De Gaulle: He Saved the Honor of France

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De Gaulle
By Julian Jackson
Harvard University Press
August 2018
928 pages

In his magisterial biography of de Gaulle, Julian Jackson has done us a great service:  he has distilled the thousands of books and articles about Charles de Gaulle into a brilliant, fascinating biography. He has written, in fact, the definitive English-language biography of de Gaulle.

More has been written about De Gaulle than any other figure in modern French history except for Napoleon. There are over 3,600 places that have a public space named after him. And soon after DeGaulle’s death, the incomparable site of Napoleon’s Arc de Triomphe was renamed the Place de l’ Etoile – Charles de Gaulle. Jackson, professor of history at Queen Mary University in London, helps us understand why 44% of the French in a 2010 opinion poll ranked de Gaulle as the most important figure in French history — far ahead of Napoleon, who came in second place with only 14%.

During his lifetime, de Gaulle was revered, and he was hated. There were thirty serious assassination attempts on de Gaulle, and two of them almost succeeded. But in the years since his death in 1970, the left and the right, communists and republicans, have united in their admiration of de Gaulle. When France was a failed state in the spring of 1940 with the Wehrmacht approaching Paris, de Gaulle refused to surrender. In his now-legendary speech broadcast by the BBC on June 18, 1940, he called all France to join him in defiance of Germany. In doing so, he salvaged the honor and dignity of a once-great nation.

Born in the house of his Lille grandparents in 1890, he was reared in a wealthy provincial bourgeois family, which was both patriotic and devoutly Catholic. He entered Saint-Cyr – the French equivalent of West Point – and graduated 13th in his class of approximately 200 in 1912. There is no record that he stood out in any way except for his height – 6 foot 4 inches. During the first two years of World War I, de Gaulle was wounded twice. Then at Verdun in 1916, when his entire company was almost wiped out and it was initially reported that he had been killed, he was taken prisoner. During his 32 months as a German prisoner of war, de Gaulle made five attempts to escape; each time he slipped out of camp but was recaptured. In one attempt, he managed to cover close to 80 miles before he was retaken.

Following World War I, de Gaulle sought to rebuild his military career. He secured a post lecturing on military history and wrote his first book, The Enemy’s House Divided, published in 1924. In 1925, de Gaulle worked for Marshal Philippe Petain – a hero of France for his victory at Verdun, but whom de Gaulle believed was no longer a great man. Posted to Beirut, de Gaulle wrote the second of his books during the inter-war period, The Edge of the Sword, a brilliant reflection on leadership, which also attacked the drift in France towards pacifism. His third book, Towards a Professional Army, emphasized how the invention of tanks had revolutionized warfare by the introduction of speed and mobility. His book was vigorously attacked not only by the Socialist Party leader Leon Blum but by senior military figures as well. As war approached, the political situation in the Third Republic was chaotic and signaled the coming military debacle when Germany attacked. The strength of the Communist and Socialist parties frightened French moderates and conservatives, many of whom saw Germany and fascism as the only bulwark against the tyranny that the violent French revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries brought.

When Germany attacked France in May 1940, de Gaulle commanded a tank division that saw heavy combat. All observers agree that de Gaulle was resourceful, energetic, and completely indifferent to physical danger. He was also independent and authoritarian, convinced that his judgment in battle was always the best.  He typically kept his distance from his officers, intimidating them with a cold silence and often using a peremptory tone with them, which allowed no rejoinder. This was the way he treated his subordinates through his life.

Promoted to brigadier general in late May1940, de Gaulle was recalled to Paris to work for Prime Minister Paul Reynaud. Reynaud had offered a post to Marshal Petain and General Maxime Weygand, both of whom were pessimists and wanted to negotiate an armistice with Germany. On June 5th, de Gaulle became a cabinet member under Reynaud as Undersecretary of War, but by this time France was lost. Although 330,000 British troops had been evacuated from Dunkirk, and over 100,000 French troops were saved from capture, France had lost the will to fight. Reynaud, who did not want to capitulate to the Germans, resigned as prime minister. Then Petain and his colleagues signed a separate peace with Germany. De Gaulle resigned and flew to England, arriving on June 17th with two suitcases and 100,000 francs in government funds given to him by Reynaud. At the age of 49, de Gaulle was effectively on his own and in exile in London. The Vichy French considered him a traitor.

The following day, June 18, 1940, de Gaulle made his famous speech, which became the stuff of legends over the next decades. The speech lasted only four minutes, and very few people heard it at 10 p.m. on the BBC. But it was repeated four times that next day. De Gaulle’s message was simple:  “The flame of French resistance must not be extinguished and will not be distinguished.” In his speech, de Gaulle invited all French officers and soldiers who were in British territory, or would be there in the future, to contact him. De Gaulle said in effect:  France and I are one. De Gaulle saw himself as the true incarnation of France.

In his superb 775-page biography, Jackson chronicles how de Gaulle over the next four years slowly and painstakingly built a French state in exile. Despite the fact that Petain’s Vichy France called itself the true France and that most of the French colonies affiliated themselves initially with Petain, de Gaulle found ways over the coming years to gain the Allies’ support to be seen as the real leader of France. De Gaulle always emanated a chilly reserve, which kept people at a distance. He was constitutionally unable to express gratitude, and he was incapable of apologizing for anything. Both Churchill and Roosevelt found de Gaulle to be insufferably arrogant and were often infuriated by de Gaulle’s behavior and his insistence that France be treated as a great nation – despite the fact that France had surrendered to the Germans within six weeks of being attacked in 1940. But somehow de Gaulle found ways to win the Allies’ support to help him liberate France. Anthony Eden, one of Churchill’s most trusted lieutenants, remarked about de Gaulle’s behavior in a meeting with Churchill that “he had never seen anything like it in the way of rudeness since Ribbentrop [the Nazi Foreign Minister].” Roosevelt was so infuriated with de Gaulle that he kept him entirely in the dark about Operation Torch – the Anglo-Invasion of French North Africa (in Vichy hands) in November 1942. When de Gaulle learned of the operation, he was furious and screamed:  “I hope the Vichy people throw them back in the sea.” For Roosevelt, France’s catastrophic defeat in 1940 meant that no one could rightfully claim to represent France.

One of de Gaulle’s most difficult tasks was to convince the various French Resistance organizations that he, out of harm’s way in England, was their leader. This was particularly difficult in the case of the powerful Communist Resistance organization, which sought to hold power when Germany was eventually beaten. (In the first decade after the war, the Communist party generally won about 25% of the popular vote in France.) The French Resistance leader Jean Moulin played a key role in helping de Gaulle assume leadership of the Resistance, before he was captured and tortured to death by the Germans in 1943. He became one of France’s greatest heroes and martyrs in the war.

As D-Day approached in June 1944, de Gaulle persuaded Eisenhower and Churchill to let Free French troops play a modest role in the liberation of France. However, de Gaulle’s astonishing ingratitude to the Allies was never more prominent than in a speech on August 23rd at the Hotel de Ville in Paris, when he proclaimed the liberation of France “by its people with the help of the armies of France, with the help and assistance of the whole of France, of that France which fights, of the only France, of the true France, of the eternal France.” There was not word about the American and British troops who had shed so much blood to liberate France nor was there a mention of the heroic French resistance fighters who had risked their lives for France. The next day, de Gaulle staged a procession in which he slowly walked the length of the Champs Elysees; it is estimated that 2 million people were there.

Within several weeks, de Gaulle had formed his new government, which included Free French, resisters, Communists, and civil servants. Jackson recounts a telling story when at the cabinet’s first meeting, the Minister of Information, Pierre-Henri Teitgen, was so amazed at de Gaulle’s impregnable sense of natural authority that he scribbled a note to his neighbor, George Bidault, “He is extraordinary.” Bidault scribbled back:  “Lucifer was the most beautiful of angels.”

De Gaulle led the French government for the remainder of the war. Jackson carefully follows all the political twists and turns of French politics during 1945 and 1946, as de Gaulle sought to create a new constitution for the Fourth Republic as well as retain power as the head of France. The Communist and Socialist parties in this period constituted almost 50% of the French electorate, and de Gaulle, exasperated and raging at not getting his way, resigned in January 1946. He was not to regain power until 1958.

During the Fourth Republic, there was a remarkable level of political dysfunction. In a 12-year period, there were 21 government administrations. Despite the unstable government coalitions of the left and the right, this period saw great economic growth in France and reestablishment of its social institutions. But the Fourth Republic finally shattered on the issue of Algeria. Jackson is masterful in his description of how de Gaulle maneuvered himself back into power in 1958. At one point, top French generals in Algeria made preparations to send 50,000 parachutists to seize key strategic sites in Paris. Ultimately de Gaulle convinced France that he was the only political figure who could resolve the Algerian debate without civil war. Once in power, de Gaulle made the decision to withdraw from Algeria totally, enraging many French military leaders who saw de Gaulle’s actions as treasonous. His actions unleashed a series of assassination attempts, which in 1961 and 1962 almost succeeded.

De Gaulle reigned almost as a king for the next ten years. During this period, one of his greatest achievements was causing a new constitution to be drafted and then approved by popular vote, ushering in the Fifth Republic, which, unlike its predecessors, has stood the test of time. After he resigned the presidency in 1969, he told Emmanuel d’Harcourt in a conversation when he was in an expansive mood:  “The regret of my life is not to have built a monarchy, there was no member of the Royal house for that. In reality, I was a monarch for ten years.”  

From his earliest days in London in 1940, de Gaulle harbored two contradictory views of America. On the one hand, he was stunned by America’s sheer energy and power, but in spite of his antagonistic relationship with Roosevelt, he realized that he desperately needed America’s military might in order to liberate France. On the other hand, he embodied that anti-Americanism which is still harbored deep in the soul of many French – the view that America is an upstart, immature nation that will never measure up to the cultural and artistic greatness of the great nation, France. Unwilling for France to play a lesser role in the Western alliance during the Cold War, de Gaulle took France out of NATO in 1965, demanding the removal of all U.S. troops from French soil. This was the genesis of Dean Rusk’s famous sarcastic question, asking de Gaulle if this meant also removing all the bodies of the dead U.S. soldiers buried in French soil, soldiers who given their lives to liberate France.

De Gaulle also infuriated the Canadian government on his official visit to Quebec in 1967. After a 175-mile tour in an open-top car along the St. Lawrence River from Quebec to Montreal, de Gaulle appeared on the balcony of the Town Hall and gave a speech that stunned most Canadians with its chauvinism and effrontery. At the end of his speech, he slowly and carefully delivered the lines:  “Vive Quebec Libre, Vive le Canada francais, Vive la France!” To many it seemed a clear endorsement of Quebec separatism by a foreign leader. Moreover, given how many anglophone Canadians had died liberating France and how few French-Canadians had, it was in appallingly bad taste. The Canadian government cancelled his trip to Ottawa, but de Gaulle could not have cared less. His view was that French-Canadians needed to decide their own destiny.

After a decade of ruling France like a king, de Gaulle overplayed his hand, staking his presidency on a referendum dealing with the trivial issue of the regional reform. The referendum was defeated in March 1969, receiving only 46% of the votes. De Gaulle resigned immediately, and Georges Pompidou was elected President. A year later, de Gaulle died of a ruptured aneurysm at 79.

De Gaulle was an extraordinary man. Highly intelligent, a devout Catholic, brave in battle, resolute as a POW, he was a great patriot who could not bear to see his nation humiliated. Through sheer force of will, a powerful personality, a brilliant understanding of the art of leadership, and a willingness to play any friend or foe against each other to restore France to greatness, de Gaulle for a time became France incarnate. He is revered in France because he is seen to have almost singlehandedly restored the honor and dignity of France. Jackson’s remarkably even-handed biography is the brilliant tale of one whom many have called the “last great Frenchman.” It is also perhaps the best single volume about French politics for the first seven decades of the 20th century. It is required reading for anyone who wants to understand modern France.

Robert H. Bradley is Chairman of Bradley, Foster & Sargent Inc., a $3.7 billion wealth management firm that has offices in Hartford, Connecticut and Wellesley, Massachusetts. Read other articles by him here.