Jonathan Fenby, The General: Charles de Gaulle and the France he Saved (Simon & Schuster, 2010), reviewed in The Scotsman by Allan Massie, 19 June 2010 A FRENCH friend, a gentle, charming and intelligent man, told me once that he had hated only one person in his life. "Who was that?" "De Gaulle of course." My friend is a man of the Right. A former officer in the Chasseurs d'Afrique, he had been fervent in support of the cause of Algérie Française, and regarded de Gaulle as a traitor who had abandoned Algeria and so reduced France to the level of a second-rate power. There are many like him. Nevertheless, as Jonathan Fenby writes in this rich and splendid biography, "when the national television station, France 2, held a poll in 2005 to pick the outstanding figure from the whole of French history, de Gaulle came out on top."
His admirers claim that he saved France twice, in 1940 and 1958. The two cases were very different. In 1940 he refused to accept that the war was lost and denounced the Armistice that his old mentor Marshal Pétain had asked for. His broadcast of 18 June, later famous, was heard by few in France and few indeed joined the Free French in London. But he made himself the Voice of France against Hitler. Indeed even in that summer of 1940 he told an aide that Hitler would certainly lose the war. "If he was going to conquer Britain he would already be here," he said, adding that Germany was sure to attack Russia and the US sure to come into the war. So the essential problem was what happened when France was liberated.
He was an awkward ally, because his idea of France demanded that he must be. In truth, the Gaullist French contributed little to the war effort. Most of the French troops who fought bravely in the Allied armies in Tunisia and Italy had belonged to the French army in North Africa which had been loyal to the Marshal and Vichy till the Allied landings there in November 1942. De Gaulle's achievement was to unify the internal resistance and so bridle the Communists, then to present the French with the myth of a Resistance which had liberated France. It was an enormous and necessary bluff, which restored French self-esteem.
Failing to persuade the politicians to agree to the new form of constitution which he believed essential, he resigned power and retired into private life to write his incomparable Memoirs, a work of outstanding literary merit. Few believed he would return to power, especially after the failure of his attempt to form a national movement, the RPF. It was the crisis in Algeria, the threat of a coup d'état and even a civil war, which gave him his opportunity in May 1958. Using his links with the rebel generals and playing the hard-cop/soft-cop game with the demoralised and bewildered politicians, he contrived to return to power by legal means, and promptly snuffed out the revolt of the settlers and Army in Algeria. "I have understood you," he told them, leading them to suppose that this understanding meant agreement.
Empowered to give France a new constitution, he gave the country a strong government, approved in a referendum. Then he set himself, tortuously, to extricate France from Algeria. This too was necessary – all the European powers were withdrawing from Empire. It dismayed many Gaullists; Jacques Soustelle, for instance, who had worked closely with him since the wartime days in London, joined the OAS (Organisation de l'Armée Secrète) whose members made at least a dozen attempts to assassinate de Gaulle. A couple came close to success; "they shoot like pigs," said the General emerging from his bullet-spattered Citroen. He ruled France for 12 years. The events of May 1968 shook his authority, but it was the loss of an unimportant referendum that brought about his resignation. "His legacy," Fenby astutely observes, "is attested to by the hollowness of his claim that his departure would be followed by chaos." The Fifth Republic continues to flourish. Vive la France!
Fenby tells his remarkable story quite admirably in a fast-moving narrative that is nevertheless detailed, and always, I think, fair, both to de Gaulle and to his enemies, of whom there were many. He also paints a lively and sympathetic figure of the private figure behind the public mask: a man who had few friends but warm family affections, movingly displayed in his love for his daughter Anne who had Down's Syndrome. (The only word she spoke as a child was "Papa".) The de Gaulles were old-fashioned, devout Catholics (though he was often bored in Church). He was proud, but given to depressions, a man of the North who relished bad weather at his home in Colombey-les-deux-Eglises. "They speak of la douce France," he said gazing out at the wind and rain. "Look at it: la douce France." Tricky, even Machiavellian in public life, he was upright and honourable in private affairs. He insisted on paying the telephone and electricity bills for the Presidential apartments in the Elysée Palace, an example our politicians might copy. He would plunge fearlessly into crowds even in the years when his enemies were plotting his murder. Sometimes ridiculous – the French loved to mock him – he was also sardonic and a master of withering irony.
I never tire of reading about this extraordinary man – every bit as extraordinary as Churchill, with whom his relations veered from admiration and affection to jealous fury. Jonathan Fenby brings him compellingly to life. This is the best English-language biography of de Gaulle. Reading it makes contemporary politicians look like Lilliputians.
Nevertheless, despite my admiration for the General, I understand why my friend hated him. It was never possible to be indifferent to de Gaulle