France’s Atlantic Shift: The End of De Gaulle’s Dream

France has abandoned the aspirations of Charles de Gaulle in favor of closer relations with the United States.

President Barack Obama listens to remarks by his French counterpart, François Hollande, outside the White House in Washington DC, February 11, 2014
President Barack Obama listens to remarks by his French counterpart, François Hollande, outside the White House in Washington DC, February 11, 2014 (White House/Pete Souza)

France appears to have decidedly shelved its aspirations to independent status and throw in its lot with the United States.

The change had been so gradual, it’s barely been noticed. But it marks a radical departure from a foreign policy that was initiated by France’s most famed postwar president, Charles de Gaulle.

The election of Socialist leader François Hollande in 2012 could have heralded a shift back to the more traditional French approach of seeking equidistance from Russia and the United States.

Instead, Hollande has backed Barack Obama’s diplomacy, deepened Anglo-French military cooperation and unambiguously opposed Russian adventurism in Syria and Ukraine.

Politico cites one official saying the president doesn’t “share in the old De Gaulle or Mitterrand mythology, for example, that France has to keep strong ties to Russia just for the sake of balancing its natural alliance with the US.”

During the Cold War, De Gaulle — France’s former World War II resistance leader and founder of the Fifth Republic — withdrew his country from NATO’s military structure and visited Soviet Russia in a high-minded attempt to unite Europe from “the Atlantic to the Urals.” He worried that the Anglo-Saxon “special relationship” could end up dominating the Western world and believed that the dichotomy of the Cold War was only temporary. De Gaulle wanted continental Europe to act as a third pole in world politics, balancing the two superpowers — led, of course, by France.

When Soviet tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia two years later to put down an anticommunist uprising there, De Gaulle’s hopes were dashed. But France remained independent-minded.

François Mitterrand, France’s only Socialist Party president before Hollande, paid more attention to Europe than America. But even he saw little hope for a separate accord with the Soviets and joined the American-led Gulf War to remove Saddam Hussein from Kuwait.

Transatlantic relations took a beating in 2003 when France and Germany resisted the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq. Jacques Chirac, a Gaullist, was one of the George W. Bush Administration’s fiercest critics.

His successor, Nicolas Sarkozy, sought to mend ties with the Americans. France rejoined NATO’s command structure after more than forty years and expanded and prolonged its military presence in Afghanistan. The instinctively anti-American French left dubbed the president “Sarko the American.”

Sarkozy also breathed new life into the entente cordiale with Britain. There was even talk of sharing an aircraft carrier. In 2011, the two countries took the lead in intervening in Libya’s civil war.

Hollande had continued the interventionist policy. He deployed troops to Mali in early 2013 to fight off Islamist and Tuareg militants who had been emboldened by the fall of strongman Muammar Gaddafi in Libya. Hollande deployed more troops to the Central African Republic, another former French colony, later that same year when violence erupted between Christians and Muslims. And earlier this week, French jets started bombing Islamic State positions in Syria.

French action can partially be explained by (perceived) American inaction. As the United States “pivot” to Asia and reduce their troop presence in Europe, it falls on allies like France to make up the difference.

Hollande, it seems, is more than willing to.

Leave a reply