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World leaders

If only Putin were more like de Gaulle

De Gaulle in 1965. Dominique Berretty/Gamma-Rapho/Getty

Vladimir Putin has a surprising amount in common with Charles de Gaulle, says Gideon Rachman in the FT. Like Putin, the French president was always obsessed with his country’s image and status as a big power. “France cannot be France,” he wrote in his memoirs, “without greatness.” And just as Putin wants to atone for the break-up of the Soviet Union – he once called it a “geopolitical tragedy” – de Gaulle was “intent on rebuilding national grandeur” after the humiliation of Nazi occupation during World War Two.

The similarities end there. When de Gaulle returned to power in 1958, many “assumed and hoped” he would double down on France’s fight to keep Algeria. Instead, he realised that “fighting a losing colonial conflict would destroy French greatness rather than rebuild it”. By allowing Algeria its independence, he enabled France to “forge a new future” – not as a superpower, but as a “global player in culture, diplomacy, business, sport and military affairs”. Its grandeur now rests on “the global respect it inspires, rather than on raw power”. Putin, in contrast, couldn’t imagine Russia as a post-imperial nation, and still measures his country’s greatness by its ability to “control territory and inspire fear”. His invasion of Ukraine has demonstrated the folly of this “imperialistic” way of thinking. It’s a tragedy of leadership. “Russia needed its own de Gaulle. Instead, it has ended up with a pale imitation of Ivan the Terrible.”