Charles de Gaulle is one of the best-known French presidents of the Fifth Republic. He has had a tremendous role in the 20th century, beginning during World War 2, when he led the French Resistance against German occupation, then throughout the country’s reconstruction in the post-war era, and finally when he became leader of the country in 1958 and wrote its new Constitution.
Never, during his long political carrier, did de Gaulle put aside his convictions. “All my life, I have had a certain idea of France” (Charles de Gaulle, Mémoires de guerre, 1954). This idea of France being a great country promised to a great destiny, he never stopped defending it. Moreover, his refusal to compromise became a characteristic aspect of his personality. But how has his stiffness influenced and shaped French and European politics?
Due to his determination, France belonged to the victors of World War 2, despite its unquestionable military defeat in May 1940 and the collaboration of its government with Nazi occupiers. Indeed, de Gaulle organized the French Resistance movements and put all his weight in negotiations with his American and British allies in order to be considered its country’s rightful leader. Therefore, France owes him its permanent seat in the UN Security Council.
Later on, in 1946, de Gaulle’s strength of character showed again when he preferred to resign from his role of leader of France’s temporary government rather than accept the Constitution that was being put together by the French Parliament in the immediate post-war months: he refused to compromise on his conception of what was good for the country.
De Gaulle’s inflexibility had a tremendous impact on European integration. When he became leader of France in 1958, the Rome treaty, initiating the European Economic Community (EEC), had already been signed. De Gaulle played a major role in its implementation because he saw the European common market as a positive measure for the French economy. Similarly, he strongly defended the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), implemented in 1962. He saw it as a very effective tool to modernize French agriculture. These subsidies to promote agriculture in member States, financed by all members of the EEC, benefited France particularly because of its enormous agricultural sector. Moreover, it was in this period that the modernization of the French agriculture began: mechanization and intensive farming were starting to materialize, but subsidies were necessary. All in all, the CAP served the interests of France, and that is why de Gaulle greatly favored it.
This goes to show how he put French interests before any kind of European idealism. De Gaulle’s conception of Europe as a tool to improve France widely influenced the country’s position. For example, the massive rejection of European institutions and their decisions in France nowadays can be linked to the idea that being part of an integrated Europe must be beneficial to the country: if its benefits are not immediately apparent, then European integration must be given up or completely rethought.
President Charles de Gaulle visits Isles-sur-Suippe after returning from the Ardennes in 1963 (Gnotype/licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0)
On other aspects of the European construction, de Gaulle appeared less enthusiastic than for the common market. In fact, he was completely opposed to any kind of European federalism: in 1961, he proposed the Fouchet Plan, which introduced the idea of cooperation between governments with absolutely no loss of sovereignty and no supranational institutions. Actually, de Gaulle was opposed to any kind of loss of sovereignty for France. He wanted it to be one of the great powers, and for that, independence was essential. This is why he advertised his conception of a “Europe of nations”, in which national governments would closely negotiate, but would never be forced to anything. In order to protect this vision of Europe, he caused the “empty chair” crisis in 1965. By refusing to attend any European meeting during six months, he forced his partners to give up qualified majority voting, which was to be implemented at the beginning of 1966. In doing so, he tilted the scale of the European construction in favor of unionism, as opposed to federalism. Moreover, he damaged the reputation of European institutions by showing national governments how they could be ignored or blocked.
Overall, Charles de Gaulle’s influence on Europe has been tremendous thanks to his popularity. His conviction that France was a great nation was, and still is, very popular in the country. As a result, his ideas about foreign policy remain highly respected and widely shared within France’s public and political elite.
However great his political leadership has been for France, General de Gaulle can be said to embody a class of politicians who, doubtful of the European construction from its very conception, have steered it in the wrong direction. Indeed, dismissal of federalism and emphasis on economic cooperation are at the root of Europe’s main problems: undemocratic governance and popular mistrust.