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De Gaulle legacy: 'He was not subservient to America'

3 min

As France marks the fortieth anniversary of Charles de Gaulle’s death, FRANCE 24 speaks with a US historian about the French statesman's legacy and international image.


On November 9, 1970, Charles de Gaulle, the man who led the Free French Forces against Nazi Germany during World War II and later served as president from 1959 to 1969, died in his home in the central French town of Colombey-les-Deux-Églises. Forty years later, FRANCE 24 talks to Nathanael Greene, a specialist in modern French history at the Connecticut-based Wesleyan University, about de Gaulle’s legacy and how the French statesman is viewed by the international community.

What was, or is, Charles de Gaulle's image in the US?

Nathanael Greene: It’s hard to say what his image is now, but most Americans who experienced de Gaulle did not find him to be acceptable. People were pouring French wine and champagne in the gutters when he withdrew French forces from NATO [in 1966], and when he made a speech in Cambodia [in 1966] that was highly critical of America’s role in Vietnam. De Gaulle was seen by many in the US as very, very anti-American, which he wasn’t. He was ultimately a very reliable ally; he just was not subservient to America. De Gaulle was viewed favourably when he came to the US for John F. Kennedy’s funeral. People thought, “De Gaulle really is OK after all”.

FRANCE 24: What was de Gaulle’s most important contribution to French domestic and foreign politics?

Nathanael Greene: His most lasting contribution domestically was establishing the legitimacy of institutions, providing the state with legitimate institutions to create a working, viable government apparatus, one that has lasted since 1958. Also [for] his resistance against the Vichy regime that collaborated with the Nazis, and, in the post-war period, setting up a functioning government and avoiding both civil war and an American occupation. These are all remarkable achievements. In terms of foreign policy, he established a role for France in the world. De Gaulle was the first to open up China. He spoke not of the Soviet Union, but of Russia. He was one of the few figures who predicted the end of Communism. And he indicated that Europe would be a “Europe of nations”.

FRANCE 24: What are some of the myths or misperceptions about de Gaulle, in France or elsewhere?

Nathanael Greene:  A major one is that he was an old-fashioned authoritarian, a dictator. Ultimately, he proved himself democratic, beholden to the will of the people. In 1969 [following the May 1968 protests, when students and striking workers demanded massive reforms] he called a referendum and indicated that if his reform proposals lost he would resign. He lost it narrowly and resigned the next day. The other misperception is that he was basically old-fashioned and conservative. The reality is that he presided over some extraordinary social developments, including the Social Security system France has today. But there were those who called him a fascist because of his Olympian style and his remoteness.

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