Friday, June 18, 2010

What would Churchill and de Gaulle do now?

Jun 18, 2010

By Timothy Garton Ash

IN LONDON today, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron will join war veterans from their countries to celebrate the 70th anniversary of Charles de Gaulle's historic radio appeal to the French to go on fighting against Hitler.

On the same day that de Gaulle broadcast his message from London on the BBC, June 18, 1940, Winston Churchill delivered his 'finest hour' speech to the House of Commons, declaring that the Battle of France was over and the Battle of Britain about to begin.

Summer 1940. Churchill and de Gaulle. Here is the moment, here the men, that have shaped Britain and France ever since. All British foreign policy since 1940 is footnotes to Churchill; all French foreign policy, footnotes to de Gaulle.

The myths of Churchillism and Gaullism, initiated by the two orator-writer-statesmen, never cease to grow, like mighty oaks. The myths of all other post-war British and French politicians, even of Mrs Margaret Thatcher, are mere saplings in their shade.

The question is: What should we make of this legacy now? What does it mean to be Churchillian or Gaullist today? Is it not time for Britain to go beyond Churchillism and France beyond Gaullism? If so, to what? Together or apart?

In London, outside de Gaulle's wartime headquarters at 4 Carlton Gardens and in a grand muster at the Royal Hospital in Chelsea, today will be cast as the joyful celebration of a wartime comradeship in arms. Unmentioned, I suspect, will be the fact, which Jonathan Fenby records in his new biography The General, that the British Cabinet initially decided de Gaulle's proposed broadcast would be 'undesirable'. The ban had to be reversed by Churchill, who had been absent from the Cabinet meeting to prepare his 'finest hour' speech.

Unmentioned too, or skimmed over, will be the tragic British decision to sink the French fleet at Mers-el-Kebir a few weeks later, to prevent it falling into German hands. Lightly passed over also will be the volcanic rows between Churchill and de Gaulle, which led to the story that Churchill said the heaviest cross he had to bear during the war was the Cross of Lorraine - the symbol of de Gaulle's Free French.

Unmentioned or skimmed over - and rightly so! For the larger story of those years is one of a great shared struggle. Furious though the arguments were between the two wartime leaders, if sometimes given a comic turn by Churchill's macaronic French - si vous m'obstaclerez, je vous liquiderai! he once admonished the general, 'if you obstacle me, I will liquidate you!' - Churchill knew that he would have done exactly the same had he been in de Gaulle's shoes.

Anyway, both were themselves past masters of sweeping inconvenient facts under a gloriously embroidered carpet of inspiring myth. Churchill's myth was the sempiternal comradeship of the English-Speaking Peoples; de Gaulle's, that of the one, true, eternally resisting France, beside which the collaborationist reality of Vichy and occupied France was a mere aberration.
Both knew exactly what they were doing in creating these myths. 'I raised the corpse of France with my arms, making the world think it was alive,' Andre Malraux recorded the general saying at the end of his life.

In a subtle new book called Le Mythe Gaullien, Oxford historian Sudhir Hazareesingh uses some of the many letters sent to the general by ordinary citizens to show just how deeply his example and myth penetrated the popular psyche. Exactly the same could be said of Churchill and Churchillism.

The two statesmen-bards told their peoples stories about who they were - and because they believed them, the British and the French became, in some measure, the peoples Churchill and de Gaulle invented.

The trouble, however, is that the national myths led in different directions. The contrasting lessons drawn by Churchill and de Gaulle from the trauma of 1940, and what followed, have formed the two countries' foreign policies to this day.

Simply put, Churchill concluded that Britain could no longer rely on France and must secure its own survival, security and, so far as possible, continued greatness, through a special relationship with the US. De Gaulle concluded that French greatness must be restored through a fierce independence from the US and Britain, and by finding partners on the European continent.
Shortly before the D-Day landings, Churchill told de Gaulle that every time Britain had to 'decide between Europe and the open sea, it is always the open sea that we shall choose. Every time I have to decide between you and Roosevelt, I shall always choose Roosevelt'.

De Gaulle never forgot this, and cited Britain's chronic preference for the transatlantic relationship as one of his reasons for saying 'non' to Britain's application for membership of what was then the European Economic Community. Instead, de Gaulle forged France's special relationship with Germany.

There have been departures from this pattern, under Edward Heath and Georges Pompidou, for example, or in the early years of Tony Blair. But when push came to shove - over Iraq, for example - London and Paris reverted to (stereo)type.

Mr Blair blamed treacherous France so he could march with the US into Iraq. Mr Jacques Chirac blasted away at 'the Anglo-Saxons'. In the Iraq crisis, Mr Blair and Mr Chirac behaved like appalling parodies of Churchill and de Gaulle. It was the reduction to the absurd of Churchillism and Gaullism.

To his credit, Mr Sarkozy, has decisively gone beyond the Gaullist default position in relation to the US. The question now is whether Mr Cameron can go beyond the crypto-Churchillian, euro sceptic default position of always siding with the United States as opposed to the European Union. And whether, together, they can develop what both countries urgently need - a new, Churchillo-gaullist or Gaullo-churchillian strategy.

This would consist of building up an EU which speaks with a stronger, more united voice in the world - but as a strategic partner with, not a jealous rival of, the US. Germany, in its current, sullen, nationally defensive mood, will not lead that charge. Only Europe's two former world powers, with their continued habits of thinking and acting globally, can provide the impetus - though obviously they cannot achieve the result on their own.

One is told that the British and French governments are looking for areas of strategic cooperation, especially in defence and security policy. It would be a good start if - 70 years after the British Cabinet proposed a complete union between the two countries - the two nations could at least tell each other where their nuclear submarines are, so they don't bump into each other by accident, as happened only last year.

It is also vital that Franco-British defence cooperation is understood as a contribution to a wider European effort and not, as British Defence Secretary Liam Fox seems to want, an alternative to it.

In a world of unprecedented global challenges and rising non-Western great powers such as China, and with the existential crisis of the euro zone, Europe now faces a kind of civil 1940.
The question to ask of Churchill and de Gaulle is not: What did they do then? It is: What would they do now?

The writer is professor of European Studies at Oxford University and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.

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