Speaking in 1952, Charles de Gaulle observed: “Every Frenchman was, is and will be Gaullist. Description of French society from the military defeat of 1940 to the political convulsions of the Fourth Republic, the general’s statement was a considerable exaggeration. But as a prophecy of how French politicians would honor him 69 years later, in the run-up to next April’s presidential election, that was eerily correct.
From the far right to the left, most of the presidential candidates pay homage to de Gaulle. The reasons are to be found in a longing for reassuring historical myths. On the one hand, de Gaulle defends too elusive national unity amid today’s resentful bickering over the future of France and declining respect for political parties and professional politicians.
On the other hand, de Gaulle symbolizes a happier time when France under his leadership regained self-respect and pursued a distinctive path in the world that allowed the country to be faithful to its higher self. Few or no French politicians ignore the famous words on the front page of his wartime memoirs: “France cannot be France without greatness.
For much of the French public, de Gaulle is the greatest figure in the nation’s history, and the further back his era goes, the taller he is compared to his successors. Or as the left-wing intellectual Régis Debray wrote in 1994: “For a long time to come, his name alone will serve as a giant Indian eraser to erase mediocrity.
This is how tributes poured in earlier this month from all political circles on the 51st anniversary of de Gaulle’s death. He was a war hero, and in 1958 he almost single-handedly founded the Fifth Republic, which claims to be the most stable political system in France since the absolute monarchy of the 18th century. Yet respect for de Gaulle is full of contradictions and selective uses of history.
In her quest for the presidency, Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Rally, has long tried to detoxify the image of her party. Showing respect for de Gaulle is part of that effort. Under its original name of Front National, however, the party was fiercely anti-Gaullist, not least because de Gaulle, as the first president of the Fifth Republic, oversaw the independence of the French colony of Algeria.
For several decades, the French leftists were no less scathing towards de Gaulle. François Mitterrand, elected in 1981 as the first socialist president of the Fifth Republic, wrote a pamphlet in 1964 which condemned de Gaulle’s system of government as a “permanent coup”. Twenty years later, Mitterrand pointedly avoided mentioning de Gaulle by name when he celebrated the 40th anniversary of the D-Day landings in Normandy that led to the liberation of France. The pleasures of controlling the presidency created by de Gaulle ended up changing the game for the Socialists.
President Emmanuel Macron, who is seeking re-election next year, makes more brazen use of Gaullist imagery than any of his predecessors. On his official photo, De Gaulle’s memoirs are open on his desk at the Elysee Palace. Macron also added a cross of Lorraine, a symbol of Gaullist patriotism, to the logo of the presidency.
Not content with that, it emerged this month that Macron altered the French flag that hangs at the Elysee Palace, darkening the blue of the tricolor so that it is reminiscent of the flag used in France’s most serious times in wartime in the 1790s, 1914 and 1940s. In 1976, President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing changed to a lighter blue which corresponds to the official European flag. Is this a sign that Macron is losing confidence in the EU? Barely.
Because no one will know better than Macron than de Gaulle once thought: “It is by being fully French that one is the most European.” . . France, when it succeeds in developing its interests, does so in the interest of all.