Controversy in France over de Gaulle literature, Robert Paxton weighs in

Historians in the News

Seventy years after issuing his call for France to defy the Vichy collaborationist regime, Charles de Gaulle is again dividing the French.

The government of President Nicolas Sarkozy, whose political party is descended from the World War II general’s followers, has included De Gaulle’s wartime memoirs in the curriculum for next year’s high-school literary classes. Sarkozy is in London today to commemorate De Gaulle’s June 18, 1940, radio broadcast urging a defeated France not to give up.

De Gaulle’s inclusion in the curriculum has sparked opposition from literature teachers and their unions, who say that his writings are historical, not literary, and that he’s too identified with conservative political parties. De Gaulle, who died in 1970, is revered by almost all French for leading the resistance to the Nazis and their French collaborators. His role as president from 1959 to 1969, and as the founder of France’s main conservative party, remains more divisive....

Robert Paxton, a history professor at Columbia University in New York who has written several books on wartime France, said De Gaulle is a good choice for the curriculum.

“He’s a great classical stylist with a vigorous point of view, which is exactly what young people should be reading,” Paxton said in a telephone interview from Cluny, in the Burgundy region of France. “You can use the same critical powers on the writings of a politician as on a literary figure.”...

De Gaulle’s writing wasn’t edited, Paxton said.

“His writings have a pungency you wouldn’t get from something that has been copy edited or ghost written,” Paxton said. “He used a huge vocabulary, with wonderful turns of phrase.”

Luc Chatel, the education minister, said in an interview that De Gaulle’s standing as a literary figure is confirmed by his inclusion in the Bibliotheque de la Pleiade series of great French works published by Editions Gallimard SA.

“I don’t understand the polemic,” he said....
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