A Letter from London: De Gaulle queers the pitch: Girilal Jain

One of the many stories that are now being recalled here is that during the war one of President de Gaulle’s meetings with Sir Winston Churchill ended so bitterly that the row could be heard two rooms away. As President de Gaulle left the room flushed with anger, Sir Winston shouted to his interpreter, “Tell me quickly before he gets away the opposite of vive le France” (long live France).

All these stories carry one and the same moral: even in that period of national defeat and personal difficulties President de Gaulle was a difficult person to get on with, and it is quite impossible to do business with him now that France is prosperous and strong and he himself is at the height of his power and glory. The impression has spread that President de Gaulle has not forgiven the British for the way he was treated during the war and that he is now having his revenge.

President de Gaulle has never been exactly popular in this country. His return to power in 1958 was equated even by sober papers with the eclipse of democracy and rise of dictatorship in France. The courage and determination with which he has solved the Algeria problem and averted the threat of military rule has commanded at best a grudging admiration. The new constitutional framework which he has successfully evolved to rid France of her perennial political instability has been generally unpopular here. Now that he threatens to keep Britain out of the Common Market, the distrust against him has become intense and therefore irrational.



For all that one knows, President de Gaulle’s memories of this country might not be heartwarming. His dependence on the British Government’s support during the war did not make for relationship of equality and mutual respect. He is too sensitive and proud to accept any other kind of relationship. As some of Sir Winston’s war-time colleagues have testified a relationship of equality did not come naturally to him either. He was prone to regard himself as the supremo entitled to order others about. It was almost inevitable that the two men of destiny should have clashed.

However, it seems to me that the personal aspect of the problem is being greatly exaggerated and over-emphasised. The fact of the matter is that President de Gaulle has a vision of Europe in which Britain does not fit in. Basically and essentially his vision dashes with that of President Kennedy. Britain’s membership is unacceptable to him primarily because it is part of President Kennedy’s grand design for the Atlantic Community. It has little if anything at all to do with his being anti-British or for that matter anti-American. The strength of President de Gaulle is that his vision is rooted in France’s national interests.

Several factors have gone into the making of President Kennedy’s grand design. Like most of his countrymen President Kennedy is convinced that the American experience of federalism is valid for western Europe as well. He wants all European members of the NATO to form an economic and political union and to link it up with his own country through free trade and the existing military alliance. Britain’s membership of the proposed European union is essential to the realisation of this vision for a variety of reasons. Britain remains America’s most trusted ally. She is a major world power and cannot be excluded from the non-communist world’s scheme of things. The American desire to eliminate national nuclear deterrents cannot be achieved without her participation in the proposed multilateral force.


Grand Design

On the face of it the design is grand indeed. A careful examination however reveals many loopholes. European nations with long history, separate languages, cultures and traditions cannot be merged on the American model. The Americans insist on the exclusion of neutral states of Austria, Switzerland and Sweden and Britain is pledged irrevocably to arrange suitable terms of association for them in the enlarged Common Market. What President de Gaulle finds most objectionable is that President Kennedy’s grand design is based on the determination to maintain for America the monopoly of nuclear weapons in the western alliance. The proposed multilateral striking force will be so only in name.

The question is not whether in the interest of world peace the Americans are justified in trying to preserve their near monopoly of nuclear weapons in the western alliance. They are. The point is that this plan involves the acceptance of an inferior status by other members of the alliance which President de Gaulle’s France is not prepared to do. Equally relevant is the fact that while President Kennedy’s grand design has been influenced by the current exigencies of the cold war, President de Gaulle believes that this situation is not going to last forever in its present form.

In their calculations the American and British leaders and commentators have generally ignored the basic character of the Common Market, They have not heeded the fact that it is not related to the cold war in that it is not a product of the cold war and it is not designed specifically to counter the Communist threat. It was the common experience of defeat and national humiliation that provided the impetus for France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, Holland and Luxembourg to come together. It is doubtful if Germany would have felt it necessary to join the venture if she had not been forcibly partitioned. The complementary nature of the French and German economies made the venture possible.

Of the present members four – France, Belgium, Italy and Holland – have lost their colonies. Germany and Luxembourg did not have colonies to lose. The principal preoccupation, therefore, of the Common Market is their own security and prosperity. Since, unlike America and Britain, they are not world powers they are not greatly interested in world problems. The criticism that they have formed a White Richman’s Club is true but irrelevant. The charge of collective neo-colonialism does not stick at all. They neither need nor desire reserved markets. Mr Krishna Menon’s observation that the Common Market was an extension of the NATO was similarly off the track.

From his own point of view, President de Gaulle is interested in preserving the present “inward looking” character of the Common Market. That is mainly the reason for his insistence that as the price of admission Britain must give up Commonwealth preference and special relations with America. The other reason is that the White Commonwealth Australia, New Zealand and Canada has to be denied access to the British market for its agricultural surpluses so that this market can be made safe for the steadily expanding French agriculture. The Commonwealth ties and special relationship with America account for Britain’s role as a world power. The Common Market cannot accommodate a world power without changing its character.


On this assessment there is little scope for surprise over the substance of de Gaulle’s performance of last Monday. He has been and remains opposed to the American concept of grand design. The cause for surprise is that instead of waiting patiently for the Brussels negotiations to drag on he should have chosen to state publicly his opposition to Britain’s admission to the Common Market. Why he chose to do this remains a mystery. All that one can say is that he must have had good reasons to act that way. He is too shrewd and well-informed to act impetuously.

The Times and The Financial Times have advanced the view that the French President was only strengthening his bargaining position. There have been references to de Gaulle being an excellent poker player. That does not provide much of a clue to the question posed above. The theory has been advanced that the Nassau agreement between President Kennedy and Mr Macmillan finally convinced him that the British government still attached greater importance to understanding with America than with France. It is difficult to believe he had even entertained the contrary view. Whatever the motive, he has produced a crisis in the Brussels negotiations which cannot be easily resolved.

The Times of India, 19 January 1963

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