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A time to remember Charles de Gaulle

Apr 12, 2023Apr 12, 2023

He was neither born nor died in June, nor any important event of his glorious life occurred in this month, then why at all to commemorate Charles de Gaulle at this time. Actually, in the post-World War II period whenever a country experiences political or economic instability, the ‘maker’ or at least ‘shaper’ of modern France comes to the mind of every-single student of political history. Reasons are obvious. When France was captured by Nazi Germany on May 10, 1940 de Gaulle formed the London-based government in exile and kept the spirit of ‘Free France’ alive till it was regained with the support of Allied forces on August 25, 1944. During the post-war spell when political instability aggravated by Algerian crises started undermining France he re-emerged from his self-imposed retirement and with the public backing scrapped ‘Fourth Republic’ and laid the foundation of French solidarity through the "Fifth Constitution’. Later, in the course of the last phase of his career he initiated substantial measures to strengthen France economically; and re-designed foreign policy according to the newly-emerged realities. All these mile-stones of his long struggle to re-surrect the lost glory of France did not always contain popular decisions: there were numerous unpopular as well. However, once he was convinced that they were in national interest, he did not hesitate a moment to implement them. If he were devoid of his celebrated courage and remarkable ability to bear pressure, which Richard Nixon summarizes as ‘strength of character’, he must have failed in most of his escapades. All of the ‘great’ leaders acted in the same manner and considered dispassionate decision-making, their prime duty.

Charles de Gaulle's ‘cold, distant personality’ further augmented by his ‘obstinacy, haughty demeanor and frequently abrasive manner’ could not make him a popular public leader. Nonetheless, his ‘dominant——–and domineering’ figure could provide ‘focus, drive and dynamism to any movement’. All his biographers are unanimous that he was not ‘a charismatic hero with magnetic popular appeal’. As per Doctor Henry Kissinger, ‘he radiated mystique but not warmth’. Question arises that how a person of this nature continued commanding respect and support of a large number of people for such a long time? The answer is quite simple: the proven correctness of his decisions, taken despite strong opposition. When De Gaulle refused to accept the armistice with Germany concluded by Marshal Petain-led regime and left for exile in London to continue struggle for the French liberation nobody considered it a wise move having almost nil chances of success. Nevertheless, he stuck to his resolve, organized his support, formed the Provisional government, won-over the Anglo-American leadership and after four years entered Paris as a hero on August 25, 1944. After liberation of France, De Gaulle stressed that post-war conditions necessitated a strong government; however his point-of-view was not accepted either by the politicians or by the public. When the ‘Fourth Republic’, almost a replica of the ‘Third’ introduced West-Minister type of government De Gaulle declared the new constitution a recipe for weak administration and political instability. His assessment proved to be accurate as the successive governments fell after one another being dependent upon fragile majorities in the National Assembly. As many as 22 governments came and went between 1945 and 1958, lasting from under a week to fifteen months. Utterly frustrated with ‘the divisiveness of pluralist party politics’ which ‘scarcely matched De Gaulle's notion of France's ‘grandeur’ and was actually ‘an anti-thesis of his vision’, he gracefully walked out of the system on January 20, 1946. The resignation once again established his credentials as a principled and non-compromising leader.

It will be unfair to omit De Gaulle's economic reformation despite briefness of his first tenure (1944-46). AS early as 1944 he introduced his distinctive economic policy called ‘Dirigisme’ which included substantial state-control over otherwise a capitalistic economy. At that time, in the European context anything lesser than ‘laissez faire’ was considered to be a ‘transgression’ however he remained adamant. This policy, though not popular for the time-being, ensured 30 years of unprecedented growth in France (1945-1975), and later came to be known as ‘Trente Glorieuses’ meaning ‘The Glorious Thirty’.

The persistent political instability from 1946 to 1958 leading to collapse of the’ Fourth Republic’ compelled the French nation to call back their ‘war-time’ hero from his retirement. Charles de Gaulle returned but on the condition of a ‘powerful presidency’ which was established under the ‘Fifth Republic’ on January 8, 1959 after the public approval through a referendum. The new constitution was more akin to American Presidential System than to British Parliamentary Democracy; however a unique French creation. The President was totally in command of defense and foreign affairs while the Prime Minister was to take care of all the domestic issues and was responsible to the parliament as well. Nonetheless, in emergent situations the President was authorized to interfere in any area of the government i.e. he intervened to resolve economic crises through ‘Financial Stabilization Plan’ in 1958; and later vide strict measures to check acute inflation in 1963. The ‘Fifth Republic’ was actually a blend of ‘authoritarianism’ and ‘democratic pluralism’, certainly a distinct structure; however it stood the test of the time. After becoming powerful, De Gaulle turned his attention towards resolution of major issues on permanent basis. To end-up Algerian crises he liberated the colony in 1962 which shocked the whole of French nation——-obviously a very unpopular but tremendously realistic decision which stopped the ‘bleeding’ of country. Like a genuinely great leader, he educated the French people that ‘it was the time to look to the future and not hold to the dying past’. Through this action he established that for the sake of long-term national interest he was prepared to pay any magnitude of ‘political cost’. In due course of time, he took a series of courageous decisions: development of cordial relations with Communist China and the USSR despite Anglo-American annoyance, withdrawal from American-led NATO military command in 1966, keeping Britain away from ‘European Economic Community’ for securing French interests, signing ‘Franco-German Friendship Treaty’ in 1963 are few examples of his ‘France First’ policy. He also developed independent (non-NATO) nuclear bomb in 1960 brushing aside American reservations on the ground that ‘abstention from developing a major military capacity’ will be ‘a form of psychological abdication’. No other NATO member could have rebuked the U.S. policy on the issue so boldly during the peak days of the ‘Cold War’.

Though sometimes de Gaulle's decision-making style is branded as a ‘new type of Bonapartist dictatorship’ however his extraordinary respect and the legendary image of greatness termed as the ‘myth of De Gaulle’ has outlasted his death in 1970. Borrowing words from Richard Nixon again, despite his ‘aloofness’ the ‘indefinable electricity’ that exists between the leader and the led was definitely there. According to Ian Kershaw, ‘De Gaulle is widely regarded in France as the most important figure in French history —-far ahead of Napoleon. Today's France has moved-on in so many ways since the time of de Gaulle. It is nevertheless unthinkable without his legacy’. The secret of this abnormal ‘Greatness’ lies in his bold and confident decision-making leaving the political considerations aside. While assessing de Gaulle's statesmanship in his recent work titled ‘Leadership’ Doctor Henry Kissinger writes that ‘his extraordinary prescience was matched by the courage to act on his intuition, when the consequences appeared to a political suicide. His career validated the Roman maxim that fortune favors the brave’.

The last word: Pakistan needs tough not easy, objective not political, permanent not ad-hoc decisions. Country's politico-military leadership may get inspiration from de Gaulle's decision-making style.