Charles de Gaulle
Charles de Gaulle; drawing by David Levine

The French like to name their streets after significant historical days: 10 August, 11 November, 4 September, and so on. There ought to be many streets of 18 June, and perhaps there are. For on 18 June 1940 De Gaulle came into existence as a political phenomenon. Before that day, Brigadier General de Gaulle was a professional soldier with reasonably enlightened ideas about armored warfare—ideas which in fact proved to have little relevance to World War II. On 18 June De Gaulle decided to become France. Few people took notice of him, the French least of all. The asylums are full of people who imagine that they are the Emperor of China. De Gaulle persisted in his identification undeterred and, against all expectation, it appeared to come true. From 1944 to 1946 and again since 1958 De Gaulle and France have been interchangeable terms.

This is far from saying that De Gaulle has ever had the general, let alone the unanimous, support of the French people. It is very unlikely that most Frenchmen supported the Resistance, though no doubt they were glad to run for cover when the Vichy system collapsed. Again, they were no doubt glad that someone should cope with the rebellious French army in Algeria. But when they were at last given an opportunity to express their opinion in a free vote, only 40 per cent supported De Gaulle, and by no means all these were convinced Gaullists. Observers, including some of the present authors, assume that De Gaulle’s position has been shaken by the demonstration that only a minority support him. This is a total misconception. De Gaulle continues to believe and to assert that he is France, an abstract idea which has nothing to do with the French people. Those who fail to recognize this claim are dismissed as “separatists” or “sectaries.” De Gaulle is a secular Pope. He is inspired, infallible, unique. So far as he is concerned, critics and opponents simply do not exist. They are non-persons.

OF COURSE DE GAULLE is by no means the first to identify himself with the state or nation. Many absolute monarchs of the old school did it. Madame de Pompadour addressed Louis XV as “France” even when they were in bed together. When Divine Right lost its force, popular sovereignty was supposed to provide a substitute, and dictators justified themselves by relying on universal suffrage. This is really only top-dressing. The inspired dictator rests on his own inspiration. Hitler was sure that he was “Germany” long before the National Socialists were a mass movement. Churchill was sure that he was England, and most of English history as well, when he had only two supporters in the House of Commons. President Roosevelt, a true democratic statesman, was quite right to hold that De Gaulle did not belong to his class. De Gaulle is a dictator by principle and instinct. Yet he is also different from all the other dictators who have cursed our century, so much so that even the most convinced democrat must have a twinge of doubt now and then whether he is not on De Gaulle’s side after all.

It is tempting to list De Gaulle’s virtues. Unlike nearly all other dictators, he is honest in a simple, personal sense. He wants nothing for himself, not even adulation. His supreme selfconfidence makes him tolerant. His opponents amuse, they do not anger him. He could say with Guizot: “However much you abuse me, you will never reach the height of my disdain.” He is also a wily old cove, despite his seeming rigidity. He knows only too well how to be obstinate. But he also knows how to give way, with a disarming and innocent suggestion that he meant to be reasonable all along. He talks one way and acts another. Anyone who judged De Gaulle from his utterances would expect him to be a new Napoleon, striving to dominate Europe and inflicting on the French people an excessive militaristic burden. He is in fact the main pillar of European peace and has given to the French the blessings of a quiet life. He returned to power in 1958 with the cry of preserving Algeria for France. His greatest historical achievement has been to remove from Algeria not only French authority, but also the French settlers—a surrender with few parallels which no democratic politician could have dared to attempt.

Historians and political writers can make no sense of him. The books which provide the excuse for this piece bear witness to their bewilderment. M. Robert Aron has some excellent works of contemporary history to his credit. Here he wanders in darkness like Christian and Hopeful on the Enchanted Ground, and no angel is likely to whip him into enlightenment. M. Mauriac is in yet more pathetic case. No other Nobel prize winner can have produced such a work of senile slavering, culminating in a comparison of De Gaulle with Jesus Christ. M. Revel, denouncing De Gaulle, does not come off much better. He reveals that France is no longer a free country in the full sense. He describes the brutality of the French police, which existed just as much in the great days of democracy. He complains that De Gaulle’s government benefits the rich, which also happens in the most democratic communities. Finally he criticizes the French Left for failing to discover any common principle of opposition. Not much wisdom here. As for De Gaulle’s own pronouncements, assembled by Mr. Macridis, they are gibberish to the rational reader, incantations by a self-intoxicated witch-doctor. Mr. Duverger, in his foreword to Mr. Macridis’s anthology, is the only one who writes with some semblance of understanding. Altogether twenty pages are a poor reward for a week’s hard reading, an experience to cure anyone of incipient Gaullism.


YET SOMEHOW we should be able to bring De Gaulle within rational compass. If he is not on our normal wavelength, we must retune our sets. It is certainly tempting to suggest that there is really no such person and that the so-called De Gaulle is a fabulous monster much like a unicorn. Clearly his speeches were not delivered by a normal human being, and his Memoirs are still more impersonal. In his early appearances he looked like a marble statue. Now he has come to resemble an inflated rubber doll, and one expects the air to run out of him at any moment. Still, reliable witnesses report that they have seen a living man, and we must credit their testimony. Even so, De Gaulle has nothing in common with an ordinary statesman, still less with a politician. He created himself as a full-grown monolith on 18 June 1940 and has remained unchanged ever since. There has been nothing to add and nothing to take away.

On a more practical level, the career of De Gaulle provokes two questions. How did he attain power? What has he done with it? The first question is not difficult to answer. He stepped resolutely into a vacant place. The Third French Republic was in a state of almost permanent crisis between the wars. Defeat in 1940 finished it off. De Gaulle offered a new symbol when all others had lost their appeal. The handful of men who made up the French Resistance imagined that they were acquiring a symbol and not much else. De Gaulle was cast as their instrument. Once France was liberated, the Resistance, too, lost its authority, and De Gaulle went on without it. The Fourth Republic proved as incompetent as the Third. De Gaulle once more found the place vacant. In a sense, France has lacked any clear authority ever since the great revolution. De Gaulle is simply the last version of the attempts to conjure up a new legitimacy when the old forms have been destroyed. His success is also a prelude to his failure. His legitimacy is purely personal, and it is as certain as anything can be that he will leave no political heir. After De Gaulle France will simply go back to the confusions of the republic, and most Frenchmen are already waiting for the next round, exactly as they did in the time of Pétain.

THIS IS THE ESSENCE of De Gaulle, at once his strength and his weakness. He is authority and nothing else. He is always prepared to give orders and has no orders to give except when they are forced upon him. Hence his most persistent and most resolute order is his famous Non. He has been saying Non for the past twenty-six years. He said Non to the German conquerors in 1940. He said Non throughout the war to Churchill and still more to Roosevelt when they tried to treat France as of no account. He said Non to the Communists after the war. He said Non to the rebellious generals in Algiers and to those who wished to continue the Algerian war. He has always said Non to the plans for reforming the social system of France on a more democratic basis. From first to last, his great achievement has been to stop things happening. This itself is a way of changing history.

Consider what might have happened without De Gaulle. There would have been no France and perhaps no Europe. Of course they would have existed as geographic regions and would have been populated with highly prosperous people. But they would not have existed politically. De Gaulle has put them back on the political map, and he has done this by weight of personality alone. Material resources, or lack of them, have never worried him. During the war, he put France back among the Great Powers, when the French Resistance was contributing less against the Germans than the Italian and far less than the Yugoslav. More recently, he has continued to pursue a policy of grandeur without expense. He dissolves the French Empire and exalts France’s Imperial mission. He is for ever on offer as the champion of independence—for France, for Europe, even for South America. He even claims that some antiquated nuclear devices are enough to place France on equality with the World Powers. Other statesmen complain that De Gaulle is play-acting. So he is, and he knows it. The others are play-acting also and do not know it. Hence De Gaulle has called their bluff, when they thought that they would be able to call his. If you say, quite rightly, that “France” is now a mere expression of sentiment without reality, what about “democracy” or “Communism”? These too have become emotional symbols of no significance.


The real world is composed of machines, not of old-style emotions. Sometimes the machines break loose, as in Vietnam, where peasants, who are not Communists, are being burnt to death by napalm bombs, which are certainly not democracy. But for the most part, the machines are harnessed and tamed. The revolution of our age is not political. It is the technical break-through to limitless prosperity. Why fuss about constitutional forms or national loyalties, when everyone can have electricity and automobiles, refrigerators and television sets? Until the twentieth century, politics were a struggle for the division of an inadequate loaf. Now there is cake for all or soon will be. Men do not want political sensations. They want a quiet life, and this is what De Gaulle gives them. He uses the grand words on condition that they remain words. He has often condemned politicians as men who talk and do not act. In practice De Gaulle has talked even more and acted far less. He is a firm guarantee that government will never really do anything. This is what we all secretly want. What a blessing it would be if public men stopped imagining that they had a creative mission and instead got on with their proper job, which is to control the traffic. De Gaulle has stuck to controlling the traffic, though he does not do even that very effectively. In an age of political pretense, he has been the greatest Pretender. This is what makes him invisible. He can change his shape, vanish at will, and appear somewhere else. He is a figment of his own imagination, and the imaginary cannot be defeated.

This Issue

May 12, 1966