Thursday, 25 December 2014

A Farewell to Kings

Reflections on Charles de Gaulle

"De Gaulle saw France not as a territory but a vocation; not a place but a call."
Regis Debray, Charles de Gaulle: Futurist of the Nation.


France, without a shadow of a doubt, is an exceptional country. Her thoughts and deeds echo and reverberate throughout the world. It is a nation of vivid, paradoxical contrasts: avowedly secular and profoundly religious; fiercely republican yet home to a deep-seated, archetypally-charged monarchical tradition; prone to prolonged spells of mediocrity but capable always of unleashing men and women of the calibre of Saint Joan of Arc, figures who perceive the truth behind the veil of appearances and set about fighting for that truth, transforming defeat into victory with style, imagination and flair. 

General Charles de Gaulle (1890-1970) was clearly one such figure. Best known still today, perhaps, for his refusal to accept defeat in the Second World War, de Gaulle's high vision of France, her destiny, and his calling as her representative, compelled him to continue the fight when surrender seemed the common-sense, logical option.

"France," as he wrote at the start of his War Memoirs "is not really herself unless in the front rank. Only vast enterprises are capable of counterbalancing the ferments of dispersal inherent in her people. Our country must aim high and hold itself straight, on pain of mortal danger. In short, to my mind, France cannot be France without greatness (grandeur)."

De Gaulle left his conquered country and set up camp in London. On June 18th 1940 he made his famous radio appeal to the French people, declaring that he and he alone spoke and acted on behalf of the true, 'eternal' France, urging all patriots to join him and making public his intention of prosecuting the war until the full and final expulsion of the enemy presence.

After the Liberation, de Gaulle ruled France for two years before standing down in 1946. He returned to power in 1958 and stayed there (despite some severe difficulties concerning Algerian independence) until his second and final resignation in 1969. He had left office in 1946 due to his disillusionment with the chicanery and mendaciousness of the French political class. That was one thing. In 1969, however, he felt that his bond - his rapport - with the people had been broken. That was quite another, and de Gaulle was at a complete loss as to how it could have occurred.

He had, after all, led the country with distinction on two occasions. During the war his boldness in assuming the mantle of the French State helped de-ligitimise the Vichy regime and also ensured that France would retain her Great Power status once hostilities ceased. On a deeper, and arguably more important level, his insistence in fighting on when all appeared lost kept alive for the other conquered peoples of Europe the traditional conception of France as a champion of liberty and civilisation.

It was this understanding of French culture and values - her worldwide mission and vocation - that particularly animated his second spell in office. Throughout the 1960s he carved an active, creative role on the world stage and brooked no nonsense from either Washington or Moscow. His passion was for France to stand as a beacon for both grandeur and liberty, with a dynamic State and a foreign policy focusing on self-respect rather than Machtpolitik and imperial hubris. Gaullist grandeur did not involve aggrandisement and disturbance of the international order. Its purpose was primarily domestic - to promote unity and forge self-belief through playing a prominent role in the world, thereby showing the French that they were indeed, in thought and act, a people worthy of respect and - crucially - recognition.

Recognition is a term first used by the philosopher, Georg Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) and expanded upon in the twentieth century, first by Alexandre Kojeve, then by Francis Fukuyama in his famous treatise, The End of History and the Last Man (1992). 

"Man," writes Fukuyama, "wants to be recognised. In particular he wants to be recognised as a human being, that is, as a being with a certain worth or dignity. This worth in the first instance is related to his willingness to risk his life in a struggle over pure prestige. For only man is able to overcome his most basic animal instincts - chief among them his instinct for self-preservation - for the sake of higher, abstract principles and goals."

In a word, grandeur. This is what de Gaulle is about. This is where he counts. His worldview, forged and refined in the struggle against totalitarian tyranny, revolved around 'prestige' and higher goals and principles. He understood that pure politique and mere economic well-being are not enough. An element of mystique is also required if an individual, a nation, or a union of nations is to fulfil its vocation and attain some level of meaning, purpose, direction and recognition.


Sadly for de Gaulle, many of his compatriots turned their backs on grandeur and balked at the demands he placed on them. Without the wartime threat of Nazi terror to wake people up to reality, de Gaulle found it harder and harder to arrest society's slide into self-centred materialism, where comfort and security, consumer durables, and rights without responsibilities count for more in the public consciousness than the maintenance of a hard-won civilisation. The edicts of kings, even democratic kings like de Gaulle, carry no weight in this flattened-out milieu.

This dissolution of hierarchy is illustrated perfectly by the phenomenon of the May 1968 Paris student protests. What strikes one as extraordinary, even four and a half decades on, is that France was one of the most prosperous, stable societies on Earth at the time. The demonstrators were overwhelmingly home-grown, middle-class and economically comfortable. Why they felt it necessary to rend asunder the cultural, social and religious fabric that had nurtured generations of French so well and for so long remains, to this writer at least, a total mystery.

General de Gaulle was lampooned, in childishly scribbled cartoons, as an out of touch old buffer - a fossil, a relic and a dinosaur. How wrong the protestors were. How out of touch they were. This was one of the deepest thinkers of the age. This was a man who stood alone for France and human values when the great and the good were tumbling over themselves to surrender. This was a man with a vision of what Europe is in her essence and should be in actuality - not the uninspiring, bureaucratic fuzz of today's EU - but an association of noble, free and ancient peoples.

De Gaulle deplored the depoliticisation of Europeans and the decline of European statesmanship, perceiving how the post-modern assault on God the Father strikes at the very heart of our belief in real, concretely existing values and meaningful, credible authority. 

He discerned the signs of the times and recognised the ever-expanding heart of darkness that threatens now to swallow the West whole. He saw how the denial of God - the refusal of a transcendent reference point - fatally undermines our materialistic, hedonistic and commercially-orientated societies. It saps the will, drains the imagination and leaves our continent ripe for conquest - physically, spiritually and intellectually. As he remarked to his friend and colleague, the novelist and adventurer, Andre Malraux:

"France was the soul of Christianity - today, let us say the soul of European civilisation. I did all I could to restore her ... Good luck to this federation without a federator! ... You know as well as I do that Europe will be a compact among the States, or nothing. We are the last Europeans in Europe, which is Christianity. A tattered Europe, but it did exist. The Europe whose nations hated one another had more reality than the Europe of today. It is no longer a matter of wondering whether France will regenerate Europe. It is a matter of understanding that she is threatened with death through the death of Europe."


A chill wind blows through France today. A self-serving, back-slapping, ruling elite has created a climate where humane, balanced and generous views - be they liberal or conservative - are struggling to find a platform. The Scylla of Islamism and the Charybdis of the Front National threaten to drag this proud nation into the swamp of totalitarianism that de Gaulle fought so hard to resist. The secular State does its best to hold the pass, but in its insensitivity towards religion (from banning the burqa to taking down cribs) betrays its own ignorance and serves only to exacerbate tensions.

It is fortunate then that this is a country with a time-honoured tradition of siring men and women of genius. Fortunate for those of us living outside the Hexagon too. Because France is the soul, or at least the cockpit of Europe. It is a creative dynamo. A powerhouse. As we see in the history of the French Revolution, for instance, where France goes, Europe and the rest of the world follow.

We do not need (in my opinion, as one of those outsiders) demagogues like Marine le Pen, would-be celebrities a la Nicolas Sarkozy, dour technocrats such as Francois Hollande or fashionable economists in the mould of Thomas Picketty. All these have had their day. Men and women of faith, vision and imagination are required instead, sensitive to the rhythms and vicissitudes of history, and intuitively aware of when France is living out her vocation and when not. Someone like Saint Joan of Arc. Or Charles de Gaulle.

It has happened before, after all. There is no reason why it canmot happen again.


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