Modern France and the ghosts of the past

France, like all countries, is haunted by events and mistakes of times past. These ghosts will guide modern policy until they are overridden and laid to rest.

The Arc de Triomphe in December 2018 during the gilets jaunes
The Arc de Triomphe in December 2018 during the gilets jaunes. Credit: Guillaume Louyot / Alamy Stock Photo protests.

This essay originally appeared in ‘Past and Present: to learn from history‘, 2020, published by Bokförlaget Stolpe, in collaboration with the Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson Foundation.

It is the fate of all old nations that the ghosts of their past shape and influence their present policies. These phantoms may recall events or providential figures in the life of the nation. They may even be more visible to a sympathetic foreigner than to the people of the country concerned, who have grown up with these apparitions and have absorbed them into their mental map of the past.

That is the spirit in which this British Francophile dares to write about some of the ghosts of France’s past. As a historically minded people, the French have assembled a whole panoply of formative national events and great men. The French Revolution perhaps holds pride of place in the first category and Napoleon Bonaparte in the second. This essay will leave both these figures on their pedestals. It will concentrate on the ghosts of three more recent events, all of which involved that modern providential man, General de Gaulle. The first is the ghost of 1940, and how that seismic shock of defeat and occupation has coloured French policies in Europe and the world ever since. The second is the ghost of 1962 and the impact of the withdrawal from Algeria on public attitudes to immigration and integration. The third is the ghost of 1968 and the imprint this has left on efforts to reform and modernise the French state.

The sudden collapse of French defences in the summer of 1940, followed by the bitter experience of four years of occupation, was a profound shock which would have marked any nation that experienced it. General de Gaulle’s extraordinary achievement was to overcome and, in due course, overlay that sense of national humiliation with a very different narrative. The ghost of 1940 began to be laid on 18 June 1940 when de Gaulle made his famous radio broadcast on the BBC from London, raising the torch of the free French in opposition to Vichy.

De Gaulle’s greatness lies in the combination of his action and his narration. His actions created and sustained the French presence in Allied counsels throughout the war. With almost no cards in his hand, he achieved this through sheer force of personality, attracting a wide variety of anti-Vichy French to his banner, organising the free French forces and gradually imposing himself on the disparate groups of the Resistance inside France. It was his action which gave him the threads to weave his powerful and alluring narrative. He brought the French to believe that their country was embodied not by Vichy but by the free French forces externally and the resistance internally; these forces had saved French honour by the part they played in the liberation. This heroic story would have fallen flat if de Gaulle hadn’t given it at least a degree of plausibility by his actions during the war.

The parallels between Churchill and de Gaulle are fascinating. They were so different in personality and yet both seemed to compose their public life so that it could conveniently be cut and pasted straight into history – the history that they would write. Both had an uncanny capacity to shape the way their countrymen thought of themselves and what they had lived through.

But de Gaulle had a much greater impact on the post-war policy of his country. He was younger and was at the centre of events for much longer. He tailored a new constitution to suit himself – a feat not even Churchill could match. And he was always haunted by the ghost of 1940. His determination that France would never again be either defeated militarily or wholly dependent on powerful allies became the foundation of post-war French foreign policy. It shaped the French approach to the United States as an ally but not an unconditional one. This has remained an instinctive and largely unexamined assumption of French foreign policy ever since. It was reinforced by the Suez crisis of 1956. Eisenhower’s determination to force an end to the British/ French/Israeli invasion led London and Paris to draw precisely opposite conclusions. The British decided to work even harder to be America’s most reliable ally and thereby to exercise influence on their policy. The French concluded that they must never again be at the mercy of the US on a matter of strategic importance. De Gaulle acted on that conviction in the 1960s when he pulled France out of the military structures of NATO and decided to develop an entirely independent nuclear deterrent capacity. Strategic autonomy meant keeping lines open to Moscow, even at the height of the Cold War. It also translated into another unspoken assumption that the President of the French Republic should aspire to a leadership role in the world.

The ghost of 1940 has had the most decisive impact on French European policy, not least because it has mirrored the German imperative to turn the page on their past. The shared vision of de Gaulle and Adenauer that France and Germany would take the lead in installing an entirely different economic and political order in Europe has shaped the destiny of the continent. The overriding priority given in both Paris and Berlin to ensuring the success of European integration has often been misunderstood outside the EU, and sometimes by other EU members. That was very apparent when financial markets around the world, including London, anticipated that the Eurozone countries would suspend or expel Greece rather than shoulder the costs of restructuring. They overlooked the emotional as well as political investment in the success of the European project, and the determination in Paris and Berlin to do whatever was necessary to preserve it. The British made a similar mistake when they calculated that the EU would be ready to put at risk the integrity of its single market in order to accommodate British demands in leaving the organisation.

Franco-German reconciliation is at the heart of the whole EU project, but that does not mean that Paris and Berlin have the same objectives across the board. The ghost of 1940 is always urging France to preserve its position as a global power buttressed by those ultimate symbols of sovereignty – the nuclear deterrent and the permanent seat on the UN Security Council. President Macron continues the Gaullist tradition in seizing the opportunity to step into the current vacancy for the job of leader of the free world. This does not always square easily with more limited German objectives for the EU’s role as an international power. President Macron is seeking to bridge the gap between his global aspirations and European commitments with his promotion of European strategic autonomy and a European Army – even though in other European capitals that can sound like the French aiming to mobilise the EU in support of France’s role in the world. Despite these occasional tensions, the success of France as a European and international power over the last 75 years owes much to the determination to lay the ghost of 1940. But the ghost still flits around the corridors of power, urging French leaders to live up to de Gaulle’s vision of France’s manifest destiny.

It is time to pay attention to the second ghost. On 18 March 1962, de Gaulle announced that there would be a referendum in Algeria on independence. This was duly won by a massive majority on 1 July. It was the culmination of a long and bitter crisis which brought the French state to the brink of collapse and which has left its mark on French attitudes to immigration and identity to this day. The Algerian crisis is sometimes seen as another messy and difficult act of decolonisation. But Algeria was never a French colony. It was always an integral part of France. So the insurgency against French rule which broke out in 1954 was, in essence, a civil war. It was conducted by an organisation calling itself the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN), and provoked a violent campaign of repression by the French army and later in the process by the army-linked extremist group the Organisation d’Action Secrète (OAS).

The European population in Algeria – the so-called pieds noirs – only made up about one tenth of the population of 10 million. But they were a powerful political force in France. It is hard to grasp at this distance how bitter and divisive the Algerian issue became within France over the following years. It cut across political parties and divided families. The failure of successive governments to restore order in Algeria and the controversy over the use of torture by the French Army were a major factor in the fall of the Fourth Republic. With the army no longer under the control of the civilian authorities and threatening to launch a coup from Algeria, the political class turned again to de Gaulle in 1958 as the only figure who could prevent a slide into chaos. Within a year he had imposed a new constitution tailored to his Olympian style of governing. But it took him four years to find a way out of the Algerian crisis.

The French Army accepted de Gaulle’s return because he had created the impression that he favoured keeping Algeria French. But he had characteristically avoided committing himself unequivocally to this outcome. It became increasingly clear in the years after 1958 that the status quo was in fact untenable. The violence in Algeria spilled over onto the streets of France with FLN attacks on policeman, and a brutal campaign of police violence against the Algerian community. When de Gaulle used the term ‘self-determination’, the OAS tried to assassinate him. Unable to control the situation in Algeria, and facing mounting international criticism for the human rights abuses carried out by French forces, de Gaulle bowed to the inevitable and accepted secret talks with the FLN on ceasefire terms. The French side had no cards to play and ended up conceding to all the FLN demands. Hence the announcement of 18 March 1962 and the rapid French exit from Algeria which followed. What de Gaulle was able to salvage from the wreck was the impression he skilfully created that France had ‘granted’ independence to Algeria of its own free will.

The prolonged crisis nonetheless left deep scars and lingering doubts in the political class about the loyalty of the Armed Forces. It also left France deeply divided on issues of identity and immigration. During the final stage of French rule in Algeria there were highly charged debates about whether the longer-term goal should be the gradual assimilation of the Muslim population leading to them being accorded the same rights in Algeria as French civilians, or the integration of Algerian institutions into those of mainland France. The pied noir community favoured the latter because they judged that it would be easier to retain control of Algeria indefinitely if the 9 million Muslim population was treated as part of the 45 million population of France as a whole. This argument was never resolved, but it left a strong emotional charge around the concepts of integration and assimilation.

Within a year of independence, some 680,000 pieds noirs had relocated to France. They brought with them their bitterness at the French elite for what they saw as the betrayal of French Algeria, and proved a fertile source of recruitment for Jean-Marie Le Pen’s far-right National Front party and his anti-immigration policies. The FLN violence in France also left a legacy of suspicion in France about minority communities which did not conform to French norms. De Gaulle himself shared this suspicion. Speaking privately to his Minister of the Interior about the Algerian community in France after the worst episode of police brutality against Algerians in Paris in October 1961, he commented:

…when the situation in Algeria has been settled in one way or another, this question also needs to be settled. It is a fiction to consider these people as French like any other. They are in truth a foreign mass and we will have to look into the conditions of their presence on our soil.

These suspicions were re-kindled by the terrorist attacks carried out by Algerian extremists on the Paris Metro in 1995. Many French people were also left uneasy about the government’s treatment of the harki community – the Algerian Muslims who had served with the French military and security authorities up to 1962. After independence, de Gaulle and his government only agreed to receive some 60,000 in France. The remaining 50–75,000 were abandoned and most were massacred by the FLN. The harkis in France had to wait until 2016 before a French president apologised for the abandonment of their compatriots.

It is interesting to compare the very different approaches taken in France and in the UK to the treatment of communities with different traditions and customs. The British policy has been to accept and even celebrate diversity. British policeman from the Sikh community with turbans and Muslim women with veils have, at least until recently, not provoked comment. In France, assimilation remains the objective, with minority communities expected to conform to French norms. The wearing of conspicuous religious symbols in public schools is banned by law, as is covering the face or wearing the burqa in all public places. The word ‘community’ – which in British usage is a positive and inclusive term – in French becomes communitarisme with a much more pejorative meaning closer to segregation. The ghost of 1962 lurks behind these modern sensitivities.

It is only fair to add that neither the British nor French approach to issues of identity and integration has prevented the rise of far-right parties in each country. In Britain, the combined effects of populism and the rancorous debate over Brexit have eroded public acceptance of visible diversity – with the result that those wearing the visible symbols of their religion or community can find themselves being insulted in the street. Both countries have also found that a small minority of their Muslim communities have become so alienated from modern society that they have been radicalised to the point of committing terrorism in their own country or joining extremist groups in Syria. The different approaches of Britain and France deriving from past experience have converged as both have had to learn new ways of tackling radicalisation and creating opportunities for young people of all communities.

The final ghost is that of 1968. Those heady days when students and workers brought Paris and other cities to a halt and the regime of an ageing President de Gaulle seemed to totter were nothing new. They were part of a long tradition of resorting to the street in angry protest. The revolution of 1789 was only the most extreme version of this very French phenomenon. There seems to be something about the French elite and its administrative structures which mean that incremental reform has always been intensely difficult, and that pressures build up which lead from time to time to a volcanic eruption. The events of 1968 are important not because they revealed something new about France but because they confirmed the pattern, and were the formative experience for the generation of politicians who have been in and around power over the last 40 years.

Having started as isolated protests at conditions in universities, the May 1968 protests spread rapidly, first to campuses across the country and then to key industries with workers demanding improved participation as well as pay rises. Finally, the paralysis reached the public sector, including the state broadcaster. At the height of the crisis several million people were on strike, making this the largest social movement in the history of France. President de Gaulle and his government were caught wholly unprepared and were at a loss as to how to restore order. De Gaulle added an element of drama with his mysterious decision to fly by helicopter to Baden to consult the Commander of French forces in Germany, General Massu. His aim was presumably to satisfy himself about the loyalty of the French armed forces if they were called in to restore order. The ghost of 1962 was never far away. The ghost of 1940 also made an appearance when de Gaulle mused to a close aide on the similarities between May 1940 and May 1968. He saw both as examples of the French elite betraying the country. The difference was that by 1968 he was old: ‘I cannot struggle against apathy and the desire of an entire people to let everything dissolve.

De Gaulle was evidently reassured by what he heard from Massu. He returned with new confidence and judged the moment when public opinion was starting to turn against the disruption to announce a reshuffle and a dissolution of the National Assembly. The protests subsided and the government party went on to win a landslide victory.

The events of 1968 have haunted the political class in France ever since. They have scrutinised every sectoral dispute for signs that it might spread, that the joint forces of students, factory workers and public sector employees might once again make France ungovernable. Workers with highly favourable terms and conditions of employment have exploited these fears to great effect.

This is particularly true for those whose job also gives them the capacity to create havoc by striking – for example railway workers and air traffic controllers. I saw this dynamic at first hand when I served at the British Embassy in Paris in the 1990s. President Chirac and his Prime Minister Alain Juppé embarked on a programme of public spending cuts to reduce the budget deficit, including reductions in some welfare benefits and a freeze on public sector pay. One of the proposed changes was that railway workers should lose their right to retire at 55. The railway unions knew how to respond to this. In the winter of 1995, they began a nationwide strike which soon spread to other parts of the public transport network and to teachers and other civil servants. As the country ground to a halt, Chirac gave way. He sacked his Prime Minister, called a legislative election and dropped the most controversial reforms including the rail workers’ retirement benefits. Once again, the French public sector had resisted structural reform. The ghost of 1968 retreated to its lair.

That was still essentially the position which President Macron inherited on his election in 2017. His predecessor President Hollande had made some tentative reforms. But Macron was elected on a manifesto to modernise and reduce the size of the public sector and to sweep away many of the rigidities in the labour market which had kept French unemployment around 10%.

Once in power, he was as good as his word. His government embarked on the first real shakeup of the labour market for decades. They tackled the vexed issue of the over-generous retirement and pension rights in the railway industry. When the railway unions followed the tradition of striking to force a government climbdown, Macron and his team proved more adept than the railway workers in explaining to public opinion why change was necessary. Without public backing, the strikes failed to push the government off course.

When it came to tax reform, a proposal to increase duties on diesel fuel in the autumn of 2018 was the trigger for widespread protests united only by what became the symbol of the movement, the yellow jacket or gilet jaune which every motorist is obliged to carry in their car. The phantom of 1968 once again stalked the land. The movement developed on familiar lines: large marches every weekend, often marred by violence, a wide variety of grievances and an anarchic lack of organisation. At the height of the protests, crowds brought Paris to a standstill and the Arc de Triomphe itself was vandalised. The country was perhaps days away from a crisis on the scale of 1995, if not of 1968. But the government stood its ground. The police took great care to avoid casualties among the protesters. The movement never quite found the single issue or personality around which to coalesce. The violence gradually turned public opinion against the protesters. Numbers in the streets began to wane and the government chose the right moment to drop the offending diesel fuel duty.

It was a nasty shock for a new and largely inexperienced set of ministers. But they weathered the storm and President Macron has since announced a further round of ambitious reforms. Indeed, the Starship Macron proposes to go boldly where no French President has gone before. The agenda includes reorganising the French public sector, modernising unemployment insurance and welfare benefits, and reforming the pension system. Any of these would have been enough in previous decades to conjure up the ghost of 1968. But Macron is gambling that the French public have now accepted the need for reform in the interests of a more vibrant economy and are impatient with those who defend entitlements that are no longer justified. With both the traditional mainstream parties still reeling from their losses in the 2017 elections, Macron’s prospects for winning again in 2022 currently look promising. If he pulls that off, he will be in a stronger position than any President under the Fifth Republic to complete his reform programme.

Countries cannot escape their history, but they need not be defined by it. De Gaulle succeeded in re-shaping the collective memory of 1940. He tried to re-fashion the trauma of 1962 into a more positive narrative, but failed to prevent these events from casting a long shadow over French attitudes to immigration and identity. Macron now has the opportunity to show that France can be reformed in depth and so to lay to rest the ghost of 1968 once and for all.


Peter Ricketts