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French Gaullists and the Last War

They believe in national greatness, but President Hollande and his predecessors have a history of pursuing the wrong strategy.

If it is true that generals always fight the last war, perhaps it is nowhere truer than in France. Blind to the technological and tactical revolutions at the turn of the 20th century, French strategists believed la furia francese—the élan identified with French soldier ever since the 15th century—would prove too furious. After emerging from the trenches of World War I, convinced that wars would now be fought along static lines, the French built the Maginot Line—the row of massive fortifications that, in 1940, German panzers simply sidestepped.

Will the “Black Friday” terrorist attacks in Paris be next on the list of strategic lapses?

Tellingly, the question of whether France was preparing for the wrong kind of attack had already been posed by a handful of specialists before Friday’s events took place. The answers they gave to this question not only anticipated what in fact occurred on November 13, but also reveal fatal contradictions in France’s approach to terrorism.

Little more than three weeks ago, Michel Goya, a retired army colonel and professor of military history at the prestigious university Sciences Po, posted a new entry on his blog, La Voie de l’épée. “The Sword’s Way” smacks to American ears of a video game, but the title echoes Charles de Gaulle’s early book on warfare, Le Fil de l’épée (The Sword’s Edge). Just as de Gaulle had predicted the uses of tank warfare, but went unheard by France’s military leaders, Goya foresaw Friday’s series of nightmares.

On October 25, in a post titled “The Day After the Great Attack,” Goya noted that the Charlie Hebdo and Hyper Cacher massacres, while traumatic, paled in comparison to terrorist attacks that have hit other countries. An attack similar to Mumbai or the World Trade Center occurring in France, he insisted, was a near inevitability. France’s forces of order would, of course, eventually succeed in overpowering the terrorists, but not before “hundreds are killed and an immense shock” roils the country. Deploying soldiers in the streets of Paris amounted to little more than a “dose of anti-depressants” for the French public, while slowing reductions in military expenditures and speeding a naval squadron to the Gulf were a spasmodic—and not strategic—response to the attacks.

After Charlie Hebdo, in sum, the government’s message was that “it had been taken by surprise and will be even more so in the case of a more serious attack.” Look around, Goya asked. There are knots of soldiers patrolling train stations and tourist sites, another 3,000 or so soldiers in Africa in a desperate scramble to contain Islamist terrorists, and a dozen combat aircraft in the Middle East responsible for a mere fraction of air strikes against ISIS. “The view from Raqqa,” Goya dryly concluded, “is that the French counter-jihad clearly lacked punch, and yet is operating at maximum strength.”

Yet other specialists recently issued similar warnings, most notably Vincent Desportes, the former director of the École de Guerre. In his most recent book, La Dernière Bataille de France (France’s Last Battle), published earlier this month, Desportes declared that though “the French think they are safe, they no longer are.” In a radio interview just two weeks ago, he doubled down on the warning in his book: “There will be major terrorist attacks in France,” he asserted, urging the government to “tell the truth to the French.”

Moreover, not all of France’s Cassandras wear képis. Last September, Paris Match interviewed Marc Trévidic. On the subject of terrorism, few figures in France have more ears listening than Trévidic, who for several years ran France’s anti-terrorism judicial unit. “I am convinced,” Trévidic said, “that Daesh has both the goal and means to strike at France to a degree that dwarfs earlier terrorist attacks. I am speaking as an analyst: our worst days are still ahead of us. The war that Islamic State plans to carry out on our soil has not yet begun.” (For Americans, perhaps the closest analogy of Trévidic’s remarks in Paris Match would have been a People magazine interview with the counter-terrorism czar Richard Clarke in early 2001.)

It is the legacy of one Frenchman, equally authoritative with and without a kepi, which helps explain France’s current predicament. For Charles de Gaulle, founder of the Fifth Republic, France must always remain “in the front rank” of nations. In a word, as he wrote in his Memoirs, “France cannot be France without greatness.” This conviction—which laid the foundations to France’s nuclear force and its military presence in its former colonies—drove de Gaulle’s activist foreign policy from 1958 to 1968. No less importantly, it has also defined the foreign policies of every French president, regardless of political affiliation or ideological bent, who followed since.

One of history’s ironies is that France’s Socialists have shown themselves, in this regard, to be more Gaullist than the Gaullists themselves. During his 14 years in the Elysée, former French president François Mitterrand rarely missed an opportunity to remind the world, and especially the United States, that his country would always insist on its so-called exceptionalism in foreign affairs. While he often seems hesitant on the domestic front, the Socialist now residing in the Elysée, François Hollande, has also revealed his Gaullist colors in foreign policy. From his interventions in Mali and the Central African Republic to his willingness to take the war first to Bashar al-Assad’s regime, Hollande’s activism has kept France front and center on the world stage.

In the wake of Friday’s terrorist attack, Hollande has not just assumed the Gaullist mantle, but he seeks to tailor it to the circumstances in which France now finds itself. In his speech to both houses of parliament, gathered at Versailles, Hollande announced his intention to seek changes to de Gaulle’s constitution of the Fifth Republic. Seeking more power, Hollande wants to revise provisions that are normally used only in exceptional situations. Article 16 allows the government to declare a “state of siege,” while Article 36 permits the president to claim “exceptional powers” if a clear and present danger confronts the Republic. The only time the latter article has been invoked was in 1961, when the French generals in Algiers, opposed to de Gaulle’s peace negotiations, tried to launch a putsch against Paris.

The coup failed for several reasons, but perhaps the most important was the person and presence of de Gaulle. Yet both the General and his world have disappeared, and therein lies the rub.

Whereas the General had a flourishing economy with which to launch his ship of state, and a simple world to navigate, divided between the poles of Washington and Moscow, his successors have neither of these advantages. Both Goya and Lesportes emphasize that a reduction in military expenditures—a process dating from the mid-1990s—has crippled France’s capacity to respond to external threats. After the next attack, Goya warns, political leaders in both parties will need to explain to the French why they could not find the means to assure “the country’s regal objectives,” adding ominously that it will be difficult for the same leaders who, for 20 years have overseen this lowering of our guard, to persuade the French that they are capable “of defeating our enemy.” At the same time, Trévidic worries over a similar dearth of human and financial resources on the domestic front. “The means available to anti-terrorist judges are insufficient, if not downright impoverished. There are too few investigators to deal with the threats we are now facing.”

Goya marvels over the political class’ penchant to warn about imminent threats, yet fail to parry them. Of course, this would not be the first time in history that political leaders have suffered from a kind of cognitive dissonance, both knowing and not knowing that something wicked comes this way. While our own recent past reminds us that France is not exceptional in this regard, French history nevertheless offers an intriguing parallel. As one political commentator has pointed out, today’s situation resembles the phony war of 1939-1940, when the French were officially at war with Germany, yet failed to prepare for it.

Since the Paris attacks, “Nous sommes en guerre” has been the refrain of nearly every leading French politician, right and left. In the opening line of his speech at Versailles, Hollande also announced that his country was at war. It remains to be seen how France and the world follow up. Are the French airstrikes on Raqqa the beginning of a military strategy designed, in President Hollande’s words, to crush the Islamic State? Or will they instead mark the beginning of another drôle de guerre, a phony war 2.0?

Robert Zaretsky is Professor of French History in the Honors College of the University of Houston and author of Boswell’s Enlightenment.