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Without harmony in the State, no military expedition can be undertaken; without harmony in the army, no battle array can be formed.-- Wu Tzu
Prior to World War II, he was mostly known as a tactician of tank battles and an advocate of the concentrated use of armored and aviation forces. He was the leader of Free France in World War II and head of the provisional government in 1944?1946. Called to form a government in 1958, he inspired a new constitution and was the Fifth Republic's first president from 1958 to 1969. His political ideology is known as Gaullism, which left a major influence in subsequent French politics.
1890?1912: Formative years
De Gaulle was the third child of a morally conservative but socially progressive Catholic bourgeois family. His father's side of the family was a long line of aristocracy from Normandy and Burgundy which had been settled in Paris for about a century, whereas his mother's side was a family of rich entrepreneurs from the industrial region of Lille in French Flanders. Born in Lille, de Gaulle grew up and was educated in Paris.
De Gaulle's family was intellectual. His grandfather was a historian, his grandmother a writer, and his father a professor in private Catholic schools who founded his own private school. Political debates were frequent at home, and from an early age, de Gaulle was introduced by his father to the major conservative authors. The family was very patriotic and he was raised in the cult of the Nation (De Gaulle wrote in his memoirs that "my mother felt an uncompromising passion for the fatherland, equal to her religious piety"). Although traditionalist and monarchist, the family was legalist and respected the institutions of the French Republic. Their social ideas were also more liberal, influenced by social Catholicism. During the Dreyfus affair the family distanced itself from the more conservative natonalist circles and supported Alfred Dreyfus.
1912?1940: Military career
Young Charles de Gaulle chose a military career and spent four years at the ?cole Sp?ciale Militaire de Saint-Cyr (the French equivalent of West Point). He graduated in 1912 and decided to join an infantry regiment when he could have joined an elite corps. During World War I, then Captain de Gaulle was severely wounded at the gruesome Battle of Verdun in March 1916, and left for dead on the battlefield. Alive, he was taken prisoner by the Germans. He made five unsuccessful escape attempts, and was put in solitary confinement in a retaliation camp.
When the war ended, he remained in the military, serving on the staff of Gen. Maxime Weygand and then Gen. Philippe P?tain. During the Polish-Soviet war in 1919-1920, he volunteered to be a member of the French Military Mission to Poland and was an infantry instructor with the Polish army. He fought and distinguished himself in fighting near the river Zbrucz and received the highest Polish military award, Virtuti Militari. He was promoted to major and offered possibility of a further career in Poland, but chose instead to return to France. He was heavily influenced by that war, namely by the use of tanks, fast manoeuvres and lack of trenches.
Based partially on his observations during war in Poland, which was so different from experiences from WWI, he published a number of books and articles on the reorganisation of the army, particularly Vers l'Arm?e de M?tier (published in English as "The Army of the Future") in which he proposed the formation of a professional mechanised army with specialised armoured divisions in preference to the static theories exemplified by the Maginot Line.
While Heinz Guderian and elements in the German Army General Staff had views similar to de Gaulle's, P?tain rejected most of de Gaulle's theories, and the relationship between them became strained. French politicians also dismissed de Gaulle's theories, fearing the political reliablity of any professional army, with the notable exception of Paul Reynaud who would later play a major role in de Gaulle's career.
At the outbreak of World War II, de Gaulle was only a colonel, having encountered hostility from the leaders of the military through the 1920s and 1930s due to his bold views. After the German breakthrough at Sedan, on May 15 1940 he was finally given command of the 4th Armoured Division.
On May 17, 1940, de Gaulle attacked the German tank forces at Montcornet. With only 200 French tanks and no air support, the offensive had little impact on the German advance. There was more success on May 28, when de Gaulle's tanks forced the German infantry to retreat at Caumont. This was one of the few significant tactical successes the French gained against the Germans during the campaign. Prime Minister Paul Reynaud promoted him provisional brigadier general (thus his title of g?n?ral de Gaulle).
On June 6, Paul Reynaud appointed him undersecretary of state for national defence and war and put him in charge of coordination with the United Kingdom. As a member of the cabinet he resisted proposals to surrender. He served as a liaison with the British government, and with Churchill carved a project of union between France and the United Kingdom on the morning of June 16 in London. This was a last minute effort to try to strengthen the resolve of those members of the French government who were in favor of continuing the war. He took the plane back to Bordeaux (provisory seat of the French government) on that same afternoon, but when landing in Bordeaux in the evening he learned that P?tain had become premier with the intention of seeking an armistice with Germany.
That same day he took the most important decision in his life, and also in the modern history of France: he would refuse the humiliation of a French surrender, he would rebel against the apparently legal (but illegitimate in his eyes) government of P?tain, he would return to London and call for the continuation of war. On the morning of June 17, with 100,000 gold francs from the secret funds given to him the previous night by Paul Reynaud, he fled Bordeaux by plane, narrowly escaped German aviation, and landed in London that same afternoon. De Gaulle decided to reject French capitulation and to set about building a movement which would appeal to overseas French, opponents of a separate arrangement with Germany.
1940?1945: The Free French Forces
On June 18, de Gaulle prepared to speak to the French people, via BBC radio, from London. The British Cabinet attempted to block the speech, but was overruled by Churchill. In France, de Gaulle's "Appeal of June 18" could be heard nationwide in the evening. The phrase "France has lost a battle; she has not lost the war", which appeared on posters in Britain at the time, is often incorrectly associated with the BBC broadcast; nevertheless the words aptly capture the spirit of de Gaulle's position. Although only few people actually heard the speech that night (the BBC was seldom listened to on the continent, and millions of Frenchmen were refugees on the road), excerpts of the speech appeared in French newspapers the next day in the yet unoccupied southern part of France, and the speech was repeated for several days on the BBC. Soon enough, among the chaos and bewilderment that was France in June 1940, the news that a French general was in London refusing the tide of events and calling for the end of despair and the continuation of a winnable war was spread from mouths to mouths. To this day it remains one of the most famous speeches in French history.
From London, de Gaulle formed and led the Free French movement. Whereas the USA continued to recognise Vichy France, the British government of Winston Churchill supported de Gaulle, initially maintaining relations with Vichy but subsequently recognising the Free French.
On July 4, 1940, a court-martial in Toulouse sentenced de Gaulle in absentia to four years in prison. At a second court-martial on August 2, 1940, de Gaulle was condemned to death for treason.
In his dealings with his British allies and the United States, de Gaulle insisted at all times in retaining full freedom of action on behalf of France, even where this might embarrass or inconvenience his partners in the war. "France has no friends, only interests" is one of his best-remembered statements. Churchill is often misquoted as having commented, regarding working with de Gaulle, that: "Of all the crosses I have had to bear during this war, the heaviest has been the Cross of Lorraine (de Gaulle's symbol of Free France)". (The actual quote was by Churchill's envoy to France, Major-General Edward Spears)
Working with the French resistance and supporters in France's colonial possessions in Africa, after the Anglo-American invasion of North Africa in November 1942, de Gaulle moved his headquarters to Algiers in May 1943. He became first joint head (with the less resolutely independent Gen. Henri Giraud, the candidate preferred by the United States) and then sole chairman of the Committee of National Liberation.
At the liberation of France following Operation Overlord, in which Free French forces played a minor but symbolic role, he quickly established the authority of the Free French Forces in France, avoiding an Allied Military Government for Occupied Territories in France. On his return to Paris, he moved back into his office at the War Ministry, thus proclaiming continuity of the Third Republic and denying the legitimacy of Vichy France.
After the war he served as the President of the provisional government from September 1944 but resigned on January 20, 1946, complaining of conflict between the political parties, and disapproving of the draft constitution for the Fourth Republic which he believed placed too much power in the hands of parliament with its shifting party alliances.
1946?1958: The desert crossing
De Gaulle's opposition to the proposed constitution failed as the parties of the left supported a weak presidency to prevent any repetition of the Vichy regime. The second draft constitution narrowly approved at the referendum of October 1946 was even less to de Gaulle's liking than the first.
In April 1947 de Gaulle made a renewed attempt at transforming the political scene with the creation of the Rassemblement du Peuple Fran?ais (Rally of the French People, or RPF), but the movement lost impetus after initial success. In May 1953 he withdrew again from active politics, though the RPF lingered until September 1955.
He retired to Colombey-les-deux-?glises and wrote his war memoirs, M?moires de guerre. During this period of formal retirement, de Gaulle however maintained regular contact with past political lieutenants from wartime and RPF days, including sympathisers involved in political developments in Algeria.
1958: The collapse of the Fourth Republic
The Fourth Republic was tainted by political instability, its failures in Indochina and its inability to resolve the Algerian question.
On May 13, 1958, the settlers seized the government buildings in Algiers, attacking what they saw as French government weakness in the face of demands among the Arab majority for Algerian independence. A "Committee of Civil and Army Public Security" was created under the presidency of General Jacques Massu, a Gaullist sympathiser. General Raoul Salan, Commander-in-Chief in Algeria, announced on radio that the Army had "provisionally taken over responsibility for the destiny of French Algeria."
Under the pressure of Massu, Salan declared "Vive de Gaulle!" from the balcony of the Algiers Government-General building on May 15. De Gaulle answered two days later that he was ready to "take on the powers of the Republic" (assumer les pouvoirs de la R?publique). Many worried as they saw this answer as support to the army.
On May 19 de Gaulle asserted again (at a press conference) that he was at the disposition of the country. As a journalist expressed the concerns of some who feared that he would violate civil liberties, de Gaulle retorted vehemently: "Have I ever done that? Quite the opposite, I have reestablished them when they had disappeared. Who honestly believes that, at age 67, I would start a career as a dictator?" A republican by conviction, de Gaulle maintained throughout the crisis that he would accept power only from the lawfully constituted authorities of the state.
The crisis deepened as French paratroops from Algeria seized Corsica and a landing near Paris was discussed. Political leaders on all sides agreed to support the General's return to power, except Fran?ois Mitterrand, and the Communist Party (which denounced de Gaulle as the agent of a fascist coup). On May 29 the French President, Ren? Coty, appealed to the "most illustrious of Frenchmen" to become the last President of the Council (Prime Minister) of the Fourth Republic.
De Gaulle remained intent on replacing the constitution of the Fourth Republic, which he blamed for France's political weakness. He set as a condition for his return that he be given wide emergency powers for six months and that a new constitution1 be proposed to the French people. On June 1, 1958 de Gaulle became premier and was given emergency powers for 6 months by the National Assembly.
On September 28, 1958, a referendum took place and 79.2% of those who voted supported the new constitution and the creation of the Fifth Republic. The colonies (Algeria was officially a part of France, not a colony) were given the choice between immediate independence and the new constitution. All colonies voted for the new constitution except Guinea, which thus became the first French African colony to gain independence, at the cost of the immediate ending of all French assistance.
1958?1962: Founding of the Fifth Republic
In the November 1958 elections de Gaulle and his supporters (initially organised in the Union pour la Nouvelle R?publique-Union D?mocratique du Travail, then the Union des D?mocrates pour la V?me R?publique and later still the Union des D?mocrates pour la R?publique) won a comfortable majority, in December de Gaulle was elected President by the parliament with 78% of the vote, he was inaugurated in January 1959.
He oversaw tough economic measures to revitalise the country, including the issuing of a new franc (worth 100 old francs). Internationally he rebuffed both the United States and the Soviet Union, pushing for an independent France with its own nuclear weapons, and strongly encouraged a "Free Europe" where he believed a confederation between all European nations would revitalize the past glories of the great European Empires. He set about building Franco-German cooperation as the cornerstone of the EEC (now the European Union), giving the first state visit to Germany by a French head of state since Napoleon.
He also took the opportunity to deny the British entry to the EEC for the first time (January 1963), citing his belief that the United Kingdom would not accept the rules of the Community, and would prefer its oversea alliances (the United States and the British Commonwealth) to its European partners, French ties to its own former empire notwithstanding. Although his supporters would argue that subsequent British ambivalence toward the EU justified his fears, many Britons took De Gaulle's "non" as a deep insult. British commentators have suggested that Britain's later lack of enthusiasm for the EU was due precisely to it being a project to which Britain was not invited during its formative years. As a result of De Gaulle's snub, it is asserted, instead of genuinely embracing all European democracies, the EU became a platform tailor-made for French ambitions but serving British needs poorly.
De Gaulle believed that while the war in Algeria was militarily winnable it was not defensible internationally, and he became reconciled to the country's independence. This stance created huge anger among the French settlers and their metropolitan supporters, and de Gaulle was forced to suppress two uprisings in Algeria by French settlers and troops, in the second of which (April 1961) France herself faced threatened invasion by rebel paratroops. He was also targeted by the settler OAS terrorist group and several assassinations attempts were made on him; the most famous is that of 22 August 1962, when he and his wife narrowly escaped an assassination attempt when their Citro?n DS was targeted by machine gun fire arranged by Jean-Marie Bastien-Thiry at the Petit-Clamart. In March 1962 de Gaulle arranged a cease-fire in Algeria and a referendum supported independence, finally accomplished on July 3.
In September 1962 he sought a constitutional amendment to allow the president to be directly elected by the people. Following a defeat in the National Assembly, he dissolved that body and held new elections; the Gaullists won an increased majority. Although the Algerian issue was settled the prime minister, Michel Debr?, still resigned over the final settlement and was replaced with Georges Pompidou.
1962?1968 Politics of grandeur
With the Algerian conflict behind, de Gaulle was able to achieve his two main objectives: To reform and develop the French economy, and to promote an independent foreign policy and a strong stance of France on the international stage. This was the so-called "politics of grandeur" (politique de grandeur).
In the context of a population boom unseen in France since the 18th century, the government under prime minister Georges Pompidou oversaw a rapid transformation and expansion of the French economy. With dirigisme ? a unique combination of capitalism and state-directed economy ? the government intervened heavily in the economy, using indicative five-year plans as its main tool. High profile projects, not always financially successful, were launched such as the extension of Marseille harbor (soon becoming number three in Europe and number one in the Mediterranean), the promotion of the Caravelle passenger jetliner (a predecessor of Airbus), the decision to start building the supersonic Franco-British Concorde airliner in Toulouse, the expansion of the French auto industry with state-owned Renault at its center, and the building of the first motorways between Paris and the provinces, the French economy recorded growth rates not accounted for since the 19th century. In 1963 de Gaulle vetoed Britain's entry into the EEC for the first of two times. In 1964, for the first time in 200 years, France's GDP overtook that of the UK, a position it held until the UK's GDP again surpassed France's in the 1990s. This period is still remembered in France with some nostalgia as the peak of the Trente Glorieuses ("Thirty Glorious Years" of economic growth between 1945-1975).
This strong economic foundation enabled de Gaulle to implement his independent foreign policy. In 1960, France became the fourth state to acquire a nuclear arsenal, having successfully detonated an atomic bomb in the Algerian desert. In 1968, at the insistence of de Gaulle, French scientists finally succeeded in detonating a hydrogen bomb, without any American assistance. In what was regarded as a snub to Britain, De Gaulle declared France was the third big independent nuclear power, as Britain's nuclear force was closely coordinated with that of the United States (though critics countered that this "independence" was an illusory luxury France could afford only by being under the protection of the U.S. nuclear umbrella). While grandeur was surely an essential motive in these nuclear developments, another was the concern that the U.S., involved in an unpopular and costly war in Vietnam, would hesitate to intervene in Europe should the Soviet Union decide to invade. In 1965 France launched its first satellite into orbit, being the third country in the world to build a complete delivery system, after the Soviet Union and the United States.
De Gaulle was convinced that a strong and independent France could act as a balancing force in the rivalry between the US and the Soviet Union, a policy seen as little more than posturing and opportunism by his critics, particularly in Britain and the U.S., to which France was formally allied. In January 1964, he officially recognized the People's Republic of China, despite US opposition. It should be noted that he was only coming to the same conclusion that would lead to the spectacular trip of U.S. President Nixon to China eight years later. Indeed, Nixon's first foreign visit after his election was to de Gaulle in 1969. They both shared the same non-Wilsonian approach to world affairs, believing in nations and their relative strengths, rather than in ideologies, international organizations, or multilateral agreements. De Gaulle is famously quoted for nicknaming the United Nations le Machin ("the thing").
In December 1965, de Gaulle was returned as president for a second seven-year term, but for the first time had to go through a second round of voting in which he defeated Fran?ois Mitterrand. In February 1966, France withdrew from the common NATO military command, but remained within the organization. De Gaulle, haunted by the memories of 1940, wanted France to remain the master of the decisions affecting it, unlike in the 1930s, when France had to follow in step with the British ally. Again, though, the move was seen as further evidence of de Gaulle's hypocrisy; critics charged he was content for France to be protected by NATO, while publicly snubbing the alliance. In September 1966, in a famous speech in Phnom Penh (Cambodia), he expressed France's disapproval of the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War; again, preceding Nixon by seven years, he called for a U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam as the only way to ensure peace. As the Vietnam War had its roots in French colonialism in southeast Asia, this speech did little to endear de Gaulle to the Americans, even if they later drew the same conclusion.
Having vetoed Britain's entry into the EEC a second time, in June 1967, he condemned the Israelis over their occupation of the West Bank and Gaza following the Six Days War. This was a major change in French policy towards Israel. Until then, France had been a staunch ally of Israel, helping Israel militarily and jointly plotting the Suez Campaign in 1956. Under de Gaulle, following the independence of Algeria, France embarked on foreign policies more favorable to the Arab side, still a distinct aspect of French foreign policy today. Israel's leadership, stung by what it considered its capricious abandonment in the face of de Gaulle's desire to appease the Arabs, then turned towards the United States for military support.
In July 1967, de Gaulle visited Canada, celebrating the centennial of its existence as a nation with a World's Fair known officially as Expo '67. On July 24th, during a speech made from a balcony on Montreal city hall, to a large crowd gathered below De Gaulle uttered Vive le Qu?bec ("Long live, Quebec!) then added, Vive le Qu?bec libre ("Long Live Free Qu?bec"). Harshly criticized by English-speaking Canadians and the Canadian government for this unprecedented breach of diplomatic protocol, it was seen by many Canadians as an insult to the thousands of Canadian soldiers who twice fought and died for the freedom of France. De Gaulle's stance was nonetheless welcomed by a part of the Quebec population favoring that province's sovereignty. Outraged, the Government of Canada under Prime Minister Lester Pearson, a soldier who served in World War I and a Nobel Peace Prize winner, cancelled the remainder of De Gaulle's tour and he returned to France where he was also heavily criticised by a large part of the French media.
In December 1967, in the name of France he again rejected British entry into the EEC. Again, his desire to build an independent Europe led him to consider that Britain, whose foreign policy was aligned with that of the US since 1940, would only stall the efforts of the other EEC countries if it was allowed in. Contemporary British politicians expressed the belief that France was less interested in a united Europe than in a French-dominated Europe. Whatever the merits of de Gaulle's worries about British policy, his "non" was taken as a further insult to one of France's liberators.
Many have commented that the "policy of grandeur" was probably too ambitious and heavy for the shoulders of France. This policy, it is argued, was made possible by the exceptional historical figure of de Gaulle, but was not sustainable by post-imperial France in the long run. In any case, it is still remembered in France as a defining era of French modern foreign policy, and it still largely inspires French foreign policy today.
De Gaulle's government, however, was criticized within France, particularly for its heavy-handed style. While the written press and elections were free, the state had a monopoly on television and radio broadcasts (though there existed private stations broadcasting from abroad; see ORTF) and the executive occasionally told public broadcasters the bias that they desired on news. In many respects, society was traditionalistic and repressive. Many factors contributed to a general weariness of sections of the public, particularly the student youth, which led to the events of May 1968.
The huge demonstrations and strikes in France in May 1968 were a big challenge to de Gaulle's presidency. In the course of the May 1968 events he briefly fled to Baden-Baden and met Massu, now French commander in Germany (to discuss army intervention against the protesters, according to popular but unofficial accounts).
But de Gaulle offered to accept some of the reforms the demonstrators sought. He again considered a referendum to support his moves, but Pompidou persuaded him to dissolve parliament (in which the government had all but lost its majority in the March 1967 elections) and hold new elections instead. The June 1968 elections were a major success for the Gaullists and their allies: when offered the spectre of revolution or even civil war, the majority of the country rallied to him. His party won 358 of 487 seats, but Pompidou was suddenly replaced by Maurice Couve de Murville in July.
1969 The retirement
Charles de Gaulle resigned on April 28, 1969 following the defeat of his referendum to transform the Senate (upper house of the French parliament, wielding less power than the French National Assembly) into an advisory body while giving extended powers to regional councils. Some said this referendum was a self-conscious political suicide committed by de Gaulle after the traumatizing events of May 1968. As proven already in 1946, de Gaulle was no man to stay in power without feeling that the people were following him. He retired once again to Colombey-les-deux-?glises, where he died suddenly in 1970, while in the middle of writing his memoirs. In perfect health until then, it was reported that as he had finished watching the evening news on television and was sitting in his armchair he suddenly said "I feel a pain here", pointing to his neck, just seconds before he fell unconscious due to an aneurysmal rupture. Within minutes he was dead.
1940: The American destroyer Greer becomes the first U.S. vessel fired on in the war when a German sub aims a few torpedoes at it, sparking heightened tensions between Germany and the United States.