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,…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.