De Gaulle supported economic integration as well as an independent European defense capability. But he objected to any idea that would cost France any element of its sovereignty. Treaties signed by sovereign nations could be defined, redefined and if necessary abandoned. Confederation or federation meant a transfer of sovereignty and the loss of decision-making at a national level, the inability to withdraw from the group and the inability of the whole to expel a part.
De Gaulle objected to NATO's structure because it effectively limited France's sovereignty. NATO's Military Committee was effectively in command of the military forces of the constituent nations, and at a time of war, NATO's supreme allied commander in Europe -- always an American -- would automatically take command. De Gaulle did not object to the principle of NATO in general, and France remained a member, but he could not accept that French troops were automatically tied to a war plan or were automatically under the command of anyone who wasn't French. That decision would have to be made by France when the time came. It could not be assumed.
In this sense, de Gaulle differed from the extreme visions of European integrationists, who saw a United States of Europe eventually forming. Like the British, whom he believed would always pursue their interests regardless of any treaty, he was open to an alliance of sovereign European states, but not to the creation of a federation in which France would be a province.
De Gaulle understood the weakness in what would become the European Union, which was that national interests always dominated. No matter how embedded nations became in a wider system, so long as national leaders were answerable to their people, integration would never work in time of crisis, and would compound the crisis by turning it from what it originally concerned into a crisis of mixed sovereignty.
However, de Gaulle also wanted France to play a dominant role in European affairs, and he knew that this could be done only in an alliance with Germany. He was confident -- perhaps mistakenly -- that given the psychological consequences of World War II, France would be the senior partner in this relationship.
The descendants of de Gaulle accept his argument that France has to pursue its own interests, but not his obsession with sovereignty. Or, more precisely, they created a strategy that seemed to flow from de Gaulle's logic. As de Gaulle had said, France alone could not hope to match the global superpowers. France needed to be allied with other European countries, and above all with Germany. The foundation of this alliance had to be economic and military. But with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the urgency of the military threat dissolved. France's presidents since the end of the Cold War, Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy, believed that the Gaullist vision could be achieved solely through economic ties.
It is in this context that Hollande is going to Germany. Although Sarkozy went as a committed ally of Germany, Hollande will not necessarily be predisposed to German solutions for Europe's problems. This is somewhat startling in post-Cold War Franco-German relations, but it is very much what de Gaulle would have accepted. France's economic needs are different from those of Germany. Harmonization agreements where there is no harmony are dangerous and unenforceable. A strong "non" is sometimes needed. The irony is that Hollande is a Socialist and the ideological enemy of Gaullism. But as we said, most presidents do not make strategy but merely shape an existing national strategy for the moment. It would seem to us that Hollande will now begin, very slowly, to play the Gaullist hand.