Comparing present political leaders with past ones is a popular parlour game — one that leaders also like to play. Because Boris Johnson wrote a famously bad biography of Churchill, he looks in the mirror and sees the man whom Margaret Thatcher liked to call “Winston”. Even more improbable is the comparison recently made between Mr Johnson and Charles de Gaulle. Why not Charlemagne, Abraham Lincoln or Pericles while we are at it?
There is a fashion nowadays to view leadership as a kind of transferable skill. Audiences flock to hear former politicians such as Bill Clinton, Tony Blair or Nicolas Sarkozy distil their thoughts on leadership. But because the context in which leaders operate is never the same, this exercise is futile — except as a way for the speakers to top up their pensions. One could adapt to leaders what de Gaulle once said about constitutions: “The Greeks once asked the sage Solon: ‘What is the best constitution?’ He replied: ‘Tell me first for what people and in what period?”
Having said that, if there is anyone who possibly does have something useful to say about “leadership” it might be de Gaulle. Before entering history in 1940, he had written a cerebral semi-philosophical book on the subject upon which we might do well to meditate. His key idea was that leadership required a combination of reflective intelligence and intuitive action. As he once remarked: “Behind the victories of Alexander lies Aristotle.”
Reflection needed to be grounded in a deep general culture; it required a mind capable of synthesis and generalisation. But reflection had to be balanced by moral courage, and the readiness to act even at the cost of disobedience. He quoted approvingly what had been said of Lord Jellicoe after the Battle of Jutland: “He has all the qualities of Nelson bar one: he does not know how to disobey.”
These two qualities were perfectly exemplified in de Gaulle’s decision to leave defeated France in 1940. That was an act of unbelievable moral courage — but based on a perceptive analysis of the reasons why the lost Battle of France was only the beginning of a world war. In his famous speech of June 1940 appealing (initially unsuccessfully) to the French people to rally to him, de Gaulle was not just saying “follow me and hope for the best”. His rhetoric — “the flame of French resistance must not die” — was balanced by careful arguments offering reasons to hope.
This idea of leadership as kind of patient pedagogy exempt from any kind of demagogy was crucial to de Gaulle, and is the antithesis of the Johnson style. In his first four years after returning to power in 1958, he delivered speech after speech explaining why France could no longer hang on to her last remnant of empire in Algeria. De Gaulle was a masterly practitioner of charismatic leadership — but it was the opposite of populism.
De Gaulle often distinguished between how the French might conceive their immediate short term interests — what they might want to hear — and his conception of their longer term national interest. In 1958 he took many unpopular economic decisions, but did this in what he saw (in this case correctly) as the long term interest of the French economy.
Although in 1940 he had been profoundly shocked by the capitulation of France’s elites to the enemy, de Gaulle was also inhabited by a respect for the professionalism and dedication of France’s hauts fonctionnaires who had made the state what it was. How different from the tendency to trash civil servants or Bank of England officials indulged in by Mr Johnson and his supporters.
De Gaulle could seem aloof, but those who worked for him were always amazed by his capacity to listen and absorb advice. One official, summoned by de Gaulle in 1958 to report the results of a fact-finding mission to Algeria, spoke for 40 minutes, sorting out his ideas in a number of headings. De Gaulle listened without the slightest reaction or without taking a single note. Once the verbal report was over, de Gaulle spoke himself for 40 minutes, going through each point in the same order and making his own comments.
De Gaulle of course is known for his unbending nationalism but it was always based on a shrewd and calculated sense of what was possible. He was a visionary but also a realist. The idea of an international politics built upon a fantasy that the lion will roar and the world will follow was antithetical to his conception of international relations. He was only too (regretfully) aware of France’s limited means. Thus in 1940 de Gaulle was the man who repudiated the Vichy France idea of “France alone”, which he rightly predicted would make France a vassal of Germany. Instead he went to London banking on the alliance with Britain and the entry of the US into the war.
He was a famously difficult ally, but he never deviated from his conviction that this alliance was France’s only future. Equally, in the 1960s he realised that France’s only chance of standing up to the US was through an active engagement in Europe. He was critical of European supranationalism, but he saw no future for France outside Europe.
De Gaulle’s profound sense of history often gave him an uncannily accurate sense of the future. He recognised communist China in 1964, more than a decade before the US did the same. He warned the Americans to abandon an unwinnable war in Vietnam. And after the Arab-Israeli six day war in 1967 he made remarks which caused some offence, but now seem prescient: “Now Israel is organising on the territories it has taken an occupation that will be accompanied by oppression, repression and expulsions, and there is now developing against it a resistance which it will describe as terrorism . . . The conflict is not over and that there can be no solution except by international agreement.”
Of course de Gaulle was also often wrong. He could be ruthless, suspicious, vindictive, unforgiving and petty. But in all he did there was a profound moral seriousness and sense of responsibility. This is about as far from Britain’s current prime minister as it is possible to imagine. De Gaulle Mr Johnson certainly ain’t.
The writer is professor of modern French history at Queen Mary University of London and author of ‘A Certain Idea of France: The Life of Charles de Gaulle’
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