February 1, 2013
Once, when asked for his opinion of Charles de Gaulle, Winston Churchill mused: “If I regard de Gaulle as a great man? He is selfish, he is arrogant, he believes he is the center of the world. He . . . You are quite right. He is a great man.” Churchill knew whereof he spoke: During World War II, it was he who bore the brunt of the Frenchman’s intransigence.
Though very different characters, the two statesmen had certain points in common: Both had an extraordinary way with words and both saw themselves as men of destiny. Having fled to Britain after the collapse of the French army, de Gaulle cast himself as the embodiment of the French nation, a modern-day male Joan of Arc, who would lead the fight against the Germans and their Vichy hirelings and restore France to its rightful place and greatness.
In the process, he managed to upset a great number of people. As French historian Francois Kersody has written, he seemed to be permanently involved in a two front war: “a public war against Vichy and the Germans, and a private war against the British Admiralty, the Air Ministry, the War Office, the Intelligence Service, the Foreign Office, the Prime Minister, the U.S. State Department, and the president of the United States.”
One of his advisers noted “the General must constantly be reminded that out main enemy is Germany. If he would follow his own inclination, it would be England.”
Before departing London to set up headquarters in Algiers in May 1943, de Gaulle said goodbye to Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden, who asked, “Do you know you have given us more difficulty than all our European allies?” To which de Gaulle answered, “I have no doubt of it. France is a great power.”
The Americans, of course, regarded him as suffering from delusions of grandeur. During the Casablanca summit, Roosevelt’s secret service detail discretely kept the Frenchman covered with their Tommy guns. You can never be too careful.
Despite — or because of — his obstinacy, de Gaulle managed to place France among the victors of World War II. Later, with his comeback in 1958, he gave his countrymen a new constitution, he got France out of the Algerian mess, and he saved his nation from civil war.
“Was he a great statesman or a conjuror on a huge scale, a true founding father of present day France, with lessons for the world, or a Wizard of Oz manipulating a great machine of illusions?” This is the central question posed in Jonathan Fenby’s fascinating The General: Charles de Gaulle and the France He Saved.
The book provides a vivid and eminently fair assessment of its subject, bringing out the essential ambiguities: de Gaulle was both a doer and a dreamer, an extreme realist “remorselessly applying cold logic,” and a romantic Don Quixote figure, “tilting at windmills.”
De gaulle was a “man of the North,” from the city of Lille, a colder and sterner industrial region, Fenby notes, than the sundrenched French south one normally reads about. His father was a monarchist and a professor of history and literature. De Gaulle’s upbringing emphasized duty and frugality, and gave him a solid knowledge of the classics, of philosophy, and of French letters.
We catch colorful glimpses from his youth: Prompted by his reading about the French defeat in the 1870–71 Franco-German War, he early decided on a military career. Before attending military college as a cadet, he spent an obligatory year in an army regiment; he was not promoted to sergeant: As his captain argued, “how he could do so to somebody who would only feel at ease as a general.” At the military academy of St Cyr, his evaluations deemed him “calm and forceful in command.” His physical appearance certainly contributed: Measuring 6’3, with hooded eyes and a nose in the Cyrano de Bergerac class, he towered over everybody.
In World War I, he was wounded three times, including a bayonet through his thigh in the battle of Verdun. Given up for dead, he had in fact been taken prisoner. His fellow prisoners recalled him as formal and reserved, not a man one addressed with the familiar tu. Fenby quotes his prison notebooks, which set out his ideas of leadership, of which mystique plays an important part: “One must speak little. In action one must say nothing. The chief is the one who does not speak.”
From de Gaulle’s attendance at the Ecole de Guerre in 1922, one of his fellow officers provides amusing testimony: “At the beginning of term meeting in the lecture theatre I saw a tall, very tall captain in horizon blue make his way down the tiers to take his place again. He walked very straight, stiff and solemn, strutting as if he were moving his own statue.”
De Gaulle’s career benefitted from his being a protégé of Marshal Petain, the victor at Verdun, but the two parted company over military strategy. While the military establishment were putting all their bets on the defensive Maginot Line, de Gaulle insisted on a war of movement. His 1934 book, Vers l’Armee de Metier, calls for a professional and fully mechanized army of some 100,000 men in addition to its conscript army. The book died in France, but in Germany it was studied with great interest by Rommel and Guderian.
When the Germans invaded, their panzer armies practiced exactly the kind of concentrated war of movement de Gaulle had advocated. His division was one of the few to put up a successful fight. Hastily appointed deputy defense minister, he had three meetings with Churchill to discuss last-minute efforts to stave off defeat. The prime minister now needed the Royal Air Force for the defense of Britain, but was quick to recognize de Gaulle’s mental toughness.
With Petain about to sign an armistice, the only course left to de Gaulle was to escape to Britain. Here, installed in a triangular office on the embankment, de Gaulle set up his Free French operation. His June 18th broadcast over the bbc provided a message of hope to the French population and an appeal to French servicemen abroad to join him in the battle against the Nazis. Asked to do a sound check, he uttered one word: “France.”
De gaulle never doubted the war’s eventual outcome, especially once the Americans were in, but, as Fenby notes, his task was the tricky one of ensuring that France got a seat among the victors. To do that, Frenchmen had to participate on all fronts, thereby forcing Britain and the U.S. to recognize France as a fellow ally. But his suspicious and unyielding nature made him a prickly partner. After the allied landings in North Africa, he was particularly worried that Britain would take over France’s colonial role in the Levant.
Fenby provides some valid explanations for de Gaulle’s intransigence: One was his need to demonstrate to his countrymen that he was his own man, not some Anglo-Saxon puppet. He was also holding an extremely weak hand. Once when Churchill blamed him for his stubbornness, in a moment of naked candor, de Gaulle replied “I am too poor to bow.” He could not afford to compromise, as he did not have anything to compromise with. His was a high wire act, which in the words of his French biographer Jean Lacouture “substituted symbol for reality.”
Still, as Fenby’s evidence makes plain, de Gaulle’s stubbornness went way beyond what was required, “bordering on the irrational.” His was the kind of mind that carefully stored every slight, indignity, defeat, and humiliation the French had ever suffered at the hands of perfidious Albion, the most recent occurring in 1898 when a British force under Herbert Kitchener compelled a French expedition to withdraw at Fashoda on the White Nile, “the most traumatic event of his childhood.”
Fenby details their clashes, with Churchill vacillating between admiration for the man’s fighting spirit and the urge to clap him in chains. De Gaulle’s constant attempts to split the British from the Americans triggered this outburst from Churchill at the Casablanca summit. “For get this quite clear, every time we have to decide between Europe and the open sea, it is always the open sea we shall choose. Every time I have to decide between you and Roosevelt, I shall always choose Roosevelt.”
Much less indulgent than Churchill, Roosevelt saw him as a dictator type — “There is no man in which I have less confidence” — and was keen to replace him with General Henri Giraud, but Giraud proved politically inept and lacked popular support. So they were stuck with de Gaulle.
After the invasion, Roosevelt had wanted to the place France under military administration, but typically, de Gaulle presented the Allies with a fait accompli by immediately setting up his own administration in Baujeau. And when the Paris insurrection forced Eisenhower to liberate the city rather than bypass it, de Gaulle ordered General Leclerc to rush his tanks to Paris, making it look like the French had liberated themselves.
With some major unacknowledged help from Churchill at the Yalta and Potsdam conferences, to which de Gaulle was not invited, France came out of the war with permanent seat in the un security council, its own occupation zone in Germany, and a seat in the Allied Council of Foreign Ministers in Europe, a pretty impressive result.
After liberation, Fenby notes, there was always the risk that the communists, having practicing classic “united front” tactics during the war, would hijack the Resistance movement and leave de Gaulle as a French Kerensky, the Russian transition figure who governed briefly after the Revolution.
In the days of the provisional government, de Gaulle ruled by decree. As head of the new elected government, with three roughly equal blocks, he had to work with the communists, who with 26 percent were the largest party, and accept five communists in his cabinet, though not in the most sensitive spots.
Thus the immediate postwar months featured de Gaulle the extreme pragmatist, whose first priority was to prevent civil war. According to the resurrection myth, all the French had been part of the resistance: Thus among the charges at Marshal Petain’s trial, there was nothing about the deportation of the French Jews to the extermination camps, nor the sending of French workers to do forced labor in Germany. (De Gaulle commuted Petain’s death sentence.) Civil servants were treated leniently and so were businessmen, many of whom got off free.
But the composition of the parliament did not suit him: “a nest of intrigues,” he called it. After fierce clashes with parliament over his demand for a new constitution, he resigned in 1946 and withdrew to his austere home in Colombey-les-Deux Eglises, about which he once told a visitor “one does not come here to laugh.”
Here, Cincinnatus-like, he was waiting for the country to call him back. The first volume of his elegant memoirs appeared in 1954, advancing his claims as the “once and future savior of the nation.” In particular, he was carefully monitoring the situation in French Algeria.
Meanwhile, he pondered what changes he wanted to make. Constitutional change remained at the top of the list. Like its predecessor, the Fourth Republic proved ungovernable, with the prime minister’s seat changing occupant 21 times in the period 1946–58. Noting his countrymen’s preference for easy solutions, he saw his mission as making the French do the things they did not want to do.
But however badly he wanted to be back in power, notes Fenby, he wanted to do so through legal means. The worsening situation in Algeria afforded the opportunity. Here terrorist attacks were a daily occurrence, the Front De Liberation Nationale insurgency having been encouraged by the 1954 French pullout from Indochina.
Fearing a sellout from the politicians, General Salan, the commander in chief in Algeria, had warned President Coty that the army would not accept any concessions to the rebels. Addressing demonstrators in Algiers, Salan declared, “We are united now and will march together up the Champs Elysees and bedecked with flowers.” The situation grew tenser when paratroopers stationed in Corsica took charge of the island in support of their comrades in Algiers.
Fenby details de Gaulle’s handling of the touchy situation and gives it high marks: de Gaulle made plain his refusal to take power “in a tumult of Generals” and at the same time refrained from criticizing the army, instead offering himself as a referee, which a frightened legislature accepted: “As premier designate, he had achieved a legal return to power and headed off a very real threat of a military operation and civil war. It was an extraordinary victory.”
Having assumed emergency powers for six months, he announced a referendum on constitutional reform. His proposal called for a strong presidency, in which the president would handle foreign and defense policy and retain special powers in case of threats to the republic from within. The president would appoint the prime minister, who would be responsible for the day-to-day business of government.
These measures he deemed necessary to make up for “the effects of our perpetual effervescence.” While his harshest critic, the socialist François Mitterrand, denounced it as a “permanent coup d’etat,” his countrymen backed him overwhelmingly.