Unlike Churchill and Stalin and other World War II-era figures, Charles de Gaulle doesn’t loom particularly large in the American imagination’s filmstrip of the past, appearing briefly as an anti-Nazi hero and then again in cameos as a Cold War-era irritant. And the story that de Gaulle entered and altered, the history of France between the Revolution and the Vichy era, is regarded as too byzantine for most Americans to follow; some of us have seen “Les Misérables,” and that’s complicated enough.
All of this is unfortunate because France’s more-than-100-year war over its own self-understanding, the epic struggles among radical, liberal, conservative and reactionary factions over the French Revolution’s legacy, has an immediate relevance for our own national divisions.
Yes, our own ideological extremes are less dramatic, and our culture war has been waged mostly without barricades in the D.C. streets, and without (as yet) a New York Commune under the rule of First Citizen Ocasio-Cortez. But in many ways our politics since the 1960s have been Frenchified in a very 19th-century style.
Our political parties are organized around an unfinished revolution and a partial restoration, with the Democrats as the coalition of the glorious 1960s and Republicans as the party of the Reaganite Thermidor or the Bush-Bourbons.
Our religious landscape is polarized, since the collapse of the old Protestant establishment, between a secular, anticlerical liberalism and a MAGA-and-megachurch conservatism.
Our battles over national memory pit ancien-régime narratives about farsighted Founding Fathers, heroic pioneers and a tragic, avoidable Civil War against more iconoclastic reimaginings that place the old regime’s victims at the center of the story.
In our political battles everyone is constantly trying to claim ownership of contested symbols — in the flag, the Statue of Liberty, the Bill of Rights — in order to assert that theirs is the true Americanism, theirs the only path of making us great again or taking our country back.
In our media frenzies we keep generating controversies, from Kavanaugh to Covington, that resemble the Dreyfus Affair, 1890s France’s great scandal — in which every cultural division is somehow distilled into a single debate over guilt and innocence, with a representative figure’s virtue or turpitude as a synecdoche for everything dire our factions each believe about the other. And all this increasingly bleeds into our foreign policy, with global relationships scrutinized for their domestic ideological implications, foreign leaders hailed or vilified based on domestic narratives, and foreign governments seeking advantage by cultivating relationships with our competing factions.
Against this American backdrop the new biography of de Gaulle is relevant — in addition to just being educational, a sweeping-yet-concise introduction to the most brilliant, infuriating and ineffably French of men — because his grand project, his only consistent purpose apart from his own ambition, was a struggle to reintegrate the competing narratives of Frenchness, to get his country to transcend its ideological civil war.
De Gaulle was a man of the French right, associated from his earliest days with conservative institutions — the Catholic Church, the military — and right-wing and monarchist family traditions. But his particular style of nationalism, his extreme devotion to a “certain idea of France,” made him constantly inclined to seek a more inclusive nationalism — one that would lionize the military heroes of the ancien régime and the generals of the revolutionary period equally; let Joan of Arc live beside Marianne, and enable Paris' jostling, rivalrous monuments, Catholic and Bourbon and Republican and Bonapartist, to share the city rather than dividing it.
As with any reinvention of tradition there was an artificiality to Gaullism, a deliberate submerging of many important controversies, a mythmaking about national “grandeur” that dodged as many questions as it answered. Unsurprisingly, it somewhat disappointed its perpetually disappointed leader, who felt that the France he forged was less than he had hoped — less conservative in its culture, less ambitious and effective in its policy, less glorious than the France of his imagination. And like any such project, it was provisional, bequeathing buried tensions that in today’s France are being increasingly exhumed.
But compared with other efforts at statesmanship in long-divided countries, it had enduring effects without requiring disastrous bloodshed. “Gaullism succeeded,” Jackson writes, “in becoming the synthesis of French political traditions, or as de Gaulle put it, reconciling the left to the state and the right to the nation, the left to authority and the right to democracy.” That synthesis required rejection as well as inclusion, with enemies to both the right and left — the Communists to one side, the Vichyites and eventually the betrayed Algerian colonials to the other. It required cynicism and compromise, a blitheness about constitutional niceties and a cult of personality. But it established a unity out of deep division that could not have been anticipated in 1940.
Of course that raises the question of whether anything like Gaullism would have been possible without the total French collapse in that dark year, which simultaneously established de Gaulle as the unconquered embodiment of a conquered nation and discredited, through the stain on Vichy, elements of the right that might have more successfully opposed him. If the lesson of Gaullism for today’s America is that to escape an ideological civil war you first need to be conquered by Nazis, then it’s not a particularly encouraging case study.
But even with that caveat, I would still hand Jackson’s biography to any politician who imagines breaking out of our 50-50 politics and governing as a national rather than a tribal figure. What it suggests, above all, is the centrality of narrative and imagination to successful statesmanship, and the extent to which it’s possible for a very unusual sort of politician to effectively reinvent tradition, synthesize from conflict and persuade many millions of people to go along with it.
And it also suggests the importance of a Gaullist question for our would-be leaders: What is your certain idea of America? And how many Americans, and how much of American history, would your idea be able to include?
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.