De Gaulle and French Politics
What role did Charles de Gaulle play in the politics of the Fourth and early Fifth Republics?
France has occupied a position of great significance in the world politics. But it suffered from severe devastated after the Second World War. The nation was struggling with trying to maintain its long lost glory while trying to rebuild itself in the world dominated by two superpowers the United States and Soviet Russia. Under, the leadership of its charismatic political leader President Charles de Gaulle (1958–1969), the nation continued to pose a severe challenge to the growing dominance of United States during the Cold War era. Under the charismatic leadership of de Gaulle, the political system of the nation underwent a dramatic change. He transformed the office of President and endowed it with significant political power. History still remembers him as the most influential political leader of French.
The proud Frenchman tried to maintain the stability of the nation that wanted to restructure itself in the world where its former colonies wished to achieve their sovereign states. Charles de Gaulle was born in 1890 that period proved very turbulent France. During that time, the nation was smothered in internal chaos and instability. Its attempt at creating an empire had ended in a disaster; its domestic sovereignty has been shattered and divided, there was increasing antagonism among different political and social, religious groups. The nation thus was held together and united only against the rising German nationalism. Therefore, these factors influenced De Gaulle since his infancy and seemed to have impelled in him from his early years an inflated pride about his nation and inward-looking self-reliance as he tried to cope with the country that perpetually suffered from instability and internal conflicts in Post-Napoleon era.
Charles de Gaulle:
Charles de Gaulle enjoyed a glorious military career. He was a national hero that saved France twice, first in the 1940’s and later in 1958 when the nation was on the verge of civil war. During 1940’s he also played a significant role in maintaining France’s national dignity when the nation was under the dominance of Germany. When German forces occupied France de Gaulle refused to surrender to the occupying forces. He managed to escape capture and flew to London where he continued the nation’s struggle against the Nazi forces. Appealing to his fellow Frenchman he asserted that, “France has lost a battle; she has not lost the war,” He thus managed to restore his nation’s moral and of all the Frenchmen. He also formed a political organization and tried to continue the struggle of France against the German regime.
After his return to France in 1944, de Gaulle occupied the presidential office of France’s provisional government from 1944 to 1946. However, when the fourth republic was framed, he got involved in the dispute that emerged around the level distribution of power among legislature and executive units of government. According to him, the Fourth Republic has strengthened its legislature by providing it with a significant degree of influence, and this has produced a weakened presidency. Later in 1946, after the constitution of the Fourth Republic approved in a referendum, de Gaulle later retired from the political arena, disillusioned (Martin, 2010, p.1).
It was only after 1957 that his return to the politics was urgently required. The growing instability in the nation and the threat of civil war hasten his rise to power. In Thus, in 1958 de Gaulle was elected back to the office of the French presidency. His entry into the political sphere heralds the failure of the fourth republic of France. It was replaced by the fifth republic, which profoundly influenced by de Gaulle’s political ideas granted a significant level of power and authority to the office of French President. Later, he got elected to the position of Presidency in the year of 1958, and he continued in his office till 1969. De Gaulle’s eleven years of Presidency significantly influenced French’s international as well as foreign policy. He managed to reestablish the French as a dominant political power in European politics and later developed its role as a significant military and nuclear power in the cold war world.
Fourth Republic of France:
As mentioned earlier de Gaulle resigned from his position as the head of the provisional government of France in 1946 due to his disagreement regarding the framework of the fourth republic. The fourth republic is usually understood as a significant failure given its inability to deal with political unrest and later the threat of the civil war that aims to divide the nation. However, during the period 1945 to 1958 that the fourth republic functioned it provided a significant contribution to the country’s effort at reconstruction. However, it never really enjoyed the support and popularity among the masses. The legislature was severely divided among various contending political parties which made it difficult to arrive at a consensus.
The fourth Republic hence is not to be solely blamed for the increasing unrest within the nation. Many other external factors also have a significant role to play that necessitated its demise. The most important of which is the defeat and subsequent disintegration that the nation had to suffer from during the Second World War. During the 1940’s, the Nazi army not just shattered the country’s economy and military but it also humiliated the once glorious French empire.
Later, its inability to contain the growing conflict in Indochina was also another factor that portrayed the impotence of the nation. In this battle, which was known as “la sale guerre (the dirty war) tens of thousands of French soldiers killed and hence it is called as the bloody or dirty war. The government in Paris suffered from perpetual defeat against its opponents in Indo-China region. The growing sense of nationalism and national identity that characterized the world post Second World War period resulted in increasing nationalist movements into the former French colonies in the Indo-China region. However, the French government proved unable to deal with the growing conflict in the region and suffered from severe losses. The situation emphasize the growing impotence of the political system to deal with the external problems and maintain its control over its colonies. The ever-increasing resentment against the ruling authority was evident between the years 1954 and 1958 when the governments consistently lost the confidence of the National Assembly and had to be reelected and replaced.
The impotence projected during the Suez Canal crisis in spite of the successful attempts to maintain the country's influence in the region created a sense of disillusion among the French Army towards its government. The situation further escalated when the area of Algeria was legally an integral part of France claimed its independence. Algerian Front de Libération Nationale (FLN), a political group, issued this proclamation against the French government in 1958 (Gaffney, 2010). The growing conflict in Algeria would have essentially divided the region into different parts and would have engulfed the entire region in civil war. This threat intensified when the rebels supported by the French Army in May 1958 that harbored its disenchantment against the government. This group then tried to seize the control of French Algeria and later threatened to invade the mainland France if their demands were not met (Gagnon, 2014).
The threat of civil war proved to be a significant factor that produced the final demise of the fourth republic. It also resulted in the ascension De Gaulle’s. During his term, he redrafted the constitution and strengthened French democracy in the form of the Fifth French Republic. The Fifth French Republic has continued to operate even in the contemporary era and has characterized the nation’s political system.
Fifth Republic of France:
With his rise to power, Charles de Gaulle dealt with the growing unrest in Algeria and saved the country from the threat of the civil war. His reentrance into the government, however, was conditional upon the replacement of the fourth republic. Thus, the fifth republic of France also knows as ‘De Gaulle constitution’ framed in 1958 that provided for the office of the presidency a significant position in the France government. However, the fifth republic of France was characterized by severe contradictions and complexities. It provided for a ‘Presidential’ system in a ‘Parliamentary’ system of democracy.
According to Gaffney, De Gaulle’s new Republic placed the President at position centrality of the personal and thus led to the emergence of further complexity. First, it introduced political institutions where the President played the role of primary significance. His charismatic authority, therefore, played a more dominant role over the power of the office that he occupied. Thus, this created an increasing interplay between the personal authority of the President that was based on his popularity and charisma and the level of influence associated with his office. Also, along with giving the position of President a degree of primacy in the French political system he even managed to create significant transformations in the French political order in his more than a decade-long political career (Gaffney, 2010, p.6). Though his decade-long presidency was marred with some conflicts, De Gaulle has played a significant role in the reconstruction of the nation.
The rise of De Gaulle in the position of political supremacy in France from his humble military origin, his subsequent retirement, and his reentry has often been compared with the kind of charismatic political influence and the position that Nepolean Bonaparte has once enjoyed within the nation. The firm authoritarian leadership that characterized Charles De Gaulle was played a dominant role in attracting the masses. The people of France who were then suffering from the growing instability that characterized the war-torn nation was drawn to the strong leadership that De Gaulle provided.
The importance of charismatic leadership has played a significant role in may political systems. The problem that such kind of leadership face is when to maintain its continuance, the leader needs to transfer it into the institutional structure. There is also the fear that the charismatic leader might turn dictatorial and this was the threat that resulted in the formation of the fourth republic entrusted the legislative branch with more authority.
Charles De Gaulle however not only managed to transform this charismatic authority into the institutional structure but he also retired from the political arena when the situation called for it. He thus not only provided the nation with the political system that has characterized the country even in the present era, providing it with the stability that the nation needed but, he also framed the foreign policy that described the nation in the cold war era. He posed a challenge to the increasing dominance of United States in Europe and tried to create a multi-polar world order where no one nation played a dominant role. He also played a major role in establishing the position of France in the Security Council and later in NATO. He has continued to influence the foreign policy of the nation, even in the European Union France has opposed the growing dominance of United Kingdom and through it that of United States.
Charles De Gaulle and his legacy must always be remembered in the significant attempt made by the French political leader to restore the nation to its former glory. On his death, the then President of French marked that, ‘Today, the nation of France has become a widow.’ The patriot has throughout his life worked for his nation and has tried to uphold his nation’s pride and dignity. One of the most influential leaders of France his attempt at nation making has significantly changed the French politics as one knows it. His legacy carried and remembered by the present generation of Frenchman.
Gaffney, J., 2010. Political Leadership in France: From Charles de Gaulle to Nicolas Sarkozy. Springer.
Martin, G., Nuenlist, C. and Locher, A., 2010. Globalizing de Gaulle: International Perspectives on French Foreign Policies, 1958–1969.
Gagnon, D., 2014. Algeria, De Gaulle, and the Birth of the French Fifth Republic.
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