Charles de Gaulle
Charles de Gaulle (1890-1970) was the dominant military and political leader of France, 1940-1969. Fleeing the victorious German invaders in 1940, he set up his base in London, proclaimed himself the incarnation of France, created the Free French movement, rallied the overseas colonies (especially in Africa), organized the Resistance, and tried, but failed, to gain full recognition from the British and Americans. A firm proponent of democracy, he destroyed the vestiges of the totalitarian Vichy regime. He retired from office in 1946, but returned in 1958 as France verged on civil war over the Algeria crisis. As president (1958-69) during the Fifth Republic, he revised the constitution to provide for presidential control of foreign and military policy, granted independence to Algeria and the African colonies, and restored the nation's economic health. Forging a close bond with Germany, he sought to dominate the European Common Market by vetoing British entry and holding the U.S. at arms length. Exhausted politically and emotionally, he finally left office in 1969. His reputation as the strongest and greatest of French leaders since Napoleon continues into the 21st century.
De Gaulle was born in Lille on November 22, 1890. His family moved to Paris in 1895, where his father became professor of philosophy in the Jesuit College of Paris. The father inculcated the son with a profound belief in the glory of traditional Catholic France. Charles received a rigorous classical education that included a year 1907-08 at a Jesuit college in Belgium. He matriculated at the Saint Cyr military academy in 1908; in 1911 he was commissioned in the French army.
At the battle of Douaumont in the Verdun campaign in February-March 1916 Captain de Gaulle led the 10th Battalion of the 33d Infantry Regiment; he was then assigned to relieve the 110th Regiment from its position at the Verdun front. On 2 March 1916 his company came under attack from the Germans and despite his much praised bravery, he was badly injured and was captured, spending 32 months in a prisoner of war camp.
After the war France set up a military mission to support newly independent Poland by advising and training its army. In 1919, Captain de Gaulle volunteered for service in Poland and spent a year teaching at the Infantry School of the Polish army; he became strategic adviser to Polish general Edward Rydz-Smigly when France decided to actively aid the Polish counterattack against Russia. Back in France he taught military history at Saint Cyr, served as aide to Marshal Henri Philippe Pétain, and wrote several books on military strategy. His book The Army of the Future (1934), daringly proposed mechanization of the infantry, with stress on the wholesale use of tanks. Ironically the German panzer units, so effectively employed in the invasion of France in 1940, utilized similar theories, while the French dispersed and wasted their armor. As the French armies collapsed in spring 1940 de Gaulle was made brigadier general and then undersecretary of war in Paul Reynaud's cabinet. The elderly Marshal Pétain now came to power in a regime headquartered in the resort town of Vichy. Pétain, venerated as the great hero of World War I, not only admitted defeat but accepted the idea of permanent subordination to Germany. Pétain wanted France to be welcomed by Berlin as the most useful and collaborationist of the nations of Europe, which he thought Germany would long control.
De Gaulle refused to accept defeat and subservience to Germany. Resistance was possible because the air force and navy were intact, as was the entire overseas empire; Britain was an ally and increasingly so too was the United States. As Pétain's new Vichy government prepared to sign a humiliating armistice on 22 June 1940, de Gaulle flew to London on 18 June in disobedience of orders. As a rebel he issued his famous "Appel," proclaiming "France has lost a battle, but France has not lost the war!" and calling French patriots to resistance. De Gaulle's forces by November 1940, numbered 35,000 troops and twenty warships; several overseas colonies had rallied to his banner, although his forces were defeated in September in an attempt, with British aid, to seize Dakar, Senegal.
In London in Sept. 1941 de Gaulle formed the free French National Council, with himself as president. It was an all-encompassing coalition of resistance forces, ranging from conservative Catholics like himself to Communists. By early 1942, the "Fighting French" movement, as it was now called, gained rapidly in power and influence; it overcame Vichy in Syria and Lebanon, adding to its base. In November 1942 the Americans invaded French North Africa. They favored General Henri Giraud, the High Commissioner of North Africa. But de Gaulle seized power from Giraud, who resigned in late 1942. De Gaulle took supreme command of all French forces in April 1944. Meanwhile, all the French colonies except Japanese-occupied Indochina came under Gaullist control, as did Corsica. Although Churchill was vacillating, his top aide Anthony Eden was a strong supporter of de Gaulle. De Gaulle's repeated protests against all violations of French sovereignty, real or imagined, irked the Americans and were largely ignored by the British. His imperious personality and humorless demands especially annoyed President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
De Gaulle in turn was exasperated at the Americans, who were more willing to work with Vichy or Giraud than with him:
- The United States, delighting in her resources, feeling that she no longer had within herself sufficient scope for her energies, wishing to help those who were in misery or bondage the world over, yielded in her turn to that taste for intervention in which the instinct for domination cloaked itself.
In turn Franklin D. Roosevelt distrusted him. De Gaulle removed French forces from the planned invasion of Normandy in June 1944. He was not at D-Day and was excluded from all the top-level conferences. The Allies, however, finally gave his regime de jure recognition and allowed his armies to enter France and to be the first to enter Paris after the Germans fled in August 1944. French armies, 1.3 million strong, under de Gaulle as provisional president, thereupon fought alongside the Allies. As a result France was given an occupation zone in Germany, and a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, with a veto.
Fourth Republic: 1945-1958
As the war ended the Resistance coalition fell apart. De Gaulle's advocacy of a strong executive power was rejected by the voters, who in late 1945 adopted a constitution for the Fourth Republic that resembled that of the discredited Third Republic. De Gaulle resigned the provisional presidency in January 1946, saying that he did not wish "to preside, powerless, over the powerlessness of the state." In 1947 he resigned all his offices, refusing to be a candidate in the presidential election. "How can anyone govern a nation that has two hundred and forty-six different kinds of cheese?", he quipped. In retirement at the village of Colombey-les-Deux-Églises, he created a new conservative party, RPF, Rassemblement du Peuple Français (Rally of the French People), which only lasted until 1953. He then focused on his great war memoirs, L'Appel (1954) (translated into English as "The Call to Honor," 1955); L'Unité, (1956) (translated as Unity, 1959); and Le Salut, (1959) (translated as "Salvation", 1960).
Fifth Republic: 1958-1969
For four years France had fought a civil war in Algeria against the FLN, which demanded independence. The Frenchmen who lived in Algeria, their allies among the Arabs, and powerful elements of the military inside France, rejected the FLN and demanded that Algeria remain integrated into France. They insisted so vehemently they were prepared to overthrow the government in Paris if it wavered.
In May, 1958, Frenchmen in Algeria revolted, throwing France into turmoil that verged on civil war. Rebels comprised young nationalists, supported by the large planters, army officers, and other proponents of integration of the Muslim population with France, feared a new government in Paris would make concessions to the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN). The rebels proclaimed a committee of public safety; the revolt spread to Corsica. In Paris the National Assembly voted emergency powers to newly elected Premier Pierre Pflimlin. However only de Gaulle could solve the crisis, for he had the support of the navy, the police, and such prominent politicians as Socialist Guy Mollet and Moderate Republican chief Georges Bidault. Pflimlin resigned and President René Coty summoned de Gaulle as prime minister. The National Assembly, under threat that parachutists would seize Paris if it refused, voted 329-224 to invest de Gaulle with extraordinary powers for six months beginning June 1, 1958; the National Assembly then went home and de Gaulle took charge. When a new constitution took effect, he became the president of the Fifth Republic.
These uprisings provided the long-awaited chance to supporters of Général de Gaulle, who sought a new regime in which the executive power would be strengthened. Underlying the views of Gaullists such as Jacques Soustelle, Michel Debré, and Jacques Chaban-Delmas was a faith in French grandeur, a new nationalism which transformed itself into a desire for order and maintenance of the French Empire. These interests momentarily coincided with those of the Algerian rebels who feared Anglo-American mediation of the Algerian rebellion.
Gaullists have seen this critical episode as the result of the preplanned statesmanship of de Gaulle. Their "grand design" thesis includes three key arguments. First is the claim that de Gaulle decided to give up Algeria because he concluded that keeping in the face of a widespread popular anti-French revolt was too costly economically and against France's ideal policy of a focus on Europe. Second, Gaullists argue his general objective ending the Algerian burden was planned well before his return to power in 1958. Third they claim that what seemed an erratic, slow, and indecisive progress toward Algerian independence was in reality de Gaulle's well-orchestrated, consistent, and deceptive policy calculated to overcome the sentiments of the French people toward Algeria.
Other historians argue that the Général had no long-term plan, and probably did not want independence for Algeria. Thus French scholars Raoul Girardet and Jacques Julliard argue de Gaulle's Algerian policy was a set of unanticipated concessions imposed by events. They have an alternative "juggler" thesis that does not attribute harmony or continuity to de Gaulle's policy, nor does it try to explain the lack of discernible consistency in the policy by attributing cunning Machiavellism to de Gaulle. Instead it considers the policy as the result of an erratic improvisation. Merom says Algeria was not doomed by the economic realities because the cost was tolerable--between 50% to 60% of the defense budget, or 10% to 15% percent of the total budget in Paris. While the French indeed had a severe budget crisis verging on bankruptcy, Algeria was only a small part of it. More important was spending on infrastructure renovation, industrial and agricultural modernization, nuclear energy, and expansion of education, and welfare entitlements. On the other hand military spending was helping the economy. Two years into de Gaulle's new regime, the financial crisis was over and the economy was in fine shape, notes Merom.
Merom says the second argument, that de Gaulle's policy was slow, gradual, and deceptive because he had to overcome a strong public sentiment in favor of keeping Algeria, is likewise invalid according to public opinion polls. They show opinion was evenly split; indeed, over 40% of the French people were alienated from core ideas of the old policy of no-recognition, no-negotiations, and no-compromise with the Arab rebels of the FLN. De Gaulle's policy of negotiation had a firm grounding in public opinion, though not a clear majority.
Merom agrees that de Gaulle's domineering manner and decisive style, the constitutional power he skillfully amassed as President of the Fifth Republic, his reputation as France's wartime savior, and the confidence vested in him by the people and the military, were indispensable qualities for a leader who wished to lead France out of Algeria. Merom concludes that his basic objective in Algeria was moderately conservative. He disliked the harsh military tactics in use and wanted more collaborative relations between France and the Arabs, but he did not want Algeria to become independent. Only when he realized his goals were impossible, Merom argues, did he start to compromise. Even then he tried to preserve as many French interests in Algeria as possible. By 1960, after suppressing another revolt, restoring the health of the national economy, and seeing his army drive the FLN almost to extinction, he realized the only long-term solution was a genuine Algerian independence, and he negotiated it.
In 1958-59 de Gaulle concentrated on political reform, a new constitution for the Fifth Republic, financial reform, economic recovery, and search for a solution to the Algerian question. A new constitution that gave the president control of foreign and military policy was adopted in a referendum on Sept. 28, 1958. At last executive power stood above legislative authority. President de Gaulle, inaugurated on Jan. 8, 1959, could rule by decree in emergency, appoint ministers without responsibility to the legislature, and dissolve the legislature whose regular sessions were reduced to five months per year.
De Gaulle's financial and economic program reflected his desire for stability, industrial expansion, and the need to prepare France for membership in the European Common Market. He devalued the franc to 492 to the dollar, raised taxes on high incomes, wines, liquors, and tobacco, and reduced pensions and subsidies. A new franc, at 5 per U.S. dollar, facilitated commercial transactions and international trade; it remained strong. He undertook a 25% increase in state investment in modernizing industry. By mid-1960 the French economy was in better shape than at any time since 1914.
Against the unyielding Algerian Arab revolution De Gaulle made only slow progress. His middle course between independence and continued colonial status cost him support among those groups that helped to bring him to power, the European settler community and the army. In September 1959, the Général offered Algeria a three-way choice between integration with France, autonomy, and independence. The settlers counterattacked with another uprising in January 1960, which failed to overthrow de Gaulle. In response, de Gaulle assumed extraordinary powers, restored order, and replaced ranking officers in Algeria with Gaullist or apolitical officers. This purge proved insufficient, for in April 1961 some military officers engineered an abortive coup. He once again assumed extraordinary powers and systematically removed disloyal elements from the army command.
Finally the president decided to grant Algerian independence and end the cancer once and for all. Mutual concessions were made and the Evian Accords on Mar. 18, 1962 began a cease-fire with the FLN forces. There emerged an independent Algeria, closely associated with France; in return for certain guarantees for settlers and economic privileges, continued French aid was promised. Large numbers of Algerian Arabs, who had supported Paris, fled to France, and many settlers did so also.
At the same time France gave independence to most of its overseas colonies, although tying them closely to France with economic and military pacts.
Restoring French greatness was his highest priority. That required a strong army, rockets and a space program, and especially nuclear weapons, explaining, "No country without an atom bomb could properly consider itself independent."
After a landslide victory in parliamentary election in 1962, De Gaulle turned to foreign policy. He held that Western Europe as a whole, with France in the lead, should follow an independent military and economic path, separate specifically from that of the United States and Britain, both of which he distrusted. De Gaulle held that American nuclear weapons in Europe made the area more susceptible to Soviet attack, and he doubted any guarantees that the U.S. would defend Europe. Economically, de Gaulle pressed for the return to the gold standard in international trade and the rejection of sterling and the dollar as reserve currencies, especially because both the U.S. and the British economies suffered severe balance of payments deficits.
De Gaulle vetoed Britain's application to join the Common Market (European Economic Community or EEC, a forerunner of the European Union) in 1963, saying he wanted to avoid a loss of cohesion in the organization and to keep it from becoming a dominion of the United States. He said Britain was not sufficiently European and its entry into the EEC would make the EEC too dependent on the United States. De Gaulle also blocked a second petition by Britain in 1967. Britain was finally admitted after de Gaulle's death. Analysts emphasized that de Gaulle saw Britain as insular and maritime rather than continental. De Gaulle was suspicious of British intentions in Europe, yet he admired Britain's political stability and past accomplishments. One military factor in de Gaulle's opposition was Britain's deal with the U.S. through NATO involving Polaris nuclear missile technology. De Gaulle wanted a strong Europe free of any dependence on the United States, while British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan felt Britain's "special relationship" with the United States more important to its future.
During the Berlin crisis from 1958 to 1962. De Gaulle took advantage to create an independent force de frappe--that is, nuclear weapons and bombers--in order to reassert France's role as a powerful world leader. De Gaulle enthusiastically supported American General Lauris Norstad's proposal in 1959 to establish a top secret quadripartite Allied military planning group (LIVE OAK), hoping that it would strengthen France's position and weaken US domination of NATO. De Gaulle created a bilateral alliance with West German chancellor Konrad Adenauer, which tended to upset the delicate diplomatic balance of NATO. His supporters rationalized France's cavalier position by arguing that independent French nuclear capability would provide a second center of deterrence against the Soviet Union.
De Gaulle forced a serious clash with Britain regarding the NATO alliance. By opposing British attempts to incorporate Europe in a broader transatlantic economic, political, and military alliance, de Gaulle hoped to create a chance for France to become what she ceased to be since Waterloo; the first in the world through driving a wedge between Europe, on one hand, and Britain and the United States on the other. Initially successful in isolating Britain, particularly through France's veto power over the European Economic Community (EEC), de Gaulle sought to further his country's status through a critique of, and withdrawal from, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The move backfired, however, allowing British foreign policy to isolate France and de Gaulle, hold NATO together, and eventually led to British inclusion in the EEC by other European members to counter France's disruptive behavior. In 1967, as in 1961-63, the French were determined to preserve their position of leadership within the EEC, and this was the reason for de Gaulle's second veto of Britain's application for membership. French diplomacy was based on the need to preserve the Community of Six while barring Britain. Although France succeeded in excluding Britain in the short term, in the longer term the French had to adjust their stance on enlargement in order to retain influence. Leadership within the community was the foundation of France's international status.
In 1966 de Gaulle's decision to withdraw French forces from NATO (but to remain nominally a member) paradoxically reinforced the cohesion of NATO, leaving the U.S. wholly dominant in the organization. Meanwhile he rebuilt the French army, restoring morale giving it a new and modern role in the economy and foreign affairs.
His continued deprecations of American involvement in Vietnam and his outspoken support of French-Canadian separatists in Quebec alienated opinion in the U.S. and Canada.
De Gaulle was reelected president for seven years by a small margin in 1965, and in 1967 elections his allies won a slimmest majority in the National Assembly. Then, in May 1968, opposition to De Gaulle suddenly crystallized. It was an age of worldwide student demonstrations, nowhere more serious than in France. Student demonstrations against the government and labor union strikes coalesced to produce a nationwide strike and unrest that very nearly brought the government down. At a critical point the Général disappeared for 24 hours. He was not hiding; rather he was negotiating for army support to retake Paris in case the rebels seized the city. With the army's backing, de Gaulle confidently returned, rallied the conservative middle class, and called immediate elections. Taking a vigorous part in the campaign, De Gaulle defined the issue as a choice between himself and the Communists. Repelled by the violence and disorder, the French electorate returned the Gaullists to power with a large majority in the assembly.
De Gaulle's unexpected loss of power in 1969 was psychological for his temperament was marked by the awareness of national and personal greatness as well as the realization of his old age and failing health. Secondly it was personal regarding Georges Pompidou because de Gaulle could brook no rival and his initially self-effacing prime minister had grown so powerful that the Général replaced him in 1968 with Maurice Couve de Murville. It was constitutional, for de Gaulle's reliance on a referendum of 27 April 1969 regarding relatively minor issues of regionalization and senate reform was defeated at the polls by 53%-47%. The Général seized the opportunity and resigned for good the next day. He was succeeded by Pompidou, who won 58% of the vote by proclaiming himself de Gaulle's heir.
Ideas and memory
The image of de Gaulle in France today is a great national hero--indeed a savior--honored by all parties. His vision of the grandeur of France is the national vision.
De Gaulle's political philosophy, with its use of concepts such as élan, will, instinct, heroism, and participation, reflected the influences of Charles Péguy (1873-1914), Maurice Barrès (1862-1923), and Henri Bergson (1859-1941). Portier (1997) finds that de Gaulle's central principles derived from his religious devotion to Catholicism. Some scholars have suggested that De Gaulle modeled his authoritarian approach on the political theories of Machiavelli, Maurras, and Napoleon, yet the French president's regard for the sovereignty of the state undermines all such theories. A close comparison of the papal encyclicals of Paul VI, Pius XI, John XXIII, and Pius XII with De Gaulle's own writings reveals the statesman's close alliance with the political position of the Vatican. Portier concludes that Gaullism is not a rigid authoritarianism; rather it is a profound concern for social justice, a belief in the primacy of central authority in conjunction with intermediary legislative bodies, and respect for popular consensus.
Kuisel (1992) asks whether de Gaulle was "Anti-American," and answers yes, for the Général consistently and mightily struggled to upend an international order built by and for America. He attacked America's arrogance of power and led his nation toward a less cooperative posture toward Washington. Indeed he incited expressions of anti-Americanism among the French and deep down he shared a stereotype common among French intellectuals of American society as soulless, materialist, and ahistorical.
- He wore his uniform with the one-star insignia of a brigadier general for the remainder of his life.
- Jean-Louis Cremieux-Brilhac, La France Libre de l'appel du 18 juin a la Liberation (Paris: Gallimard, 1996)
- The Communists were controlled by Moscow, which was allied with Germany in 1940. They came into opposition only when Germany invaded Russia in June 1941. De Gaulle's policy became one of friendship directly with Moscow.
- The War Memoirs of Charles de Gaulle,(1959) vol. 2, p. 88
- Quoted in Newsweek (Oct. 1, 1962)
- Gil Meriam, "A 'Grand Design'? Charles de Gaulle and the End of the Algerian War," Armed Forces & Society(1999); De Gaulle, Memoirs of Hope (1971) p. 84; Philip G. Cerny, The Politics of Grandeur (1980), pp 61, 145; Bernard Ledwidge, De Gaulle (1982), pp 244-45, 257; Philip M. Williams, Politics and Society in de Gaulle's Republic (1971), p. 28.
- Gil Merom, "A 'Grand Design'? Charles de Gaulle and the End of the Algerian War," Armed Forces & Society(1999)
- Gil Merom, "A 'Grand Design'? Charles de Gaulle and the End of the Algerian War," Armed Forces & Society(1999)
- Quoted in New York Times Magazine (May 12, 1968)
- Richard Davis, "'Why Did the General Do It?' De Gaulle, Polaris and the French Veto of Britain's Application to Join the Common Market." European History Quarterly 1998 28(3): 373-397. Issn: 0265-6914 Fulltext: Ebsco
- James Ellison, "Separated by the Atlantic: the British and De Gaulle, 1958-1967." Diplomacy & Statecraft 2006 17(4): 853-870. Issn: 0959-2296 Fulltext: Ebsco; Helen Parr, "Saving the Community: the French Response to Britain's Second EEC Application in 1967." Cold War History 2006 6(4): 425-454. Issn: 1468-2745 Fulltext: Ebsco
- Jeremi Suri, Power and Protest: Global Revolution and the Rise of Detente (2003); Stanley Hoffmann, "Confrontation in May 1968," Decline or Renewal? France since the 1930s (1974) pp 145-86.
- Charles G. Cogan, "The Break-up: General de Gaulle's Separation from Power" Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 27, No. 1. (Jan., 1992), pp. 167-199
- Daniel J. Mahoney, "A 'Man of Character': The Statesmanship of Charles de Gaulle," Polity Vol. 27, No. 1 (1994), pp. 157-173
- Philippe Portier, "Le General De Gaulle et Le Catholicisme: Pour Une Autre Interpretation De La Pensee Gaullienne," [General De Gaulle and Catholicism: Regarding Another Interpretation of Gaullist Thought]. Revue Historique 1997 297(2): 533-562. Issn: 0035-3264
- Richard F. Kuisel, "Was De Gaulle Anti-American?" Tocqueville Review 1992 13(1): 21-32. Issn: 0730-479x