World leadership can be erratic

Unbelievable.  A first-rank world leader picks a needless fight with blameless allies, thus imperiling their unity. But that’s General de Gaulle for you.

Impressive work, even by his standards. In 1967, Canada was to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge (their Gallipoli – except that they won).  It was also the centenary of Canadian federation.  But the general took exception to not being consulted on the attendance of Prince Philip (i.e., the head of state’s spouse), who was insufficiently Canadian, apparently. So de Gaulle withdrew French representation from a sacral event commemorating Canadian-French friendship.

But to show there were no hard feelings, the general visited Canada later that year – and promoted the break-up of the country in his ‘Quebec libre’ speech.

You can’t say there weren’t warnings.  The year before he had evicted allied forces from French soil and pulled France out of NATO’s command structure.  And he famously sucked up to the Russians on occasion.

Of course, you can say it was all carefully calculated in the service of a grand project – his conception of the glory of France.  And with hindsight, you could almost conclude that it didn’t fundamentally change France’s interests or policies.

Indeed, you might even think that de Gaulle could give Trump lessons in political caprice.

While both show a disregard for the conventions of left and right party politics, there are no reports of Trump complaining after his greatest electoral triumph that now he must make his semi-fascist acolytes carry out socialist policies.

And no one has yet suggested that Trump, should national order be imperiled, is likely to go AWOL, and fly to consult his generals at a military base in a foreign country.

Of course, when he did all that stuff, de Gaulle had the benefit of holding France together through three decades of political crises.  He clearly stood for something important (even if it was hard to pin down quite what it was).  And everybody took him seriously.

But it’s a helpful reminder that no matter how buffoonish a leader’s actions might appear, they are usually serious (not least in their consequences) and often worth taking seriously.

And it’s worth recalling that a year after the Canadian spat, when the general’s authority slipped amid strikes and student riots and France became briefly ungovernable, the French electorate chose the narcissistic old man over the forces of seemingly unstoppable change.

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