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The Magician

The Three Lives of Charles de Gaulle

by David Schoenbrun
Atheneum, 365 pp., $6.95

A great leader must possess “something which others cannot altogether fathom, which puzzles them, stirs them and rivets their attention.” So wrote Charles de Gaulle some thirty years ago, and so has he been practising ever since. Playing the role of mystery man, he drops sybilline statements the way lesser stylists drop clichés, sows uncertainty for pleasure, and continually reverses himself in mid-field without so much as changing similes. Here is a man who in the past three decades has gone through virtually every role in the book—from conventional staff officer, to rebel, to party chief, to political exile, and now to Président-Soleil—and has made them all seem equally legitimate. De Gaulle so cleverly defines his position that any interpretation is possible, all options are open, and any course of action—however improbable before the act—seems inevitable upon execution.

To his critics he is a Machiavelli of deception and double-dealing, but for De Gaulle all this is part of the game of statesmanship. He may be deceitful, but he has never deliberately lied in public, for that would be to diminish his standing and narrow his options. “What distinguishes his political style and what makes him unique,” as Herbert Luethy recently pointed out in Foreign Affairs, “is precisely that he knows how to be an opportunist without appearing to be one, and how to compromise without compromising himself.” De Gaulle’s style depends upon guile, dissimulation, and illusion—and he is a master of them all.

Je vous ai compris, he assured a screaming mob of Algerian colonists in 1958 shortly after he returned to power. They thought he was promising never to let Algeria go, and so they cheered. But within four years the North African colony was independent, the pieds noirs retired to southern France (where last December they trooped out to vote for François Mitterand against the “traitor” who gave Algeria back to the Arabs), and De Gaulle has managed to convince most people that it all happened exactly as he planned. Perhaps it did, but nobody will ever know, for De Gaulle refused to give his cards away in advance. He is all things to all men (“I am a man who belongs to no one and who belongs to everyone,” he declared in 1955), cutting across party lines and ideological platforms, a man of the Right who attracts admirers on the far Left, an ex-officer who is contemptuous of the army, an imperialist who gave away the Empire, an autocrat who saved the Republic. “De Gaulle,” as Jean Lacouture remarked in a recent biography* which deserves prompt translation into English, “is more left-wing than the Popular Front ever dared be.”

A compendium of contradictions, De Gaulle cultivates mystery the way American politicians cultivate sincerity. It is his trade-mark and the camouflage which allows him freedom of maneuver. This air of mystery irritates Anglo-Saxon diplomats, but it is not unsuited to the tastes of a nation which names its jet fighters (and meringue desserts) Mystères, whose atomic bombs are carried by Mirages, and where people issue invitations weeks in advance to a surprise-party. Diplomacy, for better or worse, is a reflection of national style, and the French have long been masters of dissimulation, embellishing the ordinary with the unexpected. Starting out with the same raw material as everyone else—whether in women or in vegetables—they often make art triumph over nature by concealing the essential and endowing the peripheral with mystery.

SO IT IS with the politics of Charles de Gaulle, who can infuse with anxiety such tedious affairs of state as the decision to run for office, or the exchange of ambassadors with some distant and dreary regime. In the hands of this master illusionist even a turgid ritual like a press conference is turned into an act of theater, complete with red velvet curtains, attendants in livery, gold-leaf chairs, and murmuring acolytes (cabinet ministers). Only incense is lacking when the Eleusinian Mysteries are unveiled twice yearly at the Elysée. It is dazzling, but is it for real? Oddly enough, it seems to be. It has been going on for more than seven years, and is likely to go on for another seven, by which time De Gaulle may have convinced everyone that France is a great power. In a world whose politics are dominated by party hacks and anonymous bureaucrats, it is exhilarating to be confronted with such arrogance, daring, and clever opportunism. For offering us some much-needed relief from the simplistic banalities of Dean Rusk, the witless plodding of Harold Wilson, and the obsequious genuflections of NATO allies and Latin American wards, perhaps we all owe Charles de Gaulle two small cheers.

As a master of trompe l’oeil, De Gaulle has long wielded an influence out of all proportion to the actual power he is able to marshal. It is this above all which seems to infuriate his critics and to drive even such perceptive and normally mild-mannered men as Senator Fulbright into paroxysms of anti-Gaullism. In any scale of raw power, France today—even with her hoard of gold nuggets and her atomic bombette—is small pommes de terre compared with the giants across the Atlantic and beyond the Vistula. Yet such are De Gaulle’s powers of manipulation, that he frequently manages to make Paris sound like one of the arbiters of the universe. How does he pull it off? Partly with his extraordinary sense of style and bravado, and even more importantly because he is willing, when every other course has failed, to say non.

This willingness to put his foot down when he thinks France is being dealt a dirty hand has aroused the irritation, if not the enmity, of virtually every ally France has ever had. It is one of his most unappealing qualities. But when one is weak and surrounded by powerful adversaries, sometimes the ability to say no is all that is left. And if used properly, it can be a powerful tool. With it De Gaulle has more than once been able to conjure a chocolate soufflé out of a Hershey bar. It was this stubborness as head of the French government-in-exile which led Churchill to call him his Cross of Lorraine—a sobriquet which almost certainly must have pleased De Gaulle. When he left London in 1943 to set up Free French headquarters in Algiers, Anthony Eden told him that he was the most troublesome of all the exile leaders. “I do not doubt it,” De Gaulle replied, as though receiving a compliment. “France is a great power.”

De Gaulle = France. This automatic connection in the General’s mind between himself and his country lies at the core of Gaullist policy. It reflects a belief that nations rise to greatness only under leaders who incarnate and stimulate the virtues of their people. Frenchmen are fallible and must constantly be prodded by leaders who are inspired by “a certain idea of France.” This conception of leadership harks back to Maurras and even to Machiavelli, but it also has strong elements of Rousseau as well, for it sees the great leader as translating the general will into action. De Gaulle, like that other anti-ideologue, Lyndon Johnson, would reach across party barriers to establish a great consensus in which all men, having reasoned together, would agree on the ineluctable wisdom of his will.

This attitude does not make De Gaulle a dictator (“What dictator ever had to face a run-off ballot?” he commented after the December 5 elections). For all his monarchical qualities, he has also absorbed the revolutionary, republican traditions of France—and thus in the recognition of China or the ending of the Algerian war, has been more radical than the French left. Rather, he has a mystic view of leadership, one in which the leader has a symbolic significance separate from the mere individual who exercises the role. So we have third person Gaullism. “Try to get this into your head, monsieur,” the General explained to a bodyguard who, after one of the innumerable assassination attempts by OAS die-hards, warned him against plunging into crowds to shake hands. “De Gaulle does not interest me except as a historical figure.”

IT IS AS a historical figure that he interests everyone, for he has become a legend in his own lifetime, the only survivor of the great wartime alliance, the soldier who revolted against his own government in 1940 to lead a resistance movement and defend the values of the pays réel when the pays légal had collapsed into the arms of Hitler, the wartime hero who retired into exile rather than play post-war politics, the almost-forgotten leader who returned to power again in 1958 to save the Republic a second time, the recalcitrant ally who under Johnson and Kennedy, just as under Roosevelt, defies Washington’s blueprints for an orderly world. It is an extraordinary life, one which embodies a double resurrection and spans three historical epochs. This is the guts of contemporary Western history rolled up into a single, remarkable individual, and it is not surprising that a journalist like David Schoenbrun—who has spent the past twenty years in Paris reporting for CBS and observing the General at close hand—should want to put it into perspective.

Considering his credentials, it would seem that Mr. Schoenbrun would be the ideal person to write the much-needed comprehensive, but unpedantic, political biography of the man who is France. Apparently, however, he isn’t and it comes as both a surprise and a disappointment that he has made such a hash of the job. In dealing with what he describes as De Gaulle’s three lives (soldier, resistance leader, President), Mr. Schoenbrun seems never to have decided whether he was writing a biography, a capsule history, or a critique of Gaullist politics. The result is not so much a three-tiered gâteau as a rather indigestible ragoût.

This is not to say that Mr. Schoenbrun’s book is without value—for it contains a good deal of worthwhile information. Rather, it is vaguely schizophrenic and often seems far worse than it really is. The opening 76 pages, recounting the life of Young Charlie de Gaulle, Loner and Brave Soldier, are pure agony, and are likely to be of interest only to retarded teen-agers. Then there are the clichés, a veritable avalanche of them: “De Gaulle walked hand in hand with death,” “De Gaulle loved France as much as a man can love,” “he bears his love as a banner on his lance as he rides for France in the tournament of the world.” And some truly tortured rhetoric: “De Gaulle viewed greatness as a blend of inner forces and external challenges that gave these forces an outlet and a crucible in which they would be poured and then moulded by the great man,” or “the self-forged chains of bondage were made of metals fused by the flames of war and frozen into an inflexible mold by defeat.”

All this is more than any reader need, or should, stand for, and Mr. Schoenbrun stands condemned for having alienated his readers from the start. This is a pity, for beneath the lavender prose, the irrelevant and often embarrassing anecdotes, and the unfortunate attempts at political analysis, lies a hard core of information which can help clear up a good many popular misconceptions about De Gaulle. If Mr. Schoenbrun had stuck to his last and given a straight journalistic account of the life of Charles de Gaulle rather than alternately playing historian, eavesdropper, and State Department PR man, he would have written a better book and provided a public service.

MR. SCHOENBRUN is at his best when he shows why De Gaulle has been, and is, such a difficult ally. It becomes apparent how his arrogance has served to compensate for the weakness of France, both during the war and since, when confronted with allies who were ready to take her for granted. “I understood and admired, even while I resented, his arrogant demeanor,” Churchill wrote of the war years. “Here he was—a refugee, an exile from his country, under the sentence of death, entirely dependent upon the good will of the British government and then of the United States. The Germans had conquered his country. He had no real foothold anywhere. Never mind, he defied them all!” Churchill’s respect was not echoed by Roosevelt, who underestimated, despised, and frequently ridiculed De Gaulle—urging Churchill to break with him and suggesting contemptuously he be made Governor of Madagascar. De Gaulle, as Milton Viorst showed in detail in Hostile Allies, brought out the pettiness that marred Roosevelt’s noble character. But he rarely succumbed to it himself. His weapon was not ridicule, but irony, and he has used it with devastating effect on all those visions—Roosevelt’s “American Century,” Kennedy’s “grand design,” or Jean Monnet’s federated Europe—which to him seem to compromise the integrity of France.

A nationalist at a time when only super-powers and under-developed nations have the right to practice nationalism, De Gaulle pursues his dreams of Gallic glory: blasting the “twin hegemonies” (us and them), making eyes at the hopeful Cinderellas of the Third World, praising the virtues of national independence, and ploughing the French taxpayers’ money into atomic adventures, space extravaganzas, and foreign aid bribes for the new nations. In short, he is behaving just as though France were a great power. It is all very expensive, some of it is ineffective and unnecessary, and a good deal of it is meringue. But it is all part of the quest for grandeur—one of those words that sound faintly ridiculous until they are translated into English where—as greatness, glory, and self-respect—they strike all too close to home. Should the French, unlike everybody else, be denied their grandeur—even if much of it is sham? Without the Gaullist cushion of status-symbols—the force de frappe which keeps a rebellious army happy, the gold hoarding, the pep talks, the jibes at America and Russia, the prestige junkets to the capitals of the Third World—without all this could France, which since 1940 has known capitulation, collaboration, occupation, parliamentary anarchy, and sixteen years of colonial warfare, be the stable, democratic, territorially-satisfied society she is today?

DE GAULLE trumpets grandeur, but France is not at war with anyone, does not have army garrisons overseas, and is quite content to let others live under whatever regimes they please. Under him France has been a troublesome ally, but before him, as we seem to have forgotten, France was the joke of Europe with her musical chairs premiers, her stagnant economy, and her futile colonial wars. Without De Gaulle she would today quite likely be a fascist dictatorship with General Salan in the Elysée, General Massau in the Matignon, and half a million soldiers still fighting in Algeria. De Gaulle has been a nuisance to Washington, but when the chips were down at Berlin and in Cuba he was the first to pledge his support. He has little use for the present form of NATO, and even less for a world gendarmery run from the LBJ ranch. But then why should he? His job is not to be deputy sheriff to Washington, but to restore to France her self-respect—and this he has done triumphantly.

His methods have not always been consistent, nor above-board. “If one walks through mud,” he said of the circumstances surrounding his return to power, “one cannot help being stained.” He has deceived many and disappointed even more. He almost certainly never intended to liberate Algeria and dismember the French Empire. But he was willing to come to terms with the inevitable, and in doing so managed to transform into a personal triumph and a curious kind of national victory an act of surgery whose mere suggestion brought down the Fourth Republic. For all his nationalism De Gaulle understood what Lyndon Johnson has yet to learn: that a great nation’s prestige does not depend upon the tenacity with which it clings to obsolete involvements, but upon its ability to distinguish national interest from national pride. It takes a great realist to make this distinction, and a great illusionist to render it palatable.

  1. *

    De Gaulle, Editions du Seuil, Paris, 4.90 francs

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