It seems a bit of a truism to describe Charles de Gaulle as an extraordinary figure, but truisms are no less true for being true. It is hard to know which episode of his political career was most compelling; his sheer bloody-mindedness in rising from relative obscurity and defying the contempt of his soi-disant allies to become the incarnation of Free France, or his approach to the Algerian Crisis. And it is often forgotten that the biggest demonstration in Paris of May 1968 was in support of de Gaulle.
As this TLS review by Sudhir Hazareesingh of a new biography of De Gaulle states, his reputation has only grown until he is now “celebrated by the entire French political class”:
During his remarkable political career, he twice rescued his country from disaster: first through his bold leadership of the Resistance after France’s defeat by the Nazis in 1940, and later by his skilful handling of the crisis provoked by the Algerian war of national liberation. As the founder of the Fifth Republic in 1958, he redesigned France’s political system along presidential lines, and his shadow has loomed heavily over all his successors (on his official photograph, Emmanuel Macron’s most prominent talisman is an open copy of de Gaulle’s War Memoirs). Once reviled by liberals and progressives for his authoritarianism, and by the extreme Right for his anti-fascism and anti-colonialism, de Gaulle is now celebrated by the entire French political class. Indeed, le grand Charles has become the nation’s most revered historical figure, with thousands of streets, schools and public squares across France bearing his name. His vision of Frenchness has reshaped his compatriots’ sense of their collective self, and of their country’s rightful place in the world. To understand de Gaulle, in sum, is to appreciate what it means to be French, both intellectually and emotionally.
The most interesting part of this review is the next paragraph. It is hard to know how “a leader for whom silence was a virtue” would get on in the age of Twitter. Although perhaps it would be a highly effective approach to the babble of our time:
However, any attempt to reconstruct the Gaullian mindset is fraught with challenges, as Julian Jackson recognizes in this wonderfully poised, erudite and captivating work. This was a leader for whom silence was a virtue, and impenetrability a defining quality. He tended to keep his innermost thoughts to himself, and often made conflicting observations to members of his entourage – simply to gauge their reactions. He was an inveterate producer of myths, framing grand idealized narratives that distorted the French past, while systematically exaggerating his role and belittling that of his rivals and adversaries (many wartime documents of his Free French movement, and even his own collected speeches and notes, were later doctored). Moreover, as Jackson notes, de Gaulle was riddled with “extraordinary contradictions”. He veered between buoyant optimism and crippling melancholy, calculating rationalism and ethereal mysticism, selfless abnegation and narcissistic egotism, shameless opportunism and obdurate inflexibility (fittingly, his surname was derived from the Flemish word for “wall”). To this list might be added his greatest paradox: he loved France, but was contemptuous of the French – a characteristic example of the Gallic intellectual preference for idealized abstraction over empirical reality.