Of the nations that make up ‘the West’ in the current international state system, France has acted independently from its allies on many occasions. Most recently, on 27 November 2012, France became the first major European power to announce it plans to vote in favor of a Palestinian bid to move from ‘observer’ to ‘non-member observer’ state – a bid for true ‘state’ status would be vetoed by the United States. This may very well be to French President Frances Hollande what opposing the Iraq War very publicly was to Jacques Chirac. France’s autonomous international identity is based on a feeling of independence from the United States and Britain, a feeling that developed with Charles de Gaulle’s rise to power and the creation of the Fifth Republic.
The May Crisis of 1958 would bring Charles de Gaulle to power. This political crisis came about because of the powerlessness of the Fourth Republic combined with the embarrassingly low reputation of the French military. France was governed by the Fourth Republic after World War 2. The Fourth Republic was characterized by its weak institutions, and a political system that favored small parties, both of these weaknesses typified a politically unstable France, in fact France had twenty six governments in fourteen years. No state is able to project itself and possess a real foreign policy in such unstable domestic political positions.
The French military also had a embarrassingly low reputation entering the 1950s. French forces had just been defeated in Indo-China, frustrated by the Suez escapade, and confined to humiliatingly small areas in Tunisia and Morocco, not to mention the fact that France had suffered a German occupation lasting from 1940 to 1944. This caused further instability because of the situation in Algeria. The French army was in conflict with Algerian revolutionaries in order to keep Algeria as an integral part of France. Although the French army felt sure it could defeat the revolutionaries within a few years, it did not believe the weak French government would maintain its resolve against the rebels. Indeed as “government succeeded government” the French soldiers stationed in Algeria perceived “less and less resolve in the State whose authority they were supposed to be upholding” by maintaining Algeria as part of France. (McMillan) In frustration, the French military drafted plans for a coup d’etat to regain its honor, acts that could easily have led to civil war, such was the level of instability in France.
The May 1958 Crisis, the culmination of French Instability
Because of France’s weak government and its military’s frustration, on May 9, 1958, following enormous demonstrations in Algiers, the army issued Paris with an ultimatum – do not abandon Algeria. French military commanders drafted a plan known as Operation Resurrection. Paratroopers were to be dropped in Paris and take control of the government. This gave Charles de Gaulle an opportunity to return to politics. The army supported de Gaulle’s return to power, seeing as de Gaulle was a French general, and French forces felt de Gaulle would support their desire for Algeria to remain French. Only when French military commanders heard de Gaulle was returning to government did they postpone the operation.
Charles De Gaulle’s Reforms
Charles De Gaulle used the crisis to create a new political system that would provide France with stability. It would also mean French would project itself with a level of autonomy on the world stage. In the wake of a near revolution, President René Coty agreed to make Charles de Gaulle head of the National Assembly in order to make sweeping reforms to France’s political institutions. This action gives de Gaulle the opportunity to create the Fifth Republic in France, perhaps his greatest legacy. The new system is known as semi presidential, which is characterized by two runoff elections which forces bipolarization, depriving small parties of the advantages they had enjoyed in the Fourth Republic. The new system also gave the President sweeping new rights such as the threat of dissolution, emergency powers, and a Cabinet that is controlled by the President. The President is also personally elected by the French people, thus legitimizing his power. A system depriving small parties of power, and a President who is directly elected by the people and is granted with many political rights, added stability to French politics. A powerful President also means France’s leader could speak out on the world stage, as long as he had the backing of the people. De Gaulle’s new system was put to the French people in a referendum which passed on the 28th of September, 1958, he was elected as the first President in December of the same year. Charles de Gaulle gave legitimacy, stability, and integrity to the French government. This allowed de Gaulle project an independent France on the world stage – a move that would regain French pride.
Although de Gaulle came to power with the support of the military, because it believed he would uphold French control of Algeria, de Gaulle “did not consider Algeria to be the most important issue he confronted.” (McMillan) In order to settle the Algerian conflict de Gaulle gave Algeria on opportunity for independence through a referendum in January of 1961. This action did not please the military, and in April 1961 a military uprising takes place in Algiers. Once again plans were drafted for paratroopers to take over Paris. As President de Gaulle was now able to invoke Article 16, thus he granted himself emergency powers, causing the coup to subsequently collapse. Charles de Gaulle had saved France from a second near-rebellion of the military, however this only highlighted the remaining problem of repairing the damaged French military honour.
Restoring French military Pride through a fiercely independent policy
De Gaulle would counter the loss of Algeria and restore French national prestige as a world power by maintaining a strong individualistic foreign policy. Throughout his presidency, de Gaulle would continuously make foreign policy decisions to maintain French independence on the world stage. De Gaulle believed nuclear weapons distinguished a country as a world power. In February of 1959 de Gaulle withdrew the French fleet stationed in the Mediterranean from NATO command because the commanding admiral was British and the system commander was American, thus maintaining the French military’s independence. When the British Prime Minister Harold MacMillan met with de Gaulle in December of 1963 to negotiate Britain’s entry into the European Union, de Gaulle vetoed the application. De Gaulle was troubled by Britain’s ‘special tie’ with the United States, he believed that the United States, through a special nuclear relationship possessed more “means to bend certain orientations of English policy.” This special tie was highlighted by the fact that Britain scrapped its own Skybolt device in order to use American Polaris ballistic missiles. De Gaulle realised Britain and France had to stay under the American nuclear umbrella, however his “main concern was that France should not become a mere pawn in the superpower’s game.” (Larkin) This concern would lead to another veto by de Gaulle in 1967 when Britain again applied to be part of the European Union. By independently becoming a nuclear armed power, in addition to vetoing the British request to enter the European union because of its tie to the United States, and by taking measure to keep French forces independent from NATO, de Gaulle restored French honour in its military and maintained pride in its national sovereignty. This proud feeling of French military autonomy remains to this day.
Upholding National Interests; Independence wasn’t just for the military
Charles de Gaulle’s foreign policy did not simply focus on French military sovereignty. De Gaulle would always uphold French national interests in Europe, especially when it came to European unification. When it was proposed that the European Union would decide issues with a majority vote, de Gaulle realised French national interests and French sovereignty could be at stake and flatly refused to agree. If issues went to a majority vote, France could lose out to the other European nations. This sparked the Empty Chair Crisis when de Gaulle withdrew his ministers from the Council of Ministers in June of 1965. De Gaulle’s action worked, in January of 1966 the Luxembourg Compromise was agreed upon. This compromise agreed a majority vote would not be taken in the event that one member of the council claimed a ‘very important’ national interest was at stake. De Gaulle realised France and Germany were the centre of European co-operation, and knew France benefited greatly from this, both economically and politically. France benefited economically because the European Union was founded upon the European Coal and Steel Community (an economic agreement) and politically because it could have influence over other EU members. Therefore, if Britain was allowed to join, this would further divide France’s influence upon Europe. As previously mentioned, De Gaulle bitterly opposed British entry into the European Union, he twice vetoed its attempts to enter, in 1963 and 1967. Although de Gaulle stated this was because of Britain’s ‘special tie’ with the United States, the fact that France would lose its economic and political advantages within the EU also influenced his decision. This same realisation also influenced de Gaulle to sign the 1963 Elysée Treaty with the German Chancellor, institutionalising the French-German ‘motor’ of the European Union. This cemented French influence in the Union; the idea of a French-German ‘motor’ remains to this day. De Gaulle’s foreign policy did not only focus on France’s military, de Gaulle would ensure France remained an integral part of the European Union, safeguarding and furthering French international political and economic influence. De Gaulle’s foreign policy would always be for the good of France, further restoring French national pride. The France that was created by de Gaulle would remain a country that would act with autonomy on the international stage.
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