An irascible de Gaulle talks to Douglas Johnson on boring England, declining France and the Iraq crisis. The great strategist is not impressed with Chirac's handling of America - or could he just be a little bit jealous?by Douglas Johnson / April 20, 2003 / Leave a comment
Douglas Johnson: Bonjour, mon G?ral…
Charles de Gaulle: No, excuse me professor, but we are not talking French today. We are talking English.
DJ: I didn’t realise that you spoke good English.
CdG: Well, it so happens that, where I am at the moment, it is very easy because we have been provided with the gift of tongues, and I can speak any language that I choose. I don’t like speaking these other languages, they are all inferior to French, but my voices told me that today we should speak English. You will not be surprised that I have my voices. I believe that they appear in British diplomatic documents. When I returned to government in 1958, there was a certain Gladwyn Jebb who explained to Mr Macmillan that my voices had told me that I must restore France to being a great power.
DJ: What was your English like when you were alive?
CdG: Ah, I could speak English, but I had a strong French accent. In 1940, English people only knew one Frenchman and that was Maurice Chevalier. When they heard me speak, they were reminded of Chevalier and sometimes said so. I did not like this, especially as he was singing to the Germans in Paris, so I issued an order stating that General de Gaulle did not speak English and only spoke French.
DJ: Did you like being in England?
CdG: Well, you must remember that when I came to England, I left a France that was in the middle of a terrible war. We were being defeated-war was everywhere. But when I was driven to London, I saw people playing tennis, shopping, going to the cinema-war was nowhere. It was a different sort of country. And, when I was in London, they did one of those surveys and they found that a third of all the people in England had never met a single Frenchman-and many of those who had known French people had, I suppose, met them in the 1914 war.
DJ: But when you got to know England better, you must have found good things.
CdG: Well, yes. I found that England was boring.
DJ: Is that a way of saying that you disliked it here?
CdG: Not at all. Boredom is important. Sacha Guitry wrote a play which shows a couple sitting separately on large poufs. In between them, at the back of the stage is a clock. The man and his wife look at one another, without saying a word. Then, from time to time, as if by some secret agreement, they look at the clock. It’s excellent. Boredom is useful. And the British people know how to benefit from boredom.
DJ: If I might change the subject, I was told that you agreed to speak to me because you had been told that I was an historian, not a journalist. Does this mean that you mistrust English journalists?
CdG: No, not at all. I’ve always been reluctant to discuss things with historians. After the war, it was more than two years before I agreed to talk to an historian, and I was then forced to meet an American historian. I remember that the British press were kind to me in the first days of Free France. The Times and the Daily Sketch gave me lots of space and when the papers announced that Vichy had condemned me to death, I was sent jewels and wedding rings, sometimes from war widows, I do not forget that.
DJ: If you have been looking at the English papers recently, you must have seen how they are attacking France over the conflict with Iraq. It is said that France is not showing gratitude to the thousands of Americans who gave their lives to liberate France. One paper even had on its front page a picture of American soldiers fighting on Omaha beach.
CdG: The Red army filled many more cemeteries than the Americans, but I didn’t notice the Americans following Soviet diplomacy out of gratitude. Let me recall an episode that is relevant. It was in July 1943. I was in Algiers and there were difficulties between General Giraud, who had his understandings with Vichy, and myself. Eisenhower summoned the two of us and explained that the US government was dissatisfied with us and regretted that we were not acting democratically. He added that, if we did not organise our affairs as they hoped, then they would be obliged to cease supplying us with arms. They particularly objected to the National Committee in Algiers making me the political head of the country and Giraud the commander-in-chief, without political powers.
I then posed a number of questions to Eisenhower. In 1914, I said, France was a rich country. We were able to provide arms for the Belgians, the Serbs and, to a lesser degree, the Russians. But did we intervene in their internal affairs? We provided the American forces with aircraft, tanks and heavy artillery, but did we interfere in the appointment of the US president or the commander-in-chief of the expeditionary forces? Would the American people have accepted these French exigencies? And supposing that the American government had refused French demands, would the French then have stopped supplying the American forces with arms? I have to tell you that Eisenhower did not reply to any of these questions.
DJ: But Eisenhower was very helpful to you, at least in the later years of the war.
CdG: Yes, he accepted in 1944 that we could not occupy Strasbourg and then abandon it, and he let us send Leclerc to liberate Paris in August 1944. However, I remember that when we started to organise our victory parade on 26th August, there was an American general who claimed to be in command of the region who forbade it. Naturally, I paid no attention.
DJ: What do you think of President Chirac? Many say that he is following your example in defying the Americans over Iraq, sending troops to the Ivory Coast, and visiting Algeria to restore French influence.
CdG: I knew Chirac during the difficult days of May 1968. He was minister of labour and it was his job, under Pompidou’s direction, to negotiate a wage settlement with the unions and put an end to the strikes. He was, I believe, very efficient. He dealt directly with Pompidou. He came to see me once. But the Chirac of today is different. And it is not only that years have passed and he has been prime minister and president of the republic. Above all, he has found himself with 80 per cent of the votes in the presidential election and with a new party, formed around him, which has a big majority in the assembly. He is no longer a weak figure. He is no longer the victim of cohabitation. At the age of 70, he is transformed. And he has chosen not to exercise his power in the narrowness of domesticity. He wants to show his power and his talents to the world. He has taken wing.
But-and this is his tragedy-his powers are limited. To begin with, people voted for him not because he was seen as a great man but because they were frightened that the adventurer Le Pen might be elected. People wanted to put their gloves on when voting Chirac, or put clothes pegs on their noses, all to show their distaste, and the authorities had to explain that such acts would invalidate their votes. I’ve never heard anything like it. And his party won the parliamentary elections because the left was divided. Chirac should not think he is a dominant figure, admired and followed by the whole of France.
DJ: But public opinion is very solidly behind him.
CdG: Pay no attention to public opinion in France. Opinion polls aren’t to be trusted. He is not Louis XIV. Louis wanted to dominate Europe. France was at his feet. The aristocracy was confined to Versailles, the bourgeoisie was getting richer and wanted to become the aristocracy, no parties could be formed against the King. Michelet, a great historian, has said that this was the most perfect agreement between the people and a man. But this is not the case of France today. France is in decline. And I’m not just talking about the unemployment. The constitution that I gave to France has been reduced to absurdity. We may soon return to the cohabitation nonsense. And where is the French state? Everything depends on the state, but it does not work any more. And what is Chirac’s government doing about this? It has a programme of decentralisation. France is in a mess, subjected to what you call “globalisation,” in the hands of dishonest bankers, told by Brussels that it must revise its budget. But you will say that I am being Gaullist. Or rather, de Gaullist.
DJ: Andr?alraux said that everyone has been, is, or will be, Gaullist.
CdG: Yes, but he didn’t say “de Gaullist.”
DJ: About this war against Iraq, people remember that you supported America in the Cuban crisis of 1962. Why is France acting differently now?
CdG: Cuba was very simple. Once I was certain that the Soviet Union had installed missiles on Cuba that could reach America-and I examined the photographs of these missiles very carefully-then it was obvious that the Americans would first blockade and then attack Cuba. If the Russians replied militarily, they would not attack America directly, but they would invade Berlin. With that in mind, I assured the US that I would support them, because it was in French interests so to do. This did not stop Kennedy, Dean Rusk and others regarding me as an enemy, especially when I refused to allow France to be part of a multilateral nuclear force, dependent upon US submarines and Polaris missiles. Later, after the death of Kennedy, President Johnson took great offence at my hostility to the American war in Vietnam, to the expelling of American troops from France in 1966 and to France’s recognition of communist China.
But it was easier for me to stand up to America because the cold war still held the west together-it placed limits on how serious the internal dispute could become. The situation now is very different and I hear Richard Perle saying that France is not even an ally of the US. It is not just that there is only one superpower, it is also that this superpower has discovered that it is vulnerable. Bush has declared war on Muslim terrorism. The Americans had to invade Afghanistan to destroy the base, then they had to assure themselves of the support of Pakistan. The next step was clearly the middle east. Not only is it a source of terrorism, but it has vital stocks of oil and it includes the state of Israel, protected by the US and important in any American election because of the Jewish influence. But what would be America’s strategy? It was obvious. Saddam Hussein was a villain and dangerous. Once the US had removed him, the rest of the middle east could be sorted out, including the Israel-Palestine conflict.
DJ: Was it really possible to foresee all that?
CdG: Yes, Chirac should have foreseen what was going to happen. France has interests in Iraq. It should have developed political influence, had more Iraqi specialists, been in constant contact with Iraq. I have little time for Mitterrand-he took no part in the celebrations to mark the 100th anniversary of my birth-but at least he thought things through at the time of the first Gulf war. He sent Edgard Pisani to Switzerland to negotiate with Saddam’s half-brother; it didn’t work and Mitterrand decided to join the war. Now Chirac risks being out of things at the end. It is difficult being in a postwar settlement if you’ve not been in the war. US plans for Iraq after Saddam won’t accommodate French interests. For all his popularity, I fear that Chirac is like the man who has jumped off a ten-storey building and, as he passes the ninth storey, then the eighth, he thinks, “So far, so good…”
DJ: And what about Britain in all this?
CdG: Well, what can you expect? When I rejected the British application to join the Common Market in 1962, I did so because Britain, with its “special relationship” with the US, would have swamped us. You see that I was right. Blair has acted like Bush’s agent. However, I believe that Blair is in some respects different to previous British leaders and would like to take an important job in Europe, so he wants to show that he can restrain Bush. Because the Americans have the most powerful state in the world, it doesn’t mean that the British will always be their servants. I think there are some remnants of independence in England-we may all be surprised.
DJ: And what about Europe?
CdG: I always said that creating a united Europe would be like building a cathedral in medieval times: that took a very long time and demanded special skills. But suddenly the European Community is being enlarged in a matter of months. It is hardly surprising that the problem of Iraq has revealed the many differences that exist within both the old Europe and the new states from the former eastern bloc. Poland hopes that American forces now stationed in Germany will be moved to Poland, which will give the country prestige and economic rewards. The Czechs relish their independence and are indignant to be given orders from Paris or Brussels. Spain is fearful of Muslim terrorists from north Africa. France has allowed too many Muslims on to her territory-I believe it is over 5m now. I always feared that Colombey les deux Eglises would become Colombey les deux Mosqu?.
DJ: You have not mentioned Germany. You must be pleased that the 40th anniversary of your treaty with Adenauer was celebrated so enthusiastically.
CdG: You have forgotten, like everyone else, that the Bundestag verified the treaty with a preamble stating its fidelity to Nato. The preamble was drawn up by my old rival Jean Monnet in the name of European unity. I said at the time that treaties were like young girls and quoted Victor Hugo: “Alas! Have I not seen young girls die.” We must not forget this. United Germany will follow its own policies now the cold war is over. They are not as enthusiastic for Europe as they seem; they are not necessarily attached to France; they must fear that they will be accused of being ungrateful to the Americans, and they are not all pacifists. A confused country is not a reliable ally.
DJ: Do you hear any good gossip where you are?
CdG: I’ve been told that when the president of Algeria, Bouteflika, visited Paris in February, it was he who suggested to Chirac that he oppose the Americans. It would, he said, make him a hero in the Arab and Algerian worlds. Chirac leapt at the idea. But do not let us forget France’s long friendship with Saddam-back in the 1970s, soon after my death, Giscard and Chirac thought that he was the man to modernise the Islamic world. In 1975, when Chirac was prime minister, he met him in Paris, assuring him of his affection. Did that create a special bond between them?
Now, you will have to excuse me. I’ve been summoned to a meeting. We’re looking at the Iraq conflict in terms of religious opinions. I shall recommend Pascal and insist on “the proper use of ideologies.”