Napoleon & de Gaulle – a story of larger than life French heroes


With Louis XIV, Napoleon Bonaparte and Charles de Gaulle are the personalities that the French admire the most in the history of their nation. The three invariably lead lists of national heroes and heroines – before Charlemagne, Jeanne d’Arc or Marie Curie – because each embodies a grandeur, a quality greater than life, which not only people in France but most of the rest of us, whatever we think of the trio, recognize as typically French.

What about the “great men” in the history of France? Jules Michelet, 19th century historian and defender of republicanism, once advised his compatriots to “overcome individuals.” . . humanity is divine, but no one is divine ”. As Patrice Gueniffey observes in Napoleon & de Gaulle: “Easier said than done. In the history of France, everything comes back to it. ”

A central theme of Gueniffey’s carefully guided and beautifully entertaining book, published in 2017 and now available in the excellent translation by Steven Rendall, is that France, for generations after the 1789 revolution, was a strongly divided society. Napoleon and de Gaulle are similar in that each has the stature to transcend the quarrels born in 1789: between monarchy and republic, between old regime and post-revolutionary society, between left and right.

“France cannot do without great men or great heroes any more than it can do without a strong state. Great men and heroes represent unity that cannot be found elsewhere, ”writes Gueniffey. “More than that, they allow him to continue to survive the moments, which are not so rare in his history, when he barely escapes the abyss. ”

Researcher at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales de Paris, Gueniffey is an authority of the revolutionary and Napoleonic eras. Its purpose is not to write side by side biographies of Napoleon and de Gaulle. Nor does he defend Thomas Carlyle’s assertion in 1841 that “universal history, the story of what man has accomplished in this world, is basically the story of the great men who worked there ”

On the contrary, Gueniffey is lining up with those who worry that history is no longer the glue that unites the French nation. Today’s textbooks, he says, “are full of holes, whole aspects of history have disappeared, as, more certainly, those who made or embodied history.” He deplores the turn of the French educational system towards the history of non-European civilizations, without forgetting the penchant of French intellectuals for Marxism, sociology, psychoanalysis, structuralism and other modes which denigrate the historical role of individuals.

‘Napoleon Crossing the Alps’ by Jacques-Louis David (1805) © Alamy

Charles de Gaulle. president from 1959-69. The two men embodied “a greatness that most of us recognize as being typically French” © Alamy

Napoleon’s accomplishments included a modern civil law code, the introduction of prefects into the administrative system, the emancipation of the Jews, and guaranteed property rights for the new owners of Church and emigrant lands. But he was not a French George Washington. “In the role of legislator and founder of the freedom of his country, he finally preferred that of conqueror.”

The authority of Napoleon, whom Madame de Staël despised as “Robespierre on horseback”, faltered as soon as he was on military service after 1812. Verdict of De Gaulle, in his 1938 book France and its army, was perceptive: “Napoleon left France crushed, invaded, drained of blood and courage, smaller than he had found it. . . Napoleon exhausted the good will of the French people, abused his sacrifices, covered Europe with tombs, ashes and tears. However, de Gaulle asked, does this mean that the genius of Napoleon as a commander and the prestige of the French weapons under his command count for nothing?

De Gaulle’s physical appearance and character made a stark contrast to Napoleon. Exceptionally tall, distant and filled with a sense of destiny, he has been memorable described by Régis Debray, the theorist on the left, as an “exasperating bean”. At its peak, de Gaulle aroused more hatred than Napoleon, in particular on the right, elements of which never forgave him for repudiating the Vichy regime of 1940-44 and relinquishing control of Algeria.

Anti-Gaullism has taken many forms: not only the hardliners of the right, but the communists, pro-European liberals, students, intellectuals and, during the war years, the resistance leaders based in France . However, after his return to power in 1958, de Gaulle built the institutions of the Fifth Republic, which have persisted to this day. In addition, as historian Pierre Nora says, de Gaulle succeeds “in draping the effective decrease in French power in the vocabulary of greatness”.

None of his successors filled his shoes. From Georges Pompidou, president from 1969 to 1974, Gueniffey writes: “With a cigarette stuck to his lips and his dark eyes under bushy eyebrows, he looked like a delivery man of literate coal.” He is even more scathing about François Hollande, president of 2012-17. Emmanuel Macron, who replaced Hollande, tried to restore part of the diminished grandeur of the presidency, but we feel that it is not really the answer to the problems of France that Gueniffey is looking for.

His conclusion is wise and certainly applicable to other countries. “Ultimately, France’s real power does not matter: its influence derives more from its history and the universality of its culture than from the vitality of its economy or the extent of its military forces; it has more to do with what it represents than with what it is. ”

Napoleon & de Gaulle: heroes and history, by Patrice Gueniffey, translated by Steven Rendall, The Belknap Press, RRP 35 $, 402 pages

Tony Barber is the commentator on FT in Europe

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