Harvard University Press, 2019 (paperback), 887 pp., $24.95
Julian Jackson begins his massive biography De Gaulle with one of the most dramatic moments of the 20th century. France had fallen and Marshal Pétain announced he was suing for peace. On the following evening of June 18, 1940, a voice came on the radio: “I, General de Gaulle, currently in London, invite the officers and the French soldiers who are located in British territory or who might end up here, with their weapons or without their weapons, to put themselves in contact with me. . . . Whatever happens, the flame of the French resistance . . . will not be extinguished.” He became the leader, guiding star, and ultimately redeemer of a nation.
De Gaulle had no mandate to do any of this. Until that point, he was a successful but relatively low-ranking brigadier general in the French army. The Third Republic was soon to be replaced, with dubious legality, by the État Français, better known as Vichy France. De Gaulle acted without any authority whatsoever; to the newly formed government, he was a traitor. But for many French, on that day and especially in retrospect, de Gaulle became France, the precise objective correlative of its desperate hope.
De Gaulle’s first great contact with history was consistent with the pattern of his public life. It was not only that he had acted, but that he alone had acted. He arrested and altered history through a singular act of will. So it was throughout his life—as leader of the Free French, then of the French provisional government, and finally of the Fifth Republic. De Gaulle formed alliances, but he also antagonized and splintered them. In pursuit of French grandeur, he removed France from NATO’s military command. He disdained perfide Albion and the “Anglo-Saxons,” the British and Americans with their special relationship. Speaking of the idea of “Europe,” he once said, “Dante, Goethe, Chateaubriand all belong to Europe to the extent that they were respectively and eminently Italian, German, and French.”
He did much of this in a quixotic pursuit to restore France to great power status. Yet he was no crude xenophobe. Like Churchill, he initially clung to empire, but ultimately saw decolonization as necessary for France. As president of the Fifth Republic, he travelled the world, extolling nations and peoples from Quebec to Cambodia to live their own lives, to be unafraid of the hegemonic superpowers that sought to dominate and to control them. To this day, he remains a hero in much of the developing world.
Jackson’s biography comes along at the right time for the Anglophone world. De Gaulle is “everywhere” in France, he points out at the beginning—there, he has apotheosized. As Sudhir Hazareesingh argues in a fine study, In the Shadow of the General (2012), de Gaulle has now reached a transcendent state, with the bitter feelings once held by either communist or far-rightists having largely been overcome. Not only is his name on one of the national airports, not only are his home at Colombey-les-Deux-Églises and the towering Cross of Lorraine national shrines, his spirit and name are invoked incessantly by his successors—most recently, in Sarkozy’s attempts at “hyper-presidency” and in Macron’s somewhat unconvincing, Jupiterian efforts.
All this has occurred as de Gaulle’s personal life has come into fuller view, beginning with his son Phillipe’s account in the early 2000s. Jackson’s droll English style is perfect to convey de Gaulle, warts and all, to us Americans, with a very British mixture of exasperation and admiration. Of course, for many Americans of an older generation, warts might be all they see—or more precisely, ingratitude taken to dizzying heights. Undoubtedly, much of de Gaulle’s intransigence and refusal to bend to Yankee power sowed the seeds for modern-day American Francophobia, with its endless jokes about cheese-eating capitulators and bumbling Clouseaus.
De Gaulle was, to be fair, a strange and baffling figure, even to his own countrymen. He was a huge man with delicate hands, an unremarkable face, and legs seemingly too fragile to support his body. Jackson points out that his physical movements were “slow and heavy, like his nose” with a “small head and waxen face . . . supported by a body which seems to have no shape.” He was a man of mysterious silences who might nonetheless astound a visitor with vastly learned discourses on geopolitics, history, or literature. In the interwar era, his lectures to junior officers were replete with a multitude of literary references. Jackson notes those French officers mocked him, calling his references “Ibsenities.”
But Jackson’s understanding of de Gaulle never diminishes the myth, because de Gaulle’s flaws— his sometimes brutal coldness and apparent disregard for the feelings of others, his ingratitude toward nations that, after all, had something to do with France’s liberation—were always on full public display as the Gaullian myth was being constructed. For all his insights into his personal character, Jackson’s de Gaulle comes across as, well, still de Gaulle: haughty, imperious, and infuriating; magnificent, brilliant, and brave.
De Gaulle was a child of, as Jackson calls it, France’s “rainy north.” He was born to an utterly bourgeois Catholic family in Lille, near the Belgian border. Jackson is right to focus on this northern otherness. De Gaulle was dismissive of the more charming, tourist-haunted South—indeed, he associated politicians as a class with “garrulous and gesticulating Southerners who still all day in cafes drinking pastis.” Even when the family did move south to the capital, it was to the seventh arrondissement, not to Bohemian Paris but to the more bureaucratic, austere one of government ministries, the Invalides military hospital, and the École Militaire. De Gaulle’s father was something of a bookish intellectual, and this rubbed off on his son, who remarked later in life that the most wonderful job in the world was a provincial librarian.
This might seem an odd comment coming from a professional soldier, which de Gaulle was for most of his adult life. But he was an interesting, idiosyncratic thinker who expressed himself in works of extraordinary verbal fluency. Jackson gives these works the close readings they deserve. There is, for instance, his first significant work, Le fil de l’épée (The Edge of the Sword), which reads like an intoxicating mix of futurist and modernist ideas, replete with quotations from Socrates, Bergson, and countless others. There are, of course, his famous wartime memoirs, three volumes in all, with the famous opening line of de Gaulle having a “certain idea of France” (which gives the British version of this book its title). There is even the strange “interview” Les chênes qu’on abat (Fallen Oaks), apparently conducted by Andre Malraux, shortly before de Gaulle’s death, in which Malraux notes that de Gaulle is more similar to France’s great 19th century culture hero, Victor Hugo, than to the seemingly more obvious Georges Clémenceau.
A theme that emerges in Le fil de l’épée, and that remains implicit in de Gaulle’s literary output, is the need for a great leader to possess “instinct”—the faculty that is “closest to the natural world.” But what separates animal from human instinct is not only intelligence but self-examination, the ability to contemplate deeply and soberly—and then to act decisively.
Jackson is right to see how much of de Gaulle’s thought is rooted in his pious northern French Catholic upbringing, in the knight-errant mystical writings of Charles Péguy and in the Jesuit tracts on examination of conscience. Self-examination of this sort mortifies rather than indulges the senses, since it shows the senses’ superficiality. Indeed, one might say that de Gaulle’s thinking and lifestyle are simply variations of French School spirituality, which in particular stresses the will and the need to discipline it. One’s will is what matters when seeking God, not whether one gets any sort of spiritual satisfaction out of it.
Jackson reveals de Gaulle’s personal life of austerity. Visitors were shocked at the near-barrenness of his house at Colembey. Jackson provides anecdotes of his rectitude. He was, by all accounts, a devoted husband and father, especially to his mentally handicapped daughter Anne. He carefully reveals all facets of his public life, which began in the army. De Gaulle was a young officer in the First World War. By an apparent miracle he survived the apocalypse of Verdun. He became a prisoner of war, and during this time he ruminated on what it meant to be a leader, noting in talking to his fellow prisoners that “The leader is he who does not speak” (a somewhat ironic comment, Jackson points out, since he was constantly talking to them about history, the war, and international politics).
After the war, de Gaulle became one of the protégés of Marshal Phillipe Pétain, later the leader of Vichy France. At the time, Pétain was one of France’s great men, the general who had defended Verdun and stemmed the 1917 mutinies that nearly broke the French Army. Much scholarship has speculated about the relationship, sometimes incorrectly. As Jackson points out, it is not true, for example, that de Gaulle named his son after Pétain.
De Gaulle’s reputation grew throughout the interwar years, but already, he was a divisive figure. He was antagonistic. He argued that the French military was antiquated, and wrote accurately about the importance of mobile, armored warfare in coming conflicts. He despised appeasement and was convinced that France was quickly headed toward war with Germany. He had little of the politician in him.
It is thus astonishing how quickly he moved from being a soldier to the de facto leader of France. As France collapsed in June 1940, de Gaulle—the youngest general in the army—wrote to Prime Minister Paul Reynaud an impassioned note asking him to “meditate” on the fact that France was “on the edge of the abyss.” De Gaulle soon after resigned, flew to London, and created his moment of destiny, without which, as Jackson correctly points out, “he would not have become ‘de Gaulle.’”
The 18th of June speech is a milestone in French history. Jackson notes that there is some myth associated with the speech. It was, in truth, heard by a relative few when it was broadcasted. But the speech mattered because it was made at all. In a short time, largely through word of mouth, millions of Frenchmen heard that one of their countrymen stood against the armistice. Jackson disaggregates the complexities of it all. De Gaulle’s non serviam appears to us now as having been made on the side of the angels of light, but at the time it was not quite so clear. Those who supported Pétain at the outset may not have known what Vichy would become. And at Mer-el-Kébir, Great Britain actually attacked French ships and killed over a thousand French sailors. It was a grim start for a wartime alliance.
Enter de Gaulle, who essentially invented the idea of the “Free French”—an organized, resourced, and equipped resistance both in France and in exile. Initially a “one-man band,” it was de Gaulle who inspired, symbolized, and willed the larger movement into being.
As for his Anglo-American allies, de Gaulle was unlike anyone else they dealt with. The humiliation of France’s defeat was palpable in de Gaulle. Jackson quotes an English observer: To her, de Gaulle was like a man who had been “skinned alive—the slightest contact even from well-being people created a reaction.” Harold Macmillan noted that he had never known a man “at once so ungracious and so sentimental. . . . He belongs to the race of unhappy and tortured souls.” Churchill was perplexed by this man who claimed to represent the continuity of the French state; de Gaulle once said to him, “If I am not France, what am I doing in your office?” But Churchill defended him as well, recognizing a kindred romantic soul.
The practically minded Americans were another matter. Who was this de Gaulle, anyway? The French defeat led FDR to believe that France was no longer a significant force in the world. Roosevelt was also perfectly willing to deal with Vichy, as long as it would meet him more than halfway. De Gaulle’s thoughts about his allies and their opinions of him? By Jackson’s account, de Gaulle simply didn’t care. All that mattered was restoring French honor.
De Gaulle had a postwar second act. In 1946, he resigned somewhat suddenly and unexpectedly (a de Gaulle trait) as head of the French Provisional Government. The following year, he formed the Gaullist party, to disappointing results. Then, after a period of political exile, referred to in Gaullist lore as the “crossing of the desert,” he returned to power, stunningly, in 1958.
Jackson carefully reconstructs the high drama of what he calls de Gaulle’s “18 Brumaire” (a reference to the date on the Revolutionary calendar when Napoleon seized power as First Consul). This was de Gaulle’s return, his accession to the presidency, and the creation of the Fifth Republic. The ill-fated Fourth Republic may now be viewed more favorably by historians. But at the time, it was seen as ineffectual, particularly in dealing with the ever-worsening Algerian crisis. French paratroopers had plans to drop into Paris; a military coup seemed very possible. De Gaulle seemed, to many on the left at least, a lesser of two evils.
De Gaulle set his conditions to return. He demanded plenary power for six months while a new constitution was written, which, of course, he orchestrated. Power was concentrated in the presidency as a way to avoid the factionalism and chaos of the previous republics. As needed he would use referenda to gain approval from the French people directly and to bypass a too-often squabbling legislature.
He was far more evasive about Algeria. His rhetoric to the Algerian pieds noirs, exemplified in his infamous line, “Je vous ai compris” (“I have understood you”), was, in Jackson’s term, “seductively opaque.” Algeria is where the de Gaulle myth sometimes is viewed favorably in the United States. So the story goes: De Gaulle saw with clarity that the war in Algeria had to be ended unilaterally, and he did so, fully conceding independence. In contrast, venal, shortsighted American leaders of the day not only plunged America into Vietnam, but they subsequently refused to get out, year after year, making arguments about dominos, self-rule, and national prestige with ever-diminishing persuasiveness.
Yet Jackson convincingly demonstrates that this contrast is not as favorably disposed to de Gaulle as it might at first appear. It is far from clear what de Gaulle wanted to do with Algeria after he took power, regardless of what his memoirs subsequently claimed. Indeed, his private comments about a proposal to “integrate” the nine million Algerian Muslims into the French electorate as a way for the pieds noirs to hang on appear today outright Islamophobic to many readers. If “integration” occurred, de Gaulle contended, a migratory Muslim wave would pour into France. He acidly remarked: “My village would no longer be called Colombey-les-deux-Églises, but Colombey-the-two-mosques.”
And he equivocated about Algeria for months and months, using a mélange of obfuscatory rhetoric. In the end, to his credit, he determined to end the war before absolute catastrophe befell. Ironically, there were plenty of progressive republicans who wanted to fight on, turning their own liberal principles on their head: Torture, death, and destruction inflicted on Algerians were all justified to keep Algeria part of France, because presumably the spirit of the Declaration of the Rights of Man would make it turn out all right in the end. De Gaulle rejected this kind of thinking as nonsense; it was, as Jackson points out, his “pragmatic conservatism” that led him to accept Algerian independence.
And because he was de Gaulle, he could fashion out of the Algerian struggle a kind of resurrection of France. With Algerian independence granted, France could now move ahead as a champion of the wretched against the superpower overlords. Turning to the Western theater that remained his main focus, De Gaulle “picked a quarrel” (from a favorite phrase of his in Hamlet) with the United States to enhance France’s standing in the world. The more he annoyed Washington, the more he succeeded. An American official gave a brilliant description of his technique: “De Gaulle is like a lightweight jiu-jitsu artist. All his leverage comes from our over exertion.”
Jackson points out that de Gaulle did display a certain consistency in his geopolitical understandings. To him, “history and geography always prevailed over ideology.” He dismissed, for example, globalized understandings of communism. He once told an American visitor that yes, Vietnam would turn communist, but that it would be its own variation, “as there is already Chinese communism. . . . Each to their own communism.” In the end, nation-states, not worldwide ideological systems, were the repositories of peoples’ identities.
And then there was de Gaulle’s NATO exit in 1966. Was it the Brexit of its day? Analogies are often dangerously misleading, but it was surely a thumbing of the nose at the greater alliance system and a borderless “Europe.” It was also a quarrel with the superpower system and its ideological blocs. But there was an astuteness in the move that critics may not have initially appreciated. France was still allied with the West against the Soviets, but now the USSR had two opponents. It is easier to strategize against one foe than against two. And if one of those two is seen as potentially unpredictable, even that foe’s handful of nuclear weapons can confuse your plans.
De Gaulle could not stay de Gaulle forever. It came apart in May 1968, when France plunged into near-revolution. Here, at last, de Gaulle was revealed as out of step, not as master of the moment. Students in overcrowded dormitories and classrooms began the protest in early May. Things spun out of control when the trade unions called a strike in solidarity with them. The bringing together of intelligentsia and working class was the stuff of revolutionary dreams, and it seemed for a brief moment that a complete upheaval of society might occur.
De Gaulle’s first response was a call for a referendum that proposed a vague popular “participation” with the government to resolve the crisis. It did not convince. He was clearly losing his magic. At one point, it actually seemed as if de Gaulle had fled via helicopter to a French base in Germany. He returned, gave an electrifying speech via radio, and a multitude of Gaullist supporters turned the tide. At first glance, de Gaulle seemed as powerful as ever, but it was never the same again. He called for a referendum in the next year over a (relatively minor) issue of division of power in the regions. When it failed, he suddenly resigned, as he had in 1946. It was over. He died in 1970, in exile at Colombey.
Jackson has brought de Gaulle to life for English speakers, while revealing the many ways the great Frenchman remains relevant to us today. He displayed a nationalism and love of country that could still be cosmopolitan and offer hope to the insignificant in the world. He showed how a country could fight above its weight, with a skillful display of geopolitical “jiu-jitsu” that may be an example for the era to come. Finally, supremely, he showed how a single human agent can alter history, giving the lie to the ideologues and determinists who say otherwise. After all these years, then, even we Americans have some things to thank de Gaulle for—and we can thank Julian Jackson, too, for this splendid biography.