Sons of France: Pétain and De Gaulle
No Laurels for De Gaulle
Four more books about General de Gaulle! It is a measure of the power of his personality that no other contemporary statesman arouses such interest or provokes such speculation about his motives and aims. His success has been due to a series of contradictions: He is single-minded and devious, a conservative and rebel in one, a man who despises the machinery of democracy, but who draws his strength from popular support and direct contact with the masses, a man, in his own words, “who belongs to nobody and who belongs to everybody.” He is a historical hero in Carlyle’s sense at a time when we are reluctant to account for historical change by the actions of individual great men, and it would be hard to explain his ideas and actions solely as the result of his social origins or economic interests. The uniqueness of De Gaulle’s political style, as much as the remarkable nature of his political achievements, make it hard to judge him. Indeed, if it were not for his tangible successes—the creation of the Free French movement, the restoration of France to the rank of a great power, the ending of the Algerian war—one would be tempted to regard him as a great illusionist, a “mountebank dictator,” as L. B. Namier described Napoleon III.
De Gaulle’s own sense of history inevitably tends to make us look for parallels to his career and character in the past history of France. He is often pictured as heir to the ancien régime, a monarch who recreates the glories of the grand siècle, a kind of twentieth-century Louis XIV. Yet this does not fit: for all the refurbishing of the splendors of Paris, for all the grand design in French foreign policy, for all the remoteness and grandeur of the personal manner, the General remains a “republican monarch,” and the atmosphere of Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises could not be less like that of Versailles. Nor is he Napoleon I; for in spite of his talents as an original military thinker and as a successful commander he is a man of peace who has successfully completed the dismantling of the French Empire, and who assumes the role of an independent mediator between hostile power blocs. His nuclear force de frappe is a symbol of France’s status as a great power and not a military deterrent. There was a moment when he seemed to bear a certain resemblance to General Boulanger, that would-be Bonaparte of the 1880s who achieved his moment of maximum popular support midway between two parliamentary elections, just as happened in the case of De Gaulle’s Rassemblement du Peuple Français in 1947; and the General’s retirement from public life in 1955—“It is my intention not to intervene any longer in what is called ‘public affairs’…I say good-bye, perhaps for a long time”—seemed almost as complete a confession of failure as Boulanger’s flight to Belgium…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.