De Gaulle’s State of Tomorrow

Vitor Pinto/Fountain, Paris

Technocratic power has become the core backbone of industrial civilization. Incapable of managing complex modern forms of social organization, legacy political structures have outsourced their responsibilities to an army of credentialed bureaucrats. The abdication of the statesman marks the rise of the expert, a political player who wields a different kind of authority. Where the democratic leader derives his mandate from the supposed will of the people, the expert’s legitimacy comes from his supposedly superior knowledge of technical matters. A product of the meritocratic machine, the expert translates epistemic credibility into influence: He rules because he knows more.

Modern states created expert-led administrations to serve specific, subordinate functions. Certain questions required technical assessments, for which rulers had to employ competent advisers. But the Industrial Revolution expanded the need for this kind of structure far beyond its initial conception. The centralization of private power demanded the centralization of public power.  Faced with ever-expanding firms with clear objectives and coordinated hierarchies, the state found itself dealing with unprecedented legal, administrative, and industrial complexity at scale. Institution-builders restructured state power to deal with these challenges, one step at a time. Once a subordinate extension of conventional authority, technocracy metastasized into a large, independent authority of its own. The statesman-expert hierarchy has become a partnership upon which the functionality of the state depends. Just as the preservation of order in medieval kingdoms required symbiosis between priest and knight, so the preservation of state capacity in industrial societies requires symbiosis between expert and statesman.

Political and technocratic modes of power can no longer operate on their own. Without direction, bureaucracies degenerate into cold-hearted machines that reduce the human experience to a set of metrics devoid of higher purpose. Without structure and expertise, politicians simply cannot manage the social systems of modern life to carry out any particular vision. Both modes, therefore, need each other to thrive and survive. Working in unison, political leaders provide the end to the technocracy’s means and the moral purpose of the machine’s inner workings. Conversely, experts can enlighten the decisions of statesmen, temper their dynamism, and bring detachment to the chaotic whims of the moment. Ultimately, modern, industrial states are faced with this central challenge: to re-establish the primacy of the political over the technocratic without destroying the necessary symbiosis between the two.

Few regimes, if any, have found the right balance. In the West and beyond, political representatives delight in delegating their power to administrators. Two incentives explain this love of abdication: First, outsourcing represents a handy way to avoid policy-making, responsibility, and personal accountability. Second, outsourcing frees up time to fundraise, campaign, and build a media-savvy persona. On the other end of the trade, technocrats welcome their ever-expanding authority by consolidating their status and influence without worrying about elections. Over time, the unchanging administration captures the influence that elected offices once possessed; every time, power flows from the temporary and fragile to the permanent and secure.

This trend results in an unbalanced structure wherein political leaders turn themselves into actors in a televised pantomime while experts, internalizing the hubristic idea that technical skill and statesmanship are one and the same, rule behind the scenes. In theory, this model applies the division of labor to politics. Theatrical players, selected for their charisma, dominate surface-level institutions while technical players, selected for their brute-force competence, control the superstructure. In practice, however, this imbalanced order fuses the worst of both technocracy and mob rule. Unelected, directionless bureaucrats reign supreme while demagogues distract the masses. Devoid of discipline, coherence, and moral purpose, technocrats cannot even deal with strictly technical issues like pandemic management, even as they undermine and absorb the whole political structure.

Industrial societies thus face a dilemma. On the one hand, modern forms of social organization demand the symbiotic alignment of technocratic and political modes of authority. On the other hand, bureaucracies as we know them tend to accumulate power while the political center becomes the concierge of its own abdication.

Few statesmen understood the magnitude of this challenge as early as 1950. Fewer still were in a position to create a new stack of social technologies in order to escape from the dilemma. Among those who fit both categories, Charles de Gaulle—the founder of France’s Fifth Republic—stands out. Fusing the institutions of the Ancien Régime, Napoleon, and revolutionary France, he built a model that has since gained traction far beyond France itself.

The Gaullist Model

De Gaulle rose to power in unique circumstances. In 1945, years of German occupation and Vichy-led collaboration had shattered the French state to the ground. The country needed re-organization and De Gaulle had carte blanche to reshape the nation’s institutions as he pleased. A celebrated hero who embodied France in exile during the war, he enjoyed unparalleled popular support. Devastated at the material, political, and spiritual level, the country begged for an era of renewal.

De Gaulle did not merely re-build the country; he re-founded it. Since the revolution of 1789, France had undergone a succession of dysfunctional republics, empires, and royalist restorations, none of which had managed to establish a stable order. The monarchy lost control and never truly regained it; the empire failed to organize its own succession; obsessing over consensus-building, the republics struggled to get anything done. Mindful of these difficulties, De Gaulle proposed a grand synthesis that would bring the continuity of the monarchy, the Napoleonic leadership of the empire, and the meritocratic technocracy of the republic together. He thereby supplied a blueprint for modern states seeking to balance expertise and statesmanship.

France’s technocracy arose under the patronage of powerful executives. Napoleon founded the “grandes écoles,” the country’s hyper-selective bastions of meritocracy, to produce the social and intellectual capital of the Empire. Right from the start, these institutions had a clear mandate: identify the country’s high-performing talents, turn them into civil servants, and shape the elite that could administer the country under the guardianship of a charismatic leader. A fervent admirer of Bonaparte, De Gaulle brought this model into the industrial era.

Where Napoleon’s grandes écoles educated Renaissance men, De Gaulle’s aimed to produce cultured and competent technocrats. The French president reformed existing universities, created new ones, and built a comprehensive pipeline from high-achieving students to life-long civil servants. Every step of the way, a coordinated network of social institutions would shape future administrators. Teenagers would dream of becoming distinguished technocrats and every technocrat would find glory in serving the state with tact. Once formed, this new elite would act as the managerial octopus of the state’s dirigisme—structuring the French economy, empowering public-private partnerships, and restraining zealous sources of corporate power. Ultimately, De Gaulle did anticipate the ever-expanding growth of expert-led bureaucracies. But he did not find this expansion threatening, so long as the technocratic machine remained under the control of civil servants shaped by decades of state-of-the-art social engineering.

De Gaulle also understood the value of mixed regimes. Beyond sheer competence, experts provided continuity and stability in a democratic system that would otherwise oscillate from one election to the next, incapable of accumulating institutional memory. De Gaulle and his successors had to secure some degree of buy-in from the technocratic elite, but those who managed to domesticate the bureaucracy could wield its power in the service of a coherent political vision. Far from a naïve optimist, De Gaulle by no means welcomed the rise of the administrative state. But he did believe in the ability of strong executives to tame and command the beast.

In fact, De Gaulle built the institutions of the Fifth Republic around the figure of the president. When Emmanuel Macron declared “the French elect a president to be a king,” he was not indulging in hyperbole—he merely repeated standard Gaullist tropes about the status and importance of the role. Right from the start, De Gaulle envisioned the president as an elected Caesar who would celebrate the country’s past, shape its future, guard its institutions, and supply France’s bureaucratic behemoth with a clear moral vision.

The Gaullist model—on which the French state is still built today—endows the president with three kinds of authority. First, he embodies the will of the majority. Elected via popular vote in a two-round election, the president is the only legitimate representative of the people as a cohesive whole. The two-round structure also ensures that the president has both a broad appeal and a dedicated base to mobilize at will—as De Gaulle did when he ended the chaos of the May 1968 revolt by massing a million people on the Champs-Élysées in a counter-demonstration. This intimate connection to the populace contrasts with the technocracy’s detachment; if unelected bureaucrats feel zealous enough to challenge the president’s designs, they will have to face the wrath of a charismatic leader who possesses the sort of popular authority that experts lack.

Second, France’s constitution gives the president formal powers that transcend the domain of conventional republican executives. By himself, the president can appoint and remove administrators, diplomats, special prosecutors, and ministers; he can also declare war unilaterally and dissolve the national assembly at will. This panoply of legal tools allows the executive to apply pressure on every cog in the state’s machine. Against a rebellious parliament, dissolution; against disagreeable ministers, removal; against obstructionist bureaucracies, instant re-organization. These mechanisms do not turn the French president into a wild autocrat, but they do empower him to act swiftly and decisively. In this sense, the structure of the executive complements and counterbalances the power of the technocracy. In contrast to the slow and steady influence that experts accumulate over decades of networking and coordination, the president brings the dynamic and decisive arm of his office.

Third, the president embodies the state and its traditions. Beyond the formalities of the written constitution, De Gaulle organized the hierarchies of the Fifth Republic around a clear set of aesthetics. More specifically, he revitalized a series of rituals that place the president in the role of the monarchs and emperors of old. The inauguration ceremony is just one example. Once elected, the president walks through the majestic halls of the Élysée palace while the national orchestra plays a solemn march. He thereafter becomes the Grand Chancellor of the Legion of Honor—the republic’s highest order—and receives a 21-gun salute. All of these symbols come from times past: Napoleon created the Legion of Honor, and royal troops used the 21-gun salute to welcome the new king under the Ancien Régime. By aggregating this mosaic of influences, De Gaulle gave the president a form of symbolic authority. Where the technocracy remains a cold, opaque, and de-aestheticized machine, the president personifies millennia of traditions designed to affirm his authority as the embodiment of the nation.

This tripartite form of authority—an intimate relationship with the people, a panoply of formal powers, and a mosaic of symbolic rituals—equips the president with the tools necessary to domesticate France’s technocratic ministries and agencies. In this model, not only does the executive personally control the administrative elite, but he also supplies the two components of proper governance that experts fail to provide: a narrative and a clear political vision.

De Gaulle believed that every nation needs a “roman national,” or national story around which people and institutions coalesce. He filled all his speeches with historical references, turning France’s past into the uninterrupted story of a great people. Far from an incoherent set of influences, the ancien régime, Bonapartism, and republicanism fused into a cohesive cultural whole. The deliberate construction of a grand narrative did not merely serve a rhetorical purpose; afraid of the mechanistic character of modern politics, De Gaulle wanted to inject an element of romanticism in an age of cold, calculating reason.

At heart, the central duty of the French presidency is to occupy the country’s narrative center—that is, to write the story from which the state derives its sense of purpose. During his term, De Gaulle embarked on a series of national projects, erecting public-private giants in the fashion, defense, and automobile industries that remain functional to this day. More than an expression of statism, these grand aspirations reflected a broader desire to give direction to the country. He did not view presidential authority merely as a toolkit for restraining the expert-class, but also as a necessary power with which to orient, direct, and mobilize the state’s machinery towards a higher national vision. In fact, he managed to cement this understanding in France’s political culture.

Building the Modern State

All modern states face the daunting task of balancing expertise and statesmanship. In most cases, the inescapable growth of expert-led administrations devours the state, thereby turning industrial societies into directionless technocracies.

In theory, the Gaullist model combines the managerial competence of experts with the romantic élan of statesmen, thereby securing the best of both worlds. In practice, the model relies upon two demanding preconditions: the construction of an elite-production machine that churns out competent technocrats en masse, as well as the establishment of mechanisms that identify and elevate charismatic statesmen to lead the nation. Both of these conditions require complex, coordinated networks of institutions that few states have proven capable of building. In fact, most of France’s current malfunctions have to do with the country’s ability to do the first but not the second: the grandes écoles do produce competent technocrats, but the democratic process has not identified successors who match De Gaulle’s vision.

Still, despite its imperfections, the Gaullist model provides a blueprint for modern, industrial states. Around the world, many states have adopted variants of its symbiosis, balancing the rise of expert-led bureaucracies with strong executives. Most importantly, the world’s two dominant players—China and the United States—are also moving in this direction.

In China, the ruling party has long become a hyper-selective technocracy. Relying upon exams and competition between local bureaucrats, the Chinese model organizes itself around the principles of Confucian meritocracy—among which lies the idea that the more competent and knowledgeable should rule. Recently, however, this structure has witnessed the rise of Xi Jinping, who has gone from bureaucrat-in-chief to Caesarean leader in two decades. Expanding the realms of his powers, Xi has secured his control over the state’s intricate machinery. But he has also positioned himself as the country’s narrative center, charting a comprehensive vision of China’s future in speech after speech. Xi has mobilized grand narratives of Chinese history, fusing Confucian, Maoist, nationalist, and imperial ideals into a cohesive story that transcends shallow materialism. In this sense, despite the vast differences separating contemporary China from 20th-century France—the most obvious being the one-party structure—China has converged upon the Gaullist conception of modern, industrial states.

As for the U.S., three trends are pushing the country towards the Gaullist balance between executive authority and technocracy. First, successive presidents have strengthened the executive’s formal and symbolic powers. The primary-general election structure parallels the two-round process that De Gaulle envisioned and selects for figures that have a significantly more intimate relationship with the populace than America’s founding statesmen did. When Andrew Jackson ran in 1828, his opponents called him “populist” because he delivered fiery speeches in front of public audiences; now, we would just call him a standard politician. This shift in expectations, accompanied by a series of court decisions that reinforce the powers of the executive, has brought the American presidency closer to the charismatic leader that De Gaulle envisioned. Empowered, the executive remains the only institution that speaks for the nation as a whole.

Second, while legislators have given their influence away, America’s administrative state has grown in size and power. Congressional capacity—or the quality and efficiency of the institution’s structure—has reached new lows. Over the past twenty years, the number of congressional staffers has decreased, as has the time that legislators spend in Washington. These trends reflect the generalized abdication of the legislature, which has outsourced its powers to numerous technocratic bodies that are often accountable only to the executive. Expert-led bureaucracies have become a non-negotiable part of the state’s machinery. The American president does not have as much power as his French counterpart; he cannot, for instance, remove the heads of certain administrations at will. But the scope of the executive’s powers has expanded considerably in the last few decades, thereby moving the president’s relationship to the technocracy closer to the Gaullist ideal. Presidents are not yet capable of taking control of America’s technocracy, but they might be soon enough.

Third, the U.S. thirsts for a national story. Cold War liberalism, which supplied the country’s narrative consensus during the 20th century, finds itself attacked from both left and right. Beneath the debates opposing 1619 to 1776 lies a fervent desire for a clear moral narrative. In this context, the American people do not merely look for bureaucrats-in-chief who can implement sound policies and rule with tact. They seek leaders who can act as narrative centers, builders who champion a specific political vision, storytellers who can inject an element of romanticism into public life. In short, they yearn for an American De Gaulle.

Nevertheless, neither America nor China has managed to replicate the Gaullist model. Both suffer from countless malfunctions, from disorganized bureaucracies to frivolous elites devoid of vision. But the great powers are converging around a statesman-expert structure that combines a strong executive, a hyper-selective technocracy, and a national narrative. Consciously or not, De Gaulle provided the blueprint for advanced, industrial societies in search of vitality. More than a theoretical framework, the unity of political and technocratic power provides new axes of competition upon which state capacity depends. Many states already understand how to educate generations of experts; none has found systematic ways to create a class of charismatic leaders—there lies the grand challenge of our time.

The 21st century will judge states according to their ability to build symbiotic hierarchies between statesmen and experts, produce competent technocracies, and elevate rulers to lead the state’s machinery with vision and tact. Those who succeed will secure order, dynamism, and cohesion. The rest will be devoured by a mindless Leviathan.

Mathis Bitton is a student of political theory at Yale University. His writing focuses on liberalism and institutional development. You can follow him on Twitter @mlbitton.