There were a few mentions in the newspaper this past week about it being the 50th anniversary of Charles de Gaulle’s infamous proclamation of “Vive le Quebec libre!” (That’s long live a free Quebec for those of you who don’t speak French.)
I didn’t read the articles – I remember 1967 and the furor over those words, my memory doesn’t need refreshing. However, I was in Montreal last night for a speaking engagement and before I left I was thinking about what I should post today. Those news stories must have had some impact on my subconscious, even if I didn’t read them, because de Gaulle came to mind for some reason.
This post about the man originally ran on September 5, 2014, one of my first efforts in this space. I called it “Charlie Who.”
As a Canadian of a certain age my biggest memory of French hero Charles de Gaulle is less than favourable. In 1967 he was quickly ushered out of Canada by the Canadian government after he proudly proclaimed “Vive le Quebec Libre!” (Long live a free Quebec) from the balcony of Montreal City Hall. Canadians were not amused at a foreign politician advocating the breakup of our federation, especially a politician who owed his career and his country’s freedom to the sacrifice of Canadian troops. To me de Gaulle has always been at best a caricature, at worst a buffoon.
Which is why I was a bit surprised to find a large cross on Juno Beach, in Normandy, commemorating the spot where de Gaulle landed in 1944. Canadian soldiers fought for every inch of Juno Beach, the first step in liberating France from Nazi tyranny. De Gaulle? He landed a week later, June 14, once it was safe, gave a speech and went back to England.
He may have had the rank of general, but he was already a politician through and through. He was symbolically useful, but I guess they didn’t trust him with anything of military importance. I got the impression the rest of the Allies thought he was a little bit useless, except for his propaganda value.
Apparently to the French he’s a hero. Maybe I lack perspective, but I don’t see what he was being lauded for. The military in which he was a general collapsed and he fled to exile in England. France would have been retaken by the Allies without French military assistance (though the Resistance was invaluable and did heroic things). Situations can look different depending on your perspective, so I guess I am willing to concede that Charles de Gaulle wasn’t completely useless, if that’s what the French want to believe. I suspect the French are alone on this one.
Seeing de Gaulle being praised got me to thinking about France’s role in world affairs. A few years ago, as the situation in the Middle East was deteriorating and the United States put together its coalition of the willing to invade Iraq and depose Saddam Hussein, the French decided not to take part. This led to French Fries being temporarily redubbed “freedom fries” in some American restaurants and (my favourite) Google playing with its search algorithms so that anyone looking for information on “French military victories” would instead be present with “French military defeats.” (Now when you search for “French military victories” what comes up first is Google’s joke. Maybe there are no French military victories.)
Of course Canada wasn’t part of the “coalition of the willing” either, but there didn’t seem to be the same upset in the US over that decision. Maybe there was in recognition that Canada was not so much unwilling, but unable – lacking the military capability to be a useful partner in any ongoing venture in Iraq.
Perhaps Charles de Gaulle really was an inspirational figure who gave hope to French citizens struggling to survive in occupied Europe. Certainly he is seen as more impressive by the French than by me. To me he will always be an old man, well past his “best before date” whose desire for the spotlight and craving for significance caused him to open his mouth without first putting his brain in gear, an obstructionist rather than a visionary. I suppose that makes him no different from many other politicians, from all countries.
The tribute to him on Juno beach remains out of place to me. He was not France’s liberator and no amount of after-the-fact game playing will alter that.