A Certain Idea of France: The Life of Charles de Gaulle by Julian Jackson 928pp
On 26 August 1944, General Charles de Gaulle took a high-profile walk on the Champs-Elysées. The leader of the Free French had arrived in Paris the previous evening, a day after his advancing troops, and had declared himself president of the newly liberated republic. In a city swarming with snipers, a walkabout was risky but, as Julian Jackson says, it was “a supreme example of De Gaulle’s instinctive showmanship”. Parisians flocked in their thousands to see the man most of them knew only as a voice broadcasting on the BBC from London. De Gaulle recalled this extraordinary moment in his memoirs: “Ahead stretched the Champs-Elysées. It looked more like the sea … there was only this living tide of humanity, in the sunshine, beneath the tricolour.”
The history of a nation and of a people is built from such moments. And, as Jackson’s remarkable study demonstrates, no one played a more influential role in 20th-century France than De Gaulle. He “was reviled and idealised, loathed and adored, in equal measure”, and aroused such passion due to his involvement in France’s two 20th-century “civil wars”. 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 Pétain. 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 coup by generals dissatisfied with the handling of the Algerian crisis.
To tell the life of De Gaulle is also to chart the history of modern France, and in this suitably monumental biography, Jackson portrays his subject as a contradictory character. With his rallying cry of “Unity!”, he was a figure of stability to whom France turned at times of crisis, but he was also “brutally divisive”, hated by the radicals of 1968 as well as the far right. His death in 1970 was “one of the most intense moments of collective emotion in the history of modern France”. In a 2010 opinion poll, De Gaulle emerged as the figure the French most admired, the man who “saved the honour of France”.
No one played a more influential role in 20th-century France than Charles de Gaulle
General Charles de Gaulle at Carlton Gardens, London, in 1943