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IDEAS

Joe Biden, meet Charles de Gaulle

When France was liberated, its new president had to choose between incremental reforms and revolutionary changes. The path he chose is instructive now.

A statue in Paris of Charles de Gaulle, whose leadership of France marked a turning point in his nation's history.
A statue in Paris of Charles de Gaulle, whose leadership of France marked a turning point in his nation's history.JOEL ROBINE/AFP via Getty Images

For four long years an old man with autocratic powers and avid followers ruled his country. His public persona had largely been written by others, while his private life had been marked by a series of mistresses and prostitutes. Despite his dubious predilections, he won the support of Christians who saw him as the defender of their faith; despite his patriotic protestations, he readily collaborated with foreign leaders whose interests were inimical to those of the nation. When he held power, entire peoples, because of their religious beliefs or ethnic backgrounds, were defined as threats to the nation; they were arrested, interned, and expelled. When he lost power, a liberated people celebrated.

Seventy-five years ago, France found itself in this situation. When the nation was finally and fully liberated from Nazi Germany in 1945, it was also rid of the French State, the official name of the collaborationist government better known as Vichy. At the head of this craven and cruel regime was Philippe Pétain, whose policies and principles resemble those of another head of state who is about to be ushered out of power: Donald Trump. (One difference between the two is that Pétain, the hero of Verdun, was a successful military man, while Trump, a failed businessman, was a successful draft dodger.)

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While striking, the parallels between Pétain and Trump are less telling than the parallels between their ravaged societies. Just as the Trump administration not only failed to protect Americans from the coronavirus pandemic but instead aided in its spread, Vichy had not only failed to protect the French from the “brown plague” of Nazism but instead served as its enabler. As a result, Pétain bequeathed a ransacked economy. In early 1945, each citizen’s daily bread rations were limited to 100 grams and weekly meat rations to 60 grams, totaling a debilitating 1,000 calories per day. Wages were low, inflation was high; heating fuel was scarce, and working conditions were brutal. Not surprisingly, the euphoria that greeted the day of liberation gave way to anxiety the day after.

The dire conditions wrought by the plague of the Nazi occupation posed unprecedented difficulties for the head of the provisional government, Charles de Gaulle. Compounding his challenge was the ideological mix of his new government, which included those who sought reform, such as the Catholics, and those who sought revolution, such as the Communists. De Gaulle’s room for maneuver was further constrained by the Charter, the manifesto of the national council of resistance movements, which called for revolutionary social and economic changes.

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Dealt these cards, the Catholic, conservative General de Gaulle played an unexpected hand: He became, as his biographer Jean Lacouture observed, “the leader of the advocates of the most radical reforms.” His provisional government nationalized banks and industries and created universal health care and social security. Revolution was averted, and lasting reforms were enacted.

However, the government’s efforts to alleviate France’s harsh economic and material realities required time. In fact, matters got worse before they got better. Prices continued to rise while rations continued to shrink, rebounding only at decade’s end. (When she traveled to France in 1949 for her study-abroad year, Jacqueline Bouvier was issued a ration card.) By the early 1950s, however, the social rights won by workers — known as “les droits acquis” — helped fuel what is known as “les trentes glorieuses,” 30 years of economic growth and prosperity. This is why President Emmanuel Macron’s many efforts to prune these rights have been met with broad and sustained resistance.

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Just as there are telling similarities between Pétain and Trump, so too are there resemblances between Charles de Gaulle and Joe Biden. This might seem surprising, given the Frenchman’s imperious manner and the American’s gregarious and heart-on-the-sleeve character. But just as de Gaulle believed that history had invested him with a mission to save his country from the Nazis, so too did Biden come to a similar belief in the wake of Trump’s remarks after the neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville, Va. Moreover, Biden, like the General, is a devout Catholic who, for much of his political career, was relatively conservative on an array of social issues.

Moreover, Biden finds himself, like de Gaulle, caught between the aspirations of his uneasy partners to his left and the anxieties of his equally uneasy allies to his right. He understands that the enthusiasm sparked by his election — one that represents a liberation of sorts for a slim majority of Americans — will soon evaporate in the heat caused by continued social unrest and economic hardship. Yet this should prod him to act and not prevent him from it, even if he has a divided legislative branch. In 1945, de Gaulle grasped that France was at a turning point in its history and that the nation’s future depended on the direction and execution of that turn. This is why, upon committing himself to radical reform in order to secure the republic, he paradoxically called himself “the only revolutionary.” Joe Biden probably won’t make this description his own, but our nation’s future might depend on his acting as if he had.

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Robert Zaretsky teaches in the Honors College at the University of Houston. His new book, “The Subversive Simone Weil: A Life in Five Ideas,” will be published in February.