Thursday 23 May 2019

France and its endless struggle for survival

  • History: France, A History: From Gaul to De Gaulle, John Julius Norwich, John Murray, €29.99
  • Biography: A Certain Idea of France: The Life of Charles de Gaulle, Julian Jackson, Allen Lane, €39.99
Lead by excited children, General Charles de Gaulle walks through the streets of Paris after France’s liberation from Nazi Germany in 1944
Lead by excited children, General Charles de Gaulle walks through the streets of Paris after France’s liberation from Nazi Germany in 1944

JP O'Malley

In the concluding pages of France, A History: From Gaul to De Gaulle, John Julius Norwich recalls a phone call between the outspoken French General and Winston Churchill, just after the D-Day landings, in June 1944. De Gaulle told the British Prime Minister how the French public thought he was the reincarnation of Joan of Arc. "We had to burn the last one," Churchill replied.

Such humorous gaffes are typical of this book's light-hearted style. Norwich - who died last month, just after this book's publication - begins his story towards the end of the Second Century BC: when the Romans conquered the south east corner of what is now France; making it their first and most profitable province.

We then move, rapidly, through 2,000 years of French history. The highlights include the coronation of Charlemagne; the violent events of the Christian Crusader Kingdom, which opened up new markets in the Levant that France enormously profited from; the bloody religious Hundred Years War of 1648, which resulted in eight million deaths; the French Revolution, which violently disposed of the ancient regime; the blood-thirsty reign of terror that followed, led by Robespierre; the Napoleonic Wars, and the subsequent expansion of the French colonies across the globe; the split between Republicans and monarchists in the late 19th Century, resulting in endless political upheaval and ideological squabbling; and then finally, the two world wars.

It's hard not to have a passing interest in Norwich's short compendium. The period of history he covers, after all, is as much about the history of Europe - and the wider world - as it is about France in isolation. But Norwich treats history more like a friendly fireside chat. The book also lacks passion, purpose, or any real commitment to solid scholarship. The Middle Ages is surmised as "not much fun; the Hundred Years War, meanwhile, is a conflict "that there is no reason to trace in any great detail"; while the French Empire is described as a "powerful force for good, [which gave] prestige to the Motherland".

Unlike Norwich, Julian Jackson has clearly spent years researching his subject to the point of obsession. This authority shines through immediately. His central thesis may be surmised in one sentence: who exactly was Charles de Gaulle and what did his political philosophy consist of? Jackson starts by deconstructing De Gaulle's own words. The most famous come from the first line of his memoir. It reads: "All my life I have had a certain conception of France." For De Gaulle this meant four things: patriotism, Catholicism, history and culture.

The book begins on June 18, 1940, when De Gaulle addressed the French nation, via BBC radio, calling to save what he saw as a glorious European nation. At 49 years of age, De Gaulle left France for London: he was seeking to set up a political opposition to the Vichy regime, who openly accepted Nazi defeat, embracing their fascist ideology in the process.The French government in exile quickly became known as the Free French. Over the next four years, De Gaulle claimed that he, not the Vichy regime, represented the "real France". The gamble paid off: he returned to Paris in 1944 for the liberation of the city, acclaimed a national hero. Although the four years were not without squabbling, Roosevelt famously despised De Gaulle: doing everything in his power to keep him, and France, out of the new world order that was being assembled, as World War II reached its conclusion. Still, De Gaulle understood that the Allied leadership needed his support and he needed theirs. Somewhere in the middle of their respective political agendas they found common ground to defeat fascism.

The drama of the war years, unsurprisingly, takes up a great deal of Jackson's magisterial study. De Gaulle was travelling from London to north Africa during much of this time; primarily to the dying French empire in Morocco and Algeria: where key fronts of the conflict were being won by the Allies. De Gaulle resigned from office in 1946, returning to power in 1958 to set up the Fifth Republic.

There is considerable ink spilled here discussing the Algerian independence struggle, too. It began in 1954, with De Gaulle granting the country full sovereignty in 1962. There is also ample time given over here to explore De Gaulle's personal life, too. Although there isn't much to write home about. De Gaulle was more likely to be attending Mass than breaking the heart of his wife or a secret mistress.

Jackson's writing is evenly balanced, and political events are described through a series of human dramas, rather than through the prism of facts and figures. The historian is at his best when he picks apart what exactly "Gaullism" consisted of. In his view, it was a paradoxical, ever-shifting ideology: with its main obsession being a loyalty to state and tradition. Remarkably, De Gaulle viewed the real betrayal of the Vichy regime as disloyalty to the state. Siding with fascists didn't seem to be his main concern. In any case, De Gaulle's political leanings were never to the left. They lay somewhere between Catholic corporatism and a loyalty to the hierarchical structures of monarchy.

Most great statesmen need just one gift to lead its people into a mythology that takes on a life of its own. Jackson believes De Gaulle was blessed with two: an ability to be pragmatic in times of crisis; as well as a killer instinct for when the tides of history were turning. This worked in his favour in both World War II and in Algeria.

Although, as Jackson reminds us, a Machiavellian understanding of how power works, and a few white lies never goes astray. But politics for De Gaulle was always about much more than power for its own sake. He saw the art of the impossible closer to philosophy, religion, or art. The General put it rather aptly himself when addressing the French nation in 1960; remarking how: "Like all life, the life of nations is a struggle."

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