The Afterlives of Charles de Gaulle

The Popular Monarch

Charles de Gaulle and the rise of the Fifth Republic.


A decade ago, in a series of dark chambers beneath the Invalides in central Paris, the French government inaugurated what it called the “Historial” Charles de Gaulle. Historial is a French neologism meaning something between a museum, a monument, and an educational exhibit. This example, however, all too clearly reflected the middle-aged designers’ vision of what would attract a generation raised on computers and video games. Quotations from de Gaulle literally glow on walls in massive, multicolored fonts. Film clips play on the ceilings. There are several “audiovisual portals.” Interactive screens, offering up yet more clips as well as short articles, stand available for those who want to learn more.

The intention of the Historial was to provide a site of homage and learning that would instruct visitors about the man who led the Free French in World War II and founded the Fifth Republic in 1958. The overall effect, however, is strangely sinister. When I visited in June, the Historial was nearly deserted, and the shadowy underground spaces filled with glaring displays reminded me of nothing so much as the nuclear-command bunker in Dr. Strangelove. In fact, the remains of an actual Nazi bunker on the site had to be cleared away for its construction. De Gaulle himself, whose cultural tastes tended toward the deeply traditional, would almost certainly have loathed the place.

But precisely because it is such a commemorative misfire, the Historial inadvertently captures some of the difficulty of memorializing Charles de Gaulle. He played an undeniably heroic role during World War II. But his postwar career was just as important, and had far more ambiguous consequences for contemporary France. After briefly heading the provisional government after liberation, de Gaulle retired to his country home in the early 1950s. In 1958, after army officers seized power in what was then French Algeria and threatened to overthrow the government in Paris, he became premier, ruling by decree, in what many described as a coup d’état. He then proceeded to found a Fifth Republic with an outsize presidency tailored to his own outsize ego and occupied the position for more than a decade. The qualities of arrogant determination and inflexible patriotism that had served him well during World War II proved far more troubling in this later role. They turned positively toxic in the 1960s, when de Gaulle utterly failed to understand youthful frustrations with the rigid, outdated institutions that dominated French society—especially in the educational sector. The result was an explosion of protest in 1968 that for several weeks seemed likely to pitch the country into a new revolution.

De Gaulle remains France’s most important political figure since Napoleon. Over 3,600 French localities have a public space named for him. President Emmanuel Macron, who posed for his official photograph in 2017 with de Gaulle’s war memoirs prominently displayed on his desk, is only the most recent French leader to cast himself as de Gaulle’s heir. But the veneration of de Gaulle owes more to his wartime role than to his subsequent political one. And it is becoming increasingly obvious, as Macron’s presidency follows several of his predecessors’ into the nether regions of unpopularity, that the political system de Gaulle created is serving the France of the 21st century quite poorly. If de Gaulle did more than anyone else to create the France we know today, many of the problems it now faces have roots in his legacy.

All of this makes writing de Gaulle’s biography particularly important, but doing it is no easy task. The documentation is overwhelming, while the main lines of the story are already well-known—not least thanks to de Gaulle himself, who wrote extensive memoirs of a high literary quality. While freshly released material from the archives offers new insights into various aspects of de Gaulle’s career—including his bizarre secret flight to a military base in Germany at the height of the 1968 protests—it has not yielded any particularly shocking revelations. There are already a good number of lively biographies by French and British journalists that provide a good basic introduction, not to mention Jean Lacouture’s exhaustive three-volume study.

Faced with this challenge, one possible strategy—exemplified by my Princeton colleague Stephen Kotkin’s ongoing multivolume life of Joseph Stalin—would be to embed the biography within a larger reinterpretation of the period as a whole. Julian Jackson, a professor at the University of London, has taken a more conventional path: He concentrates tightly on de Gaulle himself. This choice has the disadvantage of presenting de Gaulle’s story largely free of context, including the massive changes in the daily lives of most French people in the period between de Gaulle’s birth in 1890 and death in 1970. It means that Jackson follows, in occasionally tortuous detail, every significant quarrel in the career of this exceedingly quarrelsome man. But it has for the most part served Jackson well, allowing him to give us a judicious, authoritative, lucid, and engaging portrait. He is one of the leading historians of 20th-century France, known especially for his France: The Dark Years 1940–1944, a superb history of the country under German occupation. His De Gaulle will likely remain the standard biography for many years to come.

Jackson has composed De Gaulle in a venerable, and very British, empirical style, and makes no attempt to psychoanalyze his subject. While he quotes many people who questioned de Gaulle’s sanity, he never does so himself. In discussing de Gaulle’s early years, he concentrates mostly on the family milieu, rather than on the roots of the man’s extraordinary personality. That milieu was extremely traditional, Catholic, patriotic, and fiercely committed to education (especially in de Gaulle’s case—his father was a teacher).

The cultural background was crucial. Like many of his successors, including Macron, de Gaulle grew up in a literary culture that leaves even relatively well-read American politicians looking like Trump, and he liked to show it off. In an early book on military leadership, he quoted, among others, Goethe, Henri Bergson, Francis Bacon, Flaubert, Socrates, Tolstoy, Anatole France, Shakespeare, and Cicero. De Gaulle was also from an early age a devout Catholic, and remained so for all his life. He occasionally fantasized about restoring the French monarchy, but never embraced the viciously intolerant reactionary nationalism so common among monarchists on the prewar French right. (That said, he was not above the occasional racist or anti-Semitic crack, notably when he labeled Jews a “domineering and overconfident people” after a quarrel with Israel.) Despite his traditionalist inclinations, in practice his politics were usually moderate and pragmatic. Unlike many conservative army officers, he always accepted the legitimacy of the Republic, and often expressed admiration for the military leaders of the French Revolution, making a particular hero of Lazare Carnot, a member of the radical Committee of Public Safety.

De Gaulle’s personality, however, was anything but moderate. All his life he was prey to depression, violent mood swings, and uncontrollable rages, and nearly everyone who met him seems to have commented on his truly extraordinary arrogance. To quote one of his instructors at the French war college in the 1920s: He “spoils incontestable qualities by his excessive self-assurance, his harshness towards other people’s opinions, and his attitude of a king in exile.”

His personality did not keep de Gaulle from rapid advancement in the French Army. His obvious brilliance and fanatical work ethic counted more heavily, along with his spotless record in World War I (he led men bravely in combat, was wounded, and made numerous escape attempts while a prisoner of war in Germany). His arrogance did lead him into endless quarrels with superiors, though, including with the man who for a time acted as his mentor: Marshal Philippe Pétain, later the head of the Vichy regime.

In the 1930s, de Gaulle enraged much of the top brass by calling for a full-scale reorganization of the army and a heavier emphasis on mechanized warfare. Of course, he was right. The Germans’ skillful use of tanks helped produce their stunningly rapid defeat of France in 1940. As de Gaulle himself put it, with his usual modesty, in the midst of the blitzkrieg: “Our initial defeat comes from the application by the enemy of ideas that are mine and from the refusal of our commanders to apply those same conceptions.”

After France’s shocking defeat, though, de Gaulle’s massively overweening confidence was precisely what was called for. Jackson recounts in dramatic detail the political chaos of June 1940, as the Germans pushed rapidly south from Belgium. Churchill frantically negotiated with the fleeing, tottering remains of the French government to find a way to keep France in the war—and its navy and colonial empire out of Nazi hands. But the negotiations failed, and the French National Assembly handed over the government to Pétain, who proceeded to seek peace terms with Hitler. De Gaulle, newly appointed to a junior cabinet position, fled to London. There, entirely on his own authority, he gave a brief address on June 18 on the BBC, calling for continued resistance and inviting French personnel in Britain to rally to him.

The so-called “Appeal of 18 June” later became encrusted with legend as the moment the French took heart and began to unite against the invader. In fact, few people in France heard it, and in that moment of despair a large majority of them supported Pétain. But de Gaulle persisted, and quite quickly French personnel outside of France did rally around him. More important, so did several French colonies.

Between 1940 and 1944, often through sheer force of personality, de Gaulle forged the Free French into the undisputed French government in exile, and gained authority over the non-Communist resistance in France itself. He outmaneuvered a series of rivals to remain the movement’s uncontested leader.

Still, the same force of personality nearly sank him on many occasions. He fascinated everyone who met him, with diarists rarely failing to comment on his odd physique (he was very tall, with a noticeably small head and oddly wide hips). But his arrogance repelled. Franklin Roosevelt grew to loathe him, and one of de Gaulle’s own aides admitted that he suspected the French leader had trouble understanding other people “because he despises them.” As Jackson aptly observes, de Gaulle owed his survival in large part to the initial support he received from Churchill. “The romantic and sentimental side of his nature,” he writes, “was seduced by the quixotic nobility of the General’s solitary struggle.” Yet Churchill saw the Free French mainly as an allied auxiliary force. When it became clear that de Gaulle intended to function as an equal member of the Allied coalition, with sovereign authority over anything to do with France or its colonial empire, the two men’s relationship deteriorated sharply. By 1944, a Foreign Office official noted: “PM is almost insane at times in his hatred of de Gaulle, only less insane than the president.”

By 1944, however, de Gaulle could afford to drive Churchill insane, since he had sufficient independent support in France and its colonies. When he returned to France with the Allied armies in June of 1944, he did so with the overall backing of the population, who realized his leadership guaranteed the quick restoration of French civil authority. With what Jackson calls his “instinctive showmanship,” he turned the liberation of Paris two months later into a grand demonstration of national pride and reawakening, staging a massive march down the Champs-Élysées and delivering one of the great speeches of the 20th century: “Paris. Paris outraged. Paris broken. Paris martyred. But Paris liberated! Liberated by itself, liberated by its people with the help of the armies of France, with the help and support of all of France….”

Nothing in de Gaulle’s long subsequent career could quite match that moment. The immediate postwar period quickly turned bitter for him, as the French political class fell into its usual squabbling and stubbornly refused to follow his commands. Retiring to his country home, he turned to writing his war memoirs, which enjoyed enormous success. The books, needless to say, expressed de Gaulle’s gargantuan sense of his own historical importance and also made clear his continuing political availability: “Looking into the chasm into which the fatherland has fallen, I am its son, who calls it, shows it the light, shows it the road of salvation.”

When he published these words in 1954, another chasm was already opening with the Algerian crisis. Since the 19th century, Algeria had legally constituted an integral part of France, but with indigenous Muslim Algerians deprived of political rights. After 1945, a war for independence launched by the National Liberation Front (FLN) met with savage repression from the French authorities. “Algeria is France and the only negotiation is war,” declared future Socialist president François Mitterrand, then a government minister.

European settlers and the army remained committed to this line, but as the ugly struggle dragged on and the FLN gained international recognition, many in mainland France came to reconsider the question. In May 1958, army leaders in Algiers staged their putsch, demanding the preservation of “French Algeria” and the return of de Gaulle to power. On May 29, President René Coty, warning of civil war, dramatically invited de Gaulle to take office. Parliament approved, giving him the power to rule by decree, and the Fourth Republic died. The Fifth Republic, custom-designed by de Gaulle himself, arose in its place.

Had de Gaulle actively plotted with the rebellious generals? Many thought so. “He was no more directly involved in the plot than God in the creation,” charged his longtime opponent Mitterrand, with some credibility. Whatever the case, the new Fifth Republic received overwhelming support in a referendum. Then, within four years, to enraged cries of betrayal from the supporters of “French Algeria,” de Gaulle negotiated Algerian independence. Disgruntled officers formed a secret organization, tried and failed to stage a coup against him, and attempted to assassinate him several times.

De Gaulle loathed political parties and hoped his Fifth Republic would become “a kind of popular monarchy,” with the president governing in the national interest, above the political fray. Of course, nothing of the sort took place. No modern democratic leader can avoid the political fray, and the Gaullists predictably coalesced into a conventional center-right party, albeit one deeply committed to the French tradition of a powerful, interventionist state (they now call themselves Les Républicains).

De Gaulle himself, imperious as ever, tried to avoid domestic political squabbling and concentrated on foreign policy. He worked to restore French influence in Africa, oversaw the development of nuclear armaments in France, and withdrew French forces from NATO command, all in pursuit of maintaining France’s great-power status. As he wrote, in one of the most famous lines from his memoirs, “France cannot be France without grandeur.”

Yet in the search for grandeur, and in de Gaulle’s romantic vision of an older, more traditional France, he failed to see what his country had actually become. He had a fascination with modern technology, especially military technology, but he failed to appreciate, understand, or even notice a great many other changes within French society: the disappearance of the peasantry; the decline of religious observance; the changing role of women (de Gaulle himself had a highly traditional, intensely private marriage); the decline of heavy industry; the growing number of immigrants moving to the country.

Some of these changes were the unwitting results of de Gaulle’s own policies. In the 1960s, his government presided over a massive influx of immigrant laborers coming to France. Most came from former French possessions in Africa, but the government made little provision for integrating them into French life—still less planning for how France itself might change as a result of their arrival. In a remark that has since become infamous, de Gaulle warned that Muslims could no more “integrate” into French society than oil could mix with vinegar, and that with Muslim immigration, “my village would no longer be called Colombey-les-deux-Églises but Colombey-les-deux-Mosquées” (i.e., not Colombey-the-two-Churches but Colombey-the-two-Mosques).

Haughty and stubborn, de Gaulle saw no need for the rigid institutions of the French state to adapt to changing demographics and needs. His administration maintained rigid control over the educational sector—including higher education—and also over television and radio broadcasting. All this, along with rising unemployment, and protests against America’s war in Vietnam, fed into burgeoning social frustration. But at the end of 1967, de Gaulle himself wrote blithely to his son: “politically, economically and socially the year is ending in calm.”

A few months later, the country proved him spectacularly wrong. What began as student protests turned into pitched battles with the police. Workers joined in with a general strike. Suddenly, the country seemed on the brink of revolution. On May 29, in an episode that only came to light years later and remains murky, de Gaulle flew secretly from Paris to a French military base in Germany. Reviewing the available evidence, Jackson concludes that de Gaulle did not necessarily intend to flee the country, and that a conversation with an old comrade at the base probably stiffened his resolve. But whatever the case, de Gaulle returned to Paris the same day, made a firm speech on the radio, and his faithful supporters massed again on the Champs-Élysées. The revolutionary fervor sputtered out.

Still, the “events” of May 1968 left de Gaulle exhausted and disillusioned. France, not for the first time, had failed to live up to his high expectations. If the French increasingly saw him as a rigid relic of the past, in his view the French had turned away from higher, shared ideals to pursue petty individual pleasures. In 1969, he resigned the presidency. A year after that, he died.

Jackson recounts de Gaulle’s career in a scrupulously fair manner, and his overall conclusions are entirely persuasive. While he acknowledges his subject’s arrogance and recklessness, he also argues that de Gaulle knew how to step back from the brink of ruinous confrontation. He stresses de Gaulle’s “pragmatic capacity to adapt,” notably in acknowledging the inevitability of Algerian independence. De Gaulle famously wrote that “all my life I have had a certain idea of France,” but as Jackson nicely quips, “it was not always the same idea.”

If Jackson finds a constant in de Gaulle’s politics, it was his “almost religious reverence for the state.” Jackson rejects the idea, dear to some French admirers, that de Gaulle saw prophetically further than any of his contemporaries. “What is remarkable about de Gaulle in 1940,” Jackson explains, “is not so much his intellectual analysis of the future of the war as his readiness to act.” On occasion, Jackson cannot contain his exasperation with de Gaulle, for instance commenting that a passage in his memoirs shows “a cynicism and lack of generosity startling even from him.” Yet he also recounts with admiration the tenderness, protectiveness, and care that de Gaulle showed for his daughter Anne, who had Down syndrome and died at the age of 20, in 1948.

De Gaulle concludes with a quote from the Catholic intellectual Jacques Maritain. De Gaulle’s “heroic chivalry,” he wrote in 1942, “has given back hope to the French.” Jackson concurs. His “lasting achievement,” Jackson also insists, was to create the Fifth Republic, the first regime to enjoy the consensus support of the French since 1789. Gaullism has proven, in Jackson’s view, to be a stabilizing synthesis of France’s monarchical and republican political traditions, allowing left and right to accept each other and reconciling the Old Regime and the Revolution.

Jackson is not the first to make this claim. It’s an old, well-known argument. It was made by de Gaulle himself. But is it correct? The oddity of de Gaulle’s famous “synthesis” is that after the experience of Vichy, which thoroughly discredited traditional French conservatism, there did not remain much, on the right side of the spectrum, to synthesize. Did France really need a popular monarchy with echoes of the Old Regime? Perhaps de Gaulle, with his heroic aura, in the midst of crisis, only made it seem inevitable and necessary. As Jackson notes, the much-maligned Fourth Republic in fact accomplished a great deal, especially in the area of economic modernization. It put in place effective planning mechanisms, developed enduringly effective welfare policies, and cooperated with Germany to found what would become the European Union. Had it managed to survive the Algerian crisis, it might well have lasted till the present day.

De Gaulle’s Fifth Republic receives a great deal of credit for political stability, but many other European democracies, broadly similar to France in social makeup, have enjoyed a similar degree of stability without recourse to an overly powerful executive. One might also note that while the Fifth Republic may have consensus support, even today it is the Third Republic, with its relatively weak presidency, that remains the longest-lived of all France’s postrevolutionary regimes, despite the fact that the then-powerful traditional right considered it illegitimate.

What the Fifth Republic and its presidency did end up doing was protect the interests of de Gaulle’s beloved state—and France is not America, where statism has broadly progressive connotations. French statism of the Gaullist variety protects the interests of social elites who attend exclusive public educational institutions like the École Nationale d’Administration (ENA) and then flit easily between high civil service and private enterprise. In an increasingly diverse, multicultural country, this statism opposes diversity efforts in the name of formal republican egalitarianism. It has also proven to be surprisingly compatible with free-market fundamentalism. Large banks and corporations already exercise an influence comparable to that of their counterparts elsewhere in Europe. And the last four French presidents have made it a top priority to loosen labor protections and otherwise cut regulations. The one Fifth Republic president elected on a genuine, if out-of-date socialist program, François Mitterrand (in 1981), abandoned that program after barely two years and, despite his own hatred of de Gaulle, devoted much of his remaining 12 years in office to a quite Gaullist politics of grandeur.

Emmanuel Macron, elected overwhelmingly a year ago over the extreme-right populist Marine Le Pen, is an emblem of Fifth Republic statism. He is a product both of the elite ENA and of a top bank with close ties to the French finance ministry. Like de Gaulle, Macron views the presidency as an institution that sits above the political fray, using a powerful bureaucracy to impose rational, necessary reforms on a sometimes-recalcitrant country. He came into office promising to enact neoliberal social reforms that would free French business from burdensome regulations. He also promised to temper these reforms with a strengthened social safety net and with retraining for refugees from obsolescent industries. But to date, the French have seen a great deal of Macron’s neoliberalism—some of it imposed by decree, despite Macron’s strong majority in Parliament—and precious little of the rest. Many of his reforms, including a reduction of taxes on the wealthy and the introduction of selectivity into the university system (which has traditionally offered a place to anyone passing the high-school baccalaureate exam) will certainly exacerbate social inequality. Macron claims to want a new “revolution” in French society (his campaign book was called Révolution), but the society he envisions is, in a fundamental sense, like de Gaulle’s: a society with formal, civil, republican equality, but also a society where a well-educated social elite remains firmly in charge.

Not surprisingly, many of the French feel increasingly alienated. Macron’s popularity stands close to where his hapless predecessor François Hollande’s did at the same point in Hollande’s term—and Hollande’s support eventually crashed to an impressively awful, record-setting 6 percent. Populist anger continues to throb. If an election were held today, Macron would have no serious opposition. But if his slide in the polls continues unchecked, then by the time his term ends, in 2022, a path may be cleared for a populist, anti-EU candidate—of either the far left or right—to win the presidency. That victory would certainly test the Fifth Republic’s vaunted stability. And it would be, in part, Charles de Gaulle’s legacy.

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