Once, when asked for his opinion of Charles de Gaulle, Winston Churchill mused: “If I regard de Gaulle as a great man? He is selfish, he is arrogant, he believes he is the center of the world. He . . . You are quite right. He is a great man.” Churchill knew whereof he spoke: During World War II, it was he who bore the brunt of the Frenchman’s intransigence.

Though very different characters, the two statesmen had certain points in common: Both had an extraordinary way with words and both saw themselves as men of destiny. Having fled to Britain after the collapse of the French army, de Gaulle cast himself as the embodiment of the French nation, a modern-day male Joan of Arc, who would lead the fight against the Germans and their Vichy hirelings and restore France to its rightful place and greatness.

In the process, he managed to upset a great number of people. As French historian Francois Kersody has written, he seemed to be permanently involved in a two front war: “a public war against Vichy and the Germans, and a private war against the British Admiralty, the Air Ministry, the War Office, the Intelligence Service, the Foreign Office, the Prime Minister, the U.S. State Department, and the president of the United States.”

One of his advisers noted “the General must constantly be reminded that out main enemy is Germany. If he would follow his own inclination, it would be England.”

Before departing London to set up headquarters in Algiers in May 1943, de Gaulle said goodbye to Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden, who asked, “Do you know you have given us more difficulty than all our European allies?” To which de Gaulle answered, “I have no doubt of it. France is a great power.”

The Americans, of course, regarded him as suffering from delusions of grandeur. During the Casablanca summit, Roosevelt’s secret service detail discretely kept the Frenchman covered with their Tommy guns. You can never be too careful.

Despite — or because of — his obstinacy, de Gaulle managed to place France among the victors of World War II. Later, with his comeback in 1958, he gave his countrymen a new constitution, he got France out of the Algerian mess, and he saved his nation from civil war.

“Was he a great statesman or a conjuror on a huge scale, a true founding father of present day France, with lessons for the world, or a Wizard of Oz manipulating a great machine of illusions?” This is the central question posed in Jonathan Fenby’s fascinating The General: Charles de Gaulle and the France He Saved.

The book provides a vivid and eminently fair assessment of its subject, bringing out the essential ambiguities: de Gaulle was both a doer and a dreamer, an extreme realist “remorselessly applying cold logic,” and a romantic Don Quixote figure, “tilting at windmills.”

De gaulle was a “man of the North,” from the city of Lille, a colder and sterner industrial region, Fenby notes, than the sundrenched French south one normally reads about. His father was a monarchist and a professor of history and literature. De Gaulle’s upbringing emphasized duty and frugality, and gave him a solid knowledge of the classics, of philosophy, and of French letters.

We catch colorful glimpses from his youth: Prompted by his reading about the French defeat in the 1870–71 Franco-German War, he early decided on a military career. Before attending military college as a cadet, he spent an obligatory year in an army regiment; he was not promoted to sergeant: As his captain argued, “how he could do so to somebody who would only feel at ease as a general.” At the military academy of St Cyr, his evaluations deemed him “calm and forceful in command.” His physical appearance certainly contributed: Measuring 6’3, with hooded eyes and a nose in the Cyrano de Bergerac class, he towered over everybody.

In World War I, he was wounded three times, including a bayonet through his thigh in the battle of Verdun. Given up for dead, he had in fact been taken prisoner. His fellow prisoners recalled him as formal and reserved, not a man one addressed with the familiar tu. Fenby quotes his prison notebooks, which set out his ideas of leadership, of which mystique plays an important part: “One must speak little. In action one must say nothing. The chief is the one who does not speak.”

From de Gaulle’s attendance at the Ecole de Guerre in 1922, one of his fellow officers provides amusing testimony: “At the beginning of term meeting in the lecture theatre I saw a tall, very tall captain in horizon blue make his way down the tiers to take his place again. He walked very straight, stiff and solemn, strutting as if he were moving his own statue.”

De Gaulle’s career benefitted from his being a protégé of Marshal Petain, the victor at Verdun, but the two parted company over military strategy. While the military establishment were putting all their bets on the defensive Maginot Line, de Gaulle insisted on a war of movement. His 1934 book, Vers l’Armee de Metier, calls for a professional and fully mechanized army of some 100,000 men in addition to its conscript army. The book died in France, but in Germany it was studied with great interest by Rommel and Guderian.

When the Germans invaded, their panzer armies practiced exactly the kind of concentrated war of movement de Gaulle had advocated. His division was one of the few to put up a successful fight. Hastily appointed deputy defense minister, he had three meetings with Churchill to discuss last-minute efforts to stave off defeat. The prime minister now needed the Royal Air Force for the defense of Britain, but was quick to recognize de Gaulle’s mental toughness.

With Petain about to sign an armistice, the only course left to de Gaulle was to escape to Britain. Here, installed in a triangular office on the embankment, de Gaulle set up his Free French operation. His June 18th broadcast over the bbc provided a message of hope to the French population and an appeal to French servicemen abroad to join him in the battle against the Nazis. Asked to do a sound check, he uttered one word: “France.”

De gaulle never doubted the war’s eventual outcome, especially once the Americans were in, but, as Fenby notes, his task was the tricky one of ensuring that France got a seat among the victors. To do that, Frenchmen had to participate on all fronts, thereby forcing Britain and the U.S. to recognize France as a fellow ally. But his suspicious and unyielding nature made him a prickly partner. After the allied landings in North Africa, he was particularly worried that Britain would take over France’s colonial role in the Levant.

Fenby provides some valid explanations for de Gaulle’s intransigence: One was his need to demonstrate to his countrymen that he was his own man, not some Anglo-Saxon puppet. He was also holding an extremely weak hand. Once when Churchill blamed him for his stubbornness, in a moment of naked candor, de Gaulle replied “I am too poor to bow.” He could not afford to compromise, as he did not have anything to compromise with. His was a high wire act, which in the words of his French biographer Jean Lacouture “substituted symbol for reality.”

Still, as Fenby’s evidence makes plain, de Gaulle’s stubbornness went way beyond what was required, “bordering on the irrational.” His was the kind of mind that carefully stored every slight, indignity, defeat, and humiliation the French had ever suffered at the hands of perfidious Albion, the most recent occurring in 1898 when a British force under Herbert Kitchener compelled a French expedition to withdraw at Fashoda on the White Nile, “the most traumatic event of his childhood.”

Fenby details their clashes, with Churchill vacillating between admiration for the man’s fighting spirit and the urge to clap him in chains. De Gaulle’s constant attempts to split the British from the Americans triggered this outburst from Churchill at the Casablanca summit. “For get this quite clear, every time we have to decide between Europe and the open sea, it is always the open sea we shall choose. Every time I have to decide between you and Roosevelt, I shall always choose Roosevelt.”

Much less indulgent than Churchill, Roosevelt saw him as a dictator type — “There is no man in which I have less confidence” — and was keen to replace him with General Henri Giraud, but Giraud proved politically inept and lacked popular support. So they were stuck with de Gaulle.

After the invasion, Roosevelt had wanted to the place France under military administration, but typically, de Gaulle presented the Allies with a fait accompli by immediately setting up his own administration in Baujeau. And when the Paris insurrection forced Eisenhower to liberate the city rather than bypass it, de Gaulle ordered General Leclerc to rush his tanks to Paris, making it look like the French had liberated themselves.

With some major unacknowledged help from Churchill at the Yalta and Potsdam conferences, to which de Gaulle was not invited, France came out of the war with permanent seat in the un security council, its own occupation zone in Germany, and a seat in the Allied Council of Foreign Ministers in Europe, a pretty impressive result.

After liberation, Fenby notes, there was always the risk that the communists, having practicing classic “united front” tactics during the war, would hijack the Resistance movement and leave de Gaulle as a French Kerensky, the Russian transition figure who governed briefly after the Revolution.

In the days of the provisional government, de Gaulle ruled by decree. As head of the new elected government, with three roughly equal blocks, he had to work with the communists, who with 26 percent were the largest party, and accept five communists in his cabinet, though not in the most sensitive spots.

Thus the immediate postwar months featured de Gaulle the extreme pragmatist, whose first priority was to prevent civil war. According to the resurrection myth, all the French had been part of the resistance: Thus among the charges at Marshal Petain’s trial, there was nothing about the deportation of the French Jews to the extermination camps, nor the sending of French workers to do forced labor in Germany. (De Gaulle commuted Petain’s death sentence.) Civil servants were treated leniently and so were businessmen, many of whom got off free.

But the composition of the parliament did not suit him: “a nest of intrigues,” he called it. After fierce clashes with parliament over his demand for a new constitution, he resigned in 1946 and withdrew to his austere home in Colombey-les-Deux Eglises, about which he once told a visitor “one does not come here to laugh.”

Here, Cincinnatus-like, he was waiting for the country to call him back. The first volume of his elegant memoirs appeared in 1954, advancing his claims as the “once and future savior of the nation.” In particular, he was carefully monitoring the situation in French Algeria.

Meanwhile, he pondered what changes he wanted to make. Constitutional change remained at the top of the list. Like its predecessor, the Fourth Republic proved ungovernable, with the prime minister’s seat changing occupant 21 times in the period 1946–58. Noting his countrymen’s preference for easy solutions, he saw his mission as making the French do the things they did not want to do.

But however badly he wanted to be back in power, notes Fenby, he wanted to do so through legal means. The worsening situation in Algeria afforded the opportunity. Here terrorist attacks were a daily occurrence, the Front De Liberation Nationale insurgency having been encouraged by the 1954 French pullout from Indochina.

Fearing a sellout from the politicians, General Salan, the commander in chief in Algeria, had warned President Coty that the army would not accept any concessions to the rebels. Addressing demonstrators in Algiers, Salan declared, “We are united now and will march together up the Champs Elysees and bedecked with flowers.” The situation grew tenser when paratroopers stationed in Corsica took charge of the island in support of their comrades in Algiers.

Fenby details de Gaulle’s handling of the touchy situation and gives it high marks: de Gaulle made plain his refusal to take power “in a tumult of Generals” and at the same time refrained from criticizing the army, instead offering himself as a referee, which a frightened legislature accepted: “As premier designate, he had achieved a legal return to power and headed off a very real threat of a military operation and civil war. It was an extraordinary victory.”  

Having assumed emergency powers for six months, he announced a referendum on constitutional reform. His proposal called for a strong presidency, in which the president would handle foreign and defense policy and retain special powers in case of threats to the republic from within. The president would appoint the prime minister, who would be responsible for the day-to-day business of government.

These measures he deemed necessary to make up for “the effects of our perpetual effervescence.” While his harshest critic, the socialist François Mitterrand, denounced it as a “permanent coup d’etat,” his countrymen backed him overwhelmingly.

But what exactly was his policy on Algeria? For a while, notes Fenby, he “hoped for a military victory and a compromise solution” involving the emergence of a third force. But the realist in him had long realized the demographic odds were against France holding on: nine million natives versus one million Pieds-Noirs, French settlers. “Believe me, I am the first to regret it, but the proportion of Europeans is too small.”

In the end, he bit the bullet by entering the Evian agreement of 1962, which paved the way for the Algerians to vote on their future; 99 percent voted for independence. At home in France, in a referendum, 90 percent of the French, thoroughly fed up with the issue, voted in favor of the agreement. One million Pied-Noirs returned to France. “The Algerian crisis did not end favorably,” writes Fenby, “but in the only conditions that were possible.”

Casting himself as a man above politics, de Gaulle’s leadership style, in Fenby’s words, combined “the oracular mystery of a long gone monarchical age with techniques of modern communications.”

The slaughter began as soon as Algeria got independence. According to Fenby, between 10,000 and 80,000 natives who had backed the French were killed, some boiled alive or emasculated.

“It is difficult to see de Gaulle’s handling of the crisis as anything more than the maneuvers of an extremely skilled politician operating on his own with a mixture of guile and ruthlessness to find an escape from the challenge that had brought down the republic,” writes Fenby.

The secret army organization, the oas, continued its war on the French government. On  August 22, 1962, they came close when they spayed de Gaulle’s Citroën with machine gun fire, leaving fourteen bullet holes in the car. Afterwards de Gaulle was unshaken, “My dear friend, these people shoot like pigs.” The planner was sentenced to death and shot. Altogether, there were two dozen assassination attempts on de Gaulle.

Casting himself as a man above politics — “I am a man who belongs to nobody and who belongs to everybody” — de Gaulle’s leadership style in Fenby’s words combined “the oracular mystery of a long gone monarchical age with techniques of modern communications.” His press conferences were “high masses” and his tv speeches were like “a republican monarch addressing his subjects.”

The air of aloofness surrounding the ruler was an essential governing tool. But he also needed physical contact with his subjects: “He believed he had some mystical communication with the French people,” writes Fenby. Accordingly, he would plunge into the crowds in a bain de foule, a crowd bath “even if the police had arrested men with knives, pistols, and hypodermic syringes on his path.”

His sense of superiority never fails to amuse. After his resignation in 1946, he turned down the offer of elevation to the rank of marshal on the grounds that his two stars had served him perfectly well during the war, and besides, “One does not decorate France.” Similarly, he had declined an invitation to become a member of the Academie-Francaise: “The King of France does not belong to the Academy, nor does Napoleon.”

When attending jfk’s funeral as president, he was not entirely satisfied with the seating arrangements, having been placed in the eighth row: Resolutely, he marched to the front and told the head of protocol “Right. We can start,” and sat down there and then.

In their dealings with him, exasperated American politicians repeatedly resorted to mountain imagery. Secretary of State Dean Rusk compares an audience with de Gaulle to “Crawling up a mountainside, opening a little portal, and waiting for the oracle to speak . . . there was never any give and take. De Gaulle gave us pronouncements from on high, but never had any real discussion; he was there, he would listen. ‘Je vous ecoute,’ and would then bid us goodbye.”

De Gaulle’s hauteur coexisted with a penchant for secrecy and ambiguity, writes Fenby.  

“He was at one and the same time the most straightforward of politicians in his ultimate aims, and among the most tricky in the way he proceeded towards them, an Olympian who adopted wily crab-like tactics. He rarely told an outright lie, but was masterly in obfuscation and economizing with the truth.”

The central tenet of Gaullism is self-reliance: The French needed to see themselves as part of a great nation, and should not rely on others for their national security and prosperity. Thus de Gaulle oversaw the development of the French Force de Frappe, and sought to steer a kind of independent middle way between the blocs that was designed to maximize French influence.

But for a man priding himself on cold logic and clear thought, he could be remarkably incoherent and emotional, as Fenby demonstrates. He was an anti-communist, but seemed more intent on shutting America out of Europe. During the Korean war he stated that “The Russian are hard people,” but added that the Americans were “brutes,” too.

His initial desire to keep Germany weak had proved a nonstarter in the intensifying Cold War.  Instead he tried to talk the Germans into some kind of Franco-German defense arrangement, but neither Konrad Adenauer nor his successor Ludwig Erhard bought the idea. As Fenby notes, the official photograph from the Franco-German friendship treaty in January 1963 carries huge symbolic value. “But the Germans did not sign up for de Gaulle’s vision of Europe,” he adds. “In the preamble to the treaty, it explicitly says that this will not affect relations with the U.S.”

Recalling Churchill’s words about Britain always siding with America, he punished the Brits by vetoing their entry into the Common Market, as he saw Britain as a “Trojan horse for American influence,” and did not consider the British to be Europeans.

This kind of contrariness became even more pronounced after the 1965 elections, where he was forced into a run-off. “Increasingly he was a prisoner of his own mindset,” writes Fenby, displaying “an exaggerated self importance and overestimation of France’s role.”

Thus having made threats for years, as part of his own attempts at détente with the Russians, in 1966 he pulled France out of nato’s integrated military command, forcing all Allied personnel to leave, prompting President Johnson to ask if that applied to the American war dead, too. But France did remain part of nato’s political structure.

Vietnam became the centerpiece in his anti-American crusade, which would presumably curry favor with third world revolutionary movements. At the same time, France was always ready to shore up its favorite dictators in Africa.

“His lack of concern for ideological issues meant he did not appreciate the depth of the divide between East and West,” writes Fenby. Leonid Brezhnev told Polish leaders “while he [de Gaulle] was an enemy, his policies had the advantage of weakening U.S. positions in Western Europe.”

His increasing remoteness was also demonstrated in the run-up to the 1967 Six-Day War, as Arab armies were massing on Israel’s borders. He warned the Israelis that he would not support them if they attacked first, but magnanimously stated that he would not allow Israel to be destroyed. “What did you think the Israelis did with my advice? They completely ignored it!” he blurted out, and he took flak when he later described the Israelis as “an elite people sure of themselves and domineering.” Interestingly, as Fenby notes, the Israelis were displaying precisely the kind of self-reliance he wanted for France. “The whole episode can best be seen as an example of his pique in being bypassed and reminded of the limits of his international sway,” writes Fenby.

The book’s final section is dominated by events on the home front, the six weeks of turmoil in the spring of 1968, which started with student occupations and spread to the massive strikes by industrial workers in an insurrection complete with barricades. The authority of the government was crumbling, and the cia foresaw civil war.

De Gaulle’s response was one of the great disappearing acts of all time. Without telling anybody of his whereabouts, he flew off to the headquarters of French troops in West Germany to confer with the general in charge, Jacques Massu. Having obtained the army’s backing, de Gaulle headed back to Paris.

Resorting to “extreme theater to rally France behind him,” in a radio address he again faced the nation with a choice between himself and chaos. The result was the great counter-demonstration of May 30, followed by June elections in which the Left incurred a massive defeat.

But this was his last triumph. After losing on a referendum on senate reform the following spring, on which he had staked his presidency, he retired on April 28, 1969, to Colombey-les-Deux Eglises, quietly to work on his books.

“All successful leaders are to varying degrees magicians and actors,” writes Fenby. Starting from scratch, of the World War II leaders, de Gaulle “conjured most from the least.” Thus de Gaulle’s career defies those who see history merely as the result of impersonal forces, beyond the influence of great men: “Though it opened him to mockery from those who saw him as ridiculously self-important, the key to his greatness lay in a single factor: His genuine belief that he incarnated France and could raise it to the status he believed it deserved.”

The original impulse of self-reliance behind Gaullism can be seen as positive, notes Fenby, as an attempt to take his countrymen out of their depression, and be part of a great national project.

But due to the originator’s particular mindset, his brand of patriotism, as it comes out in the book, was too narrow and selfish, earning de Gaulle his reputation as the “abominable no-man.” According to Fenby, he saw his nation as “a sort of middle kingdom [for which] the rest of the world had meaning only if it affected France.” De Gaulle saddled France with the reputation of a nation that was always going its own way, that could not entirely be counted on. It is hard to see how this improved France’s security.

As for the left-wing charges of a dictatorial bent, though he certainly had authoritarian traits, says Fenby, he was no dictator, as he believed that “dictatorships always ended in disaster.” As de Gaulle had noted in the 1965 presidential elections, where he was up against the socialist François Mitterrand — a “crafty ruffian” in his words  — and forced into a run-off: “Have you ever seen a dictator on a run-off ballot?” Accordingly, he relinquished power twice, in 1946 and in 1969.

Most importantly, he brought stability. His Fifth Republic has survived: As Fenby notes, there were only three pms from 1958 to 1969, when he retired, versus the 21 under the Fourth Republic. The Fifth Republic’s harshest critic, the socialist Mitterrand, came back a decade after de Gaulle defeated him to beat President Giscard D’Estaing and seemed to settle in perfectly happily. It even survived a period of cohabitation, where Mitterrand had to rule with a Gaullist prime minister — providing de Gaulle with “a heritage few politicians can claim.”

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