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A new light on the legacy of Charles de Gaulle

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Oct 04, 2012

As a young man with a keen interest in world politics, I was always fascinated by the unique character of Charles de Gaulle. While he was enigmatic and often frustrating from an American perspective, it was impossible to dispute the man’s enormous charisma.

Try to imagine an American politician who had the nerve—OK, I’ll say it: the gall—to declare himself the sole legitimate representative of the United States. It’s impossible; such a claim would never be accepted, and so it would never be made. But General de Gaulle made essentially that claim when he staked out his position as the leader of the free French forces during World War II, and the people of his country accepted it. After the war he was acclaimed as the country’s hero, the liberator. You thought that the American and British soldiers who stormed ashore on D-Day were the liberators? That may be true in terms of military history (and de Gaulle was, after all, a military leader), yet the French nation thought otherwise. To this day he is honored as the man who restored France to its proper status as a proud, free nation. If he stepped on the toes of his American and British allies in the process, he was not apologetic. De Gaulle was France, and France was proud; therefore de Gaulle was proud.

During this week of overdue vacation (were you wondering why I’ve been so silent?), I’ve been enjoying a new book on de Gaulle and on the influence that he still holds over France. In the Shadow of the General, by Sudhir Hazareesingh, explores the ability of this remarkable man to invoke and indeed to personify the French mythos. The General, Hazareesingh concludes, was “the most accomplished example of national hero that the French have ever seen.”

As a politician he defied easy categorization; during an era when the ideological battle lines were clearly drawn for everyone else, he was not clearly aligned with Left or Right. A military man, he was certainly not a militarist. He appeared arrogant (particularly to Americans), but the common people loved him, and their love was fully returned. He sometimes acted like a monarch, yet strongly upheld the ideals of republican France. He was a devout Catholic, but leery of clericalism and committed to secular government. A fascinating character, he himself defined the categories of French politics for a full generation or more.

And then, in another characteristic move, he resigned and disappeared from the political scene, living in austere silence during his short but dignified retirement. De Gaulle, Hazareesingh notes, had an uncanny ability to transform political events into something approaching liturgical services; he became not only a military hero but a sort of secular saint. Yet even that characterization is not quite right, because his "sanctity," such as it was, cannot be judged merely by secular standards. He was a deeply religious man, upright in his personal morality, loyal to the Church, generous and loving to his family and neighbors. His vision of France was thoroughly infused with the country's Catholic heritage, and so in serving the nation, by his lights, he served the faith.

This is not to suggest that Charles de Gaulle deserves canonization. He was a secular leader, in a country whose politics—since the establishment of the republic that he so strongly favored—have been thoroughly secularized, to the point of institutional anti-clericalism. De Gaulle was a secular leader, who neither sought nor expected the endorsement of the hierarchy. Still he recognized that faith was the foundation on which the secular state had been built, and so his form of secularism was respectful of faith. Unfortunately, because his leadership style was entirely bound up with his personality, he left no political heirs, and after his death anti-religious sentiments returned to the fore. Perhaps today's French politicians have been unable to find a balanced approach to secularism in part because, for so many years, that balanced approach was embodied in de Gaulle, and now de Gaulle is gone. Today his tomb is a sort of pilgrimage site for French admirers, and his legacy casts a shadow over the lesser men who have succeeded him.

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  • Posted by: robertcampbell_78332 - Oct. 16, 2012 3:46 PM ET USA

    Your comments are enlightening but please allow me to enlighten you further. Canadian troops ALSO went ashore on D-day and lost many lives while freeing France. Charles DeGaulle visited Canada after the war and while visiting the Province of Quebec publically stated "vive le Quebec libre" - long live a free Quebec - which was a disturbing insult to Canada as there was and still remains a separatist movement within Quebec. He was asked to leave immediately and was escorted to the waiting plane.

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