A de Gaulle of our own

De Gaulle was a man of the French right, associated from his earliest days with conservative institutions — the Catholic Church, the military — and right-wing and monarchist family traditions. But his particular style of nationalism, his extreme devotion to a “certain idea of France,” made him constantly inclined to seek a more inclusive nationalism — one that would lionize the military heroes of the ancien régime and the generals of the revolutionary period equally, let Joan of Arc live beside Marianne, and enable Paris’s jostling, rivalrous monuments, Catholic and Bourbon and Republican and Bonapartist, to share the city rather than dividing it.

As with any reinvention of tradition there was an artificiality to Gaullism, a deliberate submerging of many important controversies, a mythmaking about national “grandeur” that dodged as many questions as it answered. Unsurprisingly, it somewhat disappointed its perpetually disappointed leader, who felt that the France he forged was less than he had hoped — less conservative in its culture, less ambitious and effective in its policy, less glorious than the France of his imagination. And like any such project, it was provisional, bequeathing buried tensions that in today’s France are being increasingly exhumed.

But compared with other efforts at statesmanship in long-divided countries, it had enduring effects without requiring disastrous bloodshed. “Gaullism succeeded,” Jackson writes, “in becoming the synthesis of French political traditions, or as de Gaulle put it, reconciling the left to the state and the right to the nation, the left to authority and the right to democracy.”