Some weeks ago I found myself in an intense debate about our government's tactics in the Iraq War with some of the folks over at Little Green Footballs
. The debate was far-reaching but soon evolved into a simple dispute. I argued that the Bush team's over-zealous love affair with elections and confusion of the concepts of the majority and democratic legitimacy had caused it to neglect its natural allies in Iraq in favor of a misguided strategy that requires the U.S. to enter combat on behalf of something called the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the leading group of the coalition that won parliamentary elections there. My point was that in fighting for democracy in an occupation the occupying forces cannot waste time with anti-democratic forces, even if they are the majority.
To say that this view provoked incredulity is an understatement. "Democracy means majority rule, you moron!" was the kindest reply my point of view elicited. Again and again, I was told that elections are the root of democracy and majority support the only source of democratic legitimacy.
That, of course, is hogwash of the highest source, the type of simplistic thinking that has led us so far astray in our struggle to introduce liberty in the Islamic world. I could spend half my day setting forth my reasoning and argue in detail, but I'd rather tell you a story. A story with a moral, a point that will make my case for me, but an entertaining story nonetheless. It's a story I've been thinking rather a lot about recently and one I think is under-noticed in the noise and fury of the history of the West.
It is a story about France. Forgive me if you know some of the detail here, but this sketch will assume the reader knows nothing of French history save the barest outline. Let us begin:
France under the ancien regime was ruled by the kings of the Bourbon dynasty. You've probably heard of the greatest of them, a king by the name of Louis XIV who ruled France from 1643 to 1715, an astonishing 72 years. Often misleadingly called "absolute" kings, the Bourbons actually had to deal with a tangle of ancient bodies, differing rights of certain classes (especially with regard to taxation), a mess of differing offices and posts and the claims of the guilds. In any case, the king ruled in a very real sense, appointing ministers of state, conducting foreign affairs and war and granting titles and rank.
One day, way back in 1789, the French decided that they had had enough of kings and had a revolution. Not surprisingly, this event is known as the French Revolution. The Revolution ushered in a new, democratic form of government with an elected body of legislators called the Republic. This government, known nowadays as the First Republic, went through an ever-more-authoritarian series of executives, moving from the Convention to the Directory to the Consulate, until a man named Napoleon Bonaparte was leading the nascent Republic in battle on all fronts and throughout Europe. The First Republic ruled from 1792 to 1804.
Eventually, Bonaparte formalized his personal rule and the First Republic gave way to the First Empire (note that the "firsts" came much later; at the time no one though there would be more of them). The First Empire ruled from 1804 until 1814 when Napoleon's enemies finally defeated the great general and banished him.
Europe was then ruled by monarchies, so it's no surprise that the victorious allies imposed on a war-weary France a return to the old ways. This event was called the Restoration and it involved a return to the Bourbon monarchy in the person of Louis XVIII and, later, Charles X. The restored Bourbons ruled France from 1814-1830, with a tiny scare from a returning Napoleon thrown in for historical drama.
Charles X was an intensely traditional man, however, and his steadfast refusal to acknowledge that the world had changed since the Revolution brought the monarchy into a bad light. More and more Frenchmen saw it as a relic and an unresponsive one at that. So, some good people got the idea to bring the monarchy into the modern era by ushering in a more constitutional form of government. One of the good guys who led this march was none other than Lafayette, the great French hero of our own revolution in 1776.
The result was the overthrow of the Bourbons and their replacement by the rival royal family, the Orleans. The new king was named Louis-Philippe or, as he sometimes styled himself in proper republican style, "Louis-Egalite." This new quasi-British constitutional monarchy is called the July Monarchy and it ruled France from 1830 to 1848.
The liberal monarchy, however, was not enough to stop the tide of renewed revolutionary fervor that hit Europe in 1848. The republicans took to the streets and tossed the monarch out, instituting the Second Republic. The Second Republic ruled France from 1848-1852.
The presidency of the Second Republic was won by a Bonaparte, this one the great emperor's nephew. You won't be surprised at this point to learn that Bonaparte tossed off the republican mask in 1852 and re-installed the empire. The result was the Second Empire, which ruled France from 1852 to 1870.
In 1870, Prussia invaded France in a war that went very, very badly for the new emperor. The Second Empire fell like a house of cards, leading to the establishment of the Third Republic.
In a period of less than eighty years, within a long-lived man's lifetime, France was ruled by the First Republic, the First Empire, the Bourbon Monarchy, the July Monarchy, the Second Republic, the Second Empire and then the Third Republic. There was no reason to suspect in 1870 that the life span of the Third Republic would be anything other than a handful of years.
Then, an amazing thing happened: the merry-go-round stopped. The new government signed a peace deal with the Prussians, suppressed the rival revolutionary Paris Commune government and her sister communes, rallied the republicans to its banner and unified the nation. France had lost Alsace and Lorraine, but found a government it could live with. From the crushing defeat of 1870, the initially wobbly Third Republic found its legs and, with each passing decade, it's rule become more and more normal, more and more expected, more and more quite simply just the way things are. Memories of kings and emperors dimmed.
The legislature was elected by a suffrage more or less popular, and the head of state was an elected President. In short, the government of the Third Republic was a creature we would today recognize as democratic. Its power derived from the ballot box, its authority from common consent, its laws from a democratic parliament, its force backed by popular sovereignty.
The horrific shock of World War I did not budge the Third Republic from its perch. Despite the occupation of much of the French countryside and the horrific losses inflicted on the French people, the Third Republic endured. Elections at all levels went on, governments rose and fell according to parliament's wishes and make-up. And, when the great ordeal was over, not only was it still standing, the Third Republic was victorious.
Year after year, government after government, the Third Republic went on, establishing once and for all the principle that, for the French, the republic is the form of government that divides them the least. France was, at last, and after so much struggle, a democracy in its soul and not just in name.
In the 1930's, the government of France was presented with the growing threat of Nazi Germany and, like their British counter-part, was divided on how best to meet that threat. Many advocated a policy of caution combined with a defensive posture. A few, war-mongers with names like Churchill and DeGaulle, advocated rapid re-armament and military confrontation with the then-young Third Reich, but they were out-voted and not in favor. In any case, the normal democratic process held in France right up to the start of World War II.
In September, 1939, Germany invaded Poland and both Britain and France declared war. You probably know what happened next: Germany conquered Poland, took Denmark and Norway and then, in May, 1940, a mere eight months from the blitzkrieg that overran Poland, Hitler invaded France itself. France's darkest hour had come.
The French government directed the conduct of that war, of course. Elected and appointed ministers directed control of the national defense effort and the French military was solidly under civilian control. To summarize: at the outbreak of WWII, the French were ruled by a democratic government that had, by French standards, an incredible pedigree of stability and legitimacy.
Now, the story is going to get a little more complicated from here on out. I'll simplify things quite a bit, and some of the detail will thus be lost, but for the most part the story is straight forward. Here goes:
The war was not looking good for the French. The new German doctrine of armored warfare proved its effectiveness on the battlefield and simply went past the French system of fortified defenses. Within a few days the Germans outran their line of greatest advance in WWI and threatened Paris itself. Everywhere in France the roads were packed with fleeing refugees and, even more pitiful, fleeing soldiers.
At this time the French prime minister (so-called in English because that term lets us understand his role; in French he is officially the president of the council of ministers) was a man of impeccable republican credentials by the name of Paul Reynaud. Reynaud was a known advocate of the hawkish tendency when it came to matters German, but his government was composed of representatives of all the popular tendencies of his day. The President of the Republic was a man by the name of Albert Lebrun.
As the war went from bad to worse, Reynaud sought to shake things up by bringing fresh blood into the government. One of the new men brought in was the new commander of the improvised French 4th Armored Division, General DeGaulle. DeGaulle took up his duties as the under-secretary of state for defense and quickly realized that the defense of France required rapid reinforcement and a retreat to a defensible position.
In that regard, DeGaulle was entrusted with studying varying scenarios in which France could go on fighting. There was some discussion of pulling the government and what was left of the Army into Brittany, there to link up with the French Navy as a fighting redoubt and an entryway for British and (it was expected) American troops. Another plan was to lift the entire government and army to Algiers and continue the fight from French North Africa and elsewhere in the French Empire.
While this discussion was going on, the Reynaud government moved from place to place, always a few days ahead of the ever-advancing Germans. Cabinet meetings were held, as normal, and orders given, as would be expected. To assess London's ability to provide further assistance, DeGaulle was sent to London on an official mission. There the junior minister found that the RAF was needed for the defense of Britain and that, while Britain would do what she could, what she could do was precious little.
DeGaulle returned to France and the current seat of government to find a cabinet in deep disagreement about the way forward. Some, including most of the defense establishment and the Army, argued that the war was already lost and that peace must be sought on advantageous terms while France still had some bargaining chips. Others, like Reynaud himself, wished to find a way to continue to resist. Many others were somewhere in between.
DeGaulle sat in on meetings in France during these dark days in which high British officials were also present. The British were, of course, doing everything they could do to keep France in the fight. But the trend in opinion was not moving the warriors' way. Faced with occupation and ruin, many prominent members of the French government concluded that cutting a deal with Hitler before they were powerless before him was the best way to secure France's long-term national interest.
DeGaulle returned to London, this time with orders to coordinate with the Royal Navy plans to cover a French evacuation to North Africa, where the fight would continue. When he arrived, he found Jean Monnet, then the head of a joint British-French defense materiel purchasing agency (later one of the architects of the European Union) and the French ambassador knee-deep in a plan that just a few days before would have been unthinkable.
The plan? Nothing less that a full, formal and legal union of Britain and France into one nation. Only by convincing the French government that Britain remained committed to the fight could the French government come to see the utility of continuing the struggle. Churchill, initially taken aback by the proposal, heartily endorsed it. The idea was to merge the two nation's fighting forces and allow the French to continue to resist from Africa and Britain, with a new combined fleet ruling the waves.
DeGaulle called Reynaud and set forth the proposal. The Prime Minister was enthusiastic. At last, something to strengthen his hand with the defeatists! DeGaulle hurried back to France as Reynaud called a cabinet meeting to discuss the proposal.
Was it to be the union or an armistice? That was the question before the government that eventful night. To remind you: this government was the elected government of France, the Third Republic, in power through the ballot box. The discussion went round and round, but it was immediately clear that the prospect of union with Great Britain was not popular. The proponents for seeking Hitler's terms for an armistice won the debate and carried the day. As a result, Reynaud tendered his resignation to President Lebrun, who accepted it grudgingly.
The President was then faced with a problem. Who should he ask to form the next government? Who had the support of the parliament? When he summoned the heads of the two chambers, they both suggested he re-appoint Reynaud, but that was out of the question. That faction in the government that had won majority approval in cabinet was led by Petain, the hero of Verdun and WWI. Lebrun was informed that Petain was ready to serve if called and that he had lined up a list of ministers who had all already agreed to serve and to get the job done. Accordingly, the President of the Third Republic called on Petain to form a government, which he did immediately. A message seeking terms for an armistice was sent to Hitler by way of Madrid that very night.
Those terms were dictated by Hitler and accepted by Petain. They required the division of France into two zones, one occupied directly by the Germans and the other ruled by the French government formed by Petain and headquartered in the town of Vichy. These terms were accepted and, truth be told, were very popular with the average Frenchman on the street. The war was over, the bombs stopped falling and if the Germans were beasts at least they were polite enough on the streets and in the cafes.
Our story would end there except for the whole point. You see, one man in that government, DeGaulle, rejected the outcome. He was just a junior minister and had been out voted and out argued at every turn. The duly elected government of France had decided to ask for an armistice and ask for one it did. The duly elected president of France had asked Petain to be the man to lead the government in that endeavor and lead it he did.
DeGaulle rejected it all. Every last bit of it. The Third Republic had been the government of France for 70 years. This meant nothing to DeGaulle. The President had appointed Petain who then exercised the powers voted him. This also meant nothing to DeGaulle.
Instead, he got on a British plane to a foreign country, practically alone, landed in London, tossed his baggage in a loaned Mayfair flat, and claimed to all who would listen to him that he, Charles DeGaulle, was the leader of France.
Yes, you read that right. He appointed himself leader of the French
. No election, no appointment, no nothing. He wasn't even in France at the time. He gave a speech the next night, on June 18, 1940, that no one heard and even fewer Frenchmen cared about. It was carried on the BBC. Here is what he said:
The leaders who, for many years, were at the head of French armies, have formed a government. This government, alleging our armies to be undone, agreed with the enemy to stop fighting. Of course, we were subdued by the mechanical, ground and air forces of the enemy. Infinitely more than their number, it was the tanks, the airplanes, the tactics of the Germans which made us retreat. It was the tanks, the airplanes, the tactics of the Germans that surprised our leaders to the point to bring them there where they are today.
But has the last word been said? Must hope disappear? Is defeat final? No!
Believe me, I speak to you with full knowledge of the facts and tell you that nothing is lost for France. The same means that overcame us can bring us to a day of victory. For France is not alone! She is not alone! She is not alone! She has a vast Empire behind her. She can align with the British Empire that holds the sea and continues the fight. She can, like England, use without limit the immense industry of United States.
This war is not limited to the unfortunate territory of our country. This war is not finished by the battle of France. This war is a world-wide war. All the faults, all the delays, all the suffering, do not prevent there to be, in the world, all the necessary means to one day crush our enemies. Vanquished today by mechanical force, we will be able to overcome in the future by a superior mechanical force.
The destiny of the world is here. I, General de Gaulle, currently in London, invite the officers and the French soldiers who are located in British territory or who would come there, with their weapons or without their weapons, I invite the engineers and the special workers of armament industries who are located in British territory or who would come there, to put themselves in contact with me.
Whatever happens, the flame of the French resistance must not be extinguished and will not be extinguished. Tomorrow, as today, I will speak on Radio London.
Who was this man to question the actions of a legitimate, elected government and its lawful decision? From what source did he think he drew the right to speak for France? Who is this ridiculous figure absurdly calling for volunteers to join him in London to fight for France?
France "can align with the British Empire?" Sure, she can, but the lawful government of the Third Republic debated that and rejected it outright. DeGaulle had lost that argument to a panel of elected ministers. DeGaulle had been there when the proposal was shot down.
"The war is not finished"? The democratic government decided to seek an armistice. Who was DeGaulle to reject the armistice and wage war? By what right? Who elected him king? To coin a phrase: supreme executive power arises from the mandate of the masses, not some farcical loquacious ceremony.
Make no mistake about it: this one man, literally with just a handful of supporters around him, declared himself to the exclusion of elected authority the embodiment of Republican France and France's will. For the next four years he would continue to insist that he and he alone spoke for France.
Our story must end here. Today, of course, France is still a republic (Version 5.0): still a democracy, still with elected parliamentarians and an elected president, still subject to the power of the ballot box.
So, I must ask you after having heard this story: if the democratic government of France today were to trace her history back, who would her grace fall upon for the year 1940? Would her story run through an office in Vichy or a office in London?
Who is the ancestor of this great democratic nation? Who embodied her popular will, the essence of French democracy, the spirit of the republic? Who carried the hopes, dreams and aspiration of millions of French men and women in 1940? Who carried with them that day the authority of the French people? Who spoke for France in June, 1940? With who was the imperishable flame of French liberty? Which was more "democratic"?
The elected government of France?
Or a lone man in a London basement making a speech?