Charles de Gaulle
Charles de Gaulle; drawing by David Levine

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 in 1889. In fact, however, the General’s retirement, apart from giving him time to write his memoirs, allowed time for the growth of his legend and subsequent apotheosis.

IF IT IS NOT POSSIBLE to find a parallel for De Gaulle in French history, however much he may draw his inspiration from the whole of the past of France—“I have felt French for a thousand years,” he is reported to have said to Ambassador Murphy—it is perhaps equally hard to pin down what were the influences that formed his political ideas. His father was a Catholic school-master from the lesser nobility, and De Gaulle grew up in an atmosphere of conservative piety; but the family was also an intellectual one, and the General’s background reveals itself in his writings and in the studied classicism of his prose style. Certainly, he read and reflected on Maurras; and the distinction between the pays réel and the pays légal, between the essential spirit of France and the transitory institution of contemporary government, underlies much of De Gaulle’s view of the State. From Péguy, perhaps, he acquired an intense and lyrical nationalism. When in 1927 he delivered his three famous lectures to the Ecole Supérieure de la Guerre (at the instigation and under the chairmanship of Marshal Pétain), he dazzled and perhaps also bewildered and irritated his military audience with his familiarity with the philosophy of Bergson.

But De Gaulle is not a political theorist, and what he has taken from the authors he has read has always been used in relation to himself and to his own position and purposes. (M. Lacouture even suggests that his occasional salty invective derives from an admiration for the style of Alfred Jarry’s Ubu roi.) It is characteristic, for example, that De Gaulle should see in Bergson’s ideas suggestions about the nature of the leadership he himself was destined to exercise. “By what signs are we to recognize the man…who leaves his mark on the events which destiny places in his path?” Bergson wrote in a passage that M. Lacouture uses as a text for his analysis of De Gaulle’s beliefs. “Is it not that he encompasses a more or less long succession in an instantaneous vision? The greater the portion of the past he holds in his present, the heavier the mass he propels into the future…”


The sources of De Gaulle’s constitutional beliefs are more obscure. In his contempt for parties and parliament and at times for the idea of democracy itself—“Republican institutions, do you still believe in those things?” he is reported to have said to a fellow-officer during the Second World War—he at times comes near to justifying those of his opponents who accuse him of fascist leanings. Certainly, some of the methods used by his subordinates, methods which the General himself prefers haughtily to ignore or to dismiss, such as those used by Colonel Passy and sections of the Gaullist headquarters in London during the war, or, more recently, by the Minister of the Interior and the security services in the Ben Barka affair, recall the activities of the Gestapo. Yet the General has never shown signs of wanting to be a complete dictator; he has never attempted a coup d’état: Indeed, in 1949, André Malraux complained, “De Gaulle took us full speed to the Rubicon and then told us to get out our fishing rods.” De Gaulle himself was undoubtedly telling the truth when, in 1958, he said “I restored the Republic when I could have imposed my personal power. Does anyone think that, at the age of sixty-seven, I am going to embark on a career as a dictator?”

YET, IF DE GAULLE’S RULE is not a dictatorship, how is one to describe this plebiscitarian presidential rule? Perhaps, as Dr. Theodore Zeldin has suggested in his biography of Napoleon III’s last prime minister, Emile Ollivier, it is to the Second Republic of 1848 and the Liberal Empire of 1870 that we must look for a parallel.

Perhaps the most accurate title for the General would be Prince-President. Throughout French political thinking since Rousseau there have always been two rival views: On the one hand, the sovereign people should govern themselves through a sovereign assembly with the power to control every action of the executive; but, on the other hand, there has always been an alternative view that the chief of the executive power should himself receive his office direct from the people and be responsible to them without intermediaries. At a moment under the Fourth Republic when many Frenchmen shared De Gaulle’s contempt for the parties and felt with him that, “faced with problems too hard for the régime of parties to tackle, France has for the last twelve years followed a disastrous road”; the parliamentary system no longer seemed to express the General Will, whereas De Gaulle appeared to do so.

A system in which one man embodies the General Will is bound to lead to disappointment and to accusations of betrayal. One of the reasons for De Gaulle’s success in 1958 was that he seemed to nearly every section of the French population to promise what they wanted. The generals who provoked the crisis of the Fourth Republic believed De Gaulle when he assured the crowds in Algiers, “Je vous ai compris,” and thought he would support their intransigent demands for a French Algeria. However, to many moderate men he seemed to be the only person strong enough to impose his authority on the army leaders and prevent them from pursuing further a hopeless and unjust war. Throughout his career De Gaulle has believed that the French army must never be alienated from the French nation. (A man born in 1890 was bound to grow up when the issues of the Dreyfus case were still very much alive, and De Gaulle’s view of the affair was that the army, by its own folly, had lost touch with the nation as a whole.) Throughout his career, too, he has always been ready to jettison any of his subordinates once they had served their purpose and no longer seemed to be furthering his aims. His treatment of Admiral Muselier in 1941 foreshadows his treatment of General Salan in 1958. It is his ability to create the impression of being indispensable and capable of the impossible that has given him strength; the more powerful the legend, the more effective it is, and a gesture from the General has often been more effective than a military or a political campaign led by someone else. As Alain Serigny, the editor of the Echo d’Alger, apostrophized him in May, 1958, “Your words are worth actions.”


DE GAULLE HAS CONTRIBUTED to the legend by his own writings and the fact that the best book about De Gaulle is by De Gaulle himself makes it hard to write about him. The four books under review are all by experienced journalists; three of them have already been published in France. Mr. Werth’s political biography has the merits and the defects of his previous volumes, which, indeed, are indispensable for the student of modern French politics. He is at his best when writing of the episodes at which he himself was present as a reporter. He is enormously well-informed and has a shrewd understanding of the realities of French political life and a quick ear for gossip, rumor, and epigram. His book is somewhat slackly constructed and is often repetitive. (We are told at least three times, for example, that Stalin—and how wrong he was—said of De Gaulle “He is not a complicated man.”) Since the book first appeared in England, Mr. Werth has added a chapter on the presidential election of 1965 and on the Ben Barka affair—the sort of scandal that he has been expert at unraveling for nearly thirty years. Presumably any scholarly biography of De Gaulle will have to wait till after his death, but until then Mr. Werth’s lively and sympathetic account, with its copious quotations from the General’s speeches and press conferences, will be of considerable use, especially for the period not covered by De Gaulle’s own memoirs.

Mr. Werth is above all a professional journalist anxious to establish the record from his own observation. MM. Lacouture and Tournoux are more analytical in their approach. M. Lacouture is not well served by his translator, and his rhetorical style often sounds odd in English (“De Gaulle was born in the twilight of a century overflowing with noble ardor and scholarly apathy”), and the familiar traps are not avoided: conférence means lecture and not conference; déception means disappointment and not deception. But the book shows a real understanding of De Gaulle’s mentality and of the forces that formed him, as well as of his political methods. M. Lacouture, whose previous writings have already shown him to be an astute and sensitive political analyst, not only raise the familiar problems about De Gaulle’s personality and political thought; he also has some interesting points to make about his foreign policy. It is in this field, indeed, that the General’s achievements are both most brilliant and most dubious. He has succeeded in questioning the whole basis of the North Atlantic alliance, and he has, by his haughty disdain for the United States government, become the idol of the neutralist Left. He has, by his firm rejection of Britain’s approach to Europe, made the political infighting on the issue in England look somewhat ridiculous. On the one hand, he has pursued a policy of dramatic reconciliation with Germany, and, on the other hand, he has set himself against the European integration which, for Dr. Adenauer and many other Germans, would make that reconciliation a practical political reality.

THE TRUTH IS, as M. Lacouture suggests, that De Gaulle is the most thoroughgoing disciple of Machiavelli engaged in contemporary international politics. For him raison d’état is paramount, and France’s foreign policy must be conducted accordingly. When, M. Lacouture tells us, M. Couve de Murville spoke at a cabinet meeting of “states which are friends of France,” the General replied witheringly, “The Minister of Foreign Affairs should know that a state worthy of the name has no friends.” In fact, as both the United States and Britain have every reason to know, even during the war, when their friendship seemed to be De Gaulle’s strongest asset, the General was always ready to risk losing it in order to assert France’s independence and right to be considered as a Great Power. What is more mysterious is just what purpose this independence is to serve. De Gaulle’s gestures of Latin fraternity in South America and even his recent assertion of neutralist solidarity with Prince Sihanouk have had little practical effect other than that of annoying the United States and delighting some foreign critics of American policies. He has involved the NATO powers in considerable expense by forcing the move of their headquarters from France to Belgium, and he has raised the question, as yet unanswered, of what NATO is really for. But these are negative achievements and will hardly affect the world balance of power.

In two ways, however, De Gaulle’s France might be thought to be the Great Power which he has set out to create. France has her nuclear force de frappe, even though it is not clear what or whom it is supposed to strike at, and indeed, according to M. Lacouture, it is regarded by the General only as “a diplomatic argument.” More seriously, perhaps, and this is too recent a development for M. Lacouture to have been able to say much about it, France has, for the past year and a half, been accumulating gold reserves and obstructing any attempt to find a solution to the problem of international liquidity. (One cannot help being reminded of 1930-31, when France used her position as the holder of the largest gold reserves in Europe to try to impose her policies on Europe rather than to contribute to the solution of the continent’s economic difficulties, though this did not prevent France from feeling the effects of the world depression a few years later, at a moment when the other countries were just beginning to emerge from it.) Is this a real attempt to influence world economic developments, or is it simply De Gaulle’s romantic conservative view about the special quality of gold inspiring a policy the results of which have not been foreseen? In both cases where De Gaulle undoubtedly does wield international power, by means of French nuclear power and French gold reserves, it is still not clear what he really wants or whether the ideals of French greatness and independence which these means are intended to serve, are more than empty phrases, the tricks of a conjurer used to dazzle an audience, the gestures, to use M. Lacouture’s metaphor, of a hypnotist who watches over the political sleep of the French people.

There are signs of an awakening from this sleep; and De Gaulle’s historical achievement will eventually be judged by what comes after him. He has given the French people a temporary respite from the bitter political divisions left by the experiences of defeat and occupation and by the Algerian war, and he has presided over a period of political stability, which has also been one of remarkable, if uneven, economic growth. Just how deep the divisions were which divided Frenchmen can be illustrated from the two other books under review.

M. TOURNOUX has attempted parallel biographical studies of De Gaulle and Pétain. The theme is a fascinating one, and M. Tournoux has collected much valuable first-hand testimony to elucidate it. (Both Mr. Werth and M. Lacouture have used him as a source for their own books.) De Gaulle was to some extent Pétain’s creation, a sorcerer’s apprentice if ever there was one. Pétain was his commanding officer in the 33rd Regiment in 1912, and from then on took a personal interest in his career. In return, De Gaulle was a devoted admirer of the Marshall, and in 1932 acknowledged his debt with the dedication of his book Le Fil de l’épée: “This essay, Monsieur le Maréchal, could only be dedicated to you, for nothing shows better than your glory how clear thought can lead to correct action.” At one time, De Gaulle began to “ghost” a book on the French army for Pétain; and, when the Marshal lost interest and abandoned the project, De Gaulle completed and published it himself, only to be accused of plagiarism by Pétain. It was the beginning of their estrangement, and in his sad last years Pétain sometimes seemed more resentful of this than of anything else De Gaulle had done for him. For De Gaulle, however much he owed to Pétain and however hard it was for him to appear as a direct personal opponent of the Marshal, Pétain was “a great man who died in 1925.” De Gaulle had no hesitation in erecting himself into a rival symbol in 1940. It was only after the war that some Gaullists, anxious to win back the support of some of the conservatives in France who had supported Pétain, used a remark attributed, not too reliably, to De Gaulle himself, to the effect that he had been the sword of France during the war years, while Pétain had been the shield. It was an attempt to make the rival symbols compatible with one another.

Pétain and De Gaulle nevertheless did represent opposite beliefs during the war years—however much it may have suited some Frenchmen to forget this after Marshal’s eclipse and death. M. Mengin’s book reminds us how difficult life was for those Frenchmen who could not honestly support either of them. He gives some glimpses of wartime England through French eyes. He adds some details to the story of the breach between De Gaulle and Admiral Muselier, as told in the admiral’s own De Gaulle contre le Gaullisme. He is clearly a man of uncomfortable and prickly honesty, who, by his refusal to take the oath of allegiance to De Gaulle as leader of the Free French, met with many hardships and inconveniences. This is the only one of these four books uncompromisingly hostile to De Gaulle, and by recalling how hard it was during the Second World War for a patriotic Frenchman to dissociate himself from the General, it also reminds us how difficult it still is for a Frenchman to find someone to support who is a really convincing alternative to the General. Those of us who are lucky enough to have to make this disagreeable choice cannot help being fascinated by the General’s political skill and by the grandeur and complexity of his public character. Alone among contemporary statesmen he stirs the imagination, and with him one knows, as he himself said in 1965, “Vous verrez, on ne s’ennuiera pas.”

This Issue

November 17, 1966