The Three Lives of Charles de Gaulle
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 …
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 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.