The Greatest

R.W. Johnson

  • Charles de Gaulle, Futurist of the Nation by Régis Debray, translated by John Howe
    Verso, 111 pp, £29.95, April 1994, ISBN 0 86091 622 7
  • De Gaulle and 20th-Century France edited by Hugh Gough and John Horne
    Edward Arnold, 158 pp, £12.99, March 1994, ISBN 0 340 58826 8
  • François Mitterrand: A Study in Political Leadership by Alistair Cole
    Routledge, 216 pp, £19.99, March 1994, ISBN 0 415 07159 3

Much of the history of France in the last century is embodied in the strange trinity of Philippe Pétain, Charles de Gaulle and François Mitterrand. Pétain, born in 1856, was old enough to remember the humiliation of France at the hands of Prussia in 1870, and like other French officers of his period, spent his entire military career in anticipation of what he believed would be the inevitable revenge for that defeat. By the time the young second lieutenant Charles de Gaulle joined the 33rd Infantry Regiment at Arras in 1912, Pétain, the regiment’s colonel, was on the point of retirement. The war intervened and gave Pétain an extended military life. In 1925 the hero of Verdun and Marshal of France appointed the promising young de Gaulle to his staff and repeatedly intervened to promote his protégé, even raising his marks when de Gaulle graduated from the Ecole Supérieure de Guerre. Pétain then imposed him on the School as a lecturer, and insisted on going along to introduce him. De Gaulle dedicated his writings to Pétain, acted as his ghostwriter, and called his own son Philippe. But Pétain, presumed too far and de Gaulle, his pride wounded, asserted his independence. The relationship had already grown cool when de Gaulle ended it: on 18 June 1940 he condemned the deal Pétain, had done with Hitler and appealed for resistance. It was a war to the knife. De Gaulle made resistance to Pétain, such an absolute principle that he overcame his previous prejudices and joined forces with the Communists in the struggle against him. Pétain, had de Gaulle condemned to death in absentia, while de Gaulle had Pétain, live out his last few years of life – by then he was over ninety – as a prisoner on a windswept little island in the Bay of Biscay.

De Gaulle’s own ascent to power in 1958 was not unlike Pétain’s in 1940: a great national crisis, the Army torn by conflicting notions of patriotism, a virtual coup ratified by a Parliament whose nerve had snapped, France dominated by the shadow of le Général as it had been before by that of le Maréchal. The part of the young de Gaulle was played by François Mitterrand, who denounced de Gaulle’s coup at the outset. As a young résistant, Mitterrand had once looked up to de Gaulle much as de Gaulle had to Pétain. But the relationship cooled rapidly and Mitterrand’s career as a minister in the 1944 provisional government was brutally cut short by de Gaulle. Mitterrand, his pride wounded in turn, made resistance to de Gaulle the guiding principle of his political life, even overcoming his previous prejudices and joining forces with the Communists in the struggle against him. The circle was complete in 1992 when, despite a storm of protest, Mitterrand laid a wreath on Pétain’s grave. Inevitably, this gesture was explained in terms of Mitterrand’s past – his far-right leanings as a student and the fact that he had been decorated by the Vichy regime – but it’s likely that his real motive in forgiving Pétain, was to show himself a greater man not only than the Marshal but even than de Gaulle.

This is the sort of thing that drives Régis Debray mad. Having received a sinecure from Mitterrand, he has clearly become thoroughly disenchanted with him and has written the one book calculated to enrage Mitterrand beyond all others: a paean of praise to de Gaulle, next to whom, it is continually insinuated, Mitterrand is a pygmy. Belatedly – and oddly so – Debray has woken up to the fact that he owes de Gaulle, not only his life (for securing his release from the Bolivian junta), but ‘the intelligence, such as it is, that I have been able to gather from the time I live in. And I gave him nothing in return. It is with a defaulter’s sheepish air that I now render belated homage, and I will never forgive myself for this failure.’ The tone is not just self-abasing (‘I quail before de Gaulle. He is the Great Other, the inaccessible absolute’ etc), but self-flagellating. What Debray can’t get over is that for most of his life ‘De Gaulle just made us snigger’: he was a ludicrous, pompous 19th-century survival – the ’68 chant ‘De Gaulle au musée’ summed it up. Now he wonders how on earth he failed to see that de Gaulle was the most consummate statesman of his century. ‘I would just like to understand the real reasons for all our missed rendezvous. Why so many of us have turned up late in our own lives.’

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