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Charles de Gaulle, 1946-62: political opportunist?

Charles de Gaulle, 1946-62: political opportunist?

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An essay for the 2011 Undergraduate Awards Competition by Lorcan Murray. Originally submitted for French Fourth and Fifth Republics at National University of Ireland Galway, with lecturer Dr Gearóid Barry in the category of Historical Studies
An essay for the 2011 Undergraduate Awards Competition by Lorcan Murray. Originally submitted for French Fourth and Fifth Republics at National University of Ireland Galway, with lecturer Dr Gearóid Barry in the category of Historical Studies

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Published by: Undergraduate Awards on Aug 29, 2012
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02/19/2014

 
General Charles de Gaulle is considered by many to be the most influential statesmenin modern French history. He is also considered by others to be a political opportunist,a man who exploited situations to achieve his aims for France. The key events are in1946, when he resigned as Prime Minister, out of protest of a return to the party habitsof old; the founding of the RPF in 1947; his return to power in 1958 at the height of the Algerian War, and the creation of the
V République
; and the changing of theconstitution in 1962 to elect the president by universal suffrage. These are the eventsthat shaped De Gaulle as a politician and a leader, and it is crucial to ask how he wasan opportunist at these times.In 1946, De Gaulle resigned as Prime Minister of the Provisional Governmentof the French Republic amidst a return to the party bickering that had occurred withinthe Third Republic. He announced to his cabinet: “the exclusive regime of parties hasreappeared. I disapprove of it […] I have no the means of preventing this experiment.I must therefore withdraw.”
1
Charles Sowerwine, author of 
 France since 1870
claimsthat “De Gaulle wished to maintain his political capital intact rather than have it worndown in confrontations with a fractious assembly”
2
De Gaulle’s reasoning behind thiswould have been that he felt France could not function without him, the Hero of thestate in it’s darkest hours. He believed that the Assembly would soon realise this andthus recall him so that he could form a new constitution on his terms. However, asSowerwine states, “he was wrong,”
3
and the parties carried on without him.One can argued that by resigning, De Gaulle was trying to engineer anopportunity in which he could once again come to France’s rescue. However, DeGaulle was new to politics and he had miscalculated the nature of it at the time, for 
1
Charles Sowerwine,
 France since 1870
(Palgrave MacMillan, 2009), p. 227.
2
Ibid, p. 227.
3
Ibid, p. 227.
1
 
the Assembly wished to “maintain the Resistance Coalition”
4
and the politics that theyknew from the
 III République
. That political system was that of two lefts and tworights, with the Parti Socialiste and the Parti Communiste constantly arguing, whichlead to a total breakdown whenever they collaborated. This had been the case in 1936,and it was again the case in 1946.
5
Therefore, De Gaulle could not be said to be a political opportunist in this instance for there was no opportunity for him to takeadvantage despite his efforts to create one.Although out of power, De Gaulle continued to try to influence politics,seizing upon opportunities to denounce the proposed constitution. On 17 June 1946,De Gaulle first made his views known in a speech in Bayeux. He “called for a regimein which political power would not depend upon the vagaries of party politics.”
6
DeGaulle was laying out his belief that France needed a strong executive authority thatwas above the parties. By making the speech from Bayeux, the town where he landedas the heroic leader of the Free French in 1944, he was evoking the memory of the people that it was he, General de Gaulle, who had saved France and only he couldmake it great again.The ideas from the Bayeux speech were to become those of the RPF, whichwas created in April 1947, after a speech De Gaulle gave from Strasbourg. Again, thechoice of location was symbolic: it was the French Army, with De Gaulle at the head,who had liberated Strasbourg from German annexation, and it was the symbol of French unity. In the speech, De Gaulle called on the French to “rally around him for the salvation of France.”
7
The speech was given after the French people had‘accepted’ the second draft of the new constitution, so De Gaulle used it as an
4
Ibid, p. 227.
5
Emmanuel Todd,
The Making of Modern France
( Basil Blackwell, 1991), p. 87.
6
Geoffrey C
.
Cook,
De Gaulle and the RPF’,
 Political Science Quarterly
, Vol. 65, No. 3 (September 1950), p. 338.
7
Ibid, p. 339.
2
 
opportunity to call for the constitution to be revised, stating that although nine million people had voted for it, an almost equal number had either voted against it, or hadabstained.
8
From this, one can see that De Gaulle was creating opportunities to destabilisethe political system, and exploiting ones that had presented themselves to him. Thus,it can be said that in these years, 1946-1947, he was a political opportunist to theextent that he used situations to express his views on what type of government Franceneeded.However, despite strong initial support - in October “RPF candidates won 40 per cent of the vote in municipal elections and the party claimed a million members,even more than the Communist”
9
– De Gaulle did not return to power. Sowerwinestates that the defeat of the RPF and the PCF was “built into the system.”
Theelectoral system was designed to keep the RPF and the PCF out of power and so, DeGaulle retired from politics.Does this show De Gaulle as political opportunist? For the most part, it doesnot for De Gaulle was essentially blocked from politics by the system, despite hisefforts to be elected. Stanley and Inge Hoffman claim that “
dans toute sa carrière,[De Gaulle] montre une preference pour le tout-ou-rien dans chaque problem qu’il estime important 
.”
 One can see that here because he chose nothing, rather than resortto military force.Perhaps the most evident argument for De Gaulle being a political opportunistcan be seen in the events of May 1958. In this month, events in Algeria escalated tosuch an extent that they led to the collapse of the
 IV République
. Sowerwine claims
8
Ibid, p. 339.
9
Charles Sowerwine,
 France since 1870
(Palgrave MacMillan, 2009), p. 251.
10
Ibid, p. 255.
11
Stanley and Inge Hoffman,
 De Gaulle : Artiste de la Politique
(Éditions de Seuil, 1973), p. 35.
3

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