Charles De Gaulle: 40 years ago…


Charles De Gaulle during WWII

… the retired General and former President died at his home at Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises, aged 80.

After what a life! A few brushstrokes here: a solid Catholic education, followed by a flatlining military career between the two World Wars. Not due to any lack of brilliance, mind you, but to De Gaulle’s annoying habit of speaking truth to power. He pointed out the woeful unpreparedness of the French army and  the exact causes of what would be a crushing defeat in 1939: misplaced reliance on the Ligne Maginot and failure to build armored vehicles columns. This insistence earned him the derogatory nickname of Colonel Motor. For De Gaulle, at almost 50, remained a mere Colonel at the onset of World War II.

When the defeat he had foreseen, and the cowardice and treason of so-called leaders, plunged France into years of darkness, he saved the honor of the nation by heading for London and becoming the leader of the Free French. British and American Allies were at first leery of this upstart if charismatic unknown, and often exasperated by his insistence on sticking to the French point of view. But he prevailed. He knew the difference between what was expedient and what was right, and never hesitated between the two.

After the liberation of France, his involvement in politics lasted a mere few months, and he only returned to the forefront in 1958, in the midst of the Algerian War that was tearing the country apart. One of the great merits of De Gaulle was to be able to distinguish between those wars which have to be fought at all costs, and those which only lead to needless loss of life and treasure, and ultimately defeat. A clearsightedness one could wish on many a modern politician

He saved France a second time by putting an end to the Algerian War, which he recognized as an unwinnable, intractable colonial conflict. After his election as the first President of the French 5th Republic, he did not promote jingoistic themes, but sought a full reconciliation with Germany and oversaw the building of a united Europe.

He remained in power for a decade, before losing a referendum on administrative reform. He then resigned the presidency, retired on his Colonel pension, refusing all others, and died a few months later.

Very few people have such a decisive influence on the history of their country. France, without De Gaulle, would be a lesser nation. The European Union would not be what it is. Today French politicians of all stripe, including the heirs to those who loathed him during his lifetime, hasten to claim his legacy, but sadly many French people have forgotten its extent and meaning.

The daily Le Monde has an illustrated article on De Gaulle by his biographer Jean Lacouture. It is in French, but pictures do tell a story.

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