Charles A.J.M. de Gaulle was born in Lille in 1890. An average schoolboy (apart from his great height), he graduated from the Military Academy at St. Cyr in 1909, and was gazetted lieutenant in the 33rd Infanty Regiment under the command of Pétain (of whom he was an admirer).
In 1916 he was a captain in the French army fighting at Verdun; he was taken prisoner, but released quickly because by 1919 he was serving in the military mission in Poland. After two years of administrative work he was taken on as a lecturer at the French Staff College, where he was a clear and popular speaker with highly developed theories on the offensive use of tanks and aircraft, two potentially important weapons first seen in action in the First War.
By May 1940 De Gaulle was commanding an armoured division and (for the first time) in politics; he held a comparatively unimportant junior post in Reynaud’s government, but soon got himself to England when his former hero Marshal Pétain led France into defeatism and shame and eventually into Vichy. Some historians claim De Gaulle blamed Pétain for the extraordinary surrender to Nazi Germany after a relatively brief but uninspired fight. The famous ‘impregnable’ Maginot Line, for example, had simply been circumvented by von Rundsted.
The official French Government under German occupation was declared legal on 10 July, 1940. The French surrender had been offered after rather less than 3 months. But De Gaulle (and thousands of other Frenchmen) had walked, bicycled, driven, flown, hitchhiked or sailed to England, where they intended to continue the fight. He became the popular (with Frenchmen) leader of ‘The Free French’.
Britain offered De Gaulle a home, finance, support, radio time, and a state of constant bickering with Winstion Churchill and, across the Atlantic, President Roosevelt. He resolutely made himself as difficult as possible, in the name of France. He jealously guarded his ideas of how Free France should conduct its war against Hitler, and the prestige of France herself – though this was difficult because most Allies believed France had given up without firing a shot. For the French in occupied France, however, he became a figure of legend: the abnormally tall, commanding figure would drive the Nazis off French soil.
He became Head of the French committee of National Liberation in Algiers in June, 1943, and was present in the second wave of the Allied invading armies in June, 1944. Despite Churchill’s doubts, it was General de Gaulle who entered liberated Paris in pure triumph in August. There was very little his allies could do to prevent his being recognised as head of the Administration of the Government of France in October, 1944. He became (provisional) President of the French Republic in November, 1945. He was fifty-five years old.
One of Churchill’s (and others’) worries about Charles de Gaulle was that if he ever became President of France he would try his hardest to make the presidency as similar as possible to that of the United States – with equal powers, prestige and influence, though there seemed very little reason why. When this attempt was inevitably made, France suddenly lost its love for its hero and his presidential proposals were rejected by the French constituent assembly in 1946. He instantly resigned and went off in a huff to live quietly at his home in Colombey-les-deux-Églises. European politicians in general may have heaved a sigh of relief, but their joy was eclipsed when in May 1958 de Gaulle made a terrific political come-back, becoming President of the Fifth Republic.
In this position he was able to thwart Britain’s attempts to join what was then The Common Market, thus balancing the account with the country that he always claimed had treated him badly. He conceded independence to Algeria and the former French African colonies, and dominated the emerging European Economic Community. He developed the French nuclear deterrent, and withdrew French support from the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). But his position was seriously questioned in 1968, when the Parisian students rebelled, unhappy with the contrast between the high expenditure on defence compared with the social services and education, neither of which could be said to have much interested the General.
The students were, surprisingly, supported in their strike actions by workers in heavy and light industry, and the resulting strike became the most sustained in French history. De Gaulle had no option but to reform the social services and make economic concession to the workers. Never had the country been so near to converting directly to Communism. In 1969, the resolute old Frenchman, exhausted by internal argument, external pressures, and an adverse national referendum, resigned. He died at eighty years old in 1970.