French politicians -- even Socialists -- tug at de Gaulle's mantle
Paris — ``Everyone was, is, or will be a Gaullist,'' Gen. Charles de Gaulle himself once said. But it is not clear whether a look at France's political scene today would leave the general smiling proudly or scowling in disbelief.
Today is the 45th anniversary of de Gaulle's historic radio broadcast from London urging the people of occupied France to fight for their freedom, and his influence on the nation and its politics seems almost as strong as ever. Still, it is not clear that it is the sort of influence he had in mind.
Even as de Gaulle's own collaborators pass from public life, politicians on the left as well as the right regularly invoke his name, quote his writings, and even borrow from his bag of public relations tricks.
``He's always a reference,'' says Maurice Couve de Murville, de Gaulle's last prime minister. ``And it is not weakening. It's becoming even more generalized.''
Even Socialist President Franois Mitterrand, one of de Gaulle's oldest political rivals as leader of the leftist opposition, has been saying nice things about the general.
And when Mitterrand stood up to President Reagan during the Bonn summit last month, pundits and politicians alike noticed the similarity to de Gaulle's stubborn independence.
Other Socialists are also praising de Gaulle. Earlier this year, during the debate about electoral reform, liberal Justice Minister Robert Badinter appeared on television with a couple of de Gaulle's books in hand to defend the government's plan for proportional representation.
On the right there has long been acceptance of de Gaulle's legacy, but now there is considerable jostling among its leaders about who is more justified to claim it.
Jacques Chirac, leader of the Rally for the Republic, France's Gaullist party, acts as if he were the sole rightful heir. At a recent convention of conservative politicians, Mr. Chirac took issue with rival Raymond Barre's proposals for economic austerity.
``We must have confidence in France and show the French people a transcendent goal -- what General De Gaulle called grandeur,'' said Chirac, who was 8 years old in 1940.
But political analysts see Mr. Barre (who was 16 in 1940) as the one most like de Gaulle in style: solitary, aloof, suspicious of political parties, and above all, pragmatic.
Former President Val'ery Giscard d'Estaing for his part likes to tell stories about the time he spent as de Gaulle's finance minister.
Politicians are tugging at de Gaulle's mantle from so many sides that one group of the general's followers has published a book to deplore the misuse of Gaullism and define what it really is.
``We've had enough,'' says Jean-Franois Biard of the group, called Carrefour du Gaullisme (``Crossroads of Gaullism''). ``Everyone is crowding under the same roof.'' As for what Gaullism is, the Carrefour's book speaks of a broad set of ``humanistic values'' that de Gaulle helped ``crystalize'' for France, according to Mr. Biard. Therein, perhaps, lies the secret to the general's lasting influence.
As the war hero who marched triumphantly down the Champs 'Elys'ees when Paris was liberated in 1944, and the shaper of a strong Fifth Republic in 1958, de Gaulle looms in the French memory somewhere between a George Washington and a Thomas Jefferson. But he was above all a pragmatist, and he resisted associations with party politics and narrow ideology.
While he largely followed conservative lines to build up France's military strength and political independence, de Gaulle also supported the nationalization of the likes of Renault and Air France. His legacy was bound to be at least as broad.
In an informal poll, the weekly magazine L''Ev'enement du Jeudi asked reporters and politicians to name a current political figure who embodies Gaullism most in a series of areas. The poll got some 20 different answers.
Under the category ``sense of grandeur'' there was too much disagreement to list a name.
``You really see the extraordinary variety of the Gaullist doctrine,'' says Albert du Roy, the magazine's editor in chief. ``De Gaulle would have been bothered to be classified on the right.''
The fond memories of de Gaulle 15 years after his death may also arise in part from the simple passage of time. As the controversies of his day fade from view, his good decisions overshadow the bad.
Even de Gaulle's most controversial moves are now viewed as common sense, says former prime minister Couve de Murville, listing the French withdrawal from Algeria, France's independent nuclear arsenal, and its withdrawal from the integrated military command of NATO.
``When we see them today they seem altogether normal,'' says Couve de Murville.
Furthermore, as the memory of the historical figure fades, says Mr. du Roy, it is much easier to use and misuse what remains of the image and the influence. De Gaulle can be quoted and ``people are less able to say `that's not true,' '' du Roy says.
How long the general's influence will last on French political life is anybody's guess. Du Roy says the magic of the name may diminish in the next several years as historians begin to put his legacy into perspective. But de Gaulle is unlikely to vanish altogether.
``One tends to idealize whatever is far away,'' du Roy says.