The Greatest

R.W. Johnson

  • Charles de Gaulle, Futurist of the Nation by Régis Debray, translated by John Howe
    Verso, 111 pp, £29.95, April 1994, ISBN 0 86091 622 7
  • De Gaulle and 20th-Century France edited by Hugh Gough and John Horne
    Edward Arnold, 158 pp, £12.99, March 1994, ISBN 0 340 58826 8
  • François Mitterrand: A Study in Political Leadership by Alistair Cole
    Routledge, 216 pp, £19.99, March 1994, ISBN 0 415 07159 3

Much of the history of France in the last century is embodied in the strange trinity of Philippe Pétain, Charles de Gaulle and François Mitterrand. Pétain, born in 1856, was old enough to remember the humiliation of France at the hands of Prussia in 1870, and like other French officers of his period, spent his entire military career in anticipation of what he believed would be the inevitable revenge for that defeat. By the time the young second lieutenant Charles de Gaulle joined the 33rd Infantry Regiment at Arras in 1912, Pétain, the regiment’s colonel, was on the point of retirement. The war intervened and gave Pétain an extended military life. In 1925 the hero of Verdun and Marshal of France appointed the promising young de Gaulle to his staff and repeatedly intervened to promote his protégé, even raising his marks when de Gaulle graduated from the Ecole Supérieure de Guerre. Pétain then imposed him on the School as a lecturer, and insisted on going along to introduce him. De Gaulle dedicated his writings to Pétain, acted as his ghostwriter, and called his own son Philippe. But Pétain, presumed too far and de Gaulle, his pride wounded, asserted his independence. The relationship had already grown cool when de Gaulle ended it: on 18 June 1940 he condemned the deal Pétain, had done with Hitler and appealed for resistance. It was a war to the knife. De Gaulle made resistance to Pétain, such an absolute principle that he overcame his previous prejudices and joined forces with the Communists in the struggle against him. Pétain, had de Gaulle condemned to death in absentia, while de Gaulle had Pétain, live out his last few years of life – by then he was over ninety – as a prisoner on a windswept little island in the Bay of Biscay.

De Gaulle’s own ascent to power in 1958 was not unlike Pétain’s in 1940: a great national crisis, the Army torn by conflicting notions of patriotism, a virtual coup ratified by a Parliament whose nerve had snapped, France dominated by the shadow of le Général as it had been before by that of le Maréchal. The part of the young de Gaulle was played by François Mitterrand, who denounced de Gaulle’s coup at the outset. As a young résistant, Mitterrand had once looked up to de Gaulle much as de Gaulle had to Pétain. But the relationship cooled rapidly and Mitterrand’s career as a minister in the 1944 provisional government was brutally cut short by de Gaulle. Mitterrand, his pride wounded in turn, made resistance to de Gaulle the guiding principle of his political life, even overcoming his previous prejudices and joining forces with the Communists in the struggle against him. The circle was complete in 1992 when, despite a storm of protest, Mitterrand laid a wreath on Pétain’s grave. Inevitably, this gesture was explained in terms of Mitterrand’s past – his far-right leanings as a student and the fact that he had been decorated by the Vichy regime – but it’s likely that his real motive in forgiving Pétain, was to show himself a greater man not only than the Marshal but even than de Gaulle.

This is the sort of thing that drives Régis Debray mad. Having received a sinecure from Mitterrand, he has clearly become thoroughly disenchanted with him and has written the one book calculated to enrage Mitterrand beyond all others: a paean of praise to de Gaulle, next to whom, it is continually insinuated, Mitterrand is a pygmy. Belatedly – and oddly so – Debray has woken up to the fact that he owes de Gaulle, not only his life (for securing his release from the Bolivian junta), but ‘the intelligence, such as it is, that I have been able to gather from the time I live in. And I gave him nothing in return. It is with a defaulter’s sheepish air that I now render belated homage, and I will never forgive myself for this failure.’ The tone is not just self-abasing (‘I quail before de Gaulle. He is the Great Other, the inaccessible absolute’ etc), but self-flagellating. What Debray can’t get over is that for most of his life ‘De Gaulle just made us snigger’: he was a ludicrous, pompous 19th-century survival – the ’68 chant ‘De Gaulle au musée’ summed it up. Now he wonders how on earth he failed to see that de Gaulle was the most consummate statesman of his century. ‘I would just like to understand the real reasons for all our missed rendezvous. Why so many of us have turned up late in our own lives.’

There is no doubt of de Gaulle’s stature. Far more than any of his contemporaries he cut through the conventional wisdom of his day, and though implacably devoted to the task in hand, he always took the long view. He shocked Dulles, at the height of the Cold War, by informing him that Communism was a passing phenomenon, that the notion of a single ‘Western’ interest was absurd and that French and American national interests did not coincide. Even the Soviet Union was for him a temporary structure, a bizarrerie: in the end, he was sure, the national interests of the Russians, the Uzbeks and the rest would prevail – a prediction which led the experts to believe that it was de Gaulle who was bizarre. Similarly, people scoffed when he predicted that the existing international monetary system would collapse, that the dollar would have to devalue and that gold would have to be revalorised. Putting his money where his mouth was, he sold dollars by the billion to buy gold. A decade after his death – and many international monetary crises later – the Bretton Woods system had collapsed and the dollar with it, while the gold price had risen to more than twenty times its old value. This gave the French Treasury one of the greatest speculative killings in history – by then the laughter had altogether ceased.

De Gaulle’s foresight was uncanny; and not just because, at the age of 12, he had written an essay in which he imagined himself as a general, forced to intervene to save France when, in her hour of crisis, inevitably, the politicians failed her. In 1959 he forecast German reunification. In 1961 he warned Kennedy that US intervention in Vietnam was bound to end in disaster. Perhaps most striking was his vision of ‘a Europe from the Atlantic to the Urals’. While his contemporaries, like Churchill, still looked backward to empire, de Gaulle saw, as early as 1951, the inevitability of Algerian independence, and that of the more peripheral French possessions. When in 1958 it was pointed out to him that France could hold on almost indefinitely in Algiers, with its great concentration of French colons, he dismissed the notion out of hand. This was what the British had done in Northern Ireland (a province then at peace); and the problem, he insisted, would come back to haunt them a hundredfold. His assessment of personality was equally astute. When Kennedy was shot, a French cabinet minister asked him what he thought would happen to Mrs Kennedy. ‘She’ll finish up on some shipowner’s yacht,’ de Gaulle replied.

Why was he so often right? Because, says Debray, he resisted the temptation to be contemporary. ‘Living exclusively in the present is the surest way to enter the future looking in the wrong direction. That is why yesterday’s trendies are left hanging in mid-air while de Gaulle, the archetypal non-trendy, survives changes of climate relatively well.’ Mitterrand called de Gaulle ‘the last of the 19th-century great men’, but Debray will have none of it. Mitterrand himself may belong to the 19th century, he argues, but it’s more likely that de Gaulle ‘was really the first great man of the 21st century’. And his admiration does not stop there. There is the wonderful austerity of de Gaulle’s refusal to pander to the media, his refusal of speechwriters (‘Everything I do not write, I disown’), his refusal even of the telephone: ‘On principle I never telephone, with very rare exceptions; and nobody, ever, summons me to the instrument.’ When de Gaulle resigned, his press statement consisted of just two sentences: ‘I am relinquishing my functions as President of the Republic. This decision takes effect from noon today.’ He gave no interviews, never appeared on TV, spoke to no journalist. Twenty years on, Debray an see grandeur in such simplicity. ‘It is so comforting to think that he was alive among us. For a long time to come, his name alone will serve as a giant India rubber to erase mediocrity.’

Debray’s change of heart is, to some extent, the result of a genuine philosophical reappraisal. He has given up the confident certainties of Marxism and grown wary of history’s awkward contrariness. The notion of the onward march of history has been negated by the persistence of the older ‘barbarisms’ of nationalism, religion and even tribalism. The fact is, says Debray, that each ‘intrusion of the new reactivates the old, modernity gives new life to archaism’ – a modernising Shah brings reactionary ayatollahs in his train. Or, as Debray puts it, ‘you cannot open a McDonald’s in Red Square without letting the priests back into St Basil’s.’ One reason de Gaulle got it right, Debray seems to suggest, is that he never lost sight of these older barbarisms in the way the Paris intelligentsia did.

For all this, Debray still can’t work out how he failed to grasp at the time what a colossus de Gaulle was. After all, Debray isn’t short of intelligence himself and his intellect was on brilliant display to quite other purposes throughout – and long after – the period in question. His continual tirades against the triviality of the media, the false premises and promises of May ’68, the shoddiness of French socialism and the Europe of Maastricht don’t help him much either. The more mundane truth is that sheer intelligence is no match for a partisan perspective and it is a particularly poor guide if it operates at the lofty level that Debray prefers. For, having swung around to worship de Gaulle, he remains as unconcerned with mere facts as he was when he so brutally dismissed him. He vaguely acknowledges de Gaulle’s bequest of a stable and enduring political system, the Fifth Republic, but of the realities of Gaullist politics within that frame-work he seems innocent – and there is no mention at all of de Gaulle’s inglorious career in the Fourth Republic. Had he looked at that, he would have seen that de Gaulle frequently had bad ideas too, that he was convinced world war would break out in 1946-7, that he would petulantly revise history on the grand scale when it suited him, that he toyed with the idea of a coup d’état in 1947, that his principles did not prevent him from taking money from the CIA when he needed funds in the late Forties, and that he wrongly forecast the collapse of the Fourth Republic many times before it happened.

Incredibly, Debray even congratulates de Gaulle on his use of television, making no mention of his appalling abuses of his own power. De Gaulle was quite open about the way he manipulated state radio and television: ‘Well I have to, since the press is all against me.’ By encouraging military rebellion in 1958 and, above all, by violating the Constitution in 1962, he made it clear that he felt the Constitution was his to do what he liked with: ‘You know, a man cannot rape his own wife.’ One could go on: his crude attempt to crush the 1963 miners’ strike, his foolish refusal to campaign in 1965, his appalling treatment of Pompidou, his complete misjudgment of the 1968 Events, his Canute-like refusal to devalue thereafter, his ludicrous vaunting of French Canadian nationalism (‘Vive le Québec libre!’), his general egomania ...

A far more balanced account of de Gaulle’s gifts is to be found in Gough and Home’s collection of essays, which includes chapters by Douglas Johnson, René Rémond, Julian Jackson, Michel Winock and Serge Berstein. Perhaps the most interesting contribution, however, is Jean-Marie Mayeur’s essay on ‘De Gaulle as Politician and Christian’, for the whole point about de Gaulle was that, although he came from the classic conservative stables of the Army and Catholicism, he was not an ordinary clerical or military conservative. Most clerics supported Vichy, which he opposed; he included Communists in his government; carried out a sweeping programme of nationalisation; and was scathing about the Army’s ‘stupidity’ in its attitude to Algeria. For him France came first and Catholicism – like the Army – was merely part of France’s identity.

De Gaulle was always willing to treat the Church with a vigorous hand. In 1942 he warned the bishops that he feared ‘for the situation of the clergy and perhaps even for religion in France after the Liberation’, given their association with Vichy. In 1944, to the fury of the Vatican, he banned the Archbishop of Paris, Cardinal Suhard, from attending the Liberation thanksgiving ceremonies in Notre-Dame, insisted that the Papal Nuncio be withdrawn, and had seven bishops sacked. When the new Papal Nuncio, Monsignor Roncalli (later Pope John XXIII), went to plead the cause of Catholic schools, he took with him a map of France with all the under-funded Catholic schools marked in red. De Gaulle sent him packing: ‘This map is the map of France. It is therefore up to the French, and not a foreign authority, to make the decisions.’ Once back in power in 1958, he was determined that the state should gain control over episcopal appointments. He despised Christian Democracy and was capable of unsmilingly comparing himself with Joan of Arc, for his belief in his personal destiny went beyond what any Catholic – or any normal politician – could countenance. When, trying to curry favour with him soon after the war, the Ramadier Government proposed to strike a special medal to be presented only to FDR, Churchill, Stalin and de Gaulle, de Gaulle immediately scotched the idea: ‘I could not accept such an award. The state does not decorate itself.’

Alistair Cole’s study of Mitterrand suffers from the huge distance it takes from its subject. This is certainly not due to lack of diligence: Cole has very thoroughly and usefully set down the details of Mitterrand’s career. And he is well aware of the postures Mitterrand has struck down the years: the tough political operator and survivor; the cunning and devious old fox; the secretive, distrustful sphinx; the unprincipled Machiavellian prince; the rural (and Catholic) patriot with a deep attachment to provincialism, the romance of the land and its history. But having set out these stereotypes (to which he might have added Mitterrand the writer and intellectual), Cole simply hovers between them. Often he labours to bring forward judgments which seem thunderously obvious: ‘Mitterrand’s personal characteristics had a notable impact upon his manner of operating within the political system.’ Or: ‘Evaluation of Mitterrand’s goals undoubtedly requires an element of authorial interpretation, rather than conclusive demonstration. With this in mind, it is clear that Mitterrand’s goals varied during the period after 1971.’ Sometimes he sounds like Mr Spock, examining his subject with a telescope from Mars. ‘There was evidence,’ he writes at one point, ‘of principled political activity in a variety of spheres.’

In sum, Cole would be far more interesting if he wasn’t determined to be diplomatic. Mitterrand’s career in the Fourth Republic was a curious blend of practical reformism and disgraceful opportunism – he participated in the worst phase of Algerian repression and refused to resign long after more principled men had abandoned ship. All this looked very bad after 1958 and one gets the impression that Mitterrand performed a private autocritique and realised, to his chagrin, how poorly his record compared to that of Mendès France. Thereafter, rather in the manner of someone who has made an extremely firm New Year’s resolution, Mitterrand strove for the moral high ground, an act he sustained until 1968 when, under the pressure of the Events, opportunism again got the better of him. Not only did he make an unconstitutional grab for power – demanding that the properly elected government give way to a provisional government – but he went on to suggest that Mendès could head the provisional government as caretaker, and then call a Presidential election. He, Mitterrand, would stand and, on becoming President, make Mendès his prime minister. When the electorate put paid to all such notions Mitterrand was again exposed as an unscrupulous schemer. It was almost the end of his career and he only scrambled his way back by dint of some extremely Florentine manoeuvres to dispossess Alain Savary of the Socialist Party (PS) leadership in 1971.

The next ten-years were really Mitterrand’s golden period. This time he stuck firmly to the high ground, kept his counsel, his dignity and his head in the face of repeated electoral disappointment, and persevered with a political strategy of genius. He was endlessly buffeted by the Gaullists, by Giscard, by the Communists and by the ceaseless factional warfare of the PS. Under immense provocation from every side, he would have lost everything had he not displayed iron self-control. To keep this up for a whole decade was a truly remarkable achievement and his ultimate triumph in 1981 was entirely deserved. In his first term he launched an ill-considered reflation and a massive nationalisation of industry, followed by three years of painful backtracking, but he earned great credit from his democratic cohabitation with the Right after its victory in the 1986 Parliamentary elections. He turned cohabitation into a masterful retreat, and was able to sweep back as President with an increased majority in 1988.

At that point he threw it all away, disorientating his party by playing futile games with the Centre and pushing personal protégés into safe seats which they then lost. The result was to deprive the PS of the Parliamentary majority it might have had. He then picked Rocard as prime minister but never fully supported him, sacking him for no good reason and in his place – the apotheosis of palace politics – appointing his old girlfriend, Edith Cresson, as premier. Anyone who had seen Cresson at the Ministry of Agriculture (she had, at one point, been kidnapped by infuriated farmers) knew this was bound to be a disaster but it tickled Mitterrand’s vanity to appoint the first woman premier. For a calamitous ten months she staggered from one gaffe to the next – she suggested that most Englishmen were homosexuals and that the Japanese were ‘a nation of ants’ – and to an all-time record low in the polls. The Government, popular under Rocard, never recovered its standing. She was replaced by Mitterrand’s old homme de main, Bérégovoy, who soldiered on with a franc fort and ever-mounting unemployment and unpopularity. As Cole says, Bérégovoy’s suicide following the annihilation of the PS at the 1993 elections ‘closed the final chapter on the Left in power in an atmosphere of recrimination, melancholy and finality’. Mitterrand has followed this up by sabotaging Rocard in the European elections, leaving the PS in a parlous condition as it considers the mountain it will have to climb in the 1995 Presidential contest.

Mitterrand’s second term has done profound damage to the morale and reputation of the ‘new’ Socialist Party, which had prided itself on cleaning up French politics. In fact both the Party and the Presidency have been embroiled in an accelerating series of financial scandals. Here Mitterrand bears a heavy responsibility: his style of monarchical patronage and court favourites has created an atmosphere in which his intimates have believed themselves above normal constraints on self-enrichment.

In the mid-Eighties, Mitterrand appointed his son, Jean-Christophe, to become his special adviser on African affairs. Ever since the time of Jacques Foccart, the post of Elysée African expert has been synonymous with skulduggery and corruption and, sure enough, Jean-Christophe was forced to resign in 1992 after accusations of corruption, influence-trading and support for authoritarian governments, had led to public demonstrations in several different countries. Mitterrand used his sister Geneviève as an intermediary with the Church, his brother Jacques as an intermediary with the Army, and promoted another brother, Robert, to a leading foreign-trade position. Both Jacques and Robert went on to become enormously rich industrial magnates. In addition, Mitterrand appointed Jean-Christophe’s mother-in-law as a deputy Minister of Agriculture, despite her complete lack of political experience. His second cousin, Jacques Bonnot, was appointed head of Crédit Agricole, one of the world’s biggest banks, while the President’s niece, Marie-Pierre Laudry, was nominated to the Ombudsman’s office. Mitterrand’s wife, Danielle, has also benefited: her brother, Roger Gouze, has been appointed to a succession of state ‘advisory’ jobs despite being in his late seventies, while the film company belonging to her sister Christine took off sharply after Mitterrand’s election victory. Beyond the family, Mitterrand indefatigably placed protégés and poulains in jobs and sinecures. Jacques Attali’s ill-fated appointment to head the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development in London drew enormous criticism because of his lavish habits and lack of experience but the case was like many others which it was easier to keep hidden in Paris.

That there have been repeated financial scandals is hardly surprising. The most notable is probably the Pechiney affair, which in turn has triggered at least two and perhaps three suicides among the President’s closest friends. On top of all this, Mitterrand’s association with the likes of Silvio Berlusconi and Bernard Tapie has reduced the PS almost to the tarnished state of the SFIO, the old socialist party, under Guy Mollet. He has treated many of his party colleagues and followers in a truly scurvy fashion and, for reasons of personal vanity, has undermined Rocard, an outstandingly able prime minister and by far the PS’s best Presidential hope.

The quarrel between Mitterrand and the Mendésistes persists. They continued to criticise his opportunism. He showed art appalling jealousy of Mendès, and even after he had won power in 1981, refused Mendès the most minor government job. He clearly associated Rocard with the same principled critique and never forgave him for having made his own run for the Presidency. No amount of humble pie or loyal service from Rocard has been allowed to soften the almost monarchical pique in which Mitterrand has indulged. He has now created a situation in which the PS is so bereft of hope for 1995 that until recently Mitterrand, at the age of 77, was being suggested as a possible runner. This, no doubt, was good for the royal ego, though even two terms in office is a record – and has been enough to show that 14 years is far too long for anyone.

De Gaulle was not sorry to resign in the wake of his defeat in the 1969 referendum: ‘I will be more to France than if I had left for the banal reason that my period of office had expired.’ Even before the defeat, the General knew it was time to go: ‘the French no longer want de Gaulle,’ he told an aide. ‘But the myth, you will see the growth of the myth ... in thirty years.’ As, indeed, we have – Debray’s book is one more sign of it. Mitterrand’s myth is harder to descry. While de Gaulle despised all parties, including the Gaullists, Mitterrand’s great achievement was to re-create the French Socialist Party and then perform the apparently impossible feat of breaking the Communists and bringing the PS to power. But in his vanity, Mitterrand has now undone much of what he achieved. Ironically, given de Gaulle’s attitudes to parties, 25 years after his death the Gaullists are the largest party in France, but Mitterrandism may not now survive even as long as Mitterrand.