A brief review cannot do justice to this monumental, richly detailed and smoothly written biography. Jackson, professor of History at Queen Mary University, London and a highly respected British historian of modern France, is perhaps in a better position to draw a balanced picture of de Gaulle than French historians, who tend to idealize or detest him. Though Jackson has a generally favorable opinion of de Gaulle, he makes no attempt to hide his difficult personality and his craftily dishonest manipulation of people and institutions. The result is both even-handed and definitive.
“A Certain Idea of France,” the first part of the British title of the book, is from the opening line of de Gaulle’s Memoirs. Jackson’s biography is essentially an attempt to find out what that idea was. He begins, naturally, with de Gaulle’s family and milieu from which he came. His background (he was born in Lille in 1890) was one of conservative Catholicism, with a residue of monarchism. Though Jackson is skeptical of attempts to portray Henri de Gaulle, Charles’s father as a Dreyfusard, the family was atypical of their milieu in their refusal to join the anti-Dreyfus camp. His education was in Catholic schools and all his life he believed that Catholicism was essential to the greatness of France. His early ideas came from a variety of then-fashionable sources (Bergson, Peguy, Barrès), which tended to favor intuition and action over reason.
Though Jackson is skeptical of attempts to portray Henri de Gaulle, Charles’s father as a Dreyfusard, the family was atypical of their milieu in their refusal to join the anti-Dreyfus camp.
Jackson is not sure why de Gaulle chose the military as his career; perhaps it was the tense international situation before World War I. But once he became a soldier that remained his identity and he was seldom seen thereafter out of uniform. He served ably at the front in World War I, though a prisoner of war for the final two years. His time in Germany gave him time to think and to contemplate the enemy’s strengths and weaknesses. In the army, he was more of a teacher and scholar than a commander. He published his ideas on warfare and politics, emphasizing tanks and strong leadership and his horizon was broadened in the interwar years by his admission to the circle of Émile Mayer, a military intellectual whose ideas on offensive warfare were similar to de Gaulle’s. Mayer’s career had been hobbled by his pro-Dreyfus opinions, but he remained well-connected. His strong republican sentiments may have influenced de Gaulle, for whom “Mayer was the nearest thing he had to a guru and mentor” (807).
Notoriously, de Gaulle was briefly the protégé of Maréchal Pétain, but Jackson plays this down. De Gaulle’s real sponsor was a very civilian center-right politician, the maverick Paul Reynaud, who shared de Gaulle’s concerns about the threat from Germany. In March 1940 Reynaud became the last Prime Minister of the Third Republic (before Pétain). Reynaud promoted him to Brigadier-General and appointed him Undersecretary of War in his Cabinet. Jackson breathlessly recounts de Gaulle’s movements in June 1940, while Reynaud (and then, Pétain) weighed the consequences of military defeat. The choices were stark—continue the war from Algeria, or ask for an Armistice.
De Gaulle played a part in the desperate last-minute French-British negotiations and thereby made the crucial acquaintance of Churchill. Nevertheless, when he arrived in London and received Churchill’s permission to make his famous June 18 broadcast, calling for France to fight on, he had only himself and a microphone. Jackson outlines de Gaulle’s weak position in London, where not even the French Embassy supported him and few of the French troops stranded in England rallied to his “Free French” appeal. Pétain, despite the June 22 Armistice, inspired some hope even from Churchill, who thought he might turn over the French Fleet to Britain.
In London de Gaulle revealed his character—by turns impossibly difficult and charming, using his aloofness (and imposing height) as a strategy and his stubbornness as a tactic. Examples of his theatrical behavior are scattered throughout the book. De Gaulle exasperated everyone, but slowly he began to be taken seriously. Few Frenchmen knew who he was or what he looked like. His very name sounded like a pseudonym. Ironically, it was Pétain who gave him free publicity by trying him in absentia as a deserter.
Jackson emphasizes that any meaningful support for the Free French had to come first from the colonies. The overseas army had not experienced defeat and was unhappy with the Armistice. De Gaulle tried to capitalize on this. Mostly, Vichy retained control, but with the loyalty of Equatorial Africa, Brazzaville became a de facto capital of Free France. Syria and Lebanon could be wrested from Vichy only with British help and as Jackson points out, “Vichy forces resisted … with more vigour against the Gaullist troops than against the British ones.” (174-175) The sole “victory” was the seizure of St. Pierre and Miquelon, the tiny French islands off Newfoundland, in December 1941. The Americans were not consulted. It was just as well: Roosevelt considered de Gaulle undemocratic and retained his “deluded view that Vichy could be brought over to the Allied camp” (142).
De Gaulle exasperated everyone, but slowly he began to be taken seriously. Few Frenchmen knew who he was or what he looked like. His very name sounded like a pseudonym.
The great colonial prize was North Africa, especially Algeria. Most of the army—firmly under Vichy control—was stationed there. De Gaulle was neither consulted nor informed about Operation Torch—the November 1942 Anglo-American landings in North Africa—until it was underway. Furious, he screamed, “I hope the Vichy people throw them back into the sea” (245). Nevertheless, he grasped the opportunities North Africa offered and after a very complicated series of battles with rivals (especially General Giraud), which Jackson untangles at length, Algiers became the seat of the Comité Français de Libération Nationale which de Gaulle came to dominate and turn into a kind of Government-in-Exile.
Jackson is not impressed with de Gaulle’s relationship to the Resistance in France itself. The German invasion of the Soviet Union brought the Communists into the Resistance. Other resisters on the Left were also reluctant to identify with de Gaulle. Jean Moulin, a leftist ex-Prefect, persuaded de Gaulle to inch leftward and he returned to France to convince Resistance groups to accept the Free French as legitimate. The result, in May 1943, was the creation of the Conseil National de la Résistance which, for Jackson, shows de Gaulle’s “contemptuously instrumental use of the Resistance.” (297). His goal was to lead a real army, but his position in London on the eve of D-Day was ambiguous. Would the Allies treat liberated France as an occupied country, like Italy? De Gaulle tried to pre-empt such an outcome and submitted a memorandum to the Allies proposing joint military action, but Roosevelt said no. For Jackson, Roosevelt’s attitude “becomes increasingly hard to understand in rational terms” (298). Still, on June 4, Churchill told de Gaulle that if he had to choose between him and Roosevelt, he would always choose Roosevelt. Churchill’s words “rankled him for the rest of his life and he would often recall them” (311)
The Free French did not have a single man in the Normandy landings, but de Gaulle showed up in Bayeux, the first city to be liberated, on June 14, informing the bemused inhabitants that he represented the Government of France. Eisenhower had a higher opinion of de Gaulle than Roosevelt and let the Free French “liberate” Paris first. De Gaulle’s famous march down the Champs Elysées on August 25 gained him much acclaim and even Roosevelt accepted de Gaulle as the head of the Provisional French government.
The second half of Jackson’s biography is devoted to de Gaulle’s political career and lacks the sweep of the first half. After the Liberation, de Gaulle quickly consolidated his authority. Resistance and Popular Militia forces were drafted into the army and the spontaneous épuration of Vichyites brought under control.
The Provisional Government had some success internationally. France got a seat on the Security Council and an Occupation Zone in Germany. Domestically, de Gaulle unwillingly played the parliamentary politics he detested. The elections to the Assembly in 1946 returned the Communists as the largest of the three “Resistance” parties. (The others were the Socialists and the Catholic centrist MRP.) They demanded the key ministries of defense and foreign affairs. There was the danger of a “Socialist Unity” government, leading to a de facto Communist regime. De Gaulle held firm. At the same time, he began to think of resigning, even calling the Canadian Ambassador on November 19, 1946, to ask if he could go to Canada as a private citizen (380). On January 20, 1947, he resigned. Jackson says he was “exhausted and seething with bitterness against politicians unworthy of their liberator” (383).
The Fourth Republic was everything he hated—a powerful Assembly, a figurehead Presidency. Jackson considers de Gaulle’s attempt to create his own “non-party” political party, the Rassemblement du Peuple Français, the real birth of Gaullism. The RPF was a “Third Way” movement, neither capitalist nor socialist, with roots in Catholic and corporative ideals of class cooperation and a more rational economic order, directed by strong leadership. Denounced as proto-fascist, it posed an alternative to the Fourth Republic. But it eventually faded. De Gaulle’s attempt to stage a mass rally at the Arc de Triomphe in May 1954 was a failure. He went into exile in his country home at Colombey-les-Deux-Églises, but his time was not wasted. He wrote his Memoirs, which Jackson says fixed the legend of de Gaulle as the savior of eternal France. “The first four copies were dedicated in person by de Gaulle “to the Pope, the Royalist Pretender the Comte de Paris, the President of the French Republic and Queen Elizabeth,” Jackson wryly notes. (438)
France was reminded that de Gaulle was there if she needed him. That need arose with the Algerian crisis. In Brazzaville, de Gaulle had hinted at freedom for the colonies, but he was no anticolonialist. He worked hard to reclaim Indochina after the Japanese surrender. In 1954 the same year as the Dien Bien Phu disaster, the FLN began its revolt in Algeria. Algeria with its considerable colon population and strong army presence was no Indochina. The politically shaky Fourth Republic, which gave Tunisia and Morocco their independence, lost the army’s confidence. The Treize Mai (1958) army coup in Algiers was a “colonial” revolt in favor of retaining colonial rule. Was de Gaulle complicit in the events that brought him back to power? Jackson feels that the army and the colons acted on their own, but the Gaullists steered events into a demand for de Gaulle. The stage was set for a military coup d’état, foreshadowed by the parachutists’ takeover of Corsica. Jackson does not quite capture the mood of Paris in May 1958. I was present there as a student and vividly recall the sense of foreboding and helplessness. It was “a choice between a military coup and a Popular Front with the Communists” (473). De Gaulle provided a “legal” way out. He resumed power and soon the strongly presidential Gaullist Fifth Republic was born. Algeria was its immediate concern. De Gaulle temporarily won over the army and colons exclaiming “Je vous ai compris!” But he soon began negotiating with the FLN, triggering a second revolt. The negotiations lasted four bloody years. For Jackson, de Gaulle did not “grant” independence to Algeria: The FLN won it on the battlefield.
France was reminded that de Gaulle was there if she needed him. That need arose with the Algerian crisis. In Brazzaville, de Gaulle had hinted at freedom for the colonies, but he was no anticolonialist. He worked hard to reclaim Indochina after the Japanese surrender.
He then turned to Europe, declaring that the “era of organized continents had succeeded the colonial era” (545). He had once hoped for a dismembered Germany and a resurrection of the old Franco-Russian Alliance, but now he wooed West Germany as a Continental counterbalance to the detested “Anglo-Saxons.” He twice kept Great Britain out of the Common Market. He made France a nuclear power, opposed the American Multilateral Force and took France out of the military parts of NATO. But thereafter his diplomatic judgment faltered. His criticism of Israel after the 1967 Six-Day War included disturbing anti-Semitic language. His “Vive le Québec Libre!” pronouncement in Montreal made no sense. (Jackson thinks de Gaulle viewed Quebec as an Anglo-American colony.) (686)
Above all, he utterly failed to foresee the storm of the student and worker uprising of 1968. Jackson is no expert on worldwide generational trends, but he aptly calls his chapter on this period “Old Man, Young Country.” As de Gaulle famously said (of Pétain) in his Memoirs, “old age is a shipwreck.” Now de Gaulle himself was nearing 80; his contemporaries on the world stage were dead or retired. The student protests, beginning at the University of Paris campus in Nanterre, spread to the Sorbonne, to the Left Bank and triggered mass strikes in factories in Paris and beyond. France ground to a halt and revolution was in the air. De Gaulle secretly flew to the army base in Germany to seek support. Reassured, he returned to France. Pompidou, his heir-apparent, negotiated a settlement with the workers and the students eventually calmed down. A mass pro-de Gaulle rally in Paris and a victory for the Gaullist UNR in the ensuing elections apparently restored de Gaulle’s authority, but in 1969 he lost a referendum on a minor issue. He promptly resigned and returned to Colombey-les-Deux-Églises, where he died in 1970, just short of his 80th year. His death was “one of the most intense moments of collective emotions in the history of modern France.” His fame was guaranteed by naming the new Paris Airport for him, by renaming the Place de l’Étoile for him. He is routinely named the greatest Frenchman of modern time, who saved France’s honor in 1940, provided her with a stable political system and extricated her from the Algerian morass. For Jackson, only saving France’s honor in 1940 stands up. The Fifth Republic functions relatively well, but though Pompidou was a worthy successor, its only other notable President has been the un-Gaullist François Mitterand. (The verdict is still out on Emmanuel Macron.)
He made France a nuclear power, opposed the American Multilateral Force and took France out of the military parts of NATO. But thereafter his diplomatic judgment faltered. His criticism of Israel after the 1967 Six-Day War included disturbing anti-Semitic language. His “Vive le Québec Libre!” pronouncement in Montreal made no sense.
Jackson is sometimes on shaky ground outside France. He refers to Mexican President López Mateos as Mateos (his mother’s name) and the Jagiellonian University in Cracow as the “University of Jagellonian.” He inexplicably refers to a non-existent Roosevelt-Churchill-Stalin meeting in Moscow in October 1943. (280)
There is one curious omission. Jackson in passing mentions Lucien Nachin as a military writer and friend. But Nachin was no ordinary friend. Philippe de Gaulle called him his father’s only friend. Jean Lacouture, in his massive biography spends several pages on the Nachin-de Gaulle relationship. “Quel beau sujet de thèse pour un jeune historien,” he adds. Lacouture, Le Rebelle, Paris 1984. (195). Nachin introduced De Gaulle to the Mayer circle. Nachin published, on the very day of the Liberation of Paris, a biography of de Gaulle which went through 30 printings. Nachin thereafter disappeared from view. Few knew about De Gaulle’s rush to Nachin’s deathbed in 1951, or his lavish praise in a posthumous collection of Nachin’s obscure writings. What Jackson perhaps chose to ignore is the story that emerged with the publication of Les Bus de la Honte (Paris, 2016) by Jean-Marie Dubois, Nachin’s grandson and his wife, the historian Malka Marcovich. Nachin left the army in 1923 to work for the Société des Transports en Commun de la Région Parisienne, the precursor of the RATP, becoming its Director of Personnel. During the Occupation, the company provided the buses and personnel which systematically delivered Parisian Jews to the Drancy camp and from Drancy to trains headed for Auschwitz. The buses lined up at the Vel d’Hiv to transport to Drancy the 13,000 Jews held there under hellish conditions following the rafle of July 16-17, 1942. The STCRP was purged after the Liberation, but Nachin got early retirement. His dossier in the RATP archives contains a gap for the Occupation years. Documents he presumably signed are cut off at the bottom. The authors suspect de Gaulle’s hand in this. If true, this underlines what Jackson stresses throughout: For de Gaulle the great crime was the Armistice. Vichy’s crimes were not France. That “certain idea of France” allows only for greatness and sacrifice. In short, it stands for de Gaulle’s own life.