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Britain’s rulers should be more French Our leaders need some Gallic petulance

Macron: strops and tantrums and general French brooding. effective. (CHRISTIAN HARTMANN / POOL / AFP)

Macron: strops and tantrums and general French brooding. effective. (CHRISTIAN HARTMANN / POOL / AFP)


September 11, 2023   5 mins

In the English-speaking world, we tend to place Charles de Gaulle and his confrontational style of politics, filled with strops and tantrums, into a category marked “The French”, where we can alternatively laugh at and be a bit scared by it. Yet behind his uncooperativeness lay plentiful general lessons on how to do politics — not least in how to respond to being unappreciated, mocked and ignored, as he was in exile in London during the war.

Any idea of an “Anglo-Gaullism” would no doubt make the man himself howl with laughter. But despite his frequent bursts of Anglophobia and jabs at the “Anglo-Saxons”, I suspect he would have quite liked the idea. As he looked over the Channel in the post-war years, he commented that Britain was giving up its self-respect and sense of responsibility. Now under attack over everything from museum artefacts to Brexit, Ireland, colonialism and slavery, our traditional diplomatic sang-froid is looking ever more like quiescence, sometimes blending into agreement as the activists work their way through the institutions. Britain today appears often as an opponent of itself: a self-cancelling entity ripe for dissolution and dismemberment.

This is pretty much how de Gaulle saw France during the Second World War — and even how he presented it during Les Trente Glorieuses, the 30 years of growth and prosperity that followed. During that time, as President, he told Harold Macmillan that he had been so tiresome during the war because he was representing a country that was ruined and dishonoured.

Now, ruin and dishonour are concepts we aren’t really used to in the Anglophone world. But they were central to de Gaulle’s success in politics. Comparing him to Philippe Pétain, the military hero who headed the Vichy dictatorship, Julian Jackson, in A Certain Idea of France, observed: “The core of Pétain’s appeal to the French people in 1940 was his decision to remain on French soil to defend his compatriots, to defend French lives, while de Gaulle left France to defend what he later called his ‘idea of France’.” De Gaulle, in other words, put honour above life.

This may sound pompous and ridiculous, but it was what elevated him from obscure general to national symbol during the war years. It was what framed French resistance to Nazi tyranny. Its sources were spiritual, concerned with what it meant to win or lose, to be present or absent. As Jackson wrote, for de Gaulle, “conflict was the oxygen of politics”. In this, he was strongly informed by writers such as Henri Bergson (who privileged élan vital over frozen doctrine), Émile Boutroux (“the importance of the heart and the soul in thinking about the world”) and Maurice Barrès (who “gave back to the elite a consciousness of national eternity by revealing the links that attached it to its ancestors”).

During his final spell in government in the Sixties, de Gaulle read two or three books a week, and he regularly corresponded with their authors. In his own book on leadership, he wrote that great leaders needed to display mystery, ruse and hypocrisy. After all, in a world of conflict and struggle, it pays to keep your opponents wrong-footed. De Gaulle did this with great skill throughout his political life, especially in foreign relations (something the French continue to excel in, notably in their responses to Brexit and the Aukus pact). Crucially, de Gaulle succeeded in this by transcending Left and Right: attracting and repelling figures from both sides at various times. “Gaullisme” appears not so much as a political philosophy or ideology as a politics, a praxis, one that gathers around the nation and adjusts for “circumstances”, which is to say threats and opportunities.

However, for him the nation wasn’t just any old nation. De Gaulle embraced the common idea of his generation that France, in Jackson’s words, “had a mystical vocation to bring enlightenment to humanity”. During the war years he presented himself as the embodiment of this France that was still standing, retaining its honour. He forced himself into the spotlight when necessary, such as when he spoke of taking up arms against Britain over its intervention in Syria during the war. As he put it, “to count on us they must take account of us” and “with the English you need to bang the table, they will flatten themselves before you”. In 1965-6, he used similar tactics, boycotting the institutions of the European Community in order to secure generous terms for French farmers via the Common Agricultural Policy.

The contrast with Anglophone post-politics of the present day is striking. Our politicians and bureaucrats often behave as if they have reached a place beyond conflict, or at least that should be insulated from it. This makes them singularly ineffective when confronted by it. De Gaulle would no doubt have been contemptuous of our leaders, from their failure to confront the ongoing revolution within our institutions to the failure of Boris Johnson and leading Leavers to defend and see through Brexit after going to the trouble of securing it.

Le général was never keen on ceding French sovereignty. However, he embraced European unity as a way to embed French power in the post-colonial world: Europe as an extension of France. In this way, he tended to see the world through a colonial lens, leading him to some rash interventions, such as his comparison of Québec’s situation in Canada to that of France under the Nazis. But he was not an inflexible headbanger. In the early Sixties, he admitted that the French game was up in Algeria, that the local Arabs had reason for grievance and that he must stand up to his army, which had gotten out of control in its attempt to maintain Algérie française.

None of this is to detract from his occasional racist outbursts. He regularly slammed the English and “Anglo-Saxons”, but also the “Negroes” of Africa. He criticised Israelis as Jews who were predisposed to exaggerate as a result of their religious upbringing. He claimed Arabs and French were like oil and vinegar who could never properly integrate; and he mulled mass deportations of Algerians from France. Perhaps the best you might say of all this is he didn’t seem to like anyone, seeing each national and ethnic or racial group in a negative light. Indeed, some observers have maintained that he didn’t really like people. And in his brooding depressions, like those of his old sparring partner Churchill, he damned the French as much as anyone.

At its most useful, then, Gaullism is best thought of as a style and an attitude which attaches itself to the nation as a primary unit. And any Anglo-Gaullism would be characterised by a greater assertiveness in British politics and diplomacy: seeking to reform our institutions and being prepared to annoy other governments, particularly the Americans. It would accept the need to walk away from international bodies and agreements that no longer work such as the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) — ideally in order to reform them; a classic Gaullist tactic.

Among the first confrontations of such an attitude would likely be with France, particularly over Channel migration. However, such a stance might at least inspire a little recognition and respect from the old adversary across the Channel: something in short supply in recent years. A Gaullism with British characteristics would, you would hope, have more moderation, tolerance and humour than the man himself showed much of the time. However, it would also have a sense of history, geography and realism that he consistently demonstrated.

The alternative — the old laconic British diplomatic style — seems lazy in the context of a world we live in, where prime ministers, seemingly by default, choose to avoid conflict. But de Gaulle saw conflict as the essence of politics, so unavoidable and to be managed in a serious fashion. This helped him to see problems before they arose. Yes, this made him insufferable to both colleagues and allies. But, whether they were asking for it or not, he provided leadership — and, in response, they started treating him as a leader. In an era defined by widespread despair and defeatism, we could do worse than follow his example


Ben Cobley writes the blog A Free Left Blog and is author of The Tribe: the Liberal-Left and the System of Diversity. He is a journalist by trade and a former Labour Party activist.

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Andrew Horsman
Andrew Horsman
7 months ago

Britain’s “leaders” are not the only ones who could learn a thing or two from de Gaulle. Being such a voracious reader, de Gaulle might well have found time to read the turgid, but chilling, material that the UN has pumped out recently. It calls for what amounts to a materialistic, corporatist political and cultural revolution on a global scale. Just imagine what he would have made of page 1,408, in Section 13.9.5 (“Systemic Responses for Climate Mitigation”), of the third part of the UN’s April 2022 climate assessment report.

“[D]omestic political systems … and prevalent ideas, values and belief systems” are “structural factors that constrain and enable climate governance … [T]he presence of multi-level, multi-sectoral lock-ins of overlapping and interdependent political, economic, technological and cultural forces mean that a new approach of coordinated, crosseconomy, systemic climate mitigation is necessary. Creutzig et al. (2018) propose a resetting of the approach to consumption and use of resources to that of demand side solutions, which would have ongoing economy-wide systemic implications.”

In case that isn’t clear, the UN is obviously up for picking a cultural and political fight: “Demand-side transitions involve interacting and sometimes antagonistic processes on the behavioural, socio-cultural, institutional, business, and technological dimensions. Individual- or sectoral-level change may be stymied by reinforcing social, infrastructural, and cultural lock-ins.”

The General would have eaten these upstart communistic revolutionaries for his carbon-intensive breakfast. Vive la France!

Liam O'Mahony
LO
Liam O'Mahony
7 months ago
Reply to  Andrew Horsman

That UN piece makes perfect sense to me! It is clear is it not, that if we humans continue to consume as we have been it will be catastrophic for our climate? Every item we consume it uses energy and resources that spew more and more CO² into the atmosphere and we justà have to reduce that to a minimum. Governments will not do this so people have to do it despite their govt! Your assumption is that it will be forced on us by a global govt but clearly that isn’t going to happen, is it? It will happen only when people finally join the dots.. in my opinion that won’t happen either. Humans are simply too greedy and too stupid and so the we are doomed. As I’m very old I’m kinda doomed anyway, personally but to the rest of you young folk I say: .. So long and thanks for all the fish!!

Andrew Horsman
Andrew Horsman
7 months ago
Reply to  Liam O'Mahony

We are indeed all doomed, my friend, one day to lose this worldly life we lead, come hell or high water. But before that time comes, and let’s hope it is a long time for you and me both, please could I invite you to consider the following questions:

What if the climate models are wrong?

What if participants in the climate change industry face sufficiently strong incentives to prioritise preserving a self-deceptive narrative over truth, with the result that you and many others have been badly misled?

When in history has a successful revolutionary push for immediate and radical political and cultural change, and centralisation of power in the hands of a supposedly enlightened elite who believe people are “too stupid” to manage their own affairs, not caused widespread human misery and grief?

When have such revolutions actually succeeded in sustaining themselves and been successful even on their own terms?

Isn’t it important to protect and nurture national cultural heritage that protects the individual against tyranny, or must everything be sacrificed on the altar of climate ideology, regardless of the possible unintended consequences?

What happens next if a global system of governance is installed and it somehow “stops” or successfully mitigates climate change? Does it just pat itself on the back and then proceed calmly to dismantle itself, or will it seek to perpetuate its own power regardless of its social usefulness? When has the former ever happened?

Leaders of the immediate post-war era such as De Gaulle would instinctively have known the answers to these questions. The ends never, ever, justify the means. Heaven cannot be built on earth. Watching the deluded mob, young and old alike, being led to believe the opposite by a small-minded, groupthinking, smart-phone addled political, cultural and scientific “elite” who haven’t bothered to educate themselves with the lessons that the towering giants amongst their war-scarred predecessors learnt the hard way is simply terrifying.

Martin Butler
MB
Martin Butler
7 months ago
Reply to  Liam O'Mahony

Yes difficult to disagree despite the down ticks – but has this got anything to do with de Gaulle?

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
7 months ago
Reply to  Liam O'Mahony

Buck up O’Mahoney you’re only 73, plenty of fight in you left!

Thomas Wagner
TW
Thomas Wagner
7 months ago
Reply to  Liam O'Mahony

“It is clear, is it not…”

It is not.

John Galt Was Correct
John Galt Was Correct
7 months ago

Basic competence would do.

Katharine Eyre
KE
Katharine Eyre
7 months ago

First prize for today’s most succinct, concise and devastatingly accurate comment.

Liam O'Mahony
LO
Liam O'Mahony
7 months ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

Sure, but wtf are you going to get that in 2023.. where, within wokism, multi-gender thems are you going to locate basic competence? I haven’t seen any for years!

David Webb
DW
David Webb
7 months ago

Perhaps French leaders should be more like de Gaulle, and British ones should be more like his contemporary Churchill. Both were ultra-patriots with a clear and coherent view of their country’s interests, and backed up by deep knowledge of history.
Both had plenty of flaws (including staying in office well past their peak), along with their consummate personal bravery.
But it’s difficult to see either CDG or WSC having much tolerance of the wimpishness around the political elites both sides of the Channel.

Peter Kwasi-Modo
Peter Kwasi-Modo
7 months ago

“foreign relations (something the French continue to excel in …). The best example of Gaullish guile in foreign relations is surely fooling Sunak into giving France £480,000,000 of UK taxpayers money to stop the Channel migrants. That was pure alchemy.

Charles Stanhope
CS
Charles Stanhope
7 months ago

Agreed, “the greatest ripoff in history”, and surely adequate revenge for Trafalgar etc!

Liam O'Mahony
LO
Liam O'Mahony
7 months ago

It wasn’t for the purpose of achieving anything with regard to immigration silly, ot was purely a PR exercise. In that it was quite successful …for a time. Better than the Rwanda plane trips right?!!!

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
7 months ago
Reply to  Liam O'Mahony

All of these wretched ‘unwanted ones’ should be immediately despatched to our former Internment Camps in Northern Ireland, and from there encouraged ‘à la française’ to leg it to the Irish Republic, where I am sure YOU will give them a very warm welcome.

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
7 months ago

Sunak knew it wouldn’t do anything. Just like EU leaders know that bunging more money to Tunisia and Turkey won’t do anything. But it’s a step we all have to go through on the way to more…severe solutions.
The guile on the French side was knowing they could take advantage of this phase and not get any blowback from the European press along the lines of “Macron is basically the Erdogan of the EU”.

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
7 months ago

“…especially in foreign relations (something the French continue to excel in, notably in their responses to Brexit and the Aukus pact)”.
I’m sorry, how did the French “excel” in their responses to Brexit and Aukus? With Brexit they totally overegged the pudding, helping to create the standoff over Northern Ireland for which a pragmatic solution along the lines of the Windsor Framework could have been achieved several years ago. Clever? Not really.
And with Aukus? That was just one long, embarrassing tantrum by Macron which told us more about his childish petulance than any kind of talent in foreign relations.
And how do failed expeditions to Lebanon, the Kremlin and the deteriorating situation in former French colonies in Africa feed into this? Or the disastrous handling of the Champion’s League final in Paris? Or is that being studiously ignored for the sake of this argument (most of which I didn’t bother to read, quite frankly).

Last edited 7 months ago by Katharine Eyre
Steve Murray
LL
Steve Murray
7 months ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

I think the point you’ve commented on simply shows the Remainer bias of the author. It is indeed nonsense to make Macron’s stance appear anything other than windy posturing.

Jonathan Story
JS
Jonathan Story
7 months ago

Our “Remainers” believed in the supranational project t. Nationalism bad; supranationalism good. They ignored a little problem. Democracy requires a nation state. And they ignored a further problem: British nationalism was at least 400 years old, and deeply embedded in our institutions. So the only way to be in the EU was to lie through front teeth that British interests were being served, while of course they were not. That was what the June 2016 vote made clear. The time for lies was gone. Hence their full vindictiveness is on display: use Covid to ruin the economy; back wakery; attack UK history; BRINO. All the while shouting the t the liars are the Leavers.

Liam O'Mahony
Liam O'Mahony
7 months ago
Reply to  Jonathan Story

It’s ‘im wot done it sir! Twernt me!
Brexit os a roaring success; any fool can see that. Indeed every fool does see it!

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
7 months ago

What is this obsession with France? This is the fourth essay on the place in the last week!
Let’s have something more mundane such as the Northern Ireland Legacy Trials Bill for example.

Damian Grant
DG
Damian Grant
7 months ago

I’m afraid this week, Charles, the British media ain’t having it. You gotta make do with climate catastrophe….for a change…..and an escaped convict. Maybe try pushing your suggestion and agenda next week….who knows?

Last edited 7 months ago by Damian Grant
Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
7 months ago
Reply to  Damian Grant

As they say “When the battle is over the Press come down from the hills and bayonet the wounded”, or in plain English:- ‘ the scum of the earth’.

Liam O'Mahony
Liam O'Mahony
7 months ago

Hear, hear..

Simon Neale
SN
Simon Neale
7 months ago

No need to look over the Channel. Enoch Powell would have been a better fit.

Bruno Lucy
Bruno Lucy
7 months ago

I can hardly wait for Staler and Waldorf to show up.

Bruno Lucy
BL
Bruno Lucy
7 months ago
Reply to  Bruno Lucy

Too easy :))))) I rubbed the lamp and my wish was granted.

Last edited 7 months ago by Bruno Lucy
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
ER
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
7 months ago

I thought de Gaulle was hostile to the Treaty of Rome and in customary fashion they rushed to get it signed before he retuned to office and killed it

Bruno Lucy
BL
Bruno Lucy
7 months ago

Most of the posts on this thread are so mediocre, between revenge from Trafalgar, to the French not doing their bit with illegal migrants wanting to flee to the UK, that I found fitting to join this very interesting article that traces all the way back to post war the divide between the EEC and the UK.
I have no interest nor intention to be dragged into a debate such as was de Gaulle the father of Europe……..who cares !!! But rather more interested into putting things into the context of the time. How did we end up here…..with a profoundly divided UK between remainders and leavers. Spare me the likes : French smell under the armpit or they never won a war….kind request. Happy reading….it is a very interesting article for anyone interested by post war Europe. https://hal.science/hal-02610169/document

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
7 months ago
Reply to  Bruno Lucy

Thank you. I will read with interest
I find it helps understanding to know where the key player stood

Martin Butler
MB
Martin Butler
7 months ago

Really don’t think UK leaders need to be like de Gaulle to be effective, they just need to be serious, and prepared to engage with the facts rather than make-believe and fantasy. Something recent leaders have struggled with.

JP Martin
JP Martin
7 months ago

If the British seek inspiration in a French leader named Charles, I would suggest that Charles Martel would be the better choice for our times given current challenges.

edward coyle
edward coyle
7 months ago

Im late to this discussion. My father, who was a French teacher, noted that de Gaulle would often say when emphasising a point, ‘Moi,je, de Gaulle’ followed by the verb ‘dire’. He was never sure whether it should be translated in the first (dis) or third person (dit). So way ahead of the trend on pronouns.

Liam O'Mahony
LO
Liam O'Mahony
7 months ago

Petulance? Petulance? ..didn’t Boris Johnson have more petulance than a box of frogs? Or was that Anglo-Saxon petulance?

Charles Stanhope
CS
Charles Stanhope
7 months ago
Reply to  Liam O'Mahony

Boris is NO Anglo-Saxon, thank God!