All entries for Wednesday 17 August 2011

August 17, 2011

De Gaulle part 3

In an age where the Gaullist myth has been debunked, it is simply incredible that the Musée de l'Armée commissioned a film with such subjectivity and a lack of historical context. The question, of course, would be whether the huge number of French people who visit the museum approve of the film–I didn't notice anyone else shaking their heads. In any case, it is clear that the myths of two great French leaders–Napoleon and de Gaulle–are preserved for posterity at the Invalides.

*According to the website of the 'Fondation Charles de Gaulle', around 800,000 foreigners visit the Invalides each year, of which many will inevitably speak English. See

De Gaulle at the Invalides

The Gaullist myth, punctured by both Paxton and Marcel Ophuls's Le Chagrin et la Pitié, is now considered to be one phase in the French memorial process, as outlined by Henry Rousso. That phase has long since been surpassed by a focus on French complicity in the Holocaust (which I talked about in my blog entry on 'Selective Memory'). I visited the Hôtel des Invalides yesterday not so much for Napoleon's tomb (as impressive as that is), but to investigate the new 'Historial Charles de Gaulle', an audiovisual experience on de Gaulle's life. The permanent exhibition is superb: you carry an audio-guide-style set of headphones which click into action as you move around the exhibits. The range of archival footage is also very impressive, although around two-thirds of the documents have not yet been translated into English, which is surprising given the number of Anglophone tourists who visit the Invalides.*

There is also a film on offer in a purpose-built cinema. The film is bitterly, terribly disappointing. Dramatic music and split-screen video footage tries, and fails, to make up for the inaccurate commentary and the misappropriation of newsreel imagery. The film could have been made in 1968, before the appearance of either Paxton's book or Ophuls's Chagrin. The viewer is left with the impression that not only did de Gaulle single-handedly liberate France (no mention whatsoever is made of American-Canadian-British participation in the D-Day landings), but he also liberated much of Africa. The fact that the first African countries to go over to the Free French were of little material importance is glossed over. Vichy is given sparse treatment, and what is actually a clip of Pétain's birthday celebrations is accompanied with a voice-over suggesting that 'A Vichy, le malheur règne' (In Vichy, unhappiness reigns). De Gaulle's coup d'état of May 1958 is depressingly passed off as a democratic rise to power, l'homme providentiel returning to the fold. The context of May '68 is not discussed, and according to the voiceover it is de Gaulle, not Georges Pompidou (the then-Prime Minister) who refused to send in the army to deal with student-worker demonstrations. De Gaulle's absence from France, when he disappeared to consult army leaders in Germany, is simply ommitted.

Two steps forward, two steps back

In 1972, the American historian Robert O. Paxton published what is now considered to be the seminal text on the Vichy regime, his much-read, and incidentally much-translated, Vichy France 1940-1944: Old Guard and New Order. Paxton's book made such an 'impact', to use the modern-day academic parlance, because it smashed the so-called 'Gaullist myth', based on de Gaulle's speech from the Hôtel de Ville on the 25th August 1944. In his speech, de Gaulle claimed that Paris had been liberated by 'la France combattante'. The idea of a France which resisted the occupier and liberated itself single-handedly was the foundation for the Gaullist myth. Nearly 67 years ago, de Gaulle refused to proclaim the Republic, arguing that it had never ceased to exist.

Robert Paxton approached Vichy from the standpoint of an objective, impassionate researcher and looked not in the French archives (closed at the time) but in the German and American state archives. Vichy henceforth took on a different shape: not a regime forced into collaboration, but one which entered actively into a (mostly one-sided) partnership with the Nazis. The Republic had, as Paxton found, been voted out of existence by democratically-appointed parliamentarians. Legally, the Republic ceased to exist on the 10th July 1940. Yet in de Gaulle's view, he had been the Republic incarnate, la France résistante; Vichy was illegal, Pétain an illigitimate leader. De Gaulle's insistence on re-uniting the French people, split, as Pierre Laborie argues, between 40 million Pétainistes and 40 million Gaullistes, effectively swept the more sinister moments of the 'Dark Years' under the carpet. That so many civil servants served both the Vichy regime and the Gaullist transitional government with the same fervour was largely ignored.

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