Americans love to hate France. Mark Twain, the quintessential American writer, described man as lying somewhere between the angels and the French. Jonah Goldberg, in our times, has called the French "cheese eating surrender monkeys." These whimsical American commentators sum up well American feelings about the French.
This dislike is reciprocated. It is connected to the great historical rivalry between the English-speaking world and the French-speaking world. It also is tied to the fact that France once dominated Europe and occupied much of the planet, while France today is largely just France. Bismarck once said that the most important political fact of the 19th Century was that America and Britain spoke the same language. True, today, and more: Australia, most of Canada, and the administration of India are based upon the English language. Canadians can tell you how much Canadiens resent this.
Maybe, at times, this all seems like vast pettiness to us. But France truly is a great nation. Its cultural and intellectual heritage is inseparable from Western Civilization. Moreover, France and America were both born of revolutions based upon liberty. America and France have both enshrined liberty as an essential principle of government (although both nations have wandered too far from those roots, and the godless French Revolution carried the seeds of its own destruction.)
Still, whether we like it or not, France matters in the world. It has mattered for a long time, and it will continue to matter. We should want France to be the best nation it can be. Once "French Government" was an oxymoron. In 1939, with the second best army in the world, a paralyzed French government did nothing while Poland fell, and when attacked by Nazi forces, it could not react to save itself. The Third Republic of France died a humiliating death, voting itself out of existence to be replaced by a vassal half of France run from Vichy by Petain and his cronies. This, truly, was the nadir of France. After Liberation, it seemed as if France had learned nothing at all.
The Fourth Republic, that haphazard descendent of the Third Republic, formed parliamentary governments which had twenty-one prime ministers during its eleven years of existence. Fifty years ago, on September 28, 1958, the people of France took a decisive step toward becoming a stable nation. The Fourth Republic ended. In its place, by an overwhelming vote of seventy-nine percent, the French people adopted the constitution of the Fifth Republic.
Europe was still recovering from convulsions of the worst man made disaster in its history. The human death and suffering, the physical destruction, the loss of faith in almost anything -- all these haunted Europe. The Evil Empire occupied almost half of Europe and the Red Army, which would follow any order of the Kremlin, was in a position to overrun much of the remaining free Europe in a few days.
Germany, once the natural defense against Russian ambitions, was divided and divided again. East Prussia, Pomerania, Silesia and other eastern parts of Germany were annexed by Poland and Russia. The rest of Germany -- what we call today "Germany" -- was split into a western and an eastern half. And, of course, the Germany which had embraced Hitler found itself a pariah nation.
Italy was very poor. The Italians were close to choosing communism democratically (even in the 1970s, Italian Communism remained respected and strong even when Communist parties throughout the rest of Europe were losing cachet.) Britain, which had fought a world war that lasted six long years for the Brits, was in the throes of losing an empire and finding a much smaller role on the world stage.
In this Europe, France held a special place. It sought to lead Europe, but because French government was a joke, it could not even lead France. Although we Americans seldom saw the merit in anything French, a stable French government was profoundly in our interest. Gallic pride, a headache for us, was a bigger headache for Moscow -- the difference was that we were not seeking to conquer Europe, while the Soviets pined for totalitarian hegemony.
Fifty years ago, de Gaulle, a man who invoked intense emotions, assumed command of France. Churchill complained of having to bear the Cross of Lorraine. Almost every allied leader and general found him difficult to work with. But de Gaulle alone led the forces of France to fight the Nazis when no one else would. In a postwar France filled with constant reminders of the French surrender, de Gaulle remained the single figure around which Frenchmen could be proud to be French. Before even Churchill became prime minister, de Gaulle was leading forces bravely in combat against the Nazis -- and he never stopped fighting them, no matter how hopeless the odds or how lonely he was personally.
In short, he had grit. Like so many great American military leaders -- Patton, MacArthur, and Sherman, to name a few -- de Gaulle could be very difficult, sometimes distant, too proud, but de Gaulle had much good in him too. It may surprise many American conservatives to learn that de Gaulle himself was a man of the French Right.
In a very secular France, he took his Catholic faith seriously -- his father taught in a Jesuit school. De Gaulle and Yvonne stayed faithful to their marriage for life. When their daughter, Anne, was born with Down Syndrome in 1928, the deeply religious de Gaulle loved her the whole brief twenty years of her life. De Gaulle called Anne "My joy" and said of her "She helped me overcome the failures in all men, and to look beyond them." Madame de Gaulle, during the chaos of the Fall of France, said of their Anne: "We always had to take Anne, never abandon her. God gave her to us. We keep her."
De Gaulle was a magnificent throwback to pre-Darwinian thinking which was savaging at that moment the very soul of Germany and of Russia. Perhaps, we think that a small thing in our easy world today, but de Gaulle, the only general who would fight the Germans, was also trying to save the family he loved, including his beloved and handicapped daughter, out of the chaotic Hell of triumphant Nazism. Those are times when easy phrases like "social conservative" run headlong into all the savage storms which break weak souls.
It is no surprise, then, that in the early years of the Fourth Republic, when de Gaulle saw the chaos of the parliamentary system, he proposed after the war a strong presidential system of government. Who opposed him? Who defeated him? The parties of the French Left, who would have tossed Anne down a well.
De Gaulle was almost seventy when the French people finally gave him the presidential system of government he wanted. Three months later, the French people elected de Gaulle as president under this new system. What he did with power is controversial. He supported Quebec separatism; he called for an end to the Indochinese War which France had fought before America; he backed off support for Israel when OPEC began to flex its muscles; he recognized Red China.
But de Gaulle also kept the French military strong. He also made sure that the Soviets with whom he played footsie knew that the man who fought Hitler would fight them just as hard. He opposed the genocide during the Nigerian Civil War, when few world leaders would. And he founded the Fifth Republic, which has been the most stable system of government that France has had since the Bourbon Monarchy.
Conservatives favor stability, particularly when that stability includes a functioning democracy and enshrinement of human liberty. Yes, France and much of Europe is a mess today. Yes, Western Civilization and Judeo-Christian moral tradition is being abandoned by Europeans and it is being attacked by militant Moslems. Will France survive as France? Who knows? It is a battleground today. If it survives, it will be in no small part because fifty years ago the people of France decided to create a government that would last. It is a golden anniversary to celebrate. Bruce Walker is the author of Sinisterism: Secular Religion of the Lie, and the recently published book, The Swastika against the Cross: The Nazi War on Christianity.