Charles de Gaulle had 'a certain idea of France' which even he didn't manage to articulate clearly. De Gaulle biographer and one of Britain's leading historians of modern France, Julian Jackson, talks us through some key books to get a sense of France's wartime leader and president, Charles de Gaulle.
I suppose the first question to ask is your motivation for writing a biography of Charles de Gaulle. You mention in the beginning of your book that there’s a massive industry around de Gaulle publishing. In fact, I think there’s an institute devoted to it. What was the gap in the industry’s production that you hoped to fill with your biography?
There’s a huge production on de Gaulle, more than anybody else in modern French history, particularly in France today. I was just in France a few weeks ago and spotted in a bookshop seven new books on de Gaulle. One was on de Gaulle’s humour, one was on the women in de Gaulle’s life — neither terribly big books! Another was on de Gaulle and Russia, there was one on de Gaulle and the Republic, one imagining what Franco and de Gaulle said to each other when they met in June 1970. And so it goes on. In France he occupies a space in the national memory even greater than Churchill in this country; it’s another order of magnitude. There isn’t the same volume of stuff in this country on de Gaulle, but there have been a number of biographies of him over the years.
I suppose the reason was that, as a historian of 20th century France, and particularly the occupation period, he’s a figure you can’t avoid. He’s the dominant figure, so it’s hard for a historian of that period, which I am, not to want to write about him. It was also stimulated by the opening of the public archives of de Gaulle a few years ago, covering his time as war leader, and then his time as president of the Fifth Republic. So this is the first biography that’s been able to use that enormous archive source.
Having said that, I don’t think they have produced any major revelations, but these new archives did provide some interesting anecdotes and a new kind of texture. I think the achievement of my book isn’t that there is suddenly some new revelation about de Gaulle. I don’t really believe historians should be looking for skeletons in cupboards or smoking guns, I don’t believe history works like news scoops. But I genuinely think that the books on him to date haven’t really tried to think about him properly, so I hope my book offers a more sophisticated, subtle and complicated interpretation of him. The great French biographies tend either to be very pro or very anti. He’s still very divisive in some ways.
That brings us neatly on to your five choices, the first of which is de Gaulle’s memoirs. What story do they tell, and how does he use them to elaborate this certain idea of France that he had?
The title of the book comes from one of the most famous sentences he ever wrote, ‘All my life I’ve had a certain idea of France.’ That’s the opening sentence. He wrote the memoirs in the 1950s when he was out of power. He’s writing them for a very explicit purpose, which is the creation of his own legend. It was a piece of very self-conscious mythmaking. It was making him into the central figure of what happened in France between 1940 and 1944. For example, he rather underplays the role of the internal resistance, and many resistors much resented the fact that de Gaulle didn’t give them enough space. But the story he wanted to tell was really about the military resurrection of France.
The memoirs are in three volumes that came out successively in 1954, 1956, and 1959. The first one is called L’appel, The Call, referring to the call he made in London on the BBC for the French to resist, but also to the call of history that calls on France’s saviour to save the country — that’s de Gaulle. So there’s an ambiguity there. The second volume is called Unity and the big theme of the second volume is the way the French, dispersed and unhappy in occupied France between 1942 and 1944, gather together around the saviour figure who’s in London. And then the third volume is called Salvation. It basically covers the period from ’44 when he comes back to France up to his retirement in ’46. The story in that volume is that he offered the French salvation: he saved them and then they rejected him. So it’s a kind of redemptive story from the fall in 1940 to the offer of salvation by the saviour who is later spurned. So he writes this epic story in retirement as a way of re-inserting himself back into French consciousness. It’s not exactly a piece of propaganda, but it is a piece of conscious mythmaking with a purpose.
What is the idea of France? Who knows? That’s one the mysteries in a way, because he never says what his idea of France is and you have to intuit it. The phrase probably comes from a writer who much influenced him, Maurice Barrès, who was a nationalist writer at the turn of the century. But he never defines this idea, because it is un-definable. I say somewhere in the book that de Gaulle is an existential nationalist, not an essentialist nationalist. Where, for example, the Vichy regime wanted to recreate a certain kind of rural, Catholic France of tradition inspired by certain profoundly conservative ideas, de Gaulle didn’t want to preserve a particular kind of France in aspic.
He wanted to preserve a France that was — another key word he uses — in the front rank (‘rang’). When I say he’s an existential nationalist, I mean he sees the relationship between nations as a continuous fight, and France has always got to be top, or near as top as can be, and that might involve change. So he’s not someone who’s holding onto an image of the past, he’s holding to an idea, not of what France is, but of the place that France should have in the world, which isn’t quite the same thing. One of his other famous phrases is that ‘France must marry her century.’ So he wasn’t holding on to an idea of an eternal, unchanging France, he was holding onto an idea of where France needed to be, and if to be there France had to change he was absolutely ready to change.
By the time he finished his third volume of memoirs, was the possibility of a return to power in the wake of the Algerian crisis on the horizon?
That’s a good question in the sense that volumes 1 and volumes 2 are written when he’s in the desert, to use the Gaullists’ biblical terminology. Volume 3 is almost finished at the moment he comes back to power in 1958. So, astonishingly, aged nearly 70, he found the energy in the first summer of his period as president to finish volume 3, which comes out in 1959. It ends talking about the French looking for a ray of hope and, by the time it’s published, the ray of hope has materialized — he’s in power!
Let’s talk about Chateaubriand’s Memoirs from Beyond the Tomb. This is a memoir as well. Can you tell us a bit about who Chateaubriand was, what he was trying to achieve in writing his memoirs? How can we link this to de Gaulle, considering he died 40 years before de Gaulle was born?
Yes, he died in 1848. The first thing everyone says about Chateaubriand is that he was the literary inventor of French romanticism. He came from a provincial aristocratic family from Brittany, fallen on hard times, but his father had done something to restore its fortunes. So he comes from of an ultra-traditionalist family in the last years of the Ancien Régime. He talks about being presented at court to Louis XVI. Louis XVI addresses one word to him and he’s very amusing about this. Then he played a role as a representative of the Breton nobility in 1789 in the lead-up to the French Revolution. He comes from this conservative, highly traditional background and arrives in Paris during the first stages of the revolution.
Was he hostile to the revolution?
Initially he had a certain sympathy with what they were trying to do but, with a kind of aristocratic fastidiousness, he didn’t like what he saw in the streets from the very beginning. He has wonderful passages on the early violence and the crowds and the demagogy and none of that appealed to his sensibility. But he wasn’t by any means totally out of sympathy with some of the early aspirations for a more liberal monarchy. Then he spends some time in America and comes back to France just before the Terror is getting into its full stride in 1792. He goes into exile with the émigrés, then actually fights with the royalist forces, the Austrians and the Prussians, against the revolution, is quite badly wounded, and goes into exile in London. He’s in London from 1793 until he returns to France in 1802 after Napoleon has taken power.
He works in London on a book about the origins of the revolution, but also the book that made his reputation, Génie du Christianisme, The Genius of Christianity, which was really a major Romantic statement. It was about re-discovering Catholicism and the beauty of Christianity. Back in France, he’s actually appointed to a diplomatic position by Napoleon, but quarrels with him very quickly in 1804 when he thinks Napoleon is becoming despotic, after the assassination of the Duc d’Enghien, an important member of the Bourbon family. At that point Chateaubriand goes into a kind of internal exile in France, and it’s when he’s in this internal exile in France, he’s persona non grata, he retires to his estates in the country, La Vallée aux Loups, the house he bought not far from Paris, that he starts to write these memoirs. Then, after the Restoration in 1815, he becomes a big figure in French politics. He becomes ambassador to London, ambassador to Berlin. So he’s writing the memoir over the rest of his life. The memoirs are written from the period when he was in internal exile right up until his death. One of the fascinating things about the book is that it’s a work continuously in progress, where the disillusioned old man, or ageing man, is reflecting on his life and how things haven’t worked out and so on.
How does he think about the revolution in the history of France? You point out in your book that de Gaulle doesn’t talk about the revolution much. He likes to talk about longer continuities. How does Chateaubriand deal with this rupture and how does he think about France in its wake?
I think this takes us to why de Gaulle was so fascinated by Chateaubriand. I chose this book because de Gaulle himself has said it had ‘haunted’ him. He said that when he started to re-read it in 1947-48, as he was beginning to think about his own memoirs. He said in a letter he wrote to Chateaubriand’s great grand-niece, that this book had lived with him since he first read it when he was twelve. He comes back to it again in 1969, when he starts his next set of memoirs after he’s left power, after May ’68. So Chateaubriand lives with him, and in his notebooks there are endless quotations from Chateaubriand and his speeches.
What fascinates de Gaulle about Chateaubriand is that this was a man who had been presented at court to Louis XVI as a young man, who had lived through the revolution, who lived through the post-revolution, and actually just lived to see the early days of the revolution of 1848. Chateaubriand was a man caught between two worlds – a man of the old world, who’s having to think about the new world made by the revolution, and his whole writing is suffused with a kind of melancholy, in the sense that you have to accept that the world has changed. That parallels de Gaulle. What fascinates de Gaulle in Chateaubriand, a running theme in Chateaubriand’s memoirs, is the tension between dreaming about the world as you want it and accepting the world as it is; finding a way between dreams and realities. Songes (dreams) is one of Chateaubriand’s favourite words, and de Gaulle wrote in his memoirs (slightly misquoting Chateaubriand), ‘What have I tried to do except to lead the French by dreams to reality?’
There’s a deep melancholy in Chateaubriand. There will be moments when he says, ‘Is any of this worthwhile, is anybody going to read me in 20 years’ time, will I even be remembered, do I count?’ There’s an element of play-acting in that, but there is also an element of genuine despair. De Gaulle once said about Chateaubriand, “what attracts me in Chateaubriand is his despair”. I think one of the aspects of a romantic sensibility is that sense of the meaninglessness of life.
Also, Chateaubriand has this extraordinarily complicated relationship to Napoleon. He felt that Napoleon was a despot but, at the same time, had a romantic fascination with him. De Gaulle had a similar, very complicated relationship with Napoleon. On one level, he wrote a lot about Napoleon, the great figure of the early 19th century, and yet de Gaulle once said that Napoleon left France smaller than he found it. You could say a lot of Chateaubriand’s book is a meditation on Napoleon.
Moving onto Charles Péguy. He doesn’t come from a socially conservative background like de Gaulle and Chateaubriand, certainly not a socially grand one. Perhaps a bit unusually, he’s a strong republican, a socialist and, at least initially I think, he’s also a Catholic. So why did you choose his book, NotreJeunesse, and what is it about?
I think out of all the books I’ve chosen, Péguy is probably the least well known to an English audience. But the first reason I chose him was that on many occasions de Gaulle said it was the book that most influenced him as a young man and Charles Péguy the author that most influenced him. Péguy is a very strange figure in the French literary landscape, because he has a curious, repetitive, poetic, incantatory prose, very difficult to translate. Some people cannot stand it in French. But his story is exemplary of a particular generation. He came from a very modest background, his mother barely literate. But he was a success story of the republican system. He was extraordinarily able as a schoolboy, went to Paris, became a literary figure and so on, and then threw himself into the defense of Dreyfus. He founded a journal to defend Dreyfus. He was a passionate republican, a passionate socialist of a kind — not a Marxist, but with an extraordinary reverence for the ordinary people of France — and passionately against anti-Semitism.
But like many of that generation he has a kind of conversion. He moves from socialism, republicanism, being a Dreyfusard, to rediscovering the nation and religion. Notre Jeunesse tells that story. And the story is one of disillusion with the way the Dreyfus affair has been hijacked by politicians for their own ends, and how all that was beautiful in the Dreyfus affair, all that was noble, has been harnessed to mean-spirited anti-clericalism, and also by socialist internationalism and anti-militarism. So Péguy rediscovers the army, the nation, and the church. But the key thing is the most famous phrase of that book, “everything begins as mystique, and everything ends as politique”. And that’s what he thinks happened with the Dreyfus affair. It began as a noble cause and was derailed by opportunistic, self-seeking, mean-spirited politicians.
What inspired him in the Dreyfus case, if it wasn’t anti-anti-Semitism, and republicanism. I mean what did he think it was about?
The values of universal human justice. He thought that in fighting the Dreyfus affair, you were defending the cause of humanity. For him, the values of the Drefusards were the defense of everything that was noblest in the French republican tradition — justice, humanity, universal values, and so on. But the key thing about him and where the link to de Gaulle comes, is that he doesn’t say ‘I’m no longer republican and socialist now that I am Catholic and patriotic.’ He says, ‘I’m all these things now’, and what he’s aiming at is an extraordinary sort of syncretic, holistic view of France, in which he wants to bring all traditions of France together. He wanted to link Joan of Arc to the revolution. They represent some eternal spirit of France. And so he is about binding together what you might call the two Frances. The Dreyfus affair supposedly divided France into two, and what Péguy is offering is a reconciliation. He has a famous phrase “the Republic is our kingdom of France”. In other words, the kingdom of France and the Republic are all part of France. De Gaulle has a phrase in his war memoirs on the first page where he talks about how for him “France is like a princess in a fairy story, Madonna in a fresco”. That could come straight out of Péguy. Péguy is offering this extraordinary, overarching synthesis of the unity of France, that French history is a continuum and a whole. De Gaulle is obsessed with transcending the fracture of 1789 and finding a way of re-stitching together the French story.
This leads very nicely to the next two authors, particularly because they could not have been sympathetic to pre-1789 France because they’re both Jewish. The first is Raymond Aron’s memoirs. What does this book tell us about de Gaulle?
Aron is seen as one of the great French liberal thinkers and, in that sense, could not be more different from de Gaulle, because no one would ever describe de Gaulle as liberal. Aron is this sceptical, highly cerebral, liberal philosopher. But his memoirs, almost despite himself, are a kind of endless meditation on de Gaulle because Aron’s memoirs are about Aron in the century, and because Aron was not only a philosopher but also a very engaged intellectual. What he famously said about himself was that, ‘my problem in life is that I was an anti-Gaullist when I should be a Gaullist, and a Gaullist when I should’ve been an anti-Gaullist.’ And that’s typical of Aron’s rather skeptical, slightly self-deprecating style. In 1940, as a young Jewish intellectual, he was at the École Normale Supérieure, the exact contemporary of, and very close to, Jean Paul-Sartre. They were the two luminaries of their year, although Aron always felt that Sartre had a genius that he lacked.
But Aron went to London in 1940 because he had this implacable lucidity about what would happen in France, he saw what was going to happen. There were many French people in London during the war who were quite anti-Gaullist, unconvinced by this figure. Aron was sceptical without being hostile and that scepticism emerged in an article he wrote in 1943, “The Shadow of Bonaparte.” He was obviously totally opposed to the Vichy regime, but wasn’t sure that what de Gaulle might become was any better. But then, in the late 1940s and 1950s, at the height of the Cold War, Aron, almost uniquely among French intellectuals, opposed the hold that communism had on French intellectual life. He wrote a famous book called the Opium of the Intellectuals – that is to say communism. At that point, he actually rallies to de Gaulle, when de Gaulle is trying to come back to power. Afterwards a lot of people feel that period in de Gaulle’s life was problematic, because he was flirting with some extreme right ideas, out of anti-communism. Hence why Aron said, ‘I was Gaullist when I shouldn’t have been Gaullist.’
In 1958, Aron reluctantly supports de Gaulle’s return to power, because he thinks the Fourth Republic can’t deal with Algeria. And Aron is unique among French intellectuals of the right in coming early to the view that Algeria should be independent, and he did this just out of logic. He approached the world through a sort of implacable logic, and the logic of the situation was that Algeria was costing France too much. It wasn’t that he was sentimentally attracted to the idea of the nationalism of the FLN [Algeria’s National Liberation Front], but the logic pointed to independence. So when de Gaulle comes back to power and doesn’t move very fast towards Algerian independence, Aron becomes very disappointed in him. After Algeria does become independent, Aron becomes very disillusioned by de Gaulle’s anti-Americanism, because Aron is an Atlanticist liberal.
In the English edition I read Kissinger writes the preface…
Aron is very much part of that world. He had extensive contacts in Harvard and Kissinger was a friend. He had a big foot in the States and was very hostile to what he saw as de Gaulle’s anti-Americanism, his taking France out of NATO and continuously attacking the Atlantic alliance. He is also deeply shocked when, in 1967, de Gaulle effectively takes the side of the Arab states over Israel in the six-day war. Aron wrote a famous pamphlet denouncing de Gaulle because he felt the language de Gaulle was using against Israel was verging on anti-Semitic. He didn’t go as far as to say de Gaulle was anti-Semitic, but that the language he used had made anti-Semitism possible again. Aron knew very well that in London, during the war, de Gaulle had many Jewish people around him, and there is no evidence of de Gaulle being anti-Semitic.
Finally, in 1968, Aron is absolutely traumatized by the events of that year and, for once, this supposedly highly cerebral intellectual machine responds very emotionally. He is horrified by what he sees as the nihilism of the student revolution. He famously called 1968 a psychodrama; he thought it was just an explosion of narcissistic, nihilistic youth. So now he’s not exactly back in the camp of de Gaulle, but he’s supporting the regime. I chose this book because Aron’s ideas of France are always in dialogue with de Gaulle’s idea of France. And because de Gaulle had enormous respect for him.
Moving on to the Rousso book. He’s actually born after World War II and he’s a professional historian. He would have spent his youth under the de Gaulle presidency. Tell us a bit about Vichy Syndrome. This isn’t a memoir but it’s a book about memory, right?
Exactly right. It’s been an immensely influential book, and de Gaulle plays a role. Rousso is still a very active historian today, and continues to write extraordinarily interestingly and importantly about memory. One of his other books is called The Haunting Past. Vichy Syndrome, Haunting Past… Un passé qui ne passe pas is another one. It is a past that the French cannot escape from.
The fascination of his book is the way in which the French are still trying to come to terms with that experience of 1940 to 1944. One of the narrative arcs of the Vichy Syndrome is the gradual disintegration of the Gaullist myth, the myth that was created by the war memoirs discussed above and that reaches a kind of paroxysm in 1964 when de Gaulle, under the patronage of André Malraux, his minister of culture, has the remains of the great Gaullist war hero, Jean Moulin, transferred to the Panthéon, where the heroes of the French Republic lie. The pantheonization of Moulin produced one of André Malraux’s most famous speeches. Malraux’s narrative is that, without Moulin, the resistance would have just been fragmented and ineffective and quarrelsome and divided but that, sent by de Gaulle, Moulin federates, unites the resistance behind de Gaulle. So the pantheonization of Moulin with this extraordinary speech by Malraux, is the culmination of the Gaullist myth which the memoirs had started.
Rousso explores the reasons why the French gradually – but particularly after ’68 – can no longer believe in that myth. Perhaps they never believed it, but they at least said they believed it. He plots how in film and literature, in public debate, the Gaullist myth is shattered. One of his chapters is called ‘the shattered mirror.’
One of the important stories that de Gaulle tells in his war memoirs is how, when he arrives back in Paris on 25 August 1944, he goes to the ministry of war, to the old office he had occupied in June 1940. He says, ‘I went in and opened the door and not a stick of furniture had been changed, the curtains were the same curtains, the chairs were the same chairs, nothing was missing except the state. I sat down and got to work.’ The point he’s making is that Vichy had never existed. Later that afternoon, he crosses the river and he goes to meet the resistance, who are waiting to greet him at the Hotel de Ville, which is just opposite the river from the ministry of war. He arrives, and they all cheer him and he gives an extraordinarily moving and wonderful speech. But then the leader of the resistance council, Georges Bidault, says, ‘Now you’re back in Paris, now you can declare the republic restored.’ And de Gaulle says, ‘No, I can’t, because the republic has never ceased to exist.’ In other words, wherever de Gaulle was, the republic was. So if you fast forward to the debates in the 1990s and 2000s, then if France was really in London, and a French state didn’t exist between 1940 and 1944 except in London, the terrible things that happened weren’t done by France. They were done by the Germans. And so when you deal with the death of 75,000 Jews, who’s to blame? The official Gaullist answer was ‘Germany’. Obviously there were some collaborators, and there were bad individuals, but ‘France’ was not responsible. It took Jacques Chirac, who became president in 1995, to say publicly from the first time, on the anniversary of the biggest roundup of Jews in Paris in July 1942, that, on that day, ‘France’ committed an ‘irreparable’ act. It was French gendarmes who were arresting the Jews, and French train drivers who were driving the trains that took them to the border. It’s probably the only thing he’ll ever be remembered for. As president for ten years he did absolutely nothing except make one speech, which everybody remembers. And he could do this because he had no stake in that past.
Macron has gone even further. He pushed the guilt of France even further. So I chose Rousso because these debates are all about the Gaullist legacy, whether the Gaullist story is a story that we can still accept or not.
Were Macron and Chirac able to make those speeches because there is a new consensus or did they create a lot of public controversy? Is there still a large body of French opinion still trying to maintain the Gaullist myth?
Some old Gaullists were shocked by what Chirac said. I know very respectable and distinguished French historians — of the left actually — who think that Chirac should not have made that speech, that it was, in a sense, undermining the legitimacy of de Gaulle. They worry about that. I think there generally is now a consensus on this, but when people start to think hard about it, how it works, how it fits into revering de Gaulle. You can revere de Gaulle, just say he was not France, but the whole point of de Gaulle’s analysis was that Vichy didn’t exist, it was just a parenthesis, it just didn’t exist, it was nothing, it was just a handful of puppets.
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The French are still finding ways to deal with this issue because, if it was France, then it makes the French worry about what kind of country they are that could do such a thing. In France, it seems to me, it’s a question of squaring circles, of still being able to be proud of being French while accepting that the myth was a myth. This was very clear in Chirac’s own speech. On one level France committed irreparable acts, but then France was saved by the Just, les Justes, those gentiles who saved Jews, celebrated by Israel.
And increasingly, there seems to be a new myth growing up that almost every French was a Juste. A film that came out a few years ago, La Rafle, the Roundup, had a huge success. And the line of the Rafle is that Pétain, Laval, the bad people did exist, and let’s not pretend they didn’t exist, and let’s not pretend they weren’t the state, but luckily every French shopkeeper, policeman, baker, bus driver saved a Jew here, helped a Jew there, so you see it’s a new way of getting around that problem. So my answer to your question is, although I don’t think the Macron statement in itself is controversial, dealing with that past remains complicated and still is argued over. I think the way the French think about that past now undermines certain of the myths about de Gaulle. So we have this paradoxical situation where everybody in France reveres de Gaulle, but nobody actually believes the Gaullist myth any longer. It’s a curious paradox.
When you’re talking about the way they’ve wrestled with this issue, it sounds like people are making a distinction between a sort of abstract idea of France that is almost an ambition, rather than a reality, which perhaps doesn’t really exist in a British mindset, but which French people can talk about without being dishonest.
Yes I think there’s something in that word ambition. One of de Gaulle’s other key words we haven’t mentioned which is a key word of the war memoirs, “France cannot be France without its grandeur.” Sometimes he was asked, ‘What is grandeur?’ He really wasn’t some kind of unhinged maniac who thought that France was going to become a world power. He was deeply realistic about the realities of the world. He often replied that grandeur was an ambition to surpass yourself. It’s about wanting to try to be something even if you can’t quite get there. And yes the French do have this idea. I think this period is particularly troublesome for the French precisely because they do have a certain idea of what France is, and that period seems to go against all those ideas, if they were guilty.
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De Gaulle once said, ‘there’s a two thousand year pact between France and the liberty of the world.’ He was able to talk that talk about France and freedom and so on. But there was a paradox in de Gaulle. Fundamentally, de Gaulle was a nationalist. He believed all nations are engaged in a struggle for power with other nations. That’s Darwinian, it’s part of the world and it will never change. So he always talked about Russia, because communism would come and communism would go, but Russia would always be there. And he would always say about America that American talk of liberal internationalism was just a cloak for American interest. He was absolutely consistent about that. All ideologies are just cloaks for the interests of nations.
But he wasn’t totally consistent when it came to France. If I ever had dinner with de Gaulle, the one question I’d like to ask him is: “You have a very coherent and very clear view of the relationship between ideology and nation. But you also say that France represents a certain idea of humanism, of universal values of humanism for the world, and that France is a light of the world. If you believe all these things are just cloaks for national ambition, do you really believe that? Or are you saying that because you’re French?” The Vichy regime is so difficult for the French to deal with, because it seems to be an assault on so much of what the French are supposed to think being French is about.
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