Charles de Gaulle

(b. Nov. 22, 1890, Lille, Fr.--d. Nov. 9, 1970, Colombey-les-Deux-Églises), French soldier, writer, statesman, and architect of France's Fifth Republic. Education and early career. De Gaulle was the second son of a Roman Catholic, patriotic and nationalist, upper-middle-class family. The family had produced historians and writers, and his father taught philosophy and literature. But as a boy Charles de Gaulle already showed a passionate interest in military matters. He was trained at the Military Academy of Saint-Cyr and, in 1913, as a young second lieutenant, joined an infantry regiment commanded by Colonel Philippe Pétain.


De Gaulle was an intelligent, hard-working, and zealous young soldier and, in his military career, a man of original mind, great self-assurance, and outstanding courage. In World War I, he fought at Verdun, was three times wounded, spent two years and eight months as a prisoner of war (during which time he made five unsuccessful attempts to escape), and was three times mentioned in dispatches. After a brief visit to Poland as a member of a military mission, a year's teaching at Saint-Cyr, and a two-year course of special training in strategy and tactics at the École Supérieure de Guerre (War College), he was promoted by Marshal Pétain in 1925 to the Staff of the Conseil Supérieur de la Guerre (Supreme War Council). During 1927-29 he served as major in the army occupying the Rhineland and could see for himself both the potential danger of German aggression and the inadequacy of the French defense. He also spent two years in the Middle East and then, having been promoted to lieutenant colonel, spent four years as a member of the secretariat of the Conseil Supérieur de la Défense Nationale (National Defense Council).


His writing career began with a study of the relation of the civil and military powers in Germany (La Discorde chez l'ennemi, 1924; "Discord Among the Enemy"), followed by lectures on his conception of leadership, Le Fil de l'epée (1932; The Edge of the Sword). A study on military theory, Vers l'armée de métier (1934; The Army of the Future), defended the idea of a small professional army, highly mechanized and mobile, in preference to the static theories exemplified by the Maginot Line, which was intended to protect France against German attack. He also wrote a memorandum in which he tried, even as late as January 1940, to convert politicians to his way of thinking. His views made him unpopular with his military superiors, and the question of his right to publish under his name a historical study La France et son armée (1938; France and Her Army) led to a dispute with Marshal Pétain.



World War II.



At the outbreak of the war he commanded a tank brigade attached to the French 5th Army. In May 1940, having been made a temporary brigadier general in the 4th Armoured Division--the rank that he retained for the rest of his life--he was twice given the opportunity to apply his theories on tank warfare. He was mentioned as "an admirable, energetic, and courageous leader." On June 6 he entered the government of Paul Reynaud as undersecretary of state for defense and war, and he undertook several missions to England to explore the possibilities of continuing the war. When the Reynaud government was replaced by that of Marshal Pétain, who intended to seek an armistice with the Germans, de Gaulle left for England. On June 18, he broadcast from London his first appeal to his compatriots to continue the war under his leadership. On Aug. 2, 1940, a French military court tried him and sentenced him in absentia to death, deprivation of military rank, and confiscation of property.


De Gaulle entered on his wartime career as a political leader with tremendous liabilities. He had only a handful of haphazardly recruited political supporters and volunteers for what were to become the Free French Forces. He had no political status and was virtually unknown both in England and in France. But he had an absolute belief in his mission and conviction that he possessed the qualities of leadership. He was totally devoted to France and had the strength of character (or obstinacy, as it often appeared to the British) to fight for French interests as he saw them with all the resources at his disposal.


In his country, to the politicians of the left, a career officer who was a practicing Roman Catholic was not an immediately acceptable political leader, while to those on the right he was a rebel against Philippe Pétain, a national hero and France's only field marshal. Broadcasts from London, the action of the Free French Forces, and the contacts of resistance groups in France either with his own organization or with those of the British secret services brought national recognition of his leadership. But full recognition by his allies came only after the liberation of Paris.


In London, de Gaulle's relations with the British government were never easy, and de Gaulle often added to the strain, at times through his own misjudgment or touchiness. In 1943 he moved his headquarters to Algiers, where he became president of the French Committee of National Liberation, at first jointly with General Henri Giraud. De Gaulle's successful campaign to edge Giraud out gave the world proof of his skill in political maneuver. On Sept. 9, 1944, he and his shadow government returned from Algiers to Paris. He headed two successive provisional governments but, on Jan. 20, 1946, abruptly resigned, apparently owing to irritation with the political parties forming the coalition government. (see also Index: Algeria)


Until 1958 he opposed what became, in November 1946, the Fourth French Republic. He campaigned against the new constitution, which he disapproved of as being likely to lead to a repetition of the political and governmental inadequacies of the Third Republic. In 1947 he formed the Rally of the French People (Rassemblement du Peuple Français; RPF), a mass movement that grew rapidly in strength and that to all intents and purposes became a political party in 1951, when it obtained 120 seats in the National Assembly in the elections of that year. The movement expressed de Gaulle's hostility to the constitution, to the party system, and, in particular, to the French Communists, because of their unswerving loyalty to Moscow directives. He became dissatisfied with the RPF, however, and in 1953 severed his connection with it. In 1955 it was disbanded. (see also Index: Fourth Republic, Rally for the Republic)


The general made no public appearances in 1955-56 but retired to his home in Colombey-les-Deux-Églises, where he worked on his memoirs: L'Appel (1940-42; The Call to Honour), L'Unité (1942-44; Unity), and Le Salut (1944-46; Salvation). The last volume was completed only after his return to power in 1958. Precisely when he began to feel that he might be called on to take up his mission again is a question on which accounts differ.



Postwar return to public life.



His compatriots were deeply divided on the question of his return. The reasons for their hesitations belong to the political history of the period. The opportunity presented itself in May 1958, when the insurrection that had broken out in Algiers threatened to bring civil war to France. De Gaulle must have seen it as the most carefully balanced calculation in a life that had had its share of political gambles. He was cautious, for it was by no means certain that the French Parliament would accept his return on any conditions that he could accept. He affirmed his determination not to come to power by other than legal means, and there was never any evidence of his association with insurgent plans to bring him back. His carefully worded statements (on May 15, 19, and 27), however, certainly helped the insurgents. On June 1, three days after Pres. René Coty threatened to resign unless de Gaulle's return to power was accepted, he presented himself before the National Assembly as a prime minister designate and on the following day attended the session (having been duly "invested" as prime minister) and was authorized to reform the constitution and accorded the special powers that he demanded.


On Dec. 21, 1958, de Gaulle was elected president of the Republic. The powers given to the president in the new constitution, which had been approved by referendum on Sept. 28, 1958, and especially those providing for the use of the referendum and for presidential rule during a state of emergency, reflected his firm conviction that a strong state required a leader with power to make decisions. He realized that his fellow citizens would accept him only in a crisis and that he must, therefore, take steps to retain the support of the general public and to disarm the power of "the system of parties" in Parliament, always potentially hostile to him. His tactics were first to obtain consent to the personal control of government policy by the president and then to ensure its renewal in regular consultations through elections or referendums. He, therefore, undertook throughout his presidency what was virtually a continuous election campaign, in the form of provincial tours, in which he visited every département and during which he was able to meet ordinary citizens as well as local notabilities. He appeared on television several times a year. He relied as far as possible on ministers who were compagnons, those whose Gaullist loyalties went back to the wartime days, and he relied on their use of the constitutional provisions to curb the powers of the deputies to obstruct parliamentary business or harass governments. He retained the essential parliamentary function in a democracy; namely, the right to criticize governments and to withdraw confidence in them. There were frequent complaints of pro-governmental bias on the radio, but these had been regularly made under pre-Gaullist regimes. Under a law of 1881, insults to the president of the Republic constitute an offense, and, though there was certainly more recourse to this law under the presidency of de Gaulle than under previous regimes, it presented no obstacle at all to political criticisms of Gaullist policies and Gaullist ministers in the press and in political parties, which were continuous and widespread.


Until 1962 de Gaulle's providing the only remaining hope of ending the Algerian war without civil disorder protected him from serious challenge. But the Algerian war prevented him from doing more than prepare the way for future positive policies. He strengthened the country's economic situation, planned the reorganization of the army, developed an independent nuclear deterrent, and prevented fresh "Algerias" in the future by providing for the constitutional transformation of the African overseas territories into 12 politically independent states. From mid-1962 onward, however, with the recognition of an independent Algerian state, he had to consolidate his own position by obtaining a fresh vote of confidence from the electorate, for he was no longer politically indispensable.


One lesson that he had learned was that his personal position was stronger if he remained, at least in theory, above the political and party battle, as he had tried to do during the wartime and early postwar years. Before the elections of 1958, he had therefore forbidden his supporters to use his name, "even in the form of an adjective," in the title of any group or candidate. In 1962 he offered the electors the choice between his resignation and acceptance of a constitutional amendment substituting election by universal suffrage for election by an electoral college consisting of some 80,000 members, mainly mayors and local notabilities. The electors favoured the amendment overwhelmingly. The general election in November gave the Gaullist party an additional 64 seats, thus obtaining, with the support of a group of some 30 conservative deputies, a majority in the National Assembly. From then on, he was in a position to carry out, with public consent, the plans that he regarded as essential in order to restore France to the status of a great power. As a statesman, he fought his political battles like a military campaign, using all the devices that he had learned to transform France's postwar international position of weakness into one of strength and to overcome opposition to his plans at home. These devices have been often described by his fellow citizens: "egoism, pride, aloofness, guile," according to Raymond Aron; "empiricism, intuition, flexibility of mind if not of soul . . ." according to one of the most perceptive of his biographers (Jean Lacouture, De Gaulle).


During the period from 1962 until his reelection as president in 1965, he used the European Economic Community (EEC) to serve French interests, especially agricultural interests. France's participation in the supranational defense organizations of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was progressively withdrawn, because de Gaulle's policy for France was one of "national independence" and of international cooperation based only on agreements between nation-states. This was the main theme of his presidential campaign in 1965. On December 21, he was reelected, though only on the second ballot, and on March 7, 1966, he announced France's complete withdrawal from NATO, though not from the Atlantic Alliance.


During the remainder of his second term as president, he turned his attention increasingly to wider fields. He had already begun the policy of "détente and cooperation" with countries behind the Iron Curtain, by encouraging trade and cultural relations with the Soviet Union and the countries of eastern Europe, and by recognizing Communist China in January 1964. For the solution of the conflict in Indochina he advocated a policy of neutrality for all nations concerned. This was to be based on a negotiated peace, of which a necessary preliminary was to be the withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Vietnam. These activities, together with visits to Mexico, all the countries of Latin America, Canada, and the Far East, formed part of a policy aiming first at increasing the influence of France in French-speaking countries or countries in which there existed some bond derived from a common attachment to Latin culture; then in Europe, which he saw as going, sooner or later, beyond the boundaries created by membership in the EEC or the division into western and eastern blocs; and finally in the world, in which he foresaw the gradual dissolution of the two great blocs.


Circumstances were against his success. He felt obliged to take up attitudes that were generally interpreted as anti-American. The theory of what he called "desatellization," the progressive loosening of the Soviet hold on the countries of eastern Europe, was brutally invalidated by the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. Nor was there any evidence that France carried any real weight with the countries that it hoped to influence. As the political and economic crisis of May 1968 revealed, France had neither the internal cohesion nor the financial resources to play the role of leader in what de Gaulle called "Europe from the Atlantic to the Urals."


His strength had been in his appeal for unity against a common enemy--in 1940, Germany; in 1958, subversion and civil disorder. In 1968 there was no common enemy. Once order had been restored, the students' and workers' revolt was seen for what it was, a temporary outburst of hysteria by sections of the community with real grievances but mutually incompatible aims. The solution of their problems required the patient negotiation of a government rather than leadership by a man of destiny. A broadcast on May 30, brought a massive demonstration of support and a landslide Gaullist victory in the subsequent election, but the victory was for peace and normality rather than for the President and his policies.


When, in April 1969, he called once again for a referendum, it was not clear whether or not he really wanted to remain in power. The referendum, calling for the acceptance of regional reorganization and a reform of the Senate, was presented to the electors, as other referenda had been, as a choice between acceptance of both (though the second measure was generally unpopular) or of his own resignation. The diplomatic methods that had been welcomed during his first term, as assertions of France's claim to equality with, and influence among, the great powers had been creating increasing unease for the past few years. In 1966, his advocacy of Vietnamese neutrality had been widely interpreted as an expression of personal anti-Americanism. In 1967, on his visit to Canada, he had seemed to be actively encouraging French-Canadian separatism. His declarations of neutrality in the Arab-Israeli War had seemed to show pro-Arab bias. France was not actively involved in, but had not formally withdrawn from, the Atlantic Alliance, and the so-called independent nuclear deterrent was neither independent nor within France's means. The question: "After de Gaulle, who?" had been answered by the President himself when he dismissed Georges Pompidou in 1968 after a record six years as prime minister, thus leaving him free to present himself as a credible and acceptable successor to the presidency.


On April 28, 1969, following his defeat in the referendum, de Gaulle resigned and returned to Colombey-les-Deux-Églises, to permanent retirement and a resumption of the writing of his memoirs. He died there of a heart attack. Throughout his presidency, his aims and actions had been the subject of more exegesis and speculation than those of any other French statesman. ( D.M.P./Ed.)






Jean Lacouture, De Gaulle (1966; originally published in French, 1965), a penetrating study; Aidan Crawley, De Gaulle (1969), a critical but fair-minded study from a British point of view; Brian Crozier, De Gaulle (1973), a complete biography; David Thomson, Two Frenchmen: Pierre Laval and Charles de Gaulle (1951, reprinted 1975), an excellent short study of the prewar military career and the war years; Lois P. de Ménil, Who Speaks for Europe? (1978), an overview of de Gaulle's diplomatic efforts.





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