Posted on June 19, 2024

The Enduring Legacy of a Great Man: Charles de Gaulle

Mark Weber, Institute for Historical Review, June 2024

No figure of modern French history is as honored as Charles de Gaulle. His name has been given to more streets, avenues and monuments in France than to any other man of the nation’s past. The country’s largest airport bears his name. French politicians – right, left and center – invoke his name and claim his legacy.

In 1940 he refused to accept his country’s defeat by Germany, and from London he founded and led the pro-Allied “Free French” force during World War II. From 1944 to 1946 he headed the provisional government of France. In 1958 he was called from retirement by popular acclaim to resolve the seemingly unsolvable crisis over Algeria. He demanded, and got, a new French constitution with a strong executive, which established the “Fifth Republic” that has endured to the present. During the years that he dominated his country’s political life – 1958-1969 – he charted an independent foreign policy, tied neither to the US nor the USSR, and strove to make France the preeminent nation in Europe. Like other great historical figures, he was hated as well as revered. He was the target of more than two dozen serious assassination attempts, two of which nearly succeeded.

Julian Jackson, a professor of history with the University of London and a well-regarded specialist of modern French history, has produced a biography worthy of such an extraordinary man. A Certain Idea of France: The Life of Charles De Gaulle is detailed, balanced and well written. It’s impossible to read any lengthy biography of this man without admiration for his audacious self-confidence, courage, determination, and cunning.

After childhood and youth in a comfortably middle-class, traditionalist, Roman Catholic family, and a good education, he chose a military career. He did well at the Saint Cyr military academy. During the First World War, he served with distinction, was wounded in combat, and was taken prisoner. After the war, he rose to the rank of colonel, and lectured at a school for officers. He attracted some attention for his writings on military affairs, in which he made the case for a more “modern” and “professional” army.

Two days after German forces struck against Poland on September 1, 1939, France and Britain declared war against Germany. Even after Hitler’s forces quickly subdued Poland, the leaders in Paris and London still believed that the German Wehrmacht was overrated, and remained confident that it was no match for their combined forces. After several months in which the French declined either to accept Hitler’s offers of peace or to launch any serious offensive against Germany, German forces struck westward on May 10, 1940. In the battle for France, de Gaulle proved himself a daring and innovative commander, especially in his deployment of mobile and tank forces.

With French defeat imminent, the 49-year-old de Gaulle made the momentous decision to turn his back on his military commanders and government. Breaking his oath as an officer, he flew to England where he declared himself the embodiment and savior of France. “It is indeed hard to exaggerate the extraordinary nature of the step that de Gaulle was taking,” Jackson remarks. “Equipped with two suitcases and a small stock of francs, he was heading for a country in which he had set foot for the first time ten days earlier, whose language he spoke badly, and where he knew almost no one. He was going into exile.

In one of the most stunningly successful military campaigns of modern times, the German Wehrmacht defeated the numerically superior French-British forces after just six weeks of battle. France agreed to an armistice. According to its terms, the French coast as well as northern France – including Paris – would remain under German occupation. But everyone in France and Germany, including Hitler, considered this a temporary arrangement, anticipating that Britain would quickly “see sense” and likewise agree to an end of fighting.

Along with the great majority of his fellow countrymen, de Gaulle regarded the defeat not merely as a military calamity, but also as glaring proof of the failure of France’s parliamentary democracy. Their politicians had declared war against a country whose leader never wanted war with France. However valid the reasons they gave for going to war against Germany may have been, few could excuse their lack of adequate preparation for armed conflict, and their abject failure to anticipate the enemy’s markedly superior military leadership, morale, and resourcefulness.

French scorn and loathing for the regime that had brought on such a stunning and ignominious defeat was nearly universal. Most agreed that the Republic itself must be abolished. On July 9-10, 1940, the members of the French Chamber of Deputies and Senate met in extraordinary joint session in the town of Vichy, where they voted overwhelmingly — 569 to 80 – to end the parliamentary democracy of the “Third Republic,” and give sweeping authority to Maréchal Philippe Pétain, the country’s most distinguished military commander in the Great War of 1914-1918.

Even today, the significance of this popular repudiation of democracy is not well understood. As Jackson makes clear, Pétain became France’s leader by nearly universal acclaim. “The core of Pétain’s appeal to the French people in 1940,” he tells readers, “was his decision to remain on French soil to defend his compatriots, to defend French lives, while de Gaulle left France to defend what he later called his ‘idea of France’.” The dissolution of the Republic and the establishment of an authoritarian state was an entirely French affair. The Germans played no role in the decision to replace the “French Republic” with an authoritarian “French State.” Indeed, German newspapers at the time voiced some suspicion of the radical regime change, wary that France’s new leaders might try to use it as pretext for somehow evading the provisions of the armistice agreement.

Pétain and Hitler met in person for the first and only time in October 1940. In a radio address a short time later, the French leader announced: “I enter today on the path of collaboration” with Germany. The legitimacy of the Pétain government was based not only on its solemn ratification by the country’s political representatives, but also its formal recognition by nearly all of the world’s countries, including the United States and the Soviet Union.

De Gaulle’s rejected this government was not because it was authoritarian and “undemocratic,” but because it refused to continue the war against Germany from North Africa or overseas. Similarly, he disliked the Hitler regime not because it was National Socialist, but because it was German and formidable, and therefore an obstacle to French pre-eminence in Europe.

Jackson repeatedly makes the point that de Gaulle’s political views, values and worldview were not at all in line with the egalitarian democratic outlook that prevails in the US and western Europe today. Along with most Frenchmen, he was contemptuous of the multi-party democracy of the “Third Republic.” He was a traditionalist and an authoritarian. It’s little wonder that, as Jackson repeatedly reminds readers, he was widely regarded as a “fascist.” When an important member of his inner circle asked him to make a public commitment to democracy, he replied: “If we proclaim simply that we are fighting for democracy, we will perhaps win provisional approval from the Americans, but we would lose a lot with the French, which is the principal issue. The French masses for the moment link the word democracy with the parliamentary regime as it operated before the war … That regime is condemned by the facts and by public opinion.”

After establishing himself in England, his ambitious effort to win support for his “Free French” enterprise faced immense difficulties. Because he was only a second-level figure in French military or political life, few even recognized his name. No prominent Frenchman rallied to his side. As Jackson notes, his “efforts to recruit among the thousands of French servicemen who had ended up in Britain after the Fall of France were largely unsuccessful.” That’s because nearly all French during this period regarded the war for their country as finished and settled.

Moreover, French public opinion was very hostile to Britain – the only major power still at war against Germany. The French did not forget that when the chips were down, the British had refused to fully commit their forces against the common enemy, preferring instead to keep their remaining troops and military aircraft to defend their home island, thereby leaving their ally to its fate.

On July 3, 1940, British forces attacked French war ships at the Mers-el-Kébir naval base, near Oran, in French Algeria. They sank one battleship, damaged two battleships and two destroyers, and killed 1,297 French and wounded 350. This attack — by a country that just weeks earlier had been a military ally – intensified already bitter anti-British feeling in France, where it was widely regarded yet another example of betrayal and treachery by “La perfide Albion.” France came close to declaring war against Britain. In September, British and de Gaulle “Free French” forces attacked military and naval posts at Dakar, in French-controlled Senegal. For the first time in the war, Frenchmen fired on Frenchmen. The venture failed. De Gaulle later acknowledged that the campaign — which was widely characterized as the “Dakar Debacle” or the “Fiasco at Dakar” — was so humiliating that he contemplated suicide.

De Gaulle’s complete dependence on British funding and support during those years, 1940-1944, was a never-ending source of embarrassment and frustration. Each day, writes Jackson, “provided a reminder of this humiliatingly total dependence.” His radio broadcast speeches were subject to British approval, and he could not even leave the country without permission. Beyond that, he could never forget the reality that his ultimate success was entirely dependent on the military victory of the Americans and the Soviets.

De Gaulle’s personality, Jackson notes, was imperious, reserved, and ungracious. He was given to “terrifying and unpredictable rages, which were usually sparked by an imagined (or genuine) slight.” This contributed to the already inherently contentious relationship he was obliged to endure with his London hosts. Jackson cites many examples of his distrust and dislike of the English. “Hour after hour he ranted against the perfidy of the British,” Jackson notes on one occasion. “It is not enough for them to have burnt Joan of Arc once,” de Gaulle said. “They want to start again … They think perhaps that I am not someone easy to work with. But if I were, I would today be on Pétain’s General Staff.”

When British forces struck against the French colony of Madagascar in May 1942, de Gaulle was furious because the operation had been launched without consulting him. The French forces there – loyal to the Pétain government – fought against the invaders for nearly six months. As Jackson notes, “The French held out longer against the British in Madagascar in 1942 than they had against the Germans in 1940.”

De Gaulle’s distrust of his British ally was reciprocated. A meeting with British premier Winston Churchill in 1942 “reached new levels of acrimony. De Gaulle smashed a chair in his fury.” Churchill wrote at the time that “there is nothing hostile to England that this man may not do once he gets off the chain.” When American and British forces landed in French-controlled North Africa in November 1942, the British once again took care to keep de Gaulle in the dark. Understandably furious, he screamed: “I hope the Vichy people throw them back in to the sea.” Indeed, the French forces there met the American and British “liberators” with gunfire. Back at home, French authorities allowed German troops to land in Tunisia to counter Allied forces.

De Gaulle’s distrust and dislike of his hosts encouraged him to look across the Atlantic for support, a hope that proved short-lived. “De Gaulle, who had once hoped for so much from America,” Jackson explains, “now worked himself up into a paroxysm of fury against the United States. He started referring regularly in conversation to the threat of American ‘imperialism’.” Describing a wartime meeting with President Franklin Roosevelt, he later wrote: “As is only human, the desire to dominate was dressed up as idealism.” During a conversation with a “Free French” delegate to the US government who tried to defend American foreign policy, then under the direction of Secretary of State Cordell Hull, de Gaulle “screamed”: “You tell that old fool Hull from me that he is an asshole, a moron, an idiot. To hell with them. The war will sweep them away and I, France, will remain and I will judge them.”

On another occasion de Gaulle denounced the British-American “Anglo-Saxons,” shouting that after the war France would have to lean towards Germany and Russia. In his memoirs, he detailed episodes of that persistent wartime tension. “There was no doubt!,” he wrote. “Our allies were in agreement to exclude us, as much as possible, from decisions concerning Italy. It was to be predicted that in the future they would agree on the destiny of Europe without France. But they needed to be shown that France could not permit such an exclusion.”

In December 1943 Churchill and Roosevelt were so angered by de Gaulle’s behavior that the Prime Minister was “in a state of apoplexy” and the President spoke to the British leader of the need to “eliminate” the exasperatingly imperious man who claimed to speak for France. The American president had no sympathy for de Gaulle’s view of France’s past or future. For example, Roosevelt suggested that the US might create a new country of “Wallonia” out of French territory to serve as a buffer between France and Germany. This startling notion, Jackson writes, “revealed Roosevelt’s assumption that France would be treated after the war as a defeated nation, not a partner in victory.” In May 1944, de Gaulle told a Soviet official “We have no confidence in the English even when they talk of an alliance with France … Churchill has understood nothing of my mission … France for him is finished … He wants to turn me into an instrument of his policy.” As for America, it wanted a “docile France to make it a base for their European policy.”

Shortly before the Allied D-Day landing of June 1944 at Normandy, another meeting between Churchill and de Gaulle turned sour. In response to a dismissive outburst by de Gaulle about what he regarded as the intolerably condescending attitude of the British and Americans toward him and France, the British leader angrily retorted: “You must know that when we have to choose between Europe and the open seas, we will always be with the open seas. Each time I have to choose between you and Roosevelt, I will choose Roosevelt.” Two days later, on the morning of the D-Day landings, Churchill was so furious over de Gaulle’s behavior and attitude that he gave orders to remove him to Algiers, “in chains if necessary.” The prime minister, a British diplomat on the scene commented, “is almost insane at times in his hatred of de Gaulle, only less insane than the President.”

De Gaulle’s ability to stand against the British and Americans in defense of what he regarded as French interests was limited. All the same, it’s difficult to believe than any other Frenchman could have done better. In the wartime high-stakes game of international poker, he had only a weak hand to play, but he played it masterfully. His greatest strength in the repeated clashes with Churchill and Roosevelt, especially as the impending defeat of Germany became more obvious, was that they had no real alternative but to continue their support for him.

By 1944, and in the months prior to the Allied D-Day landing, most French understandably longed for an end to the war. Already weary and frustrated over the many wartime privations, as well as Allied bombings and other hardships, and also mindful that the tide of war was now running in favor of the Allies, ever more French looked to an Allied victory as the only realistic hope for a rapid end to the war.

All the same, most French apparently still trusted and esteemed Maréchal Pétain. When he visited Paris on April 26, 1944, he was greeted by large and affectionate crowds. Similarly enthusiastic throngs acclaimed Pétain during a visit to the city of Nancy just eleven days before the D-Day landing in Normandy. When de Gaulle finally arrived on French soil a few weeks later, he was also acclaimed by large crowds. It was astonishing, Jackson remarks, how quickly and easily the French transferred their loyalty from one national savior to another.

Given the Pétain government’s anti-Jewish measures, and its policy of collaboration with Hitler’s Germany, French Jews naturally sympathized with de Gaulle. As a result, Jews played an important and disproportionate role in his organization, which supporters of the Pétain government and the Axis cause understandably highlighted in an effort to discredit it. De Gaulle accepted Jewish support, even though, as Jackson remarks, he “certainly shared some of the anti-Semitic prejudices of his class – it would have been remarkable if he had not.” Apart from Jews, few people during the war years, or in the immediate postwar era – either in France or other countries – gave much attention to the anti-Jewish polices of the wartime French and German governments, or what today is called “the Holocaust.” As Jackson notes, “the issue was not one that loomed much in anyone’s mind at the time.” In none of his wartime radio broadcasts, for example, did de Gaulle make any mention of Jewish suffering or death in France or elsewhere in Europe.

De Gaulle’s early support for the new Jewish state of Israel, established in 1948, turned to wary skepticism. To German chancellor Ludwig Erhard he said in 1965: “We are being cautious regarding the Israelis We are calming them and telling them not to overdo it … One must not be taken in by the Israelis, who are cunning, very skillful, and who exploit the tiniest things for their propaganda about the Arabs.”  The Israelis, he told Richard Nixon in June 1967, are a people who are always overdoing it [exagèrent], and they have always done so; you only have to read the Pslams.”

During a news conference that same year, de Gaulle referred to the Jews as an “elite people, sure of themselves and domineering.” The uproar caused by those words, Jackson notes, overshadowed remarks made on that same occasion about Israeli policies toward the non-Jews under its control that now seem “more prophetic than shocking.” “Now on the territories she has  taken,” de Gaulle said, “Israel is organizing an occupation that will be accompanied by oppression, repression and expulsions, and there is now developing against her a resistance that she will describe as terrorism … It is obvious that the conflict is not over and that there can be no solution except by international agreement.”

De Gaulle was, above all else, a nationalist. In his political worldview, Jackson notes, the “starting point was the nation state, which he viewed as the fundamental reality governing human existence. One could fill pages with quotations on this theme … For de Gaulle, the conflict between nations was the eternal law of history.” “Like all life,” he said in a televised address, the life of nations is a struggle.”  Accordingly, France must be a nation of “grandeur” that is strong enough and determined enough to wage war.

He was also a resolute European. In the postwar era, he hoped to fashion a new and strong Europe, led by France, that would be “first in the world”; a Europe “not dominated by either the Russians or the Americans.” He envisioned a “Europe of fatherlands,” and specifically denounced a “hybrid” Europe that would not recognize and seek to preserve the distinctive national characters and cultural contributions of Italy, France, Germany and the other European nations. “Europe, the mother of modern civilization,” he said, “must establish itself all the way from the Atlantic to the Urals” – a recurring phrase whose meaning he never made clear.

De Gaulle’s idea of France as a grande nation meant that it should be the preeminent country in Europe. For years he had regarded Germany as the greatest hindrance to fulfilling that mission. At the end of World War II that was no longer the case. Germany was devastated, in ruins, occupied by foreign powers, and divided. With the end of what de Gaulle called “the frenetic power of Prussianized Germany,” he now looked to the Germans as potential partners in a new Europe – one in which France would be paramount. De Gaulle read and spoke German better than English. From numerous examples cited throughout Jackson’s book, he seems also to have had more respect and a higher regard for Germans than he did for either English or Americans.

“After the war,” he said in 1942, “it will be necessary to give Europe a sense of herself; if not, American political administrators will come to colonize Europe with their primitive methods and their overweening pride. They will treat us all as if were negroes in Senegal! To rebuild Europe, we will need Germany, but a Germany that has been first defeated, unlike the situation in 1918.” “Do not forget,” he remarked to a French official in 1945, “that one will not make Europe again without Germany.”  In 1948 he confided to a close colleague: “Supporting America at any price is not a cause! … Europe has always been the entente between the Gauls and the Teutons. We will need at some point to place our hopes in Germany, hope that she can create a European mystique.”

In keeping with that vision, he devoted great effort to courting and befriending Konrad Adenauer, Chancellor of the new German Federal Republic, and the towering political figure of postwar West Germany. The two men were both Catholic traditionalists who shared many values and a similar view of Europe and the West. De Gaulle told Adenauer that only a close French-German relationship could “save Western Europe,” adding that the British “were not proper Europeans” and that the Americans “were not reliable, not very solid, and understand nothing about History or Europe.”  The two men got on well together. De Gaulle showed much more empathy and solidarity with Adenauer than with any other foreign leader. He was the only foreign statesman who was accorded the honor of being a guest at de Gaulle’s home. During his very successful visit to Germany in 1962, he did his best to charm and flatter, giving many speeches in German. In one city, he declared “You are a great people.” “De Gaulle came to Germany as President of the French and he returned as Emperor of Europe,” commented the German weekly Der Spiegel.

In the weeks following the end of the war in Europe, both France and Britain sought to re-establish their hegemony in the Middle East. A dispute over the deployment of French military forces in Syria nearly erupted into open conflict. Although de Gaulle was forced to back down, he did so with bitterness. In a meeting with Duff Cooper, a high-level British official, he said: “We are not, I recognize, in a position to wage war on you at the moment. But you have outraged France and betrayed the West. This cannot be forgotten.”

In his memoirs, de Gaulle poured out his bitterness over the “insolence” and “insults” of the British. “The events proved,” he wrote, “that for England, when she is the stronger, there is no alliance which holds, no treaty which is respected, no truth which matters.”  “In the long history he carried in his head,” Jackson comments, “England was France’s hereditary enemy and historic rival, but that memory was overlaid by a more recent one: a bewilderment that Britain had allowed herself to lose a sense of national ambition and become, in his eyes, an American satellite.” For that reason, he blocked British membership in the European Economic Community or “Common Market” – forerunner to today’s European Union – fearing that the EEC would otherwise come “under American dependency and direction. That is not at all what France aims to achieve …”

If there is any theme running through his three-volume War Memoirs, Jackson notes, it is his “ceaseless struggle to defend French independence from all sides – from allies as much as enemies. Every detail of every quarrel with the British and Americans is recounted in meticulously unforgiving detail.” He sought good relations with the Soviet Union, not as an ally or partner, but as a counterweight to the power and influence of the United States and of Britain, which he regarded as a subordinate ally of the US.

De Gaulle returned to power in 1958 as a result of the national crisis over Algeria, the large north African country that for years had been regarded, not as a colony, but as part of the French Republic itself — even though the great majority of its population was not French by ethnicity, culture, or heritage. France was bitterly divided about how to respond to the rising demand among Algerians for independence. (Already in May 1945, French forces in Algeria had killed thousands in suppressing protests against foreign oppression.) The French turned to the one man who commanded enough public confidence to solve the seemingly intractable dispute. What Jackson calls de Gaulle’s “coup” succeeded “because France’s elites had lost confidence in the existing regime to resolve the Algerian crisis.”

The death of France’s “Fourth Republic” in 1958 had parallels with the demise of the “Third Republic” in 1940. In each case, the country’s parliament gave nearly plenipotentiary powers to a single man, who was regarded as a kind of national savior. At it had with Napoleon and Pétain, France once again put its trust in a towering leader. The constitution of the new “Fifth Republic,” which has endured to the present, gave sweeping, but not dictatorial power to de Gaulle, the new President.

In early 1960 de Gaulle persuaded parliament to allow him to govern by ordinance for a year, and after an attempted putsch in April 1961, he governed on the basis of sweeping emergency powers as provided for in the new constitution. During that period, one astute observer remarked, France was “neither a parliamentary democracy nor a dictatorship. De Gaulle’s rule was authoritarian but not dictatorial.” The “Fifth Republic” was ratified by national referendum, in which the needed “Yes” votes were generated with an intense campaign of official propaganda – a process that, as one prominent observer put it, was “very close to the Hitlerian conception of the law.”

When de Gaulle took power in 1958, nearly everyone still wanted to somehow keep Algeria “French.” Almost no one at the time supported Algerian independence. At that point, the French did not want a divorce; they still wanted to save the marriage. De Gaulle’s public statements at the time were words of obfuscation. Reflecting his own uncertainty about just what to do, he voiced support neither for independence nor for the “integration” of Algeria and “metropolitan” France, as demanded by most French “patriots” and supporters of Algérie française. Instead, he talked ambiguously of Algeria developing her “courageous personality” or her “living personality.”

Along with an increase in violence, including torture, carried out both by Algerian Arab-Berber nationalists and French authorities and “patriots,” came a shift in public opinion until, by 1961-62, most French had come to accept the idea of Algerian independence. French efforts to hold on to Algeria, or, if one prefers, the Algerian struggle for independence, resulted in at least 400,000 deaths, most of them Algerians, the flight of a million “Europeans” to France, and the resettlement or displacement of more than two million Algerians.

More quickly than most French, de Gaulle understood and accepted the reality that all efforts to make the very different Algerian and French peoples live together harmoniously in the same society were doomed. In his handling of the crisis, de Gaulle rejected the universalist-egalitarian premises of French republicanism. He showed that he was a French ethno-nationalist, or at least a racial-cultural “realist,” rather than a civic “patriot.” By today’s standards, he was a “racist.” To a member of parliament he said in 1959: “Have you seen the Muslims with their turbans and their djellabas? You can see that they are not French. Try to integrate oil and vinegar … The Arabs are Arabs, the French are French. Do you think that the French can absorb ten million Muslims who will tomorrow be twenty million, and after tomorrow forty?”

Mass immigration of non-Europeans would mean the end of traditional France, he once warned, adding “my village would no longer be called Colombey-les-Deux-Églises [Colombey of the two churches] but Colombey of the two mosques.” On other occasions de Gaulle spoke of “the incompatibility of the French and the Algerians, and supported measures to limit the “influx of Mediterraneans and Orientals,” and instead to encourage migrants from northern Europe. “It is a fiction,” he also said, “to consider these people [Algerians, North Africans] as French like any other. They are in truth a foreign mass …” And, in 1964, he remarked: “I would like there to be more French babies and fewer immigrants.”

During the “Algerian crisis” of 1958-1962, it was ironically the “patriotic” French “right” that sought to keep the Arab-Berber Algerians as part of France, while it was the “left” that embraced the ethno-national solution that was ultimately adopted. With the passage of time, writes Jackson, the French increasingly look back on de Gaulle’s achievement with Algeria not as a “noble act of decolonialization” but rather as a “prophetic – not to say racist – anticipation of the dangers of multiculturalism.”

De Gaulle’s sharp criticisms of the US military effort in Vietnam during the 1960s also proved prophetic, even as they enraged many Americans and rekindled latent scorn for the French. Whereas the US government framed the Vietnam War as a battle between “freedom” and “international Communism,” de Gaulle regarded it as essentially a nationalist struggle for independence from foreign rule.

The catastrophic misfortune of Europe’s Jews during World War II receives barely passing mention by de Gaulle in his memoirs – similar to the cursory treatment in the memoirs of Churchill and Eisenhower. For Americans and western Europeans today, accustomed to repetitious emphasis on “the Holocaust,” it is perhaps difficult to understand that during the Second World War, and for several decades afterwards, the grim fate of Europe’s Jews was not a matter of particular interest or concern to the great majority of people, including their military and political leaders.

De Gaulle also had surprisingly little to say about Adolf Hitler in his memoirs. What he did say betrays what Jackson calls “a certain fascination with Hitler.” De Gaulle wrote of the “somber grandeur of his combat … He knew how to entice, and to caress. Germany, profoundly seduced, followed her Führer ecstatically. Until the very end she was to serve him slavishly, with greater exertions than any people has ever furnished any leader.”

In spite of, or perhaps because of, his imperious mode of authoritarian governance, and helped by the country’s economic growth and rising standard of living during the 1960s, de Gaulle remained a popular leader. All the same, he was troubled during his final years by a growing sense of failure. Unburdening himself to the British ambassador in 1968 he admitted that the image of France he tried to convey was mostly an empty theatrical performance. “The whole thing is a perpetual illusion. I am on the stage of a theater, and I pretend to believe in it; I make people believe, or think I do, that France is a great country, that France is determined and united, while it is nothing of the sort. France is worn out …”  A few months later, he despaired that his country had chosen the path of “mediocrity,” and that the French has had not been able to “sustain the affirmation of France that I practiced in their name for thirty years.”

“The regret of my life,” he confessed some months before his death in 1970, “is not to have built a monarchy, that there was no member of the Royal house for that. In reality, I was a monarch for ten years.” The European Economic Community — forerunner to the European Union of today – he went on, is not, and cannot be, the foundation of a solid Europe. “To make Europe,” he continued, “one needs a federator, like Charlemagne, or like Napoleon and Hitler tried to be. And then one probably needs a war against someone to weld together the different elements.”

If he could somehow look at what has become of his beloved country in the years since his death, de Gaulle almost certainly would be appalled or at least deeply saddened: increasingly secularized and non-Christian, with a large and growing non-European, “third-world” population, and a consumerist “Americanized” culture – a homeland not at all in accord with his “certain idea of France.”

De Gaulle’s impressive achievements in spite of daunting obstacles, and his courageous and imposing personality, have justly earned him a place in history as a great leader. All the same, one should not forget that his success in World War II was due entirely to the military victory of the Allied powers – above all, the USSR and the USA, which he regarded with suspicion and distrust. In the end, his failure to accomplish the central goals he set for himself and France mark him as a profoundly tragic figure.