Great European of the Week: Charles de Gaulle


Charles de Gaulle and German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer.

Born in Lille 22nd November of 1890, Charles de Gaulle pursued a military career during the First World War and was leading the “Free French Forces” resistance against Nazi Germany and the Vichy regime during the World War II. After the May 1958 crisis in France during the Algerian War of Independence, de Gaulle led the writing of a new constitution for the Fifth Republic, and served as President of France between 1959 and 1969. De Gaulle is also credited with solidifying a permanent seat for France on the United Nations Security Council in 1945. In 1947, he founded his own political party called Rassemblement du Peuple Francais. Arguably the most influential Frenchman of the 20th century, his Politics of Grandeur promoted a strong France as an independent major power.

De Gaulle’s focus on a strong nation state also informed his political stance towards European integration, and influence on European politics during his Presidency. Strongly opposed to supranational governance, he supported a Europe of states – a strong confederation that could stand as a third power between the United States and the Soviet Union “from the Atlantic to the Urals”. Concerned with a decline of national influence in the European Community, de Gaulle proposed the Fouchet Plan to form a loose, intergovernmental union of states in Europe. While it was unsucessful at the time due to a lack of enthusiasm from other states, the Fouchet Plan remains an inspiring document as a democratic European alternative.

The two clearest manifestations of Gaullism’s influence on European integration were the double-veto against British application to the European Community in 1963 and 1967, as well as the Empty Chair Crisis in 1965. The vetos were a reflection of de Gaulle’s focus on a strong French state within the EC, and European independence from a US-led power bloc that he saw Britain a part of. The Empty Chair Crisis underlined anti-supranational sentiment in the light of proposals to increase the powers of the Commission.

The legacy of de Gaulle’s ideological contributions to European integration is highly valuable with regards to discussion and thought on future steps in uniting the continent. Although unsuccessful motions at the time, consideration of national interests and apparent scepticism towards an outsourcing of political powers to supranational governance are important aspects to consider when contemplating a democratisation of the current institutional framework.

Charles de Gaulle is an example of a Great European in his dedication to forming and developing intergovernmental cooperation among states.  While his proposal of the Fouchet Plan was not successful, it demonstrated forward thinking and the importance of cooperation among nation states especially in an increasingly global and interconnected world.  At the same time, de Gaulle supported national interests and the importance of national strength: highlighting the difficult paradox faced by nations in Europe today that try to maintain their identities and individual strengths while establishing and reinforcing a common, unified European Union.

Image: “Bonn, Konrad Adenauer und Charles de Gaulle” courtesy of German Federal Archive. Published under Creative Commons 3.0, share alike.

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