De Gaulle’s world in motion

  • Themes: France, History

Part statesman, part prophet, Charles de Gaulle knew instinctively that political success and failure are inevitably interlinked, and that history would be the ultimate judge of both.

Photo collection of Charles de Gaulle in Hôtel des Invalides.
Photo collection of Charles de Gaulle in Hôtel des Invalides. Credit: agefotostock / Alamy Stock Photo

In his recent book on leadership Henry Kissinger distinguishes between two ideal types of leaders: statesmen and prophets. Statesmen ‘temper vision with wariness, entertaining a sense of limits’; prophets invoke a transcendent vision of the world to ‘redefine what appears to be possible’. What light do these distinctions throw on the leadership of Charles de Gaulle?

What makes de Gaulle especially interesting is that, before emerging as a national leader in 1940, he wrote extensively about the nature of leadership. His highly cerebral The Edge of the Sword (1932) cites a plethora of authorities, including Goethe, Bergson, Bacon, Tolstoy, Heine, Rousseau, Racine, and Cicero. De Gaulle’s vision of leadership is bleak. A successful leader must cultivate aloofness, mystery and ruse. The solitude of leadership, he writes, ‘lacerates the soul as the flint tears the feet of the penitent sinner’. It imposes ‘unceasing self-discipline, the constant taking of risks, perpetual inner struggle’. The leader needs the strong nerves and iron self-control of a gambler whose ‘elegance consists in reinforcing his outward appearance of sangfroid at the moment he takes the winnings’.

Profoundly influenced by the anti-positivist writings of Henri Bergson, de Gaulle argued that the leader must combine reflection and intuition, analytical intelligence and moral courage. He wrote many years later: ‘Great men have both intellect and impulse. The brain serves as a brake upon pure emotional impulse. The brain surmounts impulse; but there must also be impulse and the capability for action in order not to be paralysed by the brake of the brain. I remember this from Bergson who has guided me through my entire life’. The impulse – the moral courage – required of a leader might require him radically to break with convention. De Gaulle quoted a judgement on the British Admiral Lord Jellicoe after the Battle of Jutland: ‘He has all the qualities of Nelson bar one: he does not know how to disobey!’

The leader must be attentive to contingency and constantly ready to adapt to circumstances. De Gaulle valued the statecraft of the ancien régime: ‘Avoiding abstractions but holding on to realities, preferring the useful to the sublime, the opportune to the spectacular, seeking for each particular problem not the ideal solution but the practical one.’ One of his books opened with a celebration of the restrained order (mesure) of the French classical garden. For the same reason he was critical of the hubris displayed by Napoleon: ‘Once the balance between the ends and means is snapped, the manoeuvres of a genius are in vain.’

It is the role of the leader to analyse the situation and set goals but he must not become mired in details. He reflects, he consults, he decides, but then he leaves the details of execution to others: ‘L’ordonnance suvira’ (the supply train will follow), as he famously remarked.

The leader has to be able to stir the imagination and excite the ‘latent faith of the masses’. This vision of charismatic leadership was much influenced by the writing of Gustave Le Bon whose writing on crowd psychology influenced figures as diverse as Theodore Roosevelt, Freud and Mussolini. In the spirit of Le Bon, de Gaulle says that the leader’s authority is not susceptible to rational analysis (‘love which is explicable only as the action of an inexpressible charm’). To this he adds, however, that the leader needs to take the people with him by explaining his actions: charismatic leadership had a didactic element.

Thus, de Gaulle’s conception of leadership fits both of Kissinger’s ideal types. It is a combination of reason and sentiment, eighteenth-century classicism and nineteenth-century romanticism, the statecraft of Cavour and the romantic nationalism of Mazzini.

The blend of will power and analytical intelligence, impulse and reflection, were perfectly exemplified by the act through which de Gaulle entered history on 18 June 1940 with his short speech on the BBC calling on the French to reject the armistice with Germany and remain in the war. Leaving France for a country he hardly knew and openly defying the government of Marshal Pétain, France’s most venerated military figure, was an act of extraordinary moral courage. As de Gaulle later wrote: ‘I appeared to myself, alone and deprived of everything, like a man on the edge of an ocean that he was hoping to swim across.’ De Gaulle’s ‘appel du 18 juin’ was not only visionary and prophetic (‘the flame of Resistance must not be extinguished’) but it was also underpinned by a rational analysis of the future of the war. He argued that the lost battle of France was just the beginning of a world war in which the economic superiority of the British and Americans would prevail.

This speech was only the beginning. Although it had secured for de Gaulle the initial backing of Churchill, this did not imply any recognition of his claims to be the sole representative of French national interests. Over the next four years he would deploy an astonishing mixture of bluff, eloquence, adaptability, willpower and nerve to assert himself in the face of the scepticism, and even hostility, of Churchill and Roosevelt. As he later commented: ‘People go on about the Appel of 18 June… What everyone seems to ignore is the incredible mixture of patience… of obstinate creativity… the dizzying succession of calculations, negotiations, conflicts… that we had to undertake in order to accomplish our enterprise.’ De Gaulle’s often provocative and abrasive style of leadership between 1940 and 1944 probably came naturally to him, but it was also the result of a rational calculation. Since he had so few means at his disposal, his main weapon was intransigence. After the war he humorously summed up his strategy of negotiation to an aide: ‘Always begin by saying “no”! Two things will follow: either your “no” is destined to remain a “no” and you have shown yourself to be someone of character. Or eventually you end up saying “yes”. But then (a) you have given yourself time to reflect; (b) people will be all the more grateful for your final “yes”.’

What de Gaulle achieved in those four years was remarkable. The man alone on the shores of the ocean in 1940 had succeeded in having France accepted among the victorious nations in 1945, with a zone of occupation in Germany and a permanent seat on the United Nations Security council. In a speech at the Albert Hall in November 1942, he quoted the eighteenth-century moralist Chamfort: ‘The reasonable have survived. The passionate have lived… During these two years we have lived a lot because we are passionate. But we have survived as well. Ah yes, how reasonable we are!’ Reason and sentiment, calculation and intuition: all de Gaulle is there.

De Gaulle’s ten years in power as President of France were less obviously ‘heroic’ than his four years at the head of the Free French, although one could read the constitution of the Fifth Republic which de Gaulle introduced in 1958 as an institutionalisation of the style of charismatic leadership he had theorised before, and practised after, 1940. His startling provocations when president meant that foreign diplomats were often reduced to reading his pre-war writings on leadership to decode this unpredictable man. There could be no better example of mystery and ruse than the way he slowly extricated France from Algeria, starting with his speech on 4 June 1958 assuring a frenzied crowd in Algiers that ‘I have understood you’. After this moment of supreme duplicity, his speeches over the next four years were a slow process of pedagogy explaining why sentiment had to bow to ‘circumstances’. As he declared in 1960: ‘It is entirely natural to feel nostalgia for the Empire, as one can regret the gentle light of oil lamps, the splendour of sailing ships… But there is no value in a policy that does not take account of realities.’

In conformity to his idea that the leader must not become mired in details, de Gaulle left much of the running of day-to-day politics to his prime minister. And, to a surprising extent for someone so seemingly authoritarian, he was remarkably open to advice and to listening to advisers. One civil servant, meeting him for the first time, commented: ‘I found the General quite different from what I had imagined:  Very simple, very relaxed, almost respectful… After having listened to me, when he made his comments on what I had said, he took up exactly what I had said, word for word, almost to the last syllable! He had a fantastic memory… One cannot exaggerate his capacity to listen.’ Another adviser had the impression, as de Gaulle peered at him intently at him through his thick glasses, ‘of being listened to with greater attention than had ever happened to me anywhere before’.

Until the events of May 1968, the Fifth Republic did provide France with ten years of political stability, underpinned by strong economic growth. Nonetheless, in his foreign policy, de Gaulle’s achievements fell far short of his ambitions. Perhaps one reason for this was that he failed to achieve the necessary balance of ‘prophetic’ vision and ‘realistic’ statecraft. His long-term ambition was to overcome the bipolarity of Cold War politics which, in his view, squeezed out any space for medium powers like France to assert their existence. Not only did de Gaulle believe that the end of the Cold War was desirable, he also believed that it was inevitable because the fundamental reality was not ideology but the nation-state. He only ever referred to Russia – often ‘eternal’ Russia – and never to the Soviet Union, claiming that Russia would eventually absorb Bolshevism as blotting paper absorbs ink. He enjoyed lecturing American leaders about the folly of their engagement in the Vietnam War which he viewed not as a struggle of the values of the ‘Free World’ against Communism but as a national struggle for liberation.

While working to overcome the Cold War by reaching out to the eastern bloc and distancing France from America, de Gaulle sought in the short term to secure for France a role in the governance of the Western Alliance equal to that of the United States and Great Britain, while simultaneously building up Europe politically so that it might be able to act as an independent force in world politics between the two hegemonic super-power blocs. The key to that policy was persuading Germany to distance itself from the United States. None of these aims were achieved.

His attempt to push for a tripartite directorate of NATO was simply ignored by the British and American governments. As for his initiatives to promote closer political union among the European powers, this failed partly because he underestimated that, if France resented the domination of America, Holland, Belgium or Italy might reasonably feel the same about France. De Gaulle had tried to play on two stages – the great power one and the European one – but France was not big enough for the first (not yet having nuclear weapons) and too big for the second.

Although de Gaulle did succeed in signing an historic Franco-German Treaty in 1963, it was eviscerated of real impact when the Bundestag added a clause reasserting German commitment to the Atlantic Alliance: the Germans were not ready to trade in American protection for the nebulous possibility of some future European protection under French leadership. So de Gaulle’s foreign policy achievements were essentially negative. He twice blocked Britain’s application to join the Common Market (1963, 1967), partly because he feared that the British would be a kind of Atlanticist Trojan Horse, but he failed to achieve his ambition for a more cohesive political European bloc. He took France out of NATO but that was because he had failed in his attempt to be treated as an equal partner with Britain and America. As for his attempt to reach out to the eastern bloc with a long visit to Moscow in 1966 and another to Poland in 1967, this did not prevent the Soviet Union sending tanks into Prague in 1968.

In the last two years of his presidency there was a general sense that de Gaulle, in his late seventies, was losing his touch. He seemed more and more like an old man in a hurry, and his provocations became more outrageous. This was certainly the case of his famous ‘Vive Québec libre’ speech of July 1967, or his unfortunate characterisation in November of the Jews as an ‘elite people, sure of themselves and domineering’ when he tried to justify his criticism of Israel during the Six-Day War. (In this case his provocation had the unfortunate result that his wise and prophetic remarks on the long-term negative consequences for Israel of finding herself forced to administer occupied territories went unnoticed.)

Considered in broad terms, however, de Gaulle’s foreign policy was not entirely unsuccessful. It had been conceived in the service of a vision to restore France’s international prestige after the eclipse of the Fourth Republic – to make France once again a player in world politics. The aim was to have a ‘great national ambition’ and to ‘sustain a great quarrel’ (this was the prophetic de Gaulle speaking). When Kennedy visited Berlin in 1963 and made his speech declaring that ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’ he was pitching himself as a rival to de Gaulle’s triumphal tour of Germany a year before. On his return, one of Kennedy’s advisers commented that a public opinion survey showed that ‘you [JFK] beat de Gaulle in a close election in Germany’. This illustrated that the Americans took de Gaulle seriously as a rival. Had he known what one of President Kennedy’s foreign policy advisers remarked at the end of 1962 –‘de Gaulle stands at the centre of all questions’ – de Gaulle would surely have felt that he had not entirely failed.

In the end, however, de Gaulle was sceptical about drawing up balance sheets of success and failure. In his Bergsonian view of the world nothing was ever fixed or stable. Asked once by a journalist what he believed to have been his greatest successes and his greatest failures, he replied: ‘How do you define success and failure? Only history itself can define these terms. In reality, life and action are always made up of a series of successes and failures. Life is a combat and each one of its phases contains both successes and failures… Success contains within itself the germs of failure and the reverse is true.’


Julian Jackson