De Gaulle as Economic Dirigist

Webster G. Tarpley
July 14, 2010

Charles de Gaulle

Charles de Gaulle

In these dark days for France under the Sarkozy regime, we should recall some of the unique contributions of this great nation to the cause of human civilization and human progress. Over recent decades, these contributions are associated above all with the heritage of French President Charles de Gaulle, who twice saved France from catastrophe. It was 70 years ago this summer that de Gaulle issued his famous call of June 18, 1940 from London, calling on the French to resist Nazi occupation and to continue their struggle in the Second World War, thus founding the anti-fascist Free French Movement. De Gaulle deserves to be celebrated for his courage in rallying in preserving the French nation when its existence was threatened by outside invasion and by fascist forces from within.

De Gaulle also deserves high regard as a statesman. His successful and legal assumption of power as prime minister of the Fourth Republic in May 1958 defeated a number of planned coups d’état, some of which would have cast France adrift as a derelict on an ocean of adventures. During the early 1960s, de Gaulle had to defeat a number of attempted coups by disgruntled military forces and revanchist subversives who were unhappy over his successful liquidation of the French colonial problem in Algeria. His radio speeches on these occasions stand today as models of decisive and courageous national leadership in a time of crisis. The constitution which de Gaulle sponsored for the Fifth French Republic would today provide ample emergency powers for France to defeat the forces of international speculation and looting, if only there were a real French president in the Elysée palace, instead of the current negation of all the positive aspects of the French tradition.

De Gaulle’s celebrated speech in Phnom Penh, Cambodia in 1965 contained the best advice any loyal friend could have given the Johnson administration: do not become bogged down in the unwinnable war in Vietnam. On issues like the British desire to enter and subvert the European Economic Community, the future of Québec, nuclear deterrence or warfighting in Europe, the reform of the international monetary system, the quest for durable peace in the Middle East, and many others, de Gaulle provided the world with alternative approaches which were far more conducive to good results than the destructive obsessions of the Anglo-American policy elites. These Anglo-American policy elites attempted to remove him from office by violence: De Gaulle survived at least 30 serious assassination attempts, leaving no doubt that he was considered in his time the public enemy number one of those forces some refer to today as the “New World Order.” De Gaulle was a Roman Catholic and a French nationalist who managed to be patriotic, socially conservative, and economically progressive all at the same time — defying the bankrupt categories of the current sterile dichotomy of left vs. right wedge issues.

I never met General de Gaulle, but I was fortunate enough to benefit from long discussions with one of his closest and most trusted associates, Ambassador Raymond Offroi. Offroi had been the French ambassador to Mexico, and had organized de Gaulle’s triumphant visit to Mexico City in 1963, which inaugurated efforts by France in all of Latin America to provide these countries with a productive and positive alternative to the otherwise inevitable choice between domination by the United States or by the Soviet Union. Discussions with Ambassador Offroi in the United States during one of his visits here, and then in his home in the Avenue Kléber in Paris, convinced me that the full potential of the modern state as a vehicle for human progress is largely unrealized, and represents an immense opportunity for human development if the right leadership and the right reforms can be provided.

De Gaulle and Jean-Baptiste Colbert

The de Gaulle we need most of all today is very likely de Gaulle as an economist, located in the French tradition of economic dirigism which goes back to Jean-Baptiste Colbert, the French Finance Minister from 1665–1683 under Louis XIV, and known as one of the founding fathers of modern protectionism and mercantilism, inspiring Alexander Hamilton. Colbert built the Canal du Midi to link the Mediterranean with the Atlantic in what was one of the greatest works of civil engineering in the world up to that time. De Gaulle’s brand of dirigism also benefited from the theory of indicative planning developed by Jean Monnet for the Marshall Plan in Europe, as well as for the original European Coal and Steel Community. De Gaulle worked through a Commissariat du Plan, which established five year plans or sets of broad national priorities. This French approach to planning was totally different from and immensely superior to the Soviet Gosplan method of directive planning, which attempted to prescribe the actions of a national economy down to the last bolt. The French plan was simply a list of public-private projects for the immediate future, designed to meet the development and modernization needs of French society. It was worked out in close coordination with the legislative branch, and had the effect of giving the French people more of a voice in their own economic future than the methods used before or since. The dominance of monetarist and neoliberal economic thinking, in particular influenced by the Chicago school and the Austrian school, has by now virtually obliterated this positive tradition from European Union institutions. Today, we have the Europe of derivatives and wild financial speculation, the Europe of the banks and cartels, something de Gaulle never would have accepted.

De Gaulle’s forceful and effective crackdowns on financial speculators and parasitical profiteers can provide some object lessons for such present-day figures as the feckless Obama. In 1962, it became obvious that powerful French financial interests were massively relocating their headquarters to the principality of Monaco on the French Riviera. Monaco was a haven of gambling, hot money, and organized crime, but at the same time a French protectorate (i.e. a part of France) but granted wide autonomy in running local affairs. When Prince Rainier of Monaco refused to crack down on flight capital, de Gaulle first increased postage rates on letters coming out of the principality, and later ringed the borders of the enclave with French gendarmes and tax collectors. Soon, French security forces blocked the roads going in and out of the principality. Prince Rainier was forced to capitulate, conceding that French plutocrats could no longer use his ministate for purposes of flight capital, tax evasion, and hoarding.

De Gaulle’s Summary of Dirigism

The following passages from de Gaulle’s memoirs represent one of the best short summaries issued in the modern age by a world statesman about the essence of economic dirigism as practiced by the governments he led:

“For us… the task of the state was not to force the nation under a yoke, but to guide its progress. However, though freedom remained an essential lever in economic action, this action was nonetheless collective, since it directly controlled the nation’s destiny, and it continually involved social relations. It thus required an impetus, a harmonizing influence, a set of rules, which could only emanate from the state…. In practical terms, what it primarily amounted to was drawing up a national plan, in other words deciding on the goals, the priorities, the rates of growth and the conditions that had to be observed by the national economy, and determining the fields of development in which the state must intervene, along with laws and budgets. It is within this framework that the state increases or reduces taxation, eases or restricts credit, regulates customs duties; that it develops the national infrastructure — roads, railways, waterways, harbors, airports, communications, new cities, housing, etc.; harnesses the sources of energy — electricity, gas, coal, oil, atomic power; initiates research in the public sector and fosters it in the private; that it encourages the rational distribution of economic activity over the whole country; and by means of social security, education, and vocational training, facilitates the changes of employment forced upon many Frenchmen by modernization. In order that our country’s structures should be remolded and its appearance rejuvenated, my government, fortified by the newfound stability of the state, was to engage in manifold and vigorous interventions.” 1

The fruits of de Gaulle’s dirigism are still highly visible. The French aerospace industry is one of the most competitive in the world. The French railway system boasts some of the fastest and most modern trains in Europe, including the TGV. The French electrical power grid derives a greater proportion of its energy from modern nuclear plants than that of any other country. Where, by contrast, are the success stories of the Austrian school? They are certainly not to be found in the United States, which is a country whose economic history is composed of Hamiltonian dirigism, Republican protectionism, and the dirigism of the New Deal and New Frontier.

De Gaulle taught France that modern nations must exist not only for themselves, but also for the mission they must carry out in the world for the benefit of human civilization. The cultivation and fostering of national pride in this effort was an indispensable ingredient of de Gaulle’s success. In one of his most memorable speeches, de Gaulle recalled that in Goethe’s Faust, the devil presents himself with the words “I am the spirit who always negates.” De Gaulle pointed out that pervasive self-doubt is an infallible symptom of the decadence of nations, and he urged the French to develop self-confidence in their national mission. Today in the United States, we have an immense body of right-wing reactionary and Austrian-libertarian opinion which hysterically asserts that the United States government, apart from the military, has never done anything right and can never do anything right. For these legions of greed, the US government is metaphysically and hopelessly incompetent, and no reforms can never change this fact.

On the other side, we have doctrinaire Œdipal leftists of the Howard Zinn school who share Rousseau’s hatred of civilization itself, often without knowing where their beliefs come from. These leftists reduce American history to nothing but an endless chronicle of imperialism, genocide, slavery, and oppression. In their world, human greatness is permanently out to lunch. Titanic world-historical figures like Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt have to be dragged down into the slime in order to make this absurd theory work. As we see, there is a surprising convergence in the degraded outlooks of reactionaries and leftists on these important points.

De Gaulle mocked his opponents, the carping petty detractors who preached the eternal impotence and incompetence of the French nation, as the “school of national denigration.” De Gaulle’s tireless pursuit of national dignity as a prerequisite for accomplishing the national mission is a lesson which both France and the United States, as well as other nations, need to relearn in the depression breakdown crisis of today.

Vive de Gaulle dirigiste!

1 Charles de Gaulle, Memoirs of Hope: Renewal and Endeavor [New York: Simon & Schuster, 1971], pp. 150-151.

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