The Man Who Was France

De Gaulle

by Julian Jackson
Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 887 pp., $39.95
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…

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