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France: What Remains Of Gaullism Today?

  • Joel Blocker

Newly re-elected conservative French President Jacques Chirac exercises greater political control over the country than any past leader of the country's 44-year-old Fifth Republic -- including its founder, and Chirac's mentor, General Charles de Gaulle. RFE/RL's Paris correspondent Joel Blocker spoke with a French expert on Chirac and Gaullism to explore what remains of the general's legacy in France.

Paris, 27 June 2002 (RFE/RL) -- At first glance, this week's election of Jean-Louis Debre as speaker of the now conservative-dominated National Assembly -- France's fourth most important post -- appears to be a throwback to the Gaullism of 40 years ago.

Debre is not only a long-time close associate of President Jacques Chirac. He is also the son of Michel Debre, the man who wrote the Fifth Republic's constitution in 1958 to meet the demands for strong presidential power of General Charles de Gaulle -- the republic's first chief of state. Michel Debre then governed the country for four years as prime minister.

What's more, Jean-Louis Debre's only opponent in the 25 June National Assembly balloting was Eduard Balladur, a former prime minister. Balladur is not only a rival of Chirac -- he lost out to him in a presidential election primary seven years ago -- but is generally considered less a strict Gaullist than an heir to Georges Pompidou -- De Gaulle's successor as president.

In the past, Chirac himself often spoke of himself as a Gaullist. For years, that designation meant belief in strong presidential powers and in the centralization of authority in Paris. Perhaps most important, it emphasized France's role as the dominant power in Western Europe, as an important figure on the world scene, and as a counterbalance to the United States, making it often to appear anti-American.

Chirac is, in fact, the only conservative politician today who actually served in a De Gaulle government. In 1967, at the age of 33, he was named junior minister for employment -- until then, the youngest ever appointed.

But Chirac owes his victory in last month's presidential run-off (5 May) not to Gaullists, but to all those -- on the left as well as he right -- who rallied under a "republican" banner to defeat his opponent, far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen. This month, a newly created umbrella group called the Union for a Presidential Majority (UMP), won a strong conservative victory in the legislative elections (9 and 16 June). The UMP includes a number of previously separate right and center groups, none of which proclaimed themselves as Gaullist.

As a result of the UMP's success, Chirac today can count on a National Assembly (lower house) as well as a Senate strongly tipped in his favor. Two-thirds of France's regions are also governed by conservatives, as are a majority of its municipalities. That all adds up to concentrated political power unequalled in the Fifth Republic.

But what remains of Gaullism in a France more dominated than ever before by conservatives? Strictly speaking, analysts say, not much -- except for ceremonial occasions.

One such occasion was last week's annual commemoration of the General De Gaulle's celebrated 18 June 1940 speech from London appealing for support for a "Free French" resistance to the Nazi occupation of his country. Chirac presided over that ceremony and each 11 November -- the date of the general's death in 1970 -- he lays a wreath on de Gaulle's grave in northeastern France.

Our correspondent spoke with Annie Collovald, who teaches political science at the University of Paris and is the author of the book "Jacques Chirac and Gaullism" (Editions Belin, 1999). Collovald says that De Gaulle's model of strong presidential leadership and defense of French interests in the international arena -- including, when necessary, opposition to the United States -- has been followed by all his successors, whatever their political orientation.

But Chirac, she adds, while generally adhering to the Gaullist model, has changed it by pressing for more U.S.-like free enterprise ("liberalism" in the European sense of the word) in traditionally statist-oriented France.

The analyst says that, because the international situation has changed so much in the past four decades, Chirac is no longer able to simply repeat Gaullist doctrine:

"Chirac [has injected a large dose] of economic liberalism [into the old Gaullism.] As a result of incorporating that new theme into the old ideological repertoire of Gaullism, he could no longer of course adopt other Gaullist positions, such as the attitude toward America."

Collovald goes on to say that Chirac is undoubtedly attracted by the U.S. social and economic model. But she carefully adds that this attraction has its limits:

"Yes, Chirac is [impressed] by American social and economic [achievements.] But at the same time, like his predecessors, that doesn't stop him from being critical [of the United States, when he feels it necessary.]"

Collovald also notes that when Chirac established a wide-ranging Gaullist party known as the Rally for the Republic (RPR) a quarter of a century ago, he sent some of his aides to the United States to study the structure of the Republican Party. Although he has sought to remain friendly with all U.S. leaders, Chirac particularly cultivated close personal relations with Republican presidents Ronald Reagan and, today, George W. Bush.

The RPR has since been incorporated into the new Union for a Presidential Majority -- which, having outlived its electoral usefulness, will in turn probably adopt a new name at a congress in the Autumn. But whatever its new designation, the presidential majority will have to deal over the next five years with problems that France shares with the United States: immigration, economic growth, tax reform, cuts in government spending, and the overhaul of a costly farm subsidy system. And if there are lessons to be learned from the American experience, Chirac is likely to try to implement them -- "a la francaise" (in the French manner).

As for French foreign policy, now that Chirac is no longer hampered by the need to "cohabit" with a left government, members of his entourage have been telling journalists that a "new era" is beginning.

In an analysis for her newspaper, "Le Monde," foreign affairs specialist Claire Trean summed up the message this way: The time when French foreign policy could be summed up in a single word "independence" -- is over. The next five years will be, above all, "European" -- that is, concerned with fundamental reforms in the European Union and the admission of up to 10 new members from Central and Eastern Europe.

Trean and other analysts suggest that France will either have to occupy a strong position in this new, more integrated Europe, or surrender its hope of playing an important role on the international scene. That, too, serves to show how irrelevant much of Gaullism has become today: No one was ever more opposed to European integration than Charles de Gaulle, whose dream was of French, not continental, glory.