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De Gaulle and the ‘debt of Louis XV’

Following the release of my latest book on De Gaulle's 1967 visit to Canada, I decided to add the article I posted on my Facebook Olivier Courteaux Historian page back in July.

In 1967, accepting Quebec Premier Daniel Johnson’s invitation to visit Expo 67 in Montreal, Charles de Gaulle, then president of the French Republic, made no secret of his intention "to make waves." On more than one occasion he had pledged he would not officially congratulate Canada on its centennial: "In any case, French Canada will necessarily become a State and it is in that perspective that we must act." This sentiment snowballed into his famous cry of ‘Vive le Québec libre!’ thrown down like a gauntlet from the balcony of Montreal City Hall, on 24 July 1967, 50 years ago.

On the eve of his fourth and last visit to Canada, de Gaulle had long achieved international recognition. He was the man who had said ‘no’ to defeat in the sombre days of 1940, successfully unified the various French resistance networks under his name, despite daunting obstacles and, above all, brought France back to what he always considered to be her rightful rank on the world stage. Over the years, de Gaulle had developed an acute sense of History; to the point that History had become a passion. Historical references abound in his memoirs, speeches and interviews.

It is therefore no coincidence that de Gaulle viewed the 1763 Treaty of Paris, by which Eighteenth-century France had agreed to give up her North American colony, "a piece of the French community forgotten by the course of History", as a diplomatic abomination.

By the early 1960s, as the French president became increasingly sympathetic to the idea of warmer relations between France and the Francophone majority in Quebec, these references were in plain view. They coincided with de Gaulle’s stated intention to defy ‘the American challenge’ within the dominant Cold War template of foreign affairs and, more broadly, to stand up to the ‘Anglo-Saxons’ and what he perceived as their quest for world domination.

Charles de Gaulle’s very first official visit to Canada took place in July 1944, a little over a month after the Allied landings in Normandy. In the second volume of his Mémoires de guerre, published in 1956, he recalls Canada’s warm welcome. While the Roosevelt administration was still reluctant to back him up and grant the French provisional government he was leading full recognition, de Gaulle greatly appreciated all the pomp and pageantry that surrounded his visit. On more than one occasion, he expressed his satisfaction in the most gracious fashion: " France is certain to find, by her side and in agreement with her, the peoples who know her well. That means she is certain to find, first Canada."

Considering the aggressive stance he adopted against Canada in the 1960s, was de Gaulle then sincere? Whatever his true feelings were at the time, he chose to assess the situation with much pragmatism.

In 1945, on the eve of the San Francisco Conference and the birth of the United Nations, facing lasting impoverishment and political decline, France needed allies badly. And de Gaulle was well aware the Canadian government had steadily supported him and his Free French movement during the war despite its own growing difficulties, both domestic and international. He also could not ignore the fact that, as the Second World War was raging, Ottawa considered the restoration of France as a major player in the world to be one of its principal priorities. ‘The Canadian Government […] is deeply interested in the early return of France to her high place among the nations,’ William Lyon Mackenzie King, the Canadian Prime Minister, had clearly outlined in a note to the Canadian minister in Washington as early as July 1943. ‘You will not be unmindful of the paramount importance to Canada of the consolidation and unity of the French forces resisting the enemy and of the maintenance of cordial and confident relations between the French the French people and their Allies.’ At a time when Washington maintained a dismissive attitude toward France, Canada, a young nation with a brief record of international diplomacy, demonstrated a keen grasp of the French situation and was willing to throw its modest weight into the balance.

Yet, as much as he embraced a united Canada in 1944–45, by necessity, de Gaulle’s deep feeling for French Canada is discernible in his recollections of his first two visits. In his Memoirs, he recalls the "wave of French pride" and "inconsolate pain" he felt while visiting Quebec in 1944 and 1945.

De Gaulle’s third visit ito Canada in the spring of 1960 went practically unnoticed. De Gaulle bore no hostility towards Canada. He had then more pressing political and diplomatic preoccupations to tend to: the re-organization of NATO, France’s nuclear trials and the lingering Algerian crisis, greatly unpopular among Canadians. The times were therefore not prone to diplomatic provocations of any sort. Besides, Canada, one of France’s traditional allies, was expected to add its voice in support of de Gaulle’s diplomatic manoeuvre in the eve of the East-West summit to be held in Paris later that spring. But Canada remained circumspect. The government of Prime Minister Diefenbaker disapproved of the French president’s repeated demands for the creation of a NATO tripartite directorate that would have put an end to " the integration of Westerners under the direction of the United States."

By 1962, the French president’s diplomatic constraints disappeared one by one. Francophone black Africa achieved its independence by 1960, Algeria in 1962. After the Berlin crisis of 1958–63 and the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, American–Soviet relations seemed destined for a more peaceful coexistence. These developments gave de Gaulle the room he needed to embark France’s foreign policy on a new, aggressive course. Faithful to his famous appeal of 18 June 1940 and his unflinching stand during the war, firm believer of the ideas of nation, independence and sovereignty, de Gaulle remained obsessed with France’s grandeur. It was to dictate all his choices and orientations in foreign policy in the later years of his presidency.

France’s national independence remained the key to de Gaulle’s foreign policy framework. In his view, France needed nuclear warfare capabilities in order to join with all possible speed the exclusive club of atomic powers, to curb American influence, and to remove herself from the scope of such international organizations as the United Nations, the thing called the UN"

At the same time, his stated intention to defy ‘the American challenge’ and to resist the dominant Cold War template of foreign affairs justified, in his mind, his repeated opposition to Washington’s policies. His trips to South America in 1964 gave him the opportunity to spread, like a missionary, and for the first time, a message of independence against the hegemonies, thus denouncing the all-powerful United States. This was a matter of the utmost urgency in de Gaulle’s inner circle: helping those emerging nations to affirm themselves before being overwhelmed by both Soviet and American expansionism.

By 1964, the relations between France and the U.S. had reached a low point. In Ja

nuary 1964, de Gaulle unilaterally recognized officially the existence of Communist China, a gesture that greatly displeased Washington. Then, in a highly symbolic gesture, once again drawing on history, the French president decided not to participate to the twentieth anniversary ceremonies of the Allied landing in Normandy. Having neither forgotten nor forgiven the Americans for keeping him in the dark in 1944, he seized the opportunity to re-affirm publicly France’s difference and her refusal to accept the leadership of the United States. And to further make his point, a few weeks later, de Gaulle announced he would participate to the ceremonies celebrating the French landing in the South of France (August 1964), thus granting French veterans what he had refused their American and Canadian counterparts. Two years later, he removed France from NATO and demanded the closure of all American and Canadian bases located on French soil. In 1966, in a resounding speech in Cambodia, he accused the United Sates of starting the Viet Nam War and predicted their defeat. His ‘Vive le Quebec libre!’ the following year in Montreal brought further tension with Washington.

On another level, with decolonization well under way, de Gaulle positioned himself as the champion of oppressed peoples. From this perspective, it was inevitable that his attention would focus on Quebec, particularly because he viewed the place of ‘La belle province’ within Canadian Confederation as a forced colonization directly resulting from France’s defeat two hundred years earlier. And, taking the opportunity of what was to be his last trip to Canada in 1967, de Gaulle was determined to give History the recognition it deserved. His deep-rooted sense of guilt for the loss of New France, was to be in full display. The French president got closely involved in setting up the details of his visit to Canada.

The first point of rupture was his arrival in Quebec — instead of the federal capital, Ottawa — on a French warship, le Colbert. This was no random choice. The ship bore the name of the famous minister of Louis XIV, whom the Sun King entrusted with reorganizing France’s first colonial empire and encouraging migration to New France in the seventeenth century. The captain of the ship was instructed not to respond to the gun salute from the Canadian Navy and de Gaulle landed at l’Anse au foulon, the precise spot where British General James Wolfe disembarked his troops in 1759 before attacking Quebec City.

His slow progression toward Montreal followed what was once called the Chemin du Roy, a road dating back to the time of Louis XV, which for the occasion was thus renamed. Each stop was carefully chosen for its historical value. Leading up to his dramatic balcony pronouncement on 24 July 1967, de Gaulle gave the impression of having come to repair an injustice perpetrated two hundred years earlier. On that fateful day, with no restraint, he let loose his long-held feelings about French Canadians. Or, as he put it, "a piece of our people" who had so successfully resisted English oppression.

De Gaulle always expressed deep regret — one could even use the word guilt — at Louis XV’s abandonment of Canada in 1763, and it was his passionate wish to correct such a great injustice by promoting "France more active presence as well as a more pronounced interest for this piece of her people." But while refering to Quebec as a branch of the French people in North America, he never took the full measure of a reality, that French Canada had evolved since 1763 and no longer saw itself as French.

Also de Gaulle did not fully understand the depth of Quebec’s desire for change. his balcony's outburst stunned many Quebecers, including those most sympathetic to the notion of the province’s autonomy within Canada. De Gaulle certainly overestimated the province’s popular support for independence in the sixties. He wanted to act quickly, perhaps too quickly, believing that the time was right — and that no greater opportunity lay in the future — for the creation of an independent French state in North America, therefore counterbalancing the growing and necessarily dangerous influence of the Anglo-Saxon world. Unfortunately for him, the Quebec governments of the sixties were unwilling to travel very far down the path toward independence, even though they sought to loosen Ottawa’s grip in many areas, even including international affairs.

De Gaulle's trip and words certainly gave greater confidence to Quebecers and forced the Canadian government to further adjust its stance accordingly. But, to this day, de Gaulle’s long lasting dream of witnessing the establishment of a French nation in North America, perhaps because it was never built on tangible realities, has yet to materialize. And, as far as I am concerned, that is just as well...

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