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A de Gaulle of Our Own

In search of a statesman with a certain idea of America.

By Ross Douthat
Opinion Columnist

May 14, 2019

I wrote my Sunday column about a memoir, “My Father Left Me Ireland” by Michael Brendan
Dougherty, and what his Irish story might offer to Americans thinking about a reinvention of
our traditions, a synthesis beyond our current culture wars. Now, as a kind of sequel, I want to
recommend a biography, Julian Jackson’s “De Gaulle,” whose portrayal of modern France’s
most famous leader is relevant to the same questions.

Unlike Churchill and Stalin and other World War II‑era figures, Charles de Gaulle doesn’t loom
particularly large in the American imagination’s filmstrip of the past, appearing briefly as an
anti‑Nazi hero and then again in cameos as a Cold War‑era irritant. And the story that de
Gaulle entered and altered, the history of France between the Revolution and the Vichy era, is
regarded as too byzantine for most Americans to follow; some of us have seen “Les
Misérables,” and that’s complicated enough.

All of this is unfortunate because France’s more‑than‑hundred‑year war over its own self‑
understanding, the epic struggles among radical, liberal, conservative and reactionary factions
over the French Revolution’s legacy, has an immediate relevance for our own national
divisions.

Yes, our own ideological extremes are less dramatic, and our culture war has been waged
mostly without barricades in the D.C. streets, and without (as yet) a New York Commune
under the rule of First Citizen Ocasio‑Cortez. But in many ways our politics since the 1960s
have been Frenchified in a very 19th‑century style.

Our political parties are organized around an unfinished revolution and a partial restoration,
with the Democrats as the coalition of the glorious 1960s and Republicans as the party of the
Reaganite Thermidor or the Bush‑Bourbons.

Our religious landscape is polarized, since the collapse of the old Protestant establishment,
between a secular, anticlerical liberalism and a MAGA‑and‑megachurch conservatism.

Our battles over national memory pit ancien‑régime narratives about farsighted founding
fathers, heroic pioneers and a tragic, avoidable Civil War against more iconoclastic
reimaginings that place the old regime’s victims at the center of the story.
In our political battles everyone is constantly trying to claim ownership of contested symbols
— in the flag, the Statue of Liberty, the Bill of Rights — in order to assert that theirs is the true
Americanism, theirs the only path of making us great again or taking our country back.

In our media frenzies we keep generating controversies, from Kavanaugh to Covington, that
resemble the Dreyfus Affair, 1890s France’s great scandal — in which every cultural division is
somehow distilled into a single debate over guilt and innocence, with a representative figure’s
virtue or turpitude as a synecdoche for everything dire our factions each believe about the
other. And all this increasingly bleeds into our foreign policy, with global relationships
scrutinized for their domestic ideological implications, foreign leaders hailed or vilified based
on domestic narratives, and foreign governments seeking advantage by cultivating
relationships with our competing factions.

Against this American backdrop the new biography of de Gaulle is relevant — in addition to
just being educational, a sweeping‑yet‑concise introduction to the most brilliant, infuriating
and ineffably French of men — because his grand project, his only consistent purpose apart
from his own ambition, was a struggle to reintegrate the competing narratives of Frenchness,
to get his country to transcend its ideological civil war.

De Gaulle was a man of the French right, associated from his earliest days with conservative
institutions — the Catholic Church, the military — and right‑wing and monarchist family
traditions. But his particular style of nationalism, his extreme devotion to a “certain idea of
France,” made him constantly inclined to seek a more inclusive nationalism — one that would
lionize the military heroes of the ancien régime and the generals of the revolutionary period
equally, let Joan of Arc live beside Marianne, and enable Paris's jostling, rivalrous monuments,
Catholic and Bourbon and Republican and Bonapartist, to share the city rather than dividing it.

As with any reinvention of tradition there was an artificiality to Gaullism, a deliberate


submerging of many important controversies, a mythmaking about national “grandeur” that
dodged as many questions as it answered. Unsurprisingly, it somewhat disappointed its
perpetually disappointed leader, who felt that the France he forged was less than he had hoped
— less conservative in its culture, less ambitious and effective in its policy, less glorious than
the France of his imagination. And like any such project, it was provisional, bequeathing buried
tensions that in today’s France are being increasingly exhumed.

But compared with other efforts at statesmanship in long‑divided countries, it had enduring
effects without requiring disastrous bloodshed. “Gaullism succeeded,” Jackson writes, “in
becoming the synthesis of French political traditions, or as de Gaulle put it, reconciling the left
to the state and the right to the nation, the left to authority and the right to democracy.” That
synthesis required rejection as well as inclusion, with enemies to both the right and left — the
Communists to one side, the Vichyites and eventually the betrayed Algerian colonials to the
other. It required cynicism and compromise, a blitheness about constitutional niceties and a
cult of personality. But it established a unity out of deep division that could not have been
anticipated in 1940.
Of course that raises the question of whether anything like Gaullism would have been possible
without the total French collapse in that dark year, which simultaneously established de Gaulle
as the unconquered embodiment of a conquered nation and discredited, through the stain on
Vichy, elements of the right that might have more successfully opposed him. If the lesson of
Gaullism for today’s America is that to escape an ideological civil war you first need to be
conquered by Nazis, then it’s not a particularly encouraging case study.

But even with that caveat, I would still hand Jackson’s biography to any politician who
imagines breaking out of our 50‑50 politics and governing as a national rather than a tribal
figure. What it suggests, above all, is the centrality of narrative and imagination to successful
statesmanship, and the extent to which it’s possible for a very unusual sort of politician to
effectively reinvent tradition, synthesize from conflict, and persuade many millions of people to
go along with it.

And it also suggests the importance of a Gaullist question for our would‑be leaders: What is
your certain idea of America? And how many Americans, and how much of American history,
would your idea be able to include?

IDEAS OF AMERICA

Opinion | Ross Douthat: The Reinvention of Tradition May 11, 2019

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Ross Douthat has been an Opinion columnist for The Times since 2009. He is the author of several books,
most recently, “To Change the Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism.”

You can follow him on Twitter:  @DouthatNYT

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