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

"More than anything else, political independence commensurate with my
country's position and aims was essential to its survival in the
future. 'The French people', I told him, 'had for centuries grown
accustomed to think of their country as a mastodon of Europe. It was
this sense of their greatness and the responsibilities it entailed
that preserved their unity, although by nature, ever since the time
of the Gauls, they have been inclined to divisions and airy
illusions. Now once again circumstances--by which I mean France's
salvation at the end of the war, her strong institutions, and the
profound upheaval which the world is undergoing--offer them the
chance of fulfilling an international mission, without which they
would lose interest in themselves and fall into disruption."

The political necessity of grandeur is also stated with clarity in
the famous first paragraph of his War Memoirs:

"All my life I had a certain idea of France. This is inspired by
sentiment as much as by reason. The emotional side of me naturally
imagines France, like the princess in the fairy stories or the
Madonna in the frescoes, as dedicated to an exalted and exceptional
destiny. Instinctively I have the feeling that Providence has created
her either for complete successes or for exemplary misfortunes. If,
in spite of this, mediocrity shows in her acts and deeds, it strikes
me as an absurd anomaly, to be imputed to the faults of Frenchmen,
not to the genius of the land. But the positive side of my mind also
assures me that France is not really herself unless in the front
rank; that only vast enterprises are capable of counterbalancing the
ferments of dispersal which are inherent in her people; that our
country, as it is, surrounded by the others, as they are, must aim
high and hold itself straight, on pain of mortal danger. In short, to
my mind, France cannot be France without greatness."

De Gaulle's France is called to greatness; it is dedicated to an
exalted and exceptional destiny. But as de Gaulle emphasizes in the
first chapter of The Army of the Future (1934), a commitment to
greatness is also a practical imperative if France is to compensate
for the military and geographical vulnerability of the French
hexagon, especially its untenable border in the northeast and the
resulting exposure of Paris. And above all, it is a moral necessity.
Without a statesmanship imbued with a passion for the greatness and
rank of France, the country is destined to be undone by its own
passionate but unsettled political temperament, and afflicted by
partisan divisions deeply rooted in its national and revolutionary

De Gaulle never explicitly defined grandeur. We must infer its
meaning by unpacking the implications and context of his hortatory
rhetoric. Stanley Hoffmann is right to observe that grandeur does not
entail an ideology, because it is "not unalterably tied to any
specific policies or forms of power." The commentators agree that
grandeur implies France's continued ability to act decisively on the
world stage, to display its ambition in the drama of universal
history. Above all, it involves the self-conscious defense of the
independence, honor, and rank of the nation. However, this honorable
self-regard does not entail the primacy of foreign over domestic
policy. Gaullist grandeur cultivates an attitude of solicitude for
national unity and self-respect, not the exercise of unlimited
imperial ambitions. De Gaulle's willingness to withdraw from Algeria,
to the consternation of the partisans of a French Algeria,
illustrates that a politics of grandeur is not essentially tied to an
imperial option. The concern for rank is, first and foremost, a means
toward national flourishing and not an end in itself. It is an
indispensable precondition for sustaining the moral and political
unity of France. But at the same time, de Gaulle did not make foreign
policy merely instrumental to domestic concerns. Rather, he affirmed
the mutual dependence of unity and moderation at home and qualified
self-assertion abroad. Unity is a precondition of grandeur, but
grandeur makes possible national coherence and flourishing.

De Gaulle believed that only a politics of grandeur could unite the
French people around a mystique capable of incorporating and
transcending the great division between Left and Right opened up by
the Revolution. François Furet has argued that de Gaulle created the
first widely accepted and fully legitimate regime of
post-Revolutionary France, the first "republic of the center." I
believe that this was de Gaulle's self-conscious intention as a
national "Legislator." A merely institutional solution to France's
problems, one content to restore energy to the executive and end the
domination of parliamentary deputies, could not long sustain the
imagination or civic faith of the French people. It risked
establishing what Philippe Bénéton has called "consensus without

Democratic modernity is characterized by a relentless
depoliticization of society. The salutary triumph of commerce and
culture, what the philosophers of the eighteenth century called
"civilization" or "civil society", paradoxically risks attenuating
the civic realm where a common good is articulated through
legislative deliberation and, above all, de Gaulle believed, by the
executive's actions on behalf of the nation's place in the world.
What contemporary American conservatives wish to do by strengthening
the art of association and the vitality of local
self-government--namely to "repoliticize" apathetic and dependent
individuals--de Gaulle aimed to do principally through a politics of
grandeur. In addition, de Gaulle recognized the need for domestic
reforms in his highly centralized nation in order to accomplish this
aim. He wished to encourage greater grass-roots participation in the
management of business enterprises and proposed the "regionalization"
of the Senate.

De Gaulle's critics are undoubtedly correct that the establishment of
a strong, perhaps hyper-presidential republic in France after 1958
conflicted somewhat with his desire to reinvigorate French civil
society. His highly centralized Fifth Republic made politics
inaccessible to ordinary citizens except through the most distant
forms of representation. His emphasis on grandeur was also
substantially at odds with the commercial and utilitarian character
of modern life. But the refounding of the French state was necessary
to correct the weakness of the previous parliamentary republic in
France, to overcome its ideological divisions, and to restore
France's place in the world. Anglo-American commentators sometimes
forget that there can be no civil society without a political
instrument to forge and protect it.

Europe and the Nation

Whatever the problems with his specific solutions or recommendations,
de Gaulle was concerned above all to preserve political life, at
least in its national form. And he saw "Europe", in its dominant
transnational expression, as a threat to the preservation of a
properly political existence. But, one might retort, must one choose
between Europe and political life? Doesn't the European project, the
building of a united Europe, provide an adequate equivalent for
national self-assertion? Is not Europe capable of providing an
ennobling substitute for the older forms of political life? That is
certainly the shared faith (or illusion) of the dominant part of the
French and European political elite today. Indeed, in 1993, the
French government even went so far as to claim de Gaulle for the
cause of transnational Europe by putting up billboards and signs
announcing that Charlemagne, Napoleon, and de Gaulle would
unequivocally recommend a Oui vote in the French referendum on the
Maastricht Treaty!

De Gaulle, of course, was a "good European" and played an important
role in advancing Franco-German reconciliation and in cementing
European union after 1958. But the contemporary European political
class hesitates between the transnationalist model of Jean Monnet and
Robert Schuman, and de Gaulle's confederal model of European unity.
Everywhere we are told that "Europe" is inevitable despite the fact
that the relationship of the emerging Europe to the "sovereign"
nation-states remains almost wholly unclarified. Pierre Manent has
forcefully highlighted this contradiction:

"After the Second World War the European idea and its accompanying
institutions facilitated the reconstruction on solid foundations of
the European nation-state, while also making plausible, imaginable,
and even desirable the withering away of this political form. But
does 'Europe' today signify the depoliticization of the life of
peoples, that is, the increasingly methodical reduction of their
collective existence to the activities of civil society and the
mechanism of civilization? Or does it instead entail the construction
of a new political body, the body of a great, enormous Nation? The
construction of Europe has made progress only because of this
ambiguity and thus has taken on--as the vector of these two
contradictory projects--its character as an imperious, indefinite and
opaque movement. Yet this at first rather fortunate ambiguity has
become paralyzing and soon risks becoming fatal. The sleepwalker's
assurance with which 'Europe' pursues its indefinite extension is the
result of its refusal to think about itself comprehensively, that is,
to define itself politically."

Charles de Gaulle did not share this paralyzing ambivalence. He had a
clear vision of a Europe of nations. After returning to power in
1958, he affirmed his government's support for the Treaty of Rome and
for the process of greater European integration and cooperation. His
government was most immediately concerned with rectifying a series of
practical economic difficulties, from the maintenance of external
tariffs that aimed to differentiate sharply those within the
community from those without, to the establishment of an agricultural
policy whose immediate goal was to protect French agriculture from
the effects of foreign competition.

Essay Types: Essay