“Thanks to men like him, France lives and will not disappear”

The “Socialist-Gaullist” Jean-Pierre Chevènement (famous for his resignation as Defense Minister over France’s participation in the 1991 Gulf War) recently wrote a touching tribute to Pierre Gallois, a promoter and the principle theorist of France’s nuclear force de frappe. Gallois died last August at the age of 99. Chevènement’s tribute is interesting both for the brief history of France as a nuclear power, an ambition which cannot be summed up with “de Gaulle,” and in being a perfect example of mystical-epic French nationalism.

This is of interest because France, truly, is one of the last developed nations, with the United States of America, to have such a national conception of itself. It is particularly relevant because the “French ideology” has been behind so much of France’s idiosyncratic behavior in international affairs, and notably its concern with its language, its loud opposition to U.S. policies and “spurts of independence” from both NATO and the EU. I will summarize Chevènement tribute and then go into some detail about the nature of France’s “national mystique”.

Chevènement covers Gallois’ record during the Second World War. The traumatic defeat of 1940, the 27 bombing missions he accomplished against Germany, his stay in London, his intellectual influences such as General Giulio Douhet, Raymond Aron, Liddell Hart and Halford Mackinder among others. After the war, Gallois helped rebuild France’s aeronautical industry which became the third in the West and promoted France’s nuclear program (still under the Fourth Republic). According to Chevènement, without Gallois’ “propagandistic action” in favor of air-atomic power, France’s first successful nuclear test in 1960, “Gerboise bleue,” would not have been possible. (“Blue Jerboa,” was followed “White” and “Red” jerboas. A jerboa is a desert mouse native to North Africa, where the bombs were tested. Poetic, though not as quite ironic as India’s “Smiling Buddha” I’ll grant you.)

Gallois retired as a general in 1957 but then worked as a professional in France’s military-industrial complex (helped promote the Mirage IV) and as a public intellectual on nuclear strategy. The latter role led to difficult debates with the great French intellectual Raymond Aron over the proper use of nuclear weapons and whether they made traditional alliances obsolete. Gallois called them, “instruments of a forced peace”. Aron said, in a perfect expression of the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction (M.A.D.), that “It is better to prepare an atomic war which cannot take place… than to give ourselves the means for a conflict which would be possible, because it would be undertaken solely with conventional means.”

In so doing, Gallois contributed to France’s national consensus on nuclear defense and strategic independence, two ideologically necessary prerequisites. It heightened the authority of the French President, sole master of the big red button. It gave France a apparently autonomous role between the superpowers. This consensus has been lacking in recent years in that, not having the Soviet adversary, NATO is no longer relevant, and in consequence, France’s atomic independence from NATO is also irrelevant. In the 1990s, French foreign policy lost its ideological coherence, maintaining the force de frappe, sometimes aiding in U.S. interventions in the Gulf, the former Yugoslavia and Afghanistan, sometimes ostentatiously opposing them as in 2003, and more generally attempting to replace NATO with a more European organization. Gallois himself condemned the wars against Serbia and Iraq.

The National Mystique of France

Now, all this is well and good. But it is only a prologue. Because the force de frappe is not simply, or even principally, a military tool. I have to quote Chevènement’s concluding paragraph in its entirety:

We have lost a great Frenchman. It is thanks to men like him that France lives and will not disappear. Even though occasionally tempted by despair, he taught us, despite it all, to keep confidence in the destiny of the country (patrie). We will not forget this magnificent, generous man, his clear vision, his courage, the stoicism which he showed until his final moments. His thought, his action, his example, will survive in our hearts.

Chevènement highlights a particular conception of French history where “the nation” could not exist without “the State” or “the Prince,” but that these two things find their relevance today, in being underpinned by atomic power. Thus, France’s nuclear bombs, which used to be paraded with much pride on Bastille Day, form a crucial part of the dyke that prevents France, the Great Nation, from being dissolved into the rootless, Anglo-Saxon globalized cultural magma of today’s world.

Now, of course, you might ask, “why should I give a damn about France and whether that uppity single percentile of the human race ‘lives on’?” You are right of course. But we are talking of “eternal France”. The one of the Gauls and the Romans, that was “made over a thousand years by forty kings,” that by divine chance survived the English in a Hundred Year War, that was the “first daughter of the Church,” whose knights made a Kingdom in the Holy Land, which through the brilliance of its intellectuals and the promise of its Revolution seemed to animate for a time the spirit of the world. It is this epic, surreal notion of France that inspired all of de Gaulle’s rhetoric and action in the “abyss” of 1940 and beyond. This is the heritage that must be defended, that we must live up to.

Heady stuff. Is it ridiculous? Not entirely. I will not comment on the national mythology. It cannot be understood naturally by foreigners but understand that it used to move Frenchmen as much as the entire glorious epic about pilgrims, Founding Fathers, the Civil War, the Frontier and so on still inspires Americans.

However, at least during the Cold War, there was something more than in the force de frappe and the withdrawal from NATO, something that justified such national existentialism. I cannot remain insensitive to the Gaullist claim that France’s atom bombs meant that in the eventual Gotterdammerung of a US-Soviet war in Europe, France “would not be the humble auxiliary of one of the superpowers, but would reserve the chance of being something other than a battlefield for their expeditionary forces and a target for their bombs.” In contrast, NATO and Warsaw Pact “battle plans” for Germany, for example, were for the divided country to be purely and simply wiped off the face of the Earth in a puff of radioactive smoke courtesy of the generalized use of “tactical” nuclear weapons.

I do not think that French bombs would deter Soviet soldiers, if they were to defeat NATO in Germany, from marching to Strasbourg and beyond. However, any Soviet leader would think very hard about using any “tactical” nuclear weapons on French soil. In this sense, even if NATO were defeated and France were enslaved, France would still exist, whereas Germany would not. And no empire, however great, is eternal…

The thought that France might still have a historic role to play, and not just to be annihilated for some idiotic scuffle between Moscow and Washington over some godforsaken corner of Asia or the Caribbean, was intoxicating. It underpinned France’s national consensus on defense after de Gaulle. All such consensuses, to some extent, are vague “imagined agreements” that mask real differences and diversity of policy (see the supposed role of “containment” in US Cold War foreign policy). But it contributed to France’s vision of itself in the postwar years and still something of an independent power, and more than independent, a country with a genuinely unique specificity in its contribution to the world.

This belief in France’s singular historical role persists today. It so grandiose, and France apparently so small, that it leads to a great feeling of unease. The contradiction manifests itself in grandstanding, self-hatred, concern over “rank,” linguistic hysteria, the “Declinist” school of thought and so on. But there are also positive consequences.

The most important of these, I think, is that the French political class is perhaps the last one in the developed countries with a genuine dissatisfaction with the world. Everyone else is positively smug in their being part of our “neoliberal globalizing world” of culturelessness, of the cult of GDP, of obesity, of rampant inequality and, also, of thoughtless support for American wars (despite public opinion). It is incarnated in the toothy, meaningless rotten-to-the-core smiles of a Tony Blair or a Silvio Berlusconi. In being similarly so at ease with this American and neoliberal world, President Nicolas Sarkozy is a truly alien and un-French leader in way which François Mitterrand and Jacques Chirac were not.

Granted, there are environmentalists in Germany and Social Democrats in Sweden, but is there the radical ambition within the political class that this world can and should be overturned? Is there that vague angst with the world as it is? This ambition, this unease, used to express itself through nuclear weapons and opposition to NATO. It was relevant for its time. Mitterrand then threw himself into “European construction,” with some success. It is not certain that the EU would have become what it has without the ardent French desire to create a world very unlike this one. It still affects the Union today.

Pierre Gallois thus inscribes himself in a much bigger movement. His efforts served more than a national consensus but a national mystique. The weapons today are well-near irrelevant. The mystique, the national fire that it helped preserve, is not. Indeed, Chevènement cites this explicitly, the force de frappe “is a major asset which France conserves to preserve its security and contribute to the emergence, one day, of a ‘European Europe’.” And who else in Europe even gives a damn about that?

This entry was posted in Best Of, essay, France and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to “Thanks to men like him, France lives and will not disappear”

  1. Invictus_88 says:

    Very, very interesting.

  2. Pingback: Poland’s new look | Letters from Europe

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