How Charles de Gaulle Rescued France

As Julian Jackson insists in the preface of his biography, published by Harvard University Press in 2018 and translated in French by Seuil, De Gaulle is “everywhere” in modern France, its undisputed hero.
Charles de Gaulle in Chartres, August 24, 1944. © No. 5 Army Film and Photography Unit, colorization by R. White

This claim, like some other confident statements in the book, may strike a reader as both narrowly true and what a French thinker might call metaphysically false. His name is certainly everywhere – on the great airport outside Paris; on the Place Charles de Gaulle, once called the Etoile, where traffic streams perpetually around the Arc de Triomphe – but his example seems remote. He is more a ceremonial than a controversial figure, his work now done. In 40 years of passing in and out of France, I have almost never heard him pointed to as an exemplar useful in any way for today’s crises. His name having been placed on l’Etoile is apt: the traffic goes around all day but never stops for long.

If he lives anywhere, it is in the endless flow of books about World War II written by Americans and Brits, in which he emerges as the biggest pain in the ass in the history of the liberal order. By alphabetical accident, the heading “De Gaulle: Personal Characteristics” in Jackson’s index gives us, in sequence: arrogance, austerity, authoritarianism, cigarette smoking, coldness, contempt for human nature. It’s quite a list. Yet, this book makes one thing clear: De Gaulle remains an amazing figure.

De Gaulle had three rendezvous with history, in the old-fashioned sense he loved: in 1940, in 1958, and in 1968. On all three occasions, he saved the French state by sheer theatricality and élan. First, by embodying the French republic in retreat from the Germans; then by seizing power, in a republican mode, to end the Algerian crisis; and, finally, when he ended the potential chaos of the May 1968 revolt by massing almost a million people on the Champs-Elysées in a counterdemonstration.

It was not all theatrical élan. As Jackson, a British history professor, shows, it also involved political savvy and the quiet weighing of odds among competing factions. But he depended more on theatrical élan than did pretty much any other public man of his century. Churchill in 1940 was far from powerless. He had radar and Ultra, an intact R.A.F. and a large empire. De Gaulle had nothing except his uniform and his voice. No one has ever played a weaker hand more compellingly. His life was one long brilliant bluff, and the things that make him exasperating – his vanity and closed-mindedness; his unearned sense of superiority and egocentric blindness – were also why the bluffs worked. He convinced others, sitting at the card table with all the aces in their hands, that he might have somehow manufactured an extra ace by pure force of will.

He is, perhaps above all, a significant figure owing to the fidelity of his republicanism: From a background that in most places and circumstances would have led, in crisis, toward some form of Bonapartism, he remained a faithful believer in the norms of democracy, in oscillating governments and principled resignation. He believed in “a certain idea of France,” to use his famous phrase, but it was a republican idea of France. He embodied a reactionary and regal style of politics, completely distinct in tone from the usual “progressive” kind, but no less committed to the institutions of democracy. This was achieved only with some coaxing from his advisers at key moments (but, then, he had chosen the advisers) and with sporadic fits of spleen.

But in the end De Gaulle always offered a staunch reaffirmation of republican values. His life is proof that unapologetic right-wing politics do not necessarily bend toward absolutism; they can also sometimes stiffen the spine of liberal democracy.


De Gaulle by Julian Jackson, Harvard University Press, 2018. 928 pages, 39.95 dollars.

Article published in the November 2018 issue of France-AmériqueSubscribe to  the magazine.