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French general and statesman, Charles de Gaulle was the leader of Free France during World War II and the founder of the Fifth French Republic. Penetrated with a sense of history and driven by a fierce desire to defend and embody his country, he had to lead France during the two major crises of the Second World War and the Algerian War. Since his death in 1969, his work and his action have been the subject of various recoveries which tend to prove the character's profound originality, but also a certain difficulty in pinpointing the underlying springs of his most controversial decisions.
Charles de Gaulle, an ambitious and far-sighted officer
Charles de Gaulle was born on November 22, 1890 in Lille in the midst of an affluent (partly aristocratic origins), deeply Catholic. His father, Henri, professor of history, mathematics and literature, instilled in him and his siblings (3 brothers and 1 sister) solid and Christian values. Very early on Charles was introduced to literature and history and demonstrated great intellectual qualities. Attracted by the prestigious profession of arms, he entered the Saint-Cyr school in 1908 and graduated very well in 1912. He chose the infantry as his weapon and found himself assigned to the 33rd IR (located in Arras) commanded by a certain Colonel Pétain ...
The First World War finds Charles de Gaulle lieutenant. If from the first fights he showed physical courage (he was moreover injured from August 15 in the fighting in Dinant) his character was not unanimous. Appointed captain at the head of a company, he is known to be brittle, uncompromising and does not always maintain good relations with his subordinates. De Gaulle demands as much from his men as from himself and distinguishes himself with a keen tactical sense. On March 2, 1916, during heavy fighting in Douaumont, his company was destroyed by the Germans and he was taken prisoner. It was the start of more than 2 years of captivity in Bavaria, a period that the young and ambitious officer would experience very badly. Five times he will try to escape, without success ...
Returning to France after the war was over, Charles de Gaulle was determined to make a name for himself in the army. After a remarkable stint in the French military mission in Poland (which faced Soviet troops led by Toukhachevski, a former companion in captivity of and future marshal), he taught at Saint-Cyr then joined the War College. On a personal level, he married Yvonne Vendroux, who would accompany his days until his death and with whom he would have 3 children. The 1920s and 1930s saw de Gaulle, well established in military, political and cultural circles, set up avant-garde military theories. Gradually moving away from Marshal Pétain, his mentor, he advocated a professional army well versed in the use of mechanical force which he saw as the essential tool of victory in any modern war.
The interwar period: unheard calls
If the writings of Gaulle will interest certain foreign specialists (from Guderian to Liddell Hart), they hardly win the support of the French authorities, if it is not a few politicians like Paul Reynaud. Politically, it was difficult at the time to locate de Gaulle (who like all soldiers is bound by a duty of reserve). While he maintains intellectual affinities with circles close to Action Française and has little sympathy for the parliamentary abuses of the Third Republic, we also know he is close to social Christians.
When World War II broke out, de Gaulle, who was still campaigning for a drastic development of the French mechanical force, was a colonel and commanded the 507th battle tank regiment in Metz. Drawing lessons from German success in Poland, he sent an energetic memorandum to the highest political and military figures in January 1940 in order to stave off a French defeat that he felt was possible. However, it comes up against once more the conservatism of the elites sure of the value of the French defensive strategy. When the Germans attacked in the west on May 10, 1940, Charles de Gaulle hastily took command of the reserve 4th Battleship Division. This armored formation, theoretically powerful, is actually in the process of being built up and lacks the flexibility specific to the German Panzerdivisionen. The colonel may well engage him with determination and talent in counter attacks in Montcornet and Abbeville, the latter nonetheless fail due to a glaring lack of means (accompanying infantry in particular) and little support. air.
On June 6, de Gaulle, who had provisionally become a brigadier general, was appointed under secretary of state for national defense by the president of the council Reynaud. The ambitious officer was responsible in particular for coordinating the French efforts with those of the British, with a view to the continuation of the war. This earned him the chance to meet Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who quickly saw the political potential of the French general. Opposed to the signing of an armistice with the Germans (a line defended, among others, by Marshal Pétain then vice-president of the council) he entered into dissent on June 17, when Pétain, the new head of government, announced to the French that it was necessary to stop the fight. In his appeal of June 18, 1940 broadcast by the BBC, Charles de Gaulle, who settled in London, urged his compatriots to continue the struggle alongside the British and to join it. Free France has just been born ...
The leader of La France Libre and fighter
If at the end of June 1940, de Gaulle found himself de facto at the head of a politico-military movement allied with the United Kingdom, his resources were extremely limited. Very few French soldiers have rallied to his cause (is he not opposed to a legal government?) And London's support is measured for him. Ignoring the difficulties, the general, who reveals his qualities here, sets to work with enthusiasm, so much he is aware of participating in a historic work. By embodying the spirit of resistance to Nazism, the "Constable" feels that he is finally playing the leading role he has always dreamed of. Regardless, the beginnings of Free France were difficult. Sentenced to death in absentia by Vichy, the London rebel if he won the rallying of certain parts of the French Empire failed before Dakar in September 1940.
From the end of 1940, the situation of the Free French slowly improved and the FFL made people talk about them whether it was against the Italians in Koufra (who saw the figure of Leclerc emerge) and the Germans (as in Bir Hakeim), or even by confronting the troops of Vichy (in Syria). While the French state government engages in a policy of collaboration, Free France is structuring itself (politically this will lead to the creation of the French National Committee) and endeavors to organize the internal resistance then very divided. Jean Moulin will be the main architect until his arrest and execution in July 43.
With the Anglo-American landing in French North Africa (Operation Torch of November 8, 1942), de Gaulle found himself confronted with all the ambiguity of Anglo-Saxon support for Free France. Indeed, Churchill and especially Roosevelt harbor many doubts about the general, an unpredictable and intractable ally on the question of maintaining the rank of France. On the other hand Washington (and London to a lesser extent) did not cut all ties with Vichy, who still appears to be a potential ally against the Germans. Thus after the occupation of Morocco and Algeria and in the middle of the Tunisian countryside, the Anglo-Saxons imposed on the leader of Free France a sharing of power with General Giraud, a competent officer but with Marshalist affinities. This diarchy supposed to lead a French National Liberation Committee (CFLN) will not last long, General de Gaulle, a skilful political maneuver, quickly sidelining Giraud.
June 1944, sees the CFLN transform into the Provisional Government of the French Republic (GPRF), an institution which (despite Anglo-Saxon plans) will preside over the establishment of a French political and administrative authority within the metropolitan territory. little released. Symbol of the French renaissance embodied by Charles de Gaulle, the participation of the French armies in this liberation enterprise, whether it is Leclerc's 2nd Armored Division (who was assigned very early on the highly political missions of liberating Paris and Strasbourg) or the French 1st Army of de Lattre.
Returning to France on June 14, de Gaulle became a very popular figure among the French population (then very attached to Marshal Pétain) who until then had hardly known this character. With a strong sense of reality and a great deal of determination he established a Republican government that was both open to the various forces of resistance (whose ambitious social program he would apply) but firm in the unity of the country's political leadership. The liberation of Paris, and the descent of the Champs Elysées on August 26, 1944 consecrated Charles de Gaulle as the emblematic figure of the French republic, whose Vichy episode is knowingly denied and described as illegitimate.
When the war ended in Europe on May 8, 1945, the general enjoyed immense prestige (and not only in France) but had to face the challenge of returning to peace, in a country devastated by more than 4 years of occupation. German, by fighting and bombing. On the other hand, the president of the GPRF quickly confronts other political leaders of the regime who are very keen on a return to a traditional parliamentary regime. The general, who has long been a supporter of a strong executive, sees this as a return to the abuses of the Third Republic which he so deplored and resigned from his post on January 20, 1946.
The crossing of the desert of General de Gaulle
In his Bayeux speech of June 1946, de Gaulle set out his views in favor of a republican regime meant to avoid the pitfalls of parliamentarism. These conceptions will be found in opposition to the constitution of the Fourth Republic adopted a few months later by referendum.
However, the general did not give up playing a leading political role and ended up founding his own party: the Rassemblement du Peuple Français (RPF). This right wing formation with marked anticommunism is however found several times alongside the PCF in its frontal opposition to the regime. After some success in its early years, the movement quickly declined. It must be said that the Fourth Republic, despite its imperfections, actively pursues a policy of political and social modernization of France, which is accompanied by a strong recovery in economic activity. The RPF’s almost systematic opposition posture has earned it the mistrust of many French people who prefer government parties. From 1953 the Gaullist party went into hibernation only to disappear 2 years later.
This period of disillusionment for General de Gaulle is no less fruitful as far as his thinking is concerned. In his family refuge in La Boisserie, the general wrote his famous War Memoirs, which were an opportunity for him to look back on the glorious hours of Free France and present his vision of what France should be. The great success of this work proves the popularity of the figure of Charles de Gaulle, who takes advantage of this five-year “crossing of the desert” to prepare his return to grace.
The foundation of the Fifth Republic
The opportunity will be given to him by the worsening of the situation in Algeria in the spring of 1958. The Fourth Republic, which suffers from serious ministerial instability, is unable to control the situation which threatens to turn into civil war. When a public safety committee was created in Algiers in mid-May, de Gaulle was seen as a recourse both by the putschists (including many former FFL and veterans of the Second World War) but also by part of the Parisian political staff, who considered him alone capable of avoiding a military dictatorship. Charles de Gaulle then said he was ready to "ready to assume the powers of the Republic". On the 29th, President Coty called on him to form a new government. The general has returned to power (under murky circumstances) and will remain there for almost 11 years.
From the outset, the general set out to have a new constitution drafted in response to his political views favorable to a strong executive. It will be that of the 5th Republic approved by referendum on September 28, 1958 by a large majority (79.2%). This constitution gives the general the powers he considers necessary to carry out the pressing tasks that lie ahead: decolonizing, modernizing France and above all giving it a prominent place in the international concert.
Its position on the Algerian question, which many have described as ambiguous, is gradually evolving towards the acceptance of the independence of this country. De Gaulle ended up perceiving the Algerian conflict (a war which does not speak its name) as an obstacle to the development of France and as an obstacle to the realization of its foreign policy program. Thus, after four more years of bloody clashes, Algeria gained independence in July 1962. At the same time, he presided over the dismantling of the colonial empire in Black Africa, which does not mean the end far from it. of French influence in the region.
Internationally, the general, although anchored in the Western camp, pursues a policy of prestige and balance between the two blocs. France, which it endows with its strategic independence by withdrawing it from NATO's integrated command and by giving it a nuclear deterrent force, makes its voice heard on the major issues of the time (Vietnam war, Arab-Israeli conflict, etc. ..). Gaullian foreign policy is also marked by reconciliation with Federal Germany, a key stage in European construction in which de Gaulle sees the interest, but in his own way (refusal of supranationality, for example). He also supported the independence demand of Quebecers during a trip to Canada in 1967 (the famous "Vive le Québec libre").
Domestically, the Fifth Republic remains marked by the strengthening of the presidential institution (the President of the Republic will be elected by direct universal suffrage after the 1962 reform) which brings about a profound change in the functioning of political parties. De Gaulle, who wants to modernize, launches France in vast infrastructure projects and economic reforms. The France of that time, vigorous in terms of growth, was heading down the path of an individualistic and consumer society, which upset the structures of authority and traditional moral benchmarks.
In 1968, Charles de Gaulle, whose position was no longer as secure as 10 years earlier (let us recall that he was put, to his surprise, on a ballot in the presidential election of 1965) did not perceive that economic development and growth (unequally shared) does not mean that the population adheres to its policy. The crisis of May 1968, reveals all his dismay in the face of changes in French society, including a large part of the youth and working-class circles no longer recognized in the man of June 18. Politically, May 1968 mainly benefits Prime Minister Pompidou, to whom we owe the daily management of the crisis. Despite the Gaullist success of the legislative elections of June 68 (the country aspiring to a certain return to order), the general considers that he must once again bring his authority into play during a referendum on the reform of the Senate of regionalization in April 1969. The project timidly supported by an increasingly rebellious majority was rejected by the French. The general, in accordance with his announcements, then resigned (April 28, 1969) from his functions as President of the Republic.
Once again a refugee at La Boisserie (apart from a trip to Ireland and another controversial one in Spain), Charles de Gaulle is working on writing the second part of his memoir: Memories of Hope. A ruptured aneurysm will take him on November 9, 1970 ... according to President Pompidou, his death "leaves France a widow".
Charles de Gaulle - Between myth and disillusion
General de Gaulle remains to this day a complex, multi-faceted figure from which it is not easy to draw conclusions. If the gesture of Free France does not raise much criticism, it is far from being the case for its return to power after 1958. The Algerian question and the changes of attitude of the general (some would rather speak of denials, even de betrayal) reveals the ambiguities of a man, whose roots are attached to both the nationalist right and social Christianity. Head of state, Charles de Gaulle put what he considered to be the best interests of France before respecting certain loyalties and values, with what could be described as cynicism.
So the man of 1958, would he have been different from that of June 1940? This is certainly to ignore the action of the rebel of June 18, who at the time refused to submit to the military and political authorities of his country despite his duties as an officer. All his life he will have kept in mind a certain idea of France, which he felt he should embody and will have sacrificed many there, including many friendships. In his own way, a prophet sometimes misunderstood by his contemporaries, he chose a solitary and original way of exercising power.
- De Gaulle biography in 3 volumes of Jean Lacouture. Threshold, 2010.
- Alain Peyrefitte, It was de Gaulle, 3 volumes, Fayard, 1994-2000.
- Philippe de Gaulle, De Gaulle, my Father. Interviews with Michel Tauriac (Paris, Plon, 2003)