Can you imagine General de Gaulle under judicial investigation?’ This rhetorical question, used by François Fillon to scupper the chances of his rival Nicolas Sarkozy being selected as the conservative candidate in France’s current Presidential election, dramatically boomeranged against Fillon. He soon found himself under judicial investigation for a whole series of possible improprieties – most notably using state money to pay his wife for work that she may never have carried out.
Fillon was far from the only candidate during this campaign to invoke the memory of de Gaulle. Even the Front National (FN) of Marine Le Pen, one of the final two candidates in the run-off on 7 May, now pays homage to him. Although the roots of Le Pen’s party lie in the extreme right that cannot forgive de Gaulle for granting Algeria independence in 1962. The pro-FN mayor of Béziers recently re-named a street after one of the army officers involved in a plot to kill de Gaulle in 1961! But this does not stop the FN’s deputy leader, Florian Phillipot, laying a wreath on de Gaulle’s grave at Colombey les Deux Eglises every year.
So de Gaulle hovers over France, and over the current election campaign, as a memory of a time when France still seemed to count in the world. He is also remembered as a figure of incorruptible moral purity. When President of France between 1958 and 1969 he even installed a separate electricity meter in the private apartments of the Elysee Palace so that he could pay for his personal electricity use out of his own pocket and not state funds. ‘Can you imagine General de Gaulle…”?’ has become an all-purpose mantra in the current campaign.
But just as everyone tries to drape themselves in the mantle of de Gaulle there is simultaneously a gnawing sense that the presidential regime created by de Gaulle in 1958 – the Fifth Republic – is part of the reason for France’s current malaise. The verdict of history will probably be kinder to President Hollande than the current judgment of opinion polls in France. He has carried out many important reforms that his successor will almost certainly continue. But Hollande’s failure has been that, although a decent, amiable, modest and intelligent individual, he lacks the personality to incarnate the role of Republican Monarch created by de Gaulle. None of de Gaulle’s successors – with the possible exception of Francois Mitterrand – has been able to play this role convincingly – just as Louis XV and Louis XVI proved incapable of incarnating the image of monarchy that had been bequeathed to them by Louis XIV.
The current election campaign has thrown up another paradox. De Gaulle created a system that concentrates power in a charismatic individual man who is supposed to be above party. In reality, even while de Gaulle was President, the system worked only because he had a party to support him in parliament. De Gaulle pretended that he ruled through his mystical bond with the French people; this was only partially true. Since his death the grip of the parties over the system has become even stronger. There have been Socialist Presidents (Mitterrand, Hollande), ‘Gaullist’ Presidents (Chirac), conservative Presidents (Sarkozy) and Liberal Presidents (Giscard d’Estaing) but each has had a party behind him.
For the first time the current hot favourite to win the election, the centrist Emmanuel Macron, is a man with no party but a lot of charisma. If he wins how will he govern except by cobbling together unstable majorities in parliament on an issue by issue basis? This would be a return to the bad old days of the Fourth Republic from which de Gaulle claimed he had saved the French in 1958.
So perhaps the politician who is brilliantly profiting from the system created by de Gaulle – everything focused on the election of the Monarchical President – is the man who will finally bury it.
This post was previously published on The Historian QMUL and is republished here under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.
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