I wonder if the German and French establishments are dusting off a Charles de Gaulle primer right about now. Brexit and its messiness is a reminder that the original European recalcitrant was France, for reasons opposite to the British “Leave” voters today. In the 1960s, Charles de Gaulle (1890-1970), crusty old World War II résistant, and President of the French Fifth Republic (which he designed and which still exists) wanted Britain out as he pushed for greater European integration. Ironically, at the time the United Kingdom wanted in. Speaking of the Common Market in 1967, de Gaulle said (like an oracle, it turns out), “…the Common Market is a sort of prodigy. To introduce into it new and massive elements, into the midst of those that have been fit together with such difficulty, would obviously be to jeopardize the whole and the details and to raise the problem of an entirely different undertaking.”
I am still trying to figure out what I think about Brexit, or Britain’s seemingly insane desire to step out of connections to the European Union. I confess I am less concerned with the possible outcome on the United Kingdom for I never lived any appreciable length of time in Britain, except way back when I was younger, doing research, and was more resilient to the trauma of a Gower Street bed-and-breakfast in London. I am far more concerned with its impact on my favorite European country: France.
Yes, that’s right: compare France to Britain. Way to keep the peace. Not. And, yet, many years ago France was all I could think about each day that I stayed in cheap lodgings near the British Library until my husband rescued me from my bad hotel decision based on an outdated tourists’ guide to the UK. My first impression of Europe had been France. Unlike my parents’ generation, Europe didn’t automatically mean Britain for me despite all the childhood reading of Enid Blyton. As it was for many of my generation of Indians, my idea of western culture was shaped by America and New York, not London.
And so, for me it was France that was the entry point to Old Europe. And what an introduction it had been – emerging blinking from the darkness of Opéra Metro station in Paris into the soft morning light bouncing off the gilded domes and facades of Haussmann’s architecture. An impression both dazzling and soft at the same time. It had something to do with the way the light fell in Paris, the original City Beautiful. The light in London, by contrast, was harsh and unforgiving. I tried very hard to like the city but it was unrelentingly gray and rainy in November as I picked my way through the litter to Euston station to catch the train out to the Public Records Office. London in November felt like 1980s New York, without the thrill.
And the food – oh, how I missed my little Paris neighborhood charcuterie and fromagerie as I tried to make do with dry sandwiches at lunchtime, trying to forget the nausea-inducing old smells of bacon and fried eggs. No English pub could replace my neighborhood bistro in the 11 arrondissement of Paris. I’ve never been back to the UK but I heard the food improved dramatically and that it was altogether a better place than the one I had seen. I’m sure that improvement had to do with more access to European products in general and French food in particular.
What Charles de Gaulle wrote almost fifty years ago might have been written yesterday and it’s tempting to quote long chunks of his May 16, 1967 statement but I will let you read it. Suffice it to say, de Gaulle made some prescient remarks about the nature of British relations with the European Community and the UK's self-seeking “What’s yours is mine, what’s mine is mine” approach to relations with the continent. He was critical of Britain’s half-hearted commitment to European unity especially in light of the steady progress that France and Germany had made towards European integration, officially burying a centuries-old enmity by signing the 1963 Franco-German Treaty of Friendship.
De Gaulle, though, was not a unilateral Europeanist. He had come to his stand on the European Community via a balancing act, asserting his own desire to preserve a Europe of states against his fear of an Anglo-American domination of western Europe. “There is no magic formula,” he said in a 1962 press conference, “to construct something as difficult as a united Europe.” In fact, his recognition of the fact that the call of the patrie was strong in Europe, that local traditions deserved to be protected as a cherished European heritage, underpinned his wish to keep the British out of the European project as he envisaged it. In 1967 he pointed out with unerring logic that when the European Economic Community was being constructed, Britain “first refused to participate in it and even took toward it a hostile attitude as if she saw in it an economic and political threat.” And so, he vetoed firmly Britain’s bid to join the thriving EEC. So strong was de Gaulle’s opposition to the United Kingdom, with its close ties to the United States and to the Commonwealth, joining the European project that it was not until after the old curmudgeon died in 1970 that Britain was finally brought into the EEC in 1973. I suspect that somewhere Charles de Gaulle is looking down (or up) at the dog’s breakfast that is Brexit, the overextended federation that is the EU, and is muttering dyspeptically his 1967 warning of a British presence in the European Community: “…their entry into the Common Market, with all the exceptions that it would not fail to be accompanied by…would amount to necessitating the building of an entirely new edifice, scrapping nearly all of that which has just been built.”
Now, before we invest Charles de Gaulle with the prescience of a lone voice in the wilderness (he’d already done that job in the 1930s regarding tank warfare), let’s remember that his real ire was at the overbearing Anglo-American presence on the continent, one that in his eyes encroached on France’s sovereignty and threatened French grandeur. But, that is a blog post for another day. Because it involves the story of Frexit – the French withdrawal from NATO.