The Seducer (book review)


President of France Charles De Gaulle stands between President John F. Kennedy and Mrs. Jacqueline Kennedy on the steps of the Elysee Palace PHOTO/Wikipedia

A Certain Idea of France: The Life of Charles de Gaulle by Julian Jackson (Allen Lane, 887 pp)

Jackson is the author of a memorable sequence of histories of 1930s and 1940s France, but this is the peak, lucid and witty from first to last, charitable where possible, merciless where necessary, carefully quarried down to the last cobblestone of Paris and Algiers. Interestingly, Jackson published a much shorter study of de Gaulle in 2003 – 144 pages as opposed to more than eight hundred. Much of the material is of course repeated here, and the amplifications often reinforce Jackson’s earlier judgments. But sometimes, and often at the most important turning points in de Gaulle’s career, there is a shift, and not in de Gaulle’s favour.

In 2003, Jackson finished by listing three outstanding achievements that remained to de Gaulle’s credit thirty years after his death. First, thanks to de Gaulle, the liberation of France in 1944-45 took the form of a relatively smooth transfer of power and sovereignty. France was spared an allied military government like Italy’s, or a civil war as overtook Greece. De Gaulle had redeemed French honour and given a sense of self-respect back to the French people. Second, he extricated France from Algeria without a civil war on the mainland. Third, in the constitution of the Fifth Republic, he bequeathed political arrangements that had proved durable.

In 2018, none of these achievements looks quite so securely anchored. Yes, Jackson’s last word is still the conventional clincher: ‘He saved the honour of France.’ But in A Certain Idea of France he gives more airtime to the counter-arguments: that, without de Gaulle, France would still have been liberated by the Allies, and Britain would still have pushed for France to enjoy a permanent seat on the Security Council and a zone of occupation in Germany, as Churchill insisted at Yalta (where de Gaulle was not present). Today Jackson seems less hostile to St-Exupéry’s rasping comment: ‘Tell the truth, General, we lost the war. Our allies will win it.’ Other defeated nations, such as Norway and the Netherlands, retained their dignity and regained their independence without de Gaulle’s strutting umbrageousness. While they were quietly recruiting pilots, soldiers and sailors to fight with the Allies, de Gaulle repeatedly failed to attract more than a handful of the millions of Frenchmen he claimed to speak for. Of the thousands who finished up in Britain after the fall of France, the vast majority opted to be repatriated. Of the 1600 men in the White City camp, for example, only 152 signed up with de Gaulle. After the armistice in Syria, only 5500 of the Vichy troops rallied to the Free French; the other 30,000 chose to return to France. De Gaulle’s speech on D-Day+1 was magnificent:

The supreme battle has begun … It is of course the Battle of France, and the battle for France … For the sons of France, wherever they may be, whoever they may be, the simple and sacred duty is to fight the enemy by all the means available … Behind the heavy clouds of our blood and our tears, the sunshine of our grandeur is re-emerging.

As Churchill wrote to Roosevelt the next day, the speech was ‘remarkable, as he has not a single soldier in the great battle now developing.’

As for de Gaulle’s record in Algeria, Jackson’s reassessment is crushing:

He did not ‘grant’ independence: it was wrested from him. And he only partially avoided civil war. The truth is that the FLN had won independence by fighting and by mobilising international support. Although de Gaulle gradually resigned himself to this outcome, he did so reluctantly – and by the end he had salvaged nothing of his original expectations … perhaps no one could have done any better, but it is hard to see that anyone could have done much worse.

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