At the military academy in Saint-Cyr, which he entered in 1908, Charles de Gaulle was known as ‘the great asparagus’. But aside from the fact that he stood six feet four in his socks it was his character that drew attention: he was rebellious yet aloof, sceptical yet sure of himself. Not everyone admired his manner and his height could be a nuisance. In 1940, when engine failure forced his plane to land in a remote part of Chad, a rescue party arrived with two small horses. He mounted one to find his feet were firmly on the ground either side of it: fitting, no doubt, for a decorated World War One infantryman who liked to stand and be counted. In Champagne in 1914, when an enemy shell landed nearby and two of his colleagues wisely flung themselves to the ground, De Gaulle remained in the asparagus position. As a soldier and a statesman, he was always happy to present a big target.
Yet this towering figure could seem more conspicuous still by not being visible, and much of his life was spent at the margins of power, first as the rebel leader of anti-Vichy forces in London and Algiers, and then, between 1946 and his return to office in 1958, as a brooding absence in French political life. Removing himself from view the better to be seen was both a tactic and a strategy, as Sudhir Hazareesingh argues in a fascinating study of the De Gaulle myth. He might sweep up his papers and stride from a meeting, refuse to attend a commemoration, or retire for years to his home in Colombey-les-deux-Eglises. It was important, De Gaulle had written in his third book, Vers l’armée de métier (1934), ‘to make people believe that one is where one is not’. Important also to be noticed when one wasn’t there; or to be there all along while giving the worrying impression that one wasn’t, like a familiar landmark obscured by fog.
This predilection for looming and pending enabled the De Gaulle myth to take several shapes, all of which eventually coalesced under his guidance. His own writings played a large part in the process, especially his three volumes of war memoirs, published in the 1950s, sometimes at critical junctures: as France faced defeat in Indochina, for example, or five years later, when he had emerged from his long hibernation to entrench himself as president of the Fifth Republic. By ‘myth’, Hazareesingh means a coherent story that binds listeners together and speaks to their sense of the sacred (in this case, freedom, nation, republic etc). Plenty of De Gaulle’s opponents, including Sartre and François Mitterrand, did not see it that way; for them, ‘myth’ in this context would imply ‘lie’, which is not what Hazareesingh intends. He is profoundly concerned with the registers of collective memory – monuments, rituals, symbols, street names (‘lieux de mémoire’) – and his book is a model of recent French historiography, in the tradition of Pierre Nora and Maurice Agulhon. He is also a political scientist, intrigued by the general’s stake in his own myth-making as a means of empowerment and self-justification.
In his new biography, Jonathan Fenby delivers the infant Charles into an era of anxiety, brought on by the growing strength of Germany and the sense that France had lost its way. The year was 1890; the smart of the Franco-Prussian War was still palpable; the Dreyfus Affair, which would shame the army in his family’s view, was about to unfold. De Gaulle was raised in this twilight ambience to think grand thoughts about the nation, and growing older, was sure that French institutions – the army especially – were no match for the challenge ahead. ‘At the age of 15,’ Fenby tells us, ‘he wrote a detailed account of a coming war with Germany, putting himself at the head of 200,000 men who won repeated victories with gallant bayonet charges amid storms of bullets.’
De Gaulle graduated from Saint-Cyr in 1912 and returned to Philippe Pétain’s infantry regiment, with which he’d trained earlier. The two men thought well of one another (Pétain shared De Gaulle’s disdain for the government and the bourgeoisie). At Verdun in 1916, De Gaulle was left for dead but picked up by German stretcher-bearers and then interned. He made several fruitless attempts to escape.
De Gaulle’s was a romantic sensibility, Hazareesingh argues; he was not a man to sneer at ‘feeling’, but a leader must have discipline, exerting his authority by taking the necessary distance both from himself and others. Solitude then, and an outspokenness grounded in self-control: these vocational traits, carefully cultivated, went on view to the public in the interwar years, as De Gaulle developed his ideas on the waging of modern warfare in a series of books that set him apart from the rest of the army. With prophetic condescension he argued against the fortified defence so dear to the French chiefs of staff: the key to coming wars was mobility, based on the speed and offensive capability of mechanised armour operating in independent units. De Gaulle’s theories did not play well at a time when the army was still spending four times as much on fodder for the cavalry as it did on gasoline, and though they caught the attention of a few politicians and the press, the generals and the defence ministry recoiled: this was adventurism and besides, creating an independent tank corps would divide the army. Even Pétain, who’d become a kind of godfather to De Gaulle, looked askance at the idea. Nevertheless, on the eve of the German invasion, far too late, four armoured divisions were hastily organised, with De Gaulle in charge of one of them. On manoeuvres in the spring of 1940, he told a delegation of British MPs that the war would be lost. ‘We must now prepare to win the next one – with machines.’
He left France a disillusioned rebel whose point had been proved. He had acquitted himself well as a tank commander but it scarcely mattered given the country’s collapse. For ten days in June, he had served as under-secretary of state for war and national defence, when France had no capacity for either. He had fallen out with Pétain even before the German invasion and the armistice.
Both Fenby and Hazareesingh have brought the familiar story of the Free French to life by focusing on the ideological and political challenges De Gaulle faced during the years that followed his departure to London. On one hand, he had to impose a version of events that was radically different from that of the Vichy government; on the other, he had to fight the Allies inch by inch for his right to lead the French liberation movement he had just dreamed up. But what right? De Gaulle’s legitimacy derived almost solely from his refusal to accept the reality of defeat and occupation, which most of his compatriots were beginning to absorb. Having disobeyed orders to return from London, he was demoted to the rank of colonel (he had only just become a general) and in August he was condemned to death. At the start of his stay in Britain he had little more than a robust faith in the idea that the drama of his exile and the downfall of his country were intimately connected and the certainty that further intransigence on his part was, as he confided to a colleague, ‘the only weapon I have’. He was a refugee with his eyes on the destiny of the old country.
The British were quick to see the tactical interest of Free France, but strictly as a lesser partner: an editorial tussle over De Gaulle’s famous BBC broadcast on 18 June signalled Whitehall’s wish to remain in charge from the outset. At the same time the war cabinet was loath to cut off links with Pétain, which set them at odds with their dubious protégé. De Gaulle, for his part, was rightly suspicious of British intentions but inclined to go into battle when a messenger sent discreetly across the lines would have done the trick. Yet he had to strike an attitude – call it the asparagus position – and insist that he was somebody, despite indications to the contrary. The British were forever trying to take charge of the Free French movement and, though he won the affection of several cabinet ministers, including Eden, Churchill’s own was unreliable. By the end of 1942, the prime minister was treating De Gaulle the way a drunk treats a loyal and sober friend: tantrums and threats were interspersed with brief bouts of remorse and ironic professions of admiration.
De Gaulle’s postwar disappearing acts were nearly all of his own choosing, but in the war years he was ‘disappeared’ from high-level meetings of the Allies and even from their battle plans. A curious episode in Hollywood says much about this tendency to welcome him with open arms as a plucky fellow and then freeze him out. As America was drawn into the war, William Faulkner began work at Warner Brothers on a script about the general (‘The De Gaulle Story’, later ‘Free France’), full of dash and heroism. Apparently, Jack Warner was encouraged by Roosevelt to embark on the project and Faulkner was keen – he researched De Gaulle’s writings on mechanised warfare and even included a tank battle – but before it could go into production, the movie was shelved. In the interval Warner heard that Roosevelt had had a change of heart. French expatriates in Washington, notably the poet Saint-John Perse, talked down De Gaulle; Washington’s envoy to Vichy, Robert Murphy, briefed hard against him; but perhaps the president drew his own conclusions from the disastrous Anglo-French assault on Dakar in the autumn of 1940, undertaken at De Gaulle’s urging. Almost certainly, after the Spanish Civil War, he seemed to see another generalísimo in the making.
By the end of July only five or six thousand of De Gaulle’s compatriots had answered his appeal to join the Free French. The question for many unfree French had been to effect a realistic salvage of their country and swallow their national pride: from this angle, De Gaulle’s stance looked reckless and irresponsible. The British attack on French ships at Mers-el-Kébir in July (1000 French seamen were killed) only heightened misgivings about his lofty airs: wasn’t he now in league with yet another enemy of a defeated France?
As his voice became more influential and people began to tune in to the broadcasts, spinning the dial away afterwards, so that the wireless wasn’t set to an incriminating wavelength, he issued calls for mass displays of ‘symbolic resistance’ which worked directly on the stifled patriotic impulse and, increasingly, on the republican imagination of his listeners.
For 1 January 1941, to test the water, he called for a minimalist, symbolic ‘stay-away’ (as anti-apartheid activists later referred to the tactic): people in the Vichy zone were asked to remain indoors between 2 and 3 p.m. and in the occupied zone between 3 and 4. The results were auspicious. Vichy had cast Joan of Arc as a blood-and-soil figure with a hatred of the English; Free France endowed her with a generic rage – a ‘sacred French fury’ – against any invader from any quarter. On her feast day in May people were urged to walk the streets of ‘our towns and our villages’ – that charged little phrase – in ‘absolute silence’, not as a march or a cortège, but as families, groups of friends, individuals, ‘looking one another directly in the eye’ as they crossed. On May Day 1942, they were asked to turn out en masse and parade past town halls and republican statuary at 6.30 p.m.
The urgency of these appeals was due in part to the fact that the Communist Party was mobilising in its own ways, both during and after the Nazi-Soviet Pact. The PCF was yet another in a ring of rivals surrounding the general and, as Hazareesingh says, De Gaulle was struggling on two fronts, hoping to assert that his was the only legitimate voice speaking for France on the international stage, while coming to an accommodation with the non-Gaullist strands of the Resistance.
A unified Resistance, one of the most vexed areas of the picture, became a possibility towards the end of 1942, when the PCF sent delegates to London and agreed terms with De Gaulle; Free French forces were by then a respectable size, around 40-50,000 strong and a credit to the general. That left the Allies. ‘As soon as America entered the war,’ De Gaulle noted, ‘the Free French were eliminated from the Allied conferences.’ The 26 signatories of the ‘Declaration by United Nations’ against the Axis in 1942 did not include France; De Gaulle was not invited to Washington a few months later for discussions of the pending North African campaign, or later to Tehran to discuss the Allied invasion plans for Europe, or eventually to Yalta and Potsdam.
There had been tensions enough with the British, whose bludgeoning decorum is elegantly caught in L’Appel, his first volume of memoirs. But Churchill could see the merits of De Gaulle, while Roosevelt held him in barely disguised contempt as a dangerous marginal. Notwithstanding his affection for France, Roosevelt felt in 1942, as Stalin did, that it would have to adjust to a new status in the world, of which De Gaulle lacked any proper sense. Here, surely, the colonial question lay just beneath the surface: De Gaulle’s martial tours in Africa had made the point that French possessions had a role to play in the war effort and he was liable to object to the rapid decolonisation Roosevelt envisaged as part of the peace, accompanied by an expansion of US influence in the overseas possessions evacuated by Europe.
The Allied landings in Morocco and Algeria at the end of 1942 were a snub to the Free French, or ‘la France combattante’ as they were known now that they had fighting forces in presentable numbers. Roosevelt ruled out the idea, mooted by Churchill, that De Gaulle might at least be informed of the plan. Operation Torch, launched in November, landed 100,000 Allied troops under Eisenhower, but no French. By now, the Americans believed they might have found an alternative to De Gaulle: General Henri Giraud, a senior officer who had been captured by the Germans and subsequently escaped – a Vichy loyalist, wanted by the Reich and ready to do the Allies’ bidding. Eisenhower ordered him to Algiers to turn Vichy forces as the landings took place. By the time he arrived, however, the Allies were already dealing directly with the Vichy commander-in-chief, Admiral Darlan, who happened to be in Algiers, apparently on family business. The understanding reached with Darlan allowed the Allies to take charge of Vichy’s military bases in French North Africa: Darlan became a minor potentate at the head of a regional Imperial Council, reviled by Pétain but still a Pétainiste – Roosevelt’s Pétainiste. In effect there was now a US satrapy in North Africa administered by Vichy rules.
Churchill tried to reassure De Gaulle that Darlan couldn’t last and Giraud was ineffectual: in the end he, De Gaulle, the man of destiny, would prevail. ‘Be patient,’ Churchill told him. But this was to miss the point, the way De Gaulle saw it. Ought Washington really to be making all the decisions, including whether or not to deal with the enemy? ‘You allow the Americans leadership of the conflict when you should be exercising it, morally in any case. Do so! European opinion will support you.’ But already Churchill had put De Gaulle’s broadcasts from London on hold and asked the president whether he should scrap them altogether if Washington had another man in mind. ‘I hope you get to Berlin before the Americans,’ De Gaulle told the Soviet ambassador in London.
On Christmas Eve 1942, Darlan was assassinated in Algiers by a young French monarchist, and Eisenhower made it clear to the Imperial Council that Giraud was the only acceptable replacement. De Gaulle and his army, soon to number 70,000, could not be entirely cut out of the picture, however: Roosevelt’s solution was to bring him in as a subaltern figure in a French ‘national’ committee that would eventually become a provisional government and combine the conquered Vichy forces in Africa with those of la France combattante. In January 1943, Roosevelt and Churchill summoned De Gaulle to Casablanca for talks. This was one high-level meeting he would have to attend, though at first he refused: how could he accept an invitation issued by two powerful foreigners on political safari in French African territory without loss of dignity? Roosevelt suggested that his funding should be cut if he refused to show. ‘Good idea,’ Churchill said, ‘no come, no pay,’ and shot off a menacing cable (the War Office, where De Gaulle had admirers, toned it down before it reached him).
When he met De Gaulle for the first time in Casablanca, Roosevelt told him he should not imagine he was the sole legitimate representative of the French, since he hadn’t been elected. Neither had Joan of Arc, De Gaulle replied. As the talks drew to an end, De Gaulle saw many sticking points and believed a break with the Allies could be imminent. But with gentle persuasion from his senior diplomatic adviser, Harry Hopkins, Roosevelt began to think that the general might, after all, serve as joint head of the prospective committee, alongside Giraud. In asparagus mode, De Gaulle posed with Giraud for the cameras at Roosevelt’s request and left for London with much to consider. He had agreed, at least, to the unification of his liberation army and the Vichy contingents; but Giraud’s role was a problem and would have to be dealt with in the usual way, by force of personality.
In the weeks that followed, the Allies’ plans for De Gaulle became harder to implement. The success of Operation Torch cast doubt on the wisdom of collaboration and favoured the leader who had kept an impeccable distance from Vichy. The US press was as critical of the new administration as it had been of Darlan’s and Washington dispatched its favourite Frenchman, Jean Monnet, financier, diplomat and arms procurement expert, to moderate Giraud’s Vichy instincts. He was also to prepare to arm a single, integrated French fighting force. Monnet was profoundly suspicious of De Gaulle (‘a dangerous demagogue, a madman or both’), but he urged Giraud to bring him in as quickly as possible so that unification could proceed. The mood in French Africa was now running against the remnants of Vichy: Communists were released from jail, statues of Pétain were replaced by Marianne and on May Day 1943 in Algiers, Gaullists and PCF demonstrators marched side by side chanting for the general. Crucially for De Gaulle, the internal resistance announced that it would ‘never accept the subordination of General De Gaulle to General Giraud’. The text was read out on Radio Brazzaville and brought to poor Giraud’s attention in short order. In a sense De Gaulle had already won his decisive conflict with the Allies – often called the ‘first battle of Algiers’ – before he arrived in the city at the end of May. Fenby reminds us, however, that Roosevelt had not yet given up hope: in Washington he urged Churchill to help ‘eliminate De Gaulle as a political force’ and asked if he couldn’t be posted to Madagascar as governor. Churchill telegraphed home with an instruction to cut off British funding for the general’s London offices, but the cabinet refused.
De Gaulle made an impression on his arrival in Algiers, laying a wreath at the war memorial and mixing with the crowd, turned out for the occasion by his followers in the city: it was one of the early bains de foule which he relished throughout his life and which horrified his security people. A few days later, Monnet convened the first official meeting of a French Committee of National Liberation, roughly as Roosevelt had wished, with Giraud and De Gaulle – at loggerheads – presiding jointly. Under the chandeliers, De Gaulle was a master, quick to dominate, issue by issue, and as its membership expanded, he called in loyalists from London to stack the committee. In July, Giraud took a fatal trip to Washington, at the request of the Allies, and De Gaulle made the most of his absence. By August, Giraud was little more than a rubber stamp; he resigned the co-presidency of the committee in November, leaving De Gaulle as effective head of his country, a position confirmed when the provisional government of France came into being in Algiers the following year.
The summer of 1943 was undoubtedly a turning point in De Gaulle’s fortunes and Algiers, it seems, was a propitious place for him, indeed the making of him: another Algerian crisis at the end of the 1950s would see him return to power after an absence of 12 years. Most striking perhaps, the difficulties he experienced in 1942-43 would confront many of the liberation movements in the European colonies after World War Two: the rocky path towards recognition as ‘sole legitimate representative’ of a people; the ambiguous presence of a puppet regime or rival ‘liberators’; deathly partisan feuding; the epic contest with powerful backers. Together, Fenby’s account and De Gaulle’s own war memoir read as a draft schedule for modern independence struggles in the rest of the century; they also anticipate Washington’s wishful thinking, which persisted through the Cold War, when the forces it backed in the Third World weren’t always the ones to prevail.
De Gaulle was not an anti-colonial: throughout the war he had been ready to take on the British when he felt they were undermining French interests in Lebanon and Syria, and he clung tenaciously to the idea of a French neo-colonial commonwealth of African states after their independence in 1960. He had presided over Algerian decolonisation not because he believed it to be just, but because he had come to grasp that hanging on would do immense damage to France. Nonetheless, he knew what it was to embark on a national liberation struggle for a people under occupation, raise an army against the enemy and face down a superpower.Gradually, his name became associated with decolonisation struggles as he attempted, without much success, to find a role for France as a buffer against US foreign policy; as president, during a speech in Phnom Penh, he would have harsh words to say about the American presence in Vietnam, the ‘national resistance’ it had fuelled in the south, and the folly of Washington’s war.
Jonathan Fenby has done an extraordinary job in condensing De Gaulle’s life into 600 pages and in keeping up the pace in the postwar period. He is especially good on the general’s experiment with parliamentary politics, after he’d stepped down as head of the provisional government in 1946. His movement, Le Rassemblement du Peuple Français, got off to a tremendous start in municipal elections the following year, and then fell steadily into decline, as it failed to slay its two big dragons: the constitution of the Fourth Republic, which De Gaulle despised, and the PCF. As Hazareesingh explains, he would continue to search for a rhetorical wavelength that caught his own sense of things without the worrying crackle of Pétainism; but it was only a tweak away on the dial for some of his new, unsavoury followers, especially in Algeria and Indochina, where diehard Vichyists and collaborators tuned in with gusto. The RPF’s security marshals were also a grim crowd, who enjoyed a rough-and-tumble with their PCF counterparts. One or two colourful figures subsequently emerged as successful politicians, including Chirac and Chaban-Delmas. Others felt their style severely cramped by the general’s distaste for party political games and his refusal to cut deals. They made plans of their own, and in 1952, with a round of catastrophic defections in the Assembly, the movement began to come apart. The mists folded back over the great man, who withdrew to the family home.
The war in Algeria would allow him to circumvent the party political process in his next bid for power, but Algiers was full of dangers for him even if, once again, it was the fulcrum on which his fortunes turned. The Fourth Republic had stumbled from one crisis to the next, averaging out at roughly two governments a year. The politicians of the day had reappeared with different portfolios after every churning, but by 1958 a new rotation would not be enough to address the burning issue of the war. That much was clear to the PCF, the settlers in Algeria and the army; and of course to De Gaulle, whose point about the Fourth Republic and democracy in general was that neither could function with a legislative assembly (and political parties) at the heart of the decision-making process. As events unfolded in Algeria, De Gaulle’s people began to make their play.
Algiers contained a handful of keen Gaullists, including Jacques Massu, an army man, who had come to prominence in 1957 by masterminding a seven-month counterinsurgency campaign against the FLN, a mixture of siege tactics, large deployments of paratroopers and ruthless intelligence methods. This was the real ‘Battle of Algiers’, as the title of the Pontecorvo film has it, an operational success, but a public relations defeat for the army in metropolitan France, where news of torture brought back frightening memories – a sign that the gulf was widening between the French majority and the pied-noir community. Among the settlers and the army as a whole, De Gaulle was hardly a popular figure, but Algeria was now the centre of a national crisis: lobbyists were duly detached from the Gaullist machine in Paris and sent to Algiers to build bases. In France proper, the faithful talked up the need for a great man to take charge, while the press and the political class were largely opposed. Nonetheless, at the beginning of May 1958, an emissary of the French president, René Coty, made an overture to senior figures in De Gaulle’s entourage: the meeting was an admission on the president’s part that the situation was desperate and the government now taking shape would come to nothing.
Pierre Pflimlin, Coty’s choice for prime minister, was a disaster in the eyes of the settlers. He had gone on record favouring negotiations with the FLN and a ceasefire. As he prepared to take office, a tit-for-tat execution of French soldiers by the FLN brought matters to a head, with the settler press in Algeria stating bluntly that Pflimlin must not be allowed to govern. The French commander-in-chief in Algeria, General Raoul Salan, cabled an ultimatum to his chief of staff in Paris: with a national leader willing to negotiate, there was no knowing how the army would react ‘in its despair’.
On 13 May, a strike was called in Algiers, the governor general fled and tens of thousands of settlers rallied at the war memorial to honour the dead soldiers. A contingent of ultras stormed the main government building, then occupied it, flinging a confetti of files from the windows as the riot police retreated and the paras stood by. In due course the ringleader, Pierre Lagaillarde, an extremist student who scorned the Gaullists, was joined on the balcony by the popular Massu amid cheers from the crowd. Salan, who was disliked by the pieds noirs, appeared as well, and was roundly booed. It fell to Massu to proclaim a self-empowered executive, the Committee of Public Safety, with Salan in defiant agreement: now the governor had gone, he was the senior representative of the Fourth Republic in Algeria. The radio station in Algiers was commandeered.
In Paris, Pflimlin was invested before dawn on the 14th, completing the rupture with Algiers, where demonstrators were still milling, some with the cross of Lorraine on their banners, others, including the staff of BP, Fenby tells us, simply waving corporate flags. The Gaullists had found their way into the CPS, among them the indefatigable Léon Delbecque, a textile magnate and former résistant. On the 15th, the CPS brought Salan onto the balcony of the government building, where he announced that outright military defeat of the FLN was the only acceptable outcome. He finished his address with the statutory ‘Vive la France! Vive l’Algérie!’ – whereupon, in one variant of the story, Delbecque jabbed his fingers into his back (for all Salan knew, it might have been the point of a pistol) and inquired in menacing tones if he hadn’t forgotten something. ‘Et vive De Gaulle!’ The speech went out on the airwaves.
De Gaulle had held aloof from Algeria while his emissaries and agitators went at it for all they were worth and the only question now was whether he could make a comeback as a national saviour on the invitation of Coty – his preference by far – or whether he would have to ride in on a full-blown army insurrection from which he’d dissented in the mildest of terms, and which he could then bring to order. At this stage a few terse words were called for. France should know, he declared after hearing news of Salan’s ‘vivas’, that under the circumstances, ‘I am ready to assume the powers of the Republic.’ There was no condemnation of the committee, but the statement included a stiff preface about the nation having lost its way under a ‘party political system’. Delbecque read it out to the crowds in the centre of Algiers. ‘De Gaulle drops the mask,’ L’Humanité riposted. ‘Down with military dictatorship.’ At a press conference in Paris, the general announced that he ‘could perhaps be useful’; he was ‘a man who belongs to nobody and who belongs to everybody’. Asked by the political analyst Maurice Duverger if his return might not be a threat to public freedom, he answered: ‘I re-established freedoms when they had disappeared. Do you think that at the age of 67, I’m going to embark on a career as a dictator?’
Towards the end of the month, De Gaulle assured Pflimlin that he was not prepared to take power amid ‘a turmoil of generals’, even though he was privy to the doings of the CPS and the military revolt that had now spread from Algiers to barracks in Corsica, threatening eventually to topple the government. But he was keeping his options open; after all, the left looked likely to block his legal path to office, their anxieties heightened by his two preconditions: ‘special powers’ and a new constitution. More than 150 Communists sat in the Assembly and together the left could bring out hundreds of thousands on the streets, as they did on 28 May, with Mendès France and the 41-year-old Mitterrand at the front of a march through Paris (‘Hang Massu!’ ‘De Gaulle to the museum!’). In all this, the parliamentary socialists were crucial: without their vote, De Gaulle would have to depend on the rebellion. As it went to the wire, he lobbied the socialists with uncharacteristic energy; at the same time he remained informed about the details of Operation Resurrection, the dissident officers’ plan for a military takeover of France. In the end the socialists approved De Gaulle’s appointment as prime minister by three votes in the Assembly, assuring his majority, and the plotters put their plans on hold.
In September, De Gaulle presented the new constitution to the nation. As usual – our guide here is Hazareesingh – the ceremony followed the route map of republican tradition as he understood it. The address was made at the place de la République, dominated by a bronze statue of Marianne in a Phrygian bonnet, and the date was 4 September, the anniversary of the proclamation of the Third Republic in 1870. Return from exile was the dominant theme: just as the republic had re-emerged after two decades of ‘empire’ under Louis Napoléon, prefaced by a coup d’état, so now the embodiment of republican values, the general, had come back from obscurity to save the country from another coup and preside over a functioning republic. There were echoes, too, of his triumphal procession through Paris at the time of the liberation. This cluster of references was a symbolic counter-argument to those who held that De Gaulle was really a dictator and that they were witnessing a power grab. The Communists thought they were, and fighting broke out round the place de la République on the day; Mitterrand took the same view and would describe the years that followed, with De Gaulle firmly in charge, as a ‘permanent coup d’état’. Mendès France, the only figure from the roster of Fourth Republic politicians whom De Gaulle truly admired, was another fierce opponent of his return.
In a sense Mitterrand was right: the Fifth Republic was dominated by the old man’s statuesque immensity, unveiled for a second time, aloft on the granite plinth he had built himself in the form of the new constitution. There was a much reduced role for parliament, to which most laws enacted in the next few years came down from on high for consideration only. The president, guardian of the nation’s sovereignty, was chosen by an electoral college and sat for a seven-year term. He could invoke emergency powers in the event of anything he deemed to be an emergency. In short, he was the government – ‘I am the Republic,’ he would say later – and there were many worried voices. Yet in the record turnout for the referendum, nearly 80 per cent of the voters had approved the constitution. Voting analysis suggested that at least a million, possibly two million, Communists were among them. (Referendums were the hallmark of De Gaulle’s republicanism and this was the second of seven to be held at his instigation; the first, in 1945, had seen women vote in a national ballot for the first time.)
In Algeria, De Gaulle stepped up the military offensive against the FLN, with terrible consequences for indigenous civilians, hoping a weaker position on the ground would force the leadership to negotiate. In 1961, police in Paris, under Maurice Papon, murdered dozens of Algerian demonstrators called out by the FLN; in 1962, during a second anti-war demonstration, another nine people died. Did the vigour, and the perils, of De Gaulle’s authoritarianism lie in the fluency with which it ran from its chilly upland source into the broad, obedient plain? Or was it simply that lesser brutes and bullies further down the chain of command misread his decisive manner as permission to go in with the boot and the matraque?
The methods used against his crypto-fascist enemies, the Organisation de l’Armée Secrète, who vowed to have him killed if Algeria became an independent state, were not unlike the methods used against the FLN, including torture. The scale and institutional nature of the barbarity in Algeria under De Gaulle’s presidency are still shocking, yet his predecessors had shown what they could do in the same vein, as had the British in Kenya and the Portuguese in Mozambique. The closing stages of the Algerian drama were momentous for Algerians and the ‘Third World’, as it was known, and also for the French, who had voted by referendum for Algerian self-determination in 1961 only to see a putsch mounted in Algiers a few months later by right-wing generals. De Gaulle’s life was at risk, the nation was under threat and he invoked a state of emergency. Yet, unlike the crisis of 1958, which he’d used as a springboard to power, this was an occasion to show how it was best exercised by a forceful personality in a republic of his own devising: the putsch was neutralised within a week. De Gaulle was contemptuous of its leaders – ‘a foursome of retired generals’ – and especially of their figurehead, Maurice Challe. In Paris, speculating on the rebels’ plans, Chaban-Delmas had suggested that anyone in Challe’s place would by now have infiltrated armed units into the capital. ‘Yes,’ De Gaulle replied, ‘Fidel Castro would be here. But not Challe.’
When he strays from the rich world of myth and memorialisation to consider De Gaulle the man, Hazareesingh’s judgments are beautifully measured. Above all, he argues, the president was a political creature whose new constitution, like his own modus operandi, privileged politics over every other consideration, leaving very little scope in France’s postwar renaissance for an active, autonomous ‘civil society’ or a restraining role for the judiciary in the political domain. Feeling he enshrined the republic and, in turn, that the republic enshrined the nation’s wishes, he could see no need for any of the rest.
That is why May 1968 caught him off his guard. By the 1960s the Fifth Republic was thriving on a mixture of economic growth, modernisation, a noisy, self-interested foreign policy, a seat on the Security Council of the ‘thingummy’, as De Gaulle referred disdainfully, and disingenuously, to the UN, an independent nuclear weapon (about to be tested), and a sense among older French (the pieds noirs were an exception) that the spectres of the past were being laid to rest in the nation’s vast edifice of commemoration, to be called forth only on the proper, ritual occasions. Yet there was something stultifying about the whole arrangement and De Gaulle’s paternalism was no remedy for the disillusion that began building as growth slowed and unemployment rose, creating a sense of exclusion among young workers, and students living in overcrowded hostels. When the revolt exploded in 1968, it drew on a wealth of revolutionary precedent that student movements in other countries didn’t have at their disposal. But its most bewildering aspect for De Gaulle was its spontaneity; the festivity and iconoclasm of May 1968 appalled him. ‘Reform yes,’ he famously declared. ‘Masked carnival, no.’ (The word he used was ‘chienlit’: a ‘grotesque’, a ‘masque’, from chier en lit, ‘to shit in the bed’).
May 1968 was not technically the end – that came the following year after defeat in a referendum – but the elderly president was as good as finished, and now he effected one of his last, resounding disappearances, to West Germany, where he met up with General Massu to review his position. It’s always said that the two men returned to one of De Gaulle’s favourite subjects – tanks – and that he went to the French military base at Baden-Oos to hear Massu’s view on sending armour into Paris to quell the uprising. On this Fenby is non-committal, though he tells us Massu had just spent a long night with the Russians and was somewhat the worse for wear. People were so startled by De Gaulle’s one-day vanishing act, his prime minister, Georges Pompidou, assured him, that the downcast mood of the French would undergo ‘a prodigious psychological reversal’.
Not exactly, although De Gaulle’s years in power were book-ended by two parliamentary defeats of the left, the first in 1958, when the PCF took only ten seats, and the second after he dissolved the Assembly at the end of May 1968. In elections the following month the number of socialist and PCF seats was reduced by more than half. Months away from retirement, De Gaulle had been disarmed by the spectacle of revolution on the streets of Paris, like an old man flustered by travelling players in the village square, yet as the show came to an end, he and Pompidou were quick to chase away the performers. Bitter, perhaps, for the generation of 1968, yet in France the general is still revered, not just in the symbolic realm of avenues, squares, museums and monuments, but in the windswept camps of the opposition, where many are ready to forgive him what they didn’t care for, or wouldn’t have cared for if they’d been old enough to remember him in power.
Since the 70th anniversary celebrations of 18 June earlier this year, most French are willing to admit that De Gaulle was an inspiration to his country. One reason for this consensus is that no politician in a liberal democracy can nowadays come up to the mark. De Gaulle is a colossus next to Nicolas Sarkozy, whose hands-on ‘hyper-presidency’ exploits so much of the executive power De Gaulle put in place, to so little effect. And Berlusconi? Cameron? Bush-and-Blair? Klaus Tschütscher of Liechtenstein? ‘Charles de Gaulle,’ Fenby writes, ‘poses an enormous problem for those who deny that history is shaped by great human beings.’ In his homage to De Gaulle, Régis Debray agrees that democracy is supposed to do away with the idea of greatness, but recalls Rousseau’s remark that only ‘ignoble souls do not believe in great men.’ ‘What a dispiriting wilderness it would be,’ Debray adds, ‘without anybody to admire.’
Or indeed to dislike, as many who knew him disliked De Gaulle. ‘A bit of a show-off’ (an army comrade who watched him refuse to go to a shelter during a German dive-bomber attack, 1940). ‘An elevator that never stops at the right floor’ (Georges Loustaunau-Lacau, a far-right resistance activist, c. 1940). ‘Selfish … arrogant, he thinks he’s the centre of the universe … you’re right, he’s a great man’ (Churchill to Harold Nicolson, 1942). ‘A grudge-bearer, hard, wounding, sometimes vindictive … often indifferent and remote’ (Louis Joxe, a staunch supporter, later a Gaullist minister, c. 1943). ‘An awkward and stubborn man’ (Stalin, c. 1944). ‘One of the biggest sons-of-bitches who ever straddled a pot’ (Chip Bohlen, State Department functionary, 1945). ‘De Gaulle, Assassin!’ (French student chant, May 1968). There were half a dozen attempts on his life; many more plans and threats to have him killed, including the death sentence pronounced by Vichy in 1940. He was reviled in iconic forms as well. In Saigon in 1964 his effigy was hanged from a lamppost along with Ho Chi Minh’s; a poster in May 1968 showed a ballroom mask in his likeness, held by Adolf Hitler. One of those pairings got it badly wrong.
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