De Gaulle Made France A Republican Monarchy. Julian Jackson is Professor of History at Queen Mary, University of London and one of the foremost British experts on twentieth-century France. Julian Jackson’s magnificent new biography, ‘A Certain Idea of France – The Life of Charles de Gaulle’, shows how de Gaulle achieved so much during the War with astonishingly few resources, and how, as President, he put a medium-rank power at the centre of world affairs. Much of French politics since de Gaulle’s death has been about his legacy.
Professor Jackson, you just published an 870 page biography of General Charles de Gaulle titled ‘A Certain Idea of France’. How long did it take you to write it, and why de Gaulle?
I have been working on this particular book for the last five years. De Gaulle because as a French historian of modern France de Gaulle is what the French call incontournable (unavoidable). His figure is the towering person of 20th century France. If you want to understand 20th century France you have to understand de Gaulle.
Was he a giant?
He was physically a giant, about 6ft 4inches, when the average height in 1930 was five and a half feet. He was huge, very tall, but in a country where people are quite small that is very important. He was a giant literally, but also a giant morally – an extraordinary, titanic personality – and he was the central protagonist of France’s two 20th century civil wars.
“De Gaulle remains a symbol of what France had been and could become. He is a necessary myth.”
Statue of Charles de Gaulle near Grand Palais, Paris, France
When does he become ‘de Gaulle’?
He enters history in June 1940. He was a junior general who arrived in London on 17 June 1940 because he refused to accept defeat and that the war was over. He saw that the defeat of France was only the first battle in what was going to be a world war. He predicted that this would become a world war and that France must be part of that war on the side of the allies. Because the official French government headed by Marshal Pétain had capitulated, de Gaulle assumed the position of the true representative of France’s national interest. In effect he assumed France, self-declared. The French government had given up, so he said, ‘I have to speak for France.’ He had an extraordinary force of will and an almost inhuman self-belief. When you have nothing, one suitcase, it is remarkable to say that you are France.
How was that perceived by Churchill, and later by Roosevelt?
Neither of them accepted the claim that he and he alone was France. Churchill backed him only because originally he hoped other people would join de Gaulle, people of more importance. He found him impossible because de Gaulle, to show that he was not dependant, bit the hand that fed him – that is Churchill. To show that he counted he had to be a difficult ally, because being difficult was the only weapon he had. Therefore he was accepted because nobody else appeared, until it was too late. He became a great broadcaster: he was a voice to the French before he was a face. The British, who allowed him to use the BBC, created a monster they could not control. His BBC speeches made him a figure in France, and gave him credibility which he did not have when he arrived in London.
Did he know that he would win the war?
He realised that the allies would win the war, and he wanted to be sure that France was among those allies. Thus France got a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, and it got a zone of occupation in Germany.
Can we say that de Gaulle won the war for France without fighting?
De Gaulle would have liked to fight. He only had his voice. He is the first example in history of a political leader created by the radio.
When he liberates France in 1944 and goes into power?
He returns to Paris on 24th August and assumes power that he keeps for 2 years, as head of a provisional government.
By then the soldier has become the politician?
A great politician, with a curious mixture of obstinacy and pragmatism.
Why did he retire in 1946?
Because he refused to accept the parliamentary system of the newly created 4th Republic! He wanted strong presidential authority. He wanted to become what he became in 1958, a republican monarch (his words). He created the constitution that France has today. The President of France has greater political power than any other European head of state, and greater power than the US President.
“His vision was of a Europe where France would be the dominant partner.”
What does he do from 1946 to 1958?
He founds a political party, Rassemblement du peuple français or RPF, to defend his constitutional ideas. He runs the RPF, gives speeches and fights the 1951 election, but he does not get enough seats. Having failed to break the 4th Republic, he retires from political life and writes his memoirs- often using the third person – so the memoirs created this extraordinary myth. This was from 1954 to 1958.
What happened in 1958?
In May 1958 there is an attempted military coup in Algiers, because the army thinks that the politicians will abandon French Algeria. De Gaulle comes back to power because the army thinks he will defend French Algeria and the politicians think he will defend them from the army. His condition for coming back is the new constitution, the 5th Republic that France has today.
In his years of power, 1958 to 1969, what did he achieve?
He gave Algeria independence, he took France out of NATO, he denounced the Vietnam War, he developed an independent French foreign policy, he recognised communist China, he vetoed British entry to the Common Market and he gave the French an independent nuclear deterrent. He also created a Franco German Alliance with Adenauer, still (just about!) the core of the European Union. Most important, he created the political institutions which France still has today. President Macron’s official photo has him standing in front of a copy of de Gaulle’s war memoirs.
He existed because of Britain and America. Why did he take France out of NATO and why was he against Britain being in the Common Market?
His vision of Europe was to act independent of the two blocs, the Soviet Union and the United States. He did not want French defence to be part of an integrated military alliance. His obsession was independence.
His vision was of a Europe where France would be the dominant partner, with Germany as the junior partner, and he was very suspicious of Britain’s historic links to the United States. He thought Britain would be an American Trojan Horse in Europe. When he opposed British entry to Europe the arguments he used now seem very prophetic – that the British would never be proper Europeans. They would always look to the United States.
He liked the British and the Americans?
He had a love/hate with the British I think. Can you ever really like the person to whom you owe everything? He had to oppose America because America was dominant. De Gaulle said, “To exist you have to have enemies.” He was an existential nationalist who believed that history is about the rivalry between nations.
What about Stalin and the Soviet Union?
He believed that France and Russia were two continental powers which shared certain historic interest, one being a fear of Germany. He rarely used the term Soviet Union, preferring to talk of Russia. For de Gaulle the nation was fundamental, not the ideology. In 1944 for example he signed a treaty of alliance with Stalin, and in 1966 he visited the Soviet Union for two weeks. He believed that France and Russia had shared strategic interests that transcended ideology.
Winston Churchill and Charles de Gaulle
Charles de Gaulle
The cover of ‘A Certain Idea of France’ by Julian Jackson
de Gaulle addresses France on the BBC from London
President Charles de Gaulle
President Macron’s Official Portrait
“Macron could not be Macron without the institutions that de Gaulle created.”
In 1968 he was faced with the students in Paris in the famous May riots?
He was the target. He had been in power for ten years. “Dix ans, ça suffit” was a student slogan. For the students he was an old man and it was a revolution against de Gaulle that almost succeeded.
Why didn’t it?
He was saved by Pompidou who kept the government afloat in ’68. De Gaulle just survived, but he left power the next year, aged 78. He died in 1970 when he was 80. He sat down to play a game of patience and fell over dead at his residence in Colombey-les-Deux-Églises.
After having worked on this book about de Gaulle for five years, what is your conclusion? Was he as great as Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin?
To me he is as great. He counts today, because the institutions, the foreign policy of France, are still the ones he created. Macron could not be Macron without the institutions that de Gaulle created. Like Churchill he was a kind of prophet in the 30s. They both saw the danger from Germany.
Was he anti-Semitic?
He was unusual in his almost complete absence of any anti-Semitism. He famously denounced Israel in 1967 – he believed that the Six Day War was a mistake and gave a press conference where he opposed Israel expansionism, but he did not like or dislike Jews, he was a pragmatist. The Vichy regime was anti-Semitic and Petain a French womaniser, but de Gaulle was neither of these things. .
Will de Gaulle endure, like Napoleon and Charlemagne?
He remains a symbol of what France had been and could become. He is a necessary myth. There are more streets named after him in France than anyone else. He transcends Right and Left. He had extraordinary intuition about the evolution of the world. Today, the smaller France becomes, the more they think about de Gaulle.
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