by julian jackson
harvard, 928 pages, $39.95
Using pick handles and rifle butts, the police force of one of the world’s most civilized countries surrounded and savagely beat hundreds of dark-skinned men. They then threw them into the beautiful river that flows through a city celebrated for its cultural and artistic wonders. Those who were still alive after the beatings were left to drown.
This was Paris, City of Lights, on the night of October 17, 1961. To this day, nobody knows how many peaceful Algerian protesters died in this episode, concealed for years by menacing state power and a compliant press. Most estimates are in the hundreds. General Charles de Gaulle, towering hero of resistance to Hitler, had recently become President of France in an undoubted military putsch, tactfully concealed but firmly based upon paratroopers. He cannot possibly have been unaware of what was done that night.
A few months later, a left-wing protest against terrorist violence in the French capital, in the Rue de Charonne, was crushed with revolting, inexcusable force. Nine people died. In several cases their heads were smashed open by club-wielding police. During both these incidents the Paris prefect of police was a slippery former collaborator with the Nazis, Maurice Papon, who had cheerfully rounded up Jews during the German occupation. Papon also reintroduced torture to mainland France in the 1960s, and was complicit in de Gaulle’s 1958 coup d’etat. De Gaulle later personally honored him, and in his retirement found him gainful employment. A French historian, Alain Dewerpe (whose mother was killed by the police in the Rue Charonne outrage) once said that, in return for their support in the de Gaulle putsch, the police were offered a massacre. His jibe has a nasty ring of truth.
We shall never know for sure just how much de Gaulle knew of Maurice Papon’s sinister past, but the general was no fool and had excellent intelligence services. To obtain power in 1958 he had himself done many terrible things. He lied to the mob, brazenly pronouncing the anti-decolonization slogan “Algérie française!” to French Algerians. He must have known at the time that he would later betray them. He had lied to his fellow officers, obtaining their support in his grab for power by appearing to share their colonialist opinions, and then turned on them cruelly. He came very close to approving the wholly unjust execution of one such officer, General Edmond Jouhaud, by no means the only instance of a nasty vindictiveness that would emerge at moments of strain and embarrassment. When it came to what de Gaulle thought was the pivotal moment in his life, when he could become virtual monarch of France under conditions chosen wholly by himself, he was as ruthless as Lenin. He had, it is often said, a “certain idea of France.” But the ultra-conservative lawyer, Jacques Isorni, whose clients included the collaborationist Vichy leader Marshal Philippe Pétain and de Gaulle’s would-be assassin, Jean-Marie Bastien-Thiry, concluded that it was “an abstract idea of France, indifferent to the sufferings of the French people.” There is something to this. De Gaulle represented the steely warlike France, summoned up by Bonaparte and again a century later at Verdun, for which the French were required to die and mourn uncomplainingly. For him, Paris was well worth a lie or a betrayal, because his supremacy was so essential for the country he loved.
The costs of de Gaulle’s idea of France were high. As the general himself once mused, “There is no action in which the devil has no part.” The two massacres, and the charnel-house stench which clings to them, are evidence of the reliable rule that even—often especially—the greatest and best of men have terrible flaws and can do terrible things; and also of the other rule that power tends to corrupt. I have begun with them because they are a necessary antidote to the feelings of admiration and liking which any reader of this thrilling, witty, ceaselessly moving, beautifully written account of a truly great man is bound to feel.
Charles de Gaulle’s life would perhaps have been better lived in the seventeenth or eighteenth century, in times when personal courage, mystical imagination, chivalry, and religious fervor were more welcome than they are now. In this world of the United Nations, risk assessment, lawyers, Geneva Conventions, television and superpowers, there is not really enough room for such a man to swing his sword, just as there is no room for old-fashioned great powers in the shadow of superpowers. Had he not been so magnificent, he would have been ridiculous. He looked, more than anything else, like a camel, not least because of the superior expression on his face suggesting that he alone knew the secret One Hundredth Name of God, which camels are supposed to know.
He was filled with shining, old-fashioned beliefs about honor, courage, shame and humiliation, glory and infamy. And as those who conversed with him found, he was perhaps the last great man to make it his business to know those things that it is proper for a king to know. He could talk fluently with philosophers and literary novelists. He had a minute knowledge of history: not just that of France, but of Europe and the world. After many, many conversations with Winston Churchill, a large number of them furious quarrels, he concluded that England’s savior was not in fact very intelligent. He believed wartime, with its austerity and tests of manhood, was more virtuous than peacetime. He believed nothing important could be achieved without recklessness. He stood up to people with considerable courage, even when he was a powerless and lonely figure without soldiers, money, or supporters. He once justified his bloody-minded awkwardness by pointing out that if he were not so difficult, he would himself have been a collaborator. He said “If I were easy to work with, I would be on Marshal Petain’s staff.” He had no time for people like himself. He confessed, “I only esteem those who stand up to me but unfortunately I cannot stand them.”
De Gaulle possessed that great chivalrous virtue of being ready to walk unbowed and defiant in front of the powerful, while being gentle and even submissive to the defenseless and weak. He once became so angry with Churchill that he smashed a chair in his presence to emphasize his rage. Likewise, he defied Franklin Roosevelt over and over again. But he would go home after these battles to sing tender love songs to his daughter Anne, who suffered from Down syndrome. The tiny glimpses we have of this part of his life, obtained from the accidental observations of others, tear at the heart. His concern for Anne was entirely private and not at all feigned. After any long absence from home his first act was to rush up to her room. She died, aged twenty, in his arms. At her funeral, he comforted his wife Yvonne with the words, “Maintenant, elle est comme les autres” (“Now she is like the others”), which must be one of the most moving things said in the whole twentieth century.
Like many monsters—for he could be a monster to those who defied him, and was often cruel and unfair to his most devoted supporters—he had enormous charm when he chose to turn it on. He was deeply mischievous and enjoyed puzzling and wrong-footing others. When he did not wish to give ground, he could be obtuse, an experience described by one victim as like “being confined . . . with a cormorant who spoke only cormorant.”
The evidence suggests that he was one of those dangerous people who simply do not know what fear is, and that he discovered this quite early in his long life. If a sergeant had not fallen dead on top of the young Lieutenant de Gaulle when he first went into battle at Dinant in August 1914, he would probably have died in some useless, gallant sacrifice and never have been heard of again. If he had not been knocked unconscious by the blast of a grenade at Verdun in March 1916, it is hard to believe that he would have allowed himself to be taken prisoner by the Germans. In that case he would almost certainly have died in that frightful battle, or not long afterward, another silent shade in that huge legion of shades who marched off into the dark during that appalling war.
Only his wife Yvonne was unimpressed by his grandeur, more than once urging him to retire, or puncturing his ambition. During the long, frustrating wilderness years between his wartime glory and his final presidential triumph, he mused to her that he might one day repeat his great rallying call of 1940. Using the rather patronizing endearment “Pauvre Ami,” she declared flatly, “Nobody will follow you.” He snapped back, “Shut up, Yvonne! I am old enough to know what I want to do!” In fact, on that occasion he was wrong and she was right. She even mocked his soldierly abilities. When the general’s aides suggested that they might install a machine gun at their remote, forbidding country home in Colombey, in case of an attack by communists, Yvonne scoffed that her husband would have no idea how to use it. Perhaps she would have. Eyewitnesses of the assassination attempt against de Gaulle on August 22, 1962, noted that she was “an extraordinarily courageous woman” whose bearing in the midst of terror at least matched that of her husband. She did not know whether he was in France, England, under arrest, or even dead when she gathered her three children and made her way through the dreadful nights and confused days of collapsing France, and scrambled onto one of the last boats to England, a crowded and miserable journey to a foreign and perhaps hostile country, where nobody knew who they were. These facts are scattered in small, intimate corners of Professor Jackson’s vast political narrative, but they illuminate what might otherwise be a story about events so great we can hardly see or comprehend them.
The story is a colossal, epic one. De Gaulle was as much a Victorian as Churchill, but he lasted much longer, striding into the modern era not just as an object of reverence but as an active political force. His childhood in France’s austere northern regions was soaked in patriotism and religion, administered and absorbed in strong doses which would now be regarded as dangerous. In those years of toy soldiers and strict mealtimes he learned, among other things, to dislike, mistrust, and resent the ancient English foe, so much that he would never fully shake off these feelings. His was the France wounded and dismembered by the debacle of the 1870 Franco-Prussian war, appalled by the rising of the Paris Commune, shaken and divided by the wrongful humiliation, prosecution, and cruel imprisonment of Captain Dreyfus. The shadow of Germany was unavoidable. In Paris, the statue on the Place de la Concorde that represented the city of Strasbourg was veiled in black, in mourning at its seizure by the German Empire. Professor Jackson tries hard to acquit de Gaulle of any allegiance, then or later, to the anti-Dreyfus faction. There is no doubt that de Gaulle in his later life was far too intelligent to fall for the crude anti-Semitism that infects so much French conservatism and was especially strong in de Gaulle’s youth. Still, it is hard to accept that he was never touched by it, and in moments of strain he would make remarks or use derogatory words that no person should make or use.
De Gaulle was an engaged and thoughtful intellectual, with broad interests. Even when he was president he read two or three books every week, though he could not abide the novels of Marcel Proust. Professor Jackson is especially interesting on the origins of his thinking. De Gaulle enjoyed the dense philosophy of Henri Bergson and particularly admired the thinker Charles Péguy, who managed to become a Catholic patriot without renouncing his earlier socialism and republicanism, or his opposition to anti-Semitism. It is a strange fact that the potentially attractive political combination of liberty, domestic socialism, well-armed patriotism, and social conservatism seldom exists in the advanced countries of the West. You may have some of these things, but never all of them at once. De Gaulle was a rare exception, who did seek to bring these elements together, and so appealed far beyond any partisan constituency.
Above all he loved France, or the idea of it. He saw in the defeat of 1940 a danger that his country would simply disappear, having failed to defend itself and having fled from the battle without properly drawing its sword. This was not a foolish fear. Great civilizations can and do vanish, and one of the best ways of doing so is to abandon the struggle to survive.
He must have greatly resented the fact that he owed so much to Britain. He was intelligent enough to know that Britain, a country few Frenchmen can ever fully trust, was his best hope and only refuge. He understood, as many French patriots could not, that the terrible attack on the French fleet by the British Navy at Mers-el-Kébir in 1940 was in fact necessary, in case its great ships fell into the hands of the Germans. He would have done the same himself had the position been reversed, and he knew it. It was this generosity of mind that made him great. But how he must have loathed being dependent on the British Broadcasting Corporation for his access to the French people. For it was the BBC that made him. Until he finally appeared for the tumultuous, ecstatic liberation of Paris in 1944, he was only a voice, heard fleetingly on illegal broadcasts. Almost nobody in France had the faintest idea what he looked like. But all had a certain idea of de Gaulle, the spirit of France that refused to surrender. And when they finally saw this towering, fearless figure walking calmly down the Champs-Élysées amid the snipers’ bullets, he did not disappoint them. He was, it turned out, a giant so tall that one could imagine ice forming on his upper slopes when—as so often happened—he was annoyed or impatient with his people. His great height set him apart from the beginning. He once complained, “We giants are never at ease with others . . . the armchairs are always too small, the tables too low, the impression one makes too strong.”
It was more profound than that. France was now too small as well, and that is the reason why de Gaulle’s story is in the end a tragedy. Postwar America simply could not permit France to continue as she had. Washington would not risk another 1939. The former powers of Europe had to be cut down to size and compelled to get on with one another.
De Gaulle’s struggles with Churchill were, by comparison, lovers’ tiffs. Churchill, like most civilized Englishmen, loved France, “that sweet enemy,” as Philip Sidney called her. While de Gaulle was cold to veterans of the Resistance, Churchill—when he went to Paris to meet them—was so moved by their bravery that he was in tears for most of the day.
De Gaulle’s quarrel with Roosevelt was based on real loathing. Washington’s vision for postwar Europe, in which the old nations would be diminished and homogenized, was directly opposed to de Gaulle’s idea of a French resurrection in glory and might. Washington loved and promoted the idea of a Europe dominated by supranational bodies, and would later use Marshall aid and the CIA to spread the idea of a European union. Jean Monnet, one of the founders of the eventual European superstate, was much more welcome in the U.S.A. than de Gaulle, whom FDR once airily dismissed as “the head of some French committee.” No doubt, this was what Roosevelt wished he was. Nancy Mitford, in her satirical 1951 novel, The Blessing, neatly caricatured this American unifying vision of the new Europe in the figure of the appalling American world-reforming bore, Hector Dexter, who dreamed of seeing a bottle of Coca-Cola on every European table:
When I say a bottle of Coca-Cola I mean it metaphorically speaking, I mean it as an outward and visible sign of something inward and spiritual. I mean it as if each Coca-Cola bottle contained a djinn, and as if that djinn was our great American civilization ready to spring out of each bottle and cover the whole global universe with its great wide wings.
In May 1962, de Gaulle would oppose to this his assertion that Europe could not be real “without France and her Frenchmen, Germany and her Germans, Italy and her Italians.” He said (a recording of the performance still exists) that Dante, Goethe, and Chateaubriand “belong to Europe,” precisely because they spoke and wrote as Italians, Germans, or Frenchmen. They would not, he jeered, have served Europe much if they had been stateless and had written in some form of Esperanto or Volapük.
In the hard and non-satirical world, the U.S. also worked ceaselessly to bring an end to the European empires of Britain and France, a cause born out of dogmatic anti-colonialism. In an American-dominated world, those empires, including French Algeria, viewed by Frenchmen as part of their country, were doomed. And ultimately de Gaulle’s desire for a Europe of independent nations, including a resurgent France, was doomed too. He just did not know it until very late in his life. And his sheer force of personality postponed his ultimate defeat.
If he could have done, he would have stayed in Algeria. But when he realized he could not, he simply abandoned the cause for the much higher cause of France. Where he could, he continued to act as if he led a sovereign country. He marched France out of the NATO military command. He took Common Market money but acted as if that body had no power over him at all. He particularly despised efforts to form a European Army, and ruthlessly excluded Germany from nuclear weapons research. He spent billions on nuclear weapons which, one must suspect, were targeted as much on Germany as on the U.S.S.R. In his final few months in power, in February 1969, he astonished the British ambassador to Paris, Christopher Soames, with a plan to dilute the Treaty of Rome and put a stop to the European Community’s ambitions for a continental superstate. Britain, as it did so often, disappointed him by being feeble in defense of its own independence and traditions. London leaked the plan, and so destroyed it. It might—had it been keenly followed—have changed the future of Europe and avoided the current E.U. crisis.
It was the last spasm of true French independence and it was de Gaulle’s last great gambit in defense of his idea of France. Duller, less French men would follow him, who would quickly bind their country in the sticky chains of European unity, abolishing its borders and its currency. François Mitterrand, his old rival, undid almost all of de Gaulle’s work. He wholly rejected the general’s belief in an enduring, sovereign France. Mitterrand had been decorated by Pétain’s collaborationist Vichy government, and like many intelligent Frenchmen, saw 1940 as a moment of truth that France could not thereafter ignore. It fell to people like him to implement Hector Dexter’s vision of a Europe whose common cultural bond was Coca-Cola, and McDonald’s, too.
But the nature of de Gaulle’s actual fall is still one of the most extraordinary stories of modern history. He was weak and failing in February 1969 (and would quit office soon afterward) mainly because of the great student revolt of May 1968. This convulsion grew so vast that he flew secretly to Germany to ensure that he had the support of the army, which he feared had not forgiven him for his deceitful maneuvers ten years earlier. Yet this great social and political earthquake was, apparently, about nothing. The 1968 revolution began not with some great conflict, like the storming of the Bastille, but with demands for easier sex. It originated in a trivial, sordid row about male access to female dormitories at the Nanterre Campus of the University of Paris. There had also been an attempt to discipline the future student hero Daniel Cohn-Bendit for heckling the Gaullist Minister for Youth, François Missoffe, on the dormitory issue. Missoffe, a loyal Gaullist who had supported the general since 1940, had gone to Nanterre to open a new swimming pool. When Cohn-Bendit heckled him, he suggested mordantly that the young man would find a better outlet for his youthful urges by jumping into the nice new swimming pool which had been built for him. Cohn-Bendit retorted in the idiotic language of the New Left, “Your response is typical of old fascist regimes.” Within a couple of days, a full-scale student rebellion, with Cohn-Bendit as its hero, had erupted across Paris. Nobody could encapsulate its purpose, but those alive and young at the time knew what it meant. I remember it well. It was as if a shiver of anticipated delight and liberation had passed through the minds of millions of us, secret music full of promise and longing. Robert Browning came close to explaining it when he described what the children of Hamelin heard as the Pied Piper lured them away: “Such sweet / Soft notes as yet musician’s cunning / never gave the enraptured air.”
The seductive music of the May Events, wordless cries from the boulevards of the Left Bank accompanied by the incense of tear gas and the electric howling of police sirens, summoned up a cultural revolution in which the young mounted barricades for the freedom to do what they liked with their bodies. Occupations and street battles would ultimately inspire mass strikes and factory occupations. A large part of the country, suffering from a collective rush of blood to the head, took leave of its senses for a period of weeks. Reason slept. Emotion ruled. The whole spirit of authority, as symbolized and embodied by de Gaulle, was fatally wounded. What use had these revolutionaries, wishing mainly to free their loins, for the threadbare banners of ancient, arduous wars? The young generation in France no longer sang the old songs of patriotism and the Church. They would quickly decide to prefer the new post-patriotic, secular Europe. Cohn-Bendit, the perfect symbol of the age, would become a member of the European Parliament and one of the most fervent spokesmen of the new establishment in Brussels. He is the anti-de Gaulle.
It is a great tribute to Charles de Gaulle that it was specifically against him, his rule, and his principles, that this disreputable movement, which has transformed the world, originally rose in its full strength. He had a certain idea of France and of the world, and it was their enemy. In his fall, many others fell. It was the last brave attempt to raise an ancient banner, sustained by little more than strength of character and indomitable courage, and this superb account of the last stand of a great lost cause will leave none of its readers unmoved.
Peter Hitchens is a columnist for The Mail on Sunday.