Did Charles de Gaulle foresee Brexit?
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With no end to the Brexit drama in sight, FRANCE 24 goes back to the past to elucidate the present. In 1963, France’s revered President Charles de Gaulle famously said “non” to the UK joining what was then the EEC. For some observers, his arguments for keeping Britain out were prophetic.
In November 1962, de Gaulle hosted then British prime minister Harold Macmillan, an Old Etonian with a famously Edwardian style, at the French presidential summer retreat of Rambouillet – an exquisite Renaissance chateau just outside of Paris. Macmillan was desperate to gain de Gaulle’s approval for British entry into the European Economic Community (EEC).
De Gaulle convened a shooting party for the very posh prime minister. The French president didn’t himself partake in blood sport, but loudly informed Macmillan every time he missed. “The General”, as de Gaulle is affectionately known for his role as head of the Free French during the Second World War, told his British counterpart that the UK would have to ditch its “special relationship” with the US if it was serious about joining Europe.
At one point, the General’s tough stance provoked Macmillan to burst into tears. “This poor man, to whom I had nothing to give, seemed so sad, so beaten,” de Gaulle told his cabinet. “I wanted to put my hand on his shoulder and say to him, as in the Édith Piaf song, ‘ne pleurez pas, milord’ (don’t cry, my lord)”.
De Gaulle kept Macmillan in the lurch for a while. Then he announced at a press conference in January 1963 his opposition to British entry into the EEC. He argued that the UK would want to “impose its own conditions” on what were then the bloc’s six countries. The “insular” character of the island nation across the Channel had created a politico-economic “structure” which differed “profoundly” from “that of continental Europeans”, the General postulated.
The UK “is maritime; it is bound by trade, by its markets, to the most diverse array of countries – and often the most far-flung”, he went on. “It has a lot of industry and commerce but very little agriculture – and its habits and traditions are very different.”
Upon hearing the news Macmillan wrote in his diary: “The French always betray you in the end.”
‘A typical de Gaulle statement’
In his speech at the press conference, the General made a “typical de Gaulle statement – leaving no room for compromise”, noted Jonathan Fenby, a British historian and author of “The General: Charles De Gaulle and the France He Saved”, in an interview with FRANCE 24.
But the French president didn’t just see Britain as culturally, economically and politically distinct from continental Europe, he also feared that the UK’s presence in the EEC would weaken France’s influence. “De Gaulle was determined that France should have the leading role in the European project,” Fenby said. “It must be remembered that his government was carrying out an extensive programme of economic reform and – linked to this – he had forged a partnership with West Germany in which he envisaged France playing the leading role. De Gaulle didn’t want this prospect to be kyboshed by Britain’s entry into the EEC.”
De Gaulle also opposed British accession because he feared that the UK’s close relationship with the US would make it a Trojan horse for American influence, Fenby pointed out: “For him, keeping Europe independent from the US was paramount, and he never forgot the strong links between London and Washington – which he saw as acting against France’s interests during the Second World War – and the nuclear accords Macmillan signed with the US in the early ’60s reinforced his suspicions.”
In 1967, de Gaulle said “non” again, justifying his veto with the declaration that “to allow England [meaning the UK] in would mean assenting to a lot of pretence, which would be there to hide the destruction of a structure that was built at the cost of so much pain and in the midst of so much hope”.
More than half a century later, some see de Gaulle’s views on British distinctness from continental Europe – and ergo the inappropriateness of the UK’s membership in what was then the EEC – as clairvoyance. The view would chime with that of Brexiteers, a fair few of whom see the European project as ill-suited to their country because of what they see as fundamental cultural and political differences with the continent.
But Fenby suggested that the context is now very different: “The European Union has evolved a lot since the 1960s and it would be wrong to impose the General’s views on the current community of 27. It should also be noted that the pro-Brexit camp has always refused to recognise the opportunities the EU’s evolution has opened up for the UK.”
That didn’t stop the British historian from amusing himself by imagining what de Gaulle would have thought of Brexit: “to use a term he famously deployed a few years later, he would have called the conversation a 'chie-en-lit'” – a phrase indelibly associated with the General, which he used to denounce the 1968 student protests; strictly speaking it means “masquerade” but it also unmistakably sounds like “s*** in bed”.
“De Gaulle would have told the EU to just get on with it and not worry about Britain’s obstinacy and – as he would see it – non-European nature,” Fenby concluded.
This article was adapated from the original in French.
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