A Certain Idea of France: The Life of Charles de Gaulle 
by Julian Jackson.
Allen Lane, 887 pp., £35, June 2018, 978 1 84614 351 9
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We went down​ to the beach quite early. The other families staying at St-Gilles-Croix-de-Vie in the summer of 1951 were mostly French. Several of them had those early portable radios, chunky wooden boxes covered in rexine (I had just been given a dark-green one for my 12th birthday but had left it at home). We had not been on the beach long before the radios seemed to be squawking louder than usual, and there was a strange commotion around us. Some of the men got up and stood in awkward attitudes, several with their hands by their sides, more or less at attention, others shading their eyes and staring out to sea at the gleam on the horizon. I was conscious of a feeling of great unease all around me, of people not knowing how to react to whatever it was. ‘Qu’est-ce que c’est?’ my father asked the family next to us. ‘C’est le maréchal, il est mort, là-bas,’ the man of the family said, pointing to the horizon.

Philippe Pétain died at 9.22 a.m. on 23 July 1951. He had been tried for treason in 1945, while General de Gaulle was still in his first spell of power. The hero of Verdun was sentenced to death by one vote, but the court asked for the sentence to be commuted to life imprisonment in view of the marshal’s great age, which was a relief to de Gaulle. Since then Pétain had been banged up on the Ile d’Yeu, 11 miles off the Vendée coast. At the time of his death, he was 95 years old and wandering in his wits. Even so, ministers in Paris were anxious to see the back of him. By lunchtime two days later, he was being hustled underground at the Port-Joinville cemetery on the island. Passing on the news to de Gaulle, Georges Pompidou, his directeur de cabinet and a former Rothschild banker, remarked: ‘The affair is now over, once and for all.’ De Gaulle disagreed: ‘No, it was a great historical drama, and a historical drama is never over.’ What an extraordinary drama it was, the relationship between the two men, played out over nearly forty years, encapsulating the whole agony of France, and leaving behind resentments and divisions that are not quite dead even now.

Before graduating from St Cyr in 1912, de Gaulle had chosen to serve in the 33rd Infantry stationed at Arras, under Pétain’s command. He must have caught the colonel’s eye quickly, because he told a later biographer that as early as 1913 the distance in rank had not prevented them from taking the train to Paris together each weekend to chase girls: ‘Pétain liked women as one likes women when one is in one’s fifties and I despised them as one despises them when one is twenty. That is to say, we talked about them the whole time.’ What a peculiar pair they must have made, the ungainly subaltern giraffe and the dapper colonel with the mesmerising blue eyes, out on the razzle together.

In the first terrible bombardment at Verdun, de Gaulle’s whole company was wiped out, and he was thought to have been killed too. Pétain issued a posthumous citation, declaring that Captain de Gaulle had ‘led his men in a furious assault and fierce hand-to-hand fighting, the only solution he considered compatible with his sentiment of military honour. Fell in the fray. A peerless officer in all respects.’ Even in de Gaulle’s first, and, as it turned out, erroneous, appearance on the record, the word ‘honour’ catches the eye.

In fact, he had been taken prisoner and for the rest of the war was held in German camps, from which he escaped five times, his awkward height always leading to his recapture. Despite this heroic record, he greeted the armistice in low spirits, writing to his colonel that ‘the great joy I share with you is mixed for me, more bitter than ever, with the indescribable regret at not having played a greater role.’ In one letter from captivity, he described himself to his mother as ‘one of the living dead’.

After the war, Pétain, impressed by his protégé’s sweeping lectures on military strategy, brought him into his cabinet and chose him as his ghostwriter for a book on the French army. But after toiling away on the book for a couple of years, de Gaulle discovered to his fury that Pétain had asked another officer to draft the section on the Great War: the plainspoken Pétain found his ghost’s adjectives ‘ridiculous’ – ‘like the silk sashes worn by officers in comic-opera armies’.

Among other causes of disagreement, there was a clash on a seemingly trivial point of subediting, which in retrospect seems to sum up the gulf between them. In the text that de Gaulle was eventually to publish under his own name in 1938 as France and Her Army, he wrote that the Revolution had made France’s generals the victims of political upheavals which had ‘deprived them of prestige, often of life, sometimes of honour’. Pétain amended this to ‘deprived them of prestige, sometimes of honour, often of life’. De Gaulle furiously retorted: ‘It is an ascending hierarchy: “prestige, life, honour”.’ Which came first, life or honour? That, as Julian Jackson points out in his tremendous life of de Gaulle, was the nub of the conflict between the two men, and led eventually to the Ile d’Yeu for one and the Elysée for the other.

Jackson is the author of a memorable sequence of histories of 1930s and 1940s France, but this is the peak, lucid and witty from first to last, charitable where possible, merciless where necessary, carefully quarried down to the last cobblestone of Paris and Algiers. Interestingly, Jackson published a much shorter study of de Gaulle in 2003 – 144 pages as opposed to more than eight hundred. Much of the material is of course repeated here, and the amplifications often reinforce Jackson’s earlier judgments. But sometimes, and often at the most important turning points in de Gaulle’s career, there is a shift, and not in de Gaulle’s favour.

In 2003, Jackson finished by listing three outstanding achievements that remained to de Gaulle’s credit thirty years after his death. First, thanks to de Gaulle, the liberation of France in 1944-45 took the form of a relatively smooth transfer of power and sovereignty. France was spared an allied military government like Italy’s, or a civil war as overtook Greece. De Gaulle had redeemed French honour and given a sense of self-respect back to the French people. Second, he extricated France from Algeria without a civil war on the mainland. Third, in the constitution of the Fifth Republic, he bequeathed political arrangements that had proved durable.

In 2018, none of these achievements looks quite so securely anchored. Yes, Jackson’s last word is still the conventional clincher: ‘He saved the honour of France.’ But in A Certain Idea of France he gives more airtime to the counter-arguments: that, without de Gaulle, France would still have been liberated by the Allies, and Britain would still have pushed for France to enjoy a permanent seat on the Security Council and a zone of occupation in Germany, as Churchill insisted at Yalta (where de Gaulle was not present). Today Jackson seems less hostile to St-Exupéry’s rasping comment: ‘Tell the truth, General, we lost the war. Our allies will win it.’ Other defeated nations, such as Norway and the Netherlands, retained their dignity and regained their independence without de Gaulle’s strutting umbrageousness. While they were quietly recruiting pilots, soldiers and sailors to fight with the Allies, de Gaulle repeatedly failed to attract more than a handful of the millions of Frenchmen he claimed to speak for. Of the thousands who finished up in Britain after the fall of France, the vast majority opted to be repatriated. Of the 1600 men in the White City camp, for example, only 152 signed up with de Gaulle. After the armistice in Syria, only 5500 of the Vichy troops rallied to the Free French; the other 30,000 chose to return to France. De Gaulle’s speech on D-Day+1 was magnificent:

The supreme battle has begun … It is of course the Battle of France, and the battle for France … For the sons of France, wherever they may be, whoever they may be, the simple and sacred duty is to fight the enemy by all the means available … Behind the heavy clouds of our blood and our tears, the sunshine of our grandeur is re-emerging.

As Churchill wrote to Roosevelt the next day, the speech was ‘remarkable, as he has not a single soldier in the great battle now developing.’

As for de Gaulle’s record in Algeria, Jackson’s reassessment is crushing:

He did not ‘grant’ independence: it was wrested from him. And he only partially avoided civil war. The truth is that the FLN had won independence by fighting and by mobilising international support. Although de Gaulle gradually resigned himself to this outcome, he did so reluctantly – and by the end he had salvaged nothing of his original expectations … perhaps no one could have done any better, but it is hard to see that anyone could have done much worse.

De Gaulle’s reputation for extricating France from the Algerian quagmire is tied up with his overall reputation, popular among left-wing Gaullists, as a convinced decoloniser. Neither reputation seems very solid. On first gaining power, de Gaulle’s instinct was to try to cement Indochina into some sort of French community, and he sent General Leclerc out with a strong expeditionary force, and instructions not to treat with the Vietminh until France was back on top. Nine years later, now out of power, his reaction to the catastrophe of Dien Bien Phu in 1954 was purely selfish, to use it as a lever for the army to bring him back. He tested the water by staging a solemn moment at the Arc de Triomphe. But the crowds were too small. He had to wait another four years. It is hard to disagree with Mitterrand’s judgment that Gaullism was little more than ‘a permanent coup d’état’.

Nor is there much reason to think that de Gaulle ever seriously believed in ‘Algérie française’, except as a stepping stone to the Elysée. After all, on one side of Algeria, Pierre Mendès France had paved the way for Tunisia’s independence in 1956 while on the other side Edgar Faure had done the same for Morocco. Could one million pieds noirs eternally dominate nine million Algerian Muslims? Could the pretence that Algeria was an integral part of France survive an era of mass migration? De Gaulle said more than once that he did not want to see his village transformed into Colombey-les-deux-mosquées. Privately he conceded that Algeria must strike out on her own sooner or later. Publicly he said nothing, certainly nothing to educate the French public in the realities. While the terrible war intensified, brutalising both the French army and the Algerian settlers, not to mention the FLN, he sat at Colombey playing patience and listening to the clack of Madame de Gaulle’s knitting needles. The more one reads about de Gaulle, the more one comes to admire Yvonne de Gaulle, this quiet, unpretentious woman with a dry sense of humour who humanised her husband as far as anyone could, not least in their shared love for Anne, their Down’s-syndrome daughter. When she died at the age of twenty, de Gaulle allegedly said to Yvonne after the funeral: ‘maintenant elle est comme les autres’ – which, if authentic, is the most touching remark of his ever to have been recorded.

Meanwhile, his fixers in Algeria were hard at work. Léon Delbecque, the most loyal of Gaullists, had organised a Vigilance Committee, poised to act on de Gaulle’s behalf. The Algerian generals took some prodding. Delbecque had to coach General Salan to shout ‘Vive de Gaulle’ as well as ‘Vive la France! Vive l’Algérie!’ from the balcony of the Government General in the Forum at Algiers. Two days earlier, another of de Gaulle’s devotees, General Massu, had set up a Committee of Public Safety, and demanded that President Coty set up a similar committee in Paris, both designed to waft de Gaulle into power. De Gaulle’s domestic consigliere, the egregious Jacques Foccart, was all the time egging Delbecque on but warning him not to implicate (mouiller) the general in the business. After coming to power, de Gaulle was confident that he had brought off the deception without anyone noticing. He told the startled Alain Peyrefitte, his minister of information, that ‘I had nothing to do with the insurrection of Algiers … I did not raise a little finger to encourage the movement.’ This was patently a lie, and one which alienated for ever many such as Mendès France, who had previously respected the general without actually following him.

De Gaulle’s​ coup of 13 May 1958 was equated by many, including de Gaulle himself, with Napoleon’s 18 Brumaire, and led to intensified misery for huge numbers of people. By encouraging the pieds noirs with his famous words ‘je vous ai compris,’ the war was prolonged for another four years and led to such horrific bloodshed that there could be no question of the settlers and the Muslims living side by side after independence. De Gaulle not only betrayed the whites who had brought him to power, he did nothing to help them when they decamped en masse to the mainland, bedraggled and destitute. Nor did he ‘raise a little finger’ to help the harkis – the Algerians who had fought loyally for France and who were murdered in their thousands after independence. These horrors are recounted more fully in Alistair Horne’s unforgettable A Savage War of Peace, but Jackson certainly does not underplay them. The creepy Foccart remained with de Gaulle to the end, as his adviser on Africa, wheeling in assorted francophone tyrants to be flattered by his master, who still had a cloudy vision of la gloire continuing to permeate sub-Saharan Africa. Some of the worst brutes – such as Bongo père et fils of Gabon and Bokassa of the Central African Republic – continued to enjoy French patronage. So much for de Gaulle the decoloniser.

The poison of Algeria was painfully slow to clear from mainland France. Although the terrorism of the OAS was relatively brief, a certain morose alienation from the institutions of the Fifth Republic continued to brood over French politics. It was in Algeria that Jean-Marie Le Pen first broke the surface (he briefly served there as an intelligence officer). Although de Gaulle can’t be wholly blamed for the ructions that have repeatedly shaken the country, to claim that he bequeathed stable political institutions seems an exaggeration, to put it mildly. The Front National (recently rebranded by Marine Le Pen as the Rassemblement National, an echo of de Gaulle’s Rassemblement du Peuple Français) remains a menacing second force, requiring constant ingenuity to be kept out. My eye falls on a blog headlined ‘Macron is restoring France’s dignity.’ What sort of polity is it that needs to have its dignity restored so frequently? Is not the quest for grandeur insisted on by de Gaulle likely only to perpetuate a sense of always falling short?

As we celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of 1968, we are reminded of what happens in a society where the normal channels of negotiation and debate are blocked off, if only partially. De Gaulle utterly failed to foresee trouble. ‘Politically, economically and socially the year is ending in calm,’ he wrote to his son Philippe at the end of 1967. And he didn’t have a clue how to cope. What is striking is how easily Pompidou rescued the situation with a series of concessions to the trade unions and the announcement of fresh elections. As Jackson readily conceded in 2003, ‘if de Gaulle had been listened to, it is likely that the events of May in which miraculously no one died would have degenerated into a bloodbath.’ All de Gaulle had to offer on the positive side was a rather amorphous referendum on decentralisation, which he lost. As for his secret flit to Germany to receive assurances of support from General Massu, Louis XVI’s flight to Varennes was a dignified withdrawal by comparison. It was not only ignominious but dismally in character: in crisis, he turned not to the parliamentary institutions he despised but to the army he loved.

His first words to the loyal Massu were: ‘Tout est foutu.’ Great orator de Gaulle undoubtedly was, but his speech had only two registers: the sonorous periods of Bossuet, on the one hand, and barrack-room obscenity on the other – con, merde, chie-en-lit. Of political conversation on equal terms he was incapable and contemptuous. Nothing is more typical than his parting remark as he stomped off into the wilderness in January 1946: ‘It is impossible to govern with the parties … I do not feel I am made for this kind of fight. I do not want to be attacked, criticised every day by men whose only claim is to have had themselves elected in some small corner of France.’ He preferred acclamation to election, the bain de foule to the ballot box. He once wrote of his own ‘election’ in inverted commas, as of a process too plebeian to encompass the ascension of ‘de Gaulle’. Most men of destiny like to refer to themselves in the third person, none more so than de Gaulle as he got older. He acquired a reputation for being enigmatic, even sphinx-like. He was tactically devious, incurably so, but in the four short books he published between the wars – The Enemy’s House Divided, The Edge of the Sword, Towards a Professional Army and France and Her Army – he expressed his underlying views with a frankness that borders on the brutal.

In his title​ , Jackson echoes the famous opening sentence of de Gaulle’s War Memoirs, ‘All my life I have had a certain idea of France,’ and in his introduction argues that this may be true, but that it was not always the same idea. De Gaulle takes up all sorts of ideas – democracy, participation, socialism, even revolution – and weaves them into his rhetoric, but these are really only tools for acquiring and wielding power, and he drops them when they are no longer useful to him. The Franco-American historian Stanley Hoffmann refers to ‘the ideological emptiness of Gaullism: a stance not a doctrine; an attitude not a coherent set of dogmas; a style without much substance’. This strikes me as a rather civilian kind of assessment. Throughout the four little interwar books, there is a pretty steady drumbeat to be heard. As early as 1913, he declares, to his men: ‘Certainly war is an evil … but it is a necessary evil … Nothing more awakens in a people male virtues and noble enthusiasm than the sense that the fatherland is in danger.’ In The Edge of the Sword, he goes further:

The clash of arms has made possible all material progress … War has carried ideas in the baggage wagons of its armies, and reforms in the knapsacks of its soldiers. It has blazed a trail for religion and spread across the world influences which have brought renewal to mankind, consoled it and made it better.

Not really much of an evil then.

He had looked forward to the Great War, and after it he never doubted that Germany would seek her revenge. He had little time for any idealistic international institutions to prevent war, for defence pacts like Nato, or indeed for treaties of any kind. ‘Treaties,’ he famously said, ‘are like young girls and roses; they last as long as they last.’ More than a hint of Donald Trump in all this. He actually wanted World War Two to go on longer, so that the rapidly growing Free French forces could earn a greater share of the glory. The sacred egoism of the nation was all that mattered, and what sustained it was a triple link between the nation, the army and the leader: ‘If the remaking of the nation has to start with the army, that is altogether in conformity with the natural order of things. The military is the most complete expression of the spirit of a society.’ But that remaking demands leadership: ‘A master must appear … A man strong enough to impose himself, skilful enough to seduce, great enough to carry out great things.’

De Gaulle is pretty indifferent to the exact purposes and beliefs of this leader. In France and Her Army, he pays equal homage to Joan of Arc, to Louvois and the armies of Louis XIV, to the revolutionary armies of Hoche and Carnot, to Napoleon and La Grande Armée. But the picture of the leader is a chilling one. ‘He dedicates himself to that solitude that is the sad fate of superior beings … That state of satisfaction, of inner peace, of calculated joy that people call happiness is incompatible with leadership.’ He is deliberately taciturn: ‘Nothing more enhances authority than silence.’ He spurns the virtues recommended in the Gospels: ‘Every man of action has a strong dose of egotism, pride, hardness and cunning.’ Who can he have been thinking of?

He was certainly a stranger to the Christian virtues of forgiveness, humility and charity. His prickly code of honour owed more to Le Cid than to Christ. He knew large passages of Corneille’s plays by heart, Le Cid’s ‘the shame of dying without having fought’ being his favourite quote. He regularly attended Mass, but fellow worshippers noticed how inattentive he was, looking out of the window, turning round to see who was in the congregation. He was fully aware of how manufactured his personal myth was. Asked why he didn’t give a proper explanation of his first resignation, he replied: ‘One’s acts have to be picturesque … What is picturesque is not forgotten. I take my mystery away with me.’

Jackson tends to acquit de Gaulle of having fallen under Nietzsche’s spell, though he read Nietzsche avidly as he did many other German writers, especially Goethe. And it is true that, in The Enemy’s House Divided, he accuses the German officer class of being fatally infected with the Ubermensch complex and of having lost all sense of moderation. But there is a Nietzschean hardness and contempt for weakness in his own view of the world. Jackson also largely acquits him of bloodthirsty vengeance after the liberation, but he certainly showed an unforgiving attitude towards the capitulards. In Casablanca in August 1943, he claimed that enduring national unity could be forged only if the state knew how to recognise its faithful servants and punish the traitors. In setting up a Purge Commission, he was concerned that the purges (the épuration) should be conducted by the state, bolstering rather than undermining its authority. But his insistence that the men of Vichy had committed treason could only have encouraged the horrors of the unofficial bloodletting, the épuration sauvage, over the following two years. Of the generosity of Mandela, of the forgive-and-forget of the Velvet Revolution, there isn’t a trace.

The grandeur of France, her independence from the outside world: that was the certaine idée that drove him from first to last. Which did not mean that he had any less contempt for France as it actually was or for most of the French people he actually met. On the day Pompidou was elected as his successor, he told friends that France had chosen the route of mediocrity: ‘The French of today have not yet become a great enough people, in their majority, to be able to sustain the affirmation of France that I have practised in their name for thirty years.’ He lamented to the faithful Malraux that ‘the French no longer have any national ambition … I amused them with flags.’

A glum verdict but a fair one. What, after all, remains of his policy of national independence, of his mischievous flirtations with Russia and China, above all, and of keeping out the dreaded Anglo-Saxons? Well, Brexit would have cheered him up – many stout Brexiteers are fervent Gaullists. He had always predicted that when it came to it Britain would choose the open seas. But there is not much sign so far that the present ructions will break up the Community, as he also predicted. If anything, Macron’s France is more securely cemented than ever into European military, political and economic co-operation.

Many of de Gaulle’s more wilful gestures – calling for ‘Québec libre’, for example, or for a united Ireland – were, one suspects, undertaken largely to amuse himself and because he knew it teased. As Raymond Aron, that superbly disenchanted observer, remarked, ‘de Gaulle does not himself take seriously half the arguments he uses, and he takes a solitary pleasure in the spectacle of the polemics he unleashes.’ At times, his cynicism was breathtaking. Gaullist propagandists, and many outside observers, were impressed by the spectacular economic progress of France in the late 1950s and the 1960s, though the take-off began under the much maligned Fourth Republic and continued long after de Gaulle’s departure. ‘Les trente glorieuses’, after all, cover the years 1945-75. But de Gaulle himself was less impressed. Just before the événements, he poured out his woes to his consigliere Foccart: ‘In reality we are on the stage of a theatre where I have been keeping up the illusion since 1940. I am trying to give France the appearance of a solid, firm, confident and expanding country, while it is a worn-out [avachie] nation, which thinks only of its own comfort, which doesn’t want any problems, which does not want to fight, which wants to upset no one, neither the Americans nor the English.’

Only the melancholy survives, the quality that de Gaulle most relished and insisted on, starting with the septième arrondissement, where he was brought up: ‘The quartier of Les Invalides and L’Ecole Militaire: monuments whose architecture, proportions and façade are themselves symbols of military order, simplicity and melancholy … A quartier which carries a thousand moving proofs of our triumphs and our tears.’ In Colombey-les-deux-Eglises, he chose for his home one of the gloomiest villages in the gloomy woods of north-eastern France. The poets he adored are poets of mordant melancholy, Vigny and Verlaine, and above all Charles Péguy, Catholic, patriot, who died in the Battle of the Marne and who can make Rupert Brooke look like a conscientious objector:

Happy are they who die for a temporal land,
When a just war calls, and they obey and go forth,
Happy are they who die for a handful of earth,
Happy are they who die in so noble a band.

It is perhaps also the melancholy of an outsider. The de Gaulles were austere traditional Catholics who had never really reconciled themselves to the Third Republic, internal exiles who were monarchists under the skin. De Gaulle’s great-grandfather had been arrested during the Revolution and escaped the guillotine only thanks to Robespierre’s fall. For the de Gaulles, it was a tragedy that the comte de Chambord should have refused to accept the throne in 1873 if it meant also accepting the revolutionary tricolor.

The family’s oddity was nowhere more quirkily shown than in the general’s uncle, another Charles, a Breton nationalist poet who called himself in Breton fashion Charlez Vro-C’hall. Uncle Charlez learned Welsh, Breton and Gaelic but never visited any of the places where these languages were spoken, being confined to his Paris apartment by a progressive paralysis. In 1969, however, his nephew, shortly before his resignation, declaimed the second quatrain of his uncle’s famous poem ‘Da Varsez Breiz’ during a visit to Quimper. This went down very badly, because the government was cracking down on Breton separatists at the time. The crackdown itself made an embarrassing contrast with de Gaulle’s ‘Vive le Québec libre’ only 18 months earlier. Aggrieved Anglo-Canadians could be forgiven for pointing out that their fathers and brothers had died in their thousands to liberate France, while the French Canadians were mostly solid Pétainists.

What gives de Gaulle’s nationalism its peculiar bleakness is his lack of illusion. He was fond of quoting Nietzsche’s aphorism that ‘the state is the coldest of cold monsters.’ Yet this realisation in no way weakened his obsession with the nation state and its embodiment in the army. Like other biographers, Jackson puzzles over the question of Dreyfus and whether the de Gaulles were Dreyfusards or anti-Dreyfusards. The truth is surely that Charles de Gaulle was not much interested in the rights and wrongs of the case, or indeed in antisemitism generally. He agonised only that the affair might have torn the army apart and weakened the nation.

In the same way, for de Gaulle it was the armistice of 1940 that was Pétain’s crime, and he was furious that the marshal’s trial increasingly focused on the later crimes of Vichy, to which he seemed curiously indifferent, as he was to Hitler’s or Franco’s crimes (he paid a courtesy call to Franco after his retirement). There is a certain moral blankness except where the survival of the nation is in question.

It all comes back to 1940. De Gaulle’s appel du 18 juin – ‘France has lost the battle, she has not lost the war’ – remains his enduring claim to fame. Those words did not actually appear in his BBC broadcast any more than the words ‘Vive l’Algérie française’ appear in his collected speeches, though he undoubtedly did utter them in the heat of the moment. Perhaps the dramatic crux of those dark days was the last meeting between Churchill and Pétain at the château du Muguet outside Orléans seven days earlier. At this grim encounter, superbly described by Sir Edward Spears in Assignment to Catastrophe, de Gaulle, as the most junior general present, scarcely spoke. General Weygand had that day declared Paris an open city under the Geneva Convention: it would not be defended and should not be attacked. Churchill implored the French not to give up:

He wanted the French to fight in Paris, describing how a great city, if stubbornly defended, absorbed immense armies. And the pageant of history, the lurid glow of burning cities, some as beautiful as Paris, collapsing on garrisons who refused to accept defeat, arose before our eyes. The French perceptibly froze at this.

Except for de Gaulle. Not only did he want to defend Paris street by street, he wanted to carry on fighting across France to make a last stand in ‘the Breton redoubt’ with the army’s backs to the sea. Churchill spoke up warmly for the Breton redoubt. Uncle Charlez probably would have too. But the other French generals foresaw another Dunkirk, only ten times bloodier.

It was not as if the French had collapsed at the first puff of smoke. In six weeks, they had already had nearly a hundred thousand men killed and lost half their tanks, a worse kill rate than at Verdun. Nobody had fought with greater élan than de Gaulle and his tanks in their three sorties, which failed only because of the odds against them. When Churchill recalled that in 1918 Clemenceau had said, ‘I will fight in front of Paris, in Paris and behind Paris,’ Pétain replied that in 1918 he had had sixty divisions to spare. Now there were none. ‘To make Paris into a city of ruins will not affect the issue.’ After the war, Weygand was proud that, thanks to him, Paris almost alone of the great European capitals had maintained its beauty intact. Spears commented caustically that future generations of Frenchmen might think ‘that a few ruins in Paris would have been more becoming to her fame than her unscarred beauty’. Had it not been for Pétain and Weygand, de Gaulle might have had to pick his way through the rubble when he walked down the Champs Elysées on Liberation Day. Like Churchill, he would have preferred it that way. On the beach at St-Gilles, though, I fancy there were quite a few Frenchmen who were still grateful to the old maréchal.

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Vol. 40 No. 17 · 13 September 2018

Ferdinand Mount suspects that De Gaulle’s call for a ‘Québec libre’ in 1967 was a ‘wilful gesture’ largely undertaken to ‘amuse himself’ and because ‘he knew it teased’ (LRB, 2 August). Au contraire, De Gaulle’s extraordinary speech from the balcony of Montreal’s city hall was consistent with the views he had held for many years. In his mind, France had shamelessly abandoned its sixty thousand colonists to the British in the 18th century, and it was about time it did something for them; De Gaulle said he had come to Québec in order ‘to pay the debt of Louis XV’. He referred to its people as ‘les Français d’Amérique’.

Mathieu Thomas

Ferdinand Mount says that the more he reads about De Gaulle the more he admires the general’s wife, Yvonne. The chef Jacques Pépin wrote of his admiration for her in his autobiography, The Apprentice (2003). In the late 1950s, during his national service, he was a cook at the Matignon, the residence of French prime ministers. (‘Careful,’ he was told by a flunkey from the arts ministry who had just handed him an ornate platter – it had belonged to Marie Antoinette.)

He first met Aunt Yvonne, as he claims she was known in France, in the spring of 1958. ‘The country hovered on the brink of revolution as a junta of disaffected military officers … were poised to stage a coup,’ Pépin wrote.

The crisis reached its peak on the evening of 12 May. Dinner was over, and I was cleaning up in the corner of the kitchen when an aide to one of the cabinet ministers hurried to me. Gesturing toward the president’s salon, where the politicians were negotiating our country’s future, he said: ‘Chef, they’re going to be at this all night. They need food. Can you stay?’ It was the longest night of my life, a night when no one knew who would be the leader of France when the sun rose. As French democracy hung in the balance, I did what I had been trained to do. I cooked.

The next morning De Gaulle became president, and Aunt Yvonne appeared in the kitchen, as she would do every day for the rest of Pépin’s time at the Matignon. She asked him what he proposed to make for supper. ‘I was thinking of a leg of lamb,’ he replied. ‘That’s good. The general loves lamb. But, chef, you must be certain not to cook it too rare. He likes it rare, but he should not have it that way. It’s not good for his blood.’

‘I could not have asked for a more gracious supervisor,’ Pépin says. ‘Aunt Yvonne was a small, immaculately groomed woman, always soft-spoken, and unfailingly polite, the perfect foil for her stern, larger than life husband.’ The De Gaulles’ punctuality was flawless, and supper was always at 8 p.m., whether all the guests had arrived or not. The general’s predecessor at the Matignon, Félix Gaillard, had rarely been on time, although his favourite dish was cheese soufflé – a dish that is all about perfect timing. (Pépin had ‘to have one soufflé ready at the appointed time, another ready to go into the oven when the first one showed signs of collapsing, and yet another in the making’.)

A pile of the general’s clothes was once left in the kitchen. Pépin couldn’t stop himself and tried them on, even though De Gaulle, at 6'5", was a foot taller than he was. He tried on a pair of size 14 shoes, too. The general was vast in every respect except one. ‘His head,’ Pépin says, ‘was so tiny that his hat perched on top of mine like a precariously balanced demitasse.’

Inigo Thomas
London NW1

Vol. 40 No. 19 · 11 October 2018

Mathieu Thomas challenges Ferdinand Mount’s interpretation of De Gaulle’s speech in Montreal in 1967, where he shouted, ‘Vive le Québec libre’ (Letters, 13 September). Thomas asserts that this speech ‘was consistent with the views he [De Gaulle] had held for many years.’ In fact on Canada Day, 1 July 1944, De Gaulle gave a speech from a balcony in Ottawa in which he shouted ‘Vive le Canada!’ to encourage Canadian support for the liberation of France. He gave a similar speech in Montreal, where, as Mount points out, the Québécois nationalists, then the supporters of Vichy France, ignored him and his cause. It was only after his outburst in 1967 that the Vichy Québécois of the 1940s through to the 1960s supported him.

Sam Allison

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