Just over 70 years ago, on 18 June 1940, an unknown brigadier general, who had escaped to Britain from France, broadcast on the BBC. "France has lost a battle," he declared, "but she has not lost the war." But France had, in fact, lost the war. Its National Assembly acknowledged as much, voting, by a large majority, full powers to the prime minister, Marshal Pétain, to seek an armistice. There is no reason to believe that this decision was opposed by more than a very small minority of the French people. In 1944, the liberation of France was achieved largely by British and American forces; the contribution of the Free French, though heroic, was marginal.
None of this mattered. For de Gaulle, France was not the France that had acknowledged defeat, nor the France of the collaborationist Vichy regime, but the France of the Free French led by him. In rejecting collaboration, he became the incarnation of France.
“How many divisions has the Pope?" Stalin asked contemptuously. The Allies could, and did, ask the same question of de Gaulle. Yet he represented something above and beyond the force of arms. "If I do not represent France," he asked Winston Churchill, "why speak to me?" It was he, and not Pétain, who incarnated the legitimacy and sovereignty of France, the continuity of the state. It was for this reason that when, after liberation, Georges Bidault urged him to proclaim the Republic, the general replied that it had never ceased to exist. It had been represented continuously by him during the years of defeat and occupation.
On the first page of his three-volume War Memoirs, de Gaulle insists that he always had a "certain idea of France" as a great power. "Do you know," Britain's then foreign secretary, Anthony Eden, asked him shortly before the liberation, "that, of all the European allies, you have caused us the most difficulties?"
“I don't doubt that," de Gaulle replied with a smile. "France is a great power." Therefore, the liberation of France would mean nothing unless it also meant the restoration of France's role in the world.
We in Britain have never understood de Gaulle because we have never faced nor ever understood the predicament in which France found itself in 1940. In modern times, only one Englishman, Churchill, has served to incarnate the spirit of the nation as de Gaulle did, and then for just a brief period in the summer of 1940, when it appeared that Britain, too, was heading for defeat.
Churchill was to be repudiated by the British people in 1945, as was de Gaulle in 1946 with the establishment of the Fourth Republic. De Gaulle was repudiated again in 1969, following defeat in his referendum on local government and Senate reform. For de Gaulle's "certain idea of France" corresponded little with the sentiments of the French people, just as Churchill's ideas of imperial regeneration were his alone. "I could have defended the British empire against anyone," Churchill declared ruefully, near the end of his life, "except the British people." De Gaulle could have said the same about defending France as a great power.
All this is a familiar story that has been told many times before, most notably in the magisterial three-volume biography by Jean Lacouture, published between 1984 and 1986. Does Jonathan Fenby, a former editor of the Observer, have anything to add? His biography is beautifully written, and based on exhaustive reading, both of secondary sources and of the British and French archives. It is, nevertheless, primarily a work of synthesis and interpretation, rather than original research, notable more for its perspective than for its originality.
At the end of his introduction, Fenby asks a series of questions. Was de Gaulle a visionary, or merely "an ultra-stubborn defender of France's national interests who ended up marginalising himself and his country"? "Was he a democrat or a barely disguised autocrat, who would brook no opposition and used referendums as plebiscites?" Did he have a truly inclusive image of France, or was his talk of a united nation "a cover for statist conservatism . . . In short, 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 giant machine of illusions?" Fenby comes to the somewhat lame decision that, "in most cases, there is truth in both sides". However, he provides enough evidence for the reader to reach a more conclusive verdict.
De Gaulle gave France the leadership of Europe for many years. However, that leadership depended on contingent factors - a Germany unable because of its history to lead, and a Britain unwilling to do so. It depended above all on a Europe that excluded the states of central and eastern Europe. For, since EU enlargement in 2004, the former communist states have shown themselves to be broadly pro-American, and hostile to the Gaullist vision of Europe as a counterbalance to the United States. Under a system of qualified majority voting, the enlarged Europe, unlike Jacques Chirac's Europe, would have supported America in Iraq, not opposed it. De Gaulle's policies had in fact served to prevent the growth of a strong Europe, which could have spoken truth to power in Washington. In reality, the general did nothing to diminish the influence of the
superpowers. His European policy was one of gestures, not substance.
Undoubtedly de Gaulle's most valuable legacy will prove to be the Fifth Republic, which has given France stable majorities for the first time since the revolution. Georges Pompidou, de Gaulle's prime minister and successor as president, had defined Gaullism in terms of refusal - the grand Non of 1940. But, as Fenby appreciates, de Gaulle was also a constructive statesman, and the Fifth Republic, cast in his authoritarian image, remains his monument. If France wishes to remain a great power, however, it can do so only by repudiating his European legacy, not by seeking to continue it.
The General: Charles de Gaulle and the France He Saved
Simon & Schuster, 720pp, £30
Vernon Bogdanor is professor of government at Oxford University. His books include "The New British Constitution" (Hart, £17.95)