How Charles de Gaulle made France great again

General de Gaulle believed in France’s destiny, so he made it happen.

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Almost 50 years on from his death, the tall, angular and awkward profile of Charles de Gaulle still casts a long shadow over France. As Julian Jackson points out in the introduction to this fine biography, de Gaulle is effectively a national monument these days and to approach him as a historian or biographer is “to cross the threshold into sacred territory”. The great challenge for anyone writing a book on the general, then, is to work out what can and what cannot be said, where lie the taboos, heresies and blasphemies.

Happily Jackson, who comes across as an admirer, is also sceptical and unafraid to make wry remarks on the many disastrous errors of judgement that blighted de Gaulle’s career. He remembers too that not so long ago, de Gaulle was a much more divisive figure than he is today. On the one hand, for his supporters, he was the emblem of a unified and patriotic France. He was also loathed, however, as a paternalistic, possibly even fascist authoritarian figure who was the enemy of the true freedoms claimed by the French left. He was targeted for assassination more than any French president before or since – this was mainly by right-wing pieds-noirs, the white settlers in Algeria who claimed betrayal and that de Gaulle had “given Algeria away” when he agreed its independence in 1962.

All of that seems to be mainly forgotten these days. Instead, de Gaulle is claimed in roughly equal measure by both left and right as the “Saviour of France”, who, after the shameful defeat of 1940, made the country great again. It is for this reason he even appears as a detail in Emmanuel Macron’s first official photograph as president: in the background, on his desk, Macron has artfully left open a copy of de Gaulle’s Mémoires de guerre, the not too subtle message being that it won’t be long before Macron too will assume the general’s role as the great leader sent by destiny to save his people.

Interestingly, although no stranger to myth-making, de Gaulle did not always see himself in such grand or epic terms. He was far too practical and sly for that. When asked, for example, by his minister for culture, André Malraux, which historical figure he identified with – Joan of Arc, Napoleon or Louis XIV – he chose Tintin, the cartoon boy reporter (who also happened to be Belgian). Tintin’s greatest quality, he said, was that he was never scared of larger and more powerful enemies. This is how de Gaulle made France a great power again, by simply believing in his country’s historical mission, and  refusing to let temporary adversity – the Nazis, the postwar Allied carve-up of western Europe, the Algerian pieds-noirs – get in the way.

De Gaulle was also, as Jackson puts it, a master of “throwing dust” into the eyes of his enemies, and sometimes his allies, so that they could never really see what he was up to. This, indeed, is how de Gaulle survived a political career which, far from being a straightforward march into greatness and the history books, veered between catastrophe and triumph.

Again like Tintin, or indeed any successful politician, he lived off his wits, instinct and guile. Most of all, he was a populist who understood the shifting moods of the French public and how to manipulate them. In the 1940s and 1950s, his radio broadcasts were a defining component of French life; in the 1960s, having mastered the new medium of television, he was so effective with his communications that his method was referred to as government by TV, or “telecracy”.

Despite his communicative gifts and apparent feeling for the plain people, however, De Gaulle was not of them. He was born in 1890 into a bourgeois conservative Catholic family. His mother came from Lille but although he was born there, he spent his early years in Paris, growing up in the 7th arrondissement. This is still an austere and melancholy part of Paris, where the bells of hidden convents and churches can be heard in the quieter streets. The area is dominated, though, by the great military monuments of the Invalides, the École Militaire and Napoleon’s tomb.

The 7th was where de Gaulle learned – from his parents and his peers – that love of country, military order, Catholicism and duty were often all the same thing. From an early age, he was sure that he was a man of destiny, but the destiny of France – which was here written in stone all around him – was his greater cause.

De Gaulle’s intellectual heritage was an outward-looking form of Catholicism, sometimes called “social Catholicism”, which sought a middle way between the harshest extremes of capitalism and communism. This was a form of religion that had its roots in the hard-working north, where de Gaulle’s mother came from, and prevailed among industrialists who wanted to do the best by their workers without going down the road of socialism.

De Gaulle’s father Henri, a Parisian and a teacher of Latin, philosophy and literature, was also a reader of Action Française, a right-wing journal and  movement which, under the influence of the writer and politician Charles Maurras, made the case for royalism and what Maurras called “integral nationalism” – a mystical belief in the unity of the French nation.

There is no evidence that later in life de Gaulle was ever a follower of Maurras but, as Jackson points out, he did sometimes defend his ideas in conversation. Most importantly perhaps, de Gaulle, like Maurras, believed that France was caught in a trap between her ancestral enemies, Germany and Britain. Neither was to be trusted. History, as de Gaulle saw it, proved him right.

This was also why, at the end of the Second World War, de Gaulle devoted so much energy to infuriating Roosevelt and Churchill, and stubbornly insisting that France deserved a place at the top table in the postwar order. This was not simply to restore his country’s lost honour after the defeat of 1940 but to ensure that France held its own in a new balance of power. The same reasoning was also why de Gaulle so vehemently opposed Britain’s entry into the common market. Having lived among them in wartime exile, de Gaulle believed that the British had only  their own interests at heart and until this changed, and the country was transformed, it would be impossible for them to accept foreign laws and be fully “European”. This belief is still alive, of course, in Paris, London and indeed Brussels in 2018.

Jackson approaches de Gaulle with fascination, and often sympathy, but far less awe than most of the general’s French biographers. This allows him with pragmatic fair-mindedness to tackle the most important myths around de Gaulle.

The greatest of these myths is the cult of “Gaullism” – the political movement that is claimed to be neither right nor left but is based on the ideas and actions of the Great Man. Like all political or religious cults, “Gaullism” stands on key tenets of faith. The most important of these is that de Gaulle saved France three times – from the Nazis in 1945, from the Algerian putsch and a looming civil war in 1958, and from the mutinous French themselves in the spring and summer of 1968. Only the first of these, however, is true – Algerian independence was a pyrrhic victory on all sides while the near-revolution of 1968 was doomed to failure by its own incoherence. Mostly, “Gaullism” was whatever de Gaulle decided it was at any given moment.

“Gaullism” as anti-fascism really only applies until 1946. After this date it was not just about opposition to the Nazis or the collaborationist Vichy regime, but also opposition to the instability of the Fourth Republic. Gaullists believed that only a strong president with constitutional powers – a near-monarchical figure in the view of anti-Gaullists – could pull France together. It was this form of leadership, so the argument ran, which would restore the concept of “grandeur” to the French nation, rather than the squabbling and infighting which led to the fall of France in the first place.

This was de Gaulle’s “certain idea of France”, as he put it in his Mémoires: an exception among nations, combining the values of the revolution and the republic with religiosity and patriotism, predestined to lead the rest of humanity. This was what de Gaulle meant by la grandeur and it was always beyond negotiation.

Jackson has written a biography that fully matches de Gaulle’s remarkable life. And there is much previously unpublished material here. In particular he has made extensive use of private archives, many of which are uncharted territory, but they all reveal part of the whole. It is hard to imagine that much or indeed anything new could be said about de Gaulle at this late date, but Jackson manages to do this.

This is too an extremely busy book, packed with anecdote, adventure and the kind of insider gossip that can only be foraged by an expert historian who is comfortable in the archives but who has eyes and ears ever alert to the telling details. So we learn about de Gaulle’s cigarette-smoking, his arrogance and coldness, his mood swings and recklessness, his allegedly effeminate hands, his unstinting and constant love for his daughter, Anne, who suffered from Down’s syndrome.

Before he became a politician, de Gaulle had already lived a life worthy of several biographies. He had fought in the First World War, been injured and captured, tried to escape from a prisoner of war camp, was awarded the Croix de Guerre for intelligence gathering close to enemy lines, went to the Polish-Soviet War in 1920, served in Lebanon and Syria, wrote a book on armoured warfare and commanded five tank battalions that took the Germans head-on during the battle of France.

When he died in 1970, de Gaulle was a disappointed old man. He was bitter and resentful at losing a referendum in 1969 that forced his resignation. He was succeeded by Georges Pompidou, who was effectively a “Gaullist”, but who was also pragmatic and a moderniser. 

May 1968 had been a failure but still the world had changed, and de Gaulle was now wildly out of step with the times. He was perceived by most French people as too controlling, too rigid and simply too old to lead France into the future. For his part, de Gaulle thought that he was being rewarded for a life of public service and sacrifice with ingratitude from the people and country he had deeply loved.

The times, however, have changed again. De Gaulle’s legacy is now admired by historians, political commentators and especially politicians in France, as never before. Most importantly, it is now an established fact that even if de Gaulle did not “save France” quite as often and as conclusively as his admirers would like us to believe, he did rescue the French people from the wreckage of the Second World War, bequeathing them not only a stable form of government, but also an important place in the world. This is why, these days, de Gaulle is chiefly remembered as a political giant who, more than any French leader since Napoleon, left his imprint on history.

Macron is only the latest pretender to de Gaulle’s mantle, as he faces down the challenges of France. Admiring de Gaulle too much, as this book teaches us, can, however, be a dangerous game. It remains to be seen whether Macron, the banker and technocrat who created his own movement and party, will be able properly to measure up to the hoary old soldier whose vision of France was as poetic as it was political. 

Andrew Hussey is professor of cultural history in the School of Advanced Study, University of London. He is the author of “The French Intifada: the Long War Between France and its Arabs” (Granta)

A Certain Idea of France: the Life of Charles de Gaulle
Julian Jackson
Allen Lane, 928pp, £35

This article appears in the 29 June 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Germany, alone