Can Macron wear the General’s uniform?

The young French president aspires to lead Europe, emulating the heroic Charles de Gaulle in charisma and ambition, if not in stature

When, one year ago, President Emmanuel Macron designed the setting for his first official photograph he placed himself in front of a desk in the Elysée Palace on which lay a copy of the War Memoirs of Charles de Gaulle — a work which he appears to have studied with care.

At first glance there could hardly be two less similar men. Macron, short, slim, regularly formed, neat good looks — something of the lithe air of a tango professor about him, with a warm smile, a willingness to please, quietly spoken, every mother’s darling. Opposite Charles de Gaulle, huge in stature, long thin legs supporting a prominent paunch, sloping shoulders and then a drôle de tête, with the massive beaky nose and the invisible chin, a cartoonist’s dream, silent, charmless, grumpy, given to terrifying fits of rage, and absolutely nobody’s cheri. And yet these two men share a number of dominating characteristics — unusually quick intelligence, disdain for most of their fellow beings, a brazen capacity to deceive both their colleagues and their opponents, and an exceedingly sharp eye for the main chance. And Macron demonstrates another common characteristic which has served him well. He is remarkably difficult to read — unpredictability is Macron’s stock in trade.

In many ways the comparison is absurd. De Gaulle’s life was lived on a heroic scale, not something Emmanuel Macron is ever likely to experience, despite his vast ambitions. It is difficult to imagine de Gaulle spending €29,000 on 35 makeup sessions for instance, and le Grand Charles would probably not have invited Annie Leibowitz into his domestic life to immortalise it in Vanity Fair. But both men’s style of government has been described as jupitérien, and like de Gaulle, Macron is multiplying the regional tours and the walkabouts. He has a hypnotic gaze and is never happier than when he is plunging into a group of voters, smiling, embracing, distributing physical contact as though he were curing the “King’s Evil” (scrofula) under the ancien regime. His election was assured by left-of-centre voters, but he has modelled his first year in power on the methods of a hero of the Right, and there are further similarities in the way in which that power was achieved.

In 1958 de Gaulle was recalled to office to rewrite France’s Constitution and replace the Fourth Republic with the Fifth. He, who had always scorned professional politicians, governed with an open contempt for the powers of the National Assembly, where he lacked an overall majority. And he twice amended the constitution (by referendum) to increase his own power at the expense of the elected deputies.

In 2017 Macron’s unforeseen election victory was won by wrong-footing the leaders of the Fifth Republic and reducing the established political parties to irrelevance. When he was elected (running against Marine Le Pen) the pundits said that he owed his victory to a rejection of the Front National, and that he would never win a majority in the National Assembly because he was not backed by his own party. In the event Macron’s REM (La République En Marche) and its centrist allies won an overall majority of 123 with the Socialists, who had been in government for 20 of the previous 36 years, managing a pathetic total of 45 out of 577 seats. The French Constitution remained unchanged, but the alternating left-right see-saw by which political power could be switched, had been dismantled, and the Republic that has emerged from Macron’s election victory bears little resemblance to its founding model.

Emmanuel Macron’s first official portrait. De Gaulle’s “Mémoires de Guerre” is visible on the left (© Soazig de la Moissonniere/Xinhua News Agency/PA Images)

Since then Macron, despite his crushing parliamentary majority, also treats his party with disdain. The members of his majority have little to do since the centre of power has shifted away from the Assembly towards the committees surrounding his presidency. And where damaging parliamentary opposition can be expected in the Assembly, Macron, like de Gaulle, governs by decree. There is increasing unrest about this tendency in the Assembly. Over 100 members of his majority failed to support new measures making it more difficult to apply for political asylum, and one of his deputies has now left REM and is hoping to form a new parliamentary group. His popularity nationally has fallen by 20 per cent since his election and an increasing number of voters identify him as “arrogant”, “alarming” and “unable to understand the concerns of ordinary people”. As the power of the government increases and the influence of parliamentary opposition declines, this opposition is likely to grow.

Macron has identified the Gaullist era (1958 to 1970) as a sub-conscious drive by the French nation to return to the comforting tradition of monarchy, an attempt, like the Napoleonic era, to “fill the void” left by the public execution of Louis XVI. He has claimed that “the people of France supported the Revolution but they never supported the killing of the king”, and in his first year he has seized every opportunity to underline the monarchical aspect of France’s executive presidency. On the day of his inauguration he marched alone into the courtyard of the Louvre — originally a royal palace — to the strains of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”. He has on more than one occasion paid a nocturnal visit to the Basilica of St Denis, heading for the crypt which is the mausoleum of the mediaeval kings of France. He held his 40th birthday party in the Château of Chambord, the extravagant renaissance palace of François I. And, in a surprising confession to a gathering of American university students last month, he said that “François Premier”, the patron of Leonardo da Vinci, was his “model ruler”.

Charles de Gaulle did not need to underline monarchical references when he returned to power as the first president of the Fifth Republic in 1958. His autocratic habits were already well-known. On the day of his inauguration he paraded solemnly with René Coty, last president of the Fourth Republic, to the Arc de Triomphe to pay homage before the tomb of France’s Unknown Soldier. It was the final moment in the ceremony of transition, following which Coty — who had played a central role in facilitating the recall of de Gaulle, declaring that he was the one man who could save France from civil war — expected to be escorted to his car by the new president, kissed on both cheeks, saluted and waved off into a dignified obscurity. Instead de Gaulle, towering over his nondescript predecessor, briefly shook his hand, murmured “Au revoir, Monsieur Coty”, and then, turning on his heel, plunged into the crowd for another of the passionate bains de foule in which he specialised — leaving the unfortunate Coty to make an ignominious exit from the national stage alone.
This brief anecdote, included in Julian Jackson’s new biography, A Certain Idea of France: A Life of Charles de Gaulle (Allen Lane, £22.75), tells us a great deal about de Gaulle. It illustrates his rather callous sense of humour, his indifference to other people’s feelings, his pitiless judgment of other people’s unimportance — and his ruthless ability to press ahead to the next goal. Professor Jackson’s work is a tour de force, and by far the best biography in English to date. Working with a wealth of primary sources in England and France, and some secondary French sources, Jackson has traced the course of de Gaulle’s career, bringing him to life in all his grandeur and turpitude. It is also a fascinating study in how one man’s character can change the course of history, and it traces the formation of a political monster.

De Gaulle, who had briefly led the country from 1944 to 1946, was recalled to deal with a national crisis — Coty did not exaggerate when he said that the country was on the verge of civil war. A military insurrection had taken place in Algeria, which was regarded by many as essentially part of France, and the colonial authorities were using torture to combat the terrorism of the FLN Algerian nationalists. The rebel generals had drawn up plans to drop 50,000 paratroopers on Paris and seize key government buildings. De Gaulle’s return to power was presented as providential, a moment of salvation, but Jackson shows that this “national saviour” was in fact, behind the scenes, stoking the crisis. In the weeks before his return to government de Gaulle conducted a series of secret manoeuvres, mixing duplicity with ambiguity and encouraging the insurrectionary generals in Algeria to believe that he was really on their side, and might even be prepared to lead a military coup, while at the same time tempting the Socialist leader, Guy Mollet, to support him on the grounds that he was the best guarantee of law and order. He was prepared to take that risk, starting a civil war, in order to regain power.

When a friend asked him what he thought the generals would do next de Gaulle replied, “Rien — ce sont des militaires.” (“Nothing — they’re just soldiers.”) And the gamble paid off. In response to de Gaulle’s assurances the paratroopers were stood down, “Monsieur Coty” issued his invitation and the National Assembly voted to invest de Gaulle first as prime minister and shortly afterwards as president.

What followed when the supporters of Algérie française realised they had been duped, and the new president was preparing to grant Algeria independence, was a wave of terrorism that once again brought the country to the brink. Taking their example from the FLN, French Algerian ultras formed their own terrorist movement, the OAS (Organisation de l’armée secrète, “the Secret Army”), while the FLN moved their lethal operations from Algeria to the cities of France. Thirteen policemen were killed in Paris alone and when the police retaliated by murdering several hundred peaceful Algerians, President de Gaulle merely commented that the press were exaggerating the figures as a means of attacking him. On another occasion, when a peaceful left-wing demonstration against OAS violence ended with nine demonstrators dead, forced against a metal grill or with their heads beaten in by police batons, de Gaulle confined himself to the observation that it was the Communist Party’s fault for organising the demonstration in the first place.

The OAS attempted to assassinate de Gaulle at least 30 times. In one attack a bomb exploded directly in front of his car and his driver had to accelerate through the flames. In another the presidential limousine was machine-gunned while the de Gaulle, aged 74, and his wife, Yvonne, crouched inside.
As a front-line infantry officer in August 1914 de Gaulle had been wounded in the first month of the war and wounded again six months later. In 1916 at the Battle of Verdun, leading his men into attack, he suffered bayonet wounds in hand-to-hand fighting and was listed as dead. He proved his ability as a warrior again in May 1940 when, as the French army collapsed around him, he twice led his tanks in successful counter-attacks against German Panzers. 

He had been born into a provincial, middle-class, strictly Catholic family in 1890, the son of a schoolmaster and grandson of a Lille textile manufacturer. Jackson writes that the father, Henri de Gaulle, was remembered as “a gentle survivor from another age: distinguished and formal, undemonstrative and erudite . . . he passed on to his son a reverence for writers and the life of the mind”. The boy Charles’s “sale caractère” seems to have come from his mother, who had a notably aggressive personality.

He grew up in Paris but regularly returned to the north of France for holidays and family reunions. The home life of the de Gaulles was dominated by intimidating Catholic matriarchs. When, at the age of 18, Charles attended a performance of Carmen in Paris he warned a cousin to be sure not to tell their grandmother of his escapade.

He was educated by Jesuits, for some of the time at a boarding school in Belgium, and emerged with a fixed belief that his destiny was to serve his country and that his country’s history began not in 1789, with the official French reverence for Revolution and the Rights of Man, but in the year 481 with Clovis, King of the Franks and the first Christian King of France.

De Gaulle remained an undemonstrative but profoundly convinced Catholic all his life, once on the way home from Mass informing a startled aide de camp that Christ’s sacrifice “opened up the horizons of religion beyond the heart of men towards vast regions giving a place to human suffering, to human anguish, to human dignity”. References to his faith were rare in his political life but Jackson’s exhaustive research has traced a few. “What is certain,” Jackson writes, “is that de Gaulle’s Catholicism was inseparable from his patriotism and his sense of France”.

Emmanuel Macron also comes from a bourgeois Catholic background in northern France, albeit with a less orthodox record since, while still at school, he started an affair with his French teacher, Brigitte, the mother of one of his classmates, whom he subsequently married. The scandal that followed rocked his native city of Amiens and might have alienated him from the Church for life — but he too has recently shown signs of reconnecting with his Catholic roots. To the fury of the professional anti-clericals on the French Left, Macron summoned the Catholic hierarchy of France to a one-day conference in April, declaring that the time had come to “reforge the ancient links binding church and state”. The relationship between church and state is one of the most sensitive questions in French politics: furious skirmishes break out over it, normally in the field of education, every few years. So, in calling this conference Macron risked stirring up a hornet’s nest of secular outrage. “The president of the republic should be defending laicité  [secularism] and the [anti-clerical] laws of 1905, not meeting the French hierarchy,” thundered the general secretary of the Socialist Party. “Secularity is the jewel in the republic’s crown.” Undeterred, Macron insisted on the need to explore “the role of the church in society”. 
He has been more circumspect when it comes to dealing with the country’s second religion. Hints of a major presidential speech on the role of Islam have come to nothing. Macron once mused that he wished to stop foreign imams from being imported into France, but apart from that he has had little to say. This silence embarrasses his followers, since in the absence of any direction from the leader they are unable to develop a point of view. The foot soldiers of the REM, many of them former Socialist councillors, have to await Macron’s pronouncements in order to find out what they think.

In the event of another terrorist outrage, the right-wing opposition will have the field to themselves in expressions of public fury, and the embryonic alliance between the conservatives and Front National will be strengthened. The new leader of the conservative party, Les Républicains, Laurent Wauquiez, is advocating policies on crime and immigration that attract Front National voters, and electoral trade-offs at constituency level are under discussion.

This insouciance about alienating both left-wing and right-wing voters might seem to weaken Macron, but it could also be part of his five-year strategy. In dumping the Left he will attract more centrists, and in pushing the conservatives further to the right he will draw the moderate Right behind him. The centre has been the weak point in organised political opinion since 1958. If Macron manages to rebuild it, he will have provided himself with a powerbase that could ensure he wins a second term.

Another area in which Macron shadows de Gaulle is in his attitude to the media and the press. De Gaulle could not control the printed press, but he ruled television with an iron fist. The daily news bulletins on the only channel then available were under his control and if he chose to address the nation he monopolised the airtime at will. His press conferences were an innovation. They were held at regular intervals in the Elysée Palace, under a blaze of television lights, with 800 journalists and diplomats crammed into rows of little gilt seats, facing the stage. After a suitable delay de Gaulle emerged from behind a curtain and everyone stood up. The president then invited questions, totally ignored them and gave his pre-scripted announcements. One cartoonist depicted him saying, “I think I heard someone at the back not ask the question which I will now answer.” The performance went on for two hours.

Macron has tried to achieve a similar result by different means, and with less success. In one of the first statements issued after his election he announced that the regular presidential press conference had been abolished “because the minds of journalists do not work in the same way as my own”. This priceless piece of conceit was allowed to pass, but the only televised press interview he has accorded to date turned into an unpleasant row, with Macron aggressively confronting two hostile questioners, showing off his rapidity of thought — but also revealing his disdain for the process of debate.
Last autumn, in another confrontation with the Fourth Estate, he alarmed the directors of the state-subsidised France TV station by summoning them to a meeting where he queried the logic of the arrangement. He subsequently described subsidised television as a public disgrace, suggesting that it might be replaced by a “French BBC”. The matter was left up in the air, but the remarks can have done little to reinforce the broadcasters’ confidence in their continuing independence.

Macron’s regal habits have been ridiculed by, among others, his predecessor, François Hollande. He rose to power by serving Hollande, first as a councillor, then as a minister. In a tactic of entirely Gaullist cynicism he repeatedly reassured Hollande that he was not a presidential candidate, while secretly spending a fortune on opinion polls to find out how he should present himself. Hollande, who now loathes him, recently retaliated, describing his successor as “a child who is playing with the presidency as an infant plays with a box of toys”.

Certainly, the style of Hollande’s presidency was less concerned with grandeur, but the manner of his departure from office was so ignominious that few will pay attention to his judgments today. He is still fondly remembered for the occasion when he was filmed leaving the Elysée Palace on the pillion of a police motor scooter, heading for a nearby love nest. He was disguised in a crash helmet but given away by his socks, which he had forgotten to change. To date President Macron has not provided “My People”, as he calls the French, with any such informal moments, and he is unlikely to do so, given the omnipresence of his consort Brigitte, whom Macron installed as “Co-Prince of Andorra” (one of his presidential perks), and who seems to have invented a role for herself as a “helicopter wife” still sub-consciously checking her former pupil’s schoolwork.

De Gaulle chose the army as his route to power and passed out of the military academy at St Cyr in 1912 at the age of 21, thirteenth in a list of over 200. He was 6ft 4 inches tall at a time when, as Jackson notes, the average height of French males was 5ft 3ins. He joined the infantry and his first regimental commander was a nondescript colonel named Philippe Pétain. In the brief two years of peace that remained Charles de Gaulle got to know his commanding officer quite well. This was not for professional reasons. “At the time I was very keen on women,” de Gaulle later recalled. “And so was Pétain; that brought us together. We talked about them the whole time. Each week we went to Paris on the train . . . [and] . . . we would from time to time bump into each other.” This unexpected insight into de Gaulle’s youth, and into his relationship with his commanding officer, is typical of Jackson’s method, mixing analysis, official records, private correspondence and gossip into an encyclopaedic view of his subject’s life and times.

In London, during the war, as the only French minister and general to defy events and disobey the order to surrender, de Gaulle became France. Using any weapons he could find, stubbornness, courage, moral blackmail, hysterical rage, sulking, insults, flattery and cunning, he confronted the brutal facts of his country’s humiliation and overcame them. By a combination of acute political intelligence and strength of will he imposed his view of history over events. In 1940 he was a lowly two-star general. When a five-star general, in an extraordinary gesture, agreed to serve under him and deferred to him in public, de Gaulle merely observed, “I felt he had departed a greater man than when he had arrived.”
Macron never did military service and is a pure example of an énarque, a graduate of ENA, the elite national school of administration that was founded in 1945 under de Gaulle. In 1958, on his return to power, De Gaulle surrounded himself with a staff of about 45 technical advisers, many of them graduates of this school. He called these young men (they were all men) la Maison — the Household, another royal echo — and Macron follows the same system. But even his friends are beginning to worry that Macron is now surrounded by yes-men and is becoming too isolated from public opinion. De Gaulle did not tolerate contradiction, but he frequently responded to it on the following morning, as Professor Jackson shows.

Macron was elected to modernise French society and the French economy and his first reforms passed (by decree) into law last year. He has chosen to fight the second, critical, round by imposing affordable working practices on the employees of the SNCF (the French railways) which is one of the last bastions of union power. Here his proposed measures are still being disputed by all five rail unions who have launched a three-month series of two-day strikes.

Arm-wrestling matches between the government and the public services are generally decided in France by the French public, who tend to support the government until the inconvenience becomes too much, and then switch sides and support the unions. In the current struggle this has not yet happened, and Macron still has the upper hand.

His principal opponent, Philippe Martinez, the general secretary of the CGT,  is a wonderfully antique figure, a card-carrying Communist with an “Uncle Joe” moustache who has underestimated the extent to which the arrival of the internet has weakened the effects of a rail strike. Office staff are now often able to work at home, fully updated by the SNCF management about cancelled services. And support for the strike among his members has halved, following an unexpected court ruling that strikers were not entitled to be paid.

Macron has been helped by the violent intervention of extreme-left and anarchist groups known as “black bloc”, whose masked supporters have turned what were supposed to be peaceful protests by the rail unions into bloody clashes with the police. But these riots have not troubled Macron. Instead they have had the unexpected effect of discrediting the union leadership which looks as though it is incapable of organising a peaceful demonstration. In another distant echo of de Gaulle, Macron has blamed the riots on Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of the hard-left, pro-Communist LFI (La France Insoumise) who has been actually been trying to calm the situation. Mélenchon’s indignation was not lessened by the discovery that this presidential edict was literally jupitérien, having been issued from above — the aeroplane carrying Macron on an official tour of the South Pacific.

A defining mark of Gaullist foreign policy was an opposition to US influence in Europe. This was an aspect of his hostility towards “les Anglo-Saxons”, another relic of his wartime experience. Jackson’s account reveals how, as he struggled to secure the leadership of the Free French, de Gaulle’s most active enemies were frequently his fellow allied leaders. President Roosevelt made repeated attempts to overthrow him in favour of more malleable, pro-American rivals. And Churchill became completely exasperated by his outrageous ingratitude and unrealistic demands, ordering him to be imprisoned, banished or “bound in chains” on more than one occasion. Somehow, “le Symbole”, as his followers called him — when he was not in the room — managed to avoid these bayonet thrusts and preside in triumph over his liberated country in August 1944.
The Foreign Office do not come out of  Jackson’s account with much credit. Among those duped by de Gaulle in the summer of 1958 was the British ambassador, Sir Gladwyn Jebb, who after being accorded half-an-hour when the general was still a private citizen felt able to inform London that de Gaulle had decided to do little or nothing to achieve power. Three years later Jebb’s successor, Sir Pierson Dixon, predicted that “Future historians will point to 1961 as the year in which General de Gaulle’s fortunes and his authority began to decline.”

At around this time, during a rather maudlin encounter with Harold Macmillan, de Gaulle “spoke of his affection for Britain” and said that he had been “so tiresome” during the war because he represented “a country that was ruined and dishonoured”. But despite this affection de Gaulle savoured his revenge, a dish best eaten cold. He took France out of the military- arm of Nato and instructed Washington to withdraw US garrisons from French soil. And he twice, famously, blocked the United Kingdom’s applications to join the Common Market. 

Macron does not suffer from “Anglo-Saxonphobia”. But he has already challenged American policy in the Middle East and was one of the most determined defenders of the Iran nuclear treaty. And in international affairs he is striving to go one better. De Gaulle viewed the rivalry between France and Germany for European leadership as an inevitable geographical fact, but once he was back in power in the 1960s he did everything he could to replace a hundred years of murderous struggle with a permanent alliance and made a particular friend of Chancellor Konrad Adenauer.

Macron, in his turn, dances attendance on Angela Merkel, and as her popularity wanes after 13 years, and the French economy strengthens in response to Macron’s tax and employment reforms, the French president intends to replace the German chancellor as the dominant leader of the European Union. And he may savour the irony that, in striving to emulate de Gaulle as the national messiah, he should be so greatly helped by the UK’s decision to abandon the EU, leaving France as the only member state with a nuclear deterrent and a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. As a close student of de Gaulle, he may even recall the general’s prophecy, made when the United States entered the war in 1941: “From now the English will do whatever Roosevelt decides.”

But if you want to lead Europe, there has to be a Europe to lead. The election of an Italian government prepared to defy Brussels rules on economic probity and form independent ties with Vladimir Putin, could yet dash Macron’s hopes and he is said to be increasingly concerned by the growing strength of east European nationalism. “Europe is undergoing profound change”, he said recently. “Our old continent is no longer protected from the storm, as it has been since 1945. Tragedy is once more becoming part of our history”. Perhaps, for Emmanuel Macron, the heroic scale beckons after all.

It was certainly appropriate that the most recent meeting between Macron and Merkel should have taken place in Aix-la-Chapelle, as the French persist in calling the German city of Aachen, once the residence of Charlemagne, King of the Franks and the first emperor of Europe.

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