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Pablo Perez Lopez, Director Scientist of the Institute for Culture and Society

Greatness and Failure: De Gaulle and Politics

The words with which Charles de Gaulle begins his Memoirs are well known: "I have always had a certain idea of France". The history of his country impressed him so much that his greatest dream was to one day render "distinguished services" to it.

Sun, 08 Nov 2020 11:32:00 +0000 Posted in The Conversation

He chose the degree program of arms to do so. The Great War of 1914 seemed to be his golden opportunity. It surprised him as a young captain, caused him repeated physical wounds from which he recovered and a morale more difficult to bear: he was taken prisoner at Verdun, and lived locked up the last two years of the war. His repeated escape attempts ended in as many captures. The way the French command conducted the war disappointed him enormously... He had lost his great opportunity. He rebuilt as best he could his degree program, largely in the shadow of Pétain, the hero of Verdun, who had to defend him from the bad reception that the professors of the technical school de Guerra gave to this conceited officer who disagreed with their strategic doctrines. He wrote military history of France and, because of it, clashed with Pétain.

Convinced that it was necessary to create an army structured by armored divisions, he published a book about it. He was listened to in Germany, but not in France. He sought to influence politics to make himself heard. He made his bet and cultivated the friendship of Paul Reynaud.

He was already fifty years old when his country entered again in war with Hitler's Germany. France then decided, late and badly, to organize armored divisions and entrusted its government to Paul Reynaud who called de Gaulle to the government to apply his thesis . Convinced that the war would be long, when the government was already in Bordeaux, he negotiated a close alliance with the United Kingdom to continue the war from the Empire. Reynaud proposed it to his government, which rejected the measure. He had failed again. He rebelled against this cession led by Pétain and marched to London to continue the war in the name of "Free France".

From pariah to national hero
He convinced Churchill that it was possible, but not the authorities of his country who deprived him of his nationality and condemned him to death. He did not care: through a sea of difficulties he managed to make his bluff succeed: France ended the war fighting among the victors and aspiring to regain its greatness. De Gaulle, from being an outcast, came to symbolize the Resistance, the reconciliation of the country over the wounds of the partnership, and the rejection of Vichy.

Back in France, the hero of the Liberation was confronted with parties that practised the opposite of what he understood to be the pursuit of the national interest. Disappointed, he resigned in the hope that he would soon be called back to clean up the mess. In vain: nobody called him back. For politicians, it was real life far from the reverie of this symbol of the Resistance, who did not understand political reality. According to him, it was the triumph of the mediocrity of a few politicians, the prologue to a disaster.

And disaster struck. In 1958, France, because of Algeria, ended up living a status of political bankruptcy and rebellion. De Gaulle maneuvered behind the scenes with extreme skill, and appeared as the solution to a dead-end problem. He returned, redesigned the political system and founded the Fifth Republic that changed the parliamentary model for a presidential one.

French greatness
The solution of the Algerian problem cost him the hatred of ultra-nationalists who tried almost twenty times to end his life. In the meantime, he made politics to recover French greatness. This time he knew how to move and, for ten years, he deployed with skill all his talent to convince from power.

He did not convince everyone. In 1968 he faced a new rebellion that put him in the target of criticism. He managed to master the last storm of his life, and to endorse the popular favor at the ballot box. But he did not like status. Convinced of the need for far-reaching reforms, he proposed them in a referendum and, losing it, resigned.

"There is no politics outside of realities".
He never ceased to think that "there is no politics that is worth outside realities", and also that "France cannot be France without greatness". It might seem a contradiction, but there is no such contradiction: "On the slope on which France stands - he wrote - everyone encourages her to go down while I never cease to pull her up".

It is worth as summary what he meant by doing politics with greatness as a horizon. In the end, that was the outstanding service he rendered to his country. This desire to aspire to something great, to flee from mediocrity, is the reason why he is remembered with awe.

As he noted as a young man in his diary: "Ta pathemata, mathemata", we learn with our sufferings. And politics is no exception. It is necessary to fail in order to make a great dream come true.

This article was originally published in The Conversation. Read the original.

The Conversation