Born in 1890, Charles de Gaulle spent the first 50 years of his life in relative obscurity. A midlevel French military officer, author of a handful of interesting, incisive, but minor books, he inhabited the political periphery of the Third Republic. Today, the French consider him the most important figure in their long history, with Napoleon a distant runner-up.
From 1940 to his retirement in 1969, writes Julian Jackson in De Gaulle, a new biography, “he was the central actor in France’s two twentieth century civil wars.” Jackson means the war between de Gaulle’s Free France organization and the collaborationist regime in Vichy and later the war between his Fifth Republic and the Algérie Française movement, made up of colonialists who had helped to bring him back to power in 1958.
All of which made de Gaulle both the “most revered” and the “most hated” Frenchman, targeted for assassination some 30 times but surviving to found a new and enduring republican regime in a country that had seen more than half a dozen regime changes after the fall of the Bourbon monarchy in 1789.
Along the way, de Gaulle bruised British and American feelings more than once. As the only member of the last cabinet of the Third Republic to escape France and continue the struggle against the Nazi occupation, he owed his prominence to Winston Churchill’s early support, but unhesitatingly established his small band of fellow exiles as a government-in-exile against the wishes of Churchill and especially of Franklin Roosevelt, who judged him a would-be military despot. As President of the new Republic, de Gaulle proved a resolute critic of “the Anglo-Saxons,” as he called them, opposing U.S. policy in Vietnam and blocking British entry into the European Common Market.
Given this history, English and American writers have tended to treat him roughly. But Jackson, a professor of history at Queen Mary University in London, has made a resolute effort to be fair, producing in a diligently researched, substantial biography that also serves as a social, political, and intellectual history of France in the first three-quarters of the 20th century. It is the best biography of de Gaulle yet written, and will likely remain so for a long time.
A Soldier Steeped in Literature
Firmly Catholic, a teacher of Latin, philosophy, and literature, de Gaulle’s father Henri de Gaulle educated his children outside the anticlerical republican French public schools of the day. To the end of his life, Charles could recite long passages of Latin and French literature from memory; he was fluent in German and had what we now call reading knowledge of classical Greek, English, and Spanish. He knew not only the French standards (noble Pierre Corneille and romantic François-René de Chateaubriand being favorites) but also such contemporaries as Paul Verlaine and the Catholic patriot Charles Péguy. He took books seriously—that is, he modeled himself on the heroic characters he met in poems, dramas, and histories, admiring their courage and emulating their capacity to bridle their emotions. He never stopped reading, startling one young, prize-winning novelist in the late 1960s with a note praising his work and reminding him of the moral responsibility such talent brings with it.
As a lieutenant in the First World War, wounded multiple times and eventually captured by the Germans at the Battle of Verdun, de Gaulle learned that (as he later wrote) “all the virtue in the world is powerless against firepower.” He would hammer this point home in his books, but never without giving virtue, however temporarily powerless, the ruling “say.” His first book (and one of his best books), The Enemy’s House Divided (1924), shows how the German military officers lost the war because they failed morally and intellectually, adhering to Friedrich Nietzsche’s “cult of the Superman,” as he put it. In the 1930s, when the German threat arose again, he advocated mobile, tank warfare against the overly defensive strategy embodied by France’s system of defensive fortifications, the Maginot Line, but understood the right use of firepower fundamentally as a moral question, as an instance of the need for activity and courage against passivity and timidity.
Jackson notes that de Gaulle consistently argued for civilian control of the military, sharply departing from the French military tradition of Bonapartism. By the same token, he rejected certain aspects of republicanism: its anticlericalism and also its idealism and utopianism. A confirmed student of geopolitics, de Gaulle considered ideology as generally subordinate to the character and geography of nations. At the same time, his lifelong taste for imaginative literature left him acutely (and astutely) aware of the value of legend, of myth, in political life, especially on those occasions when a nation needs moral and political renewal.
All of this prepared him for his sudden rise to prominence at the outset of the Second World War. In the late 1930s, he had made an alliance with the French politician Paul Reynaud, who shared his sober assessment of German ambitions and his desire to counteract them with a serious and well-funded military strategy. When the appeasing administration of Édouard Daladier collapsed in March 1940, Reynaud became prime minister and appointed de Gaulle, newly promoted to the rank of brigadier general, to the post of under secretary of state for defense. In this capacity he caught the attention of Churchill, himself elevated to the office of prime minister in May, a month before the Nazis overran France, nearly trapping thousands of British troops on the Continent.
By mid-June Reynaud had resigned and de Gaulle had left for London, where he began a series of radio broadcasts calling on the French to oppose the armistice with Germany and the French puppet regime that had signed it. As the sole cabinet officer to do such a thing, he could insist on his legitimacy as the true representative of the French state and its republican regime.
De Gaulle’s organization, initially called Free France and eventually Fighting France, of course lacked the manpower to do much fighting early in the war, depending as it did on the small number of Frenchmen who arrived in Great Britain and such troops as could be had from the French colonies, several of which were ruled by the Vichyites. This has led many to claim that de Gaulle accomplished little during the war other than making himself a nuisance to his sponsors. By the conflict’s end, Fighting France in fact did field army divisions that fought bravely and effectively in North Africa and Italy—enough to participate in the eventual liberation in 1944.
In any case, to think only of military force misses the point of de Gaulle’s thoughts and actions in the 1940s. Jackson is one of the few historians who shows why de Gaulle deserves to be considered a statesman, one who achieved more for his country with fewer resources than just about anyone else.
The Folly of a Legislatively-Based Republic
The great problem for France during the war was to reestablish a self-governing republican regime in France after the war—a republican regime that would avoid the imbecility of the first three French republican regimes. De Gaulle blamed that imbecility on the same cause the American Founders saw in the Articles of Confederation government: the attempt to center republican government in a legislative assembly, with no adequate executive independence and therefore no single, identifiable person to make forceful, timely decisions respecting national defense, or to enforce the laws the legislature enacts.
To make such a revolution possible, de Gaulle used his radio broadcasts to become the voice of French resistance to tyranny. This helped him, not coincidentally, when his British sponsors and their American allies thought to replace him with some more pliable personality; they hesitated to anger the people whose cooperation they would need to land on the Continent and drive the Germans back.
Crucially, de Gaulle backed his stirring speeches with organizational action in France. Now symbolizing French resistance, his agents—most heroically, Jean Moulin—persuaded and pressured the several French underground “Resistance” groups, including the communists, to unite behind the Gaullists, even if only for the duration of the conflict. From October 1941 to his arrest, torture, and death at the hands of the Nazi psychopath Klaus Barbie in June 1943, Moulin formed a network of resisters and other civilians who could stand up a French governmental apparatus as Allied troops advanced. The success of Moulin’s project eliminated the need for a foreign takeover of routine administrative tasks and prevented the other well-organized network, the French Communist Party, from having the field to themselves.
Roosevelt never reconciled himself to this, but General Eisenhower saw the benefits of civil order over chaos behind his lines, and readily came to terms with de Gaulle, additionally seeing to it that French forces were the ones who marched into Paris. There was no French equivalent to the catastrophic Warsaw uprising, thanks to de Gaulle’s planning and Eisenhower’s common sense. The purges of French collaborators resulted in 1,554 postwar death sentences, 998 commuted by de Gaulle. There would be no reprise of the Terror in this republic.
Nonetheless, for many years de Gaulle could not achieve his principal aim, the refounding of French republicanism. In short order, the veteran parliamentarians of the newly reassembled French legislature neutralized his authority, blocking him from framing the needed new constitution. He resigned in January 1946; his attempt to return with an electoral mandate to reconstitute the republic seemed viable at first, but withered as the Americans took the lead in reconstructing Western Europe economically while defending it militarily against a vastly expanded Soviet empire. The agent of that empire in France, the Communist Party, had dwindled to the point where de Gaulle could no longer claim to be the only man with an organization capable of standing against it. By the mid-1950s, de Gaulle seemed a spent force, a figure from the past, a man in his sixties busy with his memoirs.
A Bloodless Coup, and a Fifth Republic
The fundamental weakness of French parliamentary republicanism rescued the memoirist from respectable obscurity. The worldwide movement toward decolonization, accelerated in the postwar, was a major factor in weakening France. Almost immediately after VE Day, this movement wracked the French colony of Algeria, where a million French nationals ruled 10 million increasingly restive Arab Muslims. With strong backing from French army officers, the colons intimidated a series of French administrations. Many a colon came to see de Gaulle as the champion of continued French rule (an illusion de Gaulle did nothing to discourage).
By 1958, the crisis had been reached, and de Gaulle, past master of political organization, adroitly positioned himself to become the beneficiary of what was effectively a bloodless coup. French army officers stationed in Algeria were poised to order their men to advance on the French mainland. “The threat of soldiers had been enough,” Jackson writes. In rather a panic, the French National Assembly granted de Gaulle six months of plenary executive power during which he oversaw the drafting of a new constitution giving the President of a new, Fifth Republic formidable and independent powers. Nearly 80 percent of French voters approved it, and a few weeks later they elected de Gaulle as the first President to serve under it.
Six decades later, the Fifth Republic endures as a stable framework for ever-volatile French political contestation. It was in many ways a more impressive, if less heroic, achievement on de Gaulle’s part than his efforts in World War II.
He also undertook to resist being drawn into the U.S.-Soviet rivalry that was such a powerful force in Europe and indeed the world. Regarding Britain (no longer so “Great”) as effectively an agent of the Americans on the Continent, de Gaulle blocked repeated British attempts to join the Common Market. He made a historic rapprochement with West Germany while carefully insisting that Bonn be denied the nuclear weapons that he did not neglect to acquire for France.
It was also his aim to compete with the United States and Russia for influence in the newly independent nations of the “Third World.” He sought to reduce American economic sway in Europe by advocating abandonment of the dollar standard and a return to gold. He withdrew French forces from U.S.-dominated NATO without neglecting coordination of military exercises with the foreign troops. He made a diplomatic opening to China while inviting a surprised Alexei Kosygin, Soviet premier, to “come, let us make Europe together”—an invitation that Kremlin ideologues proved far from ready to accept.
Within France itself, de Gaulle’s economic policies (and odd blend of Keynesian dirigisme and free-market budget hawkishness) enabled France to sustain the prosperity it already had begun to enjoy under the previous regime.
De Gaulle’s Attempt to Solve the Problem of Faction
Jackson rightly observes that de Gaulle saw much of his foreign policy stymied by the great powers; the multipolar world he envisioned finally required the collapse of one of them, two decades after de Gaulle left the scene. The biographer also identifies two problems with de Gaulle’s regime intentions, never realized.
One was that de Gaulle envisioned a France in which the political factions weakening it since the 1780s might be erased in a nation unified by national pride—his famous notion of grandeur. In this, he would have profited from study of James Madison’s Federalist 10. Another was that his need to set up a powerful French state apparatus, partly to contain that factionalism, along with his demand for a strong executive, tended to eclipse French civic spiritedness.
Several times in his career, most insistently in the wake of the student-labor union uprising of May 1968, he called for new institutions that would promote what he termed “participation” by workers in the governance of industry and by the French generally in their local governments. Nothing came of this. In retirement, he told several of his visitors that he left France stronger than he had found her, but it was not the France he had wanted.
One might mention that no one else has solved the problem of self-government in the centralized, modern administrative state, either.
Jackson concludes this excellent account with: “Gaullism succeeded in becoming the synthesis of French political traditions, or as de Gaulle put it, reconciling the left to the state and the right to the nation, the left to authority and the right to democracy.” What is more, “he saved the honor of France,” and his countrymen haven’t forgotten.