The Roots and Legacy of Gaullism in Canada


The loss of Indochina
The Suez Crisis
The Algerian War

The loss of Indochina

The Suez Crisis

The Algerian War

In the sixties, a convergence of interests between France and Québec led to a diplomatic dispute with Ottawa. The political agendas that were developed then continue to influence today's events, both in Europe, throughout the world, and in Canada.
August 9, 2002

In the interest of stabilizing a nation that had teetered on the brink of a military coup as a result of humiliations to French pride in the mid-1950s, Charles de Gaulle developed an ambitious program of rebuilding France's position as a great power in world affairs. Meanwhile, facing powerful social factors that threatened French language and culture in Québec, the government of that province sought stronger ties with the rest of the French-speaking world and greater independence from Ottawa. The government of Canada, seeking to build the strength of this still young nation, was threatened by the mutual flirtation between France and Québec.

France—In May and June of 1958, General Charles de Gaulle was brought to power in a destabilized France. In 1954, France had suffered the loss of its colonial interests in Indochina. In 1956 in the Suez Crisis, after Israel invaded Sinai, then France and Britain seized the recently nationalized Suez Canal from Egypt, the three attackers were forced by American pressure to withdraw. Finally, after enduring a cruel war since 1955 to maintain possession of their colony of Algeria, and upon the nomination to the premiership of the Christian Democrat, Pierre Pflimlin, in May, 1958, a man opposed to escalation of the Algerian War, Algeria was seized in a military coup, the leaders of which urged the French military to overthrow the French government. The French people were bitterly divided on the issue, but most agreed with the army's insistence that the hero of the liberation of 1944, General Charles de Gaulle, was the only one who could heal France's wounds.

After the resignation of the government in de Gaulle's favour, and despite his early insistence that France must never give up Algeria, de Gaulle, through some complex and dangerous political manoeuvrings (he narrowly escaped at least one assassination attempt), was able to extricate France from Algeria, although recent evidence suggests that this was due more to US pressure than his own preference. These experiences, combined with de Gaulle's personal philosophy and World War II experiences, led him to formulate a "politics of grandeur", a program to restore France's pride and international stature to heal internal divisions in the French body politic.

This policy led de Gaulle to develop a nuclear "force de frappe" (strike force) independent of American control, to attempt to create a more unified Europe under French dominance, to attack Anglo-Saxon predominance such as in the international monetary field by converting France's American dollar and British pound reserves to gold in 1965, and to develop an international French "commonwealth" by encouraging peaceful independence of French colonial holdings in Africa at the same time as establishing trade and agricultural institutions with these and other Francophone states.

Québec—Meanwhile, in North America the mostly Francophone province of Québec, which had felt increasingly isolated ever since the colony of New France was ceded to the British in 1763, began a movement of linguistic and cultural assertion, as well as political independence from Canada. Since the loss of their connection with France in 1763, Québec was increasingly excluded from the economic activities of the British North American colonies that later became Canada. French Canadians were gradually excluded from the fur trade, played mostly minor roles in the timber trade and the colonial bureaucracy, and worked increasingly in agriculture in areas that are far from being Canada's most productive agricultural lands. Moreover, when English loyalists fled the American Revolution, Québec was split in half, with the western portion becoming an English-speaking colony. Although this was somewhat redressed by expanding the territory of Québec northward after Canada was formed, the French Canadians were limited to that territory despite the westward expansion of the country to the Pacific, as French numbers were overwhelmed by English-speaking immigrants and westward migrants from other parts of Canada.

The Québecois' economic position did not improve much by the early post-WW II years, at which time Québec began a transformation into the increasingly urban, industrial, and secular social structure that was growing throughout North America and that was dominated by English-Canadians and Americans. The perception that the survival of French language and culture was threatened was intensified.

Québecois grew eager for the advantages of an improved economic position and resentful of the surrounding English-speaking majority that was seen as responsible for their impoverishment in the past and that was likely to overwhelm their language and culture in the future. It was quite natural that Québec sought the aid of France in their efforts to retain their language and culture and to develop their economy.

Ottawa—General de Gaulle's policy of reviving France's former imperial power by strengthening the influence and involvement with the other French-speaking nations of the world and breaking the predominance of the English-speaking nations seemed to fit nicely with Québec's desire for greater involvement with France and greater independence from English Canada. However, Ottawa saw Québec's flirtations with France as a threat to the integrity of the Canadian confederation and France's conduct towards Québec as an unacceptable interference in another sovereign nation's internal affairs.

Ottawa had usually been aware of the need to accommodate Canada's French-speaking minority, although the federal government had made some woeful blunders, such as the conscription crisis in World War I: Mackenzie King, Canada's longest-serving Prime Minister (1921-26, 1926-30, and 1935-48), was always fearful of conflict with Québec after that debacle. In his memoirs, Prime Minister Lester Pearson (1963-68) noted that "the greatest single source of contention between Ottawa and Québec... (was) the desire of the Québec provincial government to move into the area of foreign affairs".

Diplomatic incidents—With these positions being held by the three governments, it was unavoidable that disputes would occur. The first of these was the signing on February 27, 1965, of a Québec-France education agreement in Paris. Although Ottawa had agreed in principle to pursuing such an agreement in July, 1964, progress on it had been discussed by the foreign ministers of the two countries in December, 1964, and there had been an exchange of notes between the French embassy in Ottawa and the Department of External Affairs on the day of the signing, the issue still became contentious because it was an international agreement that was signed by France and the government of the province of Québec, not the national government. M. Gérin-Lajoie, the Québec education minister, stated that the Québec government had "no intention of abandoning to the federal government the power to apply conventions which were within its own competence". The eventual outcome of this disagreement on jurisdiction over external relations was the negotiation by the Canadian and French governments of an "accorde cadre" or umbrella agreement that would act as "a master agreement enabling the provinces to make 'ententes' with France".

The next issue in the relations of France, Québec, and Canada was de Gaulle's visit to Expo '67 in Montréal. He violated normal protocol by not visiting Ottawa first, not flying the Canadian flag on the French cruiser that docked at Québec City, and not accompanying the Governor-General to his reception. de Gaulle then went on to visit Montréal and, in a speech from the balcony of Montréal's city hall, made his famous "Vive le Québec libre!" speech (Long live free Québec!).

Thirdly, a conference of Francophone education ministers to be held in Gabon on February 5, 1968, provided the next major incident in the series. The invitation, presumably at the insistence of France, was sent directly to Québec rather than to Ottawa first, the diplomatically proper route. The eventual outcome of this incident was the issue of a white paper by the Canadian government entitled Federalism and International Relations, which concluded that only the federal government had the power to enter into treaties or agreements, or join international organizations, or accredit and receive diplomatic representatives, and, while provinces had a legitimate interest in external relations and Québec had specific interests in language, education and cultural contacts with other French-speaking countries, any attempts to supersede federal government authority would be viewed as a threat to the integrity of Canada.

The legacy for Canada—While these three events may seem minor in comparison to other diplomatic collisions in the world, they did add fuel to the fire of the Québec independence movement. The Front de Liberation du Québec (FLQ), which formed in 1963 and called for the independence of Québec via terrorist means, had planted 35 bombs in the four years prior to de Gaulle's incendiary message. In the three years that followed, from 1968 to 1970, that number exceeded 50, almost double the rate. On October 5, 1970, an FLQ cell kidnapped James Cross, the British trade commissioner in Montréal. Five days later, Pierre Laporte, the Québec labour minister, was also kidnapped. Two days after that, on October 12, 1970, Prime Minister Pierre Eliot Trudeau called out the Canadian Armed Forces to guard potential targets, such as federal buildings and cabinet ministers. Then, on October 16, 1970, Trudeau invoked the War Measures Act, which empowered the federal government to impose martial law in the province of Québec and suspend those civil rights that limited the state's power of arrest and imprisonment: 465 Canadians were detained under that authority, and tanks and armed soldiers patrolled the streets of Ottawa and Montréal. The next day, the body of Pierre Laporte, strangled to death, was found in the trunk of an abandoned car. It wasn't until December 3 of that year, 60 days after his capture, that James Cross and his kidnappers were found. On the guarantee of a safe passage to Cuba, James Cross was released by his captors.

Since the October Crisis, the separatist Parti Québecois (PQ) formed the Québec provincial government from 1976 to 1985 and again from 1994 to 2003. The PQ has held two referendums on Québec separation from Canada, one in 1980 and another in 1995. Although the first referendum failed by a considerable margin, the second was only narrowly won by the "no" campaign (50.5% no; 49.5% yes). The Parti Québecois has promised at least one more referendum on Québec separation.

In the years since the Paris-Québec-Ottawa diplomatic battles, Canadians have been engaged in numerous constitutional debates. In 1982, after the failure of the first separatist referendum in Québec, the government of Prime Minister Trudeau drafted and passed the 1982 Constitution Act, which further committed the Canadian constitution to written law (as opposed to unwritten tradition), including a Charter of Rights and Freedoms and "brought it home to Canada" by including an amendment formula, which finally freed us from the embarrassment of having to ask a disinterested British parliament to pass our constitutional changes. The Constitution Act of 1982 was ratified by enough governments representing a large enough percentage of the Canadian population to pass into law, but Québec has refused to ratify it. Since then, two major efforts at constitutional reform have been made to win Québec's approval. In 1987, the Meech Lake Accord was agreed upon by a conference of first ministers, but it failed ratification in two provinces, which meant that it failed to become law according to the 1982 amendment formula. The Québec separatist were even more enraged after this failure. In an attempt to recover this chance at a constitutional resolution to Québec's concerns, the Mulroney government devised the Charlottetown Accord and put it to the nation in a referendum on October 26, 1992. Canadians voted 54.3% against the proposed amendments.

In the federal government, the separatist Bloc Québecois was created when several Conservative Québec MPs left the party in 1990 after the Meech Lake Accord failed. In the elections since the Bloc Québecois' creation they have won the following seats:

Election Total Québec seats

Number of BQ seats


Since Prime Minister Jean Chretien's government assumed power in 1993, their policy on the Québec sovereignty issue has been to present the federal vision in as positive a manner as possible and to avoid confrontation by keeping the issue as quiet as possible. [This strategy seems to have been adopted by Chretien's successor, Paul Martin, since he came to power in December, 2003, as well as by Stephen Harper, the Conservative Prime Minister, since he came to power in January, 2006.—AJJ] This strategy appears to be working, but only time will tell. Thankfully, France has not persisted with the interference in Québec-Canadian politics that it demonstrated in the sixties.

The legacy for Europe and the world—The Gaullist agenda has not disappeared, however. Two international organizations have been influenced by de Gaulle's objective of developing a more influential role for the French and reducing the predominant role of English-speaking nations: La Francophonie and the European Union.

La Francophonie is an umbrella organization that brought together various cooperative efforts of French-speaking states throughout the world. The early organizations that are now a part of La Francophonie are:

Francophone summits began in 1986 and have been held every second year since 1987. In the 6th Francophone summit in 1995, a permanent organization was established, with the addition of a General Secretariat and the transformation of the Agency for Cultural and Technical Cooperation into the Agency of the Francophonie.

Clearly La Francophonie's primary purposes are the innocuous purposes of cooperation on educational and cultural affairs. The European Union, however, is much more involved with issues central to power in international affairs. The EU is primarily, of course, a trade union, but France under de Gaulle twice vetoed British membership in the union, and France has consistently been one of the strongest proponents of making the EU a more integrated political entity, particularly in such areas as foreign policy and the formation of a pan-European military organization. Both of these behaviours suggest that France may be using the European Union as a vehicle for a Gaullist political agenda of returning France to the status of a world power while opposing the English-speaking nations' power. If this is what is being pursued, this attitude and objective could be the basis for the unravelling of the North Atlantic alliance and, conceivably, could be the basis of tomorrow's conflicts. This would be the loss of a great opportunity, as the European Union has the potential to act as a model and basis for a future world order based on the greater political and economic integration that the EU has pioneered. If the objective of one of its most important member states is to become a rival power to the United States, however, the EU is unlikely to serve as the model for anything but the continuation of rival regional blocs in a new form.

While the former President of France, Jacques Chirac, was a self-described Gaullist, it is unclear if this label included an adherence to de Gaulle's more ambitious foreign policy objectives, or if the label describes only a right-of-centre political viewpoint and a belief in a strong presidency. There was a strong division of opinion about how to proceed against Iraq between the US and the UK on one hand, and continental Europe, led by France, on the other. This led to many concerns about the relevance and sustainability of NATO. However, the new President of France, Nicolas Sarkozy, has made a significant effort to mend relations with the U.S. and the U.K.—AJJ