Magazine article The Spectator

De Gaulle Understood That Only Nations Are Real

Magazine article The Spectator

De Gaulle Understood That Only Nations Are Real

Article excerpt

Almost exactly half a century ago, on 1 June 1958, Charles de Gaulle became the last Prime Minister of the French Fourth Republic and immediately began the construction of the Fifth.

The Fourth Republic, be it said, was not as bad as it was painted, not least by de Gaulle. The economy had grown, the communists were kept out, and France took the first steps to becoming a nuclear power. But the system was incestuous and unstable, a small group of small men swapping posts in nominally different governments -- all incapable of decisive action. Inflation corroded the franc, while collapse abroad, first in Vietnam but imminently in Algeria, corroded French self-respect far more.

Yet it was, above all, the old man's cunning -- he was already 67 -- which saw him first, in June, enter the Palais Matignon and then, in December, the Elysée. As civil war threatened in May 1958, the General stood prominently aloof. But his agents were in hourly touch with the military leaders in Algiers as they semi-publicly planned their coup to topple the Republic. De Gaulle's contempt for his political enemies was, as usual, justified. They crumbled and begged him to rescue France, and he promptly agreed.

Yet 50 years on, the French still find it difficult to come to terms with their selfappointed saviour. He is too large a figure for either critics or admirers to gain a purchase on. No French leader, except Napoleon, has had such an impact. In 1944 the General single-handedly devised the incredible but salutary public myth that France achieved its own liberation by its own efforts. His brief postwar government introduced social security, gave women the vote, and created the Ecole Nationale d'Administration, whose alumni have ruled (and misruled) ever since. Then, after 1958, de Gaulle launched France on more than a decade of rapid growth, industrial modernisation, low inflation and social reform. The technocrats provided the means, but he provided the direction, for his will was law.

The Fifth Republic's constitution created what de Gaulle himself described as an 'elective monarchy'. But change is now in the air. Nicolas Sarkozy's plans to shake up France involve not just economic reforms, of which the General, a reformer himself, might approve, but also the demystification of the presidency, of which he certainly would not. And de Gaulle's intuition of what the French nation will wear looks increasingly correct.

On this side of the Channel, let alone on the other side of the Atlantic, no Gaullist anniversary is likely to draw a crowd. The British, depending on their age group, consider de Gaulle a war-time prima donna, or an obstacle to Europe, or simply the least cool of an uncool political generation. The Americans just rate him as anti-American, which for them is enough. All are right. But all miss the point.

Charles de Gaulle cared about France and only France (not, be it noted, the contemporary French, whose whims he mistrusted); it was the idea, that 'certain idea', which mattered. Otherwise, he was cold. Though fond of his family, he was distant to friends, suspicious of allies, manipulative of colleagues, harsh to subordinates. He did not even care for himself. He was without physical fear.

After escaping the most nearly successful of 14 assassination attempts, in August 1962, he merely observed to a jittery Pompidou: 'They shoot like pigs! …

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