While Emmanuel Macron is no stranger to pomp and symbolism aimed at enhancing the dignity of his office, his appearance yesterday at a ceremony in the small Picardie village of Clermont-les-Fermes, to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the battle of Montcornet, has infuriated the country’s Gaullist Right.
The 1940 battle, one of the country’s few, brief successes in the Battle of France, saw then-colonel de Gaulle temporarily halt the German Blitzkrieg by deploying French heavy tanks in accordance with his own far-thinking ideas of armoured warfare. As a consequence of his battlefield success, de Gaulle was immediately promoted to Brigadier General, the rank he wore for the rest of his history-shaping career.
For Macron, who has repeatedly employed stirring martial imagery in the gruelling fight against Coronavirus (which has already killed around half as many French citizens as the Battle of France) the contemporary resonances must seem obvious. In his speech, he remarked that: “De Gaulle tells us that France is strong when it knows its destiny, when it stands united, when it seeks the path of cohesion in the name of a certain idea of France.”
For Macron’s critics on the Right, de Gaulle’s ‘certain idea of France’ is antithetical to the vision of a president they scorn as a cosmopolitan globalist, and Macron’s invocation of the father of the Fifth Republic an empty attempt to wrap himself in the mantle of a leader far greater than himself.
But Macron’s adoption of Gaullist symbolism is not new. In 2018 he added the Cross of Lorraine, the symbol of de Gaulle’s Free French forces, to the seal of the Republic. A leather-bound Pléiades edition of De Gaulle’s memoirs sits at his side on his gilded desk — originally de Gaulle’s — in all his pronouncements to the nation, next to a bronze-framed photograph of the great man himself. Even a replica of de Gaulle’s presidential car sits on Macron’s office mantelpiece.
The Élysée has even declared 2020 the year of de Gaulle, in commemoration of the 130th anniversary of his birth, the 80th of his historic June appeal from London to resist German occupation, and the 50th anniversary of his death.
For Macron, increasingly drawn to a neo-Gaullist foreign policy and a need to heal a country struggling, even before Covid, against economic decline, serious civil disorder and an ever-present terrorist threat, de Gaulle’s legacy looms large. “He draws inspiration from it on how a statesman can use dramatic events to reset the nation,” a source close to Macron has claimed to Le Monde, and Macron has stated many times that France “cannot be reformed, it must be transformed.”
Indeed, last year, at the height of the Gilets Jaunes crisis which for a time threatened his grasp on power, Macron allegedly chose the volume of de Gaulle’s memoirs in which the great leader, himself shaken by political dysfunction, dissolved the Fourth Republic as his bedside reading.
No doubt the president recognised himself in his illustrious forebear, when in Sunday’s speech he hailed de Gaulle’s dash and élan as a “promoter of movement and the offensive, capable of creating speed and irruption.” But whether Macron is the great disruptor tasked by history to see France through the great crises of the 21st century, and where the Weltgeist will lead the Hegel scholar-turned president, remains to be seen.