Charles de Gaulle
Charles de Gaulle; drawing by David Levine

French president Charles de Gaulle’s press conferences in the 1960s were early masterpieces of live television. Towering above the journalists crammed beneath his rostrum—he was six foot four inches tall—he would invite question after question before ignoring them all to embark on one of his renowned tours d’horizon. A contemporary cartoon from Le Figaro shows him, glasses in hand. “I believe I heard,” he is saying, “from the back of the room, someone failing to ask me the question that I will now answer.” The capacious double-breasted suits underlined how far he, and France, had come since that glorious summer in 1944 when a younger, trimmer General de Gaulle in belted uniform had pronounced Paris liberated from the Germans.

He was in his seventies and had outlived the Big Three—Roosevelt, Stalin, and Churchill. His physical stamina remained extraordinary, his memory and repartee legendary, and he cheerfully denounced those preparing what he called après-gaullisme. A man of modest personal habits, he fed coins into the electricity meter in his apartment at the Élysée Palace himself. But deep down he felt tired, and he sometimes wondered what his long and remarkable career had really been for. One night in 1967, with only his close aide Jacques Foccart present, he soliloquized:

In reality we are on the stage of a theatre where I have been keeping up the illusion since 1940. I am trying to give France the appearance of a solid, firm, confident and expanding country, while it is a worn-out nation, which thinks only of its own comfort, which doesn’t want any problems…. I make people believe, or I think I do, that France is a great country, that France is determined and united, while it is nothing of the sort. France is worn out, she is made to be supine not made to fight. That is how things are, and I cannot do anything about it…. I keep the theatre going as long as I can, and then, after me, have no illusion, things will go back to where they were.

De Gaulle once described his old sparring partner Winston Churchill as “a great artist,” but the phrase could as profitably be applied to him. In the spring of 1968 he turned his bewilderment at the student demonstrations and workers’ strikes into a last demonstration of his brilliance: disappearing for twenty-four hours from Paris—his intentions remain uncertain—he reemerged to announce the elections that gave the Gaullist party an unprecedented majority. Yet the exhaustion was real, and when, the following April, he resigned after losing a completely pointless referendum on regional reform, it was almost as though he were looking for a way out. In retirement he had barely enough time to complete the first volume of memoirs of his presidency before he died on November 9, 1970. France has been living in his shadow ever since.

Julian Jackson’s biography is a worthy monument to this extraordinary figure. He has a good eye for the telling quotation and a magnificent capacity to place de Gaulle, one of the most fascinating subjects in twentieth-century politics, in his historical and political setting. The result is a wonderful history of modern France disguised as the biography of a statesman.

De Gaulle was born in his mother’s hometown of Lille in 1890. His father, a teacher, was the dominant presence in his early life and inculcated in his son the love of learning, books, and writing that always marked him out from most of his fellow officers. “What a man, what a father, what a figure in our lives,” de Gaulle wrote to his older brother after their father’s death in 1932. “If my destiny offers me honour of any kind, it will have been to live in the image of Henri de Gaulle, my father.” De Gaulle père taught at a Jesuit high school before founding his own private Catholic school, and once described himself as a “monarchist in feeling, and republican in thought.”

This paternal strand of republican Catholicism—devout, patriotic, frugal, and dedicated to the nation’s honor and history—shaped his son and goes some way toward explaining de Gaulle’s ability and desire to bring together a country that had been torn apart by the passions of the Dreyfus Affair in his youth, and would later be torn apart again in war. One of Henri de Gaulle’s students was the writer Georges Bernanos, whose ascetic faith and hatred of fascism made him a sympathetic figure for his near contemporary Charles: it is no surprise that Bernanos’s Diary of a Country Priest, with its idealization of the life of service and its mistrust of human nature, was one of his favorite books. Both the sense of duty and the misanthropy—de Gaulle was a quintessential loner—remained prominent throughout his life.


Out of de Gaulle’s education came at least two other enduring elements. One was the debt he owed to the intellectual giants of the years before World War I—especially their taste for action over talk and their fervent patriotic faith. The writer Ernest Psichari moved from republicanism and pacifism into the Catholic Church before he was killed in 1914; in 1940, when fighting at the front against the Germans, it was Psichari’s works that de Gaulle requested. The philosopher Henri Bergson’s belief in the importance of intuition over rationalism was a major influence on de Gaulle’s idea of political leadership. De Gaulle’s interwar study Le fil de l’épée (The Edge of the Sword) was a Bergsonian treatise that underlined the importance of instinct and experience and warned against the French zeal for logic and theorization. Raymond Poincaré, France’s president during World War I, was, de Gaulle once wrote, an example of intelligence without intuition, “an executant of the first rank.” Nothing could have been more antipathetic to him. The mark of the leader, he liked to say, was to disobey—a precept he lived up to with spectacular success, especially during World War II. Anyone could talk (though few better than de Gaulle); the leader knew when to remain silent. Above all, he wrote, the leader had to suffer, to undergo “an intimate struggle…which at every moment lacerates his soul.”

De Gaulle’s other formative influence was the army. In 1909, before he could begin studies at the French military academy St. Cyr, he spent a year with the thirty-third infantry regiment, which was commanded by a fifty-five-year-old colonel whose career was apparently behind him: Philippe Pétain. Thus began the extraordinary association between the two men, one that started in admiration and patronage, reached its climax after France’s collapse in 1940 in what became a personal duel of words over the airwaves, and ended when the war was over with the younger man—having succeeded the older as national leader—holding his former commander’s life in his hands.

At St. Cyr, de Gaulle did not do especially well, and later, when he returned to the École de Guerre (the school that trained high-ranking French military officers), his instructors were struck by his aloof bearing and his arrogance, his attitude of “a king in exile.” On the other hand, as he demonstrated in World War I, he was indifferent to danger. Wounded and captured at Verdun, he spent nearly three years as a prisoner of war, passing the time by reading history. After the war, he served with the Polish army in its struggle against the Bolsheviks, and then, back in France at the start of the 1920s, he set about forging a career.

One of the greatest and strangest works of French Romanticism, Alfred de Vigny’s Of Military Glory and Servitude, is a lengthy meditation on the place of the soldier in peacetime. The nobility and melancholy of a life dedicated to service, in particular to the service of a society that is enjoying the pleasures of peace, was a theme that resonated with de Gaulle. Like one of de Vigny’s heroes, he felt a lingering regret at not having done more during wartime. But he believed a new war was coming: as early as 1917 he had been warning that “this war is not the last.” He prepared for it by reading and writing and acquiring a reputation as a strategist. He also attended the salon of a remarkable mentor, the Jewish colonel Émile Mayer, forty years his senior, who had a reputation as a first-class military theorist. Both of them were what the French called militaires cultivés.

It was also in the 1920s that de Gaulle got married and thereby found the domestic tranquility that became indispensable to this most private of men. Yvonne Vendroux was the daughter of a prosperous family of Calais industrialists, and together they had three children, the last of whom, Anne, was born in 1928. She had Down syndrome, and both parents were devoted to her. One of the few touching photographs of de Gaulle, whose life was lived almost entirely in the public eye, is of him, in suit, tie, and Homburg, sitting on a deck chair on a Brittany beach engrossed in a game with the five-year-old Anne on his lap.

His relationship with Pétain, who had became a national hero during World War I for his defense of Verdun and been named commander in chief of the army and a marshal of France, brought professional advancement, and de Gaulle made his way onto the Conseil Supérieur de la Défense National, which was in charge of war preparations. His books had made him well known in defense circles. His first—a study of why the Germans had lost in 1918—stressed the importance of civilian control over the military and the preservation of morale, but his second and third focused on what kind of army was going to be needed in the future. In opposition to the received wisdom that the next war would, like the last, be a defensive war fought in trenches, de Gaulle, following his mentor Mayer, predicted that the offensive would be decisive and would require the formation of mechanized units and a highly trained professional army.


Initially his views were unpopular, but in the mid-1930s he found a new patron in the center-right politician Paul Reynaud. Others came round as well, and after the remilitarization of the Rhineland, Léon Blum, the socialist prime minister, sought his advice. De Gaulle’s deeply conservative cast of mind never precluded him from mixing with socialists, or for that matter with Jews. Nor did his Catholicism ever lead him into appeasement and fascism like the conservatives around Charles Maurras and Action Française. He was, at heart, a realist in international affairs: power and the balance of forces counted for more with him than ideology, and he valued Russia—Bolshevik or not—as a potential partner for France.

Before World War II broke out, de Gaulle had predicted that cowering behind the Maginot Line—the line of fortifications constructed in the 1930s along the German border—would lead to a “political, social and moral crisis.” France’s only hope in the event of attack was an assault on the German lines. When Reynaud became prime minister in March 1940, de Gaulle helped draft his speech before heading to the front; two months later he led his tanks into action against the invading Germans.

The heat of battle was not his natural milieu. As a leader of men, his fearlessness was offset by his solitary manner and his intimidating silence. When a military chaplain asked him, “Why are you always alone, Colonel? One would like to meet you and talk with you,” his response was, “To say what?” A staff officer recorded:

He exercised a command that was independent, exclusive, authoritarian and egocentric, based on the conviction that his judgement was, in every case, the best…. Insisting in all circumstances on the signs of respect that the regulations required, he kept his officers at six paces, creating around him a void where he stood out in the centre…. He received a report without saying a word; disconcerted people by his ironic sallies.

Yet when he carried the same style into politics, it appeared to do nothing to impede the remarkable progression that took him within the space of four years from political nonentity to international statesman.

De Gaulle’s ascent began when Reynaud appointed the relatively unknown young brigadier-general to the position of under-secretary of state for defense on June 5, 1940. Without that brief time in ministerial office, his claim in the summer of 1940 to embody the continuity of the French state would have been utterly preposterous rather than merely implausible. Reynaud resigned on June 16 to make way for Marshal Pétain, but by then de Gaulle had been brought into the heart of governmental decision-making and come to the attention of the new British prime minister, Winston Churchill. The two men met for the first time in London on June 9, after de Gaulle made a dash across the Channel: he impressed Churchill as a man of action, an impression reinforced when they met a second time during Churchill’s extraordinary last visit to a France on the verge of capitulation nine days later. By then it was clear that Pétain planned to come to terms with the Germans. Fearing arrest, de Gaulle said farewell to his wife and children and flew back to London. He later said, “At the age of forty-nine I was entering into an adventure.”

Charles de Gaulle at the French military academy St. Cyr, 1912

Bridgeman Images

Charles de Gaulle at the French military academy St. Cyr, 1912

Pétain was his superior; yet the mark of the true leader was to know when to disobey, and his first act of disobedience was to the marshal, a man he had known intimately for decades. Pétain stood for the very thing that de Gaulle rejected—compromise with Hitler in the belief that this would permit France to survive as a great power. To Pétain’s invocation of the “soil of France,” he invoked his own “idea of France.” De Gaulle’s initial appeals to his countrymen—starting with his famous broadcast of June 18, 1940, in which he invited French officers and soldiers in Britain to join him and declared, “The flame of French resistance must not be extinguished and will not be extinguished”—took direct aim at his former patron.

Within days, his radio talks had become deeply personal and started to alarm the British Foreign Office, which had not given up hope of maintaining relations with Vichy. But de Gaulle had the support of Churchill. “You are alone,” Churchill told him privately. “Well, I will recognise you alone.” He was as good as his word: on June 28 de Gaulle was publicly recognized by the British as “leader of all the Free French wherever they might be.”

This was an extraordinary step. Even the French who found themselves in England did not rush to accept de Gaulle: to the contrary, this remote and chilly figure lunching alone at the Savoy appealed to few of them, and most of the troops who had been evacuated from France that summer eventually made their way back across the Channel and regarded Pétain as the legitimate head of the French government. Outside the New Hebrides, whose governor came out for de Gaulle in July, there were few signs of support for the Free French for some time. The French colonies in Equatorial Africa rallied to the cause in August, and within months in France his broadcasts made his name synonymous with resistance. Yet the formation of a political movement in exile and the establishment of connections with the Resistance in occupied France took much longer. It would not be for another two or three years that de Gaulle’s claim to stand for France had any credibility at all, and longer than that before Churchill managed to bring the cabinet around to his view.

This fundamental weakness in his position explains his endless duel with Churchill, even though the British prime minister was his most ardent advocate in Whitehall. The two men were, in many ways, kindred spirits. Both were accomplished writers and celebrated orators. Both loved history and felt themselves to be living it. Perhaps for that reason, both of them felt the mystique of monarchy. (De Gaulle, always a republican, maintained respect for the pretender to the French throne, the Comte de Paris.) Both were unabashed in their defense of national prestige. Above all, both were unlikely politicians, always outsiders, mistrusted yet respected for their brilliance and for their sense of timing.

But there were differences too: Churchill was a sybarite; de Gaulle was frugal. Churchill was gregarious, warm, and sentimental; de Gaulle despised humanity and preferred to keep his own counsel. Churchill was effusive in his love of France; beside his reverence for the British royal family, de Gaulle’s Anglophilia was nonexistent. Above all, Churchill stood at the helm of a unified nation that was still one of the world’s great powers, while de Gaulle’s homeland was a fractious, riven society whose national humiliation was complete.

It would take a great novelist to describe the combustible relationship that developed between the two men. Jackson describes it as “strangely passionate,” which seems an understatement. There were tempestuous rows. “Si vous m’obstaclerez, je vous liquiderai,” Churchill stormed when he was trying to force a public reconciliation between a reluctant de Gaulle and his detested rival, General Henri Giraud, in Casablanca in early 1943. But the tension had been building for months. In the summer of 1941, British forces had fought and defeated Vichy loyalists in Syria and Lebanon to prevent the Germans from getting a foothold in the Middle East. When they reached an accord, bypassing the Free French, de Gaulle was outraged.

His relations with the British went downhill fast, and they left him “stewing in his juice” and even prohibited him from leaving the country. In Whitehall, he became known as “the Monster of Hampstead.” De Gaulle’s insistence that the Allies recognize him as the incarnation of a Great Power was regarded by them as absurd, given his almost total logistical and political dependence on them. He hated that the Allies were planning to invade France with little consultation, and to direct it themselves. By the time D-Day approached, Roosevelt loathed him, and Churchill, in the words of one aide, was almost as “insane at times in his hatred of him” as the American president and contemplated having him sent back to Algiers, “in chains if necessary.”

As a perceptive observer noted, a fundamental cause of this was personality: believing himself to embody his country, de Gaulle felt its humiliation keenly; it was his duty as the national leader to suffer, and to suffer alone. But the tantrums, rages, and glacial silences—the demeanor that could move from icy disdain to gentle courtesy in seconds—were also the attributes of a master of political theatrics. As he sometimes confessed to his aides, in his position it was necessary on occasion to smash things, to do the unexpected, just to force others to take note. A classic case was the utterly ridiculous row with the Americans that he manufactured at what many would have regarded as the worst possible time over, of all things, the unannounced Free French takeover of the small islands of Saint-Pierre and Miquelon off the coast of Newfoundland.

The summer of 1944 was thus de Gaulle’s liberation in a double sense: it was the moment in which he took charge of France and steered it out of the era of collaboration into its postwar position as one of the four victorious Allies and a major force in the reconstruction of Europe. But it was also the moment when he was finally liberated from the yoke of exile and could assert himself as a free man in a free country. All of this erupted in that extraordinary moment of national and self-assertion that August when de Gaulle hailed

Paris! Paris outraged! Paris broken! Paris martyred! But Paris liberated! Liberated by itself, liberated by its people with the help of the French armies, with the support and the help of all France, of the France that fights, of the only France, of the real France, of the eternal France!

France was liberated, but so at last was de Gaulle.

The Liberation brought dilemmas of its own. De Gaulle—for whom the divide between the military man and the politician was sacrosanct—had spent the war in a state of deliberate ambiguity about what he stood for politically. Between 1940 and 1944 he had tacked first one way and then the other, depending on whom he needed to woo. First there were the old conservatives; then, as he seduced the Resistance, he turned momentarily to the left. To the Communists at the Liberation, he declared that “there is only one revolutionary in France: that is me.” Yet what revolution did this least revolutionary of men intend to lead? One that reaffirmed the authority of the French state over the forces of disorder, by which he chiefly meant the roaming armed bands of the Resistance and all those dispensing various kinds of summary justice against collaborators real and imagined.

He had always been ambivalent about politics. Like many between the world wars, he had wanted a “third way” for France—a path that eschewed both Bolshevism and unfettered capitalism—which led some, mistakenly, to accuse him of fascist sympathies. (No fascist, de Gaulle was politically very much within the mainstream of interwar Catholic corporatism.) He loathed political parties and did not hide it. Yet what he was restoring to France was a republican tradition, and he now faced a choice: he could withdraw, or he could enter the fray. He wanted to believe that politics was beneath him. But those closest to him—his wife, his housekeeper at Colombey, where he had a country house—knew better.

Segueing smoothly from his wartime position as leader of the Free French to chairman of the provisional government, he resigned in January 1946 following the election of a new constituent assembly and began “hibernating.” He formed a party, the Rassemblement du Peuple Français (RPF), as a vehicle for future political ambitions, but following a series of poor election results he retreated to the isolation of Colombey to write his memoirs: he wanted to be responsible for the historical record himself, much as his model, Chateaubriand, had once been. Churchill was doing the same thing.

Jackson suggests that the memoirs were intended as a consolation for the failure of the RPF. They did burnish his image as someone above politics, a hero in whom the private man was subordinated to the public leader. The milieu was international, the Resistance was co-opted as a secondary source of popular esprit, and collaboration was largely unmentioned. The memoirs created an image of the war that the French could live with and became a best seller. De Gaulle sent his first four copies to the pope, the Comte de Paris, the president of the Republic, and Queen Elizabeth II.

But the life of the historian was too sedentary, and de Gaulle’s restless temperament forced him outward. In Paris, he paid sporadic visits to the RPF’s headquarters, which reminded someone of “the waiting room of a doctor’s surgery in a spa town out of season.” He traveled around much of France giving speeches and plunging into adoring crowds, and he went overseas as well. By the mid-1950s, with the RPF dissolved, he began to feel his time had passed. His beloved daughter Anne had died in 1948, a terrible blow to the family, and his brother Xavier followed in 1955, while his own health remained remarkable.

And then came the Algeria crisis, in which the forces of Algerian nationalism met white settler resistance and the state’s dogged insistence that Algeria was not just a colony but an integral part of France. De Gaulle had always been aware of the French empire’s value—his wartime rise would have been inconceivable without colonial support—but he did not have a sentimental attachment to it. He watched in silence as the Fourth Republic staggered on, the violence spreading to the mainland itself. By 1958 his return was being sought both by the politicians in Paris and by the generals in Algiers who were plotting to topple the republic. The man the conspirators knew as “le Grand Charles” had withdrawn to Colombey. Mistrusting even the telephone, he was in touch with them through gnomic messages delivered via trusted backchannels. Asked how much de Gaulle knew about their plans, his rival François Mitterrand said, “Only as much as God at the creation.”

The details remain murky. De Gaulle wanted to come to power by legal means, not a coup, though he was willing to hasten the process along. In May 1958 he announced that he was ready to form a new government. The prime minister was blindsided and promptly resigned. De Gaulle agreed to accept full powers, and if granted them, to rule for six months. He appeared in the Chamber of Deputies for the first time since 1946, and within six months France had a new constitution—the Fifth Republic—and a new president with much greater powers than his predecessor.

Although de Gaulle remained in office for the next decade, Jackson treats this period more summarily than the early heroic years. He does, however, explain in detail how de Gaulle successfully brought the fighting in Algeria to an end, how under his leadership the country obtained its independence, and how the French army was brought back under civilian control. Ending the Algerian war was necessary for de Gaulle to pursue his goal of restoring French grandeur. France became a nuclear power, and he formed a close partnership with West German chancellor Konrad Adenauer, which allowed him to take charge of the process of European economic integration; ever distrustful of perfidious Albion, he denied Britain membership in the European Economic Community and marginalized it from Europe. (It was not allowed to join the EEC until 1973, after he died.) French society was transformed: backed by the president, a new generation of technocrats led the country’s modernization, while the number of farmers dropped sharply.

In 1958 the British diplomat Gladwyn Jebb reflected that “the General is not like anyone else, either physically or psychologically.” His great height combined with his reserve and his hauteur to give the sense of a man apart, which he cultivated all his life. He loved France, yet—as he famously put it—chiefly as an idea. He viewed himself as a historical figure, and his greatest agony must have come from fearing that history was going to pass him by. This feeling was bound up with his other striking characteristic: his love of literature, of writing, of words. A great reader, he kept up a correspondence with the writers of his day. A great writer himself, he worked hard at his prose. The product of an age that took rhetoric seriously, he practiced his speeches over and over again.

How on earth did he find the time for all this? Part of the answer, I think, is in the regularity and modesty of his domestic life. But there is also the question of silence. To a degree unthinkable for a politician today, de Gaulle used silence as a defense and a weapon. There was only one phone at Colombey, and he preferred to work through intermediaries. He was a master of the enigmatic utterance. He learned how to bide his time, to disappear and reemerge to stunning effect. There was no better exponent of the dramaturgy of public life in twentieth-century Europe, a kind of theater that has vanished completely amid the endless noise of contemporary politics.