When Charles de Gaulle, the man who invented the French presidency and still casts a shadow over his country’s politics, was 15, the teacher at his Catholic private school asked him to write an essay. The year was 1905, and although the fervent, brooding de Gaulle was far too young to remember the Franco-Prussian War, he still felt the sting of humiliation. His essay predicted that, far in the future, Germany would declare war on France, plunging the nation of Molière, Louis XIV, Voltaire and Napoleon into the greatest crisis in its history.
But as the story progresses, France fights back. “In a final burst of élan,” writes the young de Gaulle, “our plucky little soldiers rush forward with their bayonets ready. Ah! What a beautiful charge it was. How their hearts leapt proudly in their breasts!”
And the name of their commanding officer, the man who saves his country in its darkest hour, turning back the tide of barbarism and rekindling the glory of France? The answer is obvious. His name is ‘General de Gaulle’.
I first read this story in Julian Jackson’s wonderful biography of de Gaulle, A Certain Idea of France. The title comes from the first line of the great man’s war memoirs: “All my life I have had a certain idea of France.” But as that teenage story shows, de Gaulle also had a certain idea of de Gaulle. To him, they were essentially the same thing.
For the general and his admirers, he was France. Immortalised forever as the man who preserved his country’s honour after the debacle of 1940, he deliberately made himself into a living totem of his country and its people. Like Winston Churchill, de Gaulle was both a living, breathing human being and a self-conscious patriotic caricature, a Great Man, a monarch in all but name. He walked away from French politics after the Second World War because its petty parliamentarianism seemed too small for him. But twelve years later, when the bloodshed in Algeria had brought France to the brink of a military coup and possible civil war, de Gaulle returned from internal exile, like some Roman general recalled to the colours, to rally the nation again.
But this time there was a price. De Gaulle would not serve as a mere Prime Minister; he would lead as a President of near-imperial power, with unfettered command of France’s foreign and military policy. The French President would not be some mere chief executive, let alone a trifling chairman of the board. He would be a modern Sun King, a worthy successor to the Bourbons and the Bonapartes. His colleagues agreed, and put it to a referendum, held at the end of September 1958. By a massive margin, 83% to 17%, the people backed de Gaulle’s new constitution. And that was how the French presidency began.
Whatever you may think of Emmanuel Macron, he also has a certain idea of France: a leader in Europe, a world power independent of the United States, proud, sophisticated, civilised, assertive. He has a certain idea of French history, too, having told a nationwide TV audience two years ago that “the republic will not erase any trace, any name”, and that he would not allow protesters to topple a single statue.
And he has a certain idea, above all, of Emmanuel Macron. Even as a teenager, he stood apart from his contemporaries, preferring the company of adults – most infamously, his drama teacher. In 2018, in perhaps the single most telling moment of his political career, the young president, then just 40, openly rebuked a teenager who had dared to shout “Ça va, Manu?” at him in public.
“No, no, no,” Macron said, wagging a finger in the boy’s face. “You call me ‘Monsieur le Président de la République’ or ‘Monsieur’.” De Gaulle would have been proud of him.
It’s probably too simplistic to say that this incident explains why the French have just re-elected Macron for a second term. But even if you can’t stand Macron and loathe his centrist politics, you can’t deny that right from the start, he has looked and sounded as a French president should. He understands what the part means. Like de Gaulle, he believes in France, and he believes in himself. Like those other two-term presidents François Mitterrand and Jacques Chirac, he is a consummate actor, playing the greatest role of his life.
It’s common to compare the French presidency with the British premiership, yet deep down the two are completely different. (France has a prime minister, too, though most outsiders barely know he exists.) The British PM is merely the head of the Queen’s government; the President of the Republic is the personification of France. When Margaret Thatcher paid her first prime ministerial visit to Paris in June 1979, her host, the comically haughty Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, insisted that he be served first at lunch because he was a head of state, whereas she was a mere head of government.
When Giscard next came to Downing Street, Thatcher got her revenge by deliberately seating him opposite two enormous portraits of Nelson and Wellington. In a French context, though, Giscard’s insistence on his own grandeur made excellent sense. The French have different expectations of their leaders, and Giscard, who might have been supplied by an Anglo-Saxon casting agency specialising in risibly haughty Frenchmen, conformed perfectly to type.
Giscard had moved into the Elysée Palace in 1974, succeeding the technocratic, bushy-browed Georges Pompidou. To be fair, Pompidou was very Gallic in his own way: a former literature professor and author of a hugely successful anthology of French poetry, he had to endure years of gossip about his wife, who had allegedly been involved in sex parties with the actor Alain Delon. (As an outsider, it’s very hard to work out the truth of this, but Googling pictures of Claude Pompidou and Alain Delon gives you some sense of how outlandish it was.)
But if Pompidou was quite French, Giscard was very French, the distilled, purified essence of Frenchness. Although they weren’t aristocratic, his ancestors had added ‘d’Estaing’ to their surname to make themselves seem important, and that tells you something about them.
Young Valéry had a stellar war record, having served in the Resistance, fought in the French First Army and taken part in the liberation of Paris. He was fluent in German and had been a youthful and effective finance minister in the early Sixties. He was clever, independent-minded, vigorous and bold. He was a moderniser, who reformed his country’s antiquated social laws and promoted women to his cabinet.
But at the same time, Giscard was enormously, magnificently Gallic. He began his presidency with a futile attempt to pretend to be an ordinary person, riding on the Metro and inviting some dustmen for lunch at the Elysée. But his voters didn’t like that and neither, deep down, did he. So then he went to the other extreme, conducting himself like the reincarnation of Louis XIV. When he visited Poland, he had the French air force send fighter jets to bring his forgotten hunting rifles. When he went skiing, he insisted that he must never wait in the line for the lifts.
Then, of course, there were the mistresses. As with all good French presidents, Giscard’s moral clock had stopped in the late seventeenth century, and he didn’t care who knew it. Almost incredibly, he entertained his lovers at a hotel outside Paris called Le Petit Coq aux Champs (The Little Cock in the Fields). It’s probably a myth that among them was the Emmanuelle star Sylvie Kristel, but it’s probably true that Giscard used to leave a sealed letter telling his aides where to find him in the event of a nuclear war.
His most famous conquest, alas, took place only in the realm of the imagination. In 2009, almost three decades after the French electorate had kicked him out, Giscard published a romantic novel called La Princesse et le Président, in which one ‘Jacques-Henri Lambertye’ seduces ‘Patricia, Princess of Cardiff’. He makes his move, incidentally, when they’re travelling back by train after a memorial event for the D-Day landings. Classy! One French reviewer recoiled at this “low-brow gossip”. But like any good monarch, Giscard was utterly without shame. His final contribution to public life came at the age of 94, when he was accused of squeezing the buttocks of a German female journalist. There’s probably a metaphor for something in that, but I’m too English to work out what it is.
Perhaps it’s too tempting to turn Giscard, or any French president, into a joke. It was in the early years of the Fifth Republic, after all, that France’s GDP overtook Britain’s for the first time in a century. For all that we Anglo-Saxons like to scoff at our neighbours’ thirst for corruption — the gigantic sums of public money embezzled in Jacques Chirac’s Paris, for example, or the fact that Nicolas Sarkozy is currently under virtual house arrest with an electronic tag – there are plenty of things about French public life, not least its health service, that put Britain to shame. And for all that we giggle at its presidents’ sexual shenanigans — François Mitterand’s secret second family, Chirac’s reputation as “Monsieur three minutes, shower included”, François Hollande’s assignations on the back of a scooter — were they notably less effective than Harold Wilson, Ted Heath, Gordon Brown or Theresa May?
Most democratic countries get the leaders they deserve. Perhaps that’s why Macron, whatever his flaws, was always going to beat Marine le Pen. She represents a deep-rooted tradition in French political life, stretching back at least to the far-Right, anti-republican, ultra-Catholic Action française movement founded in 1899. (He father Jean-Marie used to sell its newspaper as a young man.) But this was only ever a minority enthusiasm, albeit a potent one.
By contrast, Macron stands squarely in the tradition of his Fifth Republic predecessors. It’s true, of course, that lots of French voters can’t stand him. But plenty of voters couldn’t stand the lofty de Gaulle, the foxlike Mitterrand or the flagrant Chirac, either. And unlike Hollande (‘Monsieur Flanby’, a crème caramel in human form), Macron plays his presidential role to perfection.
Preposterous as it might seem, he genuinely believes in his own destiny. As his former classmates recall, he has seen himself as the saviour of his country ever since he was a teenager, just as de Gaulle did. And perhaps it makes sense that France, far more than Britain, loves a truly regal political leader. France remains the country of the Sun King and the Emperor, the country of Versailles, the Pantheon and Napoleon Crossing the Alps. “You call me Monsieur le Président.” That’s what most French voters want from their leaders.
All of that said, of course, there’s another shadow that has hung over French politics for the last half-century. It’s the shadow of another man who believed himself the champion of destiny, the sword of justice, the incarnation of civilisation. A man with a tortured romantic history, but a man whose human frailties made him only more endearing.
A man feared and loathed by the enemies of the West, a man unfairly mocked by Anglo-Saxon sceptics, yet a man recognised across the world as the very embodiment of France and its traditions. A man who, like the victorious Emmanuel Macron, provides the essential mirror to the presidents of the Fifth Republic; a man in whom you can see the self-belief of de Gaulle, the hauteur of Giscard, the cunning of Mitterrand, the shamelessness of Chirac. A man who believed, more than anything, in his own dignity, the most Gallic quality of them all.
That man was Chief Inspector Jacques Clouseau.