstrated by his indefatigable personal character, brought to light under extreme circumstances and implemented during an era of intensive European reconstruction. Prior to the Second World War, de Gaulle had proved himself to be a thoughtful soldier, completing several books on military strategy analysed from the point of view of politics and economics (Serfaty 1968, pp.161-164; Jackson 2003, pp.7-9). When the war broke out, he was elected to the French President’s cabinet and led two of the only successful French assaults on the German forces with his tank division (Jackson 2003, p.9). However, it was an act of political defiance that brought him to the forefront of the Allied war effort and introduced his character to European politics for the next thirty years.
After Paris fell and the French government under Marshal Pétain chose armistice and surrender over continuing to fight the German invasions, de Gaulle fled to London and delivered a radio broadcast, one of the most famous broadcasts of the war, the Appeal of 18 June (Jackson 2003, p.1). He entreated the French people not to give up the fight because France was still alive and would continue the struggle to restore France to her people. Julian Jackson writes that “de Gaulle’s broadcast was an extraordinary act of defiance against France’s legally constituted government” (Jackson 2003, p.2), because he was basically identifying himself as the head of the legitimate French government. This would have been no more than obstinacy but for the official recognition ten days later by Prime Minister Churchill that de Gaulle was leader of the ‘Free French’ (Jackson 2003, p.13).
In this way, Charles de Gaulle became a major player in European politics. His outright devotion to his country, which Jackson calls “instinctive nationalism” (Jackson 2003, p.10), sometimes alienated other major Allied leaders such as Churchill and American President Franklin Roosevelt (Williams 1993, p.7; Mangold 2006, p.213). However, de Gaulle himself stated that the necessity of this stemmed from the fact that he did not have a country to support him and had to use his character to sustain France’s position in the Allied forces (Jackson 2003, pp.5-8). Despite any bad feelings between Allied leaders, de Gaulle ensured that the Free French forces were active participants in the liberation of Paris and that France would be granted a zone of occupation in defeated Germany (Jackson 2003, p.39; Williams 1993, p.7). Jackson observes that “de Gaulle’s stance guaranteed the existence of a French state in 1944 to look after French interests. In a real sense, de Gaulle had redeemed French honour and given the French people in 1944 a sense of self-respect” (Jackson 2003, p.133). As Charles Williams states: “De Gaulle’s achievement in the Second World War was to rescue the dignity of France” (Williams 1993, p.7).
Charles de Gaulle managed to redeem a demoralised nation during the war and allowed France to be part of the post-war settlement, acting like the major European player that it had once been (Williams 1993, p.7). His concerns for his nation above all else endeared him to the French people, who were all looking for some resolution to come out of the Second World War and the degradation of the Vichy government’s surrender. In exile over the radio from London and at home, and by leading French troops in to Paris for its liberation, de Gaulle became the face and voice of France, the ‘Fighting Frenchman’ (Berthon 2001, p.xxi). He was a trained and intelligent soldier who led France to the liberation of Europe, always with the future of the nation as his top priority. “But it is in his single-minded devotion to his country, and in his skill and strength in its service, that Charles de Gaulle can justly be called the last great Frenchman” (Williams 1993, p.9). In this way, by his own actions, sentiments, and declarations, he was the most clear-cut of French nationalists.
Following the end of the war, de Gaulle remained active in politics with the support of the Free French and other dissident groups until a referendum regarding his proposed changes to the French constitution was defeated and he retired from public life (Versaudy 1990, p.vii). However, the French Fourth Republic did not remain particularly stable and several major incidents led to the return of de Gaulle in the late 1950s.
By 1958, two of France’s overseas colonies – Tunisia, Morocco, and Indochina – had declared their independence, and a third – Algeria – had been in open revolt for nearly three years (Jackson 2003, p. 71; Pendar 1966, p.xi). The Algerian revolt was due in large part to the outward impression of the Fourth Republic as weak, and France was being threatened with a mainland attack as a result (Jackson 2003, p.71). In this crisis, the Fourth Republic asked de Gaulle to come back, which he agreed to do on the conditions that he be granted emergency powers and would be allowed to put forward a proposal for constitutional changes (Jackson 2003, p.133; Mangold 2006, pp.5-7). They agreed, and de Gaulle was able to withdraw France from Algeria without a civil war (Jackson 2003, p.133). He also developed a new constitution for the newly identified Fifth Republic, stabilising the government with effective political institutions (Jackson 2003, p.134).
However, much what de Gaulle saw completed during his tenure as Premier and then as President, the Fourth Republic had brought to fruition (Jackson 2003, p.135). The Franco-German coal and steel agreements had been established in 1951, the Treaty of Rome came into effect in 1959 but was the result of years of development, and France became a nuclear power in 1957 (Jackson 2003, p.135). And yet it is de Gaulle who is credited with much of the achievements of the post-war era.
His policies of developing a strong sustainable French nation led to direct confrontation with the other major powers in Europe: Britain, Germany, and the United States. It has been said that German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer believed that de Gaulle was “totally hostile to the EEC [European Economic Community], his main aim [being] to establish French supremacy in Europe” (Muller 1992, p.2). However, one of his first acts as President was to invite the Chancellor to his home in Colombey in one of the most powerful symbolic gestures of any European leader of the time. “For the first and last time in his life, Charles de Gaulle had invited another statesman – and a German at that – to share the intimacy of his own, very private, home” (Williams 1993, p.4). De Gaulle was a notoriously private man, despite his bombastic public persona, and this gesture emphasized the importance he had placed on effective Franco-German relations. Today, the relationship between France and Germany forms the backbone of the European Union (Jackson 2003, p.136).
De Gaulle’s nationalist policies that led directly into confrontation with other European nations, most notably Britain and Germany, forced the issue of communal European co-operation much faster than could have otherwise been achieved. As a result, the European Economic Community came into effect less than fifteen years after the end of the Second World War, when Europe was still in recovery but had stepped beyond needing only the basics of survival. His policies continued to draw the nations of Europe around each other, recognizing their neighbouring responsibilities and interests, and developing much more effective lines of communication than the pre-war world was able to. De Gaulle was a much more indirect contributor to the European community today because his involvement in its development was prompted by his concern for his own nation and its might as a world power.
Charles de Gaulle was a prominent figure in politics at a time when the western world was in uproar. His single-minded focus on the preservation of France and French interests ensured that, at the end of the war, there was no power vacuum on the European continent that could create instability and political unrest. As a result, Europe emerged from the Second World War with all its major players able to remain active participants in European decision-making. His obstinacy as a national leader forced other leaders into direct political confrontation with him, to discuss and compromise, to maintain the stability of Europe and avoid further cataclysmic world wars. However, de Gaulle also represented France in a way that facilitated his political will to push his allies even further than they would normally have allowed any country to. By putting a face on the nation, de Gaulle forced action among his allies and recognition of France as a nation state, not as powerful as the United States but not a puppet of them either. As Jackson observes: “Of all de Gaulle’s many achievements, none will prove more durable than the myth” (Jackson 2003, p.143).
BERTHON, S. (2001). Allies at War. HarperCollins Publishers, United Kingdom
FUNK, A.L. (1959). Charles de Gaulle: the Crucial Years 1943-1944. University of Oklahoma Press, Oklahoma
JACKSON, J. (2003). Charles de Gaulle. Haus Publishing Ltd., London
KERSAUDY, F. (1990). Churchill and de Gaulle. Fontana Press, London
MANGOLD, P. (2006). The Almost Impossible Ally: Harold Macmillan and Charles de Gaulle. I.B. Tauris and Co. Ltd., London
MULLER, K-J. (1992). The Konrad Adenauer Memorial Lecture 1992: Adenauer and de Gaulle – De Gaulle and Germany: A Special Relationship. St. Antony’s College and Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, Oxford
PENDAR. K. (1966). Adventure in Diplomacy. Cassel and Co. Ltd., London
SERFATY, S. (1968). France, de Gaulle, and Europe: The Policy of the Fourth and Fifth Republics Toward the Continent. Johns Hopkins Press, Baltimore
WILLIAMS, C. (1993). The Last Great Frenchman: A Life of General de Gaulle. Little, Brown and Co., Great Britain