In the Shadow of the General: Modern France and the Myth of de Gaulle

 

On 18 June 1940, General Charles de Gaulle used the BBC to broadcast a speech to the people of France. De Gaulle, by then a well-known career soldier, had two weeks earlier been appointed by Prime Minister Paul Reynaud as Under Secretary of State for National Defence and War. The role put him in charge of coordinating with the British forces.

De Gaulle’s speech was masterful. Its rhythm and rhetoric were irresistible, as the Lille-born third son of devout Roman Catholics called upon his countrymen to refuse to accept either capitulation or slavery, “for reasons which are called honour, common sense, and the higher interests of the country.”

Delivered, ironically enough, on the anniversary of the battle of Waterloo, de Gaulle rallied a defeated France with a unifying speech which he later cited as the point at which the Fifth Republic was born. And yet, as Dr Sudhir Hazareesingh reveals in In the Shadow of the General: Modern France and the Myth of de Gaulle, the general had no idea how many Frenchmen had actually heard the broadcast. An absence of factual data did not, however, prevent de Gaulle from casting 18 June 1940 as a sacred day. And, as Hazareesingh shows, this dash of spin – from an era when PR and branding were unknown – was typical of the man and how he created the Gaullist myth.

“De Gaulle was a paradoxical figure,” says Hazareesingh, who spent three years researching his book, first published in 2010 in France as Le Mythe Gaullien. “During his lifetime he divided opinion, but having returned to power in 1958 he was increasingly celebrated as the Father of the Nation – a role that he did much to foster. As an authority figure he was contested, first by the Left and the extreme-right, and then by the student movement of May 1968. But de Gaulle’s death in November 1970 heralded a volte face. The general became all things to all men. People saw what they wanted in him, and celebrated him for their own purposes.”

Before Le Mythe Gaullien, the English translation of which appeared in July 2012, plenty of writers and historians had tackled de Gaulle. But until Hazareesingh no one had examined the mythology of de Gaulle, and, specifically, the relationship between the French people and the General. Hazareesingh’s study reveals an almost visceral bond between the French and de Gaulle, one that endures even now.

How, though, did Hazareesingh uncover the wellsprings for de Gaulle's extraordinarily privileged position in the collective French psyche? "From 2007 to 2009, I worked in French public libraries (notably the Bibliothèque Nationale), French national and departmental archives," says Hazareesingh, CUF Lecturer in Politics and Tutorial Fellow in Politics, Balliol College. "It was important to investigate core sources like these. I also worked in the archives of the Charles de Gaulle Foundation in Paris. This also holds some of de Gaulle's papers, as well as a considerable amount of material relating to public attitudes towards de Gaulle, both during his political career and after his death. I read condolence registers and letters written by ordinary people when de Gaulle died. The General's presidential staff were tasked with reading and classifying all the letters sent to him. But no one had systematically researched all this material."

Hazareesingh’s research revealed the way in which people idolised de Gaulle, but Le Mythe Gaullien also charts the evolution of de Gaulle’s image – and the General’s own adept hand in shaping it. He was quick to claim ‘national liberator’ status, as the ‘Man of June 18th’, and went on to consolidate his image as providential hero in his Mémoires de guerre, published in three volumes between 1954 and 1959. “De Gaulle was very well-read, and he wrote well, too,” says Hazareesingh. “The Mémoires became the decisive interpretation of the Second World War in France, even if de Gaulle’s account was a tendentious representation of what happened.”

Before the Mémoires, there were tours of France in the months following the liberation of Paris in August 1944. They served to “seal the mystical union between de Gaulle and the French people,” says Hazareesingh. In office, de Gaulle was never less than astute to the way in which he came across: official celebrations tended to the austere; he made a point of going on walkabouts (fostering the sense of a “permanent plebiscite”); he rigorously separated his personal expenses from those of his office; and he made an annual visit on 18 June to Mont Valérien, the site outside Paris used by the Germans to execute Resistance fighters. Throughout, a canny sense of PR was underpinned by humility and ethical rigour.

Hazareesingh shows how De Gaulle, a man of contradictions – “royalist at heart but republican by reason” – ultimately transcended politics, emerging as a universally admired, benign figure, feted by left and right alike.

Le Mythe Gaullien – which, in June 2011, received one of the three Prix d’Histoire awarded by the French Senate – has had an impact in the scholarly arena, in education and in mainstream culture, with the book being widely discussed on French radio and television; Hazareesingh has appeared at numerous conferences and public lectures. The book’s wide dissemination in France also saw Hazareesingh invited to serve as a corresponding member of the Conseil Scientifique of the Charles de Gaulle Foundation, France’s main research institute on Charles de Gaulle.

Le Mythe Gaullien transcends conventional narratives of the General and, thanks to its meticulous and unprecedented research of archive material, is also a study on how myth becomes history.

Further Reading:

In the Shadow of the General: Modern France and the Myth of de Gaulle OUP 2012

 

Team

Sudhir Hazareesingh