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History Books » Historical Figures

The best books on charles de gaulle, recommended by julian jackson.

A Certain Idea of France: The Life of Charles de Gaulle by Julian Jackson

A Certain Idea of France: The Life of Charles de Gaulle by Julian Jackson

Charles de Gaulle had 'a certain idea of France' which even he didn't manage to articulate clearly. De Gaulle biographer and one of Britain's leading historians of modern France, Julian Jackson , talks us through some key books to get a sense of France's wartime leader and president, Charles de Gaulle.

Interview by Benedict King

The Complete War Memoirs of Charles de Gaulle by Charles De Gaulle

The best books on Charles de Gaulle - Memoirs from Beyond the Tomb by François-René de Chateaubriand

Memoirs from Beyond the Tomb by François-René de Chateaubriand

The best books on Charles de Gaulle - Notre Jeunesse by Charles Péguy

Notre Jeunesse by Charles Péguy

The best books on Charles de Gaulle - Memoirs: Fifty Years of Political Reflection by Raymond Aron

Memoirs: Fifty Years of Political Reflection by Raymond Aron

The best books on Charles de Gaulle - The Vichy Syndrome: History and Memory in France Since 1944 by Henry Rousso

The Vichy Syndrome: History and Memory in France Since 1944 by Henry Rousso

best biography charles de gaulle

1 The Complete War Memoirs of Charles de Gaulle by Charles De Gaulle

2 memoirs from beyond the tomb by françois-rené de chateaubriand, 3 notre jeunesse by charles péguy, 4 memoirs: fifty years of political reflection by raymond aron, 5 the vichy syndrome: history and memory in france since 1944 by henry rousso.

I suppose the first question to ask is your motivation for writing a biography of Charles de Gaulle . You mention in the beginning of your book that there’s a massive industry around de Gaulle publishing. In fact, I think there’s an institute devoted to it. What was the gap in the industry’s production that you hoped to fill with your biography?

There’s a huge production on de Gaulle, more than anybody else in modern French history , particularly in France today. I was just in France a few weeks ago and spotted in a bookshop seven new books on de Gaulle. One was on de Gaulle’s humour, one was on the women in de Gaulle’s life — neither terribly big books! Another was on de Gaulle and Russia, there was one on de Gaulle and the Republic, one imagining what Franco and de Gaulle said to each other when they met in June 1970. And so it goes on. In France he occupies a space in the national memory even greater than Churchill in this country; it’s another order of magnitude. There isn’t the same volume of stuff in this country on de Gaulle, but there have been a number of biographies of him over the years.

I suppose the reason was that, as a historian of 20th century France, and particularly the occupation period, he’s a figure you can’t avoid. He’s the dominant figure, so it’s hard for a historian of that period, which I am, not to want to write about him. It was also stimulated by the opening of the public archives of de Gaulle a few years ago, covering his time as war leader, and then his time as president of the Fifth Republic. So this is the first biography that’s been able to use that enormous archive source.

Having said that, I don’t think they have produced any major revelations, but these new archives did provide some interesting anecdotes and a new kind of texture. I think the achievement of my book isn’t that there is suddenly some new revelation about de Gaulle. I don’t really believe historians should be looking for skeletons in cupboards or smoking guns, I don’t believe history works like news scoops. But I genuinely think that the books on him to date haven’t really tried to think about him properly, so I hope my book offers a more sophisticated, subtle and complicated interpretation of him. The great French biographies tend either to be very pro or very anti. He’s still very divisive in some ways.

That brings us neatly on to your five choices, the first of which is de Gaulle’s memoirs. What story do they tell, and how does he use them to elaborate this certain idea of France that he had?

The title of the book comes from one of the most famous sentences he ever wrote, ‘All my life I’ve had a certain idea of France.’ That’s the opening sentence. He wrote the memoirs in the 1950s when he was out of power. He’s writing them for a very explicit purpose, which is the creation of his own legend. It was a piece of very self-conscious mythmaking. It was making him into the central figure of what happened in France between 1940 and 1944. For example, he rather underplays the role of the internal resistance, and many resistors much resented the fact that de Gaulle didn’t give them enough space. But the story he wanted to tell was really about the military resurrection of France.

The memoirs are in three volumes that came out successively in 1954, 1956, and 1959. The first one is called L’appel , The Call , referring to the call he made in London on the BBC for the French to resist, but also to the call of history that calls on France’s saviour to save the country — that’s de Gaulle. So there’s an ambiguity there. The second volume is called Unity and the big theme of the second volume is the way the French, dispersed and unhappy in occupied France between 1942 and 1944, gather together around the saviour figure who’s in London. And then the third volume is called Salvation . It basically covers the period from ’44 when he comes back to France up to his retirement in ’46. The story in that volume is that he offered the French salvation: he saved them and then they rejected him. So it’s a kind of redemptive story from the fall in 1940 to the offer of salvation by the saviour who is later spurned. So he writes this epic story in retirement as a way of re-inserting himself back into French consciousness. It’s not exactly a piece of propaganda, but it is a piece of conscious mythmaking with a purpose.

What is the idea of France? Who knows? That’s one the mysteries in a way, because he never says what his idea of France is and you have to intuit it. The phrase probably comes from a writer who much influenced him, Maurice Barrès, who was a nationalist writer at the turn of the century. But he never defines this idea, because it is un-definable. I say somewhere in the book that de Gaulle is an existential nationalist, not an essentialist nationalist. Where, for example, the Vichy regime wanted to recreate a certain kind of rural, Catholic France of tradition inspired by certain profoundly conservative ideas, de Gaulle didn’t want to preserve a particular kind of France in aspic.

He wanted to preserve a France that was — another key word he uses — in the front rank (‘ rang’ ). When I say he’s an existential nationalist, I mean he sees the relationship between nations as a continuous fight, and France has always got to be top, or near as top as can be, and that might involve change. So he’s not someone who’s holding onto an image of the past, he’s holding to an idea, not of what France is, but of the place that France should have in the world, which isn’t quite the same thing. One of his other famous phrases is that ‘France must marry her century.’ So he wasn’t holding on to an idea of an eternal, unchanging France, he was holding onto an idea of where France needed to be, and if to be there France had to change he was absolutely ready to change.

By the time he finished his third volume of memoirs, was the possibility of a return to power in the wake of the Algerian crisis on the horizon?

That’s a good question in the sense that volumes 1 and volumes 2 are written when he’s in the desert, to use the Gaullists’ biblical terminology. Volume 3 is almost finished at the moment he comes back to power in 1958. So, astonishingly, aged nearly 70, he found the energy in the first summer of his period as president to finish volume 3, which comes out in 1959. It ends talking about the French looking for a ray of hope and, by the time it’s published, the ray of hope has materialized — he’s in power!

Let’s talk about Chateaubriand’s Memoirs from Beyond the Tomb . This is a memoir as well. Can you tell us a bit about who Chateaubriand was, what he was trying to achieve in writing his memoirs? How can we link this to de Gaulle, considering he died 40 years before de Gaulle was born?

Yes, he died in 1848. The first thing everyone says about Chateaubriand is that he was the literary inventor of French romanticism. He came from a provincial aristocratic family from Brittany, fallen on hard times, but his father had done something to restore its fortunes. So he comes from of an ultra-traditionalist family in the last years of the Ancien Régime. He talks about being presented at court to Louis XVI. Louis XVI addresses one word to him and he’s very amusing about this. Then he played a role as a representative of the Breton nobility in 1789 in the lead-up to the French Revolution . He comes from this conservative, highly traditional background and arrives in Paris during the first stages of the revolution.

Was he hostile to the revolution?

Initially he had a certain sympathy with what they were trying to do but, with a kind of aristocratic fastidiousness, he didn’t like what he saw in the streets from the very beginning. He has wonderful passages on the early violence and the crowds and the demagogy and none of that appealed to his sensibility. But he wasn’t by any means totally out of sympathy with some of the early aspirations for a more liberal monarchy. Then he spends some time in America and comes back to France just before the Terror is getting into its full stride in 1792. He goes into exile with the émigrés, then actually fights with the royalist forces, the Austrians and the Prussians, against the revolution, is quite badly wounded, and goes into exile in London. He’s in London from 1793 until he returns to France in 1802 after Napoleon has taken power.

He works in London on a book about the origins of the revolution, but also the book that made his reputation, Génie du Christianisme, The Genius of Christianity , which was really a major Romantic statement. It was about re-discovering Catholicism and the beauty of Christianity. Back in France, he’s actually appointed to a diplomatic position by Napoleon , but quarrels with him very quickly in 1804 when he thinks Napoleon is becoming despotic, after the assassination of the Duc d’Enghien, an important member of the Bourbon family. At that point Chateaubriand goes into a kind of internal exile in France, and it’s when he’s in this internal exile in France, he’s persona non grata, he retires to his estates in the country, La Vallée aux Loups, the house he bought not far from Paris, that he starts to write these memoirs. Then, after the Restoration in 1815, he becomes a big figure in French politics. He becomes ambassador to London, ambassador to Berlin. So he’s writing the memoir over the rest of his life. The memoirs are written from the period when he was in internal exile right up until his death. One of the fascinating things about the book is that it’s a work continuously in progress, where the disillusioned old man, or ageing man, is reflecting on his life and how things haven’t worked out and so on.

How does he think about the revolution in the history of France? You point out in your book that de Gaulle doesn’t talk about the revolution much. He likes to talk about longer continuities. How does Chateaubriand deal with this rupture and how does he think about France in its wake?

I think this takes us to why de Gaulle was so fascinated by Chateaubriand. I chose this book because de Gaulle himself has said it had ‘haunted’ him. He said that when he started to re-read it in 1947-48, as he was beginning to think about his own memoirs. He said in a letter he wrote to Chateaubriand’s great grand-niece, that this book had lived with him since he first read it when he was twelve. He comes back to it again in 1969, when he starts his next set of memoirs after he’s left power, after May ’68. So Chateaubriand lives with him, and in his notebooks there are endless quotations from Chateaubriand and his speeches.

What fascinates de Gaulle about Chateaubriand is that this was a man who had been presented at court to Louis XVI as a young man, who had lived through the revolution, who lived through the post-revolution, and actually just lived to see the early days of the revolution of 1848. Chateaubriand was a man caught between two worlds – a man of the old world, who’s having to think about the new world made by the revolution, and his whole writing is suffused with a kind of melancholy, in the sense that you have to accept that the world has changed. That parallels de Gaulle. What fascinates de Gaulle in Chateaubriand, a running theme in Chateaubriand’s memoirs, is the tension between dreaming about the world as you want it and accepting the world as it is; finding a way between dreams and realities. Songes (dreams) is one of Chateaubriand’s favourite words, and de Gaulle wrote in his memoirs (slightly misquoting Chateaubriand), ‘What have I tried to do except to lead the French by dreams to reality?’

There’s a deep melancholy in Chateaubriand. There will be moments when he says, ‘Is any of this worthwhile, is anybody going to read me in 20 years’ time, will I even be remembered, do I count?’ There’s an element of play-acting in that, but there is also an element of genuine despair. De Gaulle once said about Chateaubriand, “what attracts me in Chateaubriand is his despair”. I think one of the aspects of a romantic sensibility is that sense of the meaninglessness of life.

Also, Chateaubriand has this extraordinarily complicated relationship to Napoleon. He felt that Napoleon was a despot but, at the same time, had a romantic fascination with him. De Gaulle had a similar, very complicated relationship with Napoleon. On one level, he wrote a lot about Napoleon, the great figure of the early 19th century, and yet de Gaulle once said that Napoleon left France smaller than he found it. You could say a lot of Chateaubriand’s book is a meditation on Napoleon.

Moving onto Charles Péguy. He doesn’t come from a socially conservative background like de Gaulle and Chateaubriand, certainly not a socially grand one. Perhaps a bit unusually, he’s a strong republican, a socialist and, at least initially I think, he’s also a Catholic. So why did you choose his book, Notre Jeunesse , and what is it about?

I think out of all the books I’ve chosen, Péguy is probably the least well known to an English audience. But the first reason I chose him was that on many occasions de Gaulle said it was the book that most influenced him as a young man and Charles Péguy the author that most influenced him. Péguy is a very strange figure in the French literary landscape, because he has a curious, repetitive, poetic, incantatory prose, very difficult to translate. Some people cannot stand it in French. But his story is exemplary of a particular generation. He came from a very modest background, his mother barely literate. But he was a success story of the republican system. He was extraordinarily able as a schoolboy, went to Paris, became a literary figure and so on, and then threw himself into the defense of Dreyfus. He founded a journal to defend Dreyfus. He was a passionate republican, a passionate socialist of a kind — not a Marxist, but with an extraordinary reverence for the ordinary people of France — and passionately against anti-Semitism.

But like many of that generation he has a kind of conversion. He moves from socialism, republicanism, being a Dreyfusard, to rediscovering the nation and religion. Notre Jeunesse tells that story. And the story is one of disillusion with the way the Dreyfus affair has been hijacked by politicians for their own ends, and how all that was beautiful in the Dreyfus affair, all that was noble, has been harnessed to mean-spirited anti-clericalism, and also by socialist internationalism and anti-militarism. So Péguy rediscovers the army, the nation, and the church. But the key thing is the most famous phrase of that book, “everything begins as mystique, and everything ends as politique”. And that’s what he thinks happened with the Dreyfus affair. It began as a noble cause and was derailed by opportunistic, self-seeking, mean-spirited politicians.

What inspired him in the Dreyfus case, if it wasn’t anti-anti-Semitism, and republicanism. I mean what did he think it was about?

The values of universal human justice. He thought that in fighting the Dreyfus affair, you were defending the cause of humanity. For him, the values of the Drefusards were the defense of everything that was noblest in the French republican tradition — justice, humanity, universal values, and so on. But the key thing about him and where the link to de Gaulle comes, is that he doesn’t say ‘I’m no longer republican and socialist now that I am Catholic and patriotic.’ He says, ‘I’m all these things now’, and what he’s aiming at is an extraordinary sort of syncretic, holistic view of France, in which he wants to bring all traditions of France together. He wanted to link Joan of Arc to the revolution. They represent some eternal spirit of France. And so he is about binding together what you might call the two Frances. The Dreyfus affair supposedly divided France into two, and what Péguy is offering is a reconciliation. He has a famous phrase “the Republic is our kingdom of France”. In other words, the kingdom of France and the Republic are all part of France. De Gaulle has a phrase in his war memoirs on the first page where he talks about how for him “France is like a princess in a fairy story, Madonna in a fresco”. That could come straight out of Péguy. Péguy is offering this extraordinary, overarching synthesis of the unity of France, that French history is a continuum and a whole. De Gaulle is obsessed with transcending the fracture of 1789 and finding a way of re-stitching together the French story.

This leads very nicely to the next two authors, particularly because they could not have been sympathetic to pre-1789 France because they’re both Jewish. The first is Raymond Aron’s memoirs. What does this book tell us about de Gaulle?

Aron is seen as one of the great French liberal thinkers and, in that sense, could not be more different from de Gaulle, because no one would ever describe de Gaulle as liberal. Aron is this sceptical, highly cerebral, liberal philosopher. But his memoirs, almost despite himself, are a kind of endless meditation on de Gaulle because Aron’s memoirs are about Aron in the century, and because Aron was not only a philosopher but also a very engaged intellectual. What he famously said about himself was that, ‘my problem in life is that I was an anti-Gaullist when I should be a Gaullist, and a Gaullist when I should’ve been an anti-Gaullist.’ And that’s typical of Aron’s rather skeptical, slightly self-deprecating style. In 1940, as a young Jewish intellectual, he was at the École Normale Supérieure, the exact contemporary of, and very close to, Jean Paul-Sartre. They were the two luminaries of their year, although Aron always felt that Sartre had a genius that he lacked.

But Aron went to London in 1940 because he had this implacable lucidity about what would happen in France, he saw what was going to happen. There were many French people in London during the war who were quite anti-Gaullist, unconvinced by this figure. Aron was sceptical without being hostile and that scepticism emerged in an article he wrote in 1943, “The Shadow of Bonaparte.” He was obviously totally opposed to the Vichy regime, but wasn’t sure that what de Gaulle might become was any better. But then, in the late 1940s and 1950s, at the height of the Cold War, Aron, almost uniquely among French intellectuals, opposed the hold that communism had on French intellectual life. He wrote a famous book called the Opium of the Intellectuals – that is to say communism. At that point, he actually rallies to de Gaulle, when de Gaulle is trying to come back to power. Afterwards a lot of people feel that period in de Gaulle’s life was problematic, because he was flirting with some extreme right ideas, out of anti-communism. Hence why Aron said, ‘I was Gaullist when I shouldn’t have been Gaullist.’

In 1958, Aron reluctantly supports de Gaulle’s return to power, because he thinks the Fourth Republic can’t deal with Algeria. And Aron is unique among French intellectuals of the right in coming early to the view that Algeria should be independent, and he did this just out of logic. He approached the world through a sort of implacable logic, and the logic of the situation was that Algeria was costing France too much. It wasn’t that he was sentimentally attracted to the idea of the nationalism of the FLN [Algeria’s National Liberation Front], but the logic pointed to independence. So when de Gaulle comes back to power and doesn’t move very fast towards Algerian independence, Aron becomes very disappointed in him. After Algeria does become independent, Aron becomes very disillusioned by de Gaulle’s anti-Americanism, because Aron is an Atlanticist liberal.

In the English edition I read Kissinger writes the preface…

Aron is very much part of that world. He had extensive contacts in Harvard and Kissinger was a friend. He had a big foot in the States and was very hostile to what he saw as de Gaulle’s anti-Americanism, his taking France out of NATO and continuously attacking the Atlantic alliance. He is also deeply shocked when, in 1967, de Gaulle effectively takes the side of the Arab states over Israel in the six-day war. Aron wrote a famous pamphlet denouncing de Gaulle because he felt the language de Gaulle was using against Israel was verging on anti-Semitic. He didn’t go as far as to say de Gaulle was anti-Semitic, but that the language he used had made anti-Semitism possible again. Aron knew very well that in London, during the war, de Gaulle had many Jewish people around him, and there is no evidence of de Gaulle being anti-Semitic.

Finally, in 1968, Aron is absolutely traumatized by the events of that year and, for once, this supposedly highly cerebral intellectual machine responds very emotionally. He is horrified by what he sees as the nihilism of the student revolution. He famously called 1968 a psychodrama; he thought it was just an explosion of narcissistic, nihilistic youth. So now he’s not exactly back in the camp of de Gaulle, but he’s supporting the regime. I chose this book because Aron’s ideas of France are always in dialogue with de Gaulle’s idea of France. And because de Gaulle had enormous respect for him.

Moving on to the Rousso book. He’s actually born after World War II and he’s a professional historian. He would have spent his youth under the de Gaulle presidency. Tell us a bit about Vichy Syndrome . This isn’t a memoir but it’s a book about memory, right?

Exactly right. It’s been an immensely influential book, and de Gaulle plays a role. Rousso is still a very active historian today, and continues to write extraordinarily interestingly and importantly about memory. One of his other books is called The Haunting Past . Vichy Syndrome, Haunting Past … Un passé qui ne passe pas is another one. It is a past that the French cannot escape from.

The fascination of his book is the way in which the French are still trying to come to terms with that experience of 1940 to 1944. One of the narrative arcs of the Vichy Syndrome is the gradual disintegration of the Gaullist myth, the myth that was created by the war memoirs discussed above and that reaches a kind of paroxysm in 1964 when de Gaulle, under the patronage of André Malraux , his minister of culture, has the remains of the great Gaullist war hero, Jean Moulin, transferred to the Panthéon, where the heroes of the French Republic lie. The pantheonization of Moulin produced one of André Malraux’s most famous speeches. Malraux’s narrative is that, without Moulin, the resistance would have just been fragmented and ineffective and quarrelsome and divided but that, sent by de Gaulle, Moulin federates, unites the resistance behind de Gaulle. So the pantheonization of Moulin with this extraordinary speech by Malraux, is the culmination of the Gaullist myth which the memoirs had started.

Rousso explores the reasons why the French gradually – but particularly after ’68 – can no longer believe in that myth. Perhaps they never believed it, but they at least said they believed it. He plots how in film and literature, in public debate, the Gaullist myth is shattered. One of his chapters is called ‘the shattered mirror.’

One of the important stories that de Gaulle tells in his war memoirs is how, when he arrives back in Paris on 25 August 1944, he goes to the ministry of war, to the old office he had occupied in June 1940. He says, ‘I went in and opened the door and not a stick of furniture had been changed, the curtains were the same curtains, the chairs were the same chairs, nothing was missing except the state. I sat down and got to work.’ The point he’s making is that Vichy had never existed. Later that afternoon, he crosses the river and he goes to meet the resistance, who are waiting to greet him at the Hotel de Ville, which is just opposite the river from the ministry of war. He arrives, and they all cheer him and he gives an extraordinarily moving and wonderful speech. But then the leader of the resistance council, Georges Bidault, says, ‘Now you’re back in Paris, now you can declare the republic restored.’ And de Gaulle says, ‘No, I can’t, because the republic has never ceased to exist.’ In other words, wherever de Gaulle was, the republic was. So if you fast forward to the debates in the 1990s and 2000s, then if France was really in London, and a French state didn’t exist between 1940 and 1944 except in London, the terrible things that happened weren’t done by France. They were done by the Germans. And so when you deal with the death of 75,000 Jews, who’s to blame? The official Gaullist answer was ‘Germany’. Obviously there were some collaborators, and there were bad individuals, but ‘France’ was not responsible. It took Jacques Chirac, who became president in 1995, to say publicly from the first time, on the anniversary of the biggest roundup of Jews in Paris in July 1942, that, on that day, ‘France’ committed an ‘irreparable’ act. It was French gendarmes who were arresting the Jews, and French train drivers who were driving the trains that took them to the border. It’s probably the only thing he’ll ever be remembered for. As president for ten years he did absolutely nothing except make one speech, which everybody remembers. And he could do this because he had no stake in that past.

Macron has gone even further. He pushed the guilt of France even further. So I chose Rousso because these debates are all about the Gaullist legacy, whether the Gaullist story is a story that we can still accept or not.

Were Macron and Chirac able to make those speeches because there is a new consensus or did they create a lot of public controversy? Is there still a large body of French opinion still trying to maintain the Gaullist myth?

Some old Gaullists were shocked by what Chirac said. I know very respectable and distinguished French historians — of the left actually — who think that Chirac should not have made that speech, that it was, in a sense, undermining the legitimacy of de Gaulle. They worry about that. I think there generally is now a consensus on this, but when people start to think hard about it, how it works, how it fits into revering de Gaulle. You can revere de Gaulle, just say he was not France, but the whole point of de Gaulle’s analysis was that Vichy didn’t exist, it was just a parenthesis, it just didn’t exist, it was nothing, it was just a handful of puppets.

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The French are still finding ways to deal with this issue because, if it was France, then it makes the French worry about what kind of country they are that could do such a thing. In France, it seems to me, it’s a question of squaring circles, of still being able to be proud of being French while accepting that the myth was a myth. This was very clear in Chirac’s own speech. On one level France committed irreparable acts, but then France was saved by the Just, les Justes , those gentiles who saved Jews, celebrated by Israel.

And increasingly, there seems to be a new myth growing up that almost every French was a Juste . A film that came out a few years ago, La Rafle , the Roundup, had a huge success. And the line of the Rafle is that Pétain, Laval, the bad people did exist, and let’s not pretend they didn’t exist, and let’s not pretend they weren’t the state, but luckily every French shopkeeper, policeman, baker, bus driver saved a Jew here, helped a Jew there, so you see it’s a new way of getting around that problem. So my answer to your question is, although I don’t think the Macron statement in itself is controversial, dealing with that past remains complicated and still is argued over. I think the way the French think about that past now undermines certain of the myths about de Gaulle. So we have this paradoxical situation where everybody in France reveres de Gaulle, but nobody actually believes the Gaullist myth any longer. It’s a curious paradox.

When you’re talking about the way they’ve wrestled with this issue, it sounds like people are making a distinction between a sort of abstract idea of France that is almost an ambition, rather than a reality, which perhaps doesn’t really exist in a British mindset, but which French people can talk about without being dishonest.

Yes I think there’s something in that word ambition. One of de Gaulle’s other key words we haven’t mentioned which is a key word of the war memoirs, “France cannot be France without its grandeur.”  Sometimes he was asked, ‘What is grandeur?’ He really wasn’t some kind of unhinged maniac who thought that France was going to become a world power. He was deeply realistic about the realities of the world. He often replied that grandeur was an ambition to surpass yourself. It’s about wanting to try to be something even if you can’t quite get there. And yes the French do have this idea. I think this period is particularly troublesome for the French precisely because they do have a certain idea of what France is, and that period seems to go against all those ideas, if they were guilty.

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De Gaulle once said, ‘there’s a two thousand year pact between France and the liberty of the world.’ He was able to talk that talk about France and freedom and so on. But there was a paradox in de Gaulle. Fundamentally, de Gaulle was a nationalist. He believed all nations are engaged in a struggle for power with other nations. That’s Darwinian, it’s part of the world and it will never change. So he always talked about Russia, because communism would come and communism would go, but Russia would always be there. And he would always say about America that American talk of liberal internationalism was just a cloak for American interest. He was absolutely consistent about that. All ideologies are just cloaks for the interests of nations.

But he wasn’t totally consistent when it came to France. If I ever had dinner with de Gaulle, the one question I’d like to ask him is: “You have a very coherent and very clear view of the relationship between ideology and nation. But you also say that France represents a certain idea of humanism, of universal values of humanism for the world, and that France is a light of the world. If you believe all these things are just cloaks for national ambition, do you really believe that? Or are you saying that because you’re French?” The Vichy regime is so difficult for the French to deal with, because it seems to be an assault on so much of what the French are supposed to think being French is about.

July 17, 2018

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Julian Jackson

Julian Jackson

Julian Jackson is Professor of Modern French History and Head of the School of History at Queen Mary University of London.

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best biography charles de gaulle

Lion of France

A new, and likely definitive, biography of Charles de Gaulle

De Gaulle , by Julian Jackson (Belknap Press of Harvard University, 928 pp., $39.95)

C harles de Gaulle was perhaps the most thoughtful and impressive statesman of the twentieth century. His only possible rival in this regard is Winston Churchill, another statesman-thinker, though Churchill presided over a longstanding, stable, and free political order in the United Kingdom, something on which de Gaulle could not depend in the French case. De Gaulle has been the subject of fine biographies in the past, among them a somewhat mythologizing three-volume work by Jean Lacouture, a well-researched but less than sympathetic account by Eric Roussel (who clearly prefers the supranationalist Jean Monnet to de Gaulle’s passionate partisanship for the nation), and a more popular and readable account in English by Jonathan Fenby. Added to these now is this superb and equitable portrait by the British historian of twentieth-century France, Julian Jackson. 

Jackson writes with verve, avoiding the turgidity of typical academic prose. He respects, even admires, de Gaulle but never succumbs to hagiography. He allows de Gaulle’s greatness to speak for itself and treats the general’s writings and military, political, and philosophical reflections with the seriousness that they deserve. His judgments on de Gaulle’s thought and action are almost always illuminating and always measured. Jackson’s is likely to be the authoritative biography of de Gaulle.  

Jackson recognizes that, for de Gaulle, “word” and “deed” were inseparable. De Gaulle’s prewar writings, especially  The Enemy’s House Divided  (1924) and  The Edge of the Sword  (1932), are important sources for understanding his thought and character. That he came from a dignified, Catholic, bourgeois background—one that was, to cite Jackson, “austere, traditionalist, suspicious of ostentation”—is also relevant. This milieu was nostalgic for monarchy without hating the Republic; wary of revolutionary excess; and open to a middle path between a liberalism that often ignored the needs of the soul and the dehumanizing tyranny that inevitably accompanied socialism. Yet if De Gaulle was influenced by these origins, he was not reducible to them.  

A s a young man and officer, de Gaulle read widely, forming what would become his mature view of France, the world, politics, and the soul. From the French Catholic poet and philosopher Charles Péguy (“an author who mattered immensely to de Gaulle”), he learned a generous patriotism that tried to bring together the best of France, before and after 1789. Like Péguy, de Gaulle loathed pacifism and loved France. He drew upon Péguy’s admiration for Joan of Arc, the saint and warrior who loved God and France with almost equal fervor. For de Gaulle, again like Péguy, France had a “mystical vocation” to bring liberty, civilization, and enlightenment to humanity: in his words, it had “an eminent and exceptional destiny.” This Catholic patriot never succumbed to anti-Semitism, any more than he confused the martial virtues, noble within their own sphere, with hatred of other peoples and nations. Totalitarianism of the Left and Right was never a temptation for de Gaulle.

De Gaulle was committed to keeping grandeur and moderation together, to doing full justice to both. In his first book, The Enemy’s House Divided , which he began to research in prison libraries while a prisoner of war in Germany between 1916 and 1918, the future statesman explored the reasons for Wilhelmine Germany’s defeat in World War I. He admired the courage of the enemy but not its Nietzschean disdain for “the limits marked out by human experience, common sense and the law” that had permeated and corrupted German political and military culture before and during the Great War. At the beginning of the book, de Gaulle defended “a sense of balance, of what is possible, of measure” that “alone renders the works of energy durable and fecund.” This was to become his political creed, his animating political philosophy: grandeur must be informed by realism, restraint, and mesure .

In his subsequent interwar writings, de Gaulle expressed a mixed judgment about Napoleon Bonaparte. He admired his courage and military genius but faulted him for leaving “France smaller than he had found her.” Napoleon had little appreciation for restraint, and like the German military elite in World War I, he was undone by “outraged principles,” by the “tragic revenge of measure,” as de Gaulle so eloquently put it in his 1938 book  France and Her Army .

The French conservative liberal Raymond Aron once feared “the shadow of Bonapartism,” as he put it in a 1943 article, that surrounded de Gaulle and the Free French movement during their days of wartime English exile. But in 1958, after de Gaulle’s return to power as the founder of the new French Fifth Republic, Aron differentiated the “classic ‘Bonapartist’ conjuncture” that paved the way for the general’s return to power (“a climate of national crisis, the discredit of parliament and politicians, the popularity of a man”) from any suggestion that de Gaulle aimed to be a new Bonaparte. As Aron framed it, Bonaparte was an “adventurer” and tyrant; Boulanger, who almost took part in a coup against the French Republic in 1889, was a “ditherer”; and Marshal Pétain, the hero of Verdun and leader of Vichy France, was “an old man.” By contrast, de Gaulle was “an authentically great man.” Those are the exact distinctions that needed to be made, and they are well borne out by Jackson’s nuanced narrative. 

The Edge of the Sword , de Gaulle’s most famous work—written between World Wars I and II—took aim at a facile pacifism that ignored the harsh realities of a world where conflict formed an essential part of the life of nations. De Gaulle knew that the Great War, bereft of humane and prudent political leadership, had highlighted many of the horrors of armed conflict. But de Gaulle could not imagine a political world—a human world—“without force.” He did not glorify war and never endorsed conflict or imperialism as ends in themselves. Still, he asked in his preface to the book: “How can one conceive of Greece without Salamis, Rome without her legions, Christianity without the sword, Islam without the scimitar, the Revolution without Valmy?” (Valmy was a French revolutionary battle well known to all French readers, at least in those days.) 

A reader might ask: How did de Gaulle’s opposition to pacifism cohere with his Christian faith? Like Péguy—and like the French Catholic novelist Georges Bernanos, whom he also admired—de Gaulle believed that the Christian, too, was called to the path of chivalry and personal and political honor. De Gaulle viewed the condition of his daughter Anne, born with Down syndrome, as a trial from God. He loved her dearly and saw a humble greatness in “poor Anne.” He wept with terrible grief (he told the parish priest he felt “annihilated”) when his daughter died at 20 in 1948. De Gaulle told one of his aides in 1946 that Christ’s sacrifice was at the center of universal history: “He opened up the horizons of religion beyond the hearts of men towards vast regions giving a place to human suffering, to human anguish, to human dignity.” Jackson’s de Gaulle is a croyant , a believer, whose personality, thought, and action were “impregnated” by his Christian faith. 

At the same time, “the man of character,” the model of political magnanimity that de Gaulle embodied and presented in chapters two and three of  The Edge of the Sword , was an ideal of heroic leadership marked by the most ascetic of stoicisms. Jackson compares de Gaulle with Corneille’s Augustus, a model of public service informed by solitude and some sacrifice of personal happiness. No Nietzschean overman, de Gaulle suffered as only the “born protector” of a great and free nation can suffer. He was pained, as was Churchill, by Munich and the democracies’ choice for dishonor and peace at any price. “Step by step,” he wrote in the fall of 1938, the French had chosen the path of “humiliation and retreat so it had become a second nature.” He would choose the path of personal and political honor, as a Frenchman, a Christian, and a good European. He had warned about Germany’s bellicose intentions in the years after 1933 and pushed for the modernization of the French armed forces with new tank and air capacities that could take the war to the enemy. The French instead hid naively behind the ineffectual Maginot Line. There was more than a little moral corruption hiding behind this passivity, as de Gaulle argues in the first volume of his  War Memoirs . 

De Gaulle rose to the moment in June 1940. A terrible political, moral, intellectual, and military crisis called this “born protector” to lead a damaged France—at least that part of it that refused to surrender to a Germany far worse than the one of 1914. As Jackson observes, “without the fall of France, de Gaulle would undoubtedly have become a leading general in the French army, probably a minister of defense, perhaps even head of the government—but he would not have become ‘de Gaulle.’” De Gaulle, of course, was sensitive to the role of contingency, chance, and choice in the unfolding of human affairs, as all his writings suggest (the philosopher Henri Bergson was a key influence here). On these themes, Jackson quotes from one of de Gaulle’s most insightful prisoner-of-war lectures in 1917:

Without the Peloponnesian War, Demosthenes would have remained an obscure politician; without the English invasion, Joan of Arc would have died peaceably at Domrémy; without the Revolution, Carnot and Napoleon would have finished their existence in lowly rank; without the present war General Pétain would have finished his career at the head of a brigade.

In de Gaulle’s view, Providence, destiny, and chance act as restraints even upon a “prince” filled with the capacity for effective thought and action. De Gaulle was an unusually reflective man of action, contemplative far beyond the capacities of most of his military and political contemporaries. Like Churchill, he knew that he was a “man of destiny” meant to leave his mark on history. The two statesmen were “shepherds” obliged to do battle with totalitarian “wolves.” As Jackson demonstrates, “word” and “deed” converged in the great “appeal” to honor and resistance that de Gaulle delivered from the BBC studios in London on June 18, 1940. A new “adventure,” for de Gaulle, began at age 39, as he observed in his War Memoirs . On June 18, de Gaulle reminded his listeners (and posterity) that the war was a global conflict. What was lost by mechanized force—the planes and tanks of the Axis powers—could be won in the future by the combined mechanized strength of the Allied powers. He knew that Britain and France could rely on their extensive empires and “the immense industry” of a United States that would be inevitably drawn to the cause of European liberty. He spoke simply but eloquently for French independence, for honor, and for the nobility of continued resistance. De Gaulle will always be remembered as the “man of June 18th,” Jackson believes—even more than as the founder of the Fifth French Republic in 1958 (with its energetic, if distant and oligarchic, executive institutions) or as the statesman who reconciled France to the end of empire, if not to a radical diminishment of France’s continuing “rank” in the world. 

D e Gaulle was not especially anti-American, as Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger came to appreciate in the late 1960s. He worried about French, and European, dependence upon American military protection long before others became aware of this problem. He unhesitatingly sided with the West during the various Berlin crises from 1958 to 1961, and again during the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962. He may have been right about the imprudence of a long American military involvement in Indochina in the 1960s, but the man who warned Georges Pompidou in the early 1950s about a potential “Asian Munich” might have shown more respect for American efforts to stymie the totalitarian tide. Were Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Cong merely nationalists, as de Gaulle suggested at Phnom Penh in 1966? Jackson establishes that de Gaulle genuinely hated Communism and did not like what he saw in the Soviet Union when he visited in 1944 and 1966. He thought, rightly as it turned out, that Europe would outlast a Communist ideology so at odds with human nature and the wellsprings of European civilization. But he was wrong in the 1960s in thinking that leaders such as Alexei Kosygin, Władysław Gomulka, János Kádár, and Nicolae Ceausescu were beginning to think and act like nationalists, even patriots. These men combined Bolshevism, no small dose of cynicism, and a lust for power. None was an authentic patriot, and none could be said truly to love his country. This was wishful thinking on de Gaulle’s part, and Jackson is not sensitive to this point. It goes too far to say, as Jackson does, that de Gaulle was somehow vindicated by the antitotalitarian revolutions of 1989.

As Jackson makes clear, de Gaulle was a traditionalist in his social leanings and sensibilities. He hesitated to legalize contraception (what would happen when marriage was just about sex and not at all about fecundity, he asked?), and he thought that the Catholic Church had gone too far in accommodating the excesses of the modern world in the aftermath of Vatican II. Yet he presided over the rapid economic modernization and cultural liberalization of France. As Jackson notes, when people think of postwar France, figures like Jean-Paul Sartre, Claude Lévi-Strauss, and Jean-Luc Godard come to mind—men who hardly shared de Gaulle’s vision of French grandeur informed by moderation and respect for tradition. And the student-driven events of May 1968 unleashed a radical assault on everything de Gaulle held dear. But he remained the man of June 18.

T oday, de Gaulle is an uncontested hero for the French, something he hardly was in his lifetime. Yet French elites owe more to the secular antinomianism of May 1968, with its utter contempt for Gaullist austerity (moral and political), than to an authentically Gaullist vision. Emmanuel Macron, the current resident of the Élysée Palace, praises de Gaulle and claims that his  War Memoirs  provide continuing political inspiration. Macron undoubtedly loves the monarchical trappings of the French presidency, but he is hardly a partisan of the “greatness,” “independence,” and “rank” of France in the manner of de Gaulle. De Gaulle probably would be appalled by Macron’s easygoing accommodation to the behemoth of the European Union and the dictates of a politically unaccountable Brussels Commission. He might even be a supporter of a “French exit” from Europe in its present form.

De Gaulle was an authentically great man, as revealed in his interwar writings, in his stoicism, in his passionate love for France, in his choice for honor and resistance in June 1940, and, above all, in the myriad ways he kept greatness and moderation together in his thought and action. But his efforts were somewhat Sisyphean. De Gaulle even feared that he had amused his contemporaries with flags, as he told André Malraux in a final conversation, recorded in that writer’s fascinating  Fallen Oaks . Still, de Gaulle’s writings, and a stellar biography such as Jackson’s, provide enduring witness to a life lived in service to France and to the enduring verities that inform Western civilization.

Daniel J. Mahoney holds the Augustine Chair in Distinguished Scholarship at Assumption College, where he has taught since 1986. He is the author of  De Gaulle: Statesmanship, Grandeur, and Modern Democracy  (revised paperback edition, Transaction/Routledge, 2000) and most recently of  The Idol of Our Age: How the Religion of Humanity Subverts Christianity  (Encounter Books, 2018). 

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General Charles de Gaulle

A Certain Idea of France by Julian Jackson – the life of Charles de Gaulle

The historical figure the French most admire, the man nicknamed the ‘emperor of France’, was proud, arrogant, charming, pragmatic

O n 26 August 1944, General Charles de Gaulle took a high profile walk on the Champs-Elysées. The leader of the Free French had arrived in Paris the previous evening, a day after his advancing troops, and had declared himself president of the newly liberated republic. In a city still swarming with snipers, a walkabout was risky but, as Julian Jackson says, it was “a supreme example of De Gaulle’s instinctive showmanship”. Parisians flocked in their thousands to see the man most of them knew only as a voice broadcasting on the BBC from London. It was “the largest gathering of its kind in the history of France”. De Gaulle recalled this extraordinary moment in his memoirs: “Ahead stretched the Champs-Elysées. It looked more like the sea. A huge crowd was massed either side of the street. Perhaps two million souls. The roofs were also black with people … People were hanging from ladders, flagpoles and lamp posts. As far as the eye could see, there was only this living tide of humanity, in the sunshine, beneath the tricolour.”

The history of a nation and of a people is built from such defining moments. And, as Jackson’s remarkable 900-page study ably demonstrates, no one played a more influential role in 20th-century France than De Gaulle. He “was reviled and idealised, loathed and adored, in equal measure”, and aroused such passion due to his involvement in France’s two 20th-century “civil wars”. A relatively unknown army officer when France was invaded in 1940, De Gaulle quickly established himself as the leader of the Free French in defiance of the legal government headed by Marshal Pétain, France’s most revered military figure, who signed an armistice with Hitler. After heading the provisional government from 1944 to 1946, De Gaulle stepped aside from power, though he returned in 1958 when France was threatened with a military coup by generals dissatisfied with the handling of the Algerian crisis.

To tell the life of De Gaulle is also to chart the history of modern France, and in this suitably monumental biography rich with illuminating anecdotes, Jackson portrays his subject as a complex and contradictory character. The General (as he was known) was proud, arrogant and very difficult to deal with. Outbursts of sudden fury alternated with interludes of charm. Harold Macmillan, who failed to convince de Gaulle to admit Britain into the Common Market, described him as “the Emperor of the French”, adding: “I have never known a man at once so ungracious and so sentimental.” He distrusted both Britain (“perfidious”) and America (“it has no depth nor roots”). He once quipped that the British based the Free French in Carlton Gardens because it is “a dead end, with the only way out through Waterloo Place”.

Fiercely nationalistic, de Gaulle was driven by the belief that it was his destiny to save France. Yet he was realistic too about the country he loved: “How can one govern a country which has 258 cheeses?” He was dismissive of politicians and yet ruthlessly Machiavellian in his pursuit of power. Conservative, elitist and authoritarian by nature, de Gaulle was also deeply pragmatic, which led him to eventually embrace Algerian independence against the wishes of his military.

With his rallying cry of “Unity!”, he was a figure of stability to whom France turned at times of national crisis, but he was also “brutally divisive”, hated by the radicals of 1968 as well as the far right. His death in 1970 was “one of the most intense moments of collective emotion in the history of modern France”. Tens of thousands of Parisians walked up the Champs-Elysées in the pouring rain to lay flowers at the Arc de Triomphe. One noted in his diary: “the man made us all bigger”. He remains hugely influential. In a 2010 opinion poll, De Gaulle emerged as the historical figure the French most admired, the man who in 1944 “saved the honour of France”.

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How Charles de Gaulle Rescued France

best biography charles de gaulle

By Adam Gopnik

Man in a military hat and coat smoking a cigarette

Charles de Gaulle, Julian Jackson insists in the preface of his new biography, “ De Gaulle ” (Harvard), is “everywhere” in modern France , its undisputed hero. This claim, like some other confident statements in the book, may strike a reader as both narrowly true and what a French thinker might call metaphysically false. His name is certainly everywhere—on the great airport outside Paris; on the Place Charles de Gaulle, once called the Étoile, where traffic streams perpetually around the Arc de Triomphe—but his example seems remote. He is more a ceremonial than a controversial figure, his work now done. In forty years of passing in and out of France, I have almost never heard him pointed to as an exemplar useful in any way for today’s crises. His name having been placed on l’Étoile is apt: the traffic goes around all day but never stops for long.

If he lives anywhere, it is in the endless flow of books about the Second World War written by Americans and Brits, in which he emerges as the biggest pain in the ass in the history of the liberal order. By alphabetical accident, the heading “De Gaulle: Personal Characteristics” in Jackson’s index gives us, in sequence: arrogance, austerity, authoritarianism, cigarette smoking, coldness, contempt for human nature. It’s quite a list. Yet, as this classically composed and authoritative (if culturally somewhat shallow) book makes clear, he remains an amazing figure.

De Gaulle had three rendezvous with history, in the old-fashioned sense he loved: in 1940, in 1958, and in 1968. On all three occasions, he saved the French state by sheer theatricality and élan. First, by embodying the French republic in retreat from the Germans; then by seizing power, in a republican mode, to end the Algerian crisis; and, finally, when he ended the potential chaos of the May revolt by massing almost a million people on the Champs-Élysées in a counter-demonstration.

It was not all theatrical élan. As Jackson, a British history professor, shows, it also involved political savvy and the quiet weighing of odds among competing factions. But he depended more on theatrical élan than did pretty much any other public man of his century. Churchill in 1940 was far from powerless. He had radar and Ultra, an intact R.A.F. and a large empire. De Gaulle had nothing except his uniform and his voice. No one has ever played a weaker hand more compellingly. His life was one long brilliant bluff, and the things that make him exasperating—his vanity and closed-mindedness; his unearned sense of superiority and egocentric blindness—were also why the bluffs worked. He convinced others, sitting at the card table with all the aces in their hands, that he might have somehow manufactured an extra ace by pure force of will.

He is, perhaps above all, a significant figure owing to the fidelity of his republicanism: from a background that in most places and circumstances would have led, in crisis, toward some form of Bonapartism, he remained a faithful believer in the norms of democracy, in oscillating governments and principled resignation. He believed in “a certain idea of France,” to use his famous phrase, but it was a republican idea of France. He embodied a reactionary and regal style of politics, completely distinct in tone from the usual “progressive” kind, but no less committed to the institutions of democracy. This was achieved only with some coaxing from his advisers at key moments (but, then, he had chosen the advisers) and with sporadic fits of spleen—but in the end de Gaulle always offered a staunch reaffirmation of republican values. His life is proof that unapologetic right-wing politics do not necessarily bend toward absolutism; they can also sometimes stiffen the spine of liberal democracy.

Before 1940, when he emerged as the voice of Free France, de Gaulle was best known as a career French military man, notable chiefly for having survived Verdun; for having written in favor of modernizing the French Army, particularly on behalf of the then daring doctrine of tank warfare; and for being very tall. Personal traits matter: people looked up to him because they had to.

“Hes less of a parent and more of a fixer.”

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Although he insisted on his origins among the country gentry, in fact he was raised in Paris’s Seventh Arrondissement—then a place, as he put it perfectly, marked by a “military melancholy,” a sadness of grand and empty green spaces. As Jackson ably shows, his family may have been hyper-conservative and Catholic, but they did not appear to be passionate anti-Dreyfusards. His father, who taught in a lycée, was aligned with the Catholic, reactionary side of politics—but by no means with its Jew-hating or monarchist fanaticism. (De Gaulle was, unusually for a man of his background, not particularly anti-Semitic. He condescended to Jews, but then he condescended to everyone.)

De Gaulle’s reactionary politics were also humanized by a dense literary culture. “The most wonderful job in the world would be as a librarian,” he once said. He was being puckish but not entirely so. He knew Corneille by heart and could quote his plays, and this immersion, Jackson makes plain, was not merely for show. De Gaulle had absorbed the lesson of French tragedy: that most hopes are doomed, that all choices come at a cost, that enduring loss with dignity is the highest of human callings. This stoical view was married to a conscious philosophy of action. He had been exposed at length to the philosopher Henri Bergson, whom he chose to read as a kind of proto-existentialist. Intellect needed to be braced by impulse, and impulse should be valued as a kind of instinctive ethics. What you felt you should do, however irrational it might seem to others, is most often what needed to be done.

When the worst happened, and the German tank corps overran France, in the spring of 1940, de Gaulle felt not only that his talents had been misused but, worse for a Frenchman of intellect, that his theories had been ignored. “Our initial defeat,” de Gaulle, newly promoted to brigadier general, wrote in a memorandum whose effect on his desperate superiors one can only wonder at, “comes from the application by the enemy of ideas that are mine.” There’s now a lively debate among military historians about the true causes of the fall of France. For a very long time, it was widely accepted that the speed and the panache of the German Army left the French Army helpless in its entrenched and conservative defensive positions. A newer generation of military historians—for instance, John Mosier, in “ The Blitzkrieg Myth” —argues persuasively that the blitzkrieg happened mostly in panicked headlines, that the German tank corps had outrun its supply lines, and that France was in no worse shape in May of 1940 than it had been in a similar moment in 1914.

The failure—and this is a view that Jackson seems to share—was political. Paul Reynaud, the Prime Minister, had plenty of room to fall back and reorganize, as the French had done successfully in the Great War. But Reynaud, crazily, chose to bring into the cabinet the defeatist generals Pétain and Weygand, and he was under the crucial influence of his equally defeatist lover, Madame de Portes. Perhaps more important, the price of the earlier comeback had been millions of dead Frenchmen, and there was simply no will to try that experiment again. The French leaders had no fight in them, or not enough.

And so de Gaulle chose exile. A mere sub-cabinet minister of defense, he fled to London with no arms and few supporters. “Since the French revolution,” Jackson writes, “exile has had only negative connotations in French political culture.” Here, as in his estimation of de Gaulle’s place in contemporary French political culture, Jackson’s certainties seem a little at odds with the facts. Victor Hugo, the greatest hero of the French left, had chosen honorable exile in Britain, as did so many refugees from the Commune and the Franco-Prussian War. And, just as Hugo was heard best from exile, so was de Gaulle. He made two speeches on the BBC that, Jackson documents, could not have been heard by very many Frenchmen and yet somehow burned through the damaged French consciousness. What was said about the speeches seems to have been more important than what the speeches said. In the midst of a squalid surrender, one young general had spoken up for France. The idea of French honor, quaint but essential, was revived.

In de Gaulle’s isolation, paradoxically, lay his strength. There was something of St. Joan about it, and his solitariness appealed to the French collective myth of the single defiant individual. His passion in London was, exactly, a scene out of Corneille, like that of Rodrigue in “ Le Cid ,” the hero who rises to gloire in a moment of individual trial. (Shakespeare’s heroes, like Henry V, rise by inspiring others, as Churchill knew; Corneille’s by duelling alone with their principles.)

As Jackson demonstrates in hilarious detail, the Pétainist government in Vichy unintentionally added to de Gaulle’s prestige. In a very French touch, the Vichy officials first publicly stripped him of his rank as general and then made him the center of a hate campaign, showing his tall figure on posters hidden behind a microphone surrounded by swarthy Jews. This had the effect of making him the one anti-German leader whom most French people had heard of. The Vichy regime, in the blindness of its hatred, helped create—and promote—the de Gaulle brand.

Jackson’s is an essentially sympathetic account of de Gaulle in London—which does not keep de Gaulle from seeming even more of an egotist and a prima donna than his previous biographers had made him. Both the British allergy to hyperbolic disquisition and the American taste for getting right down to cases—not quite the same thing—were alien to him. He irritated Churchill, in particular, with his refusal to placate Roosevelt, acting as if he were in command of a major army instead of a few borrowed rooms in Mayfair. Jackson recounts an episode in which Churchill summoned de Gaulle to speak to him. One interpreter after another was thrown out for not conveying what each intended to say to the other—Churchill was trying to bully de Gaulle, and the interpreter, understandably uneasy, made him sound diplomatic—until at last the two men were alone, conversing in French.

But only by being impossible could de Gaulle have an independent voice. “You will see, if you say ‘no,’ they will crawl to you and offer you the moon,” he once explained to a subordinate. His behavior was maddeningly adolescent, but he chose it for the same reason that an adolescent chooses his—as the one way, in a position of actual dependency, to declare one’s autonomy. Slamming the door of your bedroom is sometimes the only power you have when you are living in someone else’s house. And he knew, as well, that the Allies had no plausible alternative to him, and that Churchill admired (and identified with) what Jackson rightly calls the quixotic side of de Gaulle’s character.

Eisenhower, despite Roosevelt’s distaste, turned out to be the one to fully embrace de Gaulle as indispensable to the Normandy invasion. The American general understood what subsequent American generals planning invasions of poorly understood countries have easily forgotten—that it is essential to have on your side not the local forces you wish were popular but the local forces who actually are popular. De Gaulle had become, often to the exasperation of those doing the fighting and dying inside France, the sole credible symbol of French resistance. “From the purely military viewpoint we must . . . deal with him alone,” Eisenhower wrote home to Roosevelt. And, as Eisenhower saw, de Gaulle could be a good listener, too. In Michel Tauriac’s oral history of Gaullism, “ Vivre avec de Gaulle ,” one of his subordinates points out that when de Gaulle appeared to be listening, eyes wide open and attentive, he was really ignoring you; only when he took on his more familiar pose of sleepy-eyed indifference was he actually engaged.

Jackson does a brilliant job detailing the evolution of de Gaulle from a normal French officer who has contempt for the squabbling, mediocre politicians of the Third Republic into a clear voice for republicanism. He came to understand that only revolutionary republican values could speak to a working class in need of a democratic alternative to Communism. In this, he showed the influence of Jean Moulin, the high-ranking left-wing prefect who came to London to build a secret army, and then was parachuted back into France to lead it.

At first, de Gaulle had no vision of an armed internal resistance in France. The fight, he thought, would come from the colonies and the remnant French armies and navy. But the colonies were of limited value; for a while, the only pledge of support de Gaulle got was from New Hebrides, in the South Pacific, not hugely useful for a European war. Only when, with the help of Moulin, he saw that there was resistance within the occupied country did his tactics and politics change.

It didn’t escape him that Moulin’s strength of character and clear mastery of the only credible resistance network inside France were tied to his impeccably republican attitudes. De Gaulle, realizing that he had to move left to hold the center, then had to execute a complex dance. The Communist Party of France was a slavishly obedient arm of Stalinism and the Soviet Union—which did not alter the other reality that, after the invasion of Russia, in 1941, many of the most courageous of the resisters would be Communists. Moulin had credibility with all sides; de Gaulle took on some of it. This was critical as he sought to thread his way through a maze of sects and sides. On a single page of this biography one encounters the C.F.L.N., the C.N.R., the F.F.I., the B.C.R.A., the amgot , and the C.D.L.—all Free French factions of the forties.

Especially after Vichy made anti-republicanism synonymous with surrender, de Gaulle came to see that France had to be addressed by the republic’s magic words—liberty, equality, and fraternity—and not the near-Vichyite ones of fatherland and family, which he had first favored. De Gaulle was the farthest thing in the world from an instinctive democrat, but he didn’t have to be. It was enough that he understood that democracy had become one of the instincts of France.

The tale of de Gaulle’s years in exile is a reproach to anyone who underestimates the role of personality in history. People of all sides who met de Gaulle were exasperated by him, but mostly they were impressed by him—by the way his personality was enfolded in his politics, and his politics in his personality. Jackson reproduces a moving letter from Georges Boris, a socialist Jewish journalist in exile, to the imprisoned Jewish socialist Léon Blum, in France, detailing his view of de Gaulle: “De Gaulle gave me back honour, the possibility of being able to look people in the face again. . . . To a large degree, his unwillingness to bend, his intransigence are willed. He likes to say that being as weak as he is, intransigence is his only weapon.”

Moulin was eventually tortured to death by Klaus Barbie, betrayed to the Gestapo in circumstances that remain murky. Was Moulin’s Judas a Communist fellow-resister obeying Moscow’s orders to eliminate anti-Communists? We still don’t know. We do know that when de Gaulle heard of Moulin’s brutal murder he merely said, with the stoicism of a Corneille hero, “ Continuons ”: “We’ll go on.”

And he did. On August 26, 1944, after the Allies liberated Paris, he claimed the victory as his own, organizing a personal parade down the Champs-Élysées, in which he walked alone—his fellow-resisters were asked to hang back a few feet—amid a hysterical throng that may be the largest ever assembled in Paris. He even managed to get the French as witnesses to the German surrender, the following May, which was “a remarkable achievement, inconceivable without de Gaulle’s tenacity, obstinacy and political skill,” as Jackson writes. (“The French are here, too?” one of the German generals reportedly said.) If this triumph allowed the French to evade what had actually happened during the war—the abject armistice with Hitler, the delivery of the deportees to their persecutors, the entire black hole of Vichy from which so little light escaped for so long—it did put France in a position to, well, go on.

De Gaulle’s coexistence with the Fourth Republic, in which he briefly led several governments, was unhappy and contentious; his general’s temperament was not made for intricate parliamentary maneuvering. Now that he was a head of government, his theatrical tactics backfired. The Fourth Republic that emerged largely after his resignation from government was, as Jackson itemizes, far more of a success than is often allowed. But it came crashing down amid the horror of the impossible Algerian war; like Lyndon Johnson’s Administration, it did well domestically and had a disaster in a colonial war.

Then, in June of 1958, a group of right-wing French military men, alarmed by the Fourth Republic’s failure to defeat the ongoing rebellion in Algeria, and worried that the French nationals there would be abandoned, set about to organize a coup of sorts. They more or less took charge in Algiers, and demanded a change of government in Paris. De Gaulle, who with rather magnificent Machiavellianism both did and did not encourage the junta’s actions, cultivating its actors at the time and condemning them not long after, was asked by the French President to lead a government of “national union” for six months and then to offer a new Constitution, which became that of the still extant Fifth Republic.

The complexities of the Algerian crisis are still tragic to read about. The O.A.S., the colonial secret army, continually attempted assassinations, and the Algerian guerrillas, the F.L.N., continued, bizarrely, to commit terrorist acts in Paris long after the game was essentially won. After two years of futile negotiations, de Gaulle gave up, saying that “France would contemplate with the greatest sangfroid a solution by which Algeria would cease to belong to her.”

This was, as everyone knew at the time, a sellout of the pieds noirs , the huge community of French nationals in Algeria, for whom it had been as much a home as any other department of France. As Jackson says, de Gaulle got exactly what any other French politician would have: a surrender with the barest fig leaf. (One thinks of the long fall of Vietnam, where what was achieved in 1975 was also what would have happened in 1968 anyway, with fewer deaths along the way.) The pieds noirs were left helpless, as were the Harkis, Algerian Muslims who had fought with the French Army. De Gaulle’s triumph, as Jackson writes, was to make the French “believe that he had controlled the process; and to create a compelling narrative that explained France’s disengagement from Algeria and turned it into a victory rather than a defeat.”

But, at the same time, de Gaulle rebuilt France and made it modern. The secret of the Fifth Republic, as Herrick Chapman details in his new history, “ France’s Long Reconstruction ,” was that, beneath the sonorous grandiosity and medievalist rhetoric, de Gaulle’s government was entirely technocratic and modernizing. Many of the most important policies that his Prime Minister, Michel Debré, took up were, in an age-old cycle, the policies of the previous, much maligned administration of the Fourth Republic. But they were pursued with especial vigor: the Fifth Republic, under Debré, became an even more technocratic and administrative one than France had had before—which is saying something.

The effects of these reforms could be salubrious. France became, in many respects, an even more extraordinarily well-run state; anyone who has had encounters with the upper reaches of the hautes fonctionnaires class of the Fifth Republic still has to be impressed with their level of education, worldliness, and efficiency. And the effects could also be infuriating: France remained an extraordinarily bureaucratic state, too. Anyone who has ever had regular contact with the lower reaches of the administrative regime will know of the parallel paper, or pixelated, universe in which no event has occurred on earth until it has a folder in a file.

Jackson writes wonderful political history, but social history does not sneak into his work very often or very well: the larger world of literature and commentary in which French political life is always entangled is not dramatized with any relish, giving the biography a slightly dutiful monotone. Sartre and Camus make at best sideways appearances, although they were de Gaulle’s ideological antagonists as much as any politician. (Sartre was at one point during the Algerian war so extreme in his support of the F.L.N. that he was on the verge of being arrested, until, as the story goes, de Gaulle said, “One does not arrest Voltaire.”) Jackson’s writing, encyclopedic in knowledge—obscure sources make easy appearances—is a little short on pictorial and sensory intensity. During de Gaulle’s days in power, the monuments of Paris were all sandblasted, under his and Malraux’s orders, and the face of the city changed from grimy black back to its original blue-gray and beige and white. It was as keenly symbolic of Gaullist triumph as any law or edict, but, though the alteration is mentioned, we never really see it or feel it.

Jackson does make us feel one consequential flaw in the Fifth Republic as a political invention. By seeming to concentrate so much power in one regal figure, de Gaulle made it possible to rule France again, but also insured that opposition would have to be impassioned and clamorous to register at all. Prime Ministers, when they become unpopular, are eased out by their supporters; kings, when they become unpopular, must be thrown out by a mob. Afterward, theatrical mini-revolutions became the norm in French politics. The ability of each new President to survive the coming wave of street protests became even more important than his ability to hold the legislature together.

Of the anti-government demonstrations that de Gaulle confronted, the most famous manif was the one that proved fatal to his career: the student rebellion that began in the streets of Paris and then spread to the factories outside it. An anti-materialist revolt with a largely incoherent practical politics—a militant French version of the Summer of Love, “Sgt. Pepper” with Trotskyite liner notes—it expressed so deep an impatience with Gaullism that it transformed France within a week. De Gaulle retreated to his country house, and seemed on the brink of resignation. Instead, he returned to Paris and led an immense counter-demonstration. It was a reminder that the center of popular gravity in France remained on the right, even as its mind and imagination remained on the left; in elections held in June, the Gaullist party gained an outright parliamentary majority. For all that, the Events of May seemed to exhaust him spiritually; he resigned only a year later, after losing an insignificant referendum on regional reform. It was a form of ritual political suicide.

And de Gaulle’s legacy? A reasonable case can be made, after closing Jackson’s book, that it was all theatre and hot air. The Allies would have retaken France with or without him, and some French politician would have taken that walk in 1944. France was going to surrender Algeria sooner or later; all de Gaulle did was extend the fight and put a noble face on the surrender. He knew this as well as anyone. “In reality we are on the stage of a theatre where I have been keeping up the illusion since 1940,” he once told a confidant. “I am trying to give France the appearance of a solid, firm, confident and expanding country, while it is a worn-out nation. . . . The whole thing is a perpetual illusion.”

Worse, by placing myth over history, he injected a toxic hallucinogen into French memory. It took decades for France to begin to address the reality of Vichy. Almost to this day, the reality of the civil war that Algeria ignited in France is obscured: the drowning, by the police, of perhaps five hundred Algerians in Paris in 1961 was suppressed at the time, and is barely commemorated now. There is a side of de Gaulle that is merely hateful: vindictive and vain and deeply selfish. His ingratitude to the British, who had saved his life and given him a platform to save his country—an ingratitude that became almost obsessively bitter in his memoirs—is unforgivable, except as a reminder of the truth that we always resent most those to whom we owe most. His infamous improvisation in Quebec in 1967, when he cried out “ Vive le Québec libre!, ” was inspired by his absurd fantasy that Quebec, already becoming a multiethnic modern state, was still occupied by the “English.”

Yet this account misses the central lesson that de Gaulle intuited: myths matter. Without a sense of shared symbols, it is impossible for any modern state to go on. France is a frustrating state, but it has never been a failed one. It works. National dignity is hugely important to any program of national renewal. (Had American policy toward Russia post-1989 been shaped with an eye not just to that country’s political system but to its pride—to making sure that the Russians had a myth of their own self-liberation, instead of being so obviously plundered and defeated—the ensuing disaster would, conceivably, have been less disastrous.) De Gaulle crafted a symbolic history for the French in place of a real one, because symbols were among the most real things they knew.

The distinction that’s sometimes made between patriotism and nationalism is at the essence of his existence. The patriot loves his place and its cheeses and its people and its idiosyncrasies; the nationalist has no particular sense of affection for the actual place he advocates for (he is often an outsider to it) but channels his obsessive grievances into acts of ethnic vengeance. De Gaulle is a nearly perfect example of the right-wing patriot in power—of the constitutional conservative who accepts the modern order.

With his love of honor and pageantry, de Gaulle might seem to offer a very dated model of politics. And yet in an odd way there’s an urgent, living lesson for the twenty-first century in what de Gaulle accomplished, one that can’t be overlooked—indeed, President Macron spends every day trying not to overlook it. What de Gaulle’s example reminds us is how valuable an insistence on the shared symbols of a common fate can be if carried out with integrity and a residual deposit of democratic values. The politics of grandeur, he shows, need not be the exclusive province of bullies and gangsters and crooks and clowns. It’s a fine French lesson. ♦

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Charles in Charge

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By Josef Joffe

  • Aug. 17, 2012

Dare I call a 707-page biography a page turner? For once, the fake enthusiasm of blurb prose rings true. I did “finish the book in one sitting,” as another chestnut has it, though the sitting was a very long flight of 16 hours. And why? Because Jonathan Fenby, a former editor of The Observer of London and a prolific author, knows how to turn breadth and depth into enthrallment. ­Academic historians tend to shy away from the grand sweep, while journalists like to stick to the chatty and topical. Fenby has blended the best of both crafts — the historian’s gravitas, the journalist’s feel for drama — into a magnificent book that will rank alongside a classic like Jean Lacouture’s multi­volume biography of Charles de Gaulle.

Fenby actually gives us two books, masterfully intertwined, for the price of one. “The General” isn’t just the story of a 20th-century giant who captivated the public’s imagination even while he was still alive. It also traces the course of a great nation that refused to come to terms with the loss of the strategic pre-eminence it had once enjoyed. This is history with an almost literary flavor. Think of Booth Tarkington’s “Magnificent Ambersons,” which charts the waning fortunes of an aristocratic family in 19th-century America, and more particularly think of the movie that was made of it. Fenby hasn’t written a novel, but one can imagine how Orson Welles might have turned “The General” into a movie classic. Hollywood, take note.

Le Grand Charles looms so large because his nation kept shrinking. Humiliated by Prussia-Germany in 1871, France was barely saved by America’s intervention in World War I. Succumbing to the fatigue of the 1920s and 1930s, France was done in for good by Nazi power in 1940. The shame of collaboration followed, but rebirth after D-Day was not to be. Instead, the end of the war signaled the death of an empire, from Indochina to Algeria, and the relentless decay of the Fourth Republic while the world became English with an American accent. Enter Charles de Gaulle, a man from the day before yesterday and the day after tomorrow, as his admirer André Malraux put it. A comrade from de Gaulle’s early army days recalled: “He stood out not so much because of his size but because of his ego, which glowed from afar.”

At 6-foot-3, naturally he could see farther than his contemporaries. As France hunkered down behind the Maginot Line after World War I, de Gaulle preached the armored offense Hitler’s panzer armies would use with devastating efficiency. When Nazi Germany rearmed, de Gaulle railed against appeasement as an “irreparable disaster.” He told his family: “We have capitulated without fighting.” It was all in vain.

This is the stuff from which tragedy is made. When Hitler subdued France in a matter of weeks, de Gaulle escaped to London. “It was for me,” he wrote while Vichy France half resisted, half embraced Hitler, “to take the country’s fate upon myself.” He and who else? De Gaulle’s war years in London read like “Don Quixote Doing Achilles at the Court of St. James’s.”

best biography charles de gaulle

Hitler was the enemy across the Channel, Churchill the enemy next door. He (and Franklin Roosevelt) barely suffered the general’s antics. “The P.M. is sick to death of him,” a minion wrote. Even the Free French headquarters, another Churchill aide noted, were “getting nearly as tired as we are of their chief’s ungovernable temper and lack of balanced judgment.” Anthony Eden, the foreign secretary, politely asked him: “Do you know that, of all the European allies, you have caused us the most difficulties?” De Gaulle smiled: “I don’t doubt that. France is a great power.”

France was not. De Gaulle perfectly embodied an economy-class power that insisted on flying first class. With Germany’s defeat in sight, the general triumphantly returned to Paris (Roosevelt and Churchill let his troops march at the head of the parade), but soon both the man and the country were found wanting. De Gaulle, who probably never heard of the deadly sin of pride, would either rule or retire. After only a few days as head of the government he huffed “I’ve had enough,” and not long after he abruptly resigned. For him, none of the demeaning wheeling and dealing with those little men in the legislature. So it was off to ­Colombey-les-Deux-Églises, where he would hole up for the next 12 years.

While de Gaulle sulked, his country sank, going through about two dozen governments with an average life span of six months. France lost Indochina, Suez and l’Algérie française and was obliged to watch as the heirs of Prussia-Germany regained economic primacy and rose to become America’s “continental sword.” By 1958, on the cusp of civil war over Algeria, the Fourth Republic was ready to collapse, and it did — right into the hands of Le Grand Charles. “Great circumstances bring forth great men,” he declared. “Only during crises do nations throw up giants.”

De Gaulle reigned over the Fifth Republic for the next 11 years — a latter-day Sun King forced to suffer the ornery ways of democratic politics. The “man from the day before yesterday” remained stuck in the 19th century, his consuming passion being the chessboard of realpolitik. Alternately, he would court and confront “les Anglo-Saxons,” the West Germans, the Soviets and the Chinese. It was power politics without war, and its name was “leverage” — either by collaring new allies (like West Germany) or betraying old ones (like Israel). As his various grands desseins faltered, de Gaulle fell back on a classic from his days in London: maximizing his nuisance value. Bribe me, or else! His “readiness to go to the brink,” Fenby writes, “created an exaggerated impression of power,” a power France did not have, never mind the atom bomb acquired in 1960. So the United States finally called his bluff. Dean Rusk, John Kennedy’s secretary of state, said: “We learned to proceed without him.”

And so did his people . Les événements of May 1968, the mightiest student revolt in the West, brought up to 10 million students and workers into the streets. In the midst of the revolution, de Gaulle’s prime minister, Georges Pompidou, declared: “The General doesn’t exist anymore; de Gaulle is dead.” Not quite.

The last few chapters read like a thriller with footnotes. De Gaulle escaped back to Colombey, then to French Army headquarters in Germany to plead for the support of the military. Meanwhile, the faithful rallied in Paris, and the general returned, winning a huge majority in the parliamentary elections of June 1968. But he was the nation’s savior no more, as he had been in 1940 and 1958. When he called a referendum on his reforms — actually, on himself — he lost, and resigned on the same day. In November 1970, just short of his 80th birthday, he died in Colombey.

Fenby has written a story that is learned, incisive and gripping — an intellectual pleasure as well as a French window, so to speak, on Europe’s demise and rebirth. The dramatis personae are Churchill, America’s presidents from Franklin Roosevelt to Lyndon Johnson, Konrad Adenauer and, of course, de Gaulle, the outré hero, who could have sprung from the imagination of Homer or Cervantes. There is no more fitting epitaph than Fenby’s last sentence: “The world would not see his like again.”


Charles de gaulle and the france he saved.

By Jonathan Fenby

Illustrated. 707 pp. Skyhorse Publishing/A Herman Graf Book. $32.95.

Josef Joffe is the editor of Die Zeit in Hamburg and a fellow at the Freeman-Spogli Institute and the Hoover Institution, both at Stanford. He is completing a book on the false prophecies of America’s decline.

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