A Certain Idea of France by Julian Jackson â" the life of Charles de Gaulle
History books A Certain Idea of France by Julian Jackson â" the life of Charles de Gaulle
The historical figure the French most admire, the man nicknamed the âemperor of Franceâ, was proud, arrogant, charming, pragmatic
On 26 August 1944, General Charles de Gaulle took a high profile walk on the Champs-ElysÃ©es. The leader of the Free French had arrived in Paris the previous evening, a day after his advancing t roops, and had declared himself president of the newly liberated republic. In a city still swarming with snipers, a walkabout was risky but, as Julian Jackson says, it was âa supreme example of De Gaulleâs instinctive showmanshipâ. Parisians flocked in their thousands to see the man most of them knew only as a voice broadcasting on the BBC from London. It was âthe largest gathering of its kind in the history of Franceâ. De Gaulle recalled this extraordinary moment in his memoirs: âAhead stretched the Champs-ElysÃ©es. It looked more like the sea. A huge crowd was massed either side of the street. Perhaps two million souls. The roofs were also black with people â¦ People were hanging from ladders, flagpoles and lamp posts. As far as the eye could see, there was only this living tide of humanity, in the sunshine, beneath the tricolour.â
The history of a nation and of a people is built from such defining moments. And, as Jacksonâs remarkable 900-page study ably d emonstrates, no one played a more influential role in 20th-century France than De Gaulle. He âwas reviled and idealised, loathed and adored, in equal measureâ, and aroused such passion due to his involvement in Franceâs two 20th-century âcivil warsâ. A relatively unknown army officer when France was invaded in 1940, De Gaulle quickly established himself as the leader of the Free French in defiance of the legal government headed by Marshal PÃ©tain, Franceâs most revered military figure, who signed an armistice with Hitler. After heading the provisional government from 1944 to 1946, De Gaulle stepped aside from power, though he returned in 1958 when France was threatened with a military coup by generals dissatisfied with the handling of the Algerian crisis.
Fiercely nationalistic, De Gaulle was driven by the belief that it was his destiny to save France
To tell the life of De Gaulle is also to chart the history of modern France, a nd in this suitably monumental biography rich with illuminating anecdotes, Jackson portrays his subject as a complex and contradictory character. The General (as he was known) was proud, arrogant and very difficult to deal with. Outbursts of sudden fury alternated with interludes of charm. Harold Macmillan, who failed to convince de Gaulle to admit Britain into the Common Market, described him as âthe Emperor of the Frenchâ, adding: âI have never known a man at once so ungracious and so sentimental.â He distrusted both Britain (âperfidiousâ) and America (âit has no depth nor rootsâ). He once quipped that the British based the Free French in Carlton Gardens because it is âa dead end, with the only way out through Waterloo Placeâ.
Fiercely nationalistic, de Gaulle was driven by the belief that it was his destiny to save France. Yet he was realistic too about the country he loved: âHow can one govern a country which has 258 cheeses?â He was dismissive of politicians and yet ruthlessly Machiavellian in his pursuit of power. Conservative, elitist and authoritarian by nature, de Gaulle was also deeply pragmatic, which led him to eventually embrace Algerian independence against the wishes of his military.
With his rallying cry of âUnity!â, he was a figure of stability to whom France turned at times of national crisis, but he was also âbrutally divisiveâ, hated by the radicals of 1968 as well as the far right. His death in 1970 was âone of the most intense moments of collective emotion in the history of modern Franceâ. Tens of thousands of Parisians walked up the Champs-ElysÃ©es in the pouring rain to lay flowers at the Arc de Triomphe. One noted in his diary: âthe man made us all biggerâ. He remains hugely influential. In a 2010 opinion poll, De Gaulle emerged as the historical figure the French most admired, the man who in 1944 âsaved the honour of Franceâ.
â¢ A Certain Idea of France is published by Hamish Hamilton. To order a copy for Â£29.75 (RRP Â£35) go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over Â£10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of Â£1.99.Topics
- History books
- Charles de Gaulle
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