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France’s noble,exasperating icon

A portrait of the founder and first President of the Fifth Republic

Great circumstances bring forth great men,” Charles de Gaulle remarked in 1956 to Cyrus Sulzberger of the New York Times. “Only during crises do nations throw up giants.” Naturally de Gaulle (almost literally a giant given his imposing height) was referring to himself. And why not? General de Gaulle was the towering,at times isolated,symbol of a French refusal to accept defeat by Hitler’s Germany; he was the architect of France’s departure from colonial Algeria; and he was the creator of today’s Fifth Republic,bringing institutional stability to France’s traditionally febrile politics.

He was also,as Jonathan Fenby illustrates in this magisterial biography,extraordinarily obstinate — ever convinced that he was right and never afraid to confront,and indeed insult,friends and allies. In the second world war,Winston Churchill,in particular,but Franklin Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower too,were driven to the brink of despair by this prickly general (later described by one American diplomat as “highly egocentric with touches indeed of megalomania”) who had precious few military assets but an unshakable conviction that he incarnated France — and that France must never be treated as less than a great power. Yet somehow de Gaulle almost invariably imposed his will,thanks to “his genius for ambiguity,duplicity and improvisation,his ability to impose abrupt changes of policy and his capacity for rallying popular support to succeed in finding his way to a solution.”

Mr Fenby,who was in Reuters’ Paris bureau during de Gaulle’s presidency (and later was Paris correspondent for The Economist),traces de Gaulle’s career from his days as a student at the Saint-Cyr military academy to his decade as president during the turbulent 1960s. His personal characteristics were always those of honour,bravery and rectitude (even as president,de Gaulle and his beloved wife,Yvonne,paid for their own telephone calls). And the political thread remained unbroken: France’s greatness must never be slighted. When he found himself seated in the eighth row at John Kennedy’s funeral,he made his way forward to the front,said “Right,we can start,” to a startled protocol official — and sat down.

The result was a France that secured a permanent seat at the UN Security Council,developed an independent nuclear deterrent,withdrew from NATO’s common military command and rebuffed Britain’s repeated attempts to join the European Common Market. If there were setbacks — overtures to Russia and China failed to thaw the cold war on terms that would reduce America’s influence and increase France’s — de Gaulle would simply dismiss them. If there were dissenting opinions from ministers and party politicians,de Gaulle would simply ignore them: after all,it was the French people,not the politicians,who had asked the general to lead them,and de Gaulle — a clever exponent of the referendum — would do so.

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Perhaps that is why the student and worker riots of May 1968 seemed to discomfit the president so much: they showed a France that he,in his late 70s,could no longer fully understand. When a referendum on the reform of the Senate and local government failed in April 1969,de Gaulle immediately resigned “because of the absurdity”,as he put it to André Malraux.

This excellent book is far from being a hagiography but,as Mr Fenby points out,“the final judgment has to be that he was a man who made a huge difference,and put a lasting mark on his country.” Indeed so. Gaullism is a strong current in French politics — witness the ritual homage made to the general by Presidents Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy. And,as America’s George Bush found out before the Iraq war and as Germany’s Angela Merkel is finding out in the European Union,it remains as exasperating as ever.

© The Economist Newspaper Limited 2010

First published on: 24-06-2010 at 02:28:28 am
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Under siege too

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