Richard Vinen

He Paid For His Own Electricity

A Certain Idea of France: The Life of Charles de Gaulle


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Who was Charles de Gaulle? Stop the clock in 1939 and he was an eccentric army officer. Stop it in July 1940, after he had flown to London, and he was claiming to represent France against the Vichy regime – though some Englishmen admired this right-wing Catholic because they thought of him as almost as much of an opponent of the Third Republic as he was of the Vichy state. Stop the clock in 1945 and he was head of the French government, supported by republicans and even communists. Stop it a year later and he had resigned in a huff; his career was apparently over. The British ambassador to Paris wrote: ‘On … the eve of the anniversary of Louis XVI’s execution, General de Gaulle cut off his own head and passed into the shadow-land of politics.’ In 1958 he was back in power, mainly because the army hoped that he would preserve French Algeria. Four years after this, he withdrew French forces from Algeria, claiming that this was what he had always intended to do. Some of his numerous right-wing enemies responded to his ‘treason’ with a succession of assassination attempts. By the mid-1960s, he was presiding over a prosperous and stable country. Then, in May 1968, faced with a student uprising, he seemed to totter on the edge of the abyss before restoring his grip on power by presenting himself as a defender of order. However, perhaps because he never felt comfortable as a conventional conservative, he resigned the following year.

Not surprisingly, much ink has been spilt describing this extraordinary career. The first biography of Charles de Gaulle, by Philippe Barrès, was published in 1941. Since then there have been hundreds of books on the man. Is there anything new to say? As it turns out, there is. Julian Jackson’s approach has three great qualities. First, he builds and comments on earlier works. He opens with a brief essay on the main French biographies and his own book is punctuated with long quotations. Often he weighs up different accounts of the same incident. Sometimes it is almost impossible to peel back the layers of hearsay. A French diplomat remembered that de Gaulle, surveying the devastated condition of the Soviet Union in 1944, remarked ‘what a people’, and made it clear that he was referring to the Germans. The British diplomat Andrew Wood recalled that de Gaulle said the same thing while visiting Stalingrad in 1966. Did de Gaulle say it twice – which would imply a calculated insult rather than just what Wood called ‘a heroic piece of tactlessness’ – or is this one of those anecdotes that has acquired a life of its own, only partly connected to anything that actually happened?

Second, and unsurprisingly, Jackson is good on those Englishmen – Churchill, Duff Cooper, Harold Macmillan and others – who were so important to de Gaulle in the Second World War. Although all these people came to find de Gaulle infuriating, they often saw their own culture and interests as intertwined with those of France. Harold Nicolson had hired Maurice Couve de Murville, later de Gaulle’s final prime minister, as tutor for his sons in the summer of 1927. Diana Cooper was bored by dinners with de Gaulle and his wife (whom she dubbed ‘Mr and Mrs Wormwood’), but must have been one of the few people to address the general as tu, because she only spoke the nursery French that had been instilled in her as a child.

Third, and most importantly, this biography succeeds by focusing on de Gaulle’s extraordinary character. De Gaulle, his admirers and detractors created a public persona that suited their various purposes, but this often occluded the man himself. De Gaulle sometimes remarked that he had become a ‘prisoner’ of this public persona. His memoirs are one of the great political documents of the 20th century but, as André Malraux wrote, ‘there is no Charles’ in them. Jackson gets to Charles as well as to de Gaulle, and shows how the flaws of the former (petulance, a raging temper and bouts of almost suicidal depression) went, in a curious way, with the epic achievements of the latter. De Gaulle’s sheer physical oddness was striking: over a foot taller than most of his male compatriots and with no apparent chin (one official said that he had ‘a head like a banana’), he probably benefited from the fact that he became known to the French through radio broadcasts before most of them had even seen a picture of him. Perhaps consciousness of his odd physique underlay de Gaulle’s solitary nature: he was a prisoner of war from 1916 to 1918, but his comrades in the camp never saw him naked. His wife, Yvonne, was a painfully shy woman who felt ill at ease in company outside her immediate family. The youngest of the couple’s three children, Anne, was born in 1928 with Down’s syndrome and it was only in the presence of this daughter that de Gaulle removed the armour of reserve in which he was normally encased. De Gaulle’s need to care for Anne intersected with the high dramas of the Second World War in poignant ways. When his wife came to join him in North Africa in 1943, the plane had to fly low because Anne could not be persuaded to wear an oxygen mask.

De Gaulle was indifferent to the material advantages that might have come with power. He never owned any property except his country house at Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises, which did not even have running water for the first two years that the family lived there. When he moved to the Elysée Palace, he had a meter installed so that he could pay for the electricity that he and his wife used in their own small apartment.

Personal austerity and intense privacy may sound like attractive qualities when one thinks of more recent political leaders – indeed, the posthumous cult of de Gaulle in France drew much of its power from distaste at the corruption of the Mitterrand years – but de Gaulle was no saint. He was a racist. He thought Africans ‘hardly at the stage of our Middle Ages’ and was keen to avoid a large Muslim population taking root in France. He was cordial to monsters such as Ceauşescu if it suited French interests and he sometimes wrote of both Hitler and Stalin in terms that hinted at a fascination with them.

De Gaulle had a phenomenal memory and listened carefully to his interlocutors, but he often chose to ignore what they said, or sometimes took their advice later without giving them credit. He was a master of ‘constructive ambiguity’ whose fine but abstract phrases often aroused hopes (notably among the European population of Algeria) that were then dashed. He expected lesser mortals to do his dirty work. Some of it – notably that carried out by his henchman Jacques Foccart in Africa – was very dirty indeed. He pretended to be above the sordid business of party politics when really he took a detailed interest in the ways that it might work to his advantage. He seemed to feel that France was too good for the French. Indeed, he often did not much care for relations with individuals at all – it was typical that he became an accomplished broadcaster despite a hatred of talking on the telephone. He demanded loyalty but often disregarded the sacrifices of those who had served him best. Everyone from Michel Debré, his first prime minister, who shouldered the painful burden of the Algerian War, to Claude Guy, an aide who had served him during his years out of power, was dispatched if they crossed de Gaulle or ceased to be useful.

De Gaulle died in November 1970 – the year after he resigned as president. He was buried in Colombey alongside his daughter Anne, who had died in 1948. To avoid the veneration of his possessions as relics, his widow burned most of his private effects and kept only two uniforms and two kepis. Of course, the public man lives on. You can hear echoes of his ideas on the Eurosceptic Right in Britain. Reviewing de Gaulle’s Mémoires d’Espoir just days before the general’s death, Enoch Powell wrote: ‘In a Europe and a Western world which was trying to pretend the nation away, the replacement of the nation in the centre of politics and diplomacy worked like a spell.’ As for France, almost the whole of the political spectrum is tinged with Gaullism. During the last presidential election campaign, a cartoon showed a confused voter saying: ‘I am going to vote for de Gaulle; he is the one all the others talk about.’

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