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De Gaulle’s Lessons for 21st Century Europe

The outgoing year 2015 marks at least three anniversaries related to Charles de Gaulle, one of the most prominent political figures of the 20th century, including his 125th birthday, 50th anniversary of his re-election as President of France at the first direct polls after 1848, and 45th death anniversary.

Yuri Rubinsky, Head of the Centre for French Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences Institute for European Studies, told about de Gaulle’s role in French and European history and his enduring legacy.

De Gaulle is undoubtedly the most significant figure in the French political history of the 20th century, Rubinsky said. Moreover, “in the 200 years after the French revolution he is second only to Napoleon”, he pointed out.

According to the Russian scholar, de Gaulle did two invaluable favours to France. “First, after the national disaster of 1940 [when France was defeated by the Nazi Germany] he was able to bring France back to the great powers’ table and make it responsible for Germany’s fate,” Rubinsky said. “Second, when he came back to power in 1958, at the height of the war in Algeria, which threatened to turn into а civil war in France itself, de Gaulle could find an acceptable solution of the decolonization issue, with France retaining its great power status”.

In 1958, amid the Algerian crisis, de Gaulle initiated a constitutional reform, which replaced the prior parliamentary government with a semi-presidential system. The new Constitution, approved in a referendum, became the founding act of the French Fifth Republic. According to Rubinsky, “France had long searched for an optimal variant of democratic government, and the semi-presidential system, created by the 1958 Constitution, can be considered the most efficient option, fully consistent with the nation’s character and traditions”.

Under de Gaulle, France’s foreign policy was famously independent, which often caused bad blood between Paris and Washington. “For objective reasons, France joined NATO, but always asserted its interests”, Rubinsky pointed out. The way France positioned itself in the bilateral world was probably the most optimal one, the scholar said.

Although himself a fierce opponent of communism, de Gaulle cooperated with communists domestically and established relations with communist regimes abroad. France under de Gaulle initiated dialogue with the Soviet Union and became one of the first western nations to officially recognize Communist China, Rubinsky said.

“First of all, he was realistic and pragmatic,” Rubinsky explained. “He believed that ideologies come and go, while nations remain”. For de Gaulle, the Soviet Union was only an incarnation of the “eternal Russia,” the scholar said, “even though many accused him of being a man of yesterday, because nations and states were supposedly becoming obsolete categories”.

During the Second World War, de Gaulle brought two communists to his cabinet. “He had no illusions about the leftists, nor was he naïve about the Soviet Union,” Rubinsky said, “but for the sake of national interests he was ready to cooperate with them”. When de Gaulle signed in 1944 the Treaty of Alliance and Mutual Assistance with the Soviet Union, he said that good relations with Russia were “a demand of geography, history, and common sense”, the scholar pointed out.

De Gaulle believed that once the Cold War ended, the world would be multipolar. “Eastern Europe would no longer be under Soviet control and Western Europe would not need the American nuclear umbrella for its security,” Rubinsky said. “Meanwhile China would serve as a counterbalance in the Far East to both Russia and the United States,” he added.

De Gaulle strongly believed that prestige of the French state was a pre-requisite of its legitimacy domestically, hence his bold international initiatives, Rubinsky said. He supported European integration, but as long as it did not mean transfer of sovereignty to any supranational body, he added.

It would be a mistake to see de Gaulle as an idealist who overestimated his country’s capabilities, Rubinsky pointed out. “He believed that France must have a prominent political and military status, but it should be consistent with the country’s capabilities,” he said. “De Gaulle never questioned the alliance with the US, but after he came to power, he built a strong partnership with [West German Chancellor] Konrad Adenauer, trying to convince him that European states should not solely rely on the United States for their security”.

De Gaulle was one of the most vocal proponents of a national nuclear force for France. For some time, his chief of staff even posited that French missiles should be able to deliver nukes to targets on both coasts of the Atlantic in case the US decided to destroy Europe if the Soviets advanced westwards, Rubinsky said, adding that later these plans were removed from the agenda.

De Gaulle's political legacy has left a strong footprint on France’s political life. Strong presidency, reliance on a national nuclear capability and an independent foreign policy have characterized his right- and left-wing successors alike. France’s policies vis-à-vis Russia, characterized by pragmatism and pursuit of national interests largely follow the principles laid down by de Gaulle, Rubinsky concluded.
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