COFFEE WITH JACQUES GODFRAIN
When people think of a trip to Paris, they immediately think of the fabulous shopping, a trip to the Louvre, a show at the Moulin Rouge and a stroll along the banks of the River Seine. But there’s so much more to discover in the city, particularly in its rich history. Take the Fondation Charles de Gaulle, whose mission is to preserve the legacy of the famed French statesman. In March, it released an acclaimed book, Dans les Pas de Charles de Gaulle (In the Footsteps of Charles de Gaulle), published by Artélia. Jacques Godfrain, the foundation’s chairman, discusses the close connections between the general and China, as well as the popular tourist spots that honor his storied legacy You’ve just returned from a trip to China. How closely does the Fondation Charles de Gaulle work with the country?
General de Gaulle’s decision to recognize the government of the People’s Republic of China as the legitimate government of the country, leading to the establishment of diplomatic relations on January 27, 1964, means that to this day he enjoys unparalleled prestige among the Chinese — those in government as well as ordinary citizens.
So, as the embodiment of this legacy, the Foundation has a special relationship with the Chinese authorities, especially since the year 2000, in the context of celebrating what Sino-French friendship owes to General de Gaulle, Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai. The Foundation’s Chinese partners take an exceptionally strong interest in this, and this interest needs to be encouraged and developed so that it directly serves France-China relations.
And how does the foundation help build this relationship?
We work regularly with our partners in setting up economic projects and cultural events such as the Charles de Gaulle: l’Homme des Tempêtes exhibition held in Beijing, Shanghai, Wuhan and Chengdu in 2004 and 2005, and events organized in Beijing and Shanghai in 2014. We’ve also been developing university exchange programs since 2007 with the Chinese People’s Institute of Foreign Affairs and that will be expanding after the various meetings we’ve just had.
You mentioned economic projects; could you go into a bit more detail?
Our Chinese partners would also like to learn more about France through our crafts. The various regions of France are home to some excellent craftspeople, including lace-makers in Calais and Puy, and glovers in Millau; we can put them in contact with our friends in China. We have a large network of contacts with elected officials in France and with French companies.
When there are opportunities forcompanies — large or small — to approach the Chinese market, our role is to help facilitate the procedures.
Tell us about some of the most distinguished people who have visited.
Like his predecessor Hu Jintao,
when President Xi Jinping came to Paris on an official visit in March 2014, he asked to go to General de Gaulle’s office to reflect and pay tribute to him. This was a very significant gesture and a true mark of affection for the general.
Where do other Chinese people like to go when they visit?
They’re interested in visiting the places where General de Gaulle lived. For them, a trip to France isn’t only about the Moulin Rouge and Versailles. Certain places have a mythical quality for them — such as Colombey-les-deux Églises [de Gaulle’s last home as well as his final resting place] — because the man who brought worldwide recognition of their country lived there. So we help organize bespoke tours of those places.
How is this new book different from other publications about the man?
This book is intended to get the public interested. We didn’t want to write a guidebook or yet another collection of historical facts. Some renowned writers, including Denis Tillinac, Alexandre Jardin and Hua Wang — now 80 years old, he was one of the group who came to France in 1964 to set up the new embassy of the People’s Republic of China — have written about how it felt for them when they visited these places. It’s more of a literary approach and we’re very happy with it.
Why should people be interested in visiting these historical sites?
It’s very important to situate an individual in a place. [French intellectual and politician FrançoisRené] Chateaubriand just wouldn’t be Chateaubriand without his castle in Combourg, Brittany. And de Gaulle wouldn’t be de Gaulle without the immense forests around Colombey-les-deux-Églises, which he admired from his window. This book takes the reader on a sort of historical tour, explaining the modernity of de Gaulle — and that visiting the memorial is not about stepping back in history, but about finding an anchorage in today’s modernity.
What important places has the foundation been involved with?
Our first major project was building the Cross of Lorraine in 1972; now some 80,000 people visit Colombey every year. Our next project was buying and restoring the house in Lille where General de Gaulle was born. We also built a memorial in Colombey and created the Historial Charles de Gaulle [an interactive multimedia museum in Paris].
Of all the locations associated with his life, which is your favorite?
The Lille house — because that’s where it all began.