The figure of Charles de Gaulle remains unexplained in sufficient depth, at least in Hungary. As professor of Szeged University, I recall classes in constitutional law where we would talk for hours about the American Constitution, describing the administrative organisation of the United States, analysing Great Britain and the legacy of parliamentarism. As a Francophile to the bone and a confirmed believer in the French legal system, I always thought it important to include France in this line of study and to familiarise our youth with the peculiar arrangement of state power that this country has championed over the times. Indeed, in drafting Hungary’s Fundamental Law for adoption, we carefully looked at the elements in French constitutional system that we imagined could be transposed into Hungarian law.
It seems safe to say that, in recent years, the names of Jean Monnet or Robert Schuman have had more currency in Hungary than that of Charles de Gaulle. To some extent, this was to be expected in light of the process of accession, in which everyone was primarily interested in finding out how the European Union came into being and about the men directly behind the project. These issues were explained and debated widely in a variety of forums, including events hosted by the French Institute in Budapest. Yet if you fly to Paris, the airport where you will land is still named Charles de Gaulle, and when you take public transport downtown, you will probably be dropped off at the major hub called Charles-de-Gaulle-Étoile. It is an interesting contrast indeed: on the one hand one hears a lot about the European Union, Jean Monnet, and the delegation of sovereignty, while on the other hand a number of prominent locations and sights in Paris remain dedicated to the memory of de Gaulle.
While serving as Hungary’s Ambassador to Paris, I once paid a visit to the former estate of the General in Colombey-les-Deux-Églises, a small village near Troyes in Central France. The well-preserved mansion that used to be the home of the de Gaulle family is still open to the public. The simple furnishings alone suggest a milieu favoured by the puritanical soldier. The well-sized park on the grounds served for Anne, de Gaulle’s daughter who had Down syndrome, to take leisurely walks in open air. A huge museum nearby, devoted not so much to de Gaulle himself as to the age he lived in, has on display a car with two bullet holes in it commemorating an assassination attempt on the General.
In our perspective rooted in Hungary, we may have a different view of French history than the French themselves, but one thing is certain: the greatness of France as a nation has always been linked with individuals. The sovereign, centralised kingdom of France was created by Louis IX the Saint, and a brief visit to Versailles suffices to bow to the role of Louis XIV, the Sun King. Although Napoleon waged a number of wars to expand the gloire of France, he was also instrumental in laying the foundations for peaceful civic culture and development. (The compendium of civil law known as Code Napoléon still rings familiar to more than just legal scholars.) Whenever France created something grand, something of great consequence for the world or just for Europe, it was always due to the efforts of one distinguished individual or another. As one of these seminal figures who made history, Charles de Gaulle always strove to see his own country from the vantage point of the outsider, the better to understand cause and effect behind the events. He found the Third Republic to have been weak, and that it was this weakness that had led to the collapse of France by the outbreak of World War II.
De Gaulle was convinced that France had been frustrated, both politically and in terms of defence, by individual and party politics in its attempts to prepare for, prevent, or fend off Hitler’s aggression. Remarkably, the General’s war memoirs make it clear that he was less worried by the prospect of military defeat than by that of the usurpation of French state power. His worst fears were indeed confirmed when the collaborationist Vichy regime stood up and took over the operation of what was virtually the complete French administration – now under German control.
It is hardly an exaggeration to claim that de Gaulle single-handedly saved his country, at the very least on the one occasion when, refusing to acquiesce in the armistice of 1940, he declared a France Libre and continued to wage what was to become an ultimately triumphant war on the side of the Allies.
His comeback as head of state in 1958 was likewise motivated less by personal ambition than by the desire to rescue France from the Fourth Republic, that he thought lacked the power and institutional stability necessary for the state to rise to the massive challenges of the day, including the Cold War, the nuclear armament race, the escalating movements for independence in Algeria and overseas, and the deepening of Communist influence on the home front. In 1958, the Assembly adopted the Constitution of the Fifth Republic with a powerful, non-partisan president at the helm. In 1962, the citizens of France voted in a referendum to approve a constitutional amendment, providing that the President must thenceforth be elected by direct and secret popular ballot. De Gaulle gained a landslide victory over the left and some of the right on a show of force by the French people who came out in support of their General. Later, in 1965, he was reconfirmed in his office – now by direct popular ballot, and by an equally decisive majority. This victory marked the apex of de Gaulle’s ability to shape the state to his own likeness.
De Gaulle’s important message to us today is that we need not be afraid of the people. De Gaulle looked to the people, rather than the party representatives sitting in Parliament, as the supreme power capable of giving him legitimacy. In this world of ours, we all too often come up against powers that are oligarchic or technocratic in nature. There is a vision opposed to this, which says that popular sovereignty is vital and that legitimacy can only be conferred by the people. It is a thought worth considering in the 21st century.
What de Gaulle created was, to all intents and purposes, a monarchy grafted onto the stock of the Republic, an arrangement that suited his strong and unyielding character and overall make-up as a statesman. In the Fifth Republic as he envisioned it, a single person takes the lead, and to this day in France, this decisive power has been exercised by the President. Upon being adopted, the Constitution of the Fifth Republic came under fierce criticism from many corners, including by François Mitterrand. Later on as President, Mitterrand nevertheless proved perfectly capable of living with this Constitution, demonstrating the degree to which the perception of any given constitution may change over time. Those who oppose it at first may eventually come round and get along with it quite well. In this respect, too, France can be an example for other countries to emulate.
In the scheme of things I have outlined, no country can be successful unless it has a charismatic leader, and de Gaulle was certainly one. For one thing, a leader without charisma is destined to fail. Nor is it indifferent what meaning one assigns to the word. Charisma comes from Greek. The Apostle Paul used it to signify a state of grace, a spiritual gift. In political science, sociology and public discourse, it usually means a sort of radiance or aura. It is in this distorted sense that Hitler has been referred to as a charismatic politician. The only reason I am dwelling on the etymology is because the word has become a trendy catchphrase these days. Indeed, there seems to be a general need for good, charismatic leaders like de Gaulle in Europe, and around the world today.
De Gaulle earned the respect of the free world by dint of his staunch resistance. Yet his ambition was more than just to salvage or restore the honour of his nation: he was determined to save his state as well. We cannot talk about a free and strong Europe without France being strong and free.
On to the relationship between de Gaulle and Europe, then. My topic may be rephrased as the nation state or nation versus Europe. De Gaulle professed to be a Frenchman and therefore a European, and indeed he attained greatness in both of these capacities. Curiously, however, he is hardly ever mentioned in the same breath with the founding fathers of European integration such as Schuman, De Gasperi, Adenauer, Monnet, Spaak and the rest. Incidentally, Monnet opposed the General fiercely, not least (although far from exclusively) over their widely differing visions of Europe, and considered de Gaulle a positive threat to the French people and all of Europe.
So what did Monnet think made a good European? He believed that the mark of a good European was faith in a supranational entity deriving its legitimacy from international law, such as the Treaty of Rome. By contrast, de Gaulle believed in l’Europe des patries, in a Europe of nations, in the concert européen, or the accord among European nations and, above all, in the mission of France itself. The latter was always the topmost priority for him, the tricolour invariably shading his view of Europe, as it were. Nor did he ever shirk from direct confrontation when he perceived a threat to the interests of France. A case in point was his politique de la chaise vide, or “policy of the empty chair” when, from the end of July 1965 to late January 1966, France stayed away from the sessions of the Council of the EEC with the aim of undermining the principle of adopting decisions by majority vote. The institutional stalemate ended with the Luxembourg Compromise, which preserved the institute of vote by a qualified majority on certain policy issues, but enabled member states to block a proposal citing vital national interests, even if it was otherwise passed by the requisite majority in the Council.
We see very similar debates unfold in Europe today, some milder, others positively harsh and adamant. Suffice it to recall the issue of the UK referendum. And smaller countries too, such as Hungary, may have very legitimately national interests of their own which deserve to be stood up for. De Gaulle’s legacy is instructive in this regard as well.
So de Gaulle was a “sovereigntist” in opposition to the federalist majority among the founders of the EC/EU. Yet in some way the General must unquestionably be regarded as a founder of our post-war Europe, indeed as the founding father of it, as long as we consider European unity to be about more than just a common- law arrangement. Back during the war, in Algiers, de Gaulle had already pointed to the need of creating a sort of cluster of nations in Western Europe whose “arteries” would be constituted by La Manche, the Mediterranean and the Rhine. During the Cold War, he presaged the inevitable emergence of a Europe that would stretch from the Atlantic to the Urals. All the while, however, the ideal of independence remained the fulcrum of his vision, in the sense of an independent, sovereign France, and a “European Europe”, free from Russian and even American influence. (Remarkably, de Gaulle’s France became the first among Western powers to recognise the People’s Republic of China, in 1964.) De Gaulle also remained steadfastly opposed to the idea of Britain’s membership, because he considered the UK as subservient to American interests.
How was it possible to reconcile the politics of independence with the politics of a unified Europe? By the simultaneous adherence to two ideals, which de Gaulle articulated in the famous dictum of L’Europe est faite d’hommes libres et d’États indépendants – “Europe consists of free individuals and independent states”. De Gaulle was an unconditional advocate of close intergovernmental cooperation among the states of continental Europe. This included a vision of the political union of Western European countries beyond the Common Market, embodied in the Fouchet Plan, which was never to be implemented.
Yet de Gaulle had eyes to see a divided, schizophrenic Europe. He held out to vanquished Germany a hand that was not just helping but positively friendly, and powerful enough to reach through walls and thickets of barbed wire. First and foremost, de Gaulle was a statesman rather than an ideologue. His gaze penetrated the Iron Curtain, behind the veil of the accursed East European system, to perceive the countries there for what they were: European nations with a grand past that represented a historical reality greater than any ephemeral regime. He knew that Europe could not be confined to the borders of the European Community. As a military leader and strategist, he gave precedence to Europe’s geographical map over its political incarnation. This broader vision informed any number of his diplomatic initiatives, among them his visits to Warsaw and Moscow, aimed not so much at legitimising Communism as at bringing a ray of hope to peoples behind the Iron Curtain. Embracing the politics of refusing to be locked up in one’s narrower world, de Gaulle was a precursor of the détente. (It is for a reason that English uses the French word to denote the process marked by the remission of tension between the East and the West.)
During a trip to Berlin in 1960, he affirmed Europe’s potential to surmount its schisms while preserving the liberty and independence of all, to become once again the foyer capital de la civilisation, that is, the “focal point of civilisation”. It was also under the banner of a Grand Europe that he visited Moscow in 1966, then Warsaw in 1967. While in the Polish capital, he made an unprecedented speech in the Sejm, not simply avowing the inviolability of Poland’s western borders, but raising the possibility of a Paris–Warsaw axis as part of a bold proposal of unifying Europe and, within it, Germany. There and then he gave us a lesson we should all heed today: let us not keep out anyone knocking at the door of the European Union, be it Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro or Serbia. De Gaulle never subscribed to the wholesale notion of bloc politics. It is no exaggeration to say that, in his political vision of Europe, pitted as that vision was against the federalist point of view, he was not only a sovereigntist but a confederalist. He resisted the idea of an alliance of European states, even as he passionately embraced cooperation among them.
To say that General de Gaulle was the forefather of the great post-war European drive for order and unity will be correct, inasmuch as Europeanness is understood in a sense broader than that of toeing the line of a preconceived legal system.
Let us ask the question: what is inscribed in the imaginary foundation of this Europe? First of all, there was the slogan of “War among the peoples of Europe – never again!” A specific token for success was German–French reconciliation. De Gaulle found a worthy partner in Konrad Adenauer, in spite of the chancellor’s allegiance to a different scheme of common law and different European politics. But precisely because the two statesmen complemented each other so fittingly, they became the first duo to lay claim to being a great French–German tandem, without which many still say a strong Europe would be inconceivable. Further inscribed in that foundation of the European edifice are the values of democracy, human rights, liberty and the rule of law. De Gaulle was considered an autocratic leader by many, including Jean Monnet. In reality, he trusted in democratic legitimacy more than in iron-fisted rule, and he sought and found the source of this legitimacy in the French people. He responded to the student demonstrations of 1968 and the ensuing political crisis not just by a threat of deploying law enforcement to the hilt, but by having a million of his supporters take to the streets and by calling extraordinary general elections, where the Gaullists clinched a landslide victory. Soon after, however, a lost referendum on administrative reform he had conceived forced him to relinquish his position immediately, quietly and with dignity, resigning power with the same largesse with which he had always exercised it.
Moreover, the cornerstone of Europe is inscribed with its humanistic heritage, which is tantamount to rejecting any and all totalitarian ideology and politics. One might as well talk about the very soul of Europe, which André Frossard, the foremost biographer of de Gaulle, famously commented on saying, “Europe quite rightly wants to equip herself with a common policy and currency, but most of all she needs a soul”. This thought has been echoed time and again by Hungary’s former Minister of Foreign Affairs János Martonyi. If we set out in search of the soul of Europe, we will surely not find it without reckoning with de Gaulle and France. De Gaulle stands as the repository of the heritage of Christianity and the French Revolution. Although he is on record for not having been an avid church- goer like Marshal Pétain, who was hardly averse to flaunting his conservative devotion, de Gaulle nourished a faith that permeated deeper strata of his beliefs.
Obviously, Gaullism cannot be a single unitary voice for Europe today, but it certainly can be an important voice in a great polyphonic work. Without a strong France there cannot be a strong Europe. Likewise, a powerful European Union is inconceivable without strong member states. In the first half of 2011, Hungary assumed the Presidency of the European Union with the motto of a “Strong Europe”, and I still consider that watchword valid today.
The question is, of course, whether it is possible to have strong nation states and effective European integration at the same time. Is it a game of breaking even, or is it rather a matter of different levels mutually reinforcing one another? If someone is sick or infirm at home, you cannot talk about a healthy family. The main challenge we face today is how to ensure the existence of strong nation states side by side with a powerful, integrated Europe.
Of course, the playing field has changed since the times of de Gaulle. In a rapidly transforming world, France and Europe have had to face the diminution of their relative global influence, demographically and economically. Alain Lamassoure, himself not remote from the spirit of Gaullism, has said that man’s only asset is man himself and that, over the long term, the economy will obey trends in demography. At the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, Europe accounted for one fifth of the world’s population while only one out of twenty inhabitants of Earth lived in Africa. These figures are set to reverse in the near future.
Yet France and Europe still have a chance to retain their global leverage, subject to certain conditions. One such prerequisite I think will be success in optimising the mix of policies in community jurisdiction and those left within the competence of individual nations. Indeed, it is very easy to slip into the mistake of pooling the wrong powers while keeping to ourselves prerogatives we would be better served to exercise collectively in the Union. Of course, these issues will remain forever subject to debate, for they speak to the very foundations and essence of the EU. This is as good a place as any to bring up the principle of subsidiarity, which exists on paper far more vividly than it prevails in practice.
The dialectic between nation states and Europe is not the only one. The nation state exists not only as part of Europe, but within the globalised context as well.
No European power, no matter how great, can stand firm on its own. In 1989, the opportunity for a new world order presented itself; today, we face another possibility, the threat of désordre mondial, of global disorder. When I was younger, practically everything in global politics boiled down to the accord or conflict between Washington and Moscow. These days, it is impossible to know where the decisions are being made. They are certainly made without any democratic control in the economy, where a single large corporation may command a portfolio worth multiples of an entire poorer country’s national budget. The Cold War rested on the balance of terror. Today, terror breeds not equilibrium but chaos. There used to be only two or three nodes of power in the world; now there are as many as there are Kalashnikovs.
All of this warrants an argument for powerful nation states. Institutions backed by democratic legitimacy must reclaim discretionary powers or at least the control over decision-making processes. And this returns us to the significance of the people.
The notion of grandeur is pivotal for Gaullism. Is it possible today to talk about a grand France without a grand Europe, and vice versa? A strong state presupposes a strong statesman, and media-dominated public opinion is hardly conducive to this ideal. The “anthropological revolution” of 1968 had already challenged strong institutions and strong characters as the repositories of tradition. The day of great leaders has been waning steadily ever since then.
So how is Gaullism relevant today, one might ask. The answer perhaps lies in the character and charisma of de Gaulle as a statesman. On the one hand, the peoples of Europe cannot be expected to be enthusiastic about a Europe without values and therefore without spirit. On the other hand, they can only be expected to subscribe to integration if it is truly predicated on the mutual recognition of each other’s specific vital interests. One such vital interest for France is in agriculture. The cause of European integration presupposes partners well-versed in the art of negotiation beyond sheer technical details. Instead of bargaining between technocrats what we need is profound, genuine dialogue, and this inevitably requires mutual respect between the parties. De Gaulle’s iconic example is not a far cry from several European leaders today who imagine Europe in terms of strong nation states. And this is a legitimate vision, albeit certainly not the only one.
De Gaulle could not possibly be invoked as a political role model without having set a moral example in the first place. Indeed, certain de Gaullian virtues seem indispensable for the stability and future of Europe. Power and greatness imply resilience and humility. De Gaulle knew how to win, but he also knew how to retreat, for instance when he realised it was time to relinquish French Algeria. He was always ready to put his power, even his own life, on the line, and he knew how to read the signs of the times.
I started this talk by asking the question of whether we could rightly consider de Gaulle to have been a founding father of the new Europe. The retirement and death of the General assumes special significance in the light of the student protests of 1968. De Gaulle’s evolution as an intellectual relied heavily on the influence of the French Catholic writer Charles Péguy, who once wrote that the revolutionary heroes of the 20th century would be the fathers supporting their families. Turning this vision upside down, several commentators have pointed out that the 1968 revolutions aimed at overthrowing institutions and traditions in effect constituted a revolt against fathers and father figures. “God is dead”, Nietzsche famously declared, and now the father was dead, too, according to Olivier Clément, the recently deceased French philosopher and theologian. De Gaulle was a quintessential father figure if there ever was one, who acted with strength against the strong, but treated the weak gently. He had a particularly deep affection for his daughter with Down syndrome, who died at a tender age. In his will, written in 1952, he expressed his wish to be buried next to Anne.
There can be no greatness without humility. When you stand 6’5 tall, as de Gaulle did, you will have to bow to others quite often. Some of you may recall the motion picture The Day of the Jackal about a fictional assassination attempt on de Gaulle, which was nevertheless inspired by real events. The fatal shot was to be fired at a decoration ceremony. The sniper misses de Gaulle’s head by an inch as the general unexpectedly bends down to pin the medal of honour on the chest of a short man…
I realise that the lesson to be learned from this is moral rather than political in nature. But is this not what ultimately really matters?
Translation by Péter Balikó Lengyel
*An edited version of the talk delivered by Dr Trócsányi on 3 March 2016, at a conference hosted by the Századvég Foundation, Hungary’s Ministry of Justice and the National University of Public Service entitled Gaullism: The Role of Law and National Sovereignty in Modern European Democracy.