As long as French foreign policy is nothing else than the personal policy of President de Gaulle, any analysis of it depends essentially on an understanding of his personal psychology. While his psychology is not that of the ordinary political leader, there is nothing impenetrable or mysterious about it. Even the sphinx-like pose which he is fond of assuming is deliberate and calculated; from his earliest writings, he has been consciously creating the ideal portrait of le grand chef, who must, as he wrote in 1927, “possess something indefinable, mysterious . . . remain impenetrable to his subordinates, and in this way keep them in suspense.” According to a more recent formulation of his, this mystery resides, too, in the political art of “not crystalizing in words that which the future is going to demonstrate,” of not defining goals before being assured of their success, and then always appearing to have desired what comes to pass. 

This is the A.B.C. of the art of politics. De Gaulle's mastery of mystère, which is above all the art of ambiguity and of Pythian formulas, permitted him, when faced with the gravest problem he ever had to meet—the Algerian War—to maneuver among the reefs for four years, to envisage in turn every possible or impossible solution and to see them all miscarry. First there was the offer made to the Algerians to become "whole-share French citizens;" then the mission given the army to "integrate the souls" of the Algerian people; then the grand vision of an African California grouping Algeria and French Black Africa in a zone of prosperity around the oil of the Sahara; then the still ambiguous concept of an "Algerian Algeria," independent but associated-all leading finally to the collapse of French colonization in North Africa and the accords of Evian, now hardly more than a scrap of paper. At the end of this tortuous course, the wisdom of the statesman has been "to accept things as they are," to respect the Evian Agreements on his side and to accept unflinchingly the violation of them by the other side, in order to show that he is satisfied—and to keep the future open.

The extent of de Gaulle's success in this tragic imbroglio is shown by the fact that the whole world is convinced that from the outset he wanted in his secret heart to end up exactly where he did. This is an improbable hypothesis and, above all, terribly unjust, for it supposes that de Gaulle willfully deceived and betrayed all those who carried him to power in 1958; but the reputation for being a man of unfathomable cunning does not displease him, and in any case he prefers it to the contrary hypothesis—truer but less grandiose—that, unable to do what he wished, he wished for what he could do. The essential is that the prestige of the leader be preserved; the rest counts for little.

Charles de Gaulle is not a man of mystery. The air of mystery is part of the character which he has created, by calculation as much as by inclination, because it allows him to feint, to man?uvre in front of the obstacle and to withdraw, if need be, without losing face. What distinguishes his political style, and what makes him unique, is precisely that he knows how to be an opportunist without appearing to be one, and how to compromise without compromising himself. He believes profoundly in a fate which is stronger than men; and he knows how to take advantage of unforeseen events. His fatalistic side becomes stronger with the wisdom of age: "Regarding the stars, I am imbued with the insignificance of things." But his realism is limited by a number of fundamental ideas, which are unarguable and beyond compromise; they give his policies not only their content but their style. These constants consist of his conception of the world and of politics, the system of coördinates within which his thought evolves, and outside which he refuses to venture: a world of symbols rather than of realities. Before searching in his acts or in his words for hidden designs, we must grasp this basic point; from it all else follows.

The vision of the political world—the Weltanschauung—of General de Gaulle is a matter of individual psychology only in so far as his own predestined role in it is concerned. Apart from this crucial detail, it is a vision so imbued with French traditions of the most classic sort that individual psychology plays a lesser part than collective psychology; hence the power of suggestion which his vision holds for Frenchmen. Through de Gaulle a venerable and glorious France takes on the splendor of a spectacular sunset.


The biography of Charles de Gaulle (and especially his own version of it) is so well known that we can easily trace the origin of the elements that make up his vision. He was born into an exemplary family in which the father was a teacher of history, literature and classical languages at a Jesuit school in Paris, and in which the cult of France and nostalgia for the legitimate monarchy—Dieu et, le Roi!—were celebrated with a religious fervor. Reading was in the classics and the lives of heroes: Alexander the Great, Hannibal, Caesar, Joan of Arc, the kings and marshals of France. He grew up among history books in which the world was illumined exclusively by the deeds of France—"nation of heroes and saints"—and among little lead soldiers with which the de Gaulle children reconstructed glorious battles of the past. Like most right-thinking families of the time, the de Gaulles abhorred the Republic and all the régimes which followed 1789, and from childhood Charles learned to make that distinction which for him remains fundamental: the sublime idea of France, predestined leader of the world as soon as she found incarnation in a legitimate sovereign or God-sent hero; and the mass of flesh-and-blood Frenchmen, dedicated to mediocrity, confusion and sterile partisan struggles when lacking the guidance of an anointed leader.

Nothing of the historical imagery and political convictions acquired in childhood was shaken by the years in a Catholic lycée, nor, evidently, by his education at the Ecole de Guerre. In World War I, the "ambition to serve France" was hardly satisfied by nearly three years of frustration as a prisoner in Germany, during which time he saw continental empires collapse on all sides. In 1927, at the age of 37, the thought of the young Commandant de Gaulle was summed up in a series of lectures given at the Ecole de Guerre, under the presidency of Marshal Pétain, then his idol and patron: "Military Action and the Leader," "On Prestige," "On Character." All were in the heroic and classic style inspired by Plutarch, Caesar and Machiavelli. In them de Gaulle portrayed his ideal of the leader born to command, a vocation to which he clearly felt called.

All this—the naïve faith of childhood and the authoritarian conception of history forged by the military profession-passed into the grand design of his mature thought and took shape in "The War Memoirs" written during the period of his "withdrawal to the desert," 1952-1958. Actually, it is neither history nor recollections of war, but the monumental self-portrait of the solitary man who made himself the champion and knight-servant of "Our Lady France." Each sentence must be taken word for word—even (and indeed especially) in the rhetorical passages and the patriotic clichés—beginning with the celebrated passage at the opening of the Memoirs: "All my life I have thought of France in a certain way . . . like the princess of fairy stories . . . dedicated to an exalted and exceptional destiny. . . . Providence has created her for complete successes or for exemplary misfortunes. . . . France is not really herself except in the first rank. ... In short, to my mind, France cannot be France without la grandeur"; and, from early childhood, "I did not doubt that France would have to go through gigantic trials, that life's interest would consist in one day rendering her some signal service, and that I would have that opportunity."

All this still adds up to nothing more than the makings of a first-rate officer of the old French school. What has been joined to the faith which was instilled in the cradle, and what has differentiated de Gaulle from the intellectual environment in which he grew up, is something that at first appears very banal, but which has been decisive: namely, that very early he added to the glories of ancient France the glories of the revolutionary and Napoleonic armies. A monarchist by instinct and molding, he ceased to be one by ideology; indeed, with one stroke he disencumbered himself of all ideology, in order "to serve only France." This explains why, in the years when the menace of the Third Reich was mounting, he broke with the disciples of Maurras, who, disgusted with the France of the Popular Front and entranced by the Fascist dictators, put their ideological sympathies above the interests of France.

For de Gaulle, the philosophy of history and political philosophy are one. The generals of the Revolution and of the Empire "served France well," just as later the Communists in the Resistance and Maurice Thorez (as long as he was a minister under de Gaulle) "served France well." "Is it simply political tactics? The answer is not for me to unravel. For me it is enough that France is served." This ideological indifference, which springs not from opportunism but from unqualified nationalism, is what separated de Gaulle most sharply from all "party men" and what distinguished him as well from most of the leaders of the French army. It made it possible for him to decide in 1940 to break all traditions of discipline, to revolt against the authority and legitimacy of Marshal Pétain, and to proclaim that legitimacy now rested with him, the solitary soldier who picked up "from the mud" and raised anew the flag which had fallen from the hands of his superiors.

He was not anti-Fascist; little did it matter to him who ruled Germany: he refused to admit the defeat of France, and personally, in 1940-1945, he was much less at war with Germany than with the Anglo-Saxon allies who considered that "France was gone." Nor was he anti-Communist when, in 1947, convinced of the imminence of war between Russia and the West, he founded a party whose only ideology was to rally France around himself. He then excluded from the national community all those who put faith in Soviet Russia above patriotism, and in order to point out that this was not a question of ideology, he labeled them, not Communists, but "separatists," or "those who do not play the game of France." In the same way today he never speaks of the Soviet Union, but only of Russia, signifying that in his eyes what matters is the eternal Russia, so many times the ally of France and perhaps an ally again some day; and that ideologies are only a veil covering the timeless politics of national power.

Read in the last volume of "The War Memoirs" his portrayal of Stalin: ". . . astute and implacable champion of a Russia exhausted by suffering and tyranny but afire with national ambition . . . mightier and more durable than any theory, any régime . . . to unite the Slavs, to overcome the Germans, to expand in Asia, to gain access to open seas: these were the dreams of Mother Russia, these were the despot's goals." But also read the fascinated passage in which de Gaulle wrote of the suicide of Hitler ("So as not to be bound, Prometheus cast himself into the abyss") : "the terrible greatness of his combat and his memory," the "superhuman and inhuman attempt" of that "Titan who tries to lift the world," and whom Germany had "served with greater exertions than any people has ever offered any leader." Each was the embodiment of his nation and played the game of national ambition, as it is the role of great statesmen to do.

What is true for Hitler or Stalin is also true for Churchill or Roosevelt. In the same "Memoirs" de Gaulle examines Roosevelt's conception of how the postwar world should be organized, with its Directory of the Big Four, i.e. Roosevelt, Stalin, Churchill and Chiang Kai-shek, of whom the last two, he remarked, were dependent "clients" of the United States. De Gaulle's analysis is one of the most perspicacious that has been made—not only because he had reason to resent the American effort to discount France as a great power, but even more because of his haughty disdain of the ideological and idealistic aspects of Roosevelt's grand design. "As is human," de Gaulle wrote, "idealism here dresses up the will to power." International politics is and will remain what it has been since there have been rival states in the world—a game of power politics; and all the rest, ideologies and contrivances of international organizations, is nothing but masquerade and illusion. In this game, it is imperative that France play her cards well and sustain her role.

This view of international politics which, for all its apparent simplicity, is capable of every Machiavellian refinement, has at bottom always been the view taken by the man in the street following in his newspaper the endless conflicts of the "powers," whose leaders clash as often over precedence and prestige as over concrete conflicts of interest. The Gaullist version of this concept springs from European history, or rather from the dramatized, nationalistic version of it which, in the service of patriotic education, the history books of every European nation have imparted to generations of studious youths. It is a complicated history of an equilibrium which was forever in question among powers and coalitions of powers divided one against the other on a narrow continent, where each nation always had to guard its bridges against the enemy of the moment—and against the ally of the moment, who could be the adversary of tomorrow—and where, according to the historiographers who poisoned the minds of generations of Europeans, the increased status of one nation was always paid for by the decline of others.

The United States, which has dominated a vast continent almost from its birth, never knew the problem of "balance of power" until very recently, and then on a global scale. It is this very different historical experience which has resulted in so many misunderstandings between America and Europe, from Versailles to Yalta. But was Roosevelt's reasoning very different when he sought to found the postwar world on the basis of a personal entente among the Big Four of that time? That is the irrational way in which children imagine the world is ruled, and in this respect great statesmen and children are very much alike; nor is their view further from reality than the complicated models of political scientists. Even in the science of international law, until quite recently, Europe could not conceive of international relations except in allegorical terms—as relations between legitimate heads of state. When Europeans of General de Gaulle's generation were growing up, international relations were, in fact and in law, relations between dynastic sovereigns, equal in rank if not in power; and Frenchmen with family traditions such as those of de Gaulle suffered to see Republican France, and France alone in Europe, deprived of dynasty—that is, of personification, continuity and dignity.

The postulate of a single strong authority as head of state does not, for de Gaulle, spring from considerations of domestic social order or ideologies; it is an imperative imposed by the realities of international life, which demand that a country be "represented." He was enough of a modernist and a realist to resign himself to the fact that France was no longer a hereditary monarchy, but in his innermost self he never doubted that France needed a monarch—that is to say, an uncontested chef—in order to make her voice heard; and the course of events (and his will) finally permitted him to present a monarch to France: himself. His truly monarchical sense of the dignity of the head of state is what strikes one most in his ceremony, in his oratorical style and in his attention to precedence; but this is often misinterpreted. It requires perhaps a feeling for royal tradition to understand how a man can, in all humility, so venerate himself as the incarnation and symbol of his country, as a historical phenomenon distinct from his individual person and of different clay from ordinary men, and subordinate himself so entirely to the "heavy burden" of this self-imposed role which prevents him from ever descending to the level of simple humans; so must the ideal king sacrifice his ego to his royal function. Indeed, de Gaulle has pushed the distinction between himself, "the poor mortal," and Charles de Gaulle, who is invested by history with national legitimacy, to the point of grammatically separating "me" and "de Gaulle," whom he invokes in the third person. In the plebeian world of today, this aspect of his personality is doubtless as uncommon as the appearance of a dinosaur among post-diluvian fauna; and one of the worst mistakes is to confuse him with the vulgar demagogues and rabble-rousers who abound throughout the present-day world. He plays this royal role to perfection and he knows the power of its attraction. There are few Frenchmen, even among those who are irritated by him or who make fun of him, who are not secretly under his spell and who do not experience at least an esthetic satisfaction in seeing France so regally represented after having seen it led so long by men of little stature.


What, then, are de Gaulle's policies? They have only one common and consistent thread: to "maintain his status," his and France's, the two being synonymous, "as long as God lends him life." In the key chapter of his Memoirs, programmatically entitled Le Rang, the words which endlessly recur are "rank," "prestige," "honor," "dignity," "power" and "greatness." As a retrospective exposition of his "great national aims," this apologia of de Gaulle's postwar policy is rather disappointing, and its concrete objectives are now only bad memories: the dismemberment of Germany, the extension of the French frontier to the Rhine, the annexation of the Saar and of some Italian territory, and the stubborn maintenance of the French imperial position in Asia and Africa. The alliance with Stalin, as a stratagem against "the Anglo-Saxon hegemony," remained utterly sterile, and the lofty vision—now revived—of an "association of Slavs, Germans, Gauls and Latins," uniting Europe "from the Atlantic to the Urals," has never meant anything definable. We know only that the aim is to transform the continent into "one of the three planetary powers" which "one day, if necessary, could arbitrate between the Soviet and the Anglo-Saxon camps." Where, then, are the Urals? The common denominator of so many vague or contradictory projects was the high-minded determination to see France "act boldly, achieve stature, and nobly serve the interests of herself and of mankind."

To uphold status is an aristocratic ideal which can fill the life of a man and of a nation. What that ideal requires has less to do with actions than with attitudes. The criteria are simple and easy to understand. "France is only France when she is in the first rank;" she can never accept less; never recognize a hegemony other than her own; never join a group as less than equal with the greatest; never integrate—or rather, "dissolve herself"—in a supranational organization where her veto power would no longer come into play. The Atlantic Alliance may be a good thing, but an "integrated" Atlantic organization under command other than de Gaulle's is unacceptable. A European confederation under French leadership may be desirable, but a United States of Europe in which France might have to give in to the will of the majority is inconceivable. Partnership with the United States is something to be wished for, but an Atlantic partnership, in which the United States' partner would not be France, but an integrated Europe, can only be rejected. A United Nations in which France has an assured veto power and a seat in the supreme directory can be useful, but an international organization in which a majority can overrule her is an abomination. Instinctively de Gaulle resists all the bright organizers, all the "technocratic robots" who threaten to depersonalize international relations, just as he instinctively tends to return to the pre-1914 rules of the game, to classical diplomacy, classical alliances, national armaments and the gold standard. Political scientists may debate whether or not these notions are anachronisms in the modern world. But to try to make de Gaulle give in on any of them is to knock one's head against a wall. Those who have to deal with him had better discard in advance any such thoughts as far as France is concerned.

It is true, then, that Gaullist policy—or political style—is more easily defined by what it rejects in contemporary Western politics than by its concrete objectives or constructive proposals. To say "no" is one of the rare things that one can do all alone. Then, too, history is unforeseeable- "the future lasts a long time and anything can happen one day"—and the wise statesman keeps his hands free to deal with any eventuality; he does not commit himself to anything irrevocable. As long as the symbolic attributes of great-power status are preserved, no material catastrophe can engulf a country. It is the symbols that matter, not the facts: this is the summary of de Gaulle's wartime experience and the essence of his policy. Immediate goals, as well as the means to attain them, can be endlessly adjusted to "the changing nature of things."

When France was faced with the Algiers putsch in May 1958, and only de Gaulle's return seemed able to avert a civil war, did he know what he was going to do with the almost unlimited powers he had obtained as a condition for his return? In France, in Algeria and in the French possessions overseas, he called for a vote on a new constitution making him president of the "French Community," and he excommunicated the one territory which did not give him a majority, Guinea. He certainly did not envisage the demise of the Community within two years, without its institutions ever having functioned. Nor did he foresee the loss of Algeria after four years of tortuous maneuvers, riots, pronouncements, and, finally, the exodus of the French population under the worst possible conditions. But he knew how to submit gallantly to what he could not prevent, and so to enhance France's prestige in the eyes of the Third World. Nor did he imagine that he would fall heir to the European policies of Jean Monnet, Robert Schuman and Guy Mollet, on which he had always showered sarcasm; but he knew how to forge those policies into an instrument of French policy, reducing the Common Market to a technical organization from which his ministers were able to draw every advantage for the French economy, while chopping down the political hopes of its creators.

De Gaulle knew how to play every card and keep the public guessing. But in no domain, either domestic or European, has he created anything which is assured of surviving him. The constitution he has given France, with its "president-arbiter" and its "separation of powers," has never functioned and he has not hesitated to recast it or to disregard it when it got in his way, with the result that no one can say how France will be governed after he goes.

If "de-colonizer" de Gaulle retains a sort of moral presence in what was the French Community, it is because after the unhappy Guinea experience he consented to finance it on generous terms without ever testing its loyalty- just as he has consented to finance socialist Algeria without insisting on the Evian Agreements. But again, no one can say what Franco-Algerian and Franco-African relations will be like when de Gaulle has gone and France perhaps tires of the high cost of prestige. As for Europe, having blocked political integration in the name of national sovereignty and the admission of Britain in the name of political integration, and having attempted to impose a Franco-German directorate (which was bound in advance to fail), he has left the political construction of Europe in an impasse from which it will not emerge so long as he rules, if ever.

The same is true of the Atlantic Alliance. It has been at loggerheads since September 1958 when de Gaulle, just returned to power, proposed a three-power directorate for the global strategy of the West. Implied, of course, was a request for allied support for France's still undefined policy in Africa and Algeria. All the vicissitudes since then have done nothing to reduce the stumbling-block created by ill-humor; but neither has the ill- humor been pushed to the point of rupture. The most obvious result, thus far, is that for the sake of status symbols, de Gaulle has reduced France's potentially great influence inside the Alliance to a mere sulky negativism which has simply to be discounted in advance by her partners. Still, in his eyes, the Alliance is necessary "for a long time to come" in order to maintain equilibrium in the world and in Europe and to cover his retreat while he explores the foggy perspectives of a "European Europe" equilibrated between Paris and Moscow.

In this Gaullist policy of simple ideas and complicated games, everything is provisional; and everything is based on his personal reign, which can last six more months or seven more years. The only certainty is that there will be no one to carry on. Whether the presidency will go to a Pompidou or a Defferre, or whether France will return to parliamentary government or whatever, his successors will have to search for another style and other ways. As with Bismarck, who was successful in everything except assuring the continuation of his work, de Gaulle's policies and personalized rule will end with him. France's partners can no more count on de Gaulle lasting forever than they can avoid living with him while he stays.

But is it really more difficult for France's allies to live with de Gaulle than it was to live with the Fourth Republic, from Bidault to Pflimlin, with its feeble central power, enormous world-wide responsibilities and torn conscience? When we make up a tentative balance-sheet for the first seven years of the Fifth Republic, at least one item is certain: with all its jolts and dramatic repudiations, the reign of General de Gaulle has succeeded in drawing France back within her natural boundaries, removing the burden of her imperial heritage which had become too heavy to carry, and making her a European nation, without world-wide involvement—political or strategic. It may not be what he wished, nor what was hoped for by those who carried him to power and who are today in prison, in exile or, in the case of those like Michel Debré who were most faithful to his person and myth, in melancholy retirement. The cost to France—and to Algeria—of the misunderstanding which it took four years to dispel may have been appalling, but the liquidation has been radical and has left nothing but a hangover of sterile rancors. It is futile to speculate whether, if the phenomenon of de Gaulle had never existed to confuse all the issues, the parliamentary republic would in the end have done better or worse in amputating its former North African province: this would be to suppose French history other than it has been since 1940, perhaps less colorful, perhaps more normal. However that may be, it is done; and miraculously de Gaulle has succeeded in transforming into a personal triumph what under any other régime would have appeared to be a catastrophe, and what perhaps no other régime could have survived. Never does the grand manner matter so much as in misfortune; the art of the glorious retreat is the most difficult in war or in politics. Thanks to de Gaulle, thanks to his majestic bearing in times of adversity and to the magic of his language, the régime which "sold out the empire" is in French minds the reign that reëstablished the ranking position of France and made the world sit up and take notice.

France's partners would be wrong to take offense. These manifestations of pride are often annoying, but it may be more important that for the first time in centuries, if not indeed since "France became France," her amour-propre can find satisfaction solely in prestige. Thanks to the second reign of General de Gaulle, France is without territorial claims, without grievances which menace world peace, and without strategic positions to defend outside France proper. (Djibouti, Martinique, Réunion and the New Hebrides are not strategic positions, but souvenirs and curiosities.) In fact, since 1962, France has had no dramatic problems on her horizons; and no decisions are rending or pressing her.

De Gaulle may make a triumphant tour of Latin America and embrace dreams of a "Latin world" opposed to the "Anglo-Saxon hegemony," but this does not affect the equilibrium or disequilibrium of that continent. He may raise his voice on the boiling issues of Southeast Asia, recognize China and cause his name to be applauded in Phnom Penh on a par with those of Castro and Sukarno as the "champions of national independence," but he has no stake in the game. He can give his advice on the affairs of central Africa, condemn subversive plots and disapprove—with excellent reasons—the botched- up action recently led by the United Nations in the Congo; but he no longer has the means to prevent Brazzaville, the most insignificant of his clients, from serving as a relay station for the subversion of which he disapproves. One may regret that France, freed of her imperial burden and enjoying the fruits of European prosperity, applies these gains less to giving durable institutions to herself and to Europe than to throwing herself into vain competition for status symbols—from the force de frappe to supersonic jet transports and the recruiting of clients in the Third World. But if de Gaulle is often uncoöperative, in fact his behavior weighs less heavily on Western politics than, for example, the uncertainty of Germany or the confusion of Italy. And, in the last analysis, does not the West gain more than it loses by General de Gaulle's show of independence, by the demonstration to the world—the Third World as well as Eastern Europe—of the reality of the pluralism which it so proudly claims for itself? For whatever may be his sometimes disconcerting positions, no one can ever doubt that de Gaulle belongs to the West—or rather, as he would say with a slightly anti-American bias, to the most classical Occident.

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  • HERBERT LÜTHY, Professor of History, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Zurich; author of "France Against Herself" and other works
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