At General Charles de Gaulle's second World War headquarters in London on Thursday, president Emmanuel Macron compared de Gaulle to Britain's wartime leader, Winston Churchill.
Macron was really hoping his compatriots would see him as a modern day de Gaulle. Eighty years after de Gaulle's June 18th appeal on BBC radio became the founding act of the French Resistance, de Gaulle is widely considered the greatest Frenchman of the 20th century; many say the greatest Frenchman ever.
Macron keeps de Gaulle’s memoirs open on his desk. He has declared 2020 the year of Charles de Gaulle. On May 17th, Macron travelled to Montcornet, where de Gaulle stopped a German tank advance and won his general’s stars in 1940. On November 9th, the French president will visit the general’s home at Colombey-les-Deux-Églises to mark the 50th anniversary of his death.
De Gaulle left office humiliated by the May ’68 revolution and the loss of a referendum on institutional reform. Yet today he is treated with universal reverence.
At the first of five events attended by Macron on Thursday, at the Museum of the Order of Liberation at Les Invalides in Paris, Macron conversed with one of four surviving Companions of Liberation in a room where de Gaulle’s clothing hung like relics.
Virtually every political party in France has cynically attempted to exploit de Gaulle's legacy. The left, which spent de Gaulle's 1959-1969 presidency accusing him of being a dictator, now praises his obsession with independence, personal honesty and willingness to end France's role as a colonial power.
Les Républicains (LR), the conservative party which descends most directly from de Gaulle, was robbed of the opportunity to commemorate the Appeal of June 18th because prime minister Édouard Philippe, a former LR member who was co-opted by Macron, attended a ceremony led by Macron.
LR merely hung a portrait of de Gaulle over the facade of party headquarters. "The poor general must be turning in his grave," said Damien Abad, head of the LR group in the National Assembly.
The most outrageous and widely condemned homage to de Gaulle was made by Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right Rassemblement National, the successor party to the Front National.
Several of the founding members of the FN were former followers of Marshal Philippe Pétain, de Gaulle's arch-enemy during the war. Until recently, Jean-Marie Le Pen honoured the memory of Colonel Jean Bastien-Thiry, who tried to assassinate de Gaulle in 1962. "De Gaulle had the patriotism of grandeur," wrote Laurent Joffrin, the director of Libération. "The RN practices petty nationalism."
Macron knows the greatest threat to his re-election comes from conservative politicians
Le Pen travelled to the Île de Sein off the coast of Brittany on Wednesday. One hundred and twenty-eight inhabitants of the island responded to de Gaulle’s June 18th appeal by sailing to England, where they formed the Free French navy. Only 30 returned.
Local outrage at Le Pen’s visit was so intense that she made the trip a day early. She was nonetheless booed when she landed in an inflatable boat.
Le Pen, who stood against Macron in 2017 and who is likely to be his adversary again in 2022, recently called him “the absolute anti-de Gaulle”.
Macron knows the greatest threat to his re-election comes from conservative politicians, so he has set out to seduce LR voters. His televised address last Monday night, with its stubborn refusal to rewrite French history and defence of the embattled police, was widely seen as right-wing.
Like de Gaulle, Macron seems to love France more than the French. Like de Gaulle, Macron is constantly pilloried by all parties other than his own. The 2018-2019 gilets jaunes revolt was to Macron what May ’68 was to de Gaulle.
In June 1940, France was in a state of chaos, shock and terror. Up to 10 million civilians fled the advance of the Wehrmacht. The government collapsed.
The France of June 2020 faces a severe economic recession because of the Covid-19 pandemic. This week, Chechen and north African Arab drug traffickers fought in the streets of Dijon, and the heavy-handed arrest of a nurse who threw a stone during a protest at conditions in French hospitals caused outrage.
But this is not June 1940. And Emmanuel Macron is not Charles de Gaulle.