De Gaulle and the French Army: A Crisis in Civil-Military Relations
De Gaulle Entre Deux Mondes
In June it will be six years since General de Gaulle returned to power after a prolonged stay in the wilderness; and twenty-four years since he issued his celebrated call to resistance which—though he did not say so at the time—was also a call for revolt against the French Government that had just signed an armistice with Germany. The link between the two upheavals is more apparent to Frenchmen than to foreigners, who have trouble understanding how the rebel of 1940 could become the defender of ‘republican legitimacy” in 1958-64. It is thus welcome to find an American historian turn his attention, and his solid professional apparatus, to the fascinating theme of the French Army in politics. American-French relations are currently so bad that they can scarcely get worse. Until they take a turn for the better, no harm is done if all concerned apply their minds to the theme of French nationalism and its latest avatar.
The difficulty with this topic, of course, is that one can hardly tell the whole truth about any of the major turning points of the past quarter century without stepping on someone’s toes. If Professor Furniss largely manages to avoid causing pain, this is because—unlike most Frenchmen—he is not emotionally involved. His account of the President’s struggle with his rebellious Army studiously avoids taking sides, though in relation to Algeria his sympathies—like those of all rational people—are clearly with the President. He gives the Army leaders credit for having “an element of logic” on their side in holding that the defense of national territory against foreign “subversion” implied a continued readiness to hold onto Algeria. This said, he concedes that “French Algeria” was an anachronism, and that the President’s task entailed “the forcing of reality on the army.” He then proceeds to argue that the Army—and French nationalism in general—extorted a price: namely the adoption of a nuclear arms program and a “Great Power” pose in world affairs. On this reading of the situation, Gaullism represents an unstable compromise between the civil and the military power: the Army, though still inclined to sulk, has been bought off, and the taxpayer has to foot the bill. Presumably then a return to parliamentary democracy would involve the abandonment of an ambitious and costly arms program. This is now frequently suggested by De Gaulle’s critics, and seems likely to become one of the themes of next year’s presidential campaign. So far there is little evidence that the Opposition is making headway with what looks like a program for placing France more securely under NATO (that is, United States) control. As for the commonly heard view that France cannot afford the nuclear plant at Pierrelatte and the rest of the arms bill, it has been argued by competent economists that this is nonsense, and that the program actually helps to stimulate industry. Most of the uranium anyhow comes from French sources, and the operational costs may be lower than in Britain.
Around this complex tangle of issues, Professor Edgar Furniss has constructed a carefully elaborated and heavily documented argument. His learning is great, his judgment is sound, his fairness to all concerned is almost overwhelming. He even carries dispassionate reasoning to the point of suggesting, in his conclusion, that there is “no necessary clash between the ‘grand design’ of Charles de Gaulle in Europe and an equally far-sighted American statecraft.” This seems to beg a number of questions. The author himself makes it clear that De Gaulle’s decision to exclude Britain from the Little Europe of the Six was a direct consequence of Whitehall’s commitment to the “special relationship” with the United States. Since no British Government is likely to renounce this stance (not to mention the Common-wealth connection, about which Labour is even more emphatic than the Conservatives), one does not see how the British can get into Europe while De Gaulle is there to bar their entrance. And a Europe not including Britain cannot be controlled by the United States, whether it takes a federal or a confederal (Gaullist) form. On this the federal Eurocrats in Brussels are just as clear as the Gaullist technocrats in Paris. So far as Europe is concerned, De Gaulle therefore may be said to have already won his battle against America and Britain. Whether the force de frappe is ultimately sunk in a European nuclear establishment (conceivably after the British Tories have been converted to Gaullism, which is not totally impossible), is really a subsidiary question.
These great matters are not the whole substance of Professor Furniss’s learned work. He has also gone at some length into the history of the Fifth Republic and De Gaulle’s relations with the political parties. Here I feel he is handicapped by a tendency to stick too close to the political surface and neglect the intangibles of national sentiment. One learns more about the roots of Gaullism from a recently published French study, Paul-Marie de la Gorce’s De Gaulle Entre Deux Mondes. Here we get the whole story, starting in 1940 and even further back with Colonel de Gaulle’s unavailing attempt to rouse the political and military establishment from its somnolence in the 1930s. Without this background, and without some insight into the complexities of the Resistance movement, one cannot really understand what Gaullism is about and why it continues to make an appeal to sections of the Left as well as the Right. The Resistance is really the key to the whole phenomenon: it smashed class barriers, threw officers, technicians, intellectuals, and radical politicians together, divorced a section of the nationalist Right from its ancient moorings, split the Army, caused an upheaval among the middle class, and promoted a frantic drive to turn France into a modern country. The men who form the inner core of Gaullism got together during these years. Under the Fourth Republic they were in opposition because they wanted a stronger State. Together with their leader they systematically opposed all parliamentary governments from 1946 onward, to emerge triumphant in 1958, when the Socialists—this is often forgotten—called for De Gaulle’s return to save the Republic from civil war. Talk of Bonapartism explains nothing. One has to see why the Left in 1958 not only wanted De Gaulle as a shield against the Algerian ultras and their military friends, but also why it believed (correctly) that he would solve the colonial problem.
Unfortunately Professor Furniss is a little weak on this theme. He is so fascinated by the struggle between the President and the Army that he rather neglects the third factor: French society and its modernization. The France of 1960 was not the stagnant country of 1940. It was a society in the midst of a technological revolution sparked by the structural reforms of 1944-6. These had been worked out in the revolutionary atmosphere of the clandestine Resistance groups of 1940-44, and were dictatorially imposed by a government presided over by De Gaulle—a government which included Communists as well as Socialists, left-wing Catholics, and “pure” Nationalists. Ever since those days there was a secret bond between De Gaulle and a section of the Left, and a not-so-secret conviction on the part of the higher civil service—the Administration—that in a crisis he might once more prove the only man able to hold both the extreme Right and the Communists in check. What happened in 1958 was that the more far-sighted politicians and fonctionnaires got together behind the scenes with the remnant of the Gaullist movement, and decided to revive the wartime alliance. They knew quite well that De Gaulle wanted an authoritarian form of government, and were willing to pay the price. After all, they had had twelve years of the Fourth Republic and were thoroughly tired of it. Even the Socialists in their hearts longed to be delivered from it.
It is true that since then the alliance between the General and the Left has once more fallen apart, but it would be rash to conclude that it cannot be revived. How complex the situation really is may be gauged from the fact that M. Gaston Defferre—currently the Left’s only serious candidate in the presidential stakes—is already suspected of crypto-Gaullism. The reason is quite evident; unlike some of his fellow-Socialists—not to mention the Radical troglodytes who dream of returning to the Third Republic and its café du commerce politics—he has grasped the nettle: France must be made efficient, and to this end it must have a presidential form of government. Seeing that De Gaulle has been preaching this truth ever since he relinquished power in 1946, he can reasonably claim to have converted his left-wing critics to his own viewpoint.
This attitude, however, is not that of the traditional Right, the droite classique. It is a weakness of Professor Furniss’s work that he does not go into the matter. The reader who wants to understand the nature of the war De Gaulle has been waging against the Right for the past thirty years will have to turn to M. de la Gorce, himself a man of the Left and a rather reluctant admirer of Charles de Gaulle. There he will discover how the pupil of Barrès, Péguy, and the other pre-1914 Nationalist writers, gradually turned himself into the complex character who has dragged France into the modern world, liquidated its colonial empire, and presided over a social transformation. It is a fascinating story—and not only because its central figure is a man with a taste for the dramatic. (Incidentally, De Gaulle in his first book attributed the German catastrophe of 1918 to the Nietzscheanism of Germany’s rulers and their lack of classical moderation and good sense.) One gathers the impression that the General has frequently been a puzzle to himself, and that this is at the root of his semi-mystical utterances about his “mission.” No wonder: his mission, whether he knows it or not, is to make Men of Destiny superfluous. Like Cromwell, whom be resembles, he has gone further than planned, and when the curtain falls be will be discovered to have left his countrymen a legacy they can put to uses not dreamed of in his own philosophy.