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Against De Gaulle & the Rewriting of France’s Second World War History

Jean-Marie Le Pen as an MP in 1957.

2,304 words

Translated by Guillaume Durocher

Translator’s Note: The following is an excerpt from the concluding chapter of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s Mémoires: Fils de la nation (Paris: Muller, 2018), pp. 391-396. The title is editorial.

In France, the man who marked the twenty-five years between 1944 and [President Georges] Pompidou was De Gaulle, who also maintained a complex relationship with Communism – sometimes opposing it, sometimes allying with it, sometimes seeking a consecration from the masters of Moscow. Malraux’s line is useful in its ambiguity: “Between the Communists and us, there is nothing.”[1]

I twice shook the great man’s hand; the first time at Auray[2] in 1945, the second time at the Élysée in 1958. He said to me, with his upturned nose, falsely jovial, “Le Pen . . . I know you . . .” I replied, “So do I, General.”

I felt like Till Eulenspiegel before the Duke of Albe.[3] I knew that I had no way to oppose him, nothing I could do except present a rebellious mind to him. In my modest way, I was an absolute anti-De Gaulle. He, the “maintainer,” gave away the empire; he, the “national,” made France smaller; he, the “uniter,” divided the French. There were apparently two De Gaulles, the rebel of 1940 and the rebel-squasher of 1961. But both, together, for me make up a single, falsely great man whose destiny was to contribute toward lessening France.

His personality has taken on a historic allure in the eyes of many people – one must recognize this. I will therefore not reopen useless debates, all the more so given that many Frenchman who are enamored with their nation and are more or less intoxicated by the off-the-shelf history they’ve been force-fed[4] place their love of France in the shade of his mausoleum. Yet it seems to me that the man’s actions were not always worthy of the acts of the legend, and I think it is necessary to make some corrections to the idea that France has about General de Gaulle to heal the public mind of this sickness. I will do this without hatred, without even resentment: having never trusted him, I have never felt betrayed by him, and thus have no reason to be angry with him.

Let us return to the Second World War. I do not criticize De Gaulle for his (correct) intuition concerning the Allied victory: events have confirmed it. I criticize him for his contempt for men, and the little, odious methods he used to obtain power. I deplore that he both wanted and imposed a useless and unjust civil war on France. No doubt he had the merit of saving the chestnuts from the fire,[5] of bringing France to the victors’ table, even if only to the end of that table. This was an extraordinary political victory and we must thank him for it. But was it necessary for this to divide the army and the citizens? Why those odious words after Mers-el-Kébir,[6] or his ridiculous and fratricidal Dakar expedition,[7] or the bloody farce in Syria[8] where he was ultimately cheated, as he later jokingly confessed? Why, while his bottom was dry in London, did he take pleasure in fulminating with curses against those who had survived in a country under the occupier’s boot, where he had organized the sharing of meager supplies? Why this infinitely distilled venom from this Microphone General and his confederates? Why, after the war and its perhaps necessary propaganda, did he maintain myths and lies for decades which had the effect – and perhaps the objective – of spreading an inextinguishable national discord among the French?

I have seen this “education” in civil war contaminate the public space: the further in time we are from this war, the more the narrative differs from history, becoming legend and propaganda, id est [that is] the mandatory interpretation which is made and must be spread. Here, his successors have gone far beyond General De Gaulle’s intentions, who retained his esteem for the victor of Verdun. The delirious portrait that they have painted of Marshal Pétain is now mandatory for all. They have ultimately given credence to the idea of a France betrayed even before the war by plotters working for the Nazis. I in no way participated in Vichy’s policy, but I immediately rejected this lie. These relentless attacks – at once unjust, indecent, and shameful – against Marshal Pétain are one of De Gaulle’s two emblematic misdeeds, along with the murder of Brasillach,[9] who revealed as early as 1945 the character’s moral ugliness and harmfulness, which are at the root of my aversion for him.

This black legend concerning Vichy did not suit me. I instead wanted the complexity of the real; the serenity of a real debate. Alas, it is very difficult. I have seen those interested “historians” change their outlook according to the government’s wishes. Historical myths indeed vary according to their political utility for those who spread them. The dominant narrative concerning the Second World War (the so-called “historical consensus” which the system imposes against any inconvenient research) offers us a brilliant illustration of this through its changes.

Gaullist orthodoxy considered that Vichy’s original sin was to have asked for an armistice. Unable to show that this armistice was disadvantageous to France or that it was possible to keep on fighting, they made of it a point of honor: as Prime Minister Paul Reynaud had signed an agreement with the British cabinet forbidding any separate peace, and even the negotiation of any separate armistice, the council of ministers, in giving Marshal Pétain the mission of exploring the possibilities for such an armistice, had failed France’s pledge.

We know today that this is a great lie: Reynaud had never received a mandate to pass such an agreement; going against the country’s interests and the declared opinion of his Minister of War,[10] he did not inform either the houses of Parliament or the President of the Republic. What’s more, the cited text was merely an unsigned press release and was not ratified by the National Assembly, which is constitutionally sovereign in the matter. It was then a mere bluff on Reynaud’s part, acting on the English payroll, which had the role of masking a reality contradicting the myth, namely that it was the English who failed in their duties as allies in the Battle of France – because of the insufficiency of their air power, the small number of divisions they engaged against the enemy, and their retreat towards the sea at the moment of [Maxime] Weygand’s counter-offense at Arras.[11]

This example, which is only one among others which make up the dominant narrative of the Second World War, could be cross-examined by the French, but this would be a little outdated already, given that since the 1970s, the Gaullist orthodoxy has given way to the Paxtonian. The dominant narrative regarding the Second World War changed in 1972. The American [historian Robert] Paxton then published Vichy France: Old Guard and New Order. According to him, Vichy’s foundational crime was not the armistice, but its so-called anti-Jewish policy. The two Jewish statutes that were decreed by the French state are the main pieces of evidence in the case against Marshal Pétain, according to his current enemies. Naturally, Paxton’s book – which is by no means considered authoritative in the Anglo-Saxon world – is a slap-and-dash inquisitorial study. Robert Aron, Rabbi Michel, Amouroux, and Le Groignec[12] have established the casualness of this work, but what do the founding elements of the myth matter? All that matters is its political utility. It is a lie which shows the truth about the intentions of those spreading it.

Thus, the movement towards civil war launched by De Gaulle could not then be stopped. It dominates the French political scene today, and excludes patriots.[13] De Gaulle himself ended up suffering from this. In 1998, when Alain Peyrefitte[14] revealed the General’s words regarding the French as being a European, white, and Christian people in C’était De Gaulle, only a few in the Front National had picked up the information at the time, grasping its apologetic power. When, twenty years later, the general public discovered this quote, particularly via Nadine Morano, De Gaulle’s iconic status was not sufficient to protect her as an ideological umbrella, and she seemed on the contrary to be contaminated by accusations of racism and xenophobia.[15] De Gaulle is starting to become a negative figure in postmodern history, insofar as he is still national.

All this is at once ridiculous, perverse, and dangerous. Historical knowledge has gained nothing; political demonization, everything. That is why, following the teachings of Orwell and Confucius, I fight to set words and deeds straight. My time at the SERP[16] led me to this front as early as the 1960s. I would take a coffee at the Voltaire, at the corner of Quai and Beaune Street, with Montherlant or Chardonne,[17] who had lived through the war and did not believe in either the Gaullist or Communist myths, nor in those that Paxton would raise.

I also met with Joseph Breitbach, a fellow who is rather hard to classify. A German who was close to the Communist Party, he came to live in France in 1929. His books were banned by the Nazis in 1933. He was, as a German, interned in 1939 by [Prime Minister] Daladier. When the Wehrmacht arrived in 1940, the SD[18] seized all of his belongings, including his manuscripts, and he was evacuated to the free zone thanks to Vichy, which used him in its intelligence services. He became a naturalized French citizen in 1945, took care of German prisoners of war, and worked to reconcile the two countries, notably by holding a regular column in the daily Die Zeit. He was a German intellectual like they are shown in films, with a very bare brow, thin glasses, and a skeptical air. Our civil war amazed him.

Notes

[1] André Malraux was a French journalist and novelist who served as De Gaulle’s Minister of Culture.

[2] A town of 13,000 in southern Brittany.

[3] Till Eulenspiegel is a figure of German folklore known for his practical jokes. In the 1956 Franco-East German film Les Aventures de Till l’Espiègle, Till uses various stratagems to enter into the Spanish Duke of Alba’s service and, from that position, undermine the Spanish invasion of Flanders.

[4][P]lus ou moins intoxiqués par l’histoire de prisunic qu’on leur a fait ingurgiter.

[5] My uncertain rendition of être le quatrième à la belote.

[6] After France’s armistice with Germany, the British launched a four-day attack on the French Navy at Mers-el-Kébir in Morocco between July 3 and 6, 1940. Four ships were disabled or destroyed, and almost 1,400 Frenchmen were killed. De Gaulle justified the attack on the radio two days later: “There is no doubt that in principle and by necessity the enemy would have used [these ships] either against England or our own Empire. Well, I say it frankly: it is better that they have been destroyed.”

[7] In September 1940, the British and Free French forces launched a failed attack against the regular French forces at Dakar in Senegal, causing the deaths of over 200 Frenchmen.

[8] In June-July 1941, the British and Free French successfully invaded Vichy-controlled Lebanon and Syria. While these were French colonies, the British took control of them for the remainder of the war. The vast majority of the regular French army soldiers taken prisoner during the operation refused to join the Free French.

[9] Robert Brasillach (1909-1945) was a collaborationist writer executed by the post-Liberation authorities for his opinions on February 6, 1945. De Gaulle expressly refused to pardon or commute Brasillach’s death sentence.

[10] Édouard Dalladier, it seems.

[11] I have always been struck by the fact that, during the Battle of France, which took place already some nine months into the war, France deployed 86 divisions and the British Empire a mere 10 (less than half Belgium’s number, and about as many as The Netherlands). Over 59,000 French soldiers were killed during the Battle of France, as against 3,500 British soldiers.

[12] Robert Aron was a Jewish historian who had a balanced position regarding collaboration. Alain Michel is a Franco-Israeli historian who has highlighted the high proportion of Jews who survived under the Vichy regime. Henri Amouroux was the author of an enormous multi-volume history of the Occupation. Jacques Le Groignec was an Air Force General who served in the Second World War and the wars of decolonization. From 2000 until his death in January 2009, he led the Association for the Defense of Marshal Pétain’s Memory (ADMP).

[13] Les nationaux.

[14] De Gaulle’s Minister of Information and the author of an enormous trilogy recording the General’s table-talk.

[15] Privately, President De Gaulle said that the French are “a European people of white race, Greek and Latin culture, and Christian religion.” He made the comments in the context of the Algerian War and supported Algeria’s independence explicitly on the grounds that France could not integrate a fast-growing population of tens of millions of Muslims. In his presidential Memoirs of Hope, De Gaulle would also cite membership of “the same white race” among the grounds for cooperation among European nations. Nadine Morano, a mainstream conservative politician, quoted De Gaulle’s words on national television in September 2015, provoking great controversy in the media. See Guillaume Durocher, “Conservative Politician Punished for Pointing Out ‘France Is a White Country’,” The Occidental Observer, October 1, 2015.

[16] The Société d’Études et de Relations Publiques, Le Pen’s audio publishing house, which was active from 1963 to 2000. The SERP specialized in a diverse range of military and historical music, as well as political speeches and songs from the Red Army, Israel, and indeed the Third Reich (the latter led the SERP to be tried and found guilty of “apologizing for war crimes”).

[17] Henry de Montherlant (1895-1972) was a French writer and member of the Académie française whose complex political positions during the Second World War caused much controversy. Jacques Chardonne was a collaborationist writer who enjoyed a partial rehabilitation after the war.

[18] The Sicherheitsdiest, the Third Reich’s secret service.

4 Comments

  1. Lord Shang
    Posted April 4, 2019 at 6:16 am | Permalink

    Thanks for this translation of a great man’s memoirs. Le Pen was always presented as thuggish, but this recent excerpt from a man in his late 80s suggests someone of high intellect.

    I cannot agree, however, with describing Malraux as “a French journalist and novelist”. OK, yes, that is correct. Shakespeare was a playwright, Kant a philosopher, Einstein a physicist. All true. But perhaps something more is merited?

    Malraux was a major novelist, a major art critic, a major French intellectual presence, and someone who had one of the more adventurous and interesting lives of the 20th century. Any idea what his racial and cultural views were? Probably on the Left, but surely not much like today’s Left (I hope).

    • Guillaume Durocher
      Posted April 4, 2019 at 11:04 pm | Permalink

      He certainly had an interesting life. My opinion of De Gaulle (and possibly of Malraux) hasn’t recovered since I read the latter’s Les Chênes qu’on abat….

  2. Toddy Cat
    Posted April 2, 2019 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

    “having never trusted him, I have never felt betrayed by him, and thus have no reason to be angry with him”

    Now that’s a great observation. Is the rest of the book as good as this?

    TCS

    • Guillaume Durocher
      Posted April 2, 2019 at 11:08 pm | Permalink

      It’s quite well-written, yes!

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