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Monday, 15 April, 2002, 10:51 GMT 11:51 UK
French wrestle with De Gaulle's legacy
De Gaulle making wartime address from BBC
The wartime role is undisputed - but what about now?
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By BBC News Online's Henri Astier
"Every Frenchman was, is, or will be a Gaullist," Charles de Gaulle - who was never known for his modesty - once said.

Thirty-two years after the general's death, this claim has to some extent been vindicated.

French people overwhelmingly defer to the visionary who rallied the resistance to Nazi occupation, the peacetime leader who brought France to the top table, and the founding father of the current constitution.

But if De Gaulle's place in history is undisputed, the relevance of his legacy to modern France is far from clear.

Lionel Jospin and Jacques Chirac
Both key election candidates are playing down De Gaulle's legacy
None of the leading contenders in the election is highlighting this legacy - not even the conservative Jacques Chirac, who is pursuing an alliance with the centre-right rather than relying on his traditional Gaullist base.

This explains why a number of diehard followers of the general have rallied behind Jean-Pierre Chevenement, a left-wing Eurosceptic and born-again Gaullist (currently polling 8%).

Gaullism stands for three big ideas:

  • Government must be dominated by a powerful presidency
  • The state should have a major role in the economy
  • Foreign policy must be "independent" - unconstrained even (or especially) by alliances

France's imperial presidency, set up by De Gaulle to put an end to unstable parliamentary rule, is no longer regarded as a source of strength. Instead it is increasingly viewed as a recipe for autocracy and unaccountability.

Map of France
Coast to coast election reports

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  3. Crime and the French voter
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Since the 1980s, the main antidote to presidential absolutism has been the very un-Gaullian practice of "cohabitation" - a president and prime minister from different parties.

But cohabitation is no longer popular with many voters.

This is why both frontrunners in the election have supported a more permanent check of the president's powers by cutting his term from seven to five years.

Whether this is enough to restore balance in France's top-heavy political system remains to be seen.

But both Lionel Jospin and Jacques Chirac have pledged, if elected, to focus on overall priorities and leave the day-to-day running of government to a cabinet that is responsible before parliament alone.

In other words, both candidates promise not to be another De Gaulle.

Closet free-marketeers

The economic legacy of Gaullism is also under attack.

De Gaulle did not invent dirigisme - state stewardship of the economy is a French tradition - but he strengthened it.

Under his presidency, industrial policy was seen as the key to development, state-owned groups thrived and a small, tight-knit administrative elite came to dominate both government and business.

This system survived De Gaulle. As recently as 16 years ago, France's major banks and insurance groups were state-owned. So were telecommunications, steel, oil and pharmaceutical giants, as well as the top carmaker. The French state even made best-selling cigarettes.

Since the mid-1980s, however, governments of all political stripe have been dismantling all this. The pace of privatisations accelerated in the 1990s, and since 1997 the socialist government has sold more state assets than all its predecessors put together.

To be sure, French people deeply distrust markets and anyone vying for their votes must engage forcefully denounce the evils of "unbridled capitalism" - a sensible thing to do, since France's lone pro-market advocate, Alain Madelin, barely musters 3% of support.

No wonder Lionel Jospin and Jacques Chirac do not preach the (cautious) economic liberalism they have practised.

But whoever wins, expect more privatisations. The economic structure of 21st-century France will be increasingly different from that of Gaullist France.

Old-time nationalism

When it comes to foreign policy, on the other hand, Gaullism at first glance appears to be alive and well.

De Gaulle, who took France out of Nato's military structure, saw US "hegemonism" as the main threat to his country, and all French leaders after him continued what is now a proud tradition of being a thorn in America's side.

The French Government not only opposes sanctions against Iraq, but has allowed politicians, businessmen and celebrities to fly to Baghdad. In 2000, France was the only country among 100 not to sign a "Warsaw Declaration" on democracy, mostly because it was an American initiative.

The worst nightmare of French politicians sees the American "hyperpower" imposing its will through military might, and destroying local cultures and economies through globalisation.

It is a typically Gaullist nightmare, and the policies associated with it - such as scuttling a proposed "Multilateral Agreement on Investment" in 1998 to protect French cultural products - are deeply Gaullist too.

But that is not the whole story. There was more to De Gaulle's foreign policy than America-bashing.

At the heart of his vision of the world was national sovereignty. De Gaulle saw supranational bodies as irrelevant encumbrances. He once dismissed the UN as a "machin" - a "thing" - and believed in Europe as a union of nation-states.

De Gaulle's call to resistance
De Gaulle's wartime record was followed by peacetime triumph
And in De Gaulle's view, France was more than one nation among others, but a shining example for other countries.

"Over many centuries there has been a link between the greatness of France and the freedom of the world," he once pronounced.

No French politician would say this today, for fear of sounding dated. Similarly, De Gaulle's religion of the nation state appears out of step with modern sensitivities.

France now tries to work through multilateral institutions. It is committed to European integration. It works with the IMF and the World Bank in its former colonial backyard. It has even rejoined Nato's military command.

For many years France's politicians have been prone to taking a leaf or two out of General de Gaulle's book. But in doing so they have torn it to shreds.

See also:

05 Apr 02 | Europe
Record slate for French election
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