August 17, 2011

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.

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