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September 2023

De Gaulle, "A Certain Idea of France"

By Julian Jackson


The book “A Certain Idea of France” by Julian Jackson is a biography of the French statesman Charles de Gaulle. I read the book in French, mainly to be able to appreciate the primary sources in their original language. As the author explains at the beginning of the book, General de Gaulle is everywhere in France, from statues and place names to commemorations and in political debates. This is the reason that examining the life of the general is still very much relevant. From 1940 to 1970, de Gaulle became one of the main political figures of France, eventually leaving a rich political and ideological legacy. Charles de Gaulle was born in 1890 in Lilles. He was from a conservative and religious family. His father was a monarchist. On his mother’s side, de Gaulle was descended from a line of industrialists inspired by social Catholicism, a set of values that would in turn profoundly influence de Gaulle; especially, in his ideas about aspects of social policy. De Gaulle was educated in Catholic schools and in his youth was a keen consumer of literature, often bearing nationalist messaging. Another aspect of these early years the book discusses is the possible influence of the ultra-nationalist monarchist figure of Charles Maurass. It is argued that in an environment such as de Gaulle’s, he would have likely been exposed to the monarchist far-right, however, neither he nor his family were in any sense extremists. Henri de Gaulle, his father, may have been conservative, yet he supported Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish army officer falsely accused of spying for Germany. The case was a topic of great controversy at the time and exposed an anti-semitic side to French society. Charles studied at the military academy of Saint-Cyr and became an officer. The first world war was a formative experience, with de Gaulle being wounded several times. He was captured in 1916 and held in Germany until the end of the war. During this period, his somewhat anti-social personality and intellectual prowess were noted by fellow captives, as de Gaulle spent some of his time giving lectures on warfare and geopolitics to internees. After the war, he was posted to Poland and Syria as well as undertaking training as a staff officer. In 1932, he published the book “The Edge of the Sword”, which contains his thoughts on leadership. Some of the characteristics of a good leader that he underlines are redolent of his own later behaviour (mystique, aloofness). In the 1930s, de Gaulle warned about the German threat and published a work in favor of creating a professional French armoured force. The Second World War finds de Gaulle in command of an armoured formation that conducted some successful actions during the Battle of France. On the 5th of June, de Gaulle is made Minister for War in the government of a political patron, Paul Reynaud. During this period, before the signing of the armistice, de Gaulle called for continuing resistance. However, the will of the political leadership to continue the fight was decisively weakened and a new French government under the World War One hero and former mentor to de Gaulle, Phillipe Petain, signs an armistice. In the meanwhile, Charles de Gaulle, now promoted to general rank, flees to London. On the 18th of June, his famous appeal to the French is broadcast by the BBC. At the time, the appeal does not have an immediate effect. During the war, de Gaulle was the leader of the Free French Movement, a group of French exiles, which, along with networks embedded in France, tries to further the allied war effort. More importantly, de Gaulle identifies himself with France and takes it upon himself to defend his country's interest from allies and adversaries alike. In this context, the general tries to rally French colonies to the cause of the Free French. There are many successes, as was the case with French West Africa. In fact, de Gaulle installed himself for a while in the city of Brazzaville. During the wartime period, de Gaulle organised the Free French forces in a capricious and authoritarian manner. He was also stubborn and assertive with France’s British and American allies. This behaviour is demonstrated by his attitude to British involvement in Syria, the provocation of the capture of St. Pierre and Miquelon or his reaction to being excluded from the Yalta conference. Many of de Gaulle's most loyal supporters in the years to come were amongst his comrades in the Free French cause. With the Normandy campaign, Free French troops started to play an increasingly important role compared to their almost negligible contributions in the preceding years. In 1944, French troops liberate Paris and France officially joins the war on the Allied side. De Gaulle returns to his home country to be greeted by unprecedented popularity as is captured by his parade down the Champs Elysees where there are massive crowds assembled to cheer him on. From 1944 to 1946, de Gaulle formed a provisional government that dealt with the country’s immediate needs. In 1946 he resigned, probably in order to make a comeback and impose a different constitution with a stronger executive branch. From 1946 to 1958, de Gaulle was out of power. He continues to criticise the constitution of the Fourth Republic as well as forming a party to support his ideas, the Rally of the French People. The party included many close wartime associates, and, ultimately, fails to gain enough traction because of the General’s alarmist rhetoric in a country where standards of living were drastically improving. It was during this period that the General published his three volumes of war memoirs which were received with enthusiasm. In 1954, the Algerian colonial war leads to a deep split in French society. More liberal voices call for the end of the bloodshed with an independent Algeria, whilst right-wing hardliners defend the idea of Algeria as a part of France. In 1958, the crisis reaches a boiling point with army officers in Algeria seizing Corsica and preparing to topple the government in Paris. Under these conditions, the innate instability of the Fourth Republic is revealed. De Gaulle is a respected figure who is believed to command the respect of the army and who can stop a coup from taking place. Therefore, President René Coty appointed de Gaulle to lead a government. Amongst the General’s conditions, however, was the drafting of a new constitution. De Gaulle’s proposed constitution is ratified in 1958 by referendum; the president’s powers are considerably increased and the parliament loses influence. De Gaulle becomes the first president of the 5th Republic and starts working on the Algerian problem. The General’s views on Algeria are somewhat ambiguous as exemplified by his evasive language (Je vous ai compris, I have understood you, he proclaimed in June 1958). On one occasion, however, he did show sympathy to the French colonists by proclaiming “Long live French Algeria”. Militarily, there are many French successes in Algeria, yet the status of the province as part of France is becoming untenable. In 1959, de Gaulle suggests the solution of self-determination for Algeria. This stance infuriates the French colonists who protest violently in Algeria. The violence was contained, however, extremists from the colonist population formed the OAS terrorist organization to attack pro-independence Algerians as well as government officials. After a referendum, de Gaulle authorizes talks over Algerian independence, leading to a military coup in Algeria, which the General manages to supress. In 1962, Algeria becomes independent. De Gaulle will remain in power until 1969. During this period France becomes a fully-fledged nuclear power and de Gaulle strives to protect French sovereignty from what he considers excessive American influence. Some of his actions include; barring the UK from entering the European community, recognizing communist China, condemning aspects of Israeli policy in the Six Day War and criticizing American involvement in Vietnam. At home, de Gaulle is obsessed with the idea of “participation” of the workers in in their industries, which he believes is the alternative to capitalism and authoritarian communism. In May 1968, student protests erupt in Paris. In the beginning, the protesters are students with a social agenda opposed to de Gaulle’s traditional values. The students are soon joined by the workers. There is widespread upheaval, yet, with some interventions by Prime Minister (and, future president) Georges Pompidou, the unrest dies out. De Gaulle will subsequently announce a referendum on Senate reform, which, he loses, leading to his stepping down from power in April 1969. He visits Ireland during the election that follows his resignation and then retires to his country house where he dies in 1970. This biography of Charles de Gaulle is a fairly comprehensive guide to the General’s life. One of the interesting themes in the book is the recurring themes that appear throughout de Gaulle’s life. One of these is catholic social teachings. From his maternal grandparent's paternalistic industrialism to de Gaulle’s ideas of worker-capital “association” and worker ”participation”, there is an ever-present tendency to moderate the excesses of capitalism whilst rejecting communist doctrine as a harmful extreme. The most consistent idea, however, is that of French nationalism as embodied by de Gaulle himself. The General was, throughout his life a nationalist and fundamentally believed in the importance of the state and the nation over the individual. Yet, despite his nationalism, it is interesting that de Gaulle was rarely if ever antisemitic and only very occasionally made racist comments (especially, when compared to some of his contemporaries). One of the most fascinating questions that inevitably arises from the book is how far de Gaulle managed to get in implementing his “Certain Idea of France” by the end of his career. As one would expect, the picture is somewhat ambiguous. In the field of social policy, it is doubtful that much of de Gaulle’s ideas have survived in what is, broadly speaking, a progressive, multicultural, capitalist society. However, de Gaulle’s constitution of 1958 still survives with the 5th Republic being well on track to become the longest surviving French Republic. In foreign affairs as well, France maintains an independent foreign policy and a robust military strength as advocated by de Gualle. Only recently has Russian action in Africa unseated a long-standing French presence in the area which was to a great extent the work of de Gaulle and his adviser Jacques Foccart. Of course, a biography of one man cannot convey a complete picture of a country’s history. In many ways, the biography alone is an excellent way to understand de Gaulle and his ideology, but not quite adequate to explain why the French people consistently showed so much loyalty to his person.  Overall, this is a biography that is well worth reading, if possible, translated into French. This way the reader can also appreciate many of the critically important primary sources included in their original form.


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