AS A CORRESPONDENT in Paris in the 1960s, I quickly learned that the surefire way to get the attention of the editors back home was to put “Charles de Gaulle” in the first paragraph. I could just see their eyes light up with interest (“Now what’s he done?”) as the story clattered into New York on the teletype. He knew he was good copy. “They feed on me,” he once said scornfully of us gentlemen of the Fourth Estate, fully aware that we needed, and used, each other.
For three turbulent decades he was the man we loved to hate. So stubborn, so damned sure of himself. Downright arrogant. When asked if he agreed to a proposal, he would reply, “I do not agree, I decide yes or no.” U.S. Secretary of State Dean Rusk once compared meetings with him to “crawling up a mountainside on your knees, opening a little portal at the top, and waiting for the oracle to speak.” When he did speak, he said the most outrageous things. Like “States do not have friends, they have only interests.” And “Treaties are like young girls and roses; they last while they last.” Frustrated statesmen found themselves swearing like sailors after a session with him. “I don’t like the son of a bitch,” Harry Truman told his staff.
The consummate diplomat Charles “Chip” Bohlen clinically described de Gaulle as “essentially egocentric with some touches of megalomania”; less formally he called him “one of the biggest sons of bitches who ever straddled a pot.” During de Gaulle’s years in London as he rallied French resistance, Churchill’s foreign secretary, the courtly Anthony Eden, wrote that “it may well be we shall find that de Gaulle is crazy.” Shown still another intransigent cable from him, Eden spluttered in unaccustomed rage, “I hate all Frenchmen.” In a calmer moment face-to-face with the General, as he preferred to be known, Eden casually remarked, “Do you know that, of all the European allies, you have caused us the most difficulties?” A secretly pleased de Gaulle replied with a smile, “I don’t doubt that. France is a great power.”
It was a great power only in his own imagination, as he carried the honor of a beaten, subjected, collaborating France on his shoulders during those darkest days of World War II. Then, and again nearly two decades later, the country owed its salvation to de Gaulle, as Jonathan Fenby reminds us in his masterful, definitive new biography, The General: Charles de Gaulle and the France He Saved (Skyhorse Publishing, 707 pages, $32.95). Fenby, a former editor of London’s Observer and onetime bureau chief in France for both the Economist and Reuters, gives a full-length portrait of Charles André Joseph Marie de Gaulle. He doesn’t shy away from the case against de Gaulle, but as he sums up, “The final judgment has to be that he was a man who made a huge difference, and put a lasting mark on his country.…Twice, in 1940 and 1958, he offered France an alternative to disaster, overcoming huge odds by the force of his personality, his belief in his mission and his acute tactical sense. The institutions he created in 1958 still function.”
His upbringing explains much of de Gaulle’s messianic belief in himself. Born in northern France in 1890 into a deeply conservative Catholic family of the minor aristocracy—an ancestor fought the English at Agincourt in 1415—he was taught to revere the noble values of monarchical France and to be suspicious of a republic that removed crucifixes from courtrooms and gave equal weight to commoners and the elite. No singing of the “Marseillaise” or celebrating Bastille Day was permitted. He discovered his military vocation early, staging battles with his collection of 1,800 toy soldiers. At 15 he wrote a detailed account of a coming war with Germany, describing himself leading bayonet charges.
De Gaulle got his first taste of real war after graduating from the St. Cyr military academy as a second lieutenant shortly before WWI. He showed unusual physical courage, often standing on the battlefield as other officers dived to safety during heavy shelling. (Years later, during the fierce Battle of the Somme in 1940, this attitude unnerved British officers he was with: a British general exclaimed, “The bloody man will get us killed” as German artillery pounded the area.) During hand-to-hand combat in the 10-month Battle of Douaumont in 1916, he was brought down by a bayonet thrust, overcome by poison gas, and initially left for dead. As he explained his almost mystical lack of fear: “I have a providential mission to fulfill. I think nothing will happen to me. If it does, I will have been mistaken.”
IT TOOK THAT KIND of outsized self-confidence and patriotic zeal for de Gaulle to fly to London on June 17, 1940, with only a vague idea of what he might accomplish. He was an unknown two-star general disobeying France’s legal government following catastrophic defeat. When he did not comply with Vichy’s order to appear at a court-martial, he was sentenced in absentia to four years in prison—later increased to the death penalty—for treason, desertion, and aiding the enemy. He declared the judgment null and void, claiming with characteristic chutzpah, “We are France.” Churchill, often driven to distraction by de Gaulle, admitted grudging admiration: “His country has given up fighting, he himself is a refugee, and if we turn him down he’s finished. But look at him! He might be Stalin, with 200 divisions behind his words. Perhaps the last survivor of a warrior race.”
The day after his arrival, de Gaulle made his first of 67 broadcasts from London, wearing his general’s uniform complete with polished boots. (In Downing Street, Churchill was finishing his “Finest Hour” address, which he delivered to the House of Commons later that day.) The General’s famous Appel du 18 juin, still commemorated every year in France, was only 400 words, but offered hope. Defeat was not final, France was not alone. It had overseas possessions, could align itself with the British Empire, and “use without limit the immense industry of the United States.” (What he did not say, as many think, was “France has lost a battle, but France has not lost the war.” He appears to have read that summary in an Associated Press dispatch and said, “That’s pretty good.” He used it on July 14.)
Punching far above his weight, de Gaulle was constantly at loggerheads with his British hosts, often complaining about “the usurpation of French rights by the British.” One of Churchill’s cabinet members noted, “The prime minister is sick to death of him.” But Churchill understood that intransigence was de Gaulle’s only weapon: “He had to be rude to the British to prove to French eyes that he was not a British puppet.” That didn’t keep Churchill from being seriously annoyed when the General initially refused to attend the Casablanca conference in January 1943 to review the progress of the war. De Gaulle objected to a meeting organized by foreign powers on French soil, Morocco then being a protectorate of France. “You’ve got to get your problem child down here,” Roosevelt told Churchill. “De Gaulle is on his high horse,” Churchill replied. “Refuses to come down here…Jeanne d’Arc complex.” Having made his point, de Gaulle showed up.
After the Allied victory—and convincing Eisenhower to let French troops appear to liberate Paris—de Gaulle served briefly as prime minister of the new Fourth Republic before abruptly resigning in disgust over petty party squabbling. He headed for his country home of La Boisserie in the village of Colombey-les-deux-Églises, 155 miles east of Paris. There he sulked for 12 years while France went through some two dozen governments, losing all its overseas empire except Algeria. When civil war threatened over the revolt in that last colony, the Fourth Republic collapsed and the scene was set in 1958 for the General to once again save his country. He oversaw creation of the Fifth Republic and wrote a constitution tailor- made for him, with sweeping decree powers in periods of national emergency. As he put it loftily, “Great circumstances bring forth great men.”
He presided over France for the next 11 years, often going to the brink to annoy “les Anglo-Saxons” and his European neighbors with a pantomime of power. He hated Common Market Europe for undermining French national sovereignty, blocked it at every opportunity, kept the British out, and insisted that only nation-states were politically viable. He was a constant irritant to Washington, withdrawing from the NATO integrated command structure and refusing to sign the 1963 nuclear test ban treaty (which mandated underground tests) because France was testing its new nukes above ground in the Sahara. But when the chips were down, it was clear where his loyalties lay. When the four-power summit in May 1960 degenerated into a Khrushchev-led slanging match, de Gaulle took President Eisenhower aside and said, “I want you to know that I will be with you to the end.” Eisenhower later told an aide, “That de Gaulle, he’s somebody.”
Maybe because of the military link, Eisenhower was the American leader de Gaulle respected most, and the feeling apparently was mutual. Eisenhower apologized in 1943 for having underestimated him, leading the General to reply with his highest compliment, saying in English, “You are a man.” After he accorded Richard Nixon 10 hours of personal conversation in 1969, Nixon concluded, “An aura of majesty seemed to envelop him.…His performance—and I do not use that word disparagingly—was breathtaking. He was not always right, but he was always certain.”
BUT THE UNCERTAINTIES he learned early in life no longer obtained in the chaotic 1960s. The man from the day before yesterday and the day after tomorrow, as André Malraux put it, was blindsided in 1968 by university students rioting over what was initially no more than a panty raid. He lost his bearings. He hadn’t read Marcuse or the structuralists, had barely heard of somebody called Che Guevara. Sensing that the French had wearied of him—demonstrators chanted “Ten years are enough”—he decided to commit political suicide. In April 1969 he rigged up an irrelevant referendum and declared he would leave if it failed. He lost and issued a terse, “I cease to exercise my functions as president of the Republic.”
Today the French, who chafed under his stern standards and derisively called him le Grand Charles, have come to appreciate what he did for them. Hardly a town is without a street named after him; France’s main airport and its nuclear aircraft carrier bear his name. A poll in 2005 picked him as the outstanding figure in all of French history. But he had always been disappointed by his compatriots: too frivolous, too prone to avoid the hard choices or make the effort national greatness required. They always gave up the fight. He despairingly called them veaux, literally “calves” but best translated as “sheep.” “I cannot always hold them up,” he said toward the end. “I can’t substitute myself for them. And the French will have to do without me one day.” That day came on November 9, 1970.