When hope is lost

Some of our young leaders need serious tutoring in the art of politics

When hope is lost


hinking of role models for our young politicians, three leaders from Western countries come to mind: Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Charles de Gaulle. They led their nations out of the crises they faced by instilling hope, prescribing roadmaps and not only strategising for the future but also executing the strategy.

Some of our young leaders need serious tutoring in the art of politics as they are frequently engaged in quite personalised gimmickry. Many exhibit a stark lack of vision, are deficient in political insight or devoid of empathy. They must learn from leaders who prioritised national interests over their personal or familial aspirations.

Consider the case of Charles de Gaulle. At the time de Gaulle entered politics, France had drained out from World War II. It had borne the direct brunt of German aggression and suffered collective trauma. Paris had remained under Nazi occupation for four years.

Hard on the heels of that crisis, France faced yet another crisis: the Algerian independence movement. Not only that, in 1968 there was civil unrest. Despite these challenges, de Gaulle remained steadfast and resolved one crisis after the other. He also went on to forge cordiality with the big powers and the states in France’s neighbourhood.

Charles André Joseph Marie de Gaulle’s leadership style and advocacy of French interests were at times seen as petulant both at home and abroad. In retrospect, he is esteemed by his countrymen as one of the country’s greatest leaders. Charles de Gaulle became the last president of the Fourth Republic. He was granted full powers and had a new constitution drawn up.

General de Gaulle then presented the draft constitution of the Fifth Republic to the people. The new constitution was adopted by referendum, with 79.2 percent of votes in favour. In 1969, he resigned after his government was defeated in a referendum on constitutional reform. He died the following year (1970). De Gaulle was an intelligent, hardworking, and zealous soldier in his military career, a man of original mind, great self-assurance and outstanding courage.

De Gaulle was the second son of a Roman Catholic, patriotic and nationalist upper-middle-class family. The family had produced several historians and writers. His father taught philosophy and literature; but, as a boy, de Gaulle showed a passionate interest in military matters. He also developed a penchant for writing.

In World War I he fought at Verdun, was wounded three times and spent two years and eight months as a prisoner of war (during which time he made five unsuccessful attempts to escape).

De Gaulle’s writing career began with a study of the relations between the civil and military powers in Germany, La Discorde chez l’ennemi (Discord Among the Enemy) published in 1924, followed by lectures on his conception of leadership, Le Fil de l’épée (The Edge of the Sword, 1932).

A study of military theory, Vers l’armée de métier (The Army of the Future, 1934), defended the idea of a small professional army, highly mechanised and mobile, in preference to the static theories exemplified by the Maginot Line, which was intended to protect France against a German attack. He also wrote a memorandum in which he tried, even as late as January 1940, to convert politicians to his way of thinking.

At the outbreak of World War II, de Gaulle commanded a tank brigade attached to the French Fifth Army. In May 1940, after assuming command as a temporary brigadier general in the 4th Armoured Division — the rank that he retained for the rest of his life — he twice had the opportunity to apply his theories on tank warfare. He was mentioned as “an admirable, energetic and courageous leader”.

On June 6, he entered the government of Paul Reynaud as undersecretary of state for defence and war and undertook several missions to England to explore the possibilities of continuing the war. When the Reynaud government was replaced 10 days later by that of Marshal Pétain, who intended to seek an armistice with the Germans, de Gaulle left for England.

On June 18, he broadcast from London an appeal to his countrymen to continue the war under his leadership. On August 2, 1940, a French military court tried him in absentia and sentenced him to death, deprivation of military rank and confiscation of property. But he had an absolute belief in his mission and a conviction that he possessed the qualities of leadership.

As a statesman, de Gaulle fought his political battles like a military campaign, using all the devices that he had learned to transform France’s post-war international position of weakness into one of strength and to overcome opposition to his plans at home. These devices have been often described by his fellow citizens as “egoism, pride, aloofness, guile”. According to sociologist and historian Raymond Aron, “empiricism, intuition, flexibility of mind, if not of soul.”

De Gaulle had three rendezvous with history in the old-fashioned sense he loved: in 1940, in 1958 and in 1968. On all three occasions, he saved the French state by sheer theatricality and élan. First, by embodying the French republic in retreat from the Germans; then by seizing power in a republican mode to end the Algerian crisis; and, finally, when he ended the potential chaos of the May 1968 revolt by massing almost a million people on the Champs-Élysées in a counter-demonstration.

When Sartre was to be arrested for civil disobedience, General de Gaulle vetoed the move with the comment that “you don’t arrest Voltaire.”

Leaders like Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore, Ho Chi Minh, the Nationalist icon of Vietnam and Malaysia’s Dr Mahathir Muhammad can be useful case studies for the second and third generation leaders needing some serious instruction to develop a capacity to deliberate about the socio-political issues of immediate relevance to Pakistan.

The writer is Professor in the faculty of Liberal Arts at the Beaconhouse National University, Lahore

When hope is lost