General Charles De Gaulle reviewing free French commando unit during Bastille Day in London, 1942. - Bettmann/Getty Images
Artillery Row

We can all be Gaullists today

Britain sustained de Gaulle. The general’s views on Britain should resonate now.

Prince Charles and Clarence House play host tonight to the French President, Emmanuel Macron. The occasion is the eightieth anniversary of Charles de Gaulle’s famous radio address from London in the dying days of the fall of France in 1940. While it has long been accepted that the original address was heard by very few at the time, de Gaulle’s solitary appeal from BBC Broadcasting House at Portland Place is the moment to which French memory traces the origins both of the Resistance and of the Liberation. There is quite an honour being accorded by the French president’s presence here on a date of such importance in France’s political calendar, one which has had a quasi-sacral character in the commemorations which take place on French soil. In French remembrance, the date has become fused with the memory of Resistance fighters shot during the war, many after first being tortured. Whether or not President Macron gets the impression that anyone over here is paying any attention to all of this, however, is another matter, but the symbolic weight of the visit is of the highest order.

If this country is currently in the predicament of finding its history and good faith put in question by a small but noisy cohort of its own population, that is partly the fruit of undue diffidence around past moral achievements. Sustaining de Gaulle in 1940 by recognising and equipping his effort to continue the fight against Nazi Germany after an armistice had been signed in France was certainly one of those moral achievements about which more could usefully be said (the BBC could certainly usefully say more about it, given that they broadcast the speech in the first case). The disinclination to tell edifying stories about comparatively recent history suggests a certain wavering national self-confidence, but the last few weeks also attest to how quickly those with other ideas about the past can fill empty moral and intellectual space.

De Gaulle’s most recent English biographer, Julian Jackson of Queen Mary University in London, describes the decision to offer him official recognition in 1940 as “astonishing”, which is another way of saying, contrary to retrospective complacency, that it was very far from inevitable. Large parts of France were already occupied by the Germans and the French Third Republic would soon vote itself out of existence. As ever with any decision of great moment there were those on both sides of the decision to recognise de Gaulle who cautioned that it entailed too much risk. Even a year later, after British sanctuary, weapons, and funds had allowed de Gaulle’s Free French to acquire some combat capacity, the United States remained generally sceptical and hostile, preferring to deal for the most part with representatives of the Vichy administration. Taking a chance on a largely unknown officer like de Gaulle was the mark of this country’s commitment not only to victory in the war but also to a certain understanding of national honour, both France’s and its own. Not all countries would have taken the same view and some who could have done so, did not.

De Gaulle was often quietly surprised about what he saw as London understating the strength of its position

Nevertheless, De Gaulle very obviously harboured a measure of resentment in later life for the extent to which he had depended during the war on British funds and backing. His arguably high-handed rejection of early British attempts to join what became the European Union in turn still colours perceptions of the general in this country. What gets missed when the focus is on either of those things is the extent to  which de Gaulle’s example as a statesman is a worthy subject of study in its own right and one with obvious potential to inform thinking around statecraft as Britain attempts to make Brexit in its full sense ever more of a reality. After all, Brexit’s central characteristic in its international dimension is the recovery of sovereignty and the legitimate self-assertion of a country which has gathered itself together again after a period of dispersal. Few national leaders at any time have confronted that task quite as starkly as de Gaulle did and neither the understandable mental habit of thinking of him as an opponent nor the admittedly far less severe nature of the current situation should blind us to that.

De Gaulle himself was often quietly surprised about what he saw as London understating the strength of its position in international affairs. During his eventual presidency, he remarked to a confidant that “Churchill was magnificent until 1942. Then, as if exhausted by the excess of effort, he passed the flame on to the Americans and abased himself before them.” While a little strongly put, it illustrates de Gaulle’s view that post-war Britain was not lacking in capacity but rather in morale. Speaking a few years later to the newly elected Richard Nixon, de Gaulle said something similar again, telling the then US President, “England could have done without your protection, but in the political, economic, and monetary domain, since Churchill, she has preferred to follow your policies”. That the relationship with the US was very close is a commonplace observation, but de Gaulle’s belief that Britain could have “done without” it is not.

These were comments of an astute and successful practitioner of power. Few measured or husbanded actual existing power quite so carefully as did de Gaulle, a tendency on his part born no doubt of the various long periods of his life when he did not dispose of anywhere near enough of it to see through his purposes. His longstanding belief that Britain underestimated its capacity to chart its own course naturally invites attention at a moment in history when there are plausible reasons not to wish to be inextricably bound up with what is going on either in Europe or in the United States.

In his broadcast eighty years ago today from Portland Place, de Gaulle set himself in opposition to the emerging Vichy administration by arguing that the course he has chosen, that of ongoing resistance to Germany from outside France, was undertaken in the name of “good sense, to honour, and to the highest interests of the homeland”. Then as now, these remain good ends by which leaders can adjust their political compass as needs be. Indeed, while one hopes that Sadiq Khan’s experiment of interning Churchill in a box on Parliament Square as a presumed threat to public order will soon be brought to a close, we might as well extend our attention in the meantime to another wartime leader who knew a thing or two about working towards liberation.

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