De Gaulle and the Death of Europe

De Gaulle and the Death of Europe

Mini Teaser: The French understanding of the "national interest," epitomized by De Gaulle's thinking, reminds realists of the necessity of reflection on national identity.

by Author(s): Daniel J. Mahoney

To begin with, in his pre-war writings de Gaulle showed a detailed
awareness of the historical specificity of the non-ideological
statecraft of the old regime. In his 1938 work France and Her Army,
de Gaulle expressed his admiration for the ancien régime, the
classical period of modern history par excellence. The statecraft of
the old regime reflected a healthy balance between the requirements
of self-affirmation and those of measure or moderation. It was a
pre-ideological politics and policy of "circumstances" that eschewed
abstractions and reflected a taste for the empirical, for concrete
facts, for the requirements of state. The European system of the
balance of power established a self-regulating and self-limiting
order of nations that rejected "furious ambitions" and "inexpiable

De Gaulle recognized that the classical period of French and European
statecraft came to an end with the ideological wars inaugurated by
the French Revolution. He appreciated that the mechanism of the
balance of power, which continues to be of permanent validity for
political life, is not always or necessarily accompanied by the
measured sensibility of the old regime, which aimed for "a just
proportion between the end pursued and the forces of the state", and
which self-consciously aimed to avoid great national or ideological
passions. Nevertheless, de Gaulle still believed that religious and
ideological sectarianism "poison[s] the relations between nations and
menace[s] the order of the world."

So de Gaulle did not neglect the ideological dimensions of modern
politics, he decried it. His position is best understood as
anti-ideological; his description of the contemporary world is
fundamentally prescriptive in character. As a "domestic" statesman,
he wished to heal and transcend France's sectarian and ideological
quarrels, to overcome the long-standing division between "the Old
Regime and the Revolution", between partisans of monarchical and
republican France. He also worked for a transformed European order
where great and free and ancient nations would coexist within a
common European framework of shared principles and restrained
enmities. He saw an intimation of that future order in the
renaissance of national sentiment in Central Europe evident in the
Polish and Hungarian uprisings of 1956.

In retrospect, it is clear that he overstated the continuities
between older national forms and contemporary ideological states. He
exaggerated the permanence of such provincial entities as "Prussia"
and "Saxony" and he seemed to take for granted the solidity and
permanence of the nation-state itself. However, unless we recognize
the prescriptive character of de Gaulle's account of the forces that
move the modern world, unless we see that his relative de-emphasis of
ideological considerations reflects a profoundly anti-ideological
mindset and is itself an element of his statesmanship aiming to bring
such a world somewhat closer, we will misunderstand and underestimate

The Need for a Mission

Like the statesmen of the old regime, de Gaulle had a decidedly
concrete cast of mind. But whatever the real or superficial
resemblances between his thought and the American realists, he never
transformed the order of nations into a lifeless "system" unconnected
to the hopes, beliefs, and passions of real citizens and statesmen.

De Gaulle's "romantic" faith in the greatness and rank of France had
purposes beyond the emotional. This concern with the rank of France
is clear enough: France had suffered a near mortal wound in 1940. De
Gaulle did everything within his power to counter the feelings of
self-disgust brought on by the debacle of May-June 1940 and the
ensuing armistice. France must "aim high", he insisted, proudly
guarding its rank and reputation, and protecting every mark of
sovereignty, if it were truly to recover its independence and
self-respect. But de Gaulle was no narrow or quixotic nationalist. He
recognized that France's identity was tied to its integration within
two larger "wholes" that are, in part, defined by France even as they
define it. I mean "Europe" and "civilization." (I shall turn to de
Gaulle's vision of a "Europe of nations" a little later.)

De Gaulle capaciously shared the universalist self-understandings of
both sides of the French ideological divide. He often spoke of
France's universal mission, as when in his Memoirs of Hope he
characteristically maintained that "from time immemorial, it had been
in [France's] nature to accomplish 'les gestes de Dieu', to
disseminate freedom of thought, to be a champion of humanity."

Because he aimed to rally the French beyond and above ideological
divisions, de Gaulle could not simply identify the "mission" of
France with the cause of Christendom, or the historic achievements of
the Old Regime, or the Rights of Man and the legacy of the
Revolution. His ecumenical "mystique" of France, republican to be
sure but not excluding the old France from memory or glory, had room
for each of the defining moments of French "greatness." Following the
poet-philosopher Charles Péguy, de Gaulle believed that "eternal
France" could embody a mystique that counteracted the rampant
individualism integral to self-absorbed modern societies. The
politics of grandeur aimed at moderating the enervating effects of
liberal individualism. In doing so, it drew upon all of the mystiques
of the French past in order to inspire the self-transcendence
necessary for the maintenance of civic life under conditions of
modern liberty.

In a manner reminiscent of Tocqueville, de Gaulle feared the
enervation of modern individuals resulting from a private and
apolitical understanding of human liberty. We sometimes forget that
the sober Tocqueville, although a friend of democracy, advocated a
quasi-Gaullist foreign policy to correct what he saw as the
inevitable softening of mores and weakening of public spirit inherent
in democratic life. Like the post-presidential Richard Nixon (who
appealed to the thought and example of both men in his final books),
Tocqueville and de Gaulle were convinced that a democratic nation
must have a mission "beyond peace." In a letter to John Stuart Mill,
dated March 8, 1841 (that, incidentally, soured their friendship and
cooled Mill's admiration for him), Tocqueville explained why he did
not side with the "peace party" advocating easy accommodation between
France and Britain during the Anglo-French crisis of 1840:

I do not have to tell you, my dear Mill, that the greatest malady
that threatens a people organized as we are is the gradual softening
of mores, the abasement of the mind, the mediocrity of tastes; that
is where the great dangers of the future lie. One cannot let a nation
that is democratically constituted like ours and in which the natural
vices of the race unfortunately coincide with the natural vices of
the social state, one cannot let this nation take up easily the habit
of sacrificing what it believes to be its grandeur to its repose,
great matters to petty ones; it is not healthy to allow such a nation
to believe that its place in the world is smaller, that it is fallen
from the level on which its ancestors had put it, but that it must
console itself by making railroads and by making prosper in the bosom
of this peace, under whatever condition this peace is obtained, the
well-being of each private individual. It is necessary that those who
march at the head of such a nation should always keep a proud
attitude, if they do not wish to allow the level of national mores to
fall very low.

Tocqueville, by supporting a proud and semi-imperial foreign policy
in order to affect the soft, humanitarian, materialistic, and
apolitical impulses of democratic peoples, believed that all
manifestations of greatness in modern times must be highlighted and
encouraged--as long as they did not undermine democratic equality and
liberty. De Gaulle's politics of grandeur entailed a similar
correction or mitigation of the spirit and mores of democracy,
without rejecting its justice or necessity.

De Gaulle's politics of grandeur, therefore, was not an anachronistic
or nostalgic effort to revitalize a half-forgotten aristocratic
treasure. It was, instead, a self-conscious effort to deal with the
problem of democracy, particularly as that problem formulated itself
in a modern France, which in his lifetime was still torn by the great
struggles between Left and Right engendered by the cataclysm of the
French Revolution.

For de Gaulle as well as Tocqueville, France was something infinitely
more dignified than an abstract, self-interested unit in a
competitive game for the maximization of power and prestige. France
was an eminent representative of a liberal and Christian civilization
threatened in our century by the standardization and mechanization of
society. This collectivism had reached its fullest expression in
national socialist and communist totalitarianism, to be sure, but it
was also far advanced in liberal Europe. De Gaulle was struck by this
paradox: an unchecked individualism inexorably contributes to
collectivist politics and movements. A qualified politics of
grandeur--eschewing Napoleonic fantasies and imperialist
illusions--would fortify the prospects for liberty at home by
strengthening the wider political context within which it unfolds.

De Gaulle never concealed the largely instrumental and rhetorical
character of his politics of grandeur. In his Memoirs of Hope, he
frankly reported explaining to Adenauer how the politics of grandeur,
in fact, reflects the weakness and not the strength of the French

Essay Types: Essay