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Conflict and resolution: Charles de Gaulle’s understanding of ‘nation’

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In an article written for Public Discourse, Samuel Gregg. Acton’s director of research, reviews Julian Jackson’s recent book about General Charles de Gaulle. The book clearly communicates the idea that “de Gaulle’s conception of France as a nation had a very specific character.”

“De Gaulle” is a historical biography, not a commentary on present-day debates concerning globalization or nationalism. “It’s difficult, however, not to reflect on these matters when reading this book,” writes Gregg, “given the central place accorded by de Gaulle to the nation when approaching topics ranging from economic questions to foreign policy.”

Gregg describes how de Gaulle was a man constantly entrenched in conflict, even from birth. He grew up around the time of the Dreyfus Affair, a political scandal that caused extreme division in France. Gregg also notes how Jackson describes de Gaulle as “being at the center of two civil wars that tore the French nation asunder.” One of which was the “1940 split between those who opted for Petain and Vichy France and those who chose de Gaulle and Free France.” The other was the Algerian War that emerged in 1954.

The Algerian War revealed a conflict in both France and in de Gaulle himself. Gregg writes, “As the Algerian rebels fought for independence, the conflict assumed the character of an internal clash among Frenchmen, which spiraled into violence.” At first, de Gaulle favored the Algerian rebels’ cause, then he changed his mind and “insisted on maintaining France’s colonial empire.” Gregg attributes de Gaulle’s shift in opinion to “the nation’s pivotal place in de Gaulle’s thought.”

De Gaulle’s concern about “nation” further manifested in his worries about the domination of Germany during the rise of Nazism and the Bretton Woods Agreement, “which effectively made the US dollar the world’s reserve currency” and gave the US much advantage over France and other countries.

As much as de Gaulle loved France, he was very aware of its brokenness as a nation. He came up with two ways to restore his country. “First,” Gregg notes, “he sought to project a vision of France as stronger than it really was,” a tactic used to elevate France in the world’s eyes and in the eyes of its own people. “The second approach involved de Gaulle drawing on a range of historical and cultural sources to provide France with a regime of ordered liberty that would stabilize the country’s longstanding political fractures.”

Gregg notes how Jackson refers to “the constitutional regime of the Fifth Republic” as his “most lasting achievement.” “While its 1958 constitution has been amended several times,” notes Gregg, “France remains very much de Gaulle’s regime.” De Gaulle contributed extensively to France’s constitution and the presidency.

“But de Gaulle’s constitutional order also managed to achieve something that had eluded Napoleon,” writes Gregg. “It integrated the monarchical principle associated with the ancien régime into the republican framework bequeathed by the Revolution.” Jackson describes the effect as reconciling “the left to authority and the right to democracy.”

Although a man with “many flaws,” de Gaulle’s effects on political theory are hard to ignore. Gregg ends by noting, “in an age when supranational technocrats, utopian globalists, leftists contemptuous of patriotism, and tribal populists seem locked in relentless struggle with each other, we need such individuals more than ever.”

Read the full article here.

Featured image: Gnotype [CC BY-SA 3.0], from Wikimedia Commons

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Allyson Wierenga

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