De Gaulle the Liberator and Macron the Alienator

Wavering and leaderless after the Second World War, the French had few to turn to but Charles de Gaulle. Never elected in prewar France, this general and self-appointed political leader of la France combattante won public approval in a landslide. Decades later, President Emmanuel Macron’s aloofness and elitism tests French confidence in the strong executive meticulously crafted by de Gaulle.

Once the confetti of the liberation parades had settled, the French looked to de Gaulle for guidance. After all, according to more than one deluded French museum, his Résistance could have liberated Paris without the Allies’ help (sorry, Eisenhower). To many French, de Gaulle stood resolutely against the whims of the liberating powers while restoring France’s internal stability and international leadership. As the first President of the Fifth French Republic, de Gaulle openly espoused a strong executive and wrote the Fifth Republic’s constitution to reflect his vision.Like a sleeping guardian, de Gaulle would awaken in times of great need to save the Republic before retiring back to isolation. Despite de Gaulle’s self-declared transcendence of party politics, the French Left saw traditionalism and Catholicism in his policies, famously pressuring him to resign in 1968.

This 1958 presidential campaign poster frames de Gaulle as a man without party, an unassailable centrist. It reads, in part, “Listen to me: Communism is servitude, party politics is impotence. Between these two extremes is the French People’s Rally.” Macron’s centrism made him similarly attractive in the 2017 election—the alternative was a far-right candidate. Note the Cross of Lorraine, a symbol of de Gaulle’s Free French Forces, in the top left.

Today, many French resent centrist President Macron as an énarque (a play on the name of his alma mater, ÉNA, and monarque), one of the distant French elite.  Our delightfully skillful bus driver, Pascal, explained that an ignored middle class opened the bleeding wound of the gilets jaunes movement: Macron’s gas tax punishes commuters who cannot afford to live near the city center. He pressed his thumb into the wound by dismissing protestors’ concerns as misinformed and fringe. Macron grows distant from his constituents: all around the Place de la Bastille hang posters of Macron bedecked in the royal robes of Louis XVI. Unlike de Gaulle, who even responded to resignation calls from outside his coalition, he takes for granted that the French will come around and continue to reject his far right opposition. Tonight’s European Parliament elections say otherwise.

“[Let’s] abolish privileges [of the nobility],” a reference to the French Revolution, featuring Macron as Roi des Français.

Today, some on the French Left call for a new republic, though support for such a measure has fallen ever since Macron began making concessions to the gilets jaunes. We most likely will not soon see a Sixth Republic, but disappointment with Macron has eroded French confidence in de Gaulle’s strong executive.