Why the concept of Gaullo-Mitterrandism is still relevant
29 avril 2019
Two recent articles by recognized experts have returned to the concept of “Gaullo-Mitterrandism,” either to question its relevance or to highlight its obsolescence. In August 2017, former French ambassador Michel Duclos published an article on the Institut Montaigne blog entitled “Gaullo-Mitterrandism versus French Neoconservatism: A True-False Debate?”. and Justin Vaïsse, director of the Centre d’analyse, de prévision et de stratégie (CAPS) (Center for Analysis, Planning, and Strategy) of the French Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs, devoted a stimulating contribution in the journal Esprit to the concept of Gaullo-Mitterrandism under the title “The History of an Oxymoron.” These articles raise a number of points that are not merely ideological disputes for theory-lovers, but that concern practical foreign policy choices that France must make in the context of a world that is undergoing profound change.
A straightforward intergenerational dispute?
According to Vaïsse and Duclos, Gaullo-Mitterrandism does not, or no longer, exists. However, Gaullo-Mitterrandists may well still be around, even if they are merely chasing after chimeras. Vaïsse thus describes two clearly defined positions: the “wise and clear-sighted” Gaullo-Mitterrandists, and the “militaristic and moralistic” French neoconservatives. This ironic depiction may give the impression that he has little empathy for the former and considers the latter to be unjustly caricatured. But the argument could be turned around, suggesting that political analysts are either antiquated has-beens who worship an outdated religion, or modernists who are in touch with current realities. . .
Vaïsse himself also emphasizes how old-fashioned Gaullo-Mitterrandism is by pointing out that the average age of members of the “club des vingt” is over seventy-five. However, the split is not simply generational and cannot be summarized as Gaullo-Mitterrandist dinosaurs versus dashing young Atlanticists. There is a new generation at the Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs, in academia, and in the political realm that considers itself Gaullo-Mitterrandist. What is more, we can challenge his view that these labels are no more relevant in describing contemporary issues than “the division between Armagnacs and Burgundians.”
The positioning of General de Gaulle’s foreign policy (which was continued by François Mitterrand) as outdated is not exactly new. When de Gaulle withdrew France from NATO’s integrated military command, Le Figaro saw the return to independent military defense as a “return to the old systems of the past.” And as early as the 1980s, Mitterrand was criticized for not being sufficiently “modern,” that is, for not understanding that the future depended on erasing the old quarrels of the past in order to rally around the Atlanticist cause. The debate between modernity and archaism is anything but new, and its terms can be attributed to either concept depending on the position taken. Far from being a sign of modernity, a dismissal of Gaullo-Mitterrandism may in fact be a return to the joys of the Fourth Republic: a visceral Atlanticism and hostility to and to Moscow. Vaïsse draws on this point when he cites “the disconnection of these observers from contemporary diplomatic realities.” However, this scathing comment should not leave the impression that his intellectual disagreement with Gaullo-Mitterrandism means that he views those who support it as incompetent.
A split that has stood the test of time
For those who take the Gaullo-Mitterrandist line, France cannot be reduced solely to a Western country. It has a specific role to play with regard which is in their interests as it is in France’s. This is only possible if France is independent of a system of entrenched alliances. France is allied but not necessarily aligned. It must demonstrate that it is in step with the common interest and supports multilateralism and multipolarity. Confining or limiting France means limiting its identity and capacity for action. France is large and diverse and its identity stands in relation to the rest of the world.
For Atlanticists and neoconservatives, France is primarily defined by its membership of a political family and its main duty is to show solidarity toward it. If a threat puts the country in danger—formerly from the Soviet Union, now from Islamism or from China’s increased power—it must fall into step with Western leadership. France is therefore first and foremost a Western country and this characteristic determines its foreign policy decisions.
For many, the split between Gaullo-Mitterrandism and Atlanticism should not have survived the end of the Cold War. Others think that this divide has been reborn as a split between Gaullo-Mitterrandism and neoconservatism, or Occidentalism. Thus, the French refusal to engage in the Iraq War in 2003, while being well after the disappearance of the East-West divide, is a perfect example of the Gaullo-Mitterrandist position, because it references universal principles such as the primacy of international law and French independence from the imperium of the United States.
However, although a Gaullo-Mitterrandist school of thought exists, those who are not part of it are not necessarily neoconservatives. What is more, Vaïsse and Duclos themselves are neither one nor the other. The former’s intellectual role model is geopolitician Zbigniew Brzezinski, whose biography he wrote. Brzezinski is no neoconservative and is even generally well regarded by Gaullo-Mitterrandists.
But French neoconservatives do exist. They vociferously supported the Iraq War and demonized those who opposed it, depicting them either as accomplices of Saddam Hussein or as principally driven by a Pavlovian anti-Americanism. They are usually somewhat intolerant and more resistant to counter arguments than their American counterparts. It is however, “amusing” to see how they are now attempting to make people forget their former support for this war, in a way that is as pathetic as it is intellectually dishonest. Most of them remained silent after the clear failure of the invasion of Iraq, only then to vociferously support the prospect of a military operation against Iran, which they saw as the only way to prevent Iran from gaining nuclear weapons. They mostly condemned the Iran nuclear deal agreed in July 2015 for its supposed naivety, although it proved to be anything but. On the other hand, they made no criticism of the actions of the Israeli government, which is seen as a forward base for the West in the East and at the front line in the “war on terror.” In general, they consider Western values to be superior to those of other civilizations, and that it is justified to use force to defend or impose them. They see a unipolar world guided by the United States as preferable to a multipolar one, because the US is a democracy, unlike other rival centers of power.
More specifically, can be contested. The fact that Jacques Chirac hesitated before opposing the Iraq War does not diminish the import of his refusal or France’s immense popularity at a time when many believed in a unipolar world. Although there was subsequent cooperation, this was precisely because Chirac himself undertook a major strategic reorientation of his own policy. The September 2, 2004 vote on resolution 1559 of the Security Council relating to the situation in Lebanon, sponsored by France and the United States, was undertaken in the context of a general desire for reconciliation with Washington, and the specific nature of relations between Chirac and the Hariri family.
The true break came at the end of Chirac’s second term, when “French bashing” peaked in the United States. So, while the facts proved the French president right and the catastrophic consequences of the Iraq War began to become apparent, Chirac made reconciliation with the United States a priority. He feared that Condoleezza Rice’s threat to “” would be carried out. Almost paralyzed by anxiety over his own daring, he therefore decided to step back in line. Taking a conciliatory line with Ariel Sharon was one way of accomplishing this, cutting short accusations of anti-Semitism against France, which at the time were prevalent in both the United States and Israel. Therefore, his successor, Nicolas Sarkozy, did not instigate the change in policy that he announced during his electoral campaign, but settled for continuing a process that was already underway.
Many shades of opinion
Vaïsse is, however, right in saying that political analysts cannot be divided into two camps: there are many shades of opinion. Those who see France’s membership of the Western family of nations as a priority do not necessarily have the aggressive vision of the neoconservatives. Nevertheless, they think that France belongs primarily to this Western or Atlanticist family. In addition to neoconservatives in the strictest sense of the term, there is a wider group who maintain an Atlanticist position. Those with a less radical viewpoint think that there is a “Western community” and that membership of it is a defining criterion and a main dividing line from other societies. How else can we explain why sanctions were imposed against Russia after the annexation of Crimea, when sanctions were not even suggested against the United States after the illegal Iraq War of 2003, even though the strategic consequences were much more serious? For many, asking this simple question is almost an intellectual crime. There is clearly a strong feeling of belonging to a family that benefits from separate rules. This position—where relations between members is all important—explains the incomprehension, even panic, of those who cannot comprehend that the Western powers are no longer able to impose their decisions on the rest of the world as has been the case for several centuries.
But it is not a case of pure patriotism (the Gaullo-Mitterrandists) on one side and those who have sold out to foreigners (the Atlanticists) on the other. Although some Atlanticists would renounce independence completely (), others are convinced that France will win by emerging as the premier ally of the Americans, at a time when the United Kingdom appears increasingly to be in difficulty. For them, patriotism is embodied in a relationship with the United States, which makes France an auxiliary or deputy. For “practical reasons,” and due to the balance of power, there has to be some form of subordinate relationship between France and the United States.
For Duclos, the concept of “French neoconservatism” is far from clear cut. Recently, divisions surrounding the Iraq War, the conflict in the Middle East, and the apparent support for a military solution in Iran—or rather the refusal on principle of any diplomatic solution—have nevertheless revealed a dividing line. However, what makes this even less clear is the fact that, in particular since the failure of the Iraq War, neoconservatives have kept a low profile, and, in any case, they are not the only group that takes an Atlanticist or Occidentalist position.
In his argument, Vaïsse starts from a principle and an interpretation that can both be contested. The first point is that Gaullo-Mitterrandism is primarily defined by its desire to distinguish France from the United States. This is historically correct, but conceptually questionable. The purpose of Gaullo-Mitterrandism cannot be reduced to this sole characteristic, which is more representative of the means than the end and is necessarily linked to a given period. As Vaïsse points out, United States and NATO troops were widely stationed in France at the beginning of the 1960s. It was certainly the United States that was most likely to influence the French decisions, and it was in relation to Washington that some room for maneuver was required. But the principal objective of Gaullo-Mitterrandism is to increase France’s independence and room for maneuver. And this objective remains valid, even in a world where the United States’ influence has diminished.
A second error of interpretation—which Vaïsse does not make—is to view 2007 as a key date, a critical juncture, by asserting that that was when Nicolas Sarkozy broke with the Gaullo-Mitterrandist tradition. In fact, this change happened earlier. Sarkozy would certainly assert France’s membership of the Western world several times, as no other president had done before, but the result was more a change to foreign policy than a systematic alignment with the United States. Although Sarkozy said much on this point, in the end he continued Chirac’s policies. The gradual shift, which was not a definitive break, took place earlier.
Neither Vaïsse nor Duclos see a break dating from 2007. They both demonstrate that on some subjects Sarkozy and Hollande opposed the will of the United States. Vaïsse is right in saying that the “last ten years”—that is, the terms of Sarkozy and Hollande—were marked more by adaptation and continuity than rupture, and for two reasons. The first is, as previously indicated, that the real change happened two or three years before Sarkozy came to power, and that he instigated more of a reorientation than a true break. The second is that while the policy pursued both by Sarkozy and Hollande led to the relative abandonment of Gaullo-Mitterrandism (but not to its extinction), they did not sign up to neoconservatism or to Atlanticism. The fact remains that Emmanuel Macron has found it useful to draw a line under the neoconservative policies of the previous ten years, and, for the time being, he has done so.
The concealment of the Middle East conflict
The Middle East conflict is the notable absence in Vaïsse’s analysis. However, France’s position on the Middle East was one of the key elements of Gaullo-Mitterrandist policy. After the Six-Day War in 1967, and after having warned Israel not to fire the first shot, General de Gaulle effectively broke the strategic alliance between France and Israel, which had been one of the pillars of the Fourth Republic. In November 1967, in a press conference that was to become famous, he worried about the risks of the occupation and repression, which would go on to produce the resistance.
Although considered close to Israel, François Mitterrand would not, however, break with this policy. On the contrary, he would be the first to broach the necessity of a Palestinian state to the Knesset. France was therefore the only Western country to raise the Palestinians’ right to self-determination based on universal political principles rather than on civilizational solidarity. This is a distinction to be proud of. Jacques Chirac, who was very close to the French Jewish community, was also thought to have taken the opposite approach to his predecessor. But his clash with Israeli security forces in Jerusalem in 1996 made him a hero of the Arab world and an icon for Palestinians.
Granted, you could say that the prospect of peace is now so distant that it is no longer necessary for France to claim to be involved. But one of the tenets of Gaullo-Mitterrandism is to value universal principles, even when the balance of power is unfavorable. This is one of the principal reasons why France is respected and popular, including beyond the Western world: it speaks for those who have no, or very little, voice. It is this policy which has waned, not since 2007, but since 2004–2005.
What would they have done?
Of course, no one can know what General de Gaulle or even François Mitterrand would have done in present circumstances. Both sometimes made exceptions to their general principles regarding foreign policy.
So, when Chirac resumed nuclear testing in 1995, was this in line with Gaullo-Mitterrandist thinking, or in opposition to it? What is certain is that it was a break with Mitterrand’s policy of a moratorium on nuclear testing, and it fell in line with General de Gaulle’s policy, which was its precursor, despite opposition from much of the global community. But the situation in 1995 was very different from that of 1960, when Mitterrand could have thought that the political cost of resuming nuclear testing was greater than the technological fallout. Perhaps de Gaulle would have come to the same conclusion at this time, and would therefore have resisted pressure from the French Atomic Energy Commission. This example proves that in any case it is not easy to draw a line between what may or may not be considered Gaullo-Mitterrandism.
These labels aside, what remains paramount is being faithful to the specifics and fundamentals of French foreign policy, without which the country risks being rudderless and constantly dragged along by events. The difference in de Gaulle’s and Mitterrand’s attitudes to the United Nations is also explained by their time and place in history. De Gaulle took power when France was subject to international criticism due to the Algerian War and nuclear testing. It does not betray his memory to imagine that in the 1980s he would have been aware of the advantages France could reap from a seat as a permanent member of the Security Council and from the successes of multilateral diplomacy. At the United Nations (UN), de Gaulle’s France was effectively on the defensive until Mitterrand came to power, when it went on the offensive, with some success.
Vaïsse rightly notes a contradiction. Would de Gaulle or Mitterrand have taken part in the NATO intervention in Kosovo? This is far from certain. In this case, should transatlantic solidarity have prevailed over respect for international law? Should it have given in to the almost universal pressure from the media to intervene? Was this illegal war, carried out on moral grounds, a precursor to the invasion of Iraq in 2003? In 1999, the then Minister of Foreign Affairs, Hubert Védrine, explaining that this war was an exception and not a precedent, reported that there had been some sense of unease.
Atlanticist soft power
With the disappearance of the East-West divide, Mitterrand tried to retain a space for France and Europe in order to avoid being suffocated by NATO, which was regarded as a “Holy Alliance.” The attempt to make the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe (CSCE) (which became the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)) a central pillar of European security failed. The Western European Union (WEU), the only purely European defense organization, was killed off. The complete reinstatement of the NATO integrated military command under Nicolas Sarkozy did not fundamentally change the political order as, apart from membership of the Defence Planning Committee, France had already been largely reintroduced, but the gesture was extremely strong symbolically. And in diplomacy, symbols and gestures count. Whether rightly or wrongly, it was therefore seen by the Western world as France aligning itself with the United States. The fact that French officials had obtained prestigious posts in NATO had in any case contributed to “NATO-izing” them more than it had increased French influence within the organization. Their presence had to be legitimated by adapting to the existing model and not by transforming it. Therefore, the increased presence of French military personnel within NATO had a major indirect effect: that of increasing NATO’s influence on French officers, which was greater than the effect of French influence within the organization. France is very keen to demonstrate its effectiveness and loyalty to NATO and compliments paid to France by the transatlantic alliance regarding the effectiveness of French integration have been well received. The French Ministry of Defense has always been more Atlanticist than the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and reintegration has accentuated this characteristic. Those officers posted to NATO headquarters have found themselves . Vaïsse is right to say that reintegration has not changed France’s capacity for independent decision-making, but the leadership roles held by the French have not changed their capacity to influence NATO decisions, while the influence of the organization on France’s leaders continues to increase.
There may no longer be American military bases in France, but the United States’ influence on the French national strategic debate is greater than it was at the beginning of the 1960s. At that time, it was still quite unusual for the French to travel to the United States to study, to be invited there by an institution, or to work at a research center. Now there are many seminars and visits organized by NATO, and American think tanks and journals exert their influence on international debates. On strategic issues, time spent in the United States seems to have become compulsory for any researcher who wants to hold their own, and the dossiers that are regularly published on the “ in France cannot hide the enormous chasm that separates them from those emanating from Washington.
From this, it can be inferred that the intellectual community is not necessarily neoconservative or Occidentalist, but clearly Western, that is, guided by a collective belief which may have slight variations within it, but which nevertheless creates a separation from the outside world. The fact that the director of one of France’s most prominent think tanks could recently become shows the permeability between French strategic research circles and those of the Alliance.
This environment creates learned reflexes which, contrary to appearances, are in no way natural. For example, how can we explain how “experts” who, in the past, adopted American language on the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in 2003, or who in 2007 announced that Iran was just a few months away from gaining military nuclear capabilities—thus justifying military intervention—can still be considered reliable by the media or even think tanks? Nonetheless, they have proved their incompetence or their dishonesty.
The debate surrounding military intervention does not pit supporters of an interventionist policy against those who consider such an action to be counterproductive. The real divide is between those who are in favor of intervention on condition that it is given the resources to succeed—a legal framework, the support of the country in which they are intervening and ideally of their neighbors and the United Nations, and a political solution (consideration of “the day after”)—, those who generally support military intervention, and thirdly, those who oppose it on principle.
Duclos thus sees the intervention in Libya as proof that the split between neoconservatives and Gaullo-Mitterrandists is irrelevant. He is right to highlight that resolution 1973 authorized the use of force, but this was only just obtained by Alain Juppé, Sarkozy having been tempted to forego a green light from the UN. He wonders: “Would it be reasonable for the French and British, having engaged, to stop their operations to wait for a better time?” This is undoubtedly a fundamental point that illustrates the split between neoconservatives and Gaullo-Mitterrandists. Changing the mandate mid-campaign had serious repercussions. In addition to the consequences that we have seen in Libya and neighboring countries as far distant as Mali, a fatal blow was struck to the concept of the responsibility to protect, which enabled them to escape the interference-powerlessness dilemma. On the other hand, the Russians have shown themselves to be intransigent in Syria. The Syrian people are victims both of the Iraq War and the intervention in Libya. Sergey Lavrov, the Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs, told his French counterpart, Laurent Fabius, as much, saying, “You screwed us in Libya, you’re not going to screw us in Syria.”
The neoconservatives saw a continuation of military intervention as a logical opportunity to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi. The Gaullo-Mitterrandists would have confined themselves to protecting the population of Benghazi. The 1991 questions surrounding whether, once Kuwait was liberated, it was necessary to press the advantage and continue to Baghdad hardly need mentioning. At the time, George H.W. Bush and François Mitterrand adhered strictly to the UN mandate.
Duclos is right to say that France had already established a tradition of interventionism without the American neoconservatives, but although there were nearly thirty military interventions during Mitterrand’s two terms, they were usually undertaken within the legal framework of international law. The Gulf War of 1990–1991 can in no way be compared to that in Iraq in 2003.
An old guide for new challenges
We can agree on the eight principal challenges faced by French diplomats as identified by Vaïsse at the end of his article: the financial cost of French foreign policy; the role of Europe in French foreign policy; military intervention; the African continent; China; Russia; the position to be taken on the Sunni monarchies of the Gulf; and multilateralism and the role of the United Nations. Vaïsse does not see any of these challenges as being dependent on France’s relationship with Washington. Whether these challenges are viewed together or separately, it is important that any response leaves France with enough room for maneuver. Here Gaullo-Mitterrandism is still a useful guide. For example, relations with China and Russia may be separate issues as it is not a case of facing the same challenges, but of confronting the same type of power. In both cases, the same question arises: How can we manage a relationship with countries whose history, regime, and strategic interests are different, but who exert a strong influence on the modern world? What capacity for action and flexibility does France have? How can we ensure that we do not appear blind or stubborn when faced with differences and avoid being forced to cut all ties with these countries?
In terms of the type of relationship that France could have with China and Russia, there are implications whether the Gaullo-Mitterrandist option is taken or not. Faced with what is sometimes felt as a resurgence of the Russian threat, should French diplomacy prioritize solidarity with the United States and be perfectly aligned with NATO? China’s increasing power raises a similar challenge, and given that its intentions may not be entirely peaceful, should France coordinate a common response with Washington? Or, in both cases, should France maintain some autonomy and avoid making these relationships depend on whatever Washington may decide?
We must agree with Vaïsse on the question of the financial cost of French foreign policy. Budgets have been constantly reduced under all presidents and ministers. The commitment to raising the defense budget to 2 percent of GDP is by no means accompanied by ring-fencing, let alone an increase in spending on promoting France’s global influence at a time when soft power and international debate are increasingly important and when many countries are actively engaged in it. All the same, Vaïsse is right to say that these eight challenges cannot be seen solely through the prism of France’s relationship with Washington. Each can lead to different choices depending on whether France chooses to maintain as much room for maneuver as possible. And this is indeed the remaining fundamental difference.
Is a young president subscribing to an antiquated concept?
Why have Duclos and Vaïsse thought it necessary to put the final nail in the coffin of Gaullo-Mitterrandism if it has already been decomposing for some time? Why put on trial an ancient myth if it is only well known by a few doddery old worshippers who have taken refuge in a policy that is dead and buried? Could their articles be inspired by the new lease of life afforded to a concept that was rejected by Sarkozy and ignored by Hollande? Emmanuel Macron referred to Gaullo-Mitterrandism three times during the electoral campaign that saw him win the presidential election. Considering his age—he was born seven years after General de Gaulle’s death and Mitterrand left power before he came of age—it seems difficult to see this as a sign of being old fashioned or particularly attached to the olden days. Unless we suspect that he referred to a concept that he does not believe in, Gaullo-Mitterrandism must have some currency, even for France’s youngest ever president.
It is significant that French neoconservative figures, who were initially included in Macron’s campaign team, have (much to their displeasure) been progressively sidelined. And nor is it insignificant that the newly elected president made a powerful declaration against neoconservatism, telling eight European daily newspapers on June 21, 2017, that “with me, there will be an end to the kind of neoconservatism imported into France over the last 10 years.” Given the president’s role in defining French foreign policy, it is curious, to say the least, to announce the death of Gaullo-Mitterrandism at a time when Macron has repeatedly aligned himself with it. The president has therefore positioned himself in contrast to his two immediate predecessors, neither of whom ever used the term, one due to his belief in the West, and the other due to his rejection of restrictive ideas.
Were Macron’s first actions as president Gaullo-Mitterrandist? They certainly were in some respects, especially in the way he managed his relationships with Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. He resisted the temptation to refuse to invite Putin to France—as the media had urged him to do—and while showing warmth toward Trump, he did not hesitate to oppose him on certain fundamental issues. Finally, Macron will first and foremost pursue policies that are designed to meet current challenges. Gaullo-Mitterrandism is neither a fixed set of rules nor a guidebook to be consulted before taking a decision, rather it is an overall philosophy and vision of France’s role and action in a changing world.
Translated and edited by Cadenza Academic Translations
Translator: Rebecca Siân Mynett, Editor: Matt Burden, Senior editor: Mark Mellor
 Translator’s note: Unless otherwise stated, all translations of cited foreign language material in this article are our own.
 Michel Duclos, “Gaullo-Mitterrandisme contre néo-conservateurs à la française – un vrai-faux débat?,” Institut Montaigne Blog, August 3, 2017.
 Justin Vaïsse, “Le passé d’un oxymore. Le débat français de politique étrangère,” Esprit 439, November 2017.
 This group brings together former politicians and diplomats who support Gaullo-Mitterrandism.
 See Éric Branca, L’ami américain. Washington contre de Gaulle, 1940-1969 (Paris: Perrin, 2017).
 On this exact point, see Bertrand Badie, Nous ne sommes plus seuls au monde. Un autre regard sur “l’ordre international”, (Paris: La Découverte, 2016) and Pascal Boniface, Je t’aimais bien tu sais. Le monde et la France, le désamour? (Paris: Max Milo, 2017). These two articles are cited by Vaïsse without mentioning their central hypotheses.
 Sharon was received triumphantly in Paris in the summer of 2005 and presented as a man of peace for having announced a unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, even though it was already evident that it would produce no real advances in the peace process.
 See Pascal Boniface, Le monde selon Sarkozy (Paris: Jean-Claude Gawsewitch, 2012).
 See Pascal Boniface, Je t’aimais bien tu sais. Le monde et la France, le désamour? (Paris: Max Milo, 2017).
 These are Russian-influenced social media networks used by the FN and the far right. See http://www.iris-france.org/76678-les-reseaux-de-poutine-en-france-realites-et-limites/
 “Exclusive: Macron pledges pragmatism and cooperation with post-Brexit Britain,” The Guardian, Le Figaro, Le Soir, Le Temps, Corriere della Sera, El País, Süddeutsche Zeitung, and Gazeta Wyborcza, June 21, 2017.