Charles de Gaulle: Why Your Parents Hate France

De Gaulle, the Earth’s Greatest Pain in the Ass

It might have been obvious that de Gaulle wasn’t finished with power. This was, after all, a total megalomaniac – a man who, in the 1950s, wrote a multi-volume autobiography where he only referred to himself in the third person. In his mind, he was a “man of destiny,” standing head and shoulders above the idiots and yes-men that comprised every political body within spitting distance. He liked to call other statesmen politi-chiennes, which is the French for politician with the French for little bitch tacked on to the end of it. At the height of his power in the 1960s, his people would call him le Général – French for Mussolini.

De Gaulle had always held himself above others. “He spoils his undoubted talents,” wrote a superior in the military, “by his excessive assurance, his contempt for other people’s point of view, and his attitude of a king in exile.” This attitude allowed him to condemn the surrender of his government as a false step by fools lacking his vision; it let him ignore the protest of his allies as mere noisy inconveniences. Perhaps it also let him see beyond the present into the likely futures that faced his country.

He knew that the postwar world would be something new and dangerous. The United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics would be the last men standing, and they would surely use their new powers just as the old empires had: to establish protectorates, spheres of influence, and vassal states. A diminished France, a weakened France, could be taken advantage of, abused, shackled to foreign corporations or sacrificed in a game of nuclear chess. If France didn’t assert itself, it might cease to exist as an independent nation.

De Gaulle had founded a new French state in the 1940s, but then he “quit” politics. (It was the sphere of lesser men.) Eventually, though, as he saw his country co-opted further and further into the Western Bloc and the pyramid scheme called NATO, he decided that he time had come once more. He had to fix France.

Upon his return to political power in 1958, de Gaulle immediately made it known that the most obnoxious man of them all was calling the shots. For one, he came back with a constitution he more or less wrote himself – accepted by popular vote – that gave the president of the republic great new powers. Over the protests of many, and despite as many as 30 assassinations attempts, he pressed on with an agenda that made him the most powerful person in the country and completely re-evaluated France’s role in the American-Soviet Century.

Since the war, France had been a card-carrying member of NATO, a nation under the U.S. nuclear umbrella. De Gaulle withdrew France from NATO command and forbade the U.S. from placing troops or missiles on French soil. He rejected Kennedy’s offer to sell France U.S.-built Polaris warheads, and instead had French scientists build and test their own nukes. He refused to sign the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which he said gave an atomic monopoly to the superpowers.

But he didn’t reserve his middle finger for nuclear matters alone – de Gaulle always vigorously supported the non-aligned movement, and tried to treat countries in both power blocs equally. He traveled to Cambodia during the Vietnam War and called for an American withdrawal from the region, then recognized the communist People’s Republic of China, which the U.S. had blacklisted. He even encouraged revolution in, of all places, Canada: on an official visit, he suddenly cried “Long live Free Quebec!” in front of a crowd in the French-speaking province. The Canadian officials forced him to leave the country immediately.

His message was clear: France doesn’t take orders. France can do whatever the hell it wants. France owes you nothing – certainly not eternal allegiance to Cold War strategies that might spell her doom. She’s her own country.

For American politicians, and even for the American people, this simple statement has left them slack-jawed and offended to the present day. France was, after all, supposed to be part of our bloc, the free world. France was supposed to be grateful that we fought in WWII. France was supposed to listen to us and fall in line with the anti-communist party line.

This line of thinking was exactly what terrified de Gaulle. His nation, in his childhood one of the mightiest in the world, was now dwarfed by the continent-spanning giants in the West and the East. It had entered the twentieth century, no longer the time where proud European states conquered the world and built guns and railroads; this was the century of nuclear missiles, irreconcilable ideological differences, with ruling states so hideously modern they all had acronyms for names. In this world, Europe seemed irrelevant, France, expendable.

What a horror for a nineteenth-century nationalist to have to suffer through.

His fear was not unfounded. Give another country total control over a land they have no respect for, and they will get up to all kinds of mischief. Witness MacArthur’s postwar junta in Japan, our multiple invasions of nearly every country in Central America, or the 1940s plans to rule France under AMGOT.

Ultimately, de Gaulle was only a patriot from a crippled, war-torn, increasingly overshadowed country in an age where superpower supremacy was a fact of life. With two giants constantly threatening to crush his nation underfoot, with France likely to lose everything no matter who “won” the Cold War, de Gaulle knew instinctively that he had to fight back. In every speech, every political position, every trip abroad, he chipped away at the Cold War status quo. He supported the non-aligned movement. He dealt with both communist and capitalist blocs, desperate to keep both giants guessing. When Soviet-backed communists tried to convert France, he co-opted some and executed others; when the U.S. tried to swallow up France in NATO, he gave them indigestion. De Gaulle’s fight was the struggle of the shrimp against the titan, was the denial of 1960s bipolar reality, was the fight for a multipolar world where each nation independent remained proud and capable of standing up for itself.

People have accused de Gaulle, and de Gaulle’s France, of being intransigent, foolish, and above all ungrateful.

But didn’t his intransigence cement France’s role in the postwar world, gaining his country a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, an occupation zone in Germany, and other honors accorded only to first-rank nations? Didn’t he switch France from the ranks of the “losers” to that of the “winners,” purely through bluster and stubbornness?

And was it foolish to resist foreign encroachment, whether Nazi or American? To say that both a U.S. protectorate in France and a Soviet stranglehold in Poland were inimical to the independence of nations?

And what kind of gratitude is it that ensures whimpering obedience to American interests in the ‘40s, the ‘50s, the ‘60s – until the end of time? Should we have shown our gratitude to France for its vital naval support during the Revolutionary War by obeying them until the 1820s? That’s not “gratitude.” It’s slavery.

De Gaulle demanded only the exact same rights that America, as a nation, has championed for centuries:

  1. The right to be the loudest and most obnoxious country in the room.
  2. The right to completely ignore international consensus and leave everybody else to pick up the pieces.
  3. The right to forge your own path freely and independently.

France, before during and after Charles de Gaulle, is of the same breed as the United States. We are both grand, dirty, arrogant, loudmouthed Republics. We both, in our politics, aspire to the same unreachable goal of true independence. We both deserve respect, for our great leaders and for our great ideals. And the decline of France’s empire, that nation’s transition from a global to a regional power, may not be so different from America’s eventual fate when our far-flung web of air force bases and our hammer of crushing wealth finally become unsustainable.

Through de Gaulle, France adapted quickly, forcefully, intelligently to a vastly changed world. Though France’s sun had set by the end of the war he’d been born hoping for, he refused to acknowledge the chill of night just as he had refused to acknowledge the surrender in 1940. De Gaulle never surrendered, to foe or to friend; he kept France a major power through sheer force of will.

When the time comes for America to give up its empire, we should aspire to de Gaulle’s rude genius, to his realpolitik, to his undiminished pride in diminished circumstances.

Respect France. Their past may be our future.