The Silences of General de Gaulle

Douglas Johnson

We are battered and bruised by politics. We are bemused by an apparently unending series of elections. After the West Germans, Portuguese, Australians, Jamaicans and Americans, we await the French and the Israelis. And in a separate pigeonhole there is the British Labour Party and its choice of leader. For all that each one of these contests deserves a separate and distinct analysis, we are bludgeoned into accepting the same approach and the same treatment. Thus we have been told that Schmidt is centre left and that he needs to appear as if he were more to the right, while Giscard d’Estaing is centre right and seeks to appear as if he were centre left. Foot is too nice, so much so that he is the nicest prime minister we will never have, but Healey is not nice enough and his past bullying of the unions has lost him their enthusiasm if not their support. Foot is romantic, Healey pragmatic. Carter appealed because he was able to show how he had assumed all the complicated burdens of office, but Reagan appealed because he was able to show himself as a direct man who had the determination to dominate and solve problems. Carter is not at ease within himself; Reagan is a man who is at ease.

Such judgments flow easily from the commentators. Take the case of Richard Nixon. He is described as having been simply a politician, a pure politician without principle other than that of acquiring and hanging on to office. But how does this explain his reactions when he is in office? Then we are told that he is an example of the middle-class individual who has been denied any opportunity to realise himself as an important or meaningful member of society. Therefore he flees forward, he is always conscious of crises ahead, he is anxious to create issues if they do not arise of their own accord, he is bound to commit blunder because he is always taking risks as part of his never-ending action. But at the same time, we are told that he assumes that he can get away with things, that the public will not notice, will not care, will become bored and remain phlegmatically ignorant. And, after other speculations and interpretations, we are inevitably treated to a conclusion about Nixon as an enigma, or Nixon in search of his own identity.

When any shoddy politician can exercise the imagination of political journalists and historians, then our expectations are naturally low. Whoever it was who said of Nixon’s successor, ‘I think that Gerald Ford is what he seems to be,’ made a most satisfactory statement. But it is understandable that people should think that it is worthwhile to speculate about the characters and ingenuities of politicians. It is easily assumed that politics is something which people do. Politicians are therefore scrutinised in order to find out what they wanted to achieve, what they achieve and how they achieve it. Political parties are analysed in terms of their aims and composition. Politics is thought to be a sphere of action and politicians are thought of as practitioners with varying degrees of energy, skill, freedom and purpose. But in fact this is not always so. To understand why it isn’t, we should turn to a man whom even the meanest of commentators have recognised as being out of the ordinary, General de Gaulle. Since the tenth anniversary of his death in November 1970 is being marked by a spate of books and articles about him, perhaps it is all the more appropriate to reconsider his unusual career.

It is true that certain observers have insisted on what was petulant and poor in the General’s character. The former director of Le Monde, Hubert Beuve-Méry, always emphasised these defects and permitted himself to sigh at the nature of human frailty. Echoing Talleyrand’s comment on Napoleon, ‘quel dommage qu’un si grand homme soit si mal élévé,’ he commented: ‘quel dommage qu’un si grand homme ait tant de petitesse.’ Others talked of conceit, egoism, mysticism and megalomania. But if such observations occasionally seemed justified, and even apt, no one, either at the time when they were made or now, can regard them as being anything other than irrelevant – as irrelevant as those which fall into the equivalent error of being hagiographical.

De Gaulle’s career can be measured, not in terms of a step-by-step ascent of the ladder of power, but rather by his resignaiions. In 1946, he left office refusing to allow his authority to be worn away in a struggle arising from the great game of politics as seen by the party hierarchies. In 1969, he decided to gamble his Presidential existence on a referendum which he thought essential for the country’s well-being. But did he expect in 1946 that his resignation would be followed by a wave of national indignation which would bring him back to power with a renewed mandate? Did he really care in 1969 about a referendum which he occasionally dismissed in scathing terms (‘alors, Marcellin, il paraît que c’est un piège à cons, votre référendum’)? Might it not have been that, as an old man, he was preoccupied with ‘he manner in which he was bound, one day, to have to give up office? And was it a sort of resignation when, in 1940, the 49-year-old officer resolutely turned his back on France, on the French Army, on the normal authorities of the country? At all events, a few months later there was the temptation of resignation, if not of suicide, after his failure to occupy a Vichy-dominated Dakar. (Maurice Schumann, in an article published in Histoire Magazine,[*] has claimed that the Dakar episode marked a complete change in De Gaulle’s physical aspect and behaviour, that before Dakar he had an alacrity which never returned to him afterwards.)

Then there was the episode of the Rassemblement du Peuple Français, the so-called Rally of the French People, which De Gaulle founded in 1946 and from which, this time with an agonising slowness, he separated himself from 1952 to 1955. Olivier Guichard, who was closely associated with the General from 1947, when he started to work for the RPF, has described this, in a fine volume of memoirs centred on De Gaulle, as the least successful of the General’s departures from the scene. Whereas 1946 was unexpected and dramatic, all the more so because it was followed by silence, and 1969 was remarkable, because the resignation was announced in a laconic communiqué which scarcely filled three lines, the withdrawal of the 1950s was in itself neither dramatic nor remarkable. It is possible that after the elections of 1951 De Gaulle had already thought of folding up his Rassemblement. At his press conference in June of that year he spoke of the future and said that what had happened in the elections was only a beginning. But as Olivier Guichard points out he used the phrase ‘ce que nous venons de faire aux élections n’est qu’un départ,’ and he asks whether the General, so attentive to words and their meanings, was not, that day, thinking of the two meanings of the word départ. If there was hesitation, it was not because De Gaulle was reluctant to abandon his control over an organisation, nor was it because he was reluctant to return to solitude (on the contrary, solitude was always attractive, and his mysterious journey to consult the Army in May 1968, during the crisis, was possibly a means of recovering a precious solitude). But he was not seeking isolation.

With De Gaulle we are not, apparently, dealing with a man who is planning his accession to power, in the sense that there are politicians who live for power. As often as not, since we have to speculate, we have to think in terms of silences rather than actions, abstention rather than initiative. His silence after the resignation of 1946 was contrary to his immediate political interest, and his silence prior to the uprising in Algiers in May 1958 exasperated his most devoted supporters. When De Gaulle met Maurice Schumann in London, on 30 May 1940 (he already knew of him, because he had been one of the first subscribers, before the war, to Temps présent, a Catholic weekly with which Schumann was associated), he did not speak of the war which had to be won, but spoke of the war as won. ‘En somme, la guerre est un problème terrible, mais résolu.’ This was certainly the attitude one would expect from a man who, during the campaign of 1940 seeing an officer poring’ over one of the General Staff maps, asked: ‘Why do you not rather look at a globe?’ Similarly, as Guichard points out, in the days of the RPF, De Gaulle never tried to make political capital out of the economic difficulties of the times. Instead, he sought to emphasise the essential prosperity of France. Since the day might come when his country would again have recourse to him, he wished neither to depress the French nor to trick them into thinking of him as a benefit or bonus in their material existence.

Maurice Schumann writes (in the same article in Histoire Magazine) that, in conversation, De Gaulle never ceased to astonish him. The same is true for anyone who cares to open the first of the two volumes of the Lettres, Notes et Carnets which have just been added, by his son, to the collected edition of De Gaulle’s works. We read that in 1930 three German armies invaded France, the first under the command of General Bismarck, the others commanded by Generals Manteuffel and Mack. Together they numbered nearly half a million men. General de Gaulle at the head of an army of 200,000 men proceeded to Nancy, which was being threatened by the first German army. Another French army, commanded by General de Boisdeffre and numbering 150,000 men, was also ready. The details of the battle follow, and include several detailed despatches and communiqués issued by General de Gaulle. This whole account was written in 1905, by the 15-year-old Charles de Gaulle when he was a pupil at the Collège de l’Immaculée-Conception. It is passages such as these that make one ready to accept the necessity of using words like ‘destiny’ when writing of De Gaulle.

In this collection of letters and notes, items of the greatest interest are, naturally enough, to be found side by side with routine letters and reports, usually concerned with the technical details of the army. There are also many items which have been published before, although it is natural and right that they should be placed in this edition. But what is striking is that the essential De Gaulle is present from very early on. In 1916, when he is a prisoner-of-war and using his enforced leisure in order to read widely (one finds notes on a bewildering variety of matters, including, it can be mentioned in passing, the note that Queen Victoria was the daughter of William IV), there are reflections on the question of leadership. Next to some notes taken from an article by Gustave Le Bon on the crowd and the French Revolution, we read of De Gaulle’s conviction, not only that a leader is someone who must control himself, and must prepare that control by a constant exercise of willpower, but also that it was necessary to be sparing of one’s words. The advantages of being a brilliant talker, writes De Gaulle, were worth nothing compared to the advantages of being concentrated within oneself. ‘Et dans l’action, il ne faut rien dire. Le chef est celui qui ne parle pas.’

In his study of De Gaulle’s famous tank action at Laon, in May 1940, an action which has been made into an almost miraculous victory by some of his unwise admirers. Paul Huard tells us that this silence of De Gaulle’s had its practical disadvantages, Liaison with other units was poor and Colonel de Gaulle did not always inform others of what was happening. Within his unit he was uncommunicative and not always very sympathetic, especially to his officers. ‘You think you’re in 1870’ was a frequently-repeated remark and it is nonceable that none of the men involved in this battle joined him in London (although this should not be made too much of, since it is possible that none of those who survived the battle were ever in a position to do so). The lesson here (and it is typical that it was only towards the end of his life that De Gaulle expressed the wish that a detailed study should be made of it) was that, as local commander, he made full use of the opportunity to act, and with great determination inflicted losses on the Germans which were six or seven times heavier than those the French forces sufferred, although about one-third of the French tanks were lost. Nearly a quarter of a century after having noted down the qualities that were required for leadership, a subject about which he continued to reflect and to write, De Gaulle tested himself in this brief, fierce and unexpected clash.

The more one reads, the more he appears as all of a piece. In the 1920s he copies oul passages from Barres, from Lamartine, from Valéry. They have to do with leaders, with greatness, with the role of a handful of men, with solitude. One must withdraw from the masses in order to reflect, one must become one with the masses in order to act. We find precepts of behaviour, as we find echoes of phrases which he has yet to use. Not everything is grandeur and eloquence. There are homely resolutions, advice that is cunning and attuned to management: we read (in 1916) that a man is not considered worthwhile because he is a ‘parlementaire’, or, after the war, that it is by their vanity that men are to be led. One should not Forget, as Michel Jobert has reminded us, that there were always cacti growing around the General, and Guichard is to be congratulated on showing us some of the injustices for which he was responsible.

The fact remains, however, that De Gaulle was not like other politicians. He cannot be thought of as someone who was simply doing things, someone who was angling for support or looking forward to the pleasures of office – at least not while France maintained her special vocation of being constantly in danger. Politics were what happened to De Gaulle. He was part of a vast movement and mobilisation of French society. He was acted upon and he acted. He waited for the right moment. He might, in personal terms, lament the nature of change and the passing of a France to which he was attached, but he was himself a prisoner of the national reality. ‘Etre suivi sans être aimé est le plus beau destin d’un homme,’ said Malraux. It is no accident that Guichard should quote him. Politics were different with De Gaulle. When comes such another?

[*] ‘Dossier De Gaulle’. Histoire Magazine, No 10.