Seventy years after issuing his call for France to defy the Vichy collaborationist regime, Charles de Gaulle is again dividing the French.
The government of President Nicolas Sarkozy, whose political party is descended from the World War II general’s followers, has included De Gaulle’s wartime memoirs in the curriculum for next year’s high-school literary classes. Sarkozy is in London today to commemorate De Gaulle’s June 18, 1940, radio broadcast urging a defeated France not to give up.
De Gaulle’s inclusion in the curriculum has sparked opposition from literature teachers and their unions, who say that his writings are historical, not literary, and that he’s too identified with conservative political parties. De Gaulle, who died in 1970, is revered by almost all French for leading the resistance to the Nazis and their French collaborators. His role as president from 1959 to 1969, and as the founder of France’s main conservative party, remains more divisive.
“There’s a political protest by some elements of the opposition left to a perceived maneuver by Sarkozy’s post-Gaullists to promote ‘their man’ within the education system,” Jim Shields, who holds the chair in French at Aston University in Birmingham, England, said in an e-mailed response to questions. “There’s a legitimate question of whether De Gaulle’s literary merits qualify him for the national literary curriculum. I don’t think that De Gaulle’s literary merits can, or should, be seen in isolation from their historical context.”
High-school seniors studying for the literary baccalaureate next year will read De Gaulle’s “War Memoirs: Salvation 1944-1946,” the third tome devoted to his war-time experiences, as well as works by ancient Greek poet Homer, Irish-French dramatist Samuel Beckett and contemporary French novelist Pascal Quignard.
All French state schools, which are attended by 84 percent of the country’s school-age kids, follow a curriculum laid down by the Ministry of Education.
De Gaulle’s inclusion was announced in the government’s official gazette in January. Teachers union SNES said in a statement at the time that the choice “creates a confusion between disciplines” and asked “what is the pertinence of this choice for literature and ideas?”
The issue burst into the public last month when a group of literature professors started an online petition, saying that imposing the general’s memoirs in schools “can be seen as a chance to flatter the political color of the party in power.” The petition has been signed by 1,622 teachers.
This month, a blog on the subject by daily Le Monde’s literary critic Pierre Assouline spurred 1,228 comments, many more than his other recent postings.
Robert Paxton, a history professor at Columbia University in New York who has written several books on wartime France, said De Gaulle is a good choice for the curriculum.
“He’s a great classical stylist with a vigorous point of view, which is exactly what young people should be reading,” Paxton said in a telephone interview from Cluny, in the Burgundy region of France. “You can use the same critical powers on the writings of a politician as on a literary figure.”
De Gaulle wrote his memoirs during a 1950s hiatus from public service. After leading the Free French forces in World War II and running France’s provisional government following the liberation, he grew disillusioned with postwar politics and retired to his country home. When France’s political order collapsed in 1958 over Algerian independence, De Gaulle returned to office, wrote the constitution that still governs France, and won presidential elections in 1958 and 1965.
De Gaulle’s writing wasn’t edited, Paxton said.
“His writings have a pungency you wouldn’t get from something that has been copy edited or ghost written,” Paxton said. “He used a huge vocabulary, with wonderful turns of phrase.”
Luc Chatel, the education minister, said in an interview that De Gaulle’s standing as a literary figure is confirmed by his inclusion in the Bibliotheque de la Pleiade series of great French works published by Editions Gallimard SA.
“I don’t understand the polemic,” he said.
In London today, Sarkozy visited the British Broadcasting
Corp. studios where De Gaulle broadcast messages to occupied France, laid a wreath at De Gaulle’s London headquarters, and went with U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron to honor veterans.
“In his June 18 appeal, De Gaulle spoke for the future,” Sarkozy said. “He knew that if France exited the war it would exit history, because history would have been written without her.”
While some conservative politicians, such as Justice Minister Michele Alliot-Marie and former Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, still call themselves “Gaullists,” the word has little meaning anymore, says Laurent Dubois, a professor at Paris’s Institute of Political Studies.
“Gaullism is more about nostalgia for when France strove to have a role in the world,” Dubois said. “But Gaullism is obsolete with globalization, with the euro, with France being back in NATO’s military command.”
As a political movement, Gaullism refers to an independent foreign policy, a powerful presidency, and free markets with a heavy dose of government planning and regulation.
A poll in the newspaper Le Journal du Dimanche on June 13 said that only 27 percent of the French think Gaullism is relevant today, while 73 said it was either outdated or no longer means anything. The Ifop poll questioned 953 people on June 10 and 11. No margin of error was given.
At the same time, a 2005 television poll on France 2 named him as the greatest Frenchman of all time. His name adorns France’s largest airport and an aircraft carrier.
Part of the opposition to De Gaulle’s inclusion on the part of teachers could be that Sarkozy has tried to put his imprint on school curriculums before.
In 2008, he proposed that all school children adopt the identity of a child killed in the Holocaust, before dropping the idea after opposition from child psychiatrists and even concentration-camp survivors.