De Gaulle and His Myth

De Gaulle: Vol. II, The Ruler: 1945-1970

by Jean Lacouture, translated by Alan Sheridan
Norton, 640 pp., $29.95

In the Republic of the Congo (Brazzaville), a syncretic religion has arisen around a cult of General Charles de Gaulle. Its altars are decorated with Crosses of Lorraine and large “V’s” for victory. Its followers sing and dance to invoke Ngolo, which is also the word for power in the Bakongo language.

Although the canonization of De Gaulle now underway in France has utterly different outward trappings, it is no less authentic, as any tourist can see who contemplates the vast concrete Cross of Lorraine, built in 1980, that rises from a hilltop near De Gaulle’s country house at Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises (Haute-Marne), over a small museum and souvenir stand.

The change has been profound. Thirty years ago, when De Gaulle was president of France, almost half of French citizens regularly voted against him, and the most violent among them—the hard-core militants of French Algeria—were trying to kill him. Less murderous but still unreconciled were most of the left, the remaining partisans of the Vichy regime of 1940–1944, supporters of an integrated Europe along the lines preached by Jean Monnet, and believers in French membership in an Atlantic alliance headed by the United States.

Today De Gaulle’s popular image is being reconstructed in ways that do considerable violence to history. On the left, Regis Debray, former companion of Che Guevara, has written a paean to the general. François Mitterrand, who once referred to the Fifth Republic’s strong presidency as a “coup d’état permanent,” now exercises that office’s powers with recognizably Gaullian style and substance. Even Europeanists have begun claiming the general as their own. The Atlanticists have been left behind by events. Death has diminished the Vichy partisans. Those who remain, along with the unreconciled diehards of French Algeria, must be disappointed that their chief spokesman, National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, never attacks the memory of De Gaulle. The craggy general is in danger of turning into a smooth plaster saint.

Jean Lacouture, the sympathetic biographer of Léon Blum, Pierre Mendès France, François Mauriac, Nasser, and Ho Chi Minh, and a correspondent for Le Monde, who was far from enthusiastic when De Gaulle returned to power in 1958, has mellowed, too. Fortunately he does not try to round off the General’s rough edges. Jean Lacouture’s De Gaulle is not a nice man. “Armored with pride and rigidity,” this “great intellectual beast of prey,…virtuoso of domination” inflicts “sarcastic badgering” on his subordinates, treats his associates unfairly, shows “obsessive distrust,” makes unreasonable demands on his allies, and displays a “superiority complex.” Though De Gaulle clearly has the dimensions of a hero in Lacouture’s appropriately grand-scaled account, the hero seems more authentic without incense.

Lacouture is quite frank about what he regards as De Gaulle’s mistakes and failures. As the French Army’s most famous modernizer in the 1930s, De Gaulle underrated air power. After his momentous appeal from London on June 18, 1940, to all those French …

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