- A Certain Idea of France: The Life of Charles de Gaulle by Julian Jackson
Charles de Gaulle, like many major political figures, seems to tower over history and over us. But it is an illusion, and biographies often compound the illusion. Julian Jackson’s own focus is much more revealing: Why this man, at this time? What was he really like, and what — specifically — did he do (and not do)? This is not to deny the influence of de Gaulle’s singular character upon events; but Jackson’s research shows in meticulous detail the contexts that made de Gaulle possible and, because of his outlook and character, why he was so often presciently right, and why so often incandescently wrong.
Each of the phases of de Gaulle’s life involved existential choices: in 1940, when he, a junior general and junior government minister, escaped to London and set himself up against the Vichy regime; in 1946, when he resigned from leadership of the new regime after only eighteen months; in 1958, when he played all his cards (almost all — he may well have had an ace called the French army up his sleeve), overturned the Fourth Republic, and created a regime suited to his temperament; and in 1969, when he resigned (unnecessarily) from the presidency, abandoning and abandoned by the French, re-igniting the myth of the lonely hero.
Until 1940, de Gaulle’s life had been uneventful. As a boy he had dreamed of military glory and sacrifice, and later he fought passionately and very briefly in the First World War, while he ascended the promotion ladder slowly and resentfully, exasperated by the stupidity both of his peers and his superiors. This background and obscurity was the very essence of his claim to incarnate France after 1940. And, as Jackson shows, his mix of modesty and arrogance, of reserve and opinion, his literary tastes — more Péguy than [End Page 656] Maurras, more Bergson than Barrès —, his provincial, Catholic, conservative family, and underneath all this a quite startling emotional adolescent devotion to an embodied, Madonna notion of France, all made him the singular man he was. This affective mix meant that his love object was (a notion of) all of France: inclusive of Léon Blum’s Popular Front, the Revolution’s Generals, as well as Louis XIV, Henri IV, St Louis, and Clovis. It also meant he was not, as were so many of his contemporaries, anti-Semitic. A closet monarchist, this wider perspective kept him (just) the right side of the line when the dice were thrown at each decisive moment, as regards the Republic, the democratic process, the rule of law, social reform, and the international order. Having said this, democracy’s processes, like everything else, exasperated him, and as regards ‘the events’ of 1958 his relationship to the attempted military coup against the Fourth Republic remains unresolved to this day.
De Gaulle’s icy, ungrateful, sometimes cruel, sometimes hysterical attitude to others, particularly to the English for some reason (whom he seemed to like less than he did the Germans); his many miscalculations, tantrums and depressions, pettinesses and mis-judgements, his scandalous indifference to the real French Resistance (as opposed to his own flimsy Free French army), and chronic inability to say sorry: all these intertwined with his insightfulness, tactical political cunning, courage, perseverance, and wide culture. But these defects and qualities, combined with missed opportunities from 1940 to 1969, made France’s journey to stability and prosperity more tortuous and, arguably, less successful than it might have been. His indifference to others, his courage, his vast cultural knowledge, his mistakes, his vanity — all his qualities — emanated from a strangely inhuman devotion to the French state and nation, both, in fact, as abstract as his emotion towards France itself was intense.
A lot has been written about the legacy; whether Gaullism was a synthesis of France’s many ideologies. It is not. Gaullism is actually founded on an ontological error: that international relations are based upon...