Overview of life
Charles André Joseph Marie de Gaulle ( 22 November 1890 – 9 November 1970) was a French general and statesman who led the Free French Forces during World War II. He later founded the French Fifth Republic in 1958 and served as its first President from 1959 to 1969. A veteran of World War I, in the 1920s and 1930s, de Gaulle came to the fore as a proponent of mobile armoured divisions, which he considered would become central in modern warfare. During World War II, he earned the rank of brigadier general (retained throughout his life), leading one of the few successful armoured counter-attacks during the 1940 Battle of France in May in Montcornet, and then briefly served in the French government as France was falling. De Gaulle was the most senior French military officer to reject the June 1940 armistice to Nazi Germany right from the outset.
He escaped to Britain and gave a famous radio address, broadcast by the BBC on 18 June 1940, exhorting the French people to resist Nazi Germany and organised the Free French Forces with exiled French officers in Britain. As the war progressed, de Gaulle gradually gained control of all French colonies except Indochina. By the time of the Allied invasion of France in 1944 he was heading what amounted to a French government in exile. From the very beginning, de Gaulle insisted that France be treated as a great power by the other Allies, despite her initial defeat. De Gaulle became prime minister in the French Provisional Government, resigning in 1946 because of political conflicts.
After the war ended he founded his own political party, the Rally of the French People (RFP) on 14 April 1947. Although he retired from politics in the early 1950s after the RPF’s failure to win power, and had limited access to government-controlled TV and radio, he was voted back to power as President of the Council of Ministers by the French Assembly during the May 1958 crisis. De Gaulle led the writing of a new constitution founding the Fifth Republic, and was elected President of France.
As President, Charles de Gaulle was able to end the political chaos that preceded his return to power. A new French currency was issued in January 1960 to control inflation and industrial growth was promoted. Although he initially supported French rule over Algeria, he controversially decided to grant independence to that country, ending an expensive and unpopular war but leaving France divided and having to face down opposition from the European settlers and French military who had originally supported his return to power.
Immensely patriotic, de Gaulle and his supporters held the view, known as Gaullism, that France should continue to see itself as a major power and should not rely on other countries, such as the United States, for its national security and prosperity. Often criticized for his Politics of Grandeur, de Gaulle oversaw the development of French atomic weapons and promoted a foreign policy independent of American and British influences. He withdrew France from NATO military command-although remaining a member of the western alliance-and twice vetoed Britain’s entry into the European Community. He travelled widely in Eastern Europe and other parts of the world and recognised Communist China. On a visit to Canada in 1967, he gave encouragement to Québécois separatism with his historical “Vive le Québec Libre” speech.
During his term, de Gaulle also faced controversy and political opposition from Communists and Socialists, as well as from the far right. Despite having been re-elected as President, this time by direct popular ballot, in 1965, in May 1968 he appeared likely to lose power amidst widespread protests by students and workers, but survived the crisis with an increased majority in the Assembly. However, de Gaulle resigned in 1969 after losing a referendum in which he proposed more decentralization. He is considered by many to be the most influential leader in modern French history.
De Gaulle was born in the industrial region of Lille in French Flanders, the third of five children of Henri de Gaulle, a professor of history and literature at a Jesuit college, who eventually founded his own school. He was raised in a family of devout Roman Catholics who were patriotic and traditionalist, but also quite progressive.
His father came from a long line of parliamentary gentry from Normandy and Burgundy, while his mother, Jeanne (née Maillot), descended from a family of wealthy entrepreneurs from Lille. His mother had French, Irish (MacCartan), Scottish (Fleming), and German (Kolb) ancestry. According to Henri, the patrilineal surname’s origin was never determined, but could have been Celtic. He thought that the name could be derived from the word gaule-a long pole which was used in the Middle Ages to beat fruits from the trees. Another source has the name deriving from Galle, meaning “oak” in the Gaulish language, and the sacred tree of the druids.
The oldest recorded ancestor of de Gaulle could well be that of a Richard de Gaulle, squire of King Philippe Auguste, who endowed the de Gaulle with a fiefdom in Elbeuf-en-Bray in Normandy in 1210.
De Gaulle’s father, Henri, encouraged historical and philosophical debate between his children at mealtimes, and through his encouragement, Charles grew familiar with French history from an early age. Struck by his mother’s tale of how she cried as a child when she heard of the French capitulation to the Germans at Sedan in 1870, he developed a keen interest in military strategy and endlessly questioned his father about the other failures of the brief war at Vionville and Mars-la-Tour, and though a naturally shy person his entire life, often organised other children to re-enact ancient French battles.
The wider de Gaulle family were also very literary and academic, and he was raised on tales of the flight of the Scottish Stuarts into France, to whom he was related on his mother’s side. He was also impressed by his uncle, also called Charles de Gaulle, who was a historian and passionate Celticist who wrote books and pamphlets advocating the union of the Welsh, Scots, Irish and Bretons into one people. His grandfather Julien-Philippe was also a historian and his grandmother Josephine-Marie wrote poems which impassioned his Christian faith.
When he was eight years old, the young Charles suffered what he regarded as the most traumatic event of his childhood; the French humiliation at being forced to withdraw its expeditionary force from the upper Nile region to prevent the Fashoda Incident developing into outright war with Britain. This marked the beginning of his lifelong mistrust of Great Britain.
Always a voracious reader, he particularly loved to read his father’s books by such writers as Henri Bergson, Charles Péguy, and Maurice Barrés. In addition to the German philosophers Friedrich Nietzsche, Immanuel Kant and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the works of the ancient Greeks (especially Plato) and the prose of the romanticist poet François-René de Chateaubriand. By the time he was ten, he was reading medieval history, such as the Froissart’s Chronicles of the Hundred Years War. He began his own writing in his early teens, and later his family paid for one composition, a one-act play in verse about a traveller, to be privately published.
When he was 11, the family moved to Paris, where he loved to climb the tower at Notre Dame de Paris to look out over the city, and also visit the Catholic Church of Saint-Sulpice with his parents to listen to the world famous organ music.
De Gaulle was educated in Paris at the College Stanislas and also briefly in Belgium where he continued to display his interest in reading and studying history, and shared the great pride many of his countrymen felt in their nation’s achievements. France made a significant contribution to European culture with its Impressionist painters, the sculpture of Rodin, writers such as Émile Zola and Marcel Proust and the music of Claude Debussy, and helped lead the way with technological advances such as with the construction of the Suez Canal and the Eiffel Tower and in recent developments in aviation, the cinema and the motor car. As he grew older, he also developed a profound belief in his destiny to achieve great things, and, eager to avenge the French defeat of 1870, decided upon a military career as being the best way to make a name for himself.
Before he could become an officer cadet, regulations which had recently been introduced dictated that he had to spend a year as an ordinary soldier. As an individualist, de Gaulle was an average soldier. He was promoted to corporal after six months, then to sergeant. He disliked barrack life and what he saw as pointless regulations, not because he objected to military discipline, but because he considered the procedures to be time wasting and out of date to the point of possibly damaging the military potential of the best new recruits.
Afterwards, de Gaulle spent four years studying and training at the elite military academy, Saint-Cyr. While there, and because of his height, high forehead, and nose, he acquired the nicknames of “the great asparagus” and “Cyrano”.
He did well at the academy and received praise for his conduct, manners, intelligence, character, military spirit and resistance to fatigue. However, he often quarrelled with his company commander and other officers that there was a lack of preparation for war with Germany, and that the French training and equipment were inadequate to deal with a numerically superior adversary. Graduating in 1912 in 13th place out of 210 cadets, his passing out report noted that he was a highly gifted cadet who should go on to make an excellent officer. Preferring to serve in France rather than far away in North Africa or Indochina, he joined the 33rd infantry regiment of the French Army, based at Arras and commanded by Colonel (and future Marshal) Philippe Pétain. De Gaulle’s career would follow Pétain’s for the next 20 years.
First World War
While at Arras in the build up to World War I, de Gaulle developed a good rapport with his commanding officer, Pétain, with whom he shared a number of ideas on French military affairs, and was often seen on exercise and in officer’s quarters with his superior debating great battles and the likely outcome of any coming war. Both men agreed that the invention of the machine gun and rapid-firing artillery rendered cavalry virtually obsolete and would require a shift to semi-static positions from which attacks would be made under the protection of a heavy barrage at the enemy.
When war finally broke out in late July 1914, the 33rd Regiment, considered one of the best fighting units in France was immediately thrown into checking the German advance at Dinant. However, the traditionally minded French Fifth Army commander, General Charles Lanrezac threw his units into pointless bayonet charges with bugles and full colours flying against the German artillery, incurring heavy losses.
Promoted to platoon commander, de Gaulle was involved in fierce fighting from the outset but was among the first to be wounded. In hospital, he grew bitter at the tactics used, and spoke with other injured officers against the outdated methods of the French army. Yet, with General Joseph Joffre’s decision to stop the retreat and counter-attack, favoured by the arrival of British units and by changes in the command structure, the rapid German advance was eventually stalled by mid September at the First Battle of the Marne. Returning to find many of his former comrades dead, he was put in charge of a company. De Gaulle’s unit gained recognition for repeatedly crawling out into no-mans-land to listen to the conversations of the enemy in their trenches, and the information he brought back was so valuable that in January 1915 he received a citation for his bravery. After a more serious wound which incapacitated him for four months, he was promoted to capitaine (captain) in September 1915. Taking charge of his company, he narrowly escaped death shortly afterwards when he was blown up by a mine, leaving him with a wound in his left hand which obliged him later to wear his wedding ring on his right hand.
At the Battle of Verdun in March 1916, while leading a charge to try to break out of a position which had become surrounded by the enemy, he received a bayonet wound to the leg after being stunned by a shell and, passing out from the effects of poison gas, was captured at Douaumont, one of the few survivors of his battalion. Initially giving him up for dead, Ptain, who was later to achieve great acclaim for his role in the battle, wrote in the regimental journal that de Gaulle had been “an outstanding officer in all respects”.
In captivity de Gaulle acquired yet another nickname, Le Conntable (“The Constable”). This came about because of his reading German newspapers (he had learned German at school and spent a vacation in the Black Forest region) and giving talks on his view of the progress of the conflict to fellow prisoners. These were delivered with such patriotic ardour and confidence in victory that they called him by the title which had been given to the commander-in-chief of the French army during the monarchy.
While being held as a prisoner of war, de Gaulle wrote his first book, co-written by Matthieu Butler, L’Ennemi et le vrai ennemi (“The Enemy and the True Enemy”), analysing the issues and divisions within the German Empire and its forces; the book was published in 1924.
In all, he made five unsuccessful escape attempts, being moved to higher security accommodation and punished on his return with long periods of solitary confinement and with the withdrawal of privileges such as newspapers and tobacco. In his letters to his parents he constantly spoke of his frustration that the war was continuing without him, calling the situation “a shameful misfortune” and compared it to being cuckolded. As the war neared its end, he grew depressed that he was playing no part in the victory, but despite his efforts, he remained in captivity until the German surrender. On 1 December 1918, three weeks after the armistice, he returned to his father’s house in the Dordogne to be reunited with his three brothers, who had all served in the army and survived the war.
Between the wars
After the armistice, de Gaulle continued to serve in the army, and was with the staff of the French military mission to Poland as an instructor of Polish Infantry during its war with Communist Russia (1919-1921). He distinguished himself in operations near the River Zbrucz and won the highest Polish military decoration, the Virtuti Militari – although the award was granted in five classes at the time, with class I and class II reserved largely for royalty and field marshals, and de Gaulle received the class V award sans cross.
He was promoted to commandant in the Polish Army and offered a further career in Poland, but chose instead to return to France, where he taught at the cole Militaire. Although he was a protg of his old commander, Marshal Philippe Ptain, de Gaulle believed in the use of tanks and rapid manoeuvres rather than trench warfare.
De Gaulle served with the Army of Occupation in the Rhineland in the mid-1920s. As a commandant (“major”) by the late 1920s, he briefly commanded a light infantry battalion at Treves (Trier) and then served a tour of duty in Syria, then a French protectorate under a mandate from the League of Nations. During the 1930s, now a lieutenant-colonel, he served as a staff officer in France. In 1934 he wrote Vers lArme de Mtier (“Toward a Professional Army”), which advocated a professional army based on mobile armoured divisions. Such an army would both compensate for the poor French demography, and be an efficient tool to enforce international law, particularly the Treaty of Versailles which forbade Germany from rearming. The book sold only 700 copies in France, where Ptain advocated an infantry-based, defensive army, but 7,000 copies in Germany, where it was read aloud to Adolf Hitler.
Second World War
The Battle of France
At the outbreak of World War II, de Gaulle was still a colonel, having antagonised the leaders of the military through the 1920s and 1930s with his bold views. Initially commanding a tank regiment in the French Fifth Army, de Gaulle implemented many of his theories and tactics for armoured warfare against an enemy whose strategies resembled his own. After the German breakthrough at Sedan on 15 May 1940 he was given command of the improvised 4e Division cuirasse.
On 17 May, de Gaulle attacked German tank forces at Montcornet with 200 tanks but no air support. Although de Gaulle’s tanks forced the German infantry to retreat to Caumont the action brought only temporary relief and did little to slow the spearhead of the German advance. Nevertheless, it was one of the few successes the French enjoyed while suffering defeats elsewhere across the country. In recognition for his efforts, de Gaulle was promoted to acting brigadier general on 24 May, a rank he would hold for the rest of his life. On 28 May, he took part in an attempt to rescue the Allied force trapped at Dunkirk by cutting an escape route through German forces at Abbeville.
On 5 June, Prime Minister Paul Reynaud appointed him Under Secretary of State for National Defence and War and put him in charge of coordination with the United Kingdom.
As a junior member of the French government, he unsuccessfully opposed surrender, advocating instead that the government remove itself to North Africa and carry on the war as best it could from France’s African colonies. While serving as a liaison with the British government, de Gaulle telephoned Reynaud from London on 16 June informing him of the offer by Britain of a Declaration of Union. The declaration, inspired by Jean Monnet, would have merged France and the United Kingdom into one country, with a single government and army. The offer was a desperate, last-minute effort to strengthen the resolve of Reynaud’s government; his cabinet’s hostile reaction to the offer contributed to Reynaud’s resignation.
In rejecting the proposal, Marshal Philippe Ptain, believing that Germany would soon defeat Britain as well and who later went on to lead the collaborationist Vichy regime, told British Prime Minister Winston Churchill that “in three weeks, England will have its neck wrung like a chicken” and that such a plan would be like “fusion with a corpse”.
Returning the same day to Bordeaux, the temporary wartime capital, de Gaulle learned that Marshal Ptain had become prime minister and was planning to seek an armistice with Nazi Germany. De Gaulle and other allied officers rebelled against the new French government; on the morning of 17 June, de Gaulle and a few senior French officers flew to Britain with 100,000 gold francs in secret funds provided to him by the ex-prime minister Paul Reynaud. Narrowly escaping the Luftwaffe, he landed safely in London that afternoon.
Leader of the Free French
De Gaulle strongly denounced the French government’s decision to seek armistice with the Nazis and set about building the Free French Forces from the soldiers and officers deployed outside France or who had fled France with him. On 18 June, de Gaulle delivered a famous radio address via the BBC Radio service. Although the British cabinet initially attempted to block the speech, they were overruled by Churchill.
De Gaulle’s Appeal of 18 June exhorted the French people not to be demoralised and to continue to resist the occupation of France and work against the collaborationist Vichy regime, which had signed an armistice with Nazi Germany. Although the original broadcast could only be heard in a few parts of occupied France, de Gaulle’s subsequent speeches reached many parts of the territories under the Vichy regime, helping to rally the French resistance movement and earning him much popularity amongst the French people and soldiers. On 4 July 1940, a court-martial in Toulouse sentenced de Gaulle in absentia to four years in prison. At a second court-martial on 2 August 1940 de Gaulle was condemned to death for treason against the Vichy regime.
With British support, the de Gaulle family made their exile home in England. For the first four months they rented a home in Petts Wood near Bromley in southeast London. then moved further inland to Shropshire, where they rented Gadlas Hall, Dudleston Heath, near Ellesmere. They later lived at Rodinghead near Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire (36 miles northwest of London) from October 1941 to September 1942. From 1942 to 1944, he lived in Hampstead, north-west London, at 99 Frognal, and attended the nearby St Mary’s Church, Hampstead. He organised the Free French forces and gradually the Allies gave increasing support and recognition to de Gaulle’s efforts. In dealings with his British allies and the United States, de Gaulle insisted at all times on retaining full freedom of action on behalf of France and he was constantly on the verge of being cut off by the Allies. Many denials of the deep and mutual antipathy between de Gaulle and political leaders of Anglo-American allies of the French are on historical record.
He harboured a suspicion of the British in particular, believing that they were surreptitiously seeking to steal France’s colonial possessions in the Levant. A self-confessed francophile, Winston Churchill was often frustrated at de Gaulle’s patriotic egocentricity, but also wrote of his “immense admiration” for him during the early days of his British exile. Though their relationship later became strained, Churchill tried to explain the reasons for de Gaulle’s behaviour in the second volume of his history of World War II;
“He felt it was essential to his position before the French people that he should maintain a proud and haughty demeanour towards “perfidious Albion”, although in exile, dependent upon our protection and dwelling in our midst. He had to be rude to the British to prove to French eyes that he was not a British puppet. He certainly carried out this policy with perseverance”.
Clementine Churchill, who admired de Gaulle, once cautioned him, “General, you must not hate your friends more than you hate your enemies.” De Gaulle himself stated famously, “France has no friends, only interests.” The situation was nonetheless complex, and de Gaulle’s mistrust of both British and U.S. intentions with regards to France was mirrored by a mistrust of the Free French among the U.S. political leadership, who for a long time refused to recognise de Gaulle as the representative of France, preferring to deal with representatives of the Vichy government. Roosevelt in particular hoped that it would be possible to wean Ptain away from Germany.
Working with the French resistance and other supporters in France’s colonial African possessions after the Anglo-U.S. invasion of North Africa in November 1942, de Gaulle moved his headquarters to Algiers in May 1943. He became first joint head (with the less resolutely independent General Henri Giraud, the candidate preferred by the U.S. who wrongly suspected de Gaulle of being a British puppet) and then after squeezing out Giraud by force of personality sole chairman of the French Committee of National Liberation.
De Gaulle was held in high regard by Allied commander General Dwight Eisenhower. In Algiers in 1943, Eisenhower gave de Gaulle the assurance in person that a French force would liberate Paris and arranged that the army division of French General Philippe Leclerc de Hauteclocque would be transferred from North Africa to England to carry out that liberation. Eisenhower was impressed by the combativeness of units of the Free French Forces and “grateful for the part they had played in mopping up the remnants of German resistance”; he also detected how strongly devoted many were to de Gaulle and how ready they were to accept him as the national leader.
Preparations for D-Day
As preparations for the liberation of Europe gathered pace, the Americans in particular found de Gaulle’s tendency to view everything from the French perspective to be extremely tiring. Roosevelt, who refused to recognise any provisional authority in France until elections had been held, considered de Gaulle to be a potential dictator, a view backed by a number of leading Frenchmen in Washington, including Jean Monnet, who later became an instrumental figure in the setting up of the European Coal and Steel Community that led to the modern European Union. He also refused to allow Churchill to provide de Gaulle with strategic details of the imminent invasion because he did not trust him to keep the information to himself. French codes were known to be weak, but because the Free French refused to use British or American codes, this posed a major security risk.
Nevertheless, a few days before D-Day Churchill, whose relationship with the General had deteriorated since the days he first came to Britain, decided he needed to keep him more or less informed of developments, and on 2 June he sent two passenger aircraft and his representative, Duff Cooper to Algiers to bring de Gaulle back to Britain. De Gaulle refused because of Roosevelt’s intention to install a provisional Allied military government in the former occupied territories pending elections, but he eventually relented and flew to Britain the next day.
Upon his arrival at RAF Northolt on 4 June 1944 he received an official welcome, and a letter reading “My dear general! Welcome to these shores, very great military events are about to take place!” Later, on his personal train, Churchill informed him that he wanted him to make a radio address, but when informed that the Americans continued to refuse to recognise his legitimate right to power in France, and after Churchill suggested he request a meeting with Roosevelt to improve his relationship with the president, de Gaulle became angry, demanding to know why he should “lodge my candidacy for power in France with Roosevelt; the French government exists”.
De Gaulle was concerned at a general break down of civil order and of a potential communist takeover in the vacuum which might follow a German withdrawal of France. During the general conversation which followed with those present, de Gaulle was involved in an angry exchange with the Labour minister, Ernest Bevin, and, raising his concerns about the validity of the new currency to be circulated by the Allies after the liberation, de Gaulle commented scornfully, “go and wage war with your false money”. De Gaulle was much concerned that an American takeover of the French administration would just provoke a communist uprising.
Churchill then also lost his temper, saying that Britain could not act separately from America, and that under the circumstances, if they had to choose between France and the US, Britain would always choose the latter. De Gaulle replied that he realised that this would always be the case. The next day, de Gaulle refused to address the French nation because the script again made no mention of his being the legitimate interim ruler of France. It instructed the French people to obey Allied military authorities until elections could be held, and so the row continued, with de Gaulle calling Churchill a “gangster”. Churchill in turn accused the general of treason in the height of battle, and demanded he be flown back to Algiers “in chains if necessary”.
In the years to come, the hostile dependent wartime relationship of de Gaulle and his future political peers re-enacted the historical national and colonial rivalry and lasting enmity between the French and English, and foreshadowed the deep distrust of France for post-war Anglo-American partnerships.
Return to France
Perhaps inevitably, de Gaulle ignored les Anglo-Saxons, and proclaimed the authority of the Free French Forces in France the next day. Under the leadership of General de Lattre de Tassigny, France fielded an entire army a joint force of Free French together with French colonial troops from North Africa on the western front. Initially landing as part of Operation Dragoon, in the south of France, the French First Army helped to liberate almost one third of the country and actively rejoined the Allies in the struggle against Germany. As the invasion slowly progressed and the Germans were pushed back, de Gaulle made preparations to return to France.
On 14 June 1944 he left Britain for France for what was supposed to be a one day trip. Despite an agreement that he would take only two staff, he was accompanied by a large entourage with extensive luggage, and although many rural Normans remained mistrustful of him, he was warmly greeted by the inhabitants of the towns he visited, such as the badly damaged Isigny. Finally he arrived at the city of Bayeux, which he now proclaimed as the capital of Free France. Appointing his Aide-de-Camp Francois Coulet as head of the civil administration, de Gaulle returned to England that same night on a French destroyer, and although the official position of the supreme military command remained unchanged, local Allied officers found it more practical to deal with the fledgling administration in Bayeux in everyday matters.
De Gaulle flew to Algiers on 16 June and then went on to Rome to meet the Pope and the new Italian Government. At the beginning of July he at last visited Roosevelt in Washington, where he received the 17 gun salute of a senior military leader rather than the 21 guns of a visiting head of state. The visit was ‘devoid of trust on both sides’ according to the French representative, however Roosevelt did make some concessions towards recognising the legitimacy of the Bayeux administration.
Meanwhile, with the Germans retreating in the face of the Allied onslaught, harried all the way by the resistance, there were widespread instances of revenge attacks on those accused of collaboration. A number of prominent officials and members of the feared Milice were murdered, often by exceptionally brutal means, provoking the Germans into appalling reprisals, such as in the destruction of the village of Oradour-sur-Glane and the killing of its 642 inhabitants. Of little strategic value, Paris was initially not high on the list of Allied objectives, but both de Gaulle and the commander of the 2nd Armoured Division, General Philippe Leclerc were concerned that a possible communist attempt to take over the capital would plunge France into civil war. De Gaulle successfully lobbied for Paris to be made a priority for liberation on humanitarian grounds and obtained from Allied Supreme Commander General Dwight D. Eisenhower an agreement that French troops would be allowed to enter the capital first. A few days later, General Leclerc’s French Armoured Division entered the outskirts of the city, and after six days of fighting in which the resistance played a major part, the German garrison of 5000 men surrendered on 25 August, although some sporadic outbreaks of fighting continued for several days. In surrendering, the German commander General Dietrich von Choltitz ignored Hitler’s orders to raze the city to the ground.
It was fortunate for de Gaulle that the Germans had forcibly removed members of the Vichy government and taken them to Germany a few days earlier on 20 August; it allowed him to enter Paris as a liberator in the midst of the general euphoria, but there were serious concerns that communist elements of the resistance, which had done so much to clear the way for the military would try to seize the opportunity to proclaim their own ‘Peoples’ Government’ in the capital. De Gaulle made contact with Leclerc and demanded the presence of the 2nd Armoured Division to accompany him on a massed parade down the Champs Elysees, “as much for prestige as for security”. This was in spite of the fact that Leclerc’s unit was fighting as part of the American 1st Army and were under strict orders to continue their next objective without obeying orders from anyone else. In the event, the American General Omar Bradley decided that Leclerc’s division would be indispensable for the maintenance of order and the liquidation of the last pockets of resistance in the French capital. Earlier, on 21 August, de Gaulle had appointed his military advisor General Marie Koenig as Governor of Paris.
As his procession came along the Place de la Concorde on Saturday 26 August, it came under machine gun fire by Vichy militia and fifth columnists who were unable to give themselves up. Later, on entering the cathedral at Notre Dame to be received as head of the provisional government by the Committee of Liberation, loud shots broke out again, and Leclerc and Koenig tried to hustle him through the door, but de Gaulle shook off their hands and never faltered. While the battle began outside, he walked slowly down the aisle. Before he had gone far a machine pistol fired down from above, at least two more joined in, and from below the F.F.I, and police fired back. A BBC correspondent who was present reported;
“the General is being presented to the people. He is being received…they have opened fire! firing started all over the place… that was one of the most dramatic scenes I have ever seen…. General de Gaulle walked straight ahead into what appeared to me to be a hail of fire… but he went straight ahead without hesitation, his shoulders flung back, and walked right down the centre aisle, even while the bullets were pouring about him. It was the most extraordinary example of courage I have ever seen… there were bangs, flashes all about him, yet he seemed to have an absolutely charmed life.”
Later, in the great hall of the Hotel de Ville, de Gaulle was greeted by a jubilant crowd and, proclaiming the continuity of the Third Republic, delivered a characteristically Franco-centric proclamation;
“Paris outraged, Paris broken, Paris martyred, but Paris liberated! By herself, liberated by her people, with the help of the whole of France! We will not rest until we march, as we must, into enemy territory as conquerors. France has a right to be in the first line among the great nations who are going to organize the peace and the life of the world. She has a right to be heard in all four corners of the world. France is a great world power. She knows it and will act so that others may know it.”
That night the Germans launched a massive artillery and air bombardment on Paris by way of revenge, killing over a thousand people and wounding several thousand others. The situation in Paris remained tense, and a few days later de Gaulle, still unsure of the trend of events asked General Eisenhower to send some American troops into Paris as a show of strength. This he did ‘not without some satisfaction’, and so on 29 August, the US 28th Infantry Division was rerouted from its journey to the front line and paraded down the Champs Elysees.
The same day, Washington and London bowed to the inevitable and finally came to an agreement to accept the position of the Free French. The following day General Eisenhower gave his de facto blessing with a visit to the General in Paris.
-China proclaimed the freedom and independence of Vietnam.
Prime Minister of France 1944-1946
With the pre-war parties and many of their leaders discredited, there was little opposition to de Gaulle and his associates forming an interim administration. In order not to be seen as presuming on his position in such austere times, de Gaulle did not use one of the grand official residences such as Hotel de Matignon or the Presidential palace on the Elysee, but resided briefly in his old office at the War Ministry. When he was joined by his wife and daughters a short while later, they moved into a small state owned villa on edge of Bois de Boulogne which had once been set aside for Hermann Gring.
Living conditions immediately after the liberation were even worse than under Nazi rule. A quarter of housing had been damaged or destroyed, basic public services were at a standstill, petrol and electricity was extremely scarce and, apart from the wealthy who could afford high prices, the population had to get by on very little food. Large scale public demonstrations erupted all over France protesting at the apparent lack of action at improving the supply of food, while in Normandy, bakeries were pillaged. The problem was that although wheat production was around 80% of pre war levels, transport was paralysed over virtually the whole of France. Large areas of track had been destroyed by bombing, most modern equipment, rolling stock, lorries and farm animals had been taken to Germany and all the bridges over the Seine, the Loire and the Rhone between Paris and the sea had been destroyed. The black market pushed real prices to four times the level of 1939, causing the government to print money to try to improve the money supply, which only added to inflation.
Curbing the Communist Resistance
After the celebrations had died down, de Gaulle began conferring with leading Resistance figures who, with the Germans gone, intended to continue as a political and military force, and asked to be given a government building to serve as their headquarters. The Resistance, in which the Communists were competing with other trends for leadership, had developed its own manifesto for social and political change known as the National Council of the Resistance (CNR) Charter, and wanted special status to enter the army under their own flags, ranks and honours. Despite their decisive support in backing him against Giraud, de Gaulle disappointed some of the Resistance leaders by telling them that although their efforts and sacrifices had been recognised, they had no further role to play and that unless they joined the regular army they should lay down their arms and return to civilian life.
Believing them to be a dangerous revolutionary force, de Gaulle moved to break up the liberation committees and other militias. The political outlook of the Communists represented the complete opposite of his own views, and he was concerned at the amount of support they were receiving from the public. The potential power of the Communists also troubled the American government. As early as May 1943, the US Secretary of State Cordell Hull had written to Roosevelt urging him to take action to attempt to curb the rise of Communism in France.
The Provisional Government of the French Republic
On 10 September 1944, the Provisional Government of the French Republic, or Government of National Unanimity was formed. It included many of de Gaulles Free French associates such as Gaston Palewski, Claude Guy, Claude Mauriac and Jacques Soustelle, together with members of the main parties, which included the Socialists and a new Christian Democratic Party, the MRP under the leadership of Georges Bidault, who served as Foreign Minister. The President of the prewar Senate Jules Jeanneney was brought back as second ranking member, but because of their links with Russia, de Gaulle allowed the Communists only two minor positions in his government. Although they were now a major political force with over a million members, of the full cabinet of 22 men, only Augustin Laurent and Charles Tillon – who as head of Francs-Tireurs-Partisans had been one of the most active members of the resistance were given ministries. However, de Gaulle did pardon the Communists’ leader Maurice Thorez, who had been sentenced to death in absentia by the French government for desertion. On his return home from Russia, Thorez delivered a speech supporting de Gaulle in which he said that for the present, the war against Germany was the only task that mattered.
There were also a number of new faces in the government, including a literary academic, Georges Pompidou, who had written to one of de Gaulles recruiting agents offering his services, and Jean Monnet, who in spite of his past opposition to the General now recognised the need for unity and served as Commissoner for Economic Planning. Of equal rank to Ministers and answerable only to the Prime Minister, a number of Commissioners of the Republic (Commissaires de la Republique) were appointed to re-establish the democratic institutions of France and to extend the legitimacy of the provisional government. A number of former Free French associates served as Commissioners, including Henri Freville, Raymond Aubrac and Michel Debre, who was charged with reforming the Civil Service. Controversially, de Gaulle also appointed Maurice Papon as Commissioner for Aquitaine in spite of his involvement in the deportation of Jews while serving as a senior police official in the Vichy regime during the occupation. Over the years, Papon remained in high official positions but would continue to be implicated in controversial events such as the Paris Massacre of 1961, eventually being convicted of crimes against humanity in 1998.
Tour of major cities
De Gaullees policy was to postpone elections as long as 2.6 million French were in Germany as prisoners of war and forced labourers. In mid-September he embarked upon a tour of major provincial cities to increase his public profile and to help cement his position. Although he received a largely positive reception from the crowds who came out to see him, he reflected that only a few months previously the very same people had come out to cheer Marshal Petain when he was serving the Vichy regime. Raymond Aubrac said that the General showed himself to be ill-at-ease at social functions; in Marseilles and Lyon he displayed great irritation when he was forced to sit next to local Resistance leaders at the post-rally banquet and was particularly scathing at what he regarded as the vulgar displays of exuberance among young men and women during the Masquisards parades which preceded his speech. When he reached Toulouse, de Gaulle also had to confront the leaders of a group which had proclaimed themselves to be the provincial government of the city.
During the tour, de Gaulle showed his customary lack of concern for his own safety by mixing with the crowds and thus making himself an easy target for an assassin. Although he was naturally shy, the good use of amplification and patriotic music enabled him to deliver his message that though all of France was fragmented and suffering together they would rise again. During every speech he would stop halfway through to invite the crowd to join him in singing La Marseillaise, before continuing and finishing by raising his hands in the air and crying “Vive la France!”
The legal purges (Épuration légale)
As the war entered its final stages, the nation was forced to confront the reality of how many of its people had behaved under German rule. In France, collaborators were more severely punished than in most other occupied countries. Immediately after the liberation, countless women accused of fraternising with the enemy were publicly shaved in the steets or daubed with feathers, although a significant number were less fortunate, being viciously killed. With so many of their former members having been hunted down and killed by the Nazis and paramilitary Milice, the Partisans had already summarily executed an estimated 4500 people, and the Communists in particular continued to press for severe action against collaborators. In Paris alone, over 150,000 people were at some time detained on suspicion of collaboration, although most were later released. Famous figures accused included the industrialist Louis Renault, the actress Arletty, who had lived openly with a German officer in the Ritz, the opera star Tino Rossi, the stage actor Sacha Guitry and Coco Chanel, who was briefly detained but fled to Switzerland.
Keenly aware of the need to seize the initiative and to get the process under firm judicial control, de Gaulle appointed Justice Minister Franois de Menthon to lead the Legal Purge (epuration Legale) to punish traitors and to clear away the traces of the Vichy regime. Knowing that he would need to reprieve many of the economic collaborators such as police and civil servants who held minor roles under Vichy in order to keep the country running as normally as possible he assumed, as head of state, the right to commute death sentences. In all, of the near 2000 people who received the death sentence from the courts, less than 800 were actually executed. De Gaulle commuted 998 of the 1554 capital sentences submitted before him, including all those involving women. Many others were given jail terms or sentenced to national humiliation (loss of civil rights). It is generally agreed that the purge was not well conducted, with often absurdly severe or overly lenient punishments being handed down. It was also notable that the less well-off people who were unable to pay for lawyers were more harshly treated. As time went by and feelings grew less intense, a number of people who had held fairly senior positions under the Vichy government such as Maurice Papon and Ren Bousquet escaped justice by claiming to have worked secretly for the resistance or to have played a double game, working for the good of France by serving the established order.
Later, there was the question of what to do with the former Vichy leaders when they were finally returned to France. Marshal Ptain and Maxime Weygand were war heroes from World War I and were now extremely old; convicted of treason, Ptain received a death sentence which his old protg de Gaulle commuted to life imprisonment, while Weygand was eventually acquitted. In all, three Vichy leaders were executed; Joseph Darnand, who became an SS officer and led the Milice paramilitaries who hunted down members of the Resistance, was executed in October 1945, while Fernand de Brinon, the third ranking Vichy official was found guilty of war crimes and executed in April 1947. The two trials of the most infamous collaborator of all, Pierre Laval, who was heavily implicated in the murder of Jews were widely criticised as being unfair for depriving him of the opportunity to properly defend himself, although Laval antagonised the court throughout with his bizarre behaviour. He was found guilty of treason in May 1945 and de Gaulle was adamant that there would be no commuting the death sentence, saying that Lavals execution was “an indispenable symbolic gesture required for reasons of state”. There was a widespread belief, particularly in the years that followed, that de Gaulle was trying to appease both the Third Republic politicians and the former Vichy leaders who had made Laval their scapegoat.
Winter of 1944
The winter of 1944-45 was a miserable time. Inflation showed no sign of slowing down and the lives of ordinary people were still blighted by severe shortages. The Prime Minister and the other Gaullists were forced to try to balance the desires of ordinary people and public servants for a return to normal life with pressure from Bidaults MRP and the Communists for the large scale nationalisation programme and other social changes that formed the main tenets of the CNR Charter. At end of 1944 the coal industry and other energy companies were nationalised, followed shortly afterwards by major banks and finance houses, the merchant navy, the main aircraft manufacturers, airlines and a number of major private enterprises such as the Renault car company at Boulogne-Billancourt, whose owner had been implicated as a collaborator and accused of having made huge profits working for the Nazis. In some cases unions, feeling that things were not progressing quickly enough took matters into their own hands, occupying premises and setting up workers committees to run the companies. Women were also allowed the vote for the first time, a new social security system was introduced to cover most medical costs, unions were expanded and price controls introduced to try to curb inflation. At de Gaulles request, the newspaper Le Monde was founded in December 1944 to provide France with a quality daily journal similar to those in other countries. Le Monde took over the premises and facilities of the older Le Temps, whose independence and reputation had been badly compromised during the Vichy years.
During this period there were a number of minor disagreements between the French and the other Allies. The British Ambassador to France Duff Cooper said that during this time de Gaulle seemed to seek out real or imagined insults to take offence at wherever possible. De Gaulle believed that Britain and America were intending to keep their armies in France after the war and were secretly working to take over her overseas possessions and to prevent her from regaining her political and economic strength. In late October he complained that the Allies were failing to adequately arm and equip the new French army and instructed Bidault to use the French veto at the European Council.
On Armistice Day in 1944, Winston Churchill made his first visit to France since the liberation and received a good reception in Paris where he laid a wreath to Clemenceau. The occasion also marked the first official appearance of de Gaulles wife Yvonne, but the visit was less friendly than it appeared. De Gaulle had given strict instructions that there should be no excessive displays of public affection towards Churchill and no official awards without his prior agreement. When crowds cheered Churchill during a parade down the Elysee, de Gaulle was heard to remark, “Fools and cretins! Look at the rabble cheering the old bandit”.
Visit to USSR
With the Russian forces making more rapid advances into German held territory than the Allies, there was a sudden public realisation that the Soviet Union was about to dominate large parts of Eastern Europe. In fact, at the Cairo and Tehran Conferences in 1943 Britain and America had already agreed to allow Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary to fall under the Russian sphere of influence after the war, with shared influence in Yugoslavia. Britain was to retain hegemony over Greece, although there had been no agreement over Poland, whose eastern territories were already in Russian hands under the Brest-Litovsk agreement with Germany, and which retained a government in exile in London. De Gaulle had not been invited to any of the Big Three Conferences, although the decisions made by Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt in dividing up Europe were of huge importance to France.
By now it was clear that although for the time being they remained allies, in the coming years the western capitalist democracies would increasingly clash with the Communist ideology. De Gaulle and his Foreign Minister Bidault stated that they were not in favour of a Western Block that would be separate from the rest of Europe, and hoped that a resurgent France might be able to act as a third force in Europe to temper the ambitions of the two emerging superpowers, America and Russia. He began seeking an audience with Stalin to press his facing both ways policy, and finally received an invitation in late 1944. In his Memoirs, de Gaulle devoted 24 pages to his visit to Russia, but a number of writers make the point that his version of events differs significantly from that of the Russians, of foreign news correspondents, and with their own eye witness accounts.
De Gaulle wanted access to German coal in the Ruhr, the left bank of the Rhine to be incorporated into French territory, and for the Oder-Neisse line in Poland to become Germany’s official Eastern border. De Gaulle began by requesting that France enter into a treaty with the Soviet Union on this basis, but Stalin, who remained in contact with Churchill throughout the visit, said that it would be impossible to make such an agreement without the consent of Britain and America. But he suggested that it might possible to add France’s name to the existing Anglo-Soviet Agreement if they agreed to recognise the Soviet-backed provisional Polish government known as the Lublin Committee as rightful rulers of Poland. De Gaulle responded that this would be un-French, as it would mean her being a junior partner in an alliance.
During the visit, de Gaulle accompanied the deputy Russian leader Vyacheslav Molotov on a visit to the Stalingrad battleground where he was deeply moved by the scene of carnage he witnessed and surprised Molotov by referring to “our joint sacrifice”.
The treaty which was eventually signed by Bidault and Molotov was of little relevance to Stalin because of France’s lack of political and military power, and it did not affect the outcome of the post-war settlement, but it carried a symbolic importance in that it enabled de Gaulle to demonstrate that he was representing France as official head of state and that France’s voice was being heard. However, Stalin later commented that he found Gaulle awkward and stubborn, that he lacked realism by claiming the same rights as the great powers and believed that he was not a complicated person He also did not object to Roosevelt’s refusal to allow de Gaulle to attend the Big Three conferences that were to come at Yalta and Potsdam.
At the end of 1944 French forces continued to advance as part of the American armies, but during the Ardennes Offensive there was a dispute over Eisenhower’s order to French troops to evacuate Strasbourg, which had just been liberated so as to straighten the defensive line against the German counterattack. Strasbourg was an important political and psychological symbol of French sovereignty in Alsace and Lorraine, and de Gaulle, saying that its loss would bring down the government, refused to allow a retreat, predicting that “Strasbourg will be our Stalingrad”. At a cabinet meeting he said that the French should be willing to die there alone if the US pulled out its own troops. Churchill backed the French, and Eisenhower was so impressed with the French resolve that he eventually left his own troops in the city even at the risk of being cut off, for which de Gaulle expressed his extreme gratitude.
By early 1945 it was clear that the price controls which had been introduced to control inflation had only served to boost the black market and prices continued to move ever upwards. By this time the army had swelled to over 1.2 million men and almost half of state expenditure was going to military spending. De Gaulle was faced with his first major ministerial dispute when the very able but tough minded economics minister Pierre Mendes-France demanded a programme of severe monetary reform which was opposed by the Finance Ministry headed by Aime Lepercq, who favoured a programme of heavy borrowing to stimulate the economy. When de Gaulle, knowing there would be little appetite for further austerity measures sided with Lepercq, Mendes-France tendered his resignation, which was rejected because de Gaule knew he needed him. Lepercq was killed in a road accident a short time afterwards and was succeeded by Pleven, but when in March, Mendes-France asked unsuccessfully for taxes on capital earnings and for the blocking of certain bank accounts, he again offered his resignation and it was accepted.
The Yalta Conference
After the Rhine crossings, the French First Army captured a large section of territory in southern Germany, but although this later allowed France to play a part in the signing of the German surrender, Roosevelt in particular refused to allow any discussion about de Gaulle participating in the Big Three conferences that would shape Europe in the post war world. Because the Americans were planning to bring their troops home from Europe soon after the war was over, Churchill, who shared many of de Gaulle’s concerns over the inexperience of Russia and America in world affairs, realised the need for French troops to help administer Germany and pressed very hard for France to be included at the inter-allied table, but on 6 December 1944 the American president wired both Stalin and Churchill to say that de Gaulle’s presence would “merely introduce a complicating and undesirable factor”.
At the Yalta Conference in February 1945, Churchill and Roosevelt agreed that Poland should be ruled by the Lublin Committee and that she should give Russia her eastern lands in return for German territory. It was also agreed that Germany should be disarmed and occupied after the war, that war criminals would be brought to justice and that Russia would enter the war against Japan, from whom she would detach certain disputed territories.
Despite Stalins opposition though, Churchill and Roosevelt insisted that France be allowed a post-war occupation zone in Germany, and also made sure that she was included among the five nations that invited others to the conference to establish the United Nations. This was important because it guaranteed France a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, a prestigious position that despite pressure from emerging nations she still holds today. Although Churchill had tried to have him involved and went to great lengths to fight for French interests during Yalta, assistance he never acknowledged, de Gaulle never forgave the Big Three leaders for not inviting him to the summit and continued to rage against it as having been a negative factor in European politics for the rest of his life.
On his way back from Yalta, Roosevelt asked de Gaulle to meet him in Algiers for talks. The General refused, believing that there was nothing more to be said, and for this he received a rebuke from Georges Bidault and from the French press, and a severely angered Roosevelt criticised de Gaulle in the United States Congress. Soon after, on 12 April 1945, Roosevelt died, and despite their uneasy relationship de Gaulle declared a week of mourning in France and forwarded an emotional and conciliatory letter to the new American President Harry S. Truman, in which he said of Roosevelt, “all of France loved him”.
Unfortunately, de Gaulle’s relationship with Truman was to prove just as difficult as it had been with Roosevelt. With Allied forces advancing deep into Germany, another serious situation developed between American and French forces in Stuttgart and Karlsruhe, when French soldiers were ordered to transfer the occupation zones to US troops. Wishing to retain as much German territory in French hands as possible, de Gaulle ordered his troops, who were using American weapons and ammunition, to resist, and an armed confrontation seemed imminent. Truman threatened to cut off supplies to the French Army and to take the zones by force, leaving de Gaulle with little choice but to back down. De Gaulle never forgave the new President, while Truman told his staff simply, “I don’t like the son of a bitch.”
The first visit by de Gaulle to Truman in America was not a success. Truman told his visitor that it was time that the French got rid of the Communist influence from her government, to which de Gaulle replied that this was France’s own business. But Truman, who admitted that his feelings towards the French were becoming less and less friendly, went on to say that under the circumstances, the French could not expect much economic aid and refused to accept de Gaulle’s request for control of the West bank of the Rhine. During the argument which followed, de Gaulle reminded Truman that the US was using the French island of Noumea in New Caledonia as a base against the Japanese.
Victory in Europe
When, in May 1945 the German armies surrendered to the Americans and British at Rheims, a separate armistice was signed with France in Berlin. De Gaulle refused to allow any British participation in the victory parade in Paris. However, among the vehicles that took part was an ambulance from the Hadfield-Spears Ambulance Unit, staffed by French Doctors and British nurses. One of the nurses was Mary Spears, who had set up the unit and had worked almost continuously since the Battle of France with Free French forces in the Middle East, North Africa and Italy. Mary’s husband was General Edward Spears, the British liaison to the Free French who had personally spirited de Gaulle to safety in Britain in 1940. When de Gaulle saw the Union flags and Tricolours side by side on the ambulance, and heard French soldiers cheering, “Voila Spears! Vive Spears!” he ordered that the unit be closed down immediately and its British staff sent home. A number of French troops returned their medals in protest and Mary wrote, “it is a pitiful business when a great man suddenly becomes small.”
Another confrontation with the Americans broke out soon after the armistice when the French sent troops to occupy the French-speaking Italian border region of Val d’Aoste. The French commander threatened to open fire on American troops if they tried to stop them, and an irate Truman ordered the immediate end to all arms shipments to France, and sent de Gaulle an angry letter saying that he found it unbelievable that the French could threaten to attack American troops after they had done so much to liberate France.
Confrontation in the Levant
On VE Day, there were also serious riots in French Tunisia, while soon after there came a dispute with Britain over Syria and Lebanon which quickly developed into a major diplomatic incident. The two Arabian countries, occupying a region known as the Levant, had been ruled under a French mandate given by the League of Nations at the end of World War I, but for several months both countries had seen demonstrations against the French. Bidault told reporters that France intended to defend her economic and cultural rights in Syria and Lebanon, and that there would be “no problem, as long as the British do not interfere” In May, de Gaulle sent General Beynet to establish an air base in Syria and a naval base in the Lebanon, provoking an outbreak of nationalism in which some French nationals were attacked and killed.
On 20 May, French troops opened fire on demonstrators in Damascus with artillery and mortars while aircraft dropped bombs. Later, colonial Senegalese troops were sent in with machine guns and after several days hundreds of Syrians lay dead in the bazaars and narrow streets of the capital, with reports of looting by the attacking forces. The British, who had substantial forces in the region, said that they would be forced to intervene if the violence did not stop. They were backed by President Truman, who declared “those French ought to be taken out and castrated”.
Following the visit to Paris the previous year, and in spite of his efforts to preserve French interests at Yalta, Churchill’s relationship with de Gaulle was now at rock bottom. In January he told a colleague that he believed that de Gaulle was “a great danger to peace and for Great Britain. After five years of experience, I am convinced that he is the worst enemy of France in her troubles he is one of the greatest dangers to European peace. I am sure that in the long run no understanding will be reached with General de Gaulle”.
Finally, on 31 May, with the death toll exceeding a thousand Syrians, Churchill sent de Gaulle a message saying; “In order to avoid a collision between British and French forces, we request you immediately to order French troops to cease fire and withdraw to their barracks”. Meanwhile the British, under General Bernard Paget moved in with troops and tanks and cut French General Oliva Roget’s telephone line with his base at Beirut. Paget ordered Roget to tell his men to cease fire, but the Frenchman said that he would not take orders from the British. Eventually, heavily outnumbered, Roget ordered his men back to their base near the coast, angry that the British had arrived only after he had “restored order”. He told a Syrian journalist: “You are replacing the easygoing French with the brutal British”. But that night, with the Syrians killing any French or Senegalese troops they could find, the French were forced to accept the British escort back to the safety of their barracks. Later, Roget was sacked, but a furious row broke out between Britain and France.
In France, there were accusations that Britain had armed the demonstrators. De Gaulle raged against Churchill’s ultimatum, saying that “the whole thing stank of oil”. He summoned Duff Cooper and told him; “I recognise that we are not in a position to wage war against you, but you have betrayed France and betrayed the West. That cannot be forgotten”.
France was isolated and suffering a diplomatic crisis. The secretary of the Arab League Edward Atiyah said; “France put all her cards and two rusty pistols on the table”. In turn, the French press attacked Britain as an enemy of France and accused the U.S. of helping Italy and Germany more than it helped France. It also criticised the Russians when they made it clear that they believed that France was in the wrong.
The Potsdam Conference
During the Potsdam Conference in July, to which de Gaulle was again not invited, Churchill was defeated at the British general election and replaced by the Labour leader Clement Attlee. The Potsdam Conference brought a decision to divide Vietnam, which had been a French colony for over a hundred years, into British and Chinese spheres of influence. Soon after the surrender of Japan in August 1945, de Gaulle sent the French Far East Expeditionary Corps to re-establish French sovereignty in French Indochina, making Admiral d’Argenlieu High Commissioner and General Leclerc commander-in-chief and commander of the expeditionary corps. However, the resistance leaders in Indo-China proclaimed the freedom and independence of Vietnam.
-China proclaimed the freedom and independence of Vietnam.
New elections and resignation
Since the liberation, the only parliament in France had been an enlarged version of the Algiers Consultative Assembly, and at last, in October 1945, elections were held for a new Constituent Assembly whose main task was to provide a new constitution for the Fourth Republic. De Gaulle favoured a strong executive for the nation, but all three of the main parties wished to severely restrict the powers of the President. The Communists wanted an assembly with full constitutional powers and no time limit, whereas de Gaulle, the Socialists and the Popular Republican Movement (MRP) advocated one with a term limited to only seven months, after which the draft constitution would be submitted for another referendum.
In the election, which was run on the basis of proportional representation, the second option was approved by 13 million of the 21 million voters. The big three parties won 75% of the vote, with the Communists winning 158 seats, the MRP 152 seats, the Socialists 142 seats and the remaining seats going to the various far right parties.
On 13 November 1945, the new assembly unanimously elected Charles de Gaulle head of the government, but problems immediately arose when it came to selecting the cabinet, due to his unwillingness once more to allow the Communists any important ministries. The Communists, now the largest party and with their charismatic leader Maurice Thorez back at the helm, were not prepared to accept this for a second time, and a furious row ensued, during which de Gaulle sent a letter of resignation to the speaker of the Assembly and declared that he was unwilling to trust a party that he considered to be an agent of a foreign power (Russia) with authority over the police and armed forces of France.
Eventually, the new cabinet was finalised on 21 November, with the Communists receiving five out of the twenty two ministries, and although they still did not get any of the key portfolios, Thorez did manage to obtain one of the four prestigious Ministry of State posts.
De Gaulle found working under the new Constituent Assembly very different to the old Provisional Government, which ruled by decree. He found dealing with the “regime of parties” frustrating and believed that the draft constitution placed too much power in the hands of parliament with its shifting party alliances. One of his ministers described him as “a man equally incapable of monopolizing power as of sharing it”.
De Gaulle outlined a programme of further nationalisations and a new economic plan which were passed, but a further row came when the Communists demanded a 20% reduction in the military budget. Refusing to rule by compromise’, de Gaulle once more threatened to resign. There was a general feeling that he was trying to blackmail the assembly into complete subservience by threatening to withdraw his personal prestige which he insisted was what alone kept the ruling coalition together. Although the MRP managed to broker a compromise which saw the budget approved with amendments, it was little more than a stop-gap measure.
Barely two months after forming the new government, de Gaulle abruptly resigned on 20 January 1946. The move was called “a bold and ultimately foolish political ploy”, with de Gaulle hoping that as a war hero, he would be soon brought back as a more powerful executive by the French people. However, that did not turn out to be the case. With the war finally over, the initial period of crisis had passed. Although there were still shortages, particularly of bread, France was now on the road to recovery, and de Gaulle suddenly did not seem so indispensable. The Communist publication Combat wrote; “There was no cataclym, and the empty plate didn’t crack”.
He was succeeded by Felix Gouin (French Section of the Workers’ International, SFIO), then Georges Bidault (MRP) and finally Lon Blum (SFIO).
1946-58: Out of power
After monopolizing French politics for six years, Charles de Gaulle suddenly dropped out of sight, and returned to his home at Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises to write his war memoirs.
The famous opening paragraph of Memoires de guerre begins by declaring, “All my life, I have had a certain idea of France (une certaine ide de la France)”, comparing his country to an old painting of a Madonna, and ends by declaring that, given the divisive nature of French politics, France cannot truly live up to this ideal without a policy of “grandeur”. During this period of formal retirement, however, de Gaulle maintained regular contact with past political lieutenants from wartime and RPF days, including sympathizers involved in political developments in French Algeria, becoming “perhaps the best-informed man in France”.
In April 1947 de Gaulle made a renewed attempt to transform the political scene by creating a Rassemblement du Peuple Franais (Rally of the French People, or RPF), which he hoped would be able to move above the familiar party squabbles of the parliamentary system. Despite the new party’s taking 40% of vote in local elections and 121 seats in 1951, lacking its own press and access to television, its support ebbed away. In May 1953, he withdrew again from active politics, though the RPF lingered until September 1955.
As with a number of other European countries during this period, France began to suffer the loss of its overseas possessions amid the surge of nationalism which came in the aftermath of WW2. Indochina (now Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia), colonised by France during the mid nineteenth century, had been lost to the Japanese after the defeat of 1940. De Gaulle had intended to hold on to France’s Indochina colony, ordering the parachuting of French agents and arms into Indochina in late 1944 and early 1945 with orders to attack the Japanese as American troops hit the beaches Although de Gaulle had moved quickly to consolidate French control of the territory during his brief first tenure as president in the 1950s, the communist Vietminh under Ho Chi Minh began a determined campaign for independence from 1946 onwards. The French fought a bitter 7 year war (the First Indochina War) to hold onto Indochina until their decisive defeat at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in May 1954. By 1954, the United States had spent $2.5 billion to finance this French military effort in Indochina, in an effort against what it saw as global Communism.
With more than 70,000 French soldiers killed during the conflict, Pierre Mendes-France was made Prime Minister with the main objective of ending the war, and by July 1954 a ceasefire had been arranged, following which French Forces left and the country was partitioned into North Vietnam and South Vietnam. This was only a short interlude before the even more savage Second Indochina War, more widely known in the west as the Vietnam War, in which America, not France, was the main antagonist.
The defeat in Indochina had a profound influence on France’s North African empire and severely stretched the credibility of the Fourth Republic. By 1956, Morocco and Tunisia had all but won their independence, while in Algeria, some 350,000 French troops were fighting 150,000 members of the Algerian Liberation Movement (FLN), a conflict which was to become increasingly savage and bloody over the next few years, and threaten mainland France itself.
Between 1946 and 1958 there were no less than 24 separate ministries. The president retained relatively little real executive power, and manuvrings among various radical and socialist groups in the Assembly led to the government being repeatedly overthrown. Governments were so short lived that they achieved little, and the politics of the 4th Republic began to show the same characteristics as the 3rd Republic. Endlessly frustrated by the divisiveness of the Fourth Republic, de Gaulle famously asked; how can you govern a country which has 246 varieties of cheese?
The public showed their frustration with a marked shift of support towards the extreme right, particularly the Poujadists, a far right party who championed the cause of shopkeepers, farmers and other small businesses who were concerned at increased taxes and price controls brought in to try to curb inflation. Led by Pierre Poujade, the party were anti-Semitic, anti-American and imperialist, but won 2.6 million votes in 1956, giving them 52 seats.
1958: Collapse of the Fourth Republic
The Fourth Republic was tainted by political instability, failures in Indochina and inability to resolve the Algerian question. It did, however, pass the 1956 loi-cadre Deferre which granted independence to Tunisia and Morocco, while the Premier Pierre Mends-France put an end to the Indochina War through the Geneva Conference of 1954. Under Guy Mollet, while he survived the 1956 Suez Crisis, French prestige suffered a humiliating defeat with the forced withdrawal from Egypt under international pressure.
On 13 May 1958, settlers seized the government buildings in Algiers, attacking what they saw as French government weakness in the face of demands among the Arab majority for Algerian independence. A “Committee of Civil and Army Public Security” was created under the presidency of General Jacques Massu, a Gaullist sympathiser. General Raoul Salan, Commander-in-Chief in Algeria, announced on radio that he was assuming provisional power, and appealed for “confidence in the Army and its leaders”.
Under the pressure of Massu, Salan declared Vive de Gaulle! from the balcony of the Algiers Government-General building on 15 May. De Gaulle answered two days later that he was ready to “assume the powers of the Republic”. Many worried as they saw this answer as support for the army.
At a 19 May press conference, de Gaulle asserted again that he was at the disposal of the country. As a journalist expressed the concerns of some who feared that he would violate civil liberties, de Gaulle retorted vehemently:
Have I ever done that? On the contrary, I have re-established them when they had disappeared. Who honestly believes that, at age 67, I would start a career as a dictator?
A constitutionalist by conviction, he maintained throughout the crisis that he would accept power only from the lawfully constituted authorities. De Gaulle did not wish to repeat the difficulty the Free French movement experienced in establishing legitimacy as the rightful government. He told an aide that the rebel generals “will not find De Gaulle in their baggage”.
The crisis deepened as French paratroops from Algeria seized Corsica and a landing near Paris was discussed (Operation Resurrection). Political leaders on many sides agreed to support the General’s return to power, except Franois Mitterrand, Pierre Mend’s-France, Alain Savary, the Communist Party, and certain other leftists. On 29 May the French President, Ren Coty, appealed to the “most illustrious of Frenchmen” to confer with him and to examine what was immediately necessary for the creation of a government of national safety, and what could be done to bring about a profound reform of the country’s institutions.
De Gaulle remained intent on replacing the constitution of the Fourth Republic, which he blamed for France’s political weakness. He set as conditions for his return that he be given wide emergency powers for six months and that a new constitution be proposed to the French people. On 1 June 1958, de Gaulle became Premier and was given emergency powers for six months by the National Assembly, fulfilling his desire for parliamentary legitimacy.
On 28 September 1958, a referendum took place and 79.2 percent of those who voted supported the new constitution and the creation of the Fifth Republic. The colonies (Algeria was officially a part of France, not a colony) were given the choice between immediate independence and the new constitution. All African colonies voted for the new constitution and the replacement of the French Union by the French Community, except Guinea, which thus became the first French African colony to gain independence, at the cost of the immediate ending of all French assistance.
According to de Gaulle, the head of state should represent “the spirit of the nation” to the nation itself and to the world: ” une certaine ide de la France” (a certain idea of France).
1958-62: Founding of the Fifth Republic
In the November 1958 elections, de Gaulle and his supporters (initially organised in the Union pour la Nouvelle République-Union Démocratique du Travail, then the Union des Démocrates pour la Véme République, and later still the Union des Démocrates pour la République, UDR) won a comfortable majority. In December, de Gaulle was elected President by the electoral college with 78% of the vote, and inaugurated in January 1959.
He oversaw tough economic measures to revitalise the country, including the issuing of a new franc (worth 100 old francs). Internationally, he rebuffed both the United States and the Soviet Union, pushing for an independent France with its own nuclear weapons, and strongly encouraged a “Free Europe”, believing that a confederation of all European nations would restore the past glories of the great European empires.
He set about building Franco-German cooperation as the cornerstone of the European Economic Community (EEC), paying the first state visit to Germany by a French head of state since Napoleon. In January 1963, Germany and France signed a treaty of friendship, the lyse Treaty. France also reduced its dollar reserves, trading them for gold from the U.S. government, thereby reducing the US’ economic influence abroad.
On 23 November 1959, in a speech in Strasbourg, de Gaulle announced his vision for Europe:
Oui, c’est l’Europe, depuis l’Atlantique jusqu’à l’Oural, c’est toute l’Europe, qui décidera du destin du monde. (“Yes, it is Europe, from the Atlantic to the Urals, it is the whole of Europe, that will decide the destiny of the world.”)
His expression, “Europe, from the Atlantic to the Urals”, has often been cited throughout the history of European integration. It became, for the next ten years, a favourite political rallying cry of de Gaulle’s. His vision stood in contrast to the Atlanticism of the United States and Britain, preferring instead a Europe that would act as a third pole between the United States and the Soviet Union. By including in his ideal of Europe all the territory up to the Urals, de Gaulle was implicitly offering dtente to the Soviets.
Upon becoming president, de Gaulle was faced with the urgent task of finding a way to bring to an end the bloody and divisive war in Algeria. His intentions were obscure. He had immediately visited Algeria and declared, Je vous ai compris – ‘I have understood you’, and each competing interest had wished to believe it was them that he had understood. Whatever his intentions, “he soon came to realize that Algerian independence was inevitable.” French left-wingers were in favour of granting independence to Algeria and urged him to seek a way to achieve peace while, at the same time, avoiding a French loss of face. Although the military’s near-coup had contributed to his return to power, de Gaulle soon ordered all officers to quit the rebellious Committees of Public Safety. Such actions greatly angered the French settlers and their military supporters.
He was forced to suppress two uprisings in Algeria by French settlers and troops, in the second of which (the Generals’ Putsch in April 1961) France herself was again threatened with invasion by rebel paratroops. De Gaulle’s government also covered up the Paris massacre of 1961, issued under the orders of the police prefect Maurice Papon, who had begun his career as a Vichy functionary deporting Jews from south-west France. He was also targeted by the settlers’ resistance group Organisation de l’arme secrte (OAS) and several assassination attempts were made on him; the most famous is that of 22 August 1962, when he and his wife narrowly escaped an assassination attempt when their Citron DS was targeted by machine gun fire arranged by Colonel Jean-Marie Bastien-Thiry at Petit-Clamart. Visitors to the French capital around this time heard, “the eerie sounds of car horns, beating out the five count of Al-ga-rie-Fran-aaise”.
After a referendum on Algerian self-determination carried out in 1961, de Gaulle arranged a cease-fire in Algeria with the March 1962 Evian Accords, legitimated by another referendum a month later. Although the Algerian issue was settled, Prime Minister Michel Debra resigned over the final settlement and was replaced with Georges Pompidou on 14 April 1962. France recognised Algerian independence on 3 July 1962, while an amnesty was belatedly issued covering all crimes committed during the war, including the genocide against the Harkis. In just a few months in 1962, 900,000 French settlers left the country. After 5 July, the exodus accelerated in the wake of the French deaths during the Oran massacre of 1962. Historian Julian Jackson : “The Pieds-Noirs peddled a fantasy of a harmonious country of Muslims and Europeans, but the history of the French in Algeria had always been one of violence, expropriation and exploitation. After the terrorist organisation OAS adopted a kind of scorched earth policy toward the end, it was made certain the Pieds-Noirs could not stay on in Algeria – an influx of a million embittered and dispossessed refugees into France – where they now formed a reservoir of passionate, right-wing, anti-Gaullism.”
Direct presidential elections
In September 1962, de Gaulle sought a constitutional amendment to allow the president to be directly elected by the people and issued another referendum to this end. After a motion of censure voted by the Parliament on 4 October 1962, de Gaulle dissolved the National Assembly and held new elections. Although the left progressed, the Gaullists won an increased majority this despite opposition from the Christian democratic Popular Republican Movement (MRP) and the National Centre of Independents and Peasants (CNIP) who criticised de Gaulle’s euroscepticism and presidentialism.
De Gaulle’s proposal to change the election procedure for the French presidency was approved at the referendum on 28 October 1962 by more than three-fifths of voters despite a broad “coalition of no” formed by most of the parties, opposed to a presidential regime. Thereafter the President was to be elected by direct universal suffrage for the first time since Louis Napoleon in 1848.
1962-68: Politics of grandeur
With the Algerian conflict behind him, de Gaulle was able to achieve his two main objectives: to reform and develop the French economy, and to promote an independent foreign policy and a strong stance on the international stage. This was named by foreign observers the “politics of grandeur” ( politique de grandeur). See Gaullism.
“Thirty glorious years”
In the immediate post war years France was in a bad way; wages remained at around half prewar levels, the winter of 1946-1947 did extensive damage to crops – leading to a reduction in the bread ration, hunger and disease remained rife and the black market continued to flourish. Germany was in an even worse position but after 1948 things began to improve dramatically with the introduction of Marshall Aid – large scale American financial assistance given to help rebuild European economies and infrastructure. This laid the foundations of a meticulously planned program of investments in energy, transport and heavy industry, overseen by the government of prime minister Georges Pompidou.
In the context of a population boom unseen in France since the 18th century, the government intervened heavily in the economy, using dirigisme a unique combination of capitalism and state-directed economy with indicative five-year plans as its main tool. This brought about a rapid transformation and expansion of the French economy.
High-profile projects, mostly but not always financially successful, were launched: the extension of Marseilles harbour (soon ranking third in Europe and first in the Mediterranean); the promotion of the Caravelle passenger jetliner (a predecessor of Airbus); the decision to start building the supersonic Franco-British Concorde airliner in Toulouse; the expansion of the French auto industry with state-owned Renault at its centre; and the building of the first motorways between Paris and the provinces.
With these projects, the French economy recorded growth rates unrivalled since the 19th century. In 1964, for the first time in nearly 100 years France’s GDP overtook that of the United Kingdom, a position it held until the 1990s. This period is still remembered in France with some nostalgia as the peak of the Trente Glorieuses (“Thirty Glorious Years” of economic growth between 1945 and 1974).
Fourth nuclear power
During his first tenure as President, de Gaulle became enthusiastic about the possibilities of nuclear power. France had carried out important work in the early development of atomic energy and in October 1945 he established the French Atomic Energy Commission Commissariat l’nergie atomique, (CEA) responsible for all scientific, commercial, and military uses of nuclear energy. However, partly due to communist influences in government who opposed proliferation, research stalled, and France was excluded from American, British, and Canadian nuclear efforts.
By October 1952 Britain became the third country – after America and the Soviet Union – to independently test and develop nuclear weapons. This gave Britain the capability to launch a nuclear strike via its Vulcan bomber force and it began developing its own ballistic missile programme known as Blue Streak.
As early as April 1954 while out of power, de Gaulle had proposed that France should also have its own nuclear weapons; at the time nuclear weapons were seen as a national status symbol and a way of maintaining international prestige with a place at the top table of the United Nations. Full-scale research began again in late 1954 when Prime Minister Pierre Mendes-France authorized a plan to develop the atomic bomb; large deposits of uranium had been discovered near Limoges in central France, providing the researchers with an unrestricted supply of nuclear fuel. France’s independent Force de Frappe (strike force) came into being soon after de Gaulle’s election with his authorisation for the first nuclear test.
With the cancellation of Blue Streak, the US agreed to supply Britain with its Skybolt and later Polaris weapons systems, and in 1958 the two nations signed the Mutual Defence Agreement forging close links which have seen the US and UK cooperate on nuclear security matters ever since. Although at the time it was still a full member of NATO, France proceeded to develop its own independent nuclear technologies – this would enable it to become a partner in any reprisals and would give it a voice in matters of atomic control.
After six years of development, on 13 February 1960 France became the world’s fourth nuclear power when an extremely high powered nuclear device was exploded in the Sahara some 700 miles south-south-west of Algiers. In August 1963 France decided against signing the Partial Test Ban Treaty designed to slow the arms race because it would have prohibited her from testing nuclear weapons above ground. France continued to carry out tests at the Algerian site until 1966, under an agreement with the newly independent Algeria. France’s testing program then moved to the Mururoa and Fangataufa Atolls in the South Pacific.
In November 1967, an article by the French Chief of the General Staff (but inspired by de Gaulle) in the Revue de la Defense Nationale caused international consternation. It was stated that French nuclear force should be capable of firing “in all directions” thus including even America as a target. This surprising statement was intended as a declaration of French national independence, and was in retaliation to a warning issued long ago by Dean Rusk that US missiles would be aimed at France if it attempted to employ atomic weapons outside an agreed plan. However, criticism of de Gaulle was growing over his tendency to act alone with little regard for the views of others. In August, concern over de Gaulle’s policies had been voiced by Valary Giscard d Estaing when he queried the solitary exercise of power.
With the onset of the Cold War and the perceived threat of invasion from the Soviet Union and the countries of the eastern bloc, America, Canada and the other western European countries set up the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) to co-ordinate a military response to any possible attack. France played a key role during the early days of the organisation, providing a large military contingent and agreeing – after much soul-searching – to the participation of West German forces. But after his election in 1958 Charles de Gaulle took the view that the organisation was too dominated by the US and UK, and that with its problems in Vietnam, America would not fulfil its promise to defend Europe in the event of a Russian invasion.
De Gaulle demanded political parity with Britain and America in NATO, and for its geographic coverage to be extended to include French territories abroad, including Algeria, then experiencing civil war. This was not forthcoming, and so in March 1959 France, citing the need for it to maintain its own independent military strategy, withdrew its Mediterranean fleet from NATO, and a few months later de Gaulle demanded the removal of all US nuclear weapons from French territory.
De Gaulle hosted a superpower summit on May 17, 1960 for arms limitation talks and datente efforts in the wake of the 1960 U-2 Incident between United States President Dwight Eisenhower, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, and United Kingdom Prime Minister Harold Macmillan. De Gaulle’s warm relations with Eisenhower was noticed by United States military observors at that time. De Gaulle told Eisenhower: “Obviously you cannot apologize but you must decide how you wish to handle this. I will do everything I can to be helpful without being openly partisan.” When Krushchev condemned the United States U-2 flights, De Gaulle expressed to Krushchev his disapproval of 18 near-simultaneous secret Soviet satellite overflights of French territory; Krushchev denied knowledge of the satellite overflights. Lieutenant General Vernon A. Walters wrote that after Krushchev left, “De Gaulle came over to Eisenhower and took him by the arm. He took me also by the elbow and, taking us a little apart, he said to Eisenhower, ‘I do not know what Khrushchev is going to do, nor what is going to happen, but whatever he does, I want you to know that I am with you to the end.’ I was astounded at this statement, and Eisenhower was clearly moved by his unexpected expression of unconditional support” General Walters was struck by De Gaulle’s “unconditional support” of the United States during that “crucial time”. De Gaulle then tried to revive the talks by inviting all the delegates to another conference at the Champs Elysee Palace to discuss the situation, but the summit ultimately dissolved in the wake of the U-2 incident.
In 1964 de Gaulle visited the Soviet Union, where he hoped to establish France as an alternative influence in the Cold War. Later, he proclaimed a new alliance between the nations, but although the Soviet statesman Alexei Kosygin made a return visit to France, the Russians did not accept France as a super power, knowing that in any future conflict they would have to rely on the overall protection of the Western Alliance. In 1965, de Gaulle pulled France out of SEATO, the Southeast Asian equivalent of NATO and refused to participate in any future NATO manoeuvres.
In February 1966, France withdrew from NATO military command, but remained within the organisation. However, secret protocols were agreed whereby French forces could quickly be re-integrated into NATO command, demonstrating that the move was little more that a symbolic show of defiance to America and Britain. De Gaulle, haunted by the memories of 1940, wanted France to remain the master of the decisions affecting it, unlike in the 1930s, when it had to follow in step with its British ally. He also declared that all foreign military personnel had to leave French territory and gave them one year to redeploy. This latter action was particularly badly received in the US, prompting Dean Rusk, the US Secretary of State, to ask de Gaulle whether the removal of American military personnel was to include exhumation the 50,000 American war dead buried in French cemeteries.
Despite its success in the war, Britain experienced a difficult time in the post war world. While France and other European countries were enjoying booming economies, Britain experienced high inflation, stagnant growth and poor labour relations. A number of her important colonial possessions – not least India – quickly gained independence, and following the Suez Crisis, where Britain and France unsuccessfully sought to prevent the Egyptians from nationalising the Suez Canal, Britain struggled to adjust to its reduced world position. The U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson commented that Britain had “lost an empire and had not yet found a role”.
France meanwhile, experiencing the disintegration of her own empire and severe problems in Algeria, turned towards Europe after Suez, and to Germany in particular. In the years after, the economies of both nations came together and they became leading partners in the drive towards European unity.
One of the conditions of Marshall Aid was that the nation’s leaders must get together to co-ordinate economic efforts and to pool the supply of raw materials. By far the most critical commodities in driving growth were coal and steel. France assumed it would receive large amounts of high quality German coal from the Ruhr as reparations for the war, but America refused to allow this, fearing it could lead to a repeat of the renewed bitterness after the Treaty of Versailles which partly caused World War II.
Under the inspiration of the French statesmen Jean Monnet and Robert Schuman, together with the German leader Konrad Adenauer, the rift between the two nations had begun to heal and along with Italy and the Benelux countries, they formed the European Coal and Steel Community, which following the Treaty of Rome of 1957 became the European Economic Community, also known as the Common Market, beginning around the same time as de Gaulle’s presidency. Though he had not been instrumental in setting up the new organisation, de Gaulle spoke enthusiastically of his vision of “an imposing confederation” of European states and of formulating a common European foreign policy.
De Gaulle, who in spite of recent history admired Germany and spoke excellent German in contrast to his poor, mumbling English, established a good relationship with the ageing West Germany Chancellor Konrad Adenauer – culminating in the Elysee Treaty in 1963 – and in the first few years of the Common Market, France’s industrial exports to the other five members tripled and its farm export almost quadrupled. The franc became a solid, stable currency for the first time in half a century, and the economy mostly boomed. Adenauer however, all too aware of the importance of American support in Europe, gently distanced himself from the general’s more extreme ideas, wanting no suggestion that any new European community would in any sense challenge or set itself at odds with the U.S. In Adenauer’s eyes, the support of the U.S. was more important than any question of European prestige. Adenauer was also anxious to reassure Britain that nothing was being done behind her back and was quick to inform British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan of any new developments.
Great Britain initially declined to join the Common Market, preferring to remain with another organisation known as the European Free Trade Area, mostly consisting of the northern European countries and Portugal. By the late nineteen fifties German and French living standards began to exceed those in Britain, and the government of Harold Macmillan, realising that the EEC was a stronger trading bloc than EFTA, began negotiations to join.
De Gaulle vetoed the British application to join the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1963, famously uttering the single word ‘non’ into the television cameras at the critical moment, a statement used to sum up French opposition and belligerence towards Britain for many years afterwards. Macmillan said afterwards that he always believed that de Gaulle would prevent Britain joining, but thought he would do it quietly, behind the scenes. He later complained privately that “all our plans are in tatters”.
One reason given for de Gaulle’s refusal was the recent American agreement to supply Britain with the Skybolt nuclear missile. He did it, he said, because he thought the United Kingdom lacked the necessary political will to be part of a strong Europe. He further saw Britain as a “Trojan Horse” for the USA. He maintained there were incompatibilities between continental European and British economic interests. In addition, he demanded that the United Kingdom accept all the conditions laid down by the six existing members of the EEC (Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands) and revoke its commitments to countries within its own free trade area (which France had not done with its own). He supported a deepening and an acceleration of Common-Market integration rather than an expansion.
However, in this latter respect, a detailed study of the formative years of the EEC argues that the defence of French economic interests, especially in agriculture, in fact played a more dominant role in determining de Gaulle’s stance towards British entry than the various political and foreign policy considerations that have often been cited. The General’s attitude was also influenced by resentments which had come about during his exile in Britain during the Second World War.
Dean Acheson believed that Britain made a grave error in not signing up to the European idea right from the start, and that they continued to suffer the political consequences for at least two decades afterwards. However he also stated his belief that de Gaulle used the ‘Common Market’ (as it was then termed) as an “exclusionary device to direct European trade towards the interest of France and against that of the United states, Britain and other countries.”
Claiming continental European solidarity, de Gaulle again rejected British entry when they next applied to join the community in December 1967 under the Labour leadership of Harold Wilson. During negotiations, de Gaulle chided Britain for relying too much on the Americans, saying that sooner or later they would always do what was in their best interests. Wilson said he then gently raised the spectre of the threat of a newly powerful Germany as a result of the EEC, which de Gaulle agreed was a risk. The veto on British entry made de Gaulle unpopular in Ireland since it was clear that for economic reasons Ireland would be excluded from the EEC as long as Britain remained outside. After de Gaulle left office the United Kingdom applied again and finally became a member of the EEC in January 1973.
Recognition of the People’s Republic of China
De Gaulle was convinced that a strong and independent France could act as a balancing force between the United States and the Soviet Union, a policy seen as little more than posturing and opportunism by his critics, particularly in Britain and the United States, to which France was formally allied. In January 1964, France established diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) the first step towards formal recognition. This was done without first severing links with the Republic of China (Taiwan), led by Chiang Kai-shek. Hitherto the PRC had insisted that all nations abide by a “one China” condition, and at first it was unclear how the matter would be settled. However, the agreement to exchange ambassadors was subject to a delay of three months and in February, Chiang Kai-shek resolved the problem by cutting off diplomatic relations with France. Eight years later U.S. President Richard Nixon visited the PRC and began normalising relations a policy which was confirmed in the Shanghai Communique of 28 February 1972.
As part of a European tour, Nixon visited France in 1969. He and de Gaulle both shared the same non-Wilsonian approach to world affairs, believing in nations and their relative strengths, rather than in ideologies, international organisations, or multilateral agreements. De Gaulle is famously known for calling the UN the pejorative “le Machin” (“the thingamajig”).
Visit to Latin America
In September and October 1964, despite a recent operation for prostate cancer and fears for his security, he set out on a punishing 20,000-mile tour of Latin America. He had visited Mexico the previous year and spoke, in Spanish, to the Mexican people on the eve of their celebrations of their independence at the Palacio Nacional in Mexico City. During his new 26-day visit, he was again keen to gain both cultural and economic influence. He spoke constantly of his resentment of US influence (hegemony) in Latin America “that some states should establish a power of political or economic direction outside their own borders”. Yet France could provide no investment or aid to match that from Washington.
In December 1965, de Gaulle returned as president for a second seven-year term. In the first round he did not win the expected majority, only receiving 45% of the vote. Both of his main rivals did better than expected; the leftist Franois Mitterrand received 32% and Jean Lecanuet, who advocated for what Life described as “Gaullism without de Gaulle”, received 16%. De Gaulle won a majority in the second round, with Mitterrand receiving 45%.
In September 1966, in a famous speech in Phnom Penh (Cambodia), he expressed France’s disapproval of the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, calling for a U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam as the only way to ensure peace. As the Vietnam War had its roots in the previous Indochina War, in which the United States had provided France with aid, this speech did little to endear de Gaulle to the Americans, even if their leaders later came to the same conclusion. However, De Gaulle conversed frequently with George Ball, United States President Lyndon Johnson’s Secretary of State, and told Ball that he feared that the United States was courting the risk of repeating France’s tragic experience in Vietnam, which De Gaulle called “ce pays pourri” (“the rotten country”). Ball later sent a 76 page memorandum to Johnson critiquing Johnson’s current Vietnam policy in October 1964.
De Gaulle later visited Guadeloupe, in the aftermath of Hurricane Inez for 2 days, bringing aid which totalled billions of francs.
Empty Chair Crisis
During the establishment of the European Community, de Gaulle helped precipitate one of the greatest crises in the history of the EC, the Empty Chair Crisis. It involved the financing of the Common Agricultural Policy, but almost more importantly the use of qualified majority voting in the EC (as opposed to unanimity). In June 1965, after France and the other five members could not agree, de Gaulle withdrew France’s representatives from the EC. Their absence left the organisation essentially unable to run its affairs until the Luxembourg compromise was reached in January 1966. De Gaulle succeeded in influencing the decision-making mechanism written into the Treaty of Rome by insisting on solidarity founded on mutual understanding. He vetoed Britain’s entry into the EEC a second time, in June 1967.
With tension rising in the Middle East in 1967, de Gaulle on 2 June declared an arms embargo against Israel, just three days before the outbreak of the Six-Day War. This, however, did not affect spare parts for the French military hardware with which the Israeli armed forces were equipped.
This was an abrupt change in policy. In 1956 France, Britain, and Israel had cooperated in an elaborate effort to retake the Suez Canal from Egypt. Israel’s air force operated French Mirage and Mystere jets in the Six-Day War, and its navy was building its new missile boats in Cherbourg. Though paid for, their transfer to Israel was now blocked by de Gaulle’s government. But they were smuggled out in an operation that drew further denunciations from the French government. The last boats took to the sea in December 1969, directly after a major deal between France and now-independent Algeria exchanging French armaments for Algerian oil.
Under de Gaulle, following the independence of Algeria, France embarked on foreign policy more favourable to the Arab side. General de Gaulle’s position in 1967 at the time of the Six Day War played a part in France’s newfound popularity in the Arab world. Israel turned towards the United States for arms, and toward its own industry.
In a televised news conference on 27 November 1967, de Gaulle described the Jewish people as “this elite people, sure of themselves and domineering”. In his letter to David Ben-Gurion dated 9 January 1968, he explained that he was convinced that Israel had ignored his warnings and overstepped the bounds of moderation by taking possession of Jerusalem, and so much Jordanian, Egyptian, and Syrian territory by force of arms. He felt Israel had exercised repression and expulsions during the occupation and that it amounted to annexation. He said that provided Israel withdrew her forces, it appeared that it might be possible to reach a solution through the UN framework which could include assurances of a dignified and fair future for refugees and minorities in the Middle East, recognition from Israel’s neighbors, and freedom of navigation through the Gulf of Aqaba and the Suez Canal.
Nigerian civil war
The Eastern Region of Nigeria declared itself independent under the name of The Independent Republic of Biafra on 30 May 1967. On 6 July the first shots in the Nigerian civil war were fired, marking the start of a conflict would last until January 1970. Britain provided military aid to the Federal Republic of Nigeria yet more was made available by the Soviet Union. Under de Gaulle’s leadership, France embarked on a period of interference outside the traditional French zone of influence. A policy geared toward the break-up of Nigeria put Britain and France into opposing camps. Relations between France and Nigeria had been under strain since the third French nuclear explosion in the Sahara in December 1960. From August 1968, when its embargo was lifted, France provided limited and covert support to the breakaway province. Although French arms helped to keep Biafra in action for the final 15 months of the civil war, its involvement was seen as insufficient and counterproductive. The Biafran chief of staff stated that the French “did more harm than good by raising false hopes and by providing the British with an excuse to reinforce Nigeria.”
Vive le Québec libre!
In July 1967, de Gaulle visited Canada, which was celebrating its centenary with a world fair in Montreal, Expo 67. On 24 July, speaking to a large crowd from a balcony at Montreal’s city hall, de Gaulle shouted “Vive le Québec libre!” (Long live free Quebec!) then added, “Vive le Canada franais!” (Long live French Canada!), and finally, “Et vive la France.” (And long live France!) The Canadian media harshly criticized the statement, and the Prime Minister of Canada, Lester B. Pearson, stated that “Canadians do not need to be liberated.” De Gaulle left Canada abruptly two days later, without proceeding to Ottawa as scheduled. He never returned to Canada. The speech caused offense in most of English Canada and was heavily criticized in France as well, and led to a significant diplomatic rift between the two countries. However, the event was seen as a watershed moment by the Quebec sovereignty movement, and is still a significant milestone of Quebec’s history to the eyes of most French Canadians.
In the following year, de Gaulle visited Brittany, where he declaimed a poem written by his uncle (also called Charles de Gaulle) in the Breton language. The speech followed a series of crackdowns on Breton nationalism. De Gaulle was accused of hypocrisy, on the one hand supporting a “free” Quebec because of linguistic and ethnic differences from other Canadians, while on the other supposedly “oppressing” a regional and ethnic nationalist movement in Brittany.
De Gaulle’s government was criticised within France, particularly for its heavy-handed style. While the written press and elections were free, and private stations such as Europe 1 were able to broadcast in French from abroad, the state’s ORTF had a monopoly on television and radio. This monopoly meant that the executive was in a position to bias the news. In many respects, Gaullist France was conservative, Catholic, and repressive, with women viewed as inferior. Many factors contributed to a general weariness of sections of the public, particularly the student youth, which led to the events of May 1968.
The huge demonstrations and strikes in France in May 1968 severely challenged de Gaulle’s legitimacy. He and other government leaders feared that the country was on the brink of revolution or civil war. On 29 May de Gaulle disappeared without notifying Prime Minister Pompidou or anyone else in the government, stunning the country. He fled to Baden-Baden, Germany to meet with General Massu, now head of the French military there, to discuss possible army intervention against the protesters. De Gaulle returned to France after being assured of the military’s support.
In a private meeting discussing the students’ and workers’ demands for direct participation in business and government he coined the phrase “La reforme oui, la chienlit non”, which can be politely translated as ‘reform yes, masquerade/chaos no.’ It was a vernacular scatological pun meaning ‘chie-en-lit, no’ (crap-in-bed, no). The term is now common parlance in French political commentary, used both critically and ironically referring back to de Gaulle.
But de Gaulle offered to accept some of the reforms the demonstrators sought. He again considered a referendum to support his moves, but on 30 May Pompidou persuaded him to dissolve parliament (in which the government had all but lost its majority in the March 1967 elections) and hold new elections instead. The June 1968 elections were a major success for the Gaullists and their allies; when shown the spectre of revolution or civil war, the majority of the country rallied to him. His party won 352 of 487 seats, but de Gaulle remained personally unpopular; a survey conducted immediately after the crisis showed that a majority of the country saw him as too old, too self-centred, too authoritarian, too conservative, and too anti-American. The general consensus was that de Gaulle was out of touch with the average Frenchman, preoccupying himself with military and foreign affairs while giving scant attention to domestic issues.
the presidency at noon, 28 April 1969, following the rejection of his proposed reform of the Senate and local governments in a nationwide referendum. De Gaulle vowed that if the referendum failed, he would resign his office. Despite an eight-minute-long speech by de Gaulle, the referendum failed and he duly resigned. Two months later Georges Pompidou was elected as his successor.
De Gaulle retired once again to his beloved nine-acre country estate, La Boisserie (the woodland glade), in Colombey-les-Deux-glises, 120 miles southeast of Paris. There the General, who often described old age as a “shipwreck,” continued his memoirs, dictated to his secretary from notes. To visitors, de Gaulle said, “I will finish three books, if God grants me life.” The Renewal, the first of three planned volumes to be called Memoirs of Hope, was quickly finished and immediately became the fastest seller in French publishing history. During the day he also usually took two strolls, one alone and the other with his wife Yvonne around the village.
He did not accept the sizable pensions to which he was entitled as a retired president and as a retired general, but only a much smaller colonel’s pension. He was punctilious with regard to money, taking care to separate his private expenses from those of his official function. He paid for his own haircuts and the stamps for personal correspondence, and had an electricity meter installed in the private accommodation at his official residence.
Death & Legacy
On 9 November 1970, two weeks short of what would have been his 80th birthday, Charles de Gaulle died suddenly, despite enjoying very robust health his entire life (except for a prostate operation a few years earlier). He had been watching the evening news on television and playing Solitaire around 7:40pm when he suddenly pointed to his neck and said “I feel a pain right here” before collapsing. His wife called the doctor and the local priest, but by the time they arrived he had died from a ruptured blood vessel.
His wife asked that she be allowed to inform her family before the news was released. She was able to contact her daughter in Paris quickly, but their son, who was in the navy was difficult to track down and so the President, Georges Pompidou was not informed until 4am the next morning and went on television some 18 hours after the event to inform the nation of the general’s death. He said simply: “General de Gaulle is dead. France is a widow.”
De Gaulle had made arrangements that insisted that his funeral would be held at Colombey, and that no presidents or ministers attend his funeral only his Compagnons de la Liberation.
Despite his wishes, such were the number of foreign dignitaries who wanted to honour de Gaulle that Pompidou was forced to arrange a separate memorial service at the Notre-Dame Cathedral, to be held at the same time as his actual funeral. Among those at the memorial service were 63 present or former heads of state, including US President Richard Nixon, Soviet President Nikolai Podgorny, British Prime Minister Edward Heath, the Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, the President of Italy, representatives of 17 of France’s former African colonies and the reigning monarchs of Ethiopia, Iran, The Netherlands, Belgium, Monaco and Luxembourg. Also in the congregation were David Ben-Gurion, Anthony Eden, Harold Macmillan, Harold Wilson, former West German Chancellors Ludwig Erhard and Kurt-Georg Kiesinger, Marlene Dietrich and US Senator Edward Kennedy, who remembered de Gaulle’s immediate decision to attend the funeral of his brother John following his assassination in 1963. The Chinese leader Mao Zedong was unable to attend but sent a wreath. The only notable absentee was Canadian PM Pierre Trudeau, possibly because he was still angry over de Gaulle’s cry of “Vive le Quebec libre” during his 1967 visit.
The funeral on 12 November 1970 was the biggest such event in French history, with hundreds of thousands of French people – many carrying blankets and picnic baskets – and thousands of cars parked in the roads and fields along the routes to the two venues. Special trains were laid on to bring extra mourners to the region and the crowd was packed so tightly that those who fainted had to be passed overhead toward first-aid stations at the rear.
The General was conveyed to the church on an armoured reconnaissance vehicle and carried to his grave, next to his daughter Anne, by eight young men of Colombey. As he was lowered into the ground, the bells of all the churches in France tolled, starting from Notre Dame and spreading out from there.
Madame de Gaulle asked the undertaker to provide the same type of simple oak casket that he used for everyone else, but because of the General’s extreme height, the coffin cost $9 more than usual. He specified that his tombstone bear the simple inscription of his name and his years of birth and death. Therefore, it simply says: “Charles de Gaulle, 1890-1970”.
The French newspaper Le Monde referred to the days after his death as “a planetary mourning.” At the service, President Pompidou said “de Gaulle gave France her governing institutions, her independence and her place in the world.” Andr Malraux, the writer and intellectual who served as his Minister of Culture, called him “a man of the day before yesterday and the day after tomorrow.”
His family has turned the La Boisserie residence into a foundation. It is currently the Charles de Gaulle Museum.
According to a 2005 survey, carried out in the context of the tenth anniversary of the death of Socialist President Franois Mitterrand, 35% of respondents said Mitterrand was the best French President ever, followed by Charles de Gaulle (30%) and then Jacques Chirac (12%). Another poll by BVA four years later, showed that 87% of French people regarded his presidency positively.
Statues have been erected in his honor in Warsaw, Moscow, and Quebec. The first Algerian president Ahmed Ben Bella, said of de Gaulle that before granting Algeria independence, that while he was the “military leader who brought us the hardest blows” he also “saw further” than other politicians, and that his “universal dimension that is too often lacking in current leaders.” Likewise, Leopold Sadar Senghor, the first President of Senegal, said that few Western leaders could boast of having risked their lives to grant a colony independence.
In 1990, his old political enemy, the Socialist President Francois Mitterrand presided over the celebrations to mark the 100th anniversary of his birth. Mitterrand, having once written a vitriolic critique of him called the Permanent Coup dEtat, quoted a then recent opinion poll, saying; “As General de Gaulle, he has entered the pantheon of great national heroes, where he ranks ahead of Napoleon and behind only Charlemagne.”
Although he initially enjoyed good relations with U.S. President John F. Kennedy, who admired his stance against the Soviet Union – particularly when the Berlin Wall was being built – and who called him “a great captain of the western world”, their relationship later cooled. De Gaulle was Kennedy’s most loyal ally during the Cuban Missile Crisis and supported the right that the United States claimed to defend its interests in the Western Hemisphere, in contrast to then German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer who doubted Kennedy’s commitment to Europe and thought the crisis could have been avoided. De Gaulle accepted that it might be necessary for the United States to take preemptive military action against Cuba, unlike many other European leaders of his time. Nevertheless, de Gaulle was a prominent figure at Kennedy’s funeral. De Gaulle was very much admired by the later President Nixon, however. After a meeting at the Palace of Versailles just before the general left office, Nixon declared that “He did not try to put on airs but an aura of majesty seemed to envelop him… his performance – and I do not use that word disparagingly – was breathtaking.” On arriving for his funeral several months later, Nixon said of him “greatness knows no national boundaries”.
Lt. General Vernon A. Walters, a military attache of Dwight Eisenhower and later military attache in France from 1967-1973, noted the strong relationship between De Gaulle and Eisenhower, De Gaulle’s unconditional support of Eisenhower during the U-2 incident, and De Gaulle’s strong support of John F. Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Thus Walter was intensely curious as to the great contrast between De Gaulle’s close relations with two United States Presidents during notable Cold War crises and De Gaulle’s later decision to withdraw France from NATO’s military command, and Walter spoke with many close military and political aides of De Gaulle. Walter’s conclusion based upon De Gaulle’s comments to many of his aides (and to Eisenhower during a meeting at Ramboullet Castle in 1959) is that De Gaulle feared that later United States Presidents after Eisenhower would not have Eisenhower’s special ties to Europe and would not risk nuclear war over Europe. Also, De Gaulle interpreted the peaceful resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis without fighting to take back Cuba from communism a mere 90 miles from the United States as an indication that the United States might not fight for Europe’s defense 3,500 miles away following Soviet aggression in Europe, but would only go to war following a nuclear strike against the United States itself. De Gaulle told Eisenhower that France did not seek to compete with the Strategic Air Command or army of the United States, but believed that France needed a way to strike the Soviet Union.
The French professor and academic Rgis Debray, who served as Foreign Affairs adviser to President Franois Mitterrand, in his book Charles de Gaulle: Futurist of the Nation (1994), wrote: “I cannot hope to get Charles of France intact across the Channel. The clich-covered gravestone is too heavy. And how does one preserve some freedom of thought between the pomposities of official courtesy on the one hand and, on the other, the unshakeable suspicion with which many of my British friends regard an archaic, ungrateful xenophobe, authoritarian and vaguely fascist ? Neither the worldwide dissemination of images and capital, nor the digging of the Channel Tunnel, alters the fact that caricatures travel better than portraits. After all, the bowlers, umbrellas and thin drizzle of the City do not travel either, any more than the morning sfumato in the hills of Siena or the bouquet of great Bordeaux. I am afraid that, like them, this victorious soldier, who disdained the military and placed the writer above the warrior, may have to be consumed in his country of origin”.
Debray called de Gaule “super-lucide” and pointed out that virtually all of his predictions, such as the fall of communism, the reunification of Germany and the resurrection of old Russia had come true since his death. Debray compared him with Napoleon (‘the great political myth of the nineteenth century’), calling de Gaulle his twentieth century equivalent, “The sublime, it seems, appears in France only once a century. Napoleon left two generations dead on battlefield. De Gaulle was more sparing with other people blood; even so, he left us, as it were, stranded, alive but dazed . A delusion, perhaps, but one that turns the world upside down: causes events and movements; divides people into supporters and adversaries; leaves traces in the form of civil and penal codes and railways, factories and institutions (the Fifth Republic has already lasted three times as long as the Empire). A statesman who gets something going, who has followers, escapes the reality of the reports and statistics and become part of imagination. Napoleon and de Gaulle modified the state of things because they modified souls. However, Debray pointed out that there is a difference between Napoleon and de Gaulle : How can the exterminator be compared with the liberator ?… The former ran the whole enterprise into the ground, while the latter managed to save it. So that to measure the rebel against the despot, the challenger against the leader, is just glaringly idiotic. You simply do not put an adventurer who worked for himself or his family on the same level as a commander-in-chef serving his country Regrettably, Gaullism and Bonopartism have a number of features in common, but Napoleon and de Gaulle do not have the same moral value. … the first wanted a Holy French Empire without the faith, a Europe under French occupation. The second wanted to rescue the nation from the emperors and establish a free France in a free Europe”.
Debray continued that he could not say if the general ever loved Britain, but that ironically, as a result of reading his account of his time in exile in his autobiography, “Probably no Frenchman since Hastings has done more to create a familiar, attractive and romantic image of the hereditary enemy Britain in the minds of Frenchmen of a certain age than this champion of the French self-interest”.
On Algeria, the Australian historian Brian Crozier has written “that he was able to part with Algeria without civil war was a great though negative achievement which in all probability would have been beyond the capacity of any other leader France possessed.” In April 1961, when four rebel generals seized power in Algeria, he “did not flinch in the face of this daunting challenge”, but appeared on television in his general’s uniform to forbid Frenchmen to obey the rebels’ orders in an “inflexible display of personal authority”.
The historian K. Perry, while referring to his handling of the Algerian settlement as “a masterly performance”, went on to say that “his impatient shedding of the problem increased the price in human terms that had to be paid. He was so possessed by a burning ambition to restore French greatness and break American leadership in western international affairs that he wished for a speedy end to the Algerian problem, which had become a tiresome distraction for him”. A number of commentators have been critical of de Gaulle for his failure to prevent the massacres after Algerian independence while others take the view that the struggle had been so long and savage that it was perhaps inevitable.
De Gaulle was an excellent manipulator of the media, as seen in his shrewd use of television to persuade around 80% of Metropolitan France to approve the new constitution for the Fifth Republic. In so doing, he refused to yield to the reasoning of his opponents who said that, if he succeeded in Algeria, he would no longer be necessary. He afterwards enjoyed massive approval ratings, and once said that “every Frenchman is, has been or will be Gaullist”.
In its obituary, TIME magazine said;
“He rescued his nation not once but twice, the first time from the shame of its capitulation to the Nazis in World War II, the second from its own quarrelling factions. With the Fifth Republic, he gave France its first strong governmental framework since the days of Louis Napoleon. He was indeed l’homme du destin, (the man of destiny) as Winston Churchill once called him, and even his name, suggestive of both Charlemagne and ancient Gaul, was perfectly suited to the role he took upon himself. But the fact was that France offered de Gaulle too limited a scope and power base. Try as he might, he could not change the basic reality that France simply lacked the specific gravity to offset the force of a superpower.
“Like most crusaders, de Gaulle was extraordinarily farsighted but sometimes, maddeningly, his imperious manner and fragile sensibilities infuriated his nation’s closest allies. In a vain effort to force French leadership on Europe, he twice vetoed Britain’s entry into the continent’s first economic cooperative, the Common Market. At home, he stinted on public welfare in the form of new roads, telephones and a thousand other needed improvements, to pay for symbolically important but ultimately hollow shows of prestige, like the nuclear Force de Frappe”
In Britain, his apparent betrayal at twice preventing the British attempt at joining the EEC was keenly felt for many years. That de Gaulle did not necessarily reflect mainstream French public opinion with his veto was suggested by the decisive majority of French people who voted in favour of British membership when the much more conciliatory Pompidou called a referendum on the matter in 1972. His early influence in setting the parameters of the EEC can still be seen today, most notably with the controversial Common Agricultural Policy.
Some writers take the view that Pompidou was a more progressive and influential leader than de Gaulle because, though also a Gaullist, he was less autocratic and more interested in social reforms. Although he followed the main tenets of de Gaulle’s foreign policy, he was keen to work towards warmer relations with the US. A banker by profession, Pompidou is also widely credited, as de Gaulle’s Prime Minister from 1962-1968, with putting in place the reforms which provided the impetus for the economic growth which followed.
In 1968, shortly before leaving office, de Gaulle refused to devalue the Franc on grounds of national prestige, but upon taking over Pompidou reversed the decision almost straight away. It was ironic, that during the financial crisis of 1968, France had to rely on American (and West German) financial aid to help shore up the economy. Perry has written “The events of 1968 illustrated the brittleness of de Gaulle’s rule. That he was taken by surprise is an indictment of his rule; he was too remote from real life and had no interest in the conditions under which ordinary French people lived. Problems like inadequate housing and social services had been ignored. The French greeted the news of his departure with some relief as the feeling had grown that he had outlived his usefulness. Perhaps he clung onto power too long, perhaps he should have retired in 1965 when he was still popular.”
Brian Crozier has said “the fame of de Gaulle outstrips his achievements, he chose to make repeated gestures of petulance and defiance that weakened the west without compensating advantages to France”
However, Daniel Mahoney writes that “such is the level to which de Gaulle has now passed into mythology in France that he is now claimed by all the political parties, though some more than others. No account of de Gaulle that wishes to capture the man and his works can simply be a profile of his time in power, for Charles de Gaulle was undoubtably one of the great human beings of the twentieth century, a member of that distinguished elite who deserve the appellation statesman.”
Writing in 1995, another commentator, Pierre Manent attempted to explain why he remains so popular in France, yet not in the United States;
“It is true that de Gaulle wanted France to take its destiny into its own hands and wished it would cease to depend on American protection. As such, this ambition was legitimate, even if one disagrees with the manner in which it was formulated and put into practice. As for the wartime difficulties with Roosevelt, the great American president was simply mistaken about de Gaulle, whom he took to be an aspiring despot, and this error of judgement was the principal cause of grave political differences that could have been avoided.”
Despite spending virtually his entire political career at odds with de Gaulle and his policies, the eminent diplomat and economist Jean Monnet had no doubt about the positive role he played in leading the Free French during the first years of the war and immediately after the liberation. Speaking in 1965 he told a journalist; First things first, before a united Europe and an Atlantic partnership there had to be a united France, strong, mobilized and able to assume a leading role among the Western allies. Without de Gaulle or against de Gaulle, we could not have liberated or reconstructed France. There was no one but de Gaulle. Whatever his faults, he was a tower of strength and inspiration.