Di­vi­sive uni­fier

The Guardian Weekly - - Books - PD Smith

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

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