Julian Jackson's De Gaulle draws on unpublished letters, memoirs, and papers in the newly opened de Gaulle archives that show how this volatile and inspiring leader put his broken nation back at the center of world affairs. Following up on our last post, we had just a few more questions for Professor Jackson.
Moral leadership is a hot button topic, especially here in the US. What can we learn from de Gaulle’s conception of political greatness and from his understanding of the qualities that make a great leader?
JJ: Before he was a political leader after 1940 de Gaulle was a soldier but also a soldier intellectual. He wrote extensively about leadership in the inter-war years, and had reflected deeply and in a very cerebral way on what makes a great leader. In some sense he wrote the ‘script’ of leadership which he then acted out after 1940. His vision of leadership and political action was much influenced by the French philosopher Bergson. This is what he told an American journalist in the 1960s about his philosophy of action: “I was much influenced by Bergson particularly because he made me understand the philosophy of action. Bergson explains the role of intelligence and analysis. He saw how necessary it is to analyze questions in search of the truth, but intellect alone cannot act. The intelligent man does not automatically become the man of action. Instinct is also important. Instinct plus impulse; but impulse alone is also not sufficient as a basis for action. The two, intellect and impulse, must go together … Great men have both intellect and impulse. The brain serves as a brake upon pure emotional impulse. The brain surmounts impulse; but there must also be impulse and the capability for action in order not to be paralyzed by the brake of the brain.”
So for de Gaulle leadership was a balance between critical intelligence, intuition and moral courage. By moral courage he meant that it was necessary sometimes to break with all established authority: to disobey. In his book on leadership in 1932 he wrote about one British admiral of the First War: ‘He has all the qualities of Nelson bar one: he does not know how to disobey!’
In 1940, by deciding to defy the most revered figure in France, Marshal Pétain, and to take the decision to go alone to France to continue the combat, de Gaulle was taking an act of extraordinary moral courage but it was underpinned by that capacity for rational reflection that he also believed to be an essential ingredient of leadership: his ‘reason’ told him that the battle of France was only the first stage in what would become a world war which the Allies would win. But it is one thing to analyse events correctly; it is another to act on that analysis – as de Gaulle did in 1940.
You dive into the little-known fact of de Gaulle’s deep Catholic faith. How did his religious values guide his beliefs and his actions? Do you think his Catholicism played a role in his principled rejection of Nazism and of accommodation?
JJ: De Gaulle’s Catholic faith was indeed profound but it was also very personal. One must be careful about reading this into his political action. It is true that he developed a moral rhetoric in opposition to Nazi Germany and to the Vichy regime, and it true that as a Christian humanist he was revolted by Nazism. His thinking about totalitarianism in general was influenced by ‘social Catholicism’ which rejected the supposedly soulless materialism of both capitalism and socialism. But I would not want to exaggerate the importance of this in his opposition to Nazism. In the 1930s it was Germany that de Gaulle opposed because, as a conservative nationalist, he believed German expansionism was a threat to France. There is almost nothing about Nazism in de Gaulle’s warnings against Germany in the 1930s. De Gaulle was a kind of existential nationalist who believed that the struggle between nations was the eternal motor of history, and that when nations adopted certain ideologies they were always just a cloak for national ambition: so he believed that Communism was only a cloak for the traditional interests of Russia – he always preferred to talk of Russia not the Soviet Union – that Roosevelt’s liberal internationalism was just a cloak for the interest of the United States and that Nazism was just a new avatar of German expansionism. So when he opposed the collaborating Vichy regime he did in due course oppose the domestic politics of that regime – its anti-Semitism, its suppression of liberty and so on – but in the end the key to his opposition to Vichy was that it has betrayed France’s national interest by accepting German domination.
You write very movingly about de Gaulle’s relationship with his daughter Anne, who had Down’s syndrome. Tell us a bit about that relationship, and what it tells us about him.
JJ: It was indeed a strange and moving relationship. On the surface de Gaulle seemed to many people to have a certain quality of inhumanity, an inability to show his feelings. When one of his aides during the war bemoaned the fact that de Gaulle seemed incapable of showing a more human face, the reply was ‘it is impossible to make someone who is tone deaf appreciate music any more than it is possible to ask de Gaulle suddenly to develop human contact’. But his relationship with Anne shows another side to the personality – a human being under the carapace. She was very severely handicapped, unable to talk or to feed herself. But there was never any question that she would be put in an institution: for the twenty sad years of her life she was always with them – in France before 1940, in London during the war, in Algiers after 1943 and so on. And de Gaulle seemed to form an extraordinarily tender relationship with her, singing her songs, telling her stories, taking her on walks. Perhaps she was one of the few people not frightened by him. Of course this relationship was also a testament to his deep Catholic faith. He wrote of Anne: ‘Her birth was a trial for my wife and myself. But believe me, Anne is my joy and my strength. She is the grace of God in my life … She has kept me in the security of obedience to the sovereign will of God.’ After Anne’s premature death he wrote to her elder sister: ‘Her soul has been liberated.’
When France pulled out of Indochina, America stepped in. What did de Gaulle think America should have done differently in Vietnam?
JJ: He had originally hoped to hold on to Indo-China, and the French finally abandoned the region in 1954 after a costly war. De Gaulle was no longer in power at that time. But he had learned the lessons of that conflict. As he told a visiting American in 1964: ‘I do not believe that you can win in this situation even though you have more aircraft, cannons, and arms of various kinds … I do not mean that all of the Vietnamese are against you but they regard the United States as a foreign power and a very powerful foreign power.’ An American Senator was told a year later: ‘Ho Chi Minh is a Communist but he is also a national figure, the one who expelled the French and will do the same to the Americans. This is what he is using his Communism for. He did it in the past against us, he is doing it now against you, he will do it perhaps in the future against China.’
In private he was even more brutal: ‘when they start sending thousands of boys, people will start to notice. When the coffins start coming back that will make people think. And once that combines with their problems with the Blacks and with the dollar, it will create a context of discontent which will get worse with their dirty war.’ When President Nixon (a great admirer of de Gaulle) visited Paris in March 1969, a few weeks before de Gaulle left power, he received a long lecture on the need for the Americans to give up their unwinnable war.
In all this de Gaulle was applying the lessons of his own experience. But of course all this gave him a certain Schadenfreude: he enjoyed the chance to occupy the moral high ground, to teach the Americans lesson and to use the war to position himself as a hero of the Third World.
De Gaulle continues to influence French politics. What role does he play in President Macron’s policymaking? In his stance on Syria? While the two leaders belong to very different ages, there seem to be some likenesses. Do you consider Macron to be a neo-Gaullist?
JJ: Yes, Macron is of another era and one should be careful of comparisons. But in some sense what makes Macron possible is the constitution that de Gaulle created in 1958 and which now almost all the French accept. Previously the French Republican tradition was suspicious of ‘strong’ men because of the precedents of Napoleon and of his nephew Napoleon III. So the French preferred a model of weak parliamentary politics. De Gaulle, who came from a monarchical tradition, completely changed that. He possibly even had a certain nostalgia for the monarchy while realizing – again his sense of realism! – that monarchy was impossible. What he did instead was to create what he himself on one occasion called a Republican monarchy: the directly elected French President is one of the most powerful heads of state in the world, and Macron is glorying in the possibilities that such power gives him. Macron talks of the ‘verticality’ of power and of his ‘Jupiterian’ style of leadership. All this is very Gaullist and it is surely no coincidence that Macron’s official portrait as President has him posing in front of a copy of de Gaulle’s War Memoirs!
Having said that, in many other ways Macron could hardly be more different from de Gaulle: Macron is an economic liberal and de Gaulle believed that the State needed to play a role in the direction of the economy; Macron is also a convinced ‘European’ arguing for greater European integration while de Gaulle’s vision of Europe was very different: he was viscerally opposed to European federalism. So it is in his style of governing that Macron is most ‘Gaullist’. But Macron should also remember what happened to de Gaulle after 10 years of the jupiterian exercise of power: he was faced with the revolutionary events of May 68 which signaled the beginning of the end. France in 1968 was like a pressure cooker ready to explode. That could happen again.
If de Gaulle could only be remembered for one thing, what should that be?
JJ: He saved the honor of France in 1940.