The General: Charles de Gaulle and the France he saved

Written By: Edward Pearce
Published: August 8, 2010 Last modified: August 4, 2010

Charles de Gaulle was a great man and Jonathan Fenby has written a full, clear, French-sourced and excellent book about him.

The private man loved his wife and devotedly cherished a little daughter submerged in Down’s Syndrome. Soldier and politician did the greatness, equestrian even over lunch: self-belief, glacial distance, knowing what he should and must be. Yet de Gaulle was also a radical soldier, early advocate of the tank, at Saint-Cyr, the favoured pupil of Colonel Pétain, Vichy 1940 notwithstanding, the most intelligent Allied commander of the Great War. Given up for dead after a heroic squadron charge at Verdun, de Gaulle was mourned by Pétain as “an incomparable officer in all respects.” In fact, PoW camps were now plagued by a fourfold escapee.

The man was, too, a child of his country. French politics is so much more interesting than British politics because it has such interesting flaws. Historically, revolution was followed by imperial conquest, greed and aggrandisement riding under le tricolore. But with society thrown open, the sons of bakers and innkeepers took their batons and marched on Smolensk. Off-stage, immobile men of title or cloth lamented the 17th century.

Still irreconcilably miserable under Louis Philippe’s arriviste monarchy, they were wonderfully caught by Stendhal in Lucien Leuwen.

The right inhabited internal exile. So did the enraged poor for whom there would be risings and puttings-down of risings. The 20,000 shot by the Marquis de Gallifet after the fall of the Paris Commune in 1871 was a sixfold multiple (across days) of the Terror in 1793. Memory being long, France in 1945 would be a quarter communist. And when, in 1936, a Popular Front took office under a Jewish intellectual and friend of Proust, the right cried: “Mieux Hitler que Blum”. The English don’t know what class conflict is.

Mon général, for all his trumpet solos, was a patriot in the only good sense, someone who wanted to get all the country back. He came indeed from the traditional right, his parents ardent Roman Catholics, deniers of la République and flag. His father, Henri, described the revolution of 1789 as “Satanic” and his mother’s photograph uncannily resembles Melanie Phillips. Yet there were differences. In 1894, Henri, a very intelligent man, instinctively knew that Alfred Dreyfus was innocent.

His son inherited something of the right, underrating vulgar politics and La République des Camarades. He would irrationally despise civilian politicians, dismissing Raymond Poincaré, whose cuts and taxes had doubled a perilous franc against the dollar, as “half-big, half-honest, half-understanding”. His personal radio was jammed at haute en bas. Yet he impressed; the urge to hit him seems to have been resisted. Also he was clean of another right-wing trait, hatred for Les Métèques, aliens, mostly Jews, but also Protestants and other not proper Frenchmen, successfully promoted by Charles Maurras (adored by TS Eliot). Wherever he came from, in 1940, the obscure soldier, an acting Brigadier-General, just made Deputy Minister of Defence, would know what was right and would do it, incidentally attracting lots of Jews and Protestants to the cause, too.

His performance, in 1940 and after, needed the de Gaulle persona, the act. Churchill, also a pretty fair faker, recorded his response on their first meeting: “This was the Constable of France” (an ancient office at the right hand of Capetian kings). In fact, he had been called Constable since student days. This persona enraged Roosevelt and other Americans, but was wonderful cover for de Gaulle’s essential trickiness, a duplicity beyond most of the parliamentary deputies whom he would continue scorning. Yet in office after 1945, he followed a financial purity hard to imagine, insisting on paying the telephone and electricity bills of the Palace flat. Meanwhile, in the clenched teeth of Roosevelt who, with a familiar American sensibility, wanted France occupied, he would lead French troops down the Champs-Elysées and be duly chosen Prime Minister. The general was as proud and difficult as a soprano, but he was proud and difficult for France. The disinterest was genuine, the patriotism the real thing and ocean-deep.

His dislike of party politics resembled George III inveighing against “factions” and seriously underrated them. In 1946 he resigned and the skies held. Facing major economic problems and huge, communist-inspired strikes, the despicable little politicians coped! His own just-created party, the Rassemblement du Peuple Français, after a brilliant start in helpfully unsettled times, diminished under stability. The Fourth Republic was staffed by such nonentities as Ramadier, Pléven, Moch, Schuman, Monnet, Pinay, Faure and Mendès-France. The French political tradition of intellectual excellence abided. The economy was expanded, then steadied, though a little too internalised, the Indochine Française war got out of – to become America’s Vietnam – Tunis and Morocco sensibly made independent, nuclear power (cheap and safe, Caroline), undertaken and the first steps made toward a Common Market.

If de Gaulle despised little men, the British scorned little governments. Premierships were short, which is not the same thing. Key ministries were held long, seeing specific jobs through and providing continuity. France was better governed at this time than under Labour’s tired last years or Macmillan’s defeatist Archie Rice act. In the 1950s de Gaulle, tired of reading the Collect of the Day to thin meetings in Bas-Limousin, turned to his memoirs, beautifully, if not truthfully, written in the clear pure language of a lifetime reader of the French classics. Churchill, also good at prose, if too flashily, had dedicated a volume to the Harrow master who taught him the workings of an English sentence. The general might have cited Chateaubriand.

At which point, Algeria came up and did for the Fourth Republic. It is a horrible story. The rebel FLN committed atrocities against the settlers, les Pieds-Noirs, French by nationality though often immigrants, who committed atrocities back. The army, at once brave and socially caring, tortured and killed extensively in private. After independence, les Harkis, native Algerians loyal to France, would be murdered – often hideously.

First, however, across 1956-58, the French state, facing treason from a military command enjoying national sympathy, suffered a sort of slow motion putsch with legal forms.
As impotent as late premiers such as Mollet or Gaillard, de Gaulle, the incoming beneficiary, had time to play it long. Public sympathy, as for all long wars, slowly declined. Famously, the settlers were told that de Gaulle had understood them. As famously, he had, and they tried to kill him. His prolonged, deft betrayal was a skilful following of the public mood as horrors and futility took centre stage and, ultimately, permitted slow, boring negotiation at Evian, then withdrawal, recognition of a war lost, credit taken for being out of it, what will happen in Afghanistan.
De Gaulle’s rule would end in the late 1960s: student street trouble and a constitutional amendment rebuffed. Even so, this subtle, intelligent man had outguessed his times. He had disliked a Europe absorbing France, but instead of sabotaging the project, had turned it to French account. Across 1962-63, he did the unthinkable, now a commonplace, making full accord with Germany and frankly bossing Europe. British mandarins who had Gilbertianly loved to go on little errands for the Secretary of State, deplored his failure of loyalty to the US. Yet de Gaulle’s distrust of American foreign policy has become general today, not least in the United States. When, as over Cuban missiles, the Americans were right, the general was with them; when not, he was not. The contrast with Britain is painful. But then no American president has ever summoned a French president with a call of “Yo, Blair. How are you doing?”

The General: Charles de Gaulle and the France he Saved by Jonathan Fenby
Simon & Schuster, £30

About Edward Pearce

Edward Pearce is a political journalist and author

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