Conrad Black: Five Minutes That Saved France

Roundup: Talking About History

[Conrad Black is the author of "Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom" and "Nixon: A Life in Full."]

There has been an outpouring of sentimental celebration in French and other European intellectual circles over the 40th anniversary of the general strike and student uprising in France in 1968. This is a nostalgic reenactment of the leftist ritual of self-indulgent historical myth-making.

Forty years ago, Charles de Gaulle was observing the tenth anniversary of his government, and of his (Fifth) Republic. He had proposed a referendum in the reorganization of local government and university administration — a movement toward participatory democracy and was ahead of parallel movement in most other advanced democracies.

De Gaulle departed on a state visit to Romania, to destabilize the Soviet empire; destabilization of something, as in Canada the year before, was by now the chief purpose of his elaborate state visits. A ripple of student agitation and discontent started. There were boycotts of lectures in some of the main Paris university campuses, and some occupations of public buildings, including, most famously, the Odeon theatre.

De Gaulle, who was never reluctant to blame problems on the Anglo-Saxons, dismissed the antics of the students as another noxious importation from America. Sporadic public and private sector labour walkouts began while he was still in Romania.

De Gaulle had warned France that the post-war Third Republic would lead to absurdly unstable government and that its colonial policy, particularly in Indochina, would fail. He predicted, even when he had almost no public support, that he would shortly be called upon to resurrect France as a politically serious country, and as the last stop before the Communists.

This is what happened in 1958. He established the Fifth Republic, which effectively combined the two contesting traditions of French public life: a monarchical chief of state with extensive powers and a renewable seven-year term, in what was styled a republic. He extracted France from the Algerian War, developed nuclear weapons, ended centuries of animosity with Germany, and quickly made France one of the most geopolitically important countries in the world, by skillfully playing an aggregation of confidence tricks with the super-powers.

France was a foul-weather friend of the U.S. and its allies, but was otherwise destructive of the Western Alliance, particularly the English-speaking countries; and enticed the Russians as fellow-European resisters to U.S. hegemony. He never accepted the durability of Communism in Russia or China. In addition to being the greatest French leader since Napoleon, by his soaringly elegant prose, as a writer and orator, he was also an important cultural figure.

He was aware of the propensity of the French to erect barricades from time to time and hurl paving stones at the police, as if from boredom or even guilt at living so well in such a rich, civilized, and cultured country. As disorder spread in the spring of 1968, he was also aware that eventually French bourgeois avarice would reassert itself.

Ten million people were soon on strike. The Communist red flag or anarchist black flag flew over almost every factory. The police director of Paris told de Gaulle the police were no longer reliable.

The president made his move. He visited the main French army commander on the Rhine, legendary paratroop general Jacques Massu and assured himself of the loyalty of the most battle-hardened and notoriously heavy-handed divisions of the French army. Then, on May 30, he finally spoke to the nation, for less than five minutes.

The BBC world radio news opened: "Day by day, the proud facade of Gaullism crumbles into dust." France's public broadcasting network was on strike, so there was only a still photograph of the president on the screen while he spoke. The people who had been celebrating the anniversary these past few weeks, gathered on the Left Bank, to hear, most of them assumed, de Gaulle's resignation.

He began: "As the sole legitimate repository of republican power, I have in the last 24 hours, considered every means, I repeat every means, for the conservation of that power." He would fulfill his mandate, had already dissolved the National Assembly, and would not dismiss the prime minister, "who has earned the homage of all."

Elections would take place on the constitutional timetable, "unless there is an attempt to gag the French people and prevent the voters from voting, by the same means that the workers have been prevented from working, the teachers from teaching, and the students from studying: by intimidation, intoxication, and tyranny."...

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