Charles de Gaulle’s press conferences were theatrical occasions. The government sat in a special enclosure beside the stage on which the leader of the Free French and founder of the Fifth Republic presided. Questions were carefully planted. The nation followed the leader’s pronouncements on television. On 14th January 1963, a month after talks at the Château de Rambouillet, during which Harold Macmillan had pressed Britain’s application to join the six-nation European Common Market, the General delivered his veto in front of 500 people at the Élysée Palace. Britain’s entry, he said, would create a “colossal Atlantic Community dependant on and led by America, which would soon absorb the European Community.”
What if he had taken the opposite tack and announced that he welcomed the country which had given him a haven when he raised the flag of resistance to the armistice of 1940 and Vichyite collaboration, and thus began his ascent to the status of the man his compatriots today rank, according to polls, as the greatest of French figures? It has been a fond dream of British Europhiles but it runs up against the reality of national politics and, even more, of one determined personality.
The talks with Macmillan had not pre-disposed the French President to sweet reason. He had found little common ground and one major cause for disagreement with the Prime Minister, whose main achievement was to have bagged 77 pheasants at a shoot before the discussions. “I thought the discussions about as bad as they could be from the European point of view,” Macmillan noted, attributing his host’s attitude both to his temperament and to his “personal and almost despotic control of France.” He said later that the Frenchman was crazy. As for de Gaulle, he told a Cabinet meeting that his visitor, “the poor man,” had appeared so sad and downcast that he wanted to put his hand on his shoulder and intone the words of the Edith Piaf song of the time, Ne pleurez pas, milord (Don’t cry, my lord).
For the Frenchman to have relented, Macmillan would have to have retreated on a major cause of discord—his decision to conclude an agreement at a summit with President Kennedy under which the United States would sell Britain its Polaris underwater missile technology, creating just the kind of dependency on Washington which de Gaulle vehemently rejected.…