De Gaulle’s Debt

Patrice Higonnet

  • Jean Moulin: Le politique, le rebelle, le résistant by Jean-Pierre Azéma
    Perrin, 507 pp, €24.00, April 2003, ISBN 2 262 01329 2

By 1995, there were 37 monuments and 113 plaques dedicated to Jean Moulin in France; 978 boulevards, avenues, streets, squares, bridges and stadiums were named after him, as well as more than 365 schools, including one university. There are even more today; only de Gaulle is more honoured. And yet at the time of his death at the hands of Nazi torturers in the first days of July 1943, Moulin was unknown even among the elite circles of the day. In all likelihood, Pétain and even Laval had little idea who he was. To no other man, however – apart from Churchill – did de Gaulle owe so much, as that excessively immodest man fully understood, just as no one, apart from de Gaulle himself, did more to frustrate Franklin Roosevelt’s determination not just to liberate France in June 1944, but to occupy and administer it until some government presumably favourable to the US emerged from its ruins. By what he had done – and because of his untimely death, what was left undone – Moulin made a lasting mark on French history, greater than he himself could ever have anticipated.

Moulin was born in Béziers in 1899 – he spoke with an almost imperceptible ‘accent du Midi’ – to a standard-issue, lower-middle-class, left-of-centre, anti-clerical family. He was very successful as a young man, a golden boy to the ‘radical-socialist’ (which was neither radical nor socialist) establishment that ran France – not very successfully – in the last decades of the Third Republic. At the age of 37, he became the youngest prefect in France, but was not, I suspect, as pleasant a young man as Jean-Pierre Azéma makes him out to be in this excellent biography. In the late 1930s he became a friend and client of Pierre Cot, the rather dubious Popular Front Air Minister, whose help was spurned by de Gaulle in 1940.

The collapse of May-June 1940 transformed him. At a time when most provincial prefects, a majority of Parisians, and eight million French citizens fled mindlessly southward before the invading Germans, Moulin stayed on in Chartres. There, he was impressed by the behaviour of the local nuns, who had also stayed put and had even managed to roast whole oxen in order to feed hundreds of refugees. When the Germans asked him to sign a statement blaming Senegalese troops for offences they had committed themselves, he refused. (The Nazis did not like African soldiers, and threw some of those they captured under tank treads.) Beaten and imprisoned, and fearing he might be tempted in the end to sign the statement, Moulin slashed a vein in his neck. But he was found in time, and saved. The Germans then apologised for their treatment of him, and he remained as prefect for the first four months of the Vichy regime.

In October 1940, when Vichy enacted its first overtly anti-semitic laws, Moulin did not protest, much less resign. Perhaps he thought that anti-Jewish legislation, however reprehensible, mattered less than Vichy’s more obvious failings, like the ending of the republican form of government in July, and its subservience to the Germans after that. Or he may already have decided to keep quiet so as to resist from within. In November, he was fired; Pétain himself signed the letter of dismissal. (Bizarrely, in mid-1942, Laval, who by then wanted to move away from Pétain’s archaic ‘révolution nationale’, and was unaware of Moulin’s Resistance role, offered him his old job back. Vastly amused, Moulin declined the offer.) Before leaving office, he secured a set of false identity papers: he had, it seems, already decided to go underground.

By early 1941, the Resistance had become more coherent, especially in the northern, occupied zone, where the presence of the Germans was more deeply resented. Moulin made it his job that year to move about from one Resistance group to another; he decided also to share his knowledge with either de Gaulle or British Intelligence. In October 1941, he arrived in London via Lisbon, which he had reached under a false identity.

The first meeting between de Gaulle and Moulin was probably not the ‘coup de foudre’ that Daniel Cordier (Moulin’s wartime radio operator and subsequent biographer) surmised, but rather, as Azéma explains, a coming together of two strong wills and purposes. Moulin was awed by the General, while de Gaulle, no doubt, was moved by the younger man’s loyalty (and discernment). Both were authoritarian personalities, but Moulin immediately subordinated himself to de Gaulle, who was nine years his senior, and separated from him by the experience of the First World War: though drafted in the summer of 1918 Moulin never served at the front. This meeting of minds wasn’t just a matter of personality, however: Moulin was a grand commis, a principled civil servant who saw the French state as an agent of historical becoming; similarly, for de Gaulle, the state was the nation, just as the nation was the state. Moulin was more of a gaullien than a gaulliste: the General’s reactionary, sectarian origins were of no consequence for him. What mattered was the General’s identification of himself with a national cause that was now Moulin’s cause as well.

By the time of Moulin’s return to France (he was parachuted in near his home-town on 1 January 1942), de Gaulle had decided that Moulin alone would speak on behalf of the Free French, an endorsement which his messenger was able to put to good use. In the remaining months of 1942, thanks to his cunning, his natural authority and the money which Free France had placed at his disposal, Moulin not only got rid of the Resistance figures who were in the pay of the American OSS, but also secured acknowledgments of loyalty to de Gaulle from all the main Resistance groups. Plans for the formation of an underground army were also agreed on.

In February 1943, Moulin returned to London (he was picked up by a Lysander, which was capable of landing on a football field) and stayed there until late March. De Gaulle once again redefined Moulin’s mission: he was ordered to create a ‘conseil de la Résistance’. This was to be ‘the embryo of a reduced national representation’ that eventually would serve as ‘a conseil politique to General de Gaulle on his return to France’. There then began a dramatic struggle between Moulin and some of his fellow Resisters like Pierre Brossolette and Henri Frenay, the head of the Combat movement, who wanted to keep what was left of their autonomy. This contentious issue was made more problematic still by Moulin’s second goal, which was to include on his council representatives of both the labour unions and the once despised but now reviving political parties. Frenay thought of the Resistance as an alternative to the prewar parties, but Moulin was determined to include everyone, including the Communists, who were eyed with deep suspicion not just by the Right (both Pétain and de Gaulle) but by the socialists and Christian Democrats as well. Moulin aimed to make the Resistance into a united national front and to place it under de Gaulle’s quasi-presidential authority. Only four years earlier a partisan of the Popular Front, he had now become an ecumenical patriot, just as de Gaulle, in no small part at Moulin’s behest, had moved from the apolitical royalist, Catholic, disdainful Right, which was his natural habitat, towards the Republican Left.

To be sure, before the war ‘Colonel Motors’, as de Gaulle had been labelled by his fellow officers, was already politicised, but as it were by default. He had realised that politicians alone could bring into being the motorised French Army to which his military superiors (Pétain, Weygand and Gamelin) were hostile and felt that he had no choice but to write fawning letters to the few Parliamentarians who paid him any heed. In 1940, de Gaulle’s ambition had still been to become a great general, like Vauban, Foch, or – why not? – Napoleon. His goal when he arrived in London in June 1940 was essentially to fight on as head of an independent military force. His motto then was not the Republic’s ‘liberté, égalité, fraternité’, but the more military ‘honneur et patrie’.

Gradually, however, de Gaulle’s views had shifted as his military hopes dwindled. The abortive Anglo-Free French attack on Dakar in September 1940 was such a dismal failure that he even thought of suicide, and by late 1941, there were still no more than 35,000 soldiers worldwide who were loyal to his cause. It had also become clear to him in the spring of 1941, during the British takeover of Vichyite Syria, that Churchill did not care much about French interests, or not at least as he, de Gaulle, defined them. Pearl Harbor was another watershed. De Gaulle understood at once that Nazi Germany’s days were now numbered, but he quickly sensed Churchill’s new frame of mind: namely, that wherever America went, Britain would go, too. Back in June 1940, de Gaulle had mattered a great deal to Churchill: Britain had no other allies, and both men were reactionary romantics, enamoured of their nation’s past. But by 1942-43, the Cross of Lorraine had become for Churchill the ‘heaviest cross he had to bear’.

Just as Churchill moved towards Roosevelt, so de Gaulle now moved towards Moulin. He, too, discovered France’s republican and democratic past, which was, after all, militarily rather grand. In September 1941, he still thought that to make any political statement would serve only to alienate his small military following, but by November of that year, in a critical speech at the Albert Hall, he intoned: ‘Nous disons honneur et patrie . . . Nous disons liberté, égalité, fraternité, et nous disons libération.’ He praised France’s ‘democratic principles’. In December, he declared himself ‘fermement [partisan] des principes démocratiques tels que la Révolution française les a fait triompher en France et dans le monde.’ He made overtures to the Soviet Union. And in April 1942, in response to a request from Christian Pineau, a syndicalist who had found his way to London, he endorsed ‘l’idéal séculaire français de liberté, d’égalité et de fraternité’. His condemnation of the Third Republic, in whose last Government he had served for ten days as Under-Secretary for War, became more nuanced.

Moulin and de Gaulle’s ideological convergence mattered a great deal from a French point of view, but, as Azéma rightly points out, in the spring of 1943 it was of determining importance also in de Gaulle’s dealings with the United States. Churchill, by some aristocratic instinct, loved France and the French language, which he spoke often, if idiosyncratically. (He once, to Léon Blum’s consternation, rendered ‘we must make good’ as ‘nous devons faire bonne’, which – roughly – translates as ‘we must make the maid.’) He admired de Gaulle: ‘A great man? He is arrogant . . . selfish . . . he thinks he is the centre of the universe . . . he is . . . you’re right, he is a great man!’ For Churchill, who would push in 1945 to give France a zone of occupation in Germany and a permanent seat on the Security Council, Europe without France made no sense. Roosevelt by contrast disliked de Gaulle (who wouldn’t?), encouraged the Sultan of Morocco to seek independence from France, did not wish to restore French authority to Indochina and, to Anthony Eden’s amazement, even toyed with the idea of redrawing France’s national borders to the benefit of the Belgians.

For Churchill, the French Army had been and might again become a great force. He saw the fall of France as just one episode in a thousand years of ups and downs: after Austerlitz, Waterloo, but after that, Verdun. For Roosevelt, however, 1940 was a point of no return. The French had disgraced themselves; France would never again be a great power. And so, the only French leaders who made sense to him were the realists who agreed to accept their nation’s new dependence. Since France was weak, and would henceforth always be so, Vichy’s subservience to Germany, he thought, was not surprising, and might eventually be transferred from Germany to the US. Similarly, a defiant de Gaulle was in Roosevelt’s eyes wholly unrealistic, a prima donna, a crypto-Fascist. Had the (Fascist) Pétain flown to Algiers after the Americans landed there in November 1942, FDR would surely have backed him to the hilt. When Pétain refused to do so, foolishly convinced that his continued presence on French soil would limit German exactions, Roosevelt fell back on Pétain’s second-in-command, Admiral Darlan, who happened to be in Algiers for personal reasons when the Allies landed. It didn’t matter that Darlan had all but signed a Franco-German treaty of alliance in May 1941, or that he had then grandly dreamed of an anti-British, Franco-German navy, under his command. When Darlan was murdered on Christmas Eve 1942, Roosevelt turned to yet another potential client, General Giraud, who was to be, in his words, ‘the groom’ with de Gaulle cast as the bride.

This was a potentially ominous decision. Had Roosevelt and Jean Monnet, at that time FDR’s representative in Algiers, succeeded in securing the victory of Giraud – conservative, anti-Republican and anti-semitic – over de Gaulle (now abandoned by a somewhat shame-faced but still irate Churchill), an unbridgeable gap, perhaps even a civil war, would surely have emerged after the Liberation between a local, leftist, even ‘Communised’ Resistance and a rightist Giraudiste army in the pay of the United States. But it was the newly republican de Gaulle who succeeded; and it was Jean Moulin who enabled him do so.

In his recent masterly biography of de Gaulle, Eric Roussel claims that what Moulin did doesn’t really matter. For Roussel, what counted at this point were the negotiations in Algiers between Jean Monnet, Harold Macmillan, Churchill’s representative, and de Gaulle’s representative, General Catroux. In France, he writes, ‘legends refuse to die.’ What legend? De Gaulle often disavowed Catroux at the time, and Catroux himself made a great deal of the radio messages Moulin was able to send in May 1943, explaining that a general council of the Resistance had met secretly in Paris and had, without debate, not only denounced Giraud but acknowledged de Gaulle as the sole head not just of Free France, but of ‘Fighting France’ – that’s to say, of French resisters at home and soldiers in North Africa. Azéma is right then to consider as ‘plausible’ Cordier’s ‘hypothesis’ that in March 1943, it was Moulin, then in London, who stiffened de Gaulle’s resolve to resist Giraud; and Moulin again who, in May, gave him the ideological weapons with which to do so.

Moulin’s mission ended with his arrest at Caluire, not far from Lyon, on 21 June 1943, where he had called a meeting of local resisters. For many years, it was supposed that he had been betrayed by one René Hardy, who was at the Caluire meeting but miraculously (suspiciously?) escaped arrest. We now know that Hardy had a few days before been arrested and then released by the Germans, presumably after striking some arrangement with Klaus Barbie. Did Hardy, then, betray Moulin directly? It seems unlikely; and in a way, the story outlined by Azéma is even grimmer. Hardy was a great friend of Pierre Benouville, Frenay’s second-in-command in the Combat movement, and this relationship is of consequence because Frenay and Benouville – of all the Resistance leaders – were the most reluctant to accept Moulin’s gaullien order. (In March 1943, until his Resistance comrades indignantly demanded that he give it up, Frenay, through Benouville, developed a ‘Swiss connection’ with Allen Dulles, whereby the OSS would fund his movement, and Combat would be its privileged interlocutor in France – this at a time when Free French/American relations were at their lowest ebb.) What happened before Caluire, in all likelihood, was that Benouville, who knew of Hardy’s arrest, nonetheless decided to trust him with details of the meeting. In defiance of well-known underground procedures, and without securing permission from Moulin, Benouville not only told Hardy about it, but urged him to attend. Benouville must have thought that the forceful Hardy would more than hold his own on behalf of Combat against Moulin’s centralising schemes. But Barbie had ordered that Hardy be tailed, and catastrophe ensued.

At his trial in 1987, Barbie claimed that Moulin died from self-inflicted wounds, which is not unthinkable – he had after all tried to take his life in June 1940 and a number of resisters did choose to kill themselves rather than betray their friends. (Although the Nazis interned but did not ordinarily molest French politicians they did not like, ‘terrorists’ like Moulin were routinely tortured.) But it seems probable that Moulin was first tortured and only then tried to kill himself. Bizarrely, in unwitting tribute perhaps to his status, the Gestapo ceremoniously informed his mother in October 1943 and again in May 1944 that her son had died of heart failure at Metz during his transfer to Germany.

If de Gaulle was the last great Frenchman, Jean Moulin was the last great French political martyr. The story of these two men has a moral, even a mythical dimension. Their relationship had practical consequences as well: de Gaulle’s character oscillated at times between eccentricity (as when, after Yalta, he refused FDR’s invitation to visit him in Algiers) and near madness (as when he explained to the British Ambassador in the spring of 1945, that he would have declared war on Britain at the time of France’s eviction from Syria had it been possible) and Moulin might have been able to tone down these histrionic episodes. He might also have affected the subsequent course of French politics. After Moulin’s death, de Gaulle’s authority over the Resistance slackened. Once Giraud was out of the way, he no longer desperately needed its support and he gradually lost interest in it although at times he saw it as a potential rival. (His authority was still contested: Roosevelt and Churchill did not recognise his provisional government until 23 October 1944, four months after D-Day, and two months after the liberation of Paris.) Had he lived, Moulin would have represented de Gaulle’s interests forcefully to the Resistance, but he would also have insisted that de Gaulle give the resisters more of a say than he did. With Moulin at his side, de Gaulle might not have been so obsessive in his desire to reassert the authority of the state in liberated France. Nor would he have had to forgive opportunist and seemingly repentant Vichy civil servants such as Maurice Papon.