Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Charles André Marie Joseph deGaulle (1890-1970)

All my life I have cherished a certain idea of France, that is
inspired by feeling as well as by reason. . . My instinct tells me that
providence created her for triumphs and disasters. If, in spite of
this, France behaves in a mediocre fashion, I feel that there has been
an error, due to the mistakes of the French [people] rather than the
character of the nation. The positive side of my mind is convinced that France
is true to herself only when she stands in the first rank; that only great
enterprises can neutralize the ferment of disunity which her people carry in
their veins... France cannot be France for me without grandeur. France is
not France unless she is great...

Charles de Gaulle, War Memoirs (Vol. I, "The Call").

Today is the anniversary of the birth of Charles deGaulle, surely the greatest Frenchman since Napoléon I, one of the true giants of the Second World War, and a poltical figure greatly admired by El Jefe.
Vindicator of the national honour in the darkest hour of modern French history, DeGaulle cannot be easily categorized as liberal or conservative, in the sense that the terms are understood. His basic political outlook is best summed up by the quotation above; the one constant in his military and political life, through two world wars, a depression, and the national trauma of de-colonization -- was that his whole life was at the service of the grandeur, as he understood it, of France.
DeGaulle was always marked out for great things, although when his hour struck, it was in a way he could never have imagined. As a young army officer in the First World War, DeGaulle was providentially spared the fate of so many of his contemporaries, avoiding death in the trenches by being wounded and captured in March 1916. Despite the failure of his five attempts to escape, and a spell in solitary confinement, he turned his captivity to advantage, learning much about his German enemies, and, probably, himself, that would stand him in good stead later.
After the First World War, deGaulle returned to the army, gaining renown as an proponent of armoured warfare. He was an early advocate of a mechanized army similar to that built by the Germans, and had his advice been heeded sooner, perhaps the dreadful collapse of the French armies in May-June 1940, before another German invasion, would not have occurred.
The 1940 collapse, of course, was the hour of both deGaulle (by now a junior member of the French cabinet) and his mentor, Henri Phillippe Pétain. DeGaulle, the tank general/junior government minister, and Marshal Pétain the old World War I hero of Verdun, reacted to the disaster differently. Pétain, nearing senility, was called out of rustication as Ambassador to Spain to lead a defeatist regime that accepted an armistice with Germany and hoped for collaboration with the Third Reich.
However, Pétain's long-time protege, deGaulle, all his life a loyal, conservative, obedient army officer, saw the matter differently, and took it on himself to flout the law, ignore the lawful orders of his superiors and revolt against the legitimate, more or less democratically constituted Pétain government. DeGaulle fled to London and announced his intention to carry on the war for France, despite France, with or without France. On 18 June 1940, deGaulle made "L'Appel" -- the call -- to fight on, from a radio studio in London: "Is our defeat final ? No ! . . . the cause of France is not lost."
In June 1940, the great majority of the French population were tired of the war and wanted peace, at any price. The people supported the Pétain regime and most viewed deGaulle as a dangerous rebel. There is no question whatever that deGaulle's call to fight on was unpopular, and in defiance of public opinion, not to mention illegal.
The audacity of deGaulle's stand is obscured today by the truly towering figure that deGaulle became later. DeGaulle, that day in June, was a political nobody. An undersecretary of state for war in a government that had been legally replaced, a just-promoted Brigadier-General, penniless, in flight from his homeland just ahead of warrants of arrest, deGaulle had no official standing whatever to call for continued resistance. Court-martialed and condemned to death in absentia by the French Army, and ignored by French officialdom, the only assets of deGaulle's France Libre, early on, were his own determination, a few fanatically loyal adherents, and the sometimes uncertain patronage of that other great maverick, Winston Churchill.
By 1944 of course, it was Pétain's pro-German regime that was the farce, and deGaulle's exile provisional government that had the support of the bulk of French public opinion. DeGaulle's public standing increased despite his erstwhile allies Roosevelt and Churchill, who thought to use the France Libre movement for their own purposes and planned to undercut deGaulle by establishing an allied-run occupation regime in liberated France. DeGaulle also had to contend with communist elements in the resistance, who had their own plans for liberated France. All these schemes were scuttled when Paris fell that August, and that city's inhabitants gave deGaulle a tumultuous welcome: his walk down the Champs-Elysées truly one of the finest triumphs any man could ever receive.
The magnitude of this man's achievements cannot be understated. DeGaulle took a ragtag band of penniless rebels and adventurers, and somehow built an army, and made a real government. He accepted the help of America and Britain, but managed to avoid being their stooge. He dodged a take-over, under circumstances made to order for it, by the strongest Communist Party in western Europe. Finally, deGaulle re-established the French Republic and obtained for this beaten, bankrupt, disarmed and humilitated country a seat in the councils of the great powers, and at the peace table. Because of deGaulle, France got a UN veto as good as that of the US or the Soviet Union. All of this was based on little more than force of personality.
Predictably, deGaulle soon fell out with the polticians, and retreated to private life after the war. Recalled to power in 1958, to deal with a political impasse over the revolt in Algeria, deGaulle assumed quasi-dictatorial powers, and ultimately established the Fifth Republic. His constitution governs France today. DeGaulle put down an attempted military coup in 1962, dodged an assassination attempt, and successfully managed France's withdrawal from Algeria. Finally, in that year of chaos, 1968, President deGaulle survived left-wing student and union demonstrations in Paris that threatened to topple the Fifth Republic by calling successfully for a bigger demonstration by France's "silent majority" in his favor. DeGaulle died peacefully at home in 1970. His memoirs are considered a literary masterpiece in both English and French.
DeGaulle's legions of detractors criticise his alleged authoritarian personality, and compare him with his contemporary, the Spanish dictator Franco. This is unfair. Franco's chief concern was always Franco, deGaulle's was always France. But deGaulle was concerned always with France as a nation, as a historical construct, and did not necessarily view the interests of France the nation as identical with those of the current French people. As it turned out, deGaulle's view of the situation was usually right, and 20th Century French and European history largely vindicated him.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Degaulle reminds this reader of another misunderstood French patriot: Tallyrand.

All over France this year are celebrations marking the 60th anniversary of Freedom from the hated Germans.