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Charles De Gaulle
1890 - 1970


The French general and statesman Charles André Joseph Marie De Gaulle (1890-1970) led the Free French forces during World War II. A talented writer and eloquent orator, he served as president of France from 1958 to 1969.

Charles De Gaulle was born on Nov. 23, 1890, in the northern industrial city of Lille. His father, Henri, was a teacher of philosophy and mathematics and a veteran of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, in which the Prussians humiliatingly defeated what the French thought was the greatest army in the world. This loss colored the life of the elder De Gaulle, a patriot who vowed he would live to avenge the defeat and win back the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine. His attitude deeply influenced the lives of his sons, whom he raised to be the instruments of his revenge and of the restoration of France as the greatest European power.

From his earliest years Charles De Gaulle was immersed in French history by both his father and mother. For many centuries De Gaulle's forebears had played a role in French history, almost always as patriots defending France from invaders. In the 14th century a Chevalier de Gaulle defeated an invading English army in defense of the city of Vire, and Jean de Gaulle is cited in the Battle of Agincourt (1415).

Charles's great-great-grandfather, Jean Baptiste de Gaulle, was a king's counselor. His grandfather, Julien Philippe de Gaulle, wrote a popular history of Paris; Charles received this book on his tenth birthday and, as a young boy, read and reread it. He was also devoted to the literary works of his gifted grandmother, Julien Philippe's wife, Josephine Marie, whose name gave him two of his baptismal names. One of her greatest influences upon him was her impassioned, romantic history, The Liberator of Ireland, or the Life of Daniel O'Connell. It always remained for him an illustration of man's resistance to persecution, religious or political, and an inspiring example he emulated in his own life.

Perhaps the major influence on De Gaulle's formation came from his uncle, also named Charles de Gaulle, who wrote a book about the Celts which called for union of the Breton, Scots, Irish, and Welsh peoples. The young De Gaulle wrote in his copybook a sentence from his uncle's book, which proved to be a prophecy of his own life: "In a camp, surprised by enemy attack under cover of night, where each man is fighting alone, in dark confusion, no one asks for the grade or rank of the man who lifts up the standard and makes the first call to rally for resistance."

Military Career

De Gaulle's career as defender of France began in the summer of 1909, when he was admitted to the elite military academy of Saint-Cyr. Among his classmates was the future marshal of France Alphonse Juin, who later recalled De Gaulle's nicknames in school - "The Grand Constable," "The Fighting Cock," and "The Big Asparagus."

After graduation Second Lieutenant De Gaulle reported in October 1912 to Henri Philippe Pétain, who first became his idol and then his most hated enemy. (In World War I Pétain was the hero of Verdun, but during World War II he capitulated to Hitler and collaborated with the Germans while De Gaulle was leading the French forces of liberation.) De Gaulle led a frontline company as captain in World War I and was cited three times for valor. Severely wounded, he was left for dead on the battlefield of Verdun and then imprisoned by the Germans when he revived in a graveyard cart. After he had escaped and been recaptured several times, the Germans put him in a maximum security prison-fortress.

After the war De Gaulle went to general-staff school, where he hurt his career by constant criticism of his superiors. He denounced the static concept of trench warfare and wrote a series of essays calling for a strategy of movement with armored tanks and planes. The French hierarchy ignored his works, but the Germans read him and adapted his theories to develop their triumphant strategy of blitzkrieg, or lightning war, with which they defeated the French in 1940.

When France fell, De Gaulle, then an obscure brigadier general, refused to capitulate. He fled to London, convinced that the British would never surrender and that American power, once committed, would win the war. On June 18, 1940, on BBC radio, he insisted that France had only lost a battle, not the war, and called upon patriotic Frenchmen to resist the Germans. This inspiring broadcast won him worldwide acclaim.

Early Political Activity

When the Germans were driven back, De Gaulle had no rivals for leadership in France. Therefore in the fall of 1944 the French Parliament unanimously elected him premier. De Gaulle had fiercely opposed the German enemy, and now he vigorously defended France against the influence of his powerful allies Joseph Stalin, Winston Churchill, and Franklin Roosevelt. De Gaulle once stated that he never feared Adolf Hitler, who, he knew, was doomed to defeat, but did fear that his allies would dominate France and Europe in the postwar period.

By the fall of 1945, only a year after assuming power, De Gaulle was quarreling with all the political leaders of France. He saw himself as the unique savior of France, the only disinterested champion of French honor, grandeur, and independence. He despised all politicians as petty, corrupt, and self-interested muddlers, and, chafing under his autocratic rule, they banded against him. In January 1946, disgusted by politics, he resigned and retreated into a sulking silence to brood upon the future of France.

In 1947 De Gaulle reemerged as leader of the opposition. He headed what he termed "The Rally of the French People," which he insisted was not a political party but a national movement. The Rally became the largest single political force in France but never achieved majority status. Although De Gaulle continued to despise the political system, he refused to lead a coup d'etat, as some of his followers urged, and again retired in 1955.

Years as President

In May 1958 a combination of French colonials and militarists seized power in Algeria and threatened to invade France. The weakened Fourth Republic collapsed, and the victorious rebels called De Gaulle back to power as president of the Fifth Republic of France. From June 1958 to April 1969 he reigned as the dominant force in France. But he was not a dictator, as many have charged; he was elected first by Parliament and then in a direct election by the people.

As president, De Gaulle fought every plan to involve France deeply in alliances. He opposed the formation of a United States of Europe and British entry into the Common Market. He stopped paying part of France's dues to the United Nations, forced the NATO headquarters to leave France, and pulled French forces out of the Atlantic Alliance integrated armies. Denouncing Soviet oppression of Eastern Europe, he also warned of the Chinese threat to the world. He liberated France's colonies, supported the Vietnamese "liberation movement" against the United States, and called for a "free Quebec" in Canada.

De Gaulle had an early success in stimulating pride in Frenchmen and in increasing French gold reserves and strengthening the economy. By the end of his reign, however, France was almost friendless, and his economic gains had been all but wiped out by the student and workers protest movement in spring 1968.

De Gaulle ruled supreme for 11 years, but his firm hand began to choke and then to infuriate many citizens. In April 1969 the French voted against his program for reorganizing the Senate and the regions of France. He had threatened to resign if his plan was rejected and, true to his word, he promptly renounced all power. Thereafter De Gaulle remained silent on political issues. Georges Pompidou, one of his favorite lieutenants, was elected to succeed him as president. Charles De Gaulle died at Colombey-les-Deux-Églises on Nov. 9, 1970.


(b. Lille, 22 Nov. 1890; d. Colombey-les-deux-Églises, 9 Nov. 1970) French; Head of the Free French, Prime Minister 1958, President of the Fifth RepublicThough de Gaulle grew up in a family whose aristocratic origins, Catholicism, and monarchism were alien to democratic principles of the Third Republic, his father (a school principal) showed the independence of mind for which his son became celebrated by rejecting the divisive politics of anti-Dreyfusard nationalism. For someone of de Gaulle's class and culture, the army was the obvious, perhaps the only, career. Having attended the military academy of Saint-Cyr, he fought in an infantry regiment, was wounded and captured at Verdun in 1916, and spent the rest of the war in a German prisoner of war camp from which he tried repeatedly, but unsuccessfully, to escape. Between the wars, he taught military history at Saint-Cyr, saw service in Poland and Lebanon, and was for a period close to Marshal Pétain, who became godfather to one of his children. His lack of respect for the orthodoxies which Pétain incarnated manifested itself in his advocacy, in his 1934 book Vers l'armée du métier, of a military strategy based on speed and movement. He was tireless in his advocacy of tanks and armoured divisions and attracted the attention of a number of leading Third Republic politicians, including Blum and Reynaud. In 1937, he was appointed colonel of a tank regiment.

De Gaulle's military advancement suffered between the wars from his noncon-formity and from what his enemies regarded as arrogance; if he had died in January 1940 he would be unknown today. Thus it was the military catastrophe of 1940, and his connection with Reynaud, which began the process whereby de Gaulle evolved from an isolated maverick into France's most celebrated twentieth-century leader. As France's armies succumbed to the 1940 German offensive, Reynaud appointed him Under-Secretary of War on 5 June in the hope that his strategic talents would stimulate the defence effort. It was, of course, too late to halt the collapse and on 16 June Reynaud handed over power — or what was left of it — to Pétain, who immediately sought an armistice with Hitler. There was no place for someone of de Gaulle's views in the new political order and he immediately flew to London in an English aircraft. On 18 June (the anniversary of Waterloo) he made the celebrated broadcast in which he announced that the loss of a battle did not mean the loss of war and called on all Frenchmen who were able to do so to join him in continuing the combat. The 18 June speech is the founding moment in de Gaulle's political career. It was a dramatic break with the conventions of his career — an officer must obey his commanding officer — and with the values which Pétain incarnated and which someone of his class could be expected to respect. Yet if the speech is the source of de Gaulle's subsequent legitimacy, it attracted little attention in a France which was stunned by defeat and it certainly did not establish de Gaulle as a leader. The vast majority of his compatriots sought refuge from their distress in Pétain's authority; even those who did not were far from willing to accept de Gaulle's claim to speak for France. Thus the early years of the Free French movement which he founded were far from easy. The humiliating failure of the Dakar Expedition of September 1940 demonstrated the refusal of many officials of the French Empire to accept his authority and so too did the bitter feuds within the Free French. His intransigence infuriated his protector Churchill and he was regarded with implacable suspicion by Roosevelt, who saw him as the kind of reactionary militarist against whom the war was being fought. Thus de Gaulle faced enormous problems in asserting his authority. That he was finally able to do so reflected his political skill in marginalizing rivals like General Giraud; his eloquence as a broadcaster to occupied France; and his ability to win over the internal Resistance to his cause by placing himself squarely on the side of democracy and social reform. By the time he returned to France in August 1944 (he had not been told in advance of the D Day landings) his authority as leader of Free France was unquestioned and he received a tumultuous reception when he walked down the Champs Elysées on 25 August. To the status he enjoyed as liberator was added the authority he possessed as head of a provisional government which contained representatives of all France's political forces, including the powerful Communist Party.

His authority was temporary. Resigned (briefly) to the role of the parties in the reconstruction of French democracy, he made no attempt to construct his own political machine in the run-up to the October 1945 election of a Constituent Assembly. The new Assembly was, however, dominated by party leaders who had no intention of introducing a system which would institutionalize de Gaulle's leadership. His relations with the Assembly collapsed and in January 1946 he abruptly resigned as head of the provincial government, in the (mistaken) hope that public pressure would force his return. When it became clear that this would not happen, he launched a fierce attack on the constitutional plans of the Assembly and in the famous Bayeux speech on 16 June 1946 set out his model of a presidential system able to protect the authority of government from the interference of the parties. Nine months later he founded a mass political movement, the Rassemblement du Peuple Français (RPF), whose purpose was to force the newly founded Fourth Republic to abdicate in his favour. The RPF was initially highly successful in attracting a mass public, and in the 1951 elections became the largest grouping in the National Assembly. But it did not succeed in its core aim of terrorizing the other parties into submission and gave de Gaulle a dangerous reputation as an anti-Republican demagogue. In 1954, the RPF had disintegrated and its leader retreated into morose retirement at his country home in Colombey-les-deux-Églises, where he wrote three volumes of well-regarded war memoirs. By the mid-1950s, he had disappeared from the list of those that public opinion believed to have a future in national politics.

He was brought back to power in May 1958 by the collapse of the authority of the Fourth Republic. Unable to find a solution to the brutal war in Algeria, and facing the nightmare scenario of a military coup, or even a civil war, the majority of the party leaders turned, as their predecessors had turned in 1940, to a leader who stood outside the existing system. The dual legitimacy de Gaulle possessed as saviour of French honour (1940) and restorer of French democracy (1944) made him acceptable to the defenders of French Algeria and to (most) of the democratic parties. But if Algeria was the cause of de Gaulle's return, it was not the only, or perhaps even the principal, focus of his ambitions. His goal was, as it had been since 1946, to construct a political order which would enable government to govern — and him to rule. On 28 September the constitution of the Fifth Republic, of which he is correctly seen as Founding Father, gained a massive approval in a referendum and seven weeks later an Electoral College elected him President. The new constitution gave the presidency more powers that it had possessed since 1877 and severely constrained the ability of the National Assembly to impede government.

De Gaulle was no reactionary imperialist and he knew his ambitions for France could not be realized so long as the Algerian crisis continued. He thus embarked upon a policy of self-determination which culminated in 1962 in the grant of full independence to an Algeria run by those whom France had been fighting for eight years. Although bitterly opposed by the French settlers and by the far right, the end of French Algeria received a massive backing from the electorate. Military peace was, however, soon followed by political warfare as the parties rebelled against de Gaulle's conception, and use, of presidential power and in particular against his proposal to base the presidency on universal suffrage. What de Gaulle regarded as the legitimization of the power of presidency, introduced by the impeccably democratic method of a referendum, was seen by the opposition as a direct assault on the principles of Republican democracy introduced by unconstitutional methods. After a bitterly contested campaign, de Gaulle won both the referendum and the parliamentary election which followed it. Three years later he became the first French president since Louis Napoleon Bonaparte in 1851 to be elected by popular vote.

Backed by a supportive National Assembly and a loyal, and competent, Prime Minister Pompidou, de Gaulle was now free to realize his ambitions for French grandeur. While it is not true that, as his critics claimed, he regarded issues of economic and social policy as unworthy of his attention, it is the case that he was primarily interested in creating a role for France as an independent actor on the world stage and in challenging the right of the two super powers to determine the contours of the international system. He cultivated good relations with Third World countries, vigorously promoted France's independent nuclear deterrent, and sought to make France the leader of a European confederation of nation states. For de Gaulle the nation state was the only genuine political institution. It was this belief which led him, while accepting France's membership of both the Atlantic Alliance and the European Economic Community, to withdraw French troops from the integrated military command structure of NATO and to reject all attempts to turn the EEC into a supranational federation. The aggressive individualism of his foreign policy — vetoing Britain's applications to join the EEC, supporting Quebec separatism, condemning United States military involvement in Vietnam — caused much annoyance in Washington and London. Yet it revived France's status within the international system and unquestionably contributed to a revival of national self-confidence.

Such a confidence was decreasingly accorded to de Gaulle's domestic record. He was forced onto a second ballot in the 1965 presidential contest and nearly lost control of the National Assembly in the 1967 legislative elections. If this decline reflected the economic and social inequalities which industrial growth failed to eradicate, it also derived from what his critics regarded as an elective dictatorship and as the solitary exercise of power. Nothing, however, prepared him — or the public — for the explosion of protest which occurred in May 1968 as students and workers united against his rule. For a few weeks, the crisis left de Gaulle helpless and made a mockery of his boast to have given France the stability it had lacked since 1789. At the end of May he regained the political initiative in a dramatic broadcast in which he declared that the Republic would not abdicate and that he would fight to defend the France he had created. It was to be his last decisive intervention. Although the Gaullist Party won an overwhelming majority in the June parliamentary elections, it was a victory for law and order rather than for de Gaulle. De Gaulle tried to respond to the concerns of 1968, and to reassert his personal authority, by a referendum on Senate and regional reform. The referendum offered nothing to radicals and irritated some conservatives. What sealed his fate was the emergence of Pompidou as a credible successor and the recognition by erstwhile supporters that dropping the captain no longer threatened the survival of the ship. On 27 April 1969, 52.4 per cent of the electorate voted against the referendum proposal. The following day de Gaulle resigned office. He went back to Colombey-les-deux-Églises, where he died on 9 November 1970 and where, having refused a national funeral, he was buried.

A leader dedicated to order and grandeur, de Gaulle was also a rebel and a modernizer who throughout his life asserted the primacy of will over circumstances. His looming presence dominated France from the Second World War onwards and his legacy continues to shape the contours of French constitutional, and international, politics. In his lifetime, he aroused bitter hostility as well as passionate devotion. Today there is near universal acknowledgement of his greatness, and of his central role in the creation of modern France.











This web page was last updated on: 09 December, 2008