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A Certain Idea of De Gaulle

ISSUE:  Winter 1993
De Gaulle: The Rebel, 1890—1944. By Jean Lacouture. Norton. $29. 95. De Gaulle: The Ruler, 1945—1970. By Jean Lacouture. Norton. $29. 95.

In 1990, France celebrated a brace of anniversaries. Appropriately, given the mythical dimensions of his life, they were all related to Charles de Gaulle. A century had passed since his birth, just 20 years since his death, and but 50 years had lapsed since the seismic event which thrust this man forward onto the world stage: the fall of France before the onslaught of the German blitzkrieg and de Gaulle’s radio address from London in which he declared that though France had lost a battle, she had not lost the war. (There is, unfortunately, no recording of this appeal which, as one wit has observed, no one heard and everyone heard about. The BBC engineers who broadcast the speech, unaware of the world historical significance of the event, neglected to record it.)

The man whose historical burden was, as he himself phrased it, to “assumer la France,” has come to embody this country he so loved and loved by her citizens he so distrusted. In the two decades which have followed his death, de Gaulle—the myth, if not the man—is alive and well. Public opinion polls invariably place him ahead of Napoleon and Louis XIV, not to mention the great figures of the Revolution, in the French Hall of Fame. As so often was the case with this man endowed with the gift of prescience, de Gaulle forecast his own fate. In 1969, on the eve of his final withdrawal from public life, the General remarked to one of his ministers: “It’s true, the French don’t want de Gaulle any more. But the myth, you’ll see the myth grow. Thirty years from now!” Indeed. In the words of one commentator, de Gaulle today seems even taller lying down than he did standing up.

De Gaulle’s posthumous reputation is due not only to his role of national savior in 1940, but also his return to power 18 years later to save a country on the verge of civil war over the issue of Algeria. In responding to this second summons of the nation, de Gaulle sped the demise of the Fourth Republic—which, in the memorable phrase of Georges Bidault, did not have to be taken but simply plucked—and inaugurated its successor. Endowed with a powerful executive branch and a weakened legislature, a Constitutional Council and the practice of national referendums, the Fifth Republic has endured. Moreover, de Gaulle succeeded in imposing France’s views and interests on a postwar world torn between the claims of the two superpowers. Given his country’s ravaged economy, her riven society, and her compromised past (first under the Vichy regime and then direct German occupation), de Gaulle’s accomplishments were little short of miraculous. From the establishment of the nuclear force de frappe to the withdrawal from the integrated military command of NATO, from the foundation of Franco-German collaboration and friendship to the belief in a Europe stretching from the Atlantic to the Urals, the first president of the Fifth Republic carved out a fiercely independent, occasionally perverse, and frequently visionary path. De Gaulle once wrote that without global responsibilities France would never be worthy of her name. By his sense of the theatrical, his political perspicacity, and his sheer dint of will, de Gaulle bequeathed such a France to those who have followed him in office.

Yet the reasons for the man’s extraordinary popularity with the public probably have less to do with his specific constitutional or diplomatic achievements than with the myth which was both the cause and result of these attainments. When asked why he was cheering the president during one of his public appearances, a Frenchman, as stunned as if he had been asked the sum of two plus two, replied “Why, we’re applauding de Gaulle because it’s de Gaulle!” In a word, de Gaulle’s signal contribution to France was de Gaulle—or, more specifically, his myth. It is one of the great merits of the two-volume biography by Jean Lacouture, that the element of myth is scrupuously, critically, yet respectfully considered. Lacouture describes his subject as a mythiculteur: someone who knowingly and skillfully tends his mythical penumbra. His great contemporary and fellow mythiculteur, Winston Churchill, perceived this quality from the outset. He recounts in his own memoirs that he had never met anyone who was as preoccupied by his own adventure than was this French officer. Yet it was an adventure deeply linked to that of France: “Even when his conduct was at its most irritating, he always seemed to express the character of France: a great nation with all her pride, authority and ambition.”

This ability to both exalt and identify with the destiny of France, Lacouture argues, lay at the core of de Gaulle’s genius. He had a “certain idea” of de Gaulle no less than he had of France. Fittingly, Lacouture begins his work in 1905, with an excerpt from the diary of the 15-year-old de Gaulle. The adolescent, already steeped in the military histories of France and the romantic plays of Edmond Rostand, imagines the time to be 1930 (which, perhaps not coincidentally, puts him at the same age as Napoleon at the battle of Wagram) and portrays himself at the head of an army successfully defending France against an invading German force. Less than 20 years later, following a distinguished career during the First World War, de Gaulle was attending the Ecole de Guerre. One day, while he and a fellow officer were sitting under a tree during a lull in a military exercise, the latter remarked, almost despite himself, that he had “a curious feeling that [de Gaulle was] intended for a very great destiny.” There followed a short silence, broken by de Gaulle’s toneless response: “Yes, so have I.” Should we be surprised, then, that when Churchill, encountering him during the chaotic days of June 1940, whispered in his ear “You are the man of destiny,” de Gaulle did not flinch? The man was a legend waiting to happen, a myth in the prime of life. De Gaulle’s awareness of this trait is underscored in a poignant vignette offered by Lacouture. On the eve of Eisenhower’s departure from France following a two-day official visit in 1959, the American and French presidents, garbed in dressing gowns, sat in front of a fireplace at de Gaulle’s official residence at Rambouillet. Reminiscing about the war years and his sharp conflicts with Roosevelt, de Gaulle remarked, “Roosevelt thought I thought I was Joan of Arc. He was wrong. I simply thought I was General de Gaulle.”

With the passage of time, the work of the historians, and the multiplication of memoirs, de Gaulle remains de Gaulle. The man, to echo Andre Malraux, remains equal to his myth. The work of Lacouture is, in this respect, telling. The author of a number of works, including biographies of Léon Blum and Pierre Mendes France—luminaries of the two earlier republics so excoriated by de Gaulle—as well as of Malraux, Lacouture is also one of France’s great journalists. He was a spectateur engage, as well as an opponent, of many of the events he narrates in this massive biography. Blending the lucid commentary of Walter Lippmann and the epic romanticism of Victor Hugo, Lacouture recounts at first hand de Gaulle’s career from France’s liberation and his first departure from power in 1946, the subsequent “years in the desert” and the approach of civil war over Algeria, to de Gaulle’s return in 1958 and his final exit following the student rebellion of 1968. He has the enviable gift of engaging the reader in this dialogue with History—of, as it were, grasping you by the elbow and taking you aside, to remark in a matter-of-fact fashion, “I remember well the General’s expression the day

Indeed, one suspects that Lacouture was, at times, an actor in these stories as well. As a reporter and editorialist for Le Monde, his reports may well have influenced certain decisions made by de Gaulle, who was an incurable news junkie. This great stylist, the author of several works of military strategy as well as his great memoirs of war and peace, devoted an hour every morning to reading the national and international press. One day, a minister entered the president’s office to find the occupant scoring the front page of Le Monde with grammatical corrections. For American readers, living in a country and a time when political leaders can neither piece together a full sentence nor spell potato, who require cue cards for the most elementary points, and are praised for such leaden phrases as “a thousand points of light,” “it’s morning in America again,” and “the New Covenant,” the comparison is disheartening. No less discouraging is the contrast between our respective understandings of the relationship between political leaders and the nation. During the 1965 presidential campaign, de Gaulle’s advisors, finding their leader’s speeches too didactic and Olympian, urged that he “personalize” them. The General was appalled. “What?” he replied, “You want me to appear in front of the French people in pyjamas?” The subject was closed.

This unfortunate contrast between now and then, Bush’s America and de Gaulle’s France, is partly due to “the vision thing.” Mocked and distrusted by a large portion of our political class, vision—the conception, moral and political, of the nation’s future and the ability to inspire a people with it—was the source of de Gaulle’s greatness. On this topic, Lacouture is eloquent and convincing. He suggests that de Gaulle, a man whose imagination was shaped by the authors of France’s classical age, understood politics as an exercise in tragedy. This was especially clear upon his return to power in 1958. The classical rules of unity obtained in time as well as space; there was but a single action: “the re-establishment of France as a subject and protagonist of History;” and a single setting: “the world.” Perhaps most importantly, the action unfolded in a compressed period of time: the ten years that spanned his reentry onto the world stage to his final exit a year after the events of May 1968. Lacouture stresses that it was a decade whose end coincided with de Gaulle’s 80th birthday—a sobering threshold for a man who repeatedly growled that he had come to power ten years too late. As Lacouture writes, just as “Pierre Corneille rushed around, shouting at the top of his voice and losing his breath, to contain within the temporal unity of a single day Roman wars and the falls of empires, Charles de Gaulle tried to confine within a few feverish years enough action to furnish the chronicles of a few generations of scholarly Benedictines.”

Sculpted to the formal dimensions of tragedy, de Gaulle also and inevitably was shot through with the flaw of hubris. In the midst of the maelstrom over Algeria, the General affirmed that there is “no valid politics outside realities.” Yet this was a rule that he often overlooked. Thus his rapprochement with West Germany, itself a remarkable and lasting achievement, was meant to be a first step in the creation of a new Europe based on a Franco-German (or rather, as Lacouture emphasizes, a de Gaulle-Adenauer) axis. Such a project was, however, profoundly misconceived: nothwithstanding the depth and sincerity of the Franco-German reconciliation, Germany would never permit itself to be forced to choose between Washington and Paris. Yet de Gaulle persisted in his efforts to do so, a quixotic effort which not only failed, but helped convert France into a bargaining chip for Germany in its negotiations with the U. S. This lack of a sense of proportion was also evident in other Gaullist forays: the repeated humiliations of Great Britain in her efforts to enter the Common Market; the controversial visit to Quebec, when de Gaulle sent Montrealers into a delirium of joy—and federal officials in Ottawa through the roof—when he exclaimed “Vive le Quebec libre!”; and the famous press conference of Nov. 27 1967, where he described the Jews as an “elite people, selfconfident and dominating.”

These diplomatic derapages— or skids—were the inevitable consequence of a vision which confounded a single man with a people, a particular world view with a national ethos, and a diplomacy which consisted of, in the General’s own words, “being unbearable on my own.” Lacouture is justly critical of these episodes. Yet he never loses sight of the fact that, when de Gaulle erred, he did so on behalf of France. Moreover, as Lacouture observes, if de Gaulle’s “grand design” for France’s relationship with the world is considered as a pedagogical enterprise, one which sought to revivify the nation’s mission as a force for civilization and balance, then he clearly succeeded. Following the humiliation of World War Two, Dien Bien Phu, Suez, and the near anarchy of the Algerian war of independence, de Gaulle retrieved much of the reputation and elan of France. In the words of Emmanuel Berl, he de-ridiculized France.

Lacouture’s biography may achieve a similar result with de Gaulle’s reputation in the United States. We still tend to portray de Gaulle in the guise of a caricature, a Gallic cartoon equal to Tintin and Asterix. Given his physical dimensions, his monumental sense of self and his love of provocation, this is perhaps inevitable. Lacouture is aware of the ways in which de Gaulle fashioned his public self, and is alive to the excesses and flaws in the General’s personality and policies. The biographer portrays a man who is all too human. Yet, in his treatment of de Gaulle’s private life—as in his moving relationship with his daughter Anne, who suffered from Down’s syndrome and died at the age of 20—Lacouture not only shows a discretion which ought to shame American biographers (and politicians), but reveals a man who regarded his own carefully-tended image with good humor. When told that his grandchildren were cycling through the gate of his country house, their arms flung open and shouting “Je vous ai compris,” the famously ambiguous phrase pronounced by de Gaulle in 1958 at Algiers, the old man doubled over in laughter.

Lacouture’s restraint in his portrayal of de Gaulle’s private life is emblematic of his approach to the writing of biography. He takes account of the various influences on his subject’s emotional growth, and the observations are straightforward and common-sensical. But Lacouture refuses to probe any more deeply; the prospect of placing de Gaulle on the analyst’s couch is no less shocking for his biographer than it would have been for the General himself. This traditional sense of propriety is not just refreshing—it is appropriate. Whatever the sources of de Gaulle’s selfhood, they are irrelevant to our appreciation of his accomplishments as a statesman. Nor would it deepen our enjoyment of the drama of de Gaulle’s life. In his narration of the events of the summer of 1940, the agony of Algeria, the repeated assassination attempts in the 1960’s, the upheaval of 1968 and the mysterious flight to Germany, Lacouture is superb. Indeed, the very simplicity and modesty of his portrayal of de Gaulle’s retirement and final days carries existential truths that a library of psychobiographies would miss. While reading those last pages, one is reminded of the austere profundity of Oedipus at Colonnus.

Given his two massive volumes, Lacouture obviously refuses a Sophoclean economy of words. Indeed, in the romantic sweep of his narrative (hobbled at times in the second volume, which is a conflation of volumes two and three from the original French and is marred by a number of typos and infelicitous translations), the biographer at times casts his subject in a mold closer to Stendhal than either the ancient Greeks or modern historians. Lacouture often privileges the particular and idiosyncratic over social forces and economic trends, and argues the autonomy and desire of the individual to the cost of structural fetters and limitations. This is a common tendency among biographers, but one wonders if it is not warranted in the case of de Gaulle. History does, at times, become the province of great men and women, and the arc of destiny is occasionally bent by the efforts of individuals. Today, when statesmen are incapable of casting shadows and politics has dissolved into posturing and polling, the moral authenticity and political depth of de Gaulle is especially compelling. At a press conference in 1965, he was asked about his health. “Quite good,” he replied. “But, don’t worry, one day, I shan’t fail to die.” Happily, as Lacouture’s biography reveals, the General was wrong.


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