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The Creation and Ideology of Modern France

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“Faced with crisis, the man of character falls back on himself. He imposes his own stamp on action, takes responsibility for it, makes it his own…Difficulty attracts the man of character because it is in embracing it that he realizes himself.”

— Charles De Gaulle

Charles De Gaulle represented all the glory of France and also everything that Americans associate negatively with France. Born with pride in his native France and endowed with a sense of destiny, De Gaulle considered himself a savior of France. During World War II, his allies considered De Gaulle arrogant and intransigent. In particular, Churchill viewed the French man with disdain, figuring that De Gaulle owed his existence to Britain. Churchill was right. While we view France as a nation that resisted the Nazis during World War II, the truth was more complicated and quite frankly bleaker. Much of the French political apparatus cooperated with the Germans and the French Vichy government was a de facto ally of Nazi Germany. De Gaulle was one of the few leaders who refused to surrender.

De Gaulle was born in a France that was a world and cultural power. This was a nation that survived for four years the German onslaught in World War I at a high price. De Gaulle witnessed the carnage first hand in the trenches on the western front. Before World War II, France was still considered a great military power with colonial reach beyond Europe. It was during the 1930s that the French, along with their British allies, followed a policy of appeasement with Adolf Hitler. The French, still scarred by the devastation of World War I, wanted to prevent another bloodbath on their soil. This appeasement would lead to World War II and the French Army collapse. The France that defended its territory for four years in World War I at the cost of millions, was swept away in a six-week campaign and its political leadership merely surrendered to the Germans. The leadership accepted its fate and then essentially joined the other side.

De Gaulle did not surrender and that is why today, he is a symbol of French stubbornness in the face of Nazis conquest. For the French, World War II was more than a disaster – it was a period in which the old France lost her soul. De Gaulle restored French dignity and pride in the post-World War II era and allowed France to recapture much of its impact within the Western alliance. For De Gaulle, his goal was to return France back to its former greatness of his youth and of history.

The irony was that De Gaulle predicted the tactics of the German Army in his book, The Army of the Future when he pleaded for a professional mechanized army. His book was a hit – in Germany, where Hitler made it required reading for his staff. The French military leaders, led by Marshal Pétain, preferred defensive strategy and massed infantry. The lynchpin in French planning was the Maginot Line, designed to deter the Germans. Only De Gaulle understood the war that was about to be fought. The French wedded themselves to the past and when war came, the past was swept away. After the fall, De Gaulle lead the Free French and his stubbornness preserved what was left of French honor.

When De Gaulle arrived in London in 1940, he was condemned to death as a traitor by the men who not only lost the war but who collaborated with the enemy afterward. De Gaulle’s famous rallying cry was “France has lost a battle, but France has not lost the war.” At this crucial moment in French history, De Gaulle was France.

In 1944, he led an army of 500,000 Free French into Paris after it fell to the Allies and from this moment, he became France’s de facto leader. De Gaulle took power as France’s first leader after World War II but for just a short while. Wanting to be above the fray, he no longer cared for the bickering of the Fourth Republic, so he simply left the Presidency. He supported a Constitution with a strong executive but this was rejected. His goal was to unify France, but France was incapable of unification after the war. France was politically fractured and not even De Gaulle’s prestige could unify France. He went into self-imposed exile. Even in his exile, he studied the political situation, for he knew that one day France would ask him back.

In the mid 1950s, trouble arose as France lost their Southeast Asian colonies and French were fighting resistance forces in their Algerian colony. The violence in Algeria resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands. Many in France wanted to keep their North African colony at any cost. But the conflict and the political chaos had a negative effect on the French economy, as France was mired in debt. The political order threatened to collapse, with chaos swirling around and a civil war over the horizon. Like the hero of old, De Gaulle came out of retirement. De Gaulle ended the Fourth Republic and redesigned the Constitution to allow for a stronger executive. His prestige helped end the economic crisis and De Gaulle put France’s financial house in order. He also gave Algeria her independence and this ended what was left of the French Empire overseas. The present Fifth Republic was born.

In foreign affairs, De Gaulle put in place the policy that essentially is the French policy today – an alliance with Germany and the rejection of Great Britain in Europe. He supported France’s inclusion in the European common market, used his stature to keep the pro-American British out of Europe, and pulled France out of NATO in 1966. He wanted a French-controlled Europe.

He established a French nuclear deterrent to maintain French independence and sever direct ties to United States. He attempted to play the European power broker between the Soviet Empire and the United States. France would still be part of the Western alliance if war came between the Soviet Empire and the United States, but he had no real faith in America. As he noted once, “You may be sure that the Americans will commit all the stupidities they can think of plus some that are beyond imagination.” De Gaulle was never short of French arrogance and today’s French diplomats operate on the same premise – only without De Gaulle’s prestige or intellect.

France is a nation still searching for its past grandeur. Present French leaders grasp that unless they control the European Union, they will slide further into the orbit of second- and third-tier nations. Allied with a pacifist Germany, France feels she will have the power to steer Europe away from United States, while using the European Union as mean to subsidize its own technocratic socialist state. With a less bureaucratic Europe, France will be just one of 18 nations in Europe. They will be forced to compete in a world they can’t control. The present French strategy, whether led by the Gaullist Chirac or his socialist opponent, is Gaullist in principle. The prime strategy is to reshape Europe in the image of France. It is the ultimate Bonaparte ideal of a French Europe only without the bloodshed. A United Europe that is a real rival to America.

De Gaulle was a giant who understood his nation and represented his nation. His arrogance was needed by a nation that needed a little arrogance to overcome its defeat in World War II. The reality for modern France is that without the United Nations or the European Union, France is but one small fish in a big pond. The world will be dominated by the United States, China, India, and Russia, while nations like Great Britain and France will be forced to ally themselves with stronger nations if they hope to have influence. For the French, the idea of playing second fiddle to America, or any other nation, is grating. De Gaulle was born in a France that was a world power in military affairs, diplomacy, and culture. Today, Disney and McDonald’s have invaded France and what is now the primary Western culture originates out of Washington, New York, and Los Angeles.

De Gaulle’s successors are free of the Soviet threat. They have more freedom to conduct an anti-American policy. With the collapse of the Soviet Empire, the threat of a general war in Europe has subsided. In a piece written in 2003 for the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, Andrew Apostolou wrote, “For France, the diplomatic struggle at the United Nations is about reining in the United States, not disarming Iraq. Americans must understand that France views the massed ranks of U.S. troops, not Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction, as the main threat. Indeed, President Jacques Chirac is simply putting into practice his plan, laid out in November 1999, to create a “better world balance” by holding the United States in check.”

Chirac’s vision resembles De Gaulle’s: a French-controlled Europe free of Anglo-Saxon control. Chirac envisions a multipolar world in which France is a resurrected world power as the main representative agent of a United Europe and through multilateral organizations such as the United Nations.
There has always been the legend that France and the United States have been allies since the Revolutionary War, but historically, there has always been competition between France and the Anglo-Saxon worldview. Representing how many Americans presently see things, scholar Walter Mead stated, “Prickly, pouting, convinced of its superiority, France remains the country in which anti-Americanism finds its most sophisticated intellectual expression in the West. This phenomenon persists despite the fact that few countries benefited more from the American security umbrella in the twentieth century.” Americans are taught about Lafayette and his love for America as a symbol of the relations between the French and the Americans. Much of the 18th century saw the French and her Indian allies often warring against the American colonies. The Revolutionary war was the exception to the rule.

France and Britain were conflicting powers in Europe and in North America. For the French, supporting the American Revolution was an act of revenge against the British for the various humiliations committed during the Seven Years’ War and before. France’s goal was to deny British their North American Empire since France had lost theirs. France even viewed America as a potential ally against the British in future conflicts.

As the 19th century began, the Americans did not prove to be the allies that the French were seeking, and the Monroe Doctrine closed the door to future European expansion. The biggest booster of the Monroe Doctrine proved to be Great Britain and the British Navy provided the decisive military support to make the Document operational in its early years. As French statesman Talleyrand moaned, ”I have not found a single Englishman who did not feel at home among Americans and not a single Frenchman who did not feel a stranger.” For the French, anti-Americanism has run the entire political gamut. As Mead wrote, “Anti-Americanism in this sense is very different from opposition to some specific American policy; it is a systematic view of the United States as a danger to all one holds dear.”

For some French, the real shock came in 1898 when the United States spanked the Spanish military in the Spanish-American war. Mead wrote, “The French interpreted the American attack on Spain as the beginning of an American war with Europe — a war that the Old World might lose. The new Anglo-Saxons were more powerful, more ruthless, and more determined than the old. The loathsome Monroe Doctrine would be extended to ban European colonies in Asia and Africa. An Anglo-Saxon condominium, with power ultimately passing to the more frightening and less civilized Americans, would dominate the world. Even the hated Germans might serve as an ally against this horrifying power.”

Charles Maurras, the founder of the right wing L’Action Francaise, viewed the United States “as the land of a harsh and brutal absolute capitalism.” A more disturbing aspect of Maurras was his theory about the link between American leadership and Jews. As Mead observed, “Maurras believed early in his career that the Germanophile American Jews in finance influenced Woodrow Wilson’s tardiness at entering World War I and his refusal to back France’s claims at the Versailles peace conference.”

Toward the end of Maurras’ career, he and his Vichy friends feared “the Jews” who surrounded Roosevelt. United States took a hard line on French debts between the two World Wars and many French viewed the United States as Uncle Shylock and accepted the thesis that Jews ran the American financial system. (The Dreyfus affair in the 1890s exposed the anti-Semitism that was rampant in the underground of French life. Dreyfus was a French officer accused of spying and convicted before later being proved innocent. His Jewish background worked against him.)

In a speech before 9/11, French politician Paul M. Couteaux declared:

“In reality, here as elsewhere we have followed Washington and persist in closing our eyes to the theocratic excesses of this religious state (Israel) whose governments are under the thumb of fanatical parties and minorities that are just as bad as the other groups of religious fanatics in the region. That is why we should envisage imposing sanctions on Israel.”

”There is, however, another serious imbalance for which we are in part responsible, namely the imbalance of forces. I have no hesitation in saying that we must consider giving the Arab side a large enough force, including a large enough nuclear force, to persuade Israel that it cannot simply do whatever it wants. That is the policy my country pursued in the 1970s when it gave Iraq a nuclear force.”

Some have questioned whether French policy in the Middle East is due to belief that Israel is a colony of the Anglosphere or just plain anti-Semitism against Israel. Others have stated that it was a part of a strategy to curry favors with Arab nations. Certainly, the migration of Arabs has only added to this Anti-Israel sentiment. And there are some in France who have no trouble with a nuclear-armed Arab power.

World War II was a watershed moment for the French, for unlike the British, France fell under Nazi control. While some fought the Nazis, others cooperated. France’s place on the security council of the UN was as much a gift to France as something earned. For France, World War II was a period of humiliations and her loss of empire post-World War II only added to the humiliations. As Mead observed:

“The humiliations and setbacks that France suffered at American hands in the twentieth century chafe so badly in part because they rub the old wounds that the British inflicted in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The British destroyed the empires of the Bourbons and Bonaparte; the rise of the United States established a new superpower league in world politics in which France can never compete. The dog-eat-dog competition of Anglo-Saxon capitalism forces French firms to adjust, and it steadily undermines France’s efforts to maintain its social status quo. The English language has replaced French in science, diplomacy, and letters; the list goes on.”

Much of the intellectual class and political leaders blame France lost of past glory on America.

Mead concludes, “The challenge for Americans and non-Americans alike is not to end anti-Americanism; only the collapse of American power could accomplish that task. Today, the task is to manage pragmatically the resentments, irritations, and real grievances that inevitably accompany the rise to power of one nation, one culture, and one social model in a complex, divided, and passionate world.” One thing that America doesn’t need to apologize for is its place in the world. Appeasing anti-Americanism feelings will never truly satisfy true America-haters. Hatred directed toward us is because of our success, and jealousy plays a significant role in this hatred.

For the French, their peak of European power remains Napoleon Bonaparte. French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin’s hero remains Napoleon, and like many Frenchmen, he still dreams of the days when France was the master of Europe. Napoleon stretched the French Empire from Atlantic to the Urals before the Russian winter forced its final retreat. Napoleon’s biggest obstacles to control beyond Europe remained England and it was Duke Wellington that ended Napoleon for good at Waterloo. France maneuvering within the European Union is an attempt to dominate Europe through its bureaucracy and once again make France the master of Europe.

France’s involvement with the United Nations and other multilateral organizations allows it to exhibit influence beyond its power. Its ultimate goal is to control and use a bureaucratic European Union as its means to compete with the Anglosphere and develop a multipolar world. In Europe, the debate on the European Union is still proceeding. For many in central Europe, a European Union dominated by a Germany-French axis is a reminder of past history in which they were the victim of a power play by bigger nations – often Russia and Germany. France needs the cooperation of Germany to ensure a more socialistic European Union. Great Britain has accepted its role as a subordinate to America and it is in that role that it has a significant impact on the world scene. France is now more interested in tying its interest to a mirage instead of what is real and there is nothing more dangerous than to base a foreign policy on illusions.

France could easily impact America if it chose a direct alliance. Instead, France is taking the Gaullist thoughts to its logical conclusion. France is slowly breaking its bond to America and opposing the United States. The French delusion of greatness is seen when they attempt to isolate Europe from its protector at a time when its need for its protector will soon be greatly needed. A Europe that is tied to America can recover its economic vitality and its place in the world. A Europe dominated by France will be a bureaucratic nightmare that will stunt growth and see Europe fall further behind United States. There is a younger generation that may yet break its bond with its past and embrace the future without fear. France will find that its destiny can be enhanced with a new alliance with its American allies across the ocean.

There may have been a time that Gaullist imagination and ideals were needed to restore pride to France. Today, Gaullist ideals have run their course. De Gaulle has long been buried and it is time to bury his ideals as well.

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About Tom Donelson

  • A fantastic piece, except for the last 2 paras, where you switched from explaining the backstory to contemporary US-centric political thinking.

  • Great article. I am currently reviewing a new book out next month by a prominent French writer (the subtitle says it all: “American Vertigo: Traveling America int he Footsteps of Tocqueville” by Bernard-Henri Levy) and, in a nutshell, your piece served as a bit of a countervailing perspective in clarifying the subject of the “anti-Americanism phantasmagoria,” as Levy terms it, a “baser instinct” of a minority of the French “who can do nothing but repeat, like miniature out-of-control automatons: ‘Blame it on the United States! Blame it on the United States!'”

  • Superb post! Thanks! 🙂