De Gaulle in uniform. Photo © Lebrecht Music & Arts / Alamy Stock Photo

The last warrior: behind the self-made myth of Charles de Gaulle

As a wartime general and peacetime president Charles de Gaulle fought for a France made in his own grand self-image
August 18, 2018

On the dank evening of 22nd August 1962, a dozen terrorists from the OAS, a paramilitary group opposed to Algerian independence, ambushed General Charles de Gaulle. In a scene memorably re-enacted in The Day of the Jackal, gunmen sprayed the French president’s Citroën DS19 with automatic fire as it sped through the Paris suburb of Petit-Clamart. They hit at least 14 times, penetrating the coachwork, smashing the gearbox and puncturing two tyres. Amazingly, de Gaulle and his wife Yvonne were unharmed, though the general cut his finger slightly while brushing broken glass off his jacket. Quite unmoved, he went on to inspect a guard of honour before flying home to Colombey-les-Deux-Églises. To his prime minister Georges Pompidou, de Gaulle remarked contemptuously: “My dear fellow, those men shot like pigs!”

De Gaulle’s courage was on display throughout his long career. During the First World War, he showed himself indifferent to danger, engaging the enemy so closely at Verdun that he was bayonetted in the thigh before being taken prisoner. Similarly, during his march from the Arc de Triomphe to Notre Dame on 26th August 1944 to mark the liberation of Paris, de Gaulle ignored the rooftop snipers (perhaps Germans, diehard Vichyites or anti-Gaullist members of the resistance).

Lofty, impassive and indomitable, de Gaulle appeared to be the embodiment of Gallic unity and strength. It was easy, wrote one journalist, to imagine him encased in the helmet and chain mail of a crusader. Churchill suggested that he was “the last survivor of a warrior race.”

Manifesting himself thus to the Parisian crowds, de Gaulle wrote in his brilliantly self-serving memoirs: “I felt I was… an instrument of destiny.” His Olympian personality excited comparisons with Napoleon, Louis XIV, Joan of Arc and Charlemagne. Around de Gaulle, in fact, reality and myth were so entwined as to be almost inseparable. But in this superb biography, a masterpiece of empathy as well as scholarship, Julian Jackson has probably made the best effort yet to elucidate the truth about this awkward, opaque, vindictive and messianic man. “He is extraordinary,” noted one member of his 1944 provisional government. Back came foreign minister Georges Bidault’s scribbled reply: “Lucifer was the most beautiful of the angels.”

Charles de Gaulle was born in Lille in 1890. His surname was later invested with a legendary aura, though it had nothing to do with nobility or with Gaul but apparently derived from the Flemish for “the wall.” His father Henri, the strongest influence in his life, was a bourgeois intellectual, deeply patriotic, conservative and Catholic. Educated by Jesuits and then at St Cyr military academy, where his grades were undistinguished, de Gaulle sported a Cyrano nose and grew to be nearly six and a half feet tall (at a time when the average Frenchman was 5’3”). He was correspondingly aloof, shy and ungainly—Churchill allegedly compared him to a female llama surprised in her bath. But his quasi-mystical leadership style necessitated such glacial remoteness and egotistical hauteur.

To inspire the masses, thought de Gaulle, a leader must be iron-willed, peremptory and impenetrable. He must keep his distance and create a void around himself—a feat eased in his case (though Jackson does not say so) by his formidable halitosis. At staff college after the First World War, he was praised for his outstanding intelligence, seriousness and cultivation but, wrote one of his instructors, he spoilt those qualities “by his excessive self-assurance, his harshness towards other people’s opinions and his attitude of a king in exile.”

In private de Gaulle revealed a softer side. He was devoted to his wife Yvonne, an old-fashioned lady who later tried to preserve an illusion of domesticity in the Élysée Palace by washing his socks in a basin. He adored his daughter Anne who had Down’s syndrome and, to his intense grief, died aged 20 in 1948.

But during the inter-war years, he concentrated sternly on his military vocation. He ascended the ranks, exploited the goodwill of his patron Marshal Philippe Pétain and wrote books that developed theories of armoured combat and offensive warfare, which Hitler read approvingly. Convinced that war was the motor of history and that conflict with Nazi Germany was inevitable, de Gaulle advocated an alliance with Soviet Russia, “whatever horror we have for their regime.” He was shocked by the “terrifying collapse” at Munich in 1938 and forecast that appeasing Hitler would give the democracies only a brief respite, “like the aged Madame du Barry on the revolutionary scaffold begging ‘Just a moment longer, Mr Executioner.’”

When the Blitzkrieg began in May 1940, de Gaulle’s tanks scored a rare initial success but, lacking wirelesses and dive-bomber support, they were no match for the co-ordinated German panzers. As the debacle unfolded, he was promoted to be the youngest general in the French army and appointed to a post in the Ministry of Defence. To give the government time to move to North Africa, de Gaulle insisted that the fight should continue; but when the defeatist Pétain took over he flew to England. He was welcomed by Churchill, who also thought him “l’homme du destin.” De Gaulle’s own verdict at the time—“I am here to save the honour of France”—is endorsed in the final sentence of Jackson’s long book.

De Gaulle’s five-minute, 400-word broadcast on 18th June was the first public call to keep alive the “flame of French resistance.” It not only established his legitimacy but, as Jacques Maritain wrote, enunciated a kind of “heroic chivalry” that gave back hope to his compatriots. However, his road to Calvary was hard. Most Frenchmen adhered to Pétain’s Vichy regime and de Gaulle’s first effort to rally support in the French empire, at Dakar in Senegal, was so bloodily repulsed that he contemplated suicide.

Elsewhere in Africa he fared better, and in Syria Free French troops helped General Wavell drive out Vichy forces. He became ever more hostile to his hosts, complaining that the only way to exit his HQ in Carlton Gardens was through Waterloo Place. He took to using the royal “we” and referring to himself in the third person. “Our force and our grandeur,” he said, “reside only in our intransigence regarding the interests of France.” Shortly before getting malaria he quipped: “mosquitoes do not bite General de Gaulle.”

When America entered the war, President Roosevelt would not back de Gaulle, whom he termed “an apprentice dictator.” De Gaulle in turn decried US imperialism and tried to play the western democracies off against the Soviet Union. He was so incensed at not being told in advance about the Anglo-American invasion of French North Africa in 1942 that he privately hoped that Vichy would “throw them back into the sea.” De Gaulle was always suspicious that Britain intended to annex France’s colonies, and the victorious Allies’ refusal to hand power to the Free French prompted further explosions of anger. Churchill was torn between exasperation and admiration. More rows occurred before the D-Day landings and Churchill wanted to send this “obstructionist saboteur” back to Algiers, “in chains if necessary.” Roosevelt was only persuaded not to break with de Gaulle entirely by his adviser Harry Hopkins—though he amused the president by conceding that the general was “one of the biggest sons-of-bitches who ever straddled a pot.”

*** Although de Gaulle was excluded, to his lasting fury, from the Yalta Conference in 1945, he proved indispensable to the Western Allies. Hailed as the saviour of France, he was allowed to carry out what Jackson describes as a stealthy coup d’état. De Gaulle became head of a provisional government, imposed order, purged prominent collaborators (while merely disparaging Vichyites in general as “a handful of scoundrels”), belittled the Resistance (especially Communists), and savagely crushed dissent in Algeria. When Parisians greeted Churchill enthusiastically on Armistice Day, de Gaulle was heard to mutter: “Fools and cretins! Look at the rabble cheering the old bandit.” Publicly he expressed gratitude to the British prime minister, but it was plainly gratitude as defined by Nietzsche (a philosopher he admired): “hatred wearing a mask.”

Unable to work with politicians he considered beneath him, de Gaulle unexpectedly resigned in 1946. “I prefer my legend to power,” he said. For 12 years he burnished that legend. He founded a party supposedly above politics called the Rassemblement du Peuple Français—a name which Marine Le Pen has now partially adopted in the hope of rebranding the Front National in Gaullist fashion.

Patiently, de Gaulle sat in supposed retirement, awaiting another national crisis. It occurred when an army putsch seemed imminent in support of the million French settlers (pieds noirs) engaged in a vicious struggle against Algeria’s National Liberation Front (FLN). As France teetered on the brink of civil war, President René Coty turned, as he put it, to “the most illustrious of Frenchmen.” The National Assembly invested de Gaulle with emergency powers and on 1st June 1958 he formed a government. At first, he employed his Delphic capacity for equivocation to reassure the dissidents. In Algiers he famously told a baying crowd, “Je vous ai compris” (I have understood you.) But he soon concluded that decolonisation was the only option.

De Gaulle arrested insurrectionary officers and suppressed other opposition. He condoned both torture and murder, largely carried out by his Paris police chief Maurice Papon, who had deported Jews to Germany during the war. In 1962, according to de Gaulle’s own account, he granted Algeria independence, though it was actually won, as Jackson says, by FLN fighters and by international pressure. He breezily betrayed the 300,000 native Algerian auxiliaries who had backed the pieds noirs. De Gaulle retained many imperialist prejudices. He transformed other liberated French colonies into client states, disliked having African leaders at the Elysée Palace, and didn’t want his village to become, as he put it, Colombey-les-deux-Mosquées.

*** De Gaulle’s most permanent achievement in his late years was the creation of the Fifth Republic in 1958 and its later consolidation. Under his presidency it melded popular sovereignty with charismatic leadership, as Napoleon had hoped to do—and which Emmanuel Macron, notorious for his quasi-Gaullist insistence on the respect due to him and his office, aspires to perpetuate. The new constitution created a political consensus, writes Jackson, “reconciling the left to the state and the right to the nation, the left to authority and the right to democracy.” And if it could now survive just one more decade it will be the longest-lasting constitutional settlement since 1789. Of course it also prompted charges that de Gaulle was an autocrat, even a fascist—the German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer found him a bit “Führer-like.” Especially after he made his own office directly elected, through a 1962 referendum. Certainly he made frequent assertions in the spirit of “L’état c’est moi.” He plunged into crowds, it was said, like “the king meeting his subjects.” He took decisions without consulting or even informing his ministers. He indulged in bitter personal caprices, denouncing the US as an octopus throttling Latin America, keeping Britain out of the European Economic Community, characterising Jews as a domineering elite, and in Canada intoning “Vive le Québec libre.” De Gaulle also stretched his executive powers to the full, controlling television, for example, a medium he mastered thanks in part to his elephantine memory.

But though disguised by quasi-monarchical pomp, he was in fact a politician answerable to the people. In May 1968 they erupted: millions of striking workers joined student demonstrators in a social movement that virtually paralysed France. De Gaulle was completely wrong-footed. At first he wanted the students to be smacked like naughty children. But the sheer scale of the protests seems to have plunged him into one of his moods of apocalyptic despair. He flew secretly to Germany, perhaps to seek the support of French forces stationed there, perhaps to go into exile. Encouraged by General Jacques Massu’s loyalty, de Gaulle returned to Paris and held a massive conservative rally during which he cynically blamed Communists for the disturbances. These petered out but de Gaulle may well have concluded that France did not deserve him. On losing a referendum over government reform in 1969, he resigned. He died in Colombey the following year.

Julian Jackson, who won the Wolfson Prize in 2004 for his book The Fall of France, recounts all this in authoritative and superlative fashion. Pretty much everything that can be known about de Gaulle is known, he says, and the great strength of his book is its judicious selection and magisterial assessment of the evidence. In particular he shows that for all de Gaulle’s adamantine exterior, he had a pragmatic capacity to bend and to adapt.

But though erudite, incisive and painstakingly balanced, Jackson’s biography is no dry-as-dust study. He writes with verve and wit. He even sees the funny side of de Gaulle, who was not above clowning on occasion. The general likened himself to Don Quixote and told André Malraux that his only historical rival was Tintin, though nobody realised it “because of my height.” Asked why he had paid so little attention to a political scandal jeopardising Anglo-French relations in 1969, de Gaulle replied: “Put it down to my inexperience.” Altogether this is a tour de force, though happily for lesser mortals its author can be found to nod. He has de Gaulle reading “Conrad’s Lucky Jim.”

Recalling Jean Cocteau’s bon mot that Victor Hugo was a “madman who believed he was Victor Hugo,” Jackson suggests that the same conceit might be applied to de Gaulle. Those who experienced what Richard Nixon called his “aura of majesty” held differing views about who he truly was. But de Gaulle himself was quite clear. “Roosevelt thought that I thought I was Joan of Arc,” he once said. “He was wrong. I simply thought I was General de Gaulle.”