Why the Legacy of De Gaulle and Mitterand Still Matters for the French Public Opinion

15 mars 2021
On March 1966, France’s President Charles de Gaulle wrote to US President Lyndon Johnson to announce that France was pulling out from NATO’s integrated Command Structure, while remaining a member of the Atlantic alliance. The letter was quickly released.

De Gaulle indicated bluntly that the conditions which had led to NATO’s creation were no longer applicable and that the military measures taken after the creation of the Atlantic alliance were no longer valid. Therefore, France wanted to take back full sovereignty over its territory, which at the time had been constrained by the permanent presence of foreign military elements, and to put an end to its participation to the integrated Command Structure, and to no longer put French military forces under NATO’s umbrella.

This decision was supported in France by the Gaullist party and the Communist party (despite the two opposing each other on domestic matters) and heavily criticized by the Centrist movement and by non-Communist leftist politicians, including François Mitterrand. For De Gaulle’s party, it was proof of independence. Due to peaceful coexistence and Détente, the Soviet Union was no longer a military threat or a risk to French sovereignty that would justify dependence on US protection. De Gaulle, however, believed that Washington had too much influence on French policy and that it was in the nation’s interest to win latitude in dealing with the US.

In opposing the US, De Gaulle ran the risk of dividing the Western family. The Soviet threat, even less important that during the 1950’s, still made it necessary to close the ranks behind the US leadership.

The European countries within NATO shared this view. For them, it was too risky to launch a movement which could lead to a decoupling of US and European security.

But if De Gaulle was able to pursue his gambit, it was due to a fundamental difference between France and the other European countries. France was an atomic power. Therefore, the US nuclear umbrella was no longer necessary. France was able to deter the Soviet threat on its own, without depending over US nuclear protection. Meanwhile, due to the equalising factor of nuclear power, which made up for France’s lack of conventional military strength, “Deterrence from the weak to the strong”, it was able to speak on equal footing with Washington and Moscow.

Johnson had to prioritise domestic problems and the Vietnam War. He was realistic enough not to oppose De Gaulle’s move. It would have been impossible to act differently without an enormous political price.

During the 60’s, De Gaulle’s France had developed its own particular diplomacy. He went to Asia where he criticised the Vietnam War, and to Latin America, where he argued for diplomatic self- determination and against exclusive American influence. He criticized the role of the dollar as an international currency.

He also went to the Soviet Union, pleading for a Europe “from the Atlantic to the Urals”, meaning with the Soviet Union and without the US. De Gaulle, being conservative and nationalist, was in no way sympathetic to communism. In his mind, developing contacts with Moscow was a tool for enhancing France’s diplomatic capacities.

This gave France extraordinary popularity in the world, above all in the Third World.

All these specificities gave De Gaulle and France worldwide recognition, allowing it to punch above its weight. It was in France’s self-interest to maintain this particular diplomacy, which distinguished it from every other country.

That’s why, when he came to power in 1981, François Mitterrand, who was previously De Gaulle’s main political opponent, kept and even developed the same line. He advocated in favour of US Pershing II missiles in order to counter the Soviet SS-20, but he resisted all of Reagan’s attempts to exert unilateral leadership over the European NATO countries. Following in De Gaulle’s footsteps, he advocated for the self-determination of southern countries. He even sent weapons to Nicaragua, when the Sandinista government was attacked by Reagan. He also strongly opposed Regan’s emblematic “Strategic Defensive Initiative” (SDI) or Star Wars. He was the only one to voice this opinion among the Western leaders.

Mitterrand stated that NATO must not become a “holy alliance”. His obsession, as De Gaulle, was to preserve the autonomy of France’s diplomacy and enhance its room for manoeuver. A new concept emerged: “Gaullo-Mitterandisme”. The original diplomacy created by De Gaulle was followed and developed by his left-wing heir. Therefore, the dividing line for international policy in France no longer existed between the left and the right, as for domestic issues.

On international matters the division was between Atlanticists and Gaullo-Mitterandists. For the first group, the main factor was Western unity and solidarity, and to avoid any gap between the US and the EU, in order to benefit from US protection. From this perspective, US leadership is something which, far from being disturbing, is welcome. For the second group, the most important factors were independence and autonomy. France is “allied but non-aligned”. Washington and Paris could have divergent views and different interests. If it happens, France must not give up its choices but, on the contrary, must defend them, even if it is not well-regarded in Washington.

France is a Western country but can’t be defined solely as a Western country. Its identity is far more comprehensive, due to its history, its geography, and its historical legacy. To reduce France to its Western identity is inaccurate and would be a self-inflicted injury.

After the implosion of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, many questioned if Gaullo-Mitterrandism could survive to the historical set of circumstances that had created it.

While there is no more confrontation between East and West, is Gaullo-Mitterrandism still a valid concept?

The answer is clearly affirmative. Of course, the strategic landscape has changed, one major protagonist of the former period being gone.

But there is still a major choice to be made. Is France a country which has its own strategic priority, or is it a major partner which needs to follow another leader in dramatic circumstances?

Occidentalists and neo-Conservatives have succeeded the Atlanticists. These people believe in the superiority of Western values. They think that a unipolar world under America’s leadership is better than a multipolar world in which non-democratic countries as Russia or China have their say. According to their vision, Western countries are under threat from a revisionist Russia, which wants to take its revenge for the 1990’s humiliations, a rising China, and a radical and oppressive Islam. Therefore they have the right and even the duty to defend themselves, even via pre-emptive military interventions.

Particularly regarding the Neo-Conservatives, they think that they have a moral duty to share their democratic advantages with other nations, even if using military forces is necessary. They lack the circumspection to ask themselves why “regime change” policies are proposed, not regarding every authoritarian regime, but only the one which oppose Washington. They fail to question why a war would be launched against Iraq and not against North Korea (which has real nuclear weapons) or Saudi Arabia — a strong US ally but not really a democratic regime.

When the war drums started to beat over Iraq, Chirac took a Gaullo-Mitterrandist approach, 12 years after the implosion of USSR. Tony Blair had mixed feelings over the perspectives of the Iraq War. He knew it was a mistake but he thought Great Britain could not afford to make any decision other than to stick to US policy, as wrong as it was.Chirac preferred to stand by his convictions and publicly and energetically voiced his opposition to the American project.

His assessment was that making war without an international consensus (unlike the Gulf War in 1990-1991) without any smoking gun regarding Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, could only lead to the promotion of terrorism and instability and to the widening of the gap between Muslim and Western societies.

Sarkozy, however, wanted to differentiate himself from Chirac. He has been nicknamed — and proclaimed himself — “Sarko the American”. He has repeatedly argued that France belongs to the “Western Family” — something that neither De Gaulle nor Mitterrand nor Chirac had ever done. He decided to reintegrate France into NATO’s integrated Command Structure. He was lucky enough to make this spectacular comeback in April 2009, when the honeymoon between the French people and Obama was at its peak. This “Obamania” allowed the pill to be swallowed more easily. However, he wanted to develop strong links with Russia.

During the electoral campaign of 2017, Macron proclaimed on different occasions that he was a strong believer in Gaullo-Mitterandism. He implicitly condemned his two predecessors Sarkozy and Holland for their neo-conservatism, the first for having launched a (catastrophic) military intervention in Libya, and the second for having made strikes against the UN-recognised government of Syria.

In reality, neither Sarkozy nor Hollande were true neo-conservatives. Nor is Macron a Gaullo-Mitterrandist in the sense of either De Gaulle or Mitterrand. Sarkozy and Hollande maintained strong contacts with Russia. During the Georgia-Russia war in 2008, Sarkozy resisted the NATO countries’ pressure to put the blame solely on Moscow, and acted as an honest broker between Tbilisi and Moscow. Hollande’s role was crucial in the creation of the Minsk agreement after the Ukraine-Russia confrontation. However, he did implement sanctions against Russia.

Macron has close contacts with Putin, who was received in Versailles and Brégançon. Macron has also criticised, in 2019, the “deep state” with its policy of opposition to Russia. But he didn’t decide upon any change to France’s diplomatic staff.

France did not oppose the NATO anti-missile programme or the US withdrawal from the INF treaty. The Neo-Conservatives have acquired strong positions inside the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, not to mention the media. US Soft Power is still strong among the French elite. But Gaullo-Mitterrandism is still very popular in French public opinion.

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