De Gaulle, 1945-1970
Charles de Gaulle, leader of the Free French during World War II, returned to his beloved country from London in 1944 after the successful D-Day landings. Still not free from Allied control, de Gaulle struggled not only against his German opponents but also against his British and American allies, and even against his fellow Frenchmen. From the end of war until his final resignation from politics in 1969, de Gaulle continued his crusade to raise France once again to what he believed she should and could become. When he died in 1970 he felt defeated, having failed to fulfill his vision of France, but in crucial matters he had succeeded in changing France and affecting the world beyond her borders. De Gaulle’s story is the subject of Jean Lacouture’s magnificent biography, the sequel to his 1990 De Gaulle: The Rebel, 1890-1944.
The author, biographer of political figures such as Leon Blum, Pierre Mendès-France, and Ho Chi Minh and of the writers André Malraux and François Mauriac, was a journalist and foreign editor of Le Monde during the last thirteen years of de Gaulle’s career. He was not a Gaullist, and at the time he generally was unsympathetic to much of what de Gaulle did and stood for. In this work, however, Lacouture concludes that de Gaulle largely was correct in most of his decisions, although this biography is not hagiography. Lacouture’s de Gaulle is portrayed as one of the most insightful and prescient statesmen of the twentieth century, but he could also be blind to current realities and future possibilities. De Gaulle was at times ruthless toward not only his enemies but also his friends and supporters, personally difficult, often abrasive, and autocratic in his dealings with everyone and everything, including France and its citizens.
In 1944, de Gaulle’s task was more political than military, although the two were inseparable. To restore France to its past glory—not just to free France from German occupation—required that the French participate militarily in the liberation of the country. From a purely military viewpoint, French arms were not a major factor in strategic considerations. De Gaulle’s relations with the Allies remained difficult; he was always on guard for any slight against his dignity and France’s sovereignty—for him they were indivisible—and even more friction might have resulted without the political astuteness of General Dwight Eisenhower and Winston Churchill.
Within France, de Gaulle faced great problems. His position as head of France generally was accepted, but not without dissenters. He had to satisfy the major resistance leaders, many of whom were communists and whose ideological ties were to the Soviet Union. In addition, there was the question of the status of the Third Republic and the discredited wartime regime of Vichy and its leader, Philippe Pétain, de Gaulle’s mentor after World War I. In spite of the difficulties and his own occasional missteps, by the end of 1945 he was seemingly turning France into something closer to his own vision of her: free, secure, and with greater self-confidence than during the interwar years. But in January, 1946, he resigned, surprising friends and foes alike. His reasons were obvious. Always the student of history, de Gaulle predicated his actions on the past. Strong executive leadership had been characteristic of French politics from Louis XIV to the two Napoleons, and de Gaulle believed that France’s present difficulties, domestically and internationally, were the result of the dominant position of the legislature, coinciding with the destructive competition between political parties, over a weak executive. De Gaulle’s inability to change those prewar conditions as quickly as he hoped led to his resignation. Lacouture concludes that de Gaulle expected that he would return to power quickly at the head of a presidential regime when the assembly, the politicians, and the people realized that there was no other choice in the task of returning France to greatness. When that did not immediately happen, he organized his own political movement to restore him to power, but by 1951 that too had failed.
De Gaulle and his causes continually polarized people. Many would follow wherever he led, but opponents saw him as a threat to liberty and equality, another Napoleon Bonaparte who would become a dictator. De Gaulle was never enamored of Napoleon; he believed in democracy and that the people were the fount of political power. For him, there was no contradiction between democracy and strong leadership.
The 1950’s saw de Gaulle as the man in reserve, waiting to be recalled. He retired to his country home, La Boisserie, in the village of Colombey-les-Deux-Églises, where he wrote his memoirs, a major literary work. There he waited and planned his return. The call finally came in 1958. The crisis that brought him back to power was Algeria. The...
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