France revives modest memory of Le General

Cult of de Gaulle: Nation returns wartime leader to mainstream on 25th anniversary of his death
Click to follow
The Independent Online


This evening 800 soldiers, carrying torches, will parade before the golden dome of Les Invalides in Paris, forming up into a giant cross of Lorraine, the symbol of the French Resistance. This ceremony, too reminiscent for some of the torchlit extravaganzas of Hitler and Mussolini and derided by many younger French people as the sort of showy overcompensation for recent history that does France no credit, is how one part of the French army has chosen to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the death of Charles de Gaulle.

There will be other events: the now traditional memorial masses - two of them - in the small stone church at Colombey-les-deux-Eglises; the Prime Minister, Alain Juppe, leading a government and RPR (Gaullist) party delegation to the resting place of the party's founder south-east of Paris.

Jacques Chirac has not yet announced his participation, but he, too, may yet make the journey to Colombey.

De Gaulle has returned to the French mainstream. "It took Francois Mitterrand for us to rediscover Charles de Gaulle," wrote the French political philosopher, Andrei Glucksmann, shortly before this year's French presidential election. His book, De Gaulle, where are you?, was a plea less for the revival of "Gaullism" than for the revival of de Gaulle.

The directness of the title was arresting, even shocking, and the argument impassioned. De Gaulle, Glucksmann argued, was not a conformist, he was a revolutionary; it was by swimming against the tide, being true to himself and true to France, by daring to project grand ideas for France and the world, that he distinguished himself.

With the election of Jacques Chirac, whose every election speech contained references to de Gaulle, French voters reclaimed a part of their heritage. After 14 years of Mitterrand's internationalism, France's younger generation in particular seemed interested in their Frenchness, and that meant - in part - Le General.

Since the election six months ago, much has been said and written about the return of "Gaullism". There was the preoccupation with national sovereignty, dignity and world status that may have lain at the root of the President's decision to resume nuclear testing. There was the willingness to defy the world that was implicit in the decision and in Mr Chirac's reaction to protests. There was the idealistic one-nationism that encouraged Mr Chirac to believe that he could, and should, heal what he saw as growing social divisions in France - and that voters would be prepared to pick up the bill. And there was the underlying idea that all this was for the sake of a "certain idea of France" - the phrase of de Gaulle's so often quoted by Mr Chirac - that linked foreign and domestic policy into a supposedly coherent whole.

As the 25th anniversary of de Gaulle's death approached, however, that conventional but often mobile and elusive "Gaullism" has slipped into the background, to be replaced by the tall figure of the general himself: dignified patriot, traditional paterfamilias, a countryman at heart who saw power as a duty, not an opportunity. In a recent opinion poll, 57 per cent of those asked said they thought Gaullism was an outdated concept; 55 per cent, however, regarded de Gaulle himself as a positive figure.

Returning to Colombey-les-deux-Eglises, and the de Gaulles' country house, the Boisserie, French writers have remarked on the smallness, the modesty, the ascetism of the general. This is a corner, one said, of the "eternal France". De Gaulle would not return to power without being "recalled". When he had his house rebuilt after the war, he added a turret in brick, not local stone, "to save money", and disguised the difference with a creeper.

At home, he would drink only one glass of wine with dinner; an aperitif and digestif on Sundays. Mme de Gaulle did her shopping in the local town, Bar-sur-Aube, and the de Gaulles spent the evenings quietly, he writing his memoirs, she reading or knitting.

When he died suddenly on 9 November 1970, Mme de Gaulle insisted that their son, Philippe, publish his will at once to ensure that the funeral took place at Colombey, and did not become a state occasion in Paris. When Philippe arrived from his naval command at Brest the family assembled for dinner. According to Philippe, now a retired admiral, his mother motioned to him to sit in his father's place. "That was continuity," he remarks.

Few know now how far these images - of modesty, austerity, dignity and family - correspond to the real de Gaulle, but they are the images France seems to want on this anniversary. And they say as much about what the French think is wrong with France today as they say about General de Gaulle.