Michel Anfrol,
President of the Friends of the Charles de Gaulle Foundation,
in interview with Ákos Bence Gát

The seat of the Charles de Gaulle Foundation is located in a building which in times past served as headquarters for the RPF, the party created by General de Gaulle. The General’s office with its original furnishing is open to visitors in Paris’s rue de Solférino. But the memory of France’s liberator in World War II who later became the first President of the Fifth Republic is kept alive not only by those premises. On a recent visit to Paris I had the chance to meet Michel Anfrol, President of the Friends of the Charles de Gaulle Foundation, considered by many as “the living memory of Gaullism”. The former journalist, radio and TV presenter knew Charles de Gaulle personally. The stories he relates fascinate not only people interested in history and politics, but also those wishing to discover relationships between past and present. Michel Anfrol came to Hungary to participate at the international de Gaulle conference organised by Századvég Foundation, the Ministry of Justice and the National University of Public Service on 3 March 2016 and I made use of the occasion to interview him.


ÁBG: You have lived a very adventurous and eventful life. What drove you to journalism?

MA: My parents first made me enrol in a law school, where I got a BA. My favourite professor was René Capitant who later became minister of justice under the presidency of General de Gaulle. He was an outstanding teacher whose classes encouraged my taste for legal studies. But when one of his students was killed, he expressed his protest by quitting professorship, after which all my enthusiasm for law melted away. My father accepted the reality that I would not become a lawyer, and wanted me to learn languages. So I went to Italy where I earned a university diploma. I also speak Russian: my mother’s family emigrated from Russia to France after the outbreak of the Bolshevik revolution. She always wanted me to talk to her in her mother tongue, and she refused to answer my letters written in French. Later I spent a year in Barcelona where I learned Spanish and Catalan, and since that time I have often travelled to Spain and Latin America and followed what was going on in those countries. After all these years abroad I returned to Paris and enrolled in the Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po) where I also earned a degree. But I did not want to become a politician or a diplomat: in my early twenties I realised that my calling was journalism. I started by writing humorous stories for university papers before gravitating toward more serious topics. In 1960, at the age of 25, I entered the RTF (re-baptised ORTF in 1964), the national agency in charge of providing public radio and television in France, and from 1961 to 1962, then from 1968 to 1969 I was editor-in-chief and lead presenter of the TV news. I also worked as permanent correspondent of the TV channel TF1 in the USA (1963–1968, 1973–1978), in Italy (1970–1972), and in Buenos Aires for South America (1980–1987). I was also President of the Radio Latina from 1987 to 1992, and a regular contributor to the French daily Le Quotidien de Paris.

ÁBG: I heard you say in Budapest that you’d been correspondent in Africa too.

MA: I’ve never been a permanent correspondent in Africa, but once I was sent there to cover an official event. Just before returning to France I was told by the editors to stay on: a coup had just taken place in a neighbouring country, and they wanted “to know more about it”. So I moved to that country. Since political life was very unstable at that time in Africa, soon afterwards I had to travel to a third country to cover a similar event there. Only three weeks later was I able to finally board a plane for Paris. Before departure the stewardesses warned me the seat beside mine had to be reserved for a passenger who may arrive. Eventually the mysterious fellow-traveller got on the plane at the last minute, none other than Léopold Sédar Senghor, President of the Republic of Senegal and father of the idea of “francophonia”. During our journey I learned quite a few interesting things about African politics and the President’s world of thoughts.

ÁBG: Most people only know Charles de Gaulle from history books, but you had the chance to know him personally.

MA: That’s right, we met several times, and had conversations each time. However, I had my first experience of de Gaulle at the same time as many other French people did: I saw him when he arrived in Paris on 26 August 1944 and walked down the Champs-Élysées from the Arc de Triomphe to Notre-Dame, surrounded by an immense crowd. Later I met him as an active member of the Gaullist party. I was the last Secretary General of the youth organisation of the RPF (Rally of the French People) founded by de Gaulle, and we had our offices in the same building. On national holidays the General would call together all the people working in the building, and we had the opportunity to talk to him. Later, when he was elected President of the Republic in 1958, I followed his activity as a journalist. In September 1962 he travelled to Germany to meet Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, and I was part of the accompanying press corps for the visit. It was not always easy: at a reception the dress code prescribed dinner jackets, and it took us half a day to find a place where we could hire one, not to mention the shirt we had to buy into the bargain. But we didn’t regret that “investment”. At the end of his journey the General appeared in the room where the journalists were staying, shook hands with us, and asked if everything was all right. I asked him to assess the overall balance of his negotiations. He told me that he was all the more happy to be in Germany because one of his ancestors was a German by the name of Ludwig Kolb, who moved to France at the end of the 18th century. The fact my question had revealed was hitherto unknown and prompted the satirical paper Le Canard enchaîné to regularly refer to the mysterious “Uncle Kolb” for years after.

ÁBG: How would you assess Charles de Gaulle’s role in France’s history?

MA: There can be no doubt that General de Gaulle was one of the greatest figures of our times. He is often compared to Louis XIV and Napoleon, but there is a major difference I never fail to insist on. Napoleon started out by governing a strong France, but his wars of conquest eventually ruined the country. De Gaulle, on the contrary, inherited a France in ruins after the Second World War, but left a recovered, consolidated and viable country to his successors.

ÁBG: What were the principles de Gaulle relied on in order to create a flourishing France?

MA: The General had been fighting for the independence and the sovereignty of France in his whole life. During the Second World War he refused to recognise the Vichy government of Marshal Pétain and exhorted the French population to resist occupation. As a matter of fact, very few people joined him in Britain: some pro- royalist army officers, a small number of Jewish intellectuals and 130 fishermen of the Île de Sein (Brittany) who heard his Appeal of 18 June broadcast by the BBC. His genius is shown by the fact that he managed rapidly to transform into a strong army a handful of people who followed him to Britain. Few people are aware these days that it was not only against Germany that de Gaulle had to defend France’s independence and sovereignty. He had serious differences of opinion with the leaders of the Allies, and he had to, if you will, defeat President Roosevelt too. Roosevelt refused to consider the General as a future leader of liberated France. From December 1941 on, the US government did all in its power to prevent the General from taking over the government of France, and wanted to put the liberated country under American administration. While British newspapers heralded the approaching liberation of France on the day after the Normandy landings on 6 June 1944, American papers wrote about the “invasion” and the “occupation” of France. There is a building located not far from the headquarters of the CIA in Washington where people were trained who were intended to take over public administration from the prefects. By the same token, the Americans printed several million banknotes (the so-called “francs-dollars”) they wanted to put into circulation in France. When he founded with a few hundred people the organisation called “Free France” shortly after his Appeal of 18 June 1940 transmitted by the BBC, he was not sure what legal grounds it could be based upon. He asked the outstanding legal expert René Cassin (the Nobel Peace Prize winner in 1968) to pursue negotiations with the Brits about the legal status of “Free France”. When Cassin wanted to know in whose name he had to negotiate, the General replied with striking plainness: “In the name of France”.

ÁBG: You’ve said that de Gaulle fought for his country’s independence throughout his whole life. Does it mean that he had to continue his fight even after the liberation of France?

MA: Yes. De Gaulle set a high value on international cooperation after the war, and it is well known that he initiated the reconciliation with Germany. At the same time he warned his compatriots against letting France integrate into any international organisation where it would lose its sovereignty. He believed in European cooperation, but envisioned a Europe of nations, not a federal Europe. He attached great importance to the safeguard of the identity and cultural heritage of all European nations. He declared that if Dante, Goethe and Chateaubriand hadn’t been Italian, German and French but homeless thinkers writing in Esperanto, they wouldn’t have done much service to Europe. By the way, in de Gaulle’s view Europe extended from the Atlantic Ocean to the Ural Mountains. He insisted on the necessity of diplomatic relations with Russia. Although he warned several times against the menace of communism, he believed that sooner or later Russia would swallow communism, just like blotting paper absorbs ink. He was able to make a difference between a country of great importance and its actual leadership. He maintained that the recognition of a state did not entail supporting its regime. In my view today’s European leaders should adopt the same attitude.

ÁBG: But France’s economic recovery was also one of de Gaulle’s most remarkable achievements.

MA: De Gaulle did a lot not only for the political and military independence of France, but also for its economic independence. Besides, the latter is a sine qua non of the former. The primary aim of the General was to reduce public debt, since these liabilities were susceptible to expose the country to foreign powers. In 1965 and 1966, he ordered the navy to carry back home the part of France’s gold reserve kept in the USA. He conducted an austere economic policy in order to maintain a balanced budget. His economic philosophy was neither that of capitalism nor that of socialism: in conformity with France’s needs of the time, he introduced a “third way” economic policy incorporating both state control and liberalism. One of the most remarkable innovations he initiated was the introduction of participation, which encouraged employees to have direct interests in their company’s efficiency and performance. This practice continues to be applied today, with employees becoming shareholders of their company now commonplace. The higher the profits of the company, the higher the incomes of employees. In the spirit of independence and sovereignty, the General also created the nuclear and aircraft industries and promoted the development of scientific and technical research. The success of his economic policies is testified to by the fact that during his ten years of governance he managed to create and safeguard economic stability in France as well as the value of the franc. Looking back, one could even speak of an economic miracle: the French economy enjoyed a growth rate of 5–6% between 1958 and 1969, in tandem with a very low unemployment rate.

ÁBG: Can Charles de Gaulle be considered a politician?

MA: The best term to characterise de Gaulle is the word “statesman”. It was the nation’s interest he always kept in mind; as he said, he had “a certain idea of France”. He dedicated his whole life to this idea. He had no time for fights between political parties which served individual or short-term party interests instead of paving the way to a better future for the country. He vigorously criticised the institutions of the Fourth Republic established after the Second World War, which preserved the political instability of the pre-war period and paralysed the action of the government. He wanted a strong presidential authority; he believed that France would always need a man capable of transcending party struggles and making decisions in the nation’s interest. When France was threatened by a civil war on account of the Algerian crisis, de Gaulle seemed to be the only man who could handle the situation. In 1958 he was brought back to power by the National Assembly. He accepted the office under very strict conditions: he claimed emergency powers for half a year and declared that he was going to change the constitutional system. These months saw the adoption of a new French Constitution and the creation of the Fifth Republic which granted strong powers to the President.

De Gaulle always placed a high value on maintaining direct contacts with people. He replied personally to many letters addressed to him. He believed that his legitimacy had to come from the people, and in 1962 he called a successful referendum to allow the President to be directly elected by the people. Being a soldier as well as a charismatic leader, he often had to confront the accusation that his strong authority might lead to a dictatorship. At a press conference in May 1958, a journalist asserted that many feared he would not respect the liberties. De Gaulle answered that he had never limited fundamental liberties; on the contrary, it was him who re-established them. “Why do you want me to start a dictatorial career at the age of 67?” he added for good measure.

ÁBG: What sort of a man was General de Gaulle?

MA: He was a spontaneous, modest and moral man. Even as President of the Republic he paid his own electricity bill. His wife did the shopping and cooked the meals in the Élysée Palace, except for those prepared for official receptions. The General would often retire to his mansion in Colombey-les-Deux-Églises in the Haute-Marne department in north-eastern France, where he could regain his strength in the immense garden. He was very fond of his sick daughter Anne, who, like his father, needed a lot of fresh air and calm. The furnishing was very simple: the General hated ostentation. He respected people without any consideration of social rank and knew how to be very humble. He did not fear meeting people, despite several attempts made on his life. He was handing over an official decoration, and as he was a very tall man he had to bow down, at the very moment that the gun aimed at him went off and the bullet missed him. Even as President he never refused to make deep bows.

By the way, I am sure that de Gaulle would have made an excellent writer if he had not chosen the military career. At the age of 14 he wrote a play which earned him first prize in a literary contest. And he also wrote romances, adventure novels and essays in his young years.

ÁBG: Can today’s leading French politicians be considered Gaullists?

MA: De Gaulle remains an important part of France’s history, and his political legacy and the principles he followed still inspire French political life. It is well known that François Mitterrand opposed the strong presidential authority de Gaulle wanted to create, but he declined to make any changes to it when he was himself elected president. Of course, Gaullisme did change a lot during the following decades; France made a liberal turn and European integration brought about limitations on France’s sovereignty. Today’s leading politicians pursue policies which bear little trace of anything that could be qualified as authentically Gaullist. At the same time many on both sides of the political spectrum present themselves in one way or another as heirs to the General. Since the policies de Gaulle espoused were very complex and wide-ranging, almost every political formation can find in them elements that suit it. In my opinion, there are two politicians today who have remained true to the authentic de Gaullian ideas, neither of them in the forefront nowadays: Nicolas Dupont-Aignan and Jean- Pierre Chevènement. These politicians were ready to resign from senior office when loyalty to their ideals compelled them to do so.

ÁBG: What do you think of Hungary and Hungarian political life?

MA: My first visit to Hungary took place more than twenty years ago, after the regime change. The country’s progress is spectacular; Budapest has completely changed since the early nineties. I remember Heroes’ Square where our guide spoke to us about historical events and revolutions aiming at the county’s independence. I was impressed by the fact that Hungarians attached so much value to their freedom and independence. I am not an expert on Hungarian politics, but I understand why so many Hungarians are attracted by the personality of Charles de Gaulle. Even before 2004, when the accession of Central European countries to the EU was underway, it occurred to me that the Union might face tensions since these countries that had just regained their independence by liberating themselves from communist oppression might be reluctant to accept rules decided in Brussels. The conference organised in Budapest on Gaullism was a great event for me. I seldom have the occasion to talk about General de Gaulle to such an elite public in the company of outstanding lecturers.

ÁBG: De Gaulle remained true to his principles until the end, thus setting a moral example. And you remained loyal to the General all along, even during the general strike in 1968.

MA: I sometimes say only half-mockingly that there was a period in 1968 when the only persons you could see on TV were myself and a handful of other loyal colleagues. Most journalists moved with the flow and went on strike; even today some of them would chastise me for having continued to work. But I do not mind: I did not approve of the strike in 1968, and I have not revised my opinion ever since. Few people remained loyal to him when his authority began to falter. Those who had paid him the most lip-service were the first to turn away from him. Without overestimating my role I am certain that my gesture was appreciated by the General. That very year he sent me an autographed photograph thanking me for my solidarity, and in 1970, three days before his death I received by mail an autographed copy of his book. Les Mémoires d’espoir were originally planned to comprise several volumes, but unfortunately they remained unfinished. But the first volume is still extremely interesting in itself, and I warmly recommend it to all those who wish to know more about General de Gaulle’s worldview.

Translation by László Sujtó

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