Last week marked the 200th anniversary of the death of Napoleon Bonaparte. Many people in France regard Napoleon as the greatest Frenchman and there is no doubt that Napoleon changed the history both of France and of the world. He left durable institutions on which modern France has been built up: the administrative system of the prefects, the Napoleonic code, the judicial system, the Banque de France and the country’s financial organisation, the centralised university, and the military academies. But he also restored slavery, lost over 400,000 men in the disastrous attempt to conquer Russia and did very little for the rights of women. In the end his hubris meant that he overreached himself. Despite extraordinary charisma he had achieved the unusual position of creating unity among his enemies: Great Britain, Prussia, Austria and Russia which led to his final defeat at Waterloo.
But I think there is a better case that can be made for another to be the greatest Frenchman and many of the French agree with me. When an opinion poll in 2010 asked the French to rank the most important figures in their history, 44% placed Charles de Gaulle top, far ahead of Napoleon in second place with 14%. All politicians from left to right, invoke De Gaulle’s name. At the presidential elections of 2012 he was cited as an example by both the socialist François Hollande and his right wing (supposedly Gaullist) opponent Nicholas Sarkozy - and by pretty well everyone else. Even the extreme-right Front National, whose founder Jean-Marie Le Pen was once a visceral anti-Gaullist, now celebrates De Gaulle’s legacy. But no contemporary French politician has more consciously sought inspiration in de Gaulle than Emanuel Macron whose official photograph as President shows him in front of a table in which one book lies open: the Pléiade edition of De Gaulle’s War Memoirs.
Charles de Gaulle was born in Lille in 1890 into a bourgeois and strictly catholic family. His father was a teacher and imbued in his son a love of history and literature. Charles’s parents paid for the private publication of a book of Charles’s poetry when he was in his teens. His love of history led him to an appreciation of military strategy, and he decided to join the Army. This was not necessarily the most auspicious career choice at that time as the Dreyfus affair had made the army unpopular among many French people. But Charles in his many books only mentions the Dreyfus affair twice and it seems not to have put him off. He did sufficiently well in his examinations though was by no means among the best.
By the time the First World War broke out Charles was a junior officer, and he had a very difficult experience in the war. He was injured on three occasions, in both legs and then in his left hand which did not fully heal so that after he married, he wore his wedding ring on his right hand. He was captured at Verdun and spent the rest of the war in captivity although he made five separate attempts to escape, even on one occasion disguised as a nurse despite the fact that at six foot five he must have been the tallest man in the French Army.
After the war he stayed in the Army and had a successive range of promotions eventually reaching the rank of Brigadier General. He became widely known for his thoughts on military strategy and he believed that the French needed to strengthen their forces of tanks. When the Second World War broke out de Gaulle was one of the few French officers who had any success in battle. He became a junior minister in the government as the Nazis invaded and enjoyed rapid success.
Marshal Pétain elected to sue for peace. De Gaulle was strongly against this but was overruled. De Gaulle then fled to London. He met with Churchill who agreed to find him accommodation and finance him and his Free French comrades during the course of the war, to be paid back after the war.
De Gaulle believed that the Vichy government was not legitimate. He believed that the war between France and Germany was basically continuous and that eventually this would be resolved with the help of the US and the UK. He began to attract support from many of the French colonies around the globe and through broadcasts on BBC radio he was able to keep up the spirits of the French whether they were acting as the resistance movement in France or waiting in support elsewhere in the world.
His relations with Roosevelt and Churchill were never smooth but in the end his view was vindicated, and he became head of the Provisional Government of the French Republic in June 1944, the interim government of France following its liberation. He introduced a dirigiste economic policy, which included substantial state-directed control over a capitalist economy which was followed by 30 years of unprecedented growth.
Frustrated by the return of petty partisanship in the new Fourth Republic, he resigned in 1946 but continued to be politically active by founding the Rassemblement du Peuple Francais (RPF: “Rally of the French People”). He retired in the early 1950s and wrote his War Memoirs which became a best seller.
When the Algerian War was tearing apart the unstable Fourth Republic, the National Assembly restored him to power during the crisis in May 1958. He founded the Fifth Republic with a strong presidency, and he was elected to continue in that role. He contrived to keep France together while taking steps to end the war, which provoked the ethnic French born in Algeria as well as the military. Both groups had previously supported his return to power to maintain colonial rule. He gave independence to Algeria and acted similarly towards the French colonies.
In the context of the Cold War, de Gaulle developed his “politics of grandeur” stating that France as a major power should not have to rely on other countries such as the US for its national security and prosperity. Thus, he pursued a policy of national independence which led him to withdraw from NATO’s military integrated command and to launch an independent nuclear development programme making France the fourth nuclear power.
He got on well with Chancellor Adenauer and restored cordial Franco-German relations to create a European counterweight between the Anglo-American and Soviet spheres of influence. However, he opposed any development of a supranational Europe, favouring Europe as a continent of sovereign nations. He saw the European Economic Community, which France had joined just before de Gaulle returned to power in 1958, as the chance for French farmers to gain market share. And for the same reason he prevented Britain’s entry into the EEC on two occasions recognising that Britain’s Commonwealth countries like Australia and New Zealand would have access to the EEC markets and provide considerable competition on price. But I think he also understood Britain very well having lived there during the war and recognised just how different its history was from the other EEC members.
Although re-elected to the presidency in 1965, he faced widespread protests and even riots by students and workers in May 1968, but he still had the army’s support and won an election with an increased majority in the National Assembly. But the following year he lost a referendum which proposed more decentralisation and consequently resigned. He died a year later at his residence in Colombey-les-Deux-Églises and at his request his funeral was a modest affair, and he was buried locally.
Historians differ on the reasons for his greatness but few doubt that he did possess that greatness. He was a visionary, and it is astonishing how often he was proved right. In the 1930s, his prediction about the future course of the Battle of France was more accurate than that of the French high command. Everything he did after June 1940 was built around his correct judgement that the Battle of France was only the start of a world war in which the axis powers would be defeated. In the 1960s he predicted the collapse of the Bretton Woods financial system which most commentators laughed at, but just a few years later that had come to pass. He warned about the growing consequences for Israel of the occupation of the Palestinian territories. He warned the Americans that they could not win in Vietnam and was clearly proved right on that front. In 1964 he predicted that Yugoslavia would not last. He said “For that there needs to be a Yugoslav nation. There isn’t. There are just bits of wood stuck together with a piece of string. That piece of string is Tito. When he is no longer there, the bits will fall apart.” Around the same time, he was equally prophetic about the future of Iraq. “The Sunnis with the Shias and the Kurds. These are countries destined to be divided because they contain altogether different peoples which do not have the same religion, the same past.”
His most lasting achievement was not so much in foreign policy as in the establishment of the constitution of the Fifth Republic in 1958. The constitution has been amended several times and operates in many respects differently from de Gaulle’s intentions – but it is still in essence the regime he created through his way of exercising power between 1958 and 1969. The previous Fourth Republic was so unstable that it had many different constitutions rather than the constitution of 1958 of de Gaulle which has been amended but has fundamentally held France together for over 60 years.
Source: A Certain Idea of France: The Life of Charles De Gaulle
Julian Jackson. Allen Lane 2018