Charles de Gaulle remembered

A London radio broadcast on 18 June 1940 by an unknown French officer altered history’s course. It was also the first act in Charles de Gaulle’s extraordinary thirty-year role as national-political leader and embodiment of “a certain idea of France”. Neal Ascherson traverses a landscape of memory - from Greenock to Paris, Algiers to Warsaw - to recall his encounters with a colossus of French and European history.

It’s seventy years since a reedy, strained voice came from the BBC in London, telling the French to fight on. Almost nobody in France heard it. Almost nobody in France had heard of General Charles de Gaulle, either. It was not even a great speech, but rather a set of quite disjointed, sometimes disconcerting remarks. But those who did hear the broadcast of 18 June 1940 picked out what mattered, and were astonished.

“Is defeat final? No!” France was  not alone. De Gaulle repeated that line: “La France n’est pas seule!” With American and British  industrial might, Germany could be overwhelmed. The tank-commander in him was speaking. “Vanquished today by mechanical force, in the future we will be able to overcome by a superior mechanical force”. He, General de Gaulle, was now in London. He asked French “officers, soldiers, engineers and specialised workers” to make contact with him.

That was the Appeal of the Eighteenth of June 1940. A few days later, de Gaulle spoke again, and this time was heard much more widely. His oratory improved. Nonetheless, almost all the French soldiers and sailors stranded in Britain after Marshal Pétain’s surrender chose repatriation rather than Gaullist exile. One could go home to mum, or one could stay on to be bombed in this cold, perfidious country which  - as they saw it - had deserted the French army at Dunkirk and then murdered the French navy at Mers-el-Kébir. In the summer of 1940, this choice seemed like a French no-brainer.

And yet de Gaulle won through. The tiny faithful remnant who stuck by him gradually grew much larger. The appeal, dropped across France by the Royal Air Force, became a clandestine message of hope, then a call to resist and eventually a sacred text in the myth of post-war France.

De Gaulle’s place in that myth, under the Cross of Lorraine, was finally secured when he stalked in triumph down the Champs Elysées in August 1944, while Nôtre-Dame was still echoing with the shots of German snipers. But looking back across his life, it’s probably true that there was never a time when most Frenchwomen and Frenchmen approved of him. He dominated by simply refusing to get out of the way. Even in the years when he was sulking at home at Colombey-les-deux-Églises, he was still somehow in the way -  the long-nosed elephant in the sitting-room of the possible.

On history's back

He came and went in my own life. Sometimes I thought of him as a soldier to follow, sometimes as a  great enemy with his big feet on democracy’s neck.  When I was a child, he had come from London to inspect the Free French navy at Greenock, on the lower Clyde in west-central Scotland, and there was a big fuss among the French officers we knew. All I really remember is Françoise, daughter of the French base-commander. She was at school with my sister. Françoise had her black hair madly frizzed up and stuffed with ribbons in order to curtsey and present the general with a bouquet. There was a piece about Françoise in the Greenock Telegraph. After de Gaulle’s visit, I conceded that she was a wee cracker. That was her opinion, too.

My next contact was fifteen years later. I was a journalist on holiday in Paris, and it was May 1958. Violent mutiny broke out in Algiers. The parachute generals prepared to invade France, to muck out the dirty byre of democracy and replace it with discipline. Insane mobs swirled about Paris, gabbling about Algerians rallying to France, and tous français de Dunkerque à Tamanrasset. One night, the paras seized Corsica. Leaflets from a fascistic “Committee of Public Safety” were flying about the pavements in Toulouse.

By now, I had been attached to Darsie Gillie, the exuberant old Jacobite who was the Manchester Guardian man in Paris. His friend Graham Greene rushed round, and we went for a walk in the Tuileries gardens while Greene chattered excitedly about the rebel generals in Algiers whom he had known in Indochina. But my job was not to stay in Paris with Darsie but to cover the provinces.

Rushing about the land from Toulouse to Lille, from Colmar to Avignon, I saw the first signs of a revolution. French society in those days was still shaped by 19th-century divisions: a perforated sheet of paper with one half red, the other white. Everyone knew which side they would be on when the paper was parted along the  perforation, and who to kill when the barricades went up. Especially in small towns, I saw the paper starting to tear. On one side, the Reds: those who believed in the Republic “united and indivisible”, in various forms of socialism, in lay state schooling and in the slogan le fascisme ne passera pas! On the other side were the Whites: the pious and the propertied who sent their children to religious “free schools”, who hated the Republic as godless and without respect for order, who privately regarded the wartime Resistance as Communist-run banditry.

Slowly, France was sundering once more along these antique faultlines. But then de Gaulle reappeared, after a decade of dudgeon at Colombey. At first,  the Red side saw him as a right-wing dictator, opening the gates to the parachutists from Algiers. I thought so too. The trade unions prepared themselves for civil war. Then they hesitated. Soon after seizing power, de Gaulle grew evasive about the promises he had made to the Algiers mob. He was moving in a different direction. Jacques Soustelle, the cunning anthropologist who had helped him to power on the assumption that he supported the Algiers putschists, dashed round to see him. For a long time,  he was left waiting in the hall. Then the General materialised at the top of a dark steep stairway. “Alors, Soustelle!” (Nobody could pronounce alors like de Gaulle). “Alors, you have seen me!” He turned his back and vanished again.

Things grew less alarming. De Gaulle took a grip. The Algiers officers were stuffed back into their box. And then de Gaulle, this profoundly conservative  figure with “a certain idea of France”, an eternal France, went on to destroy for ever the old Red/White political and social pattern which had defined France since about 1830, perhaps since the Great Revolution. He created the Fifth Republic. It was - still is - authoritarian, with heavy presidential powers. But it broke open doors in education, economic regulation, farming subsidies and much else, which meant that in the ten years between 1958 and 1968, France changed more than it had changed in the previous century.

Soon, the Algiers box burst open again. There was another putsch, another threat that the mainland would be invaded by mutineers for whom de Gaulle had now become the arch-traitor. I stood in a crowded cafe watching the black-and-white TV as that big face leaned towards us: “Françaises! Français! Aidez-moi!” Afterwards, we went across the river to the Petit-Palais and signed on for rifles, volunteers for the defence of Paris.

What were we preparing to defend? Democracy? Not exactly. De Gaulle belonged to a very European class of ruler, the “Man on the White Horse”. These figures, who flourished mainly between about 1850 and 1945, were authoritarians who had arrived in power by usually unconstitutional means. Most of them had military or naval backgrounds. Their politics were patriotic, sometimes xenophobic, and they presented themselves as somehow incarnating “national character”. Their attitude to parliamentary democracy  varied widely, between disgusted tolerance to dismissive impatience. Dictators?  Not in the Hitler-Stalin-Mussolini model of absolute power enforced by state terror. But leading opposition to them could be dangerous, for politicians or editors.

The arc of power

De Gaulle reminded me of Józef Pilsudski, a classic White Horseman who had led Poland back to independence in 1918 and then dominated it, erratically, until his death in 1935. He had retreated in a sulk to his own Colombey at Sulejówek, but when he came riding back in 1926 to snatch full power, there was much more bloodshed than de Gaulle caused in 1958. Verbally, Pilsudski was irascible and could be coarse. De Gaulle, in contrast, preserved glacial good manners. He had his own sinister squad of goons and heavies (the “Barbouzes”), but - unlike the Pole - he did not throw his opponents into internment-camps.

The two men had known each other slightly. Charles de Gaulle had been a young officer on the French military mission to Poland in 1920, during the Polish-Soviet war. When he returned to Poland on a delirious state visit in 1966, some in Warsaw still remembered him. Known as Duzy Karolek (Long Charlie), he could be seen on Sundays after Mass, a stork-like figure striding along fashionable Nowy Swiat with a tiny packet of cake from Blikle, the best patissier, dangling from his gloved finger. I never found out the name of the Countess he was going to visit, but some very old Varsovians think they know.

I went with his press party on that 1966 trip. The Poles were blissful: de Gaulle was the first European leader of a free country to visit them. Young men and some women wore imitations of his képi military cap; known as a Degolówka, it was all the rage for months. The West Germans were furious, especially when he visited the once-German town of Hindenburg, which had become Zabrze, and boomed that it was la ville la plus polonaise de la Pologne! (the most Polish town in Poland).

That was overstating things. But de Gaulle grew very emotional in Poland, which he seemed to regard as a beautiful damsel he had once loved. Perhaps he was thinking of the pretty Countess waiting for her cake. But the idea was also in line with his Man-on-White-Horse habit of personalising nations, usually as females.

Convinced that these nation-characters never really change, he grew dogmatic, sometimes blindly perverse, abut how other countries would behave. He was quite wrong about East Germany, which he perhaps imagined as some sort of Prussian Valkyrie in a breastplate. In a conversation with André Malraux about “the two Germanies”, he declared absurdly that “East Germany is the stronger. She will devour the other!”

But about Britain – or England, as he liked to call her – he was more perceptive than the British like to admit. He admired the dogged courage and confidence, but identified the streak of ruthless national egoism (“British interests”) which would always make Angleterre an uncertain partner. He also saw that the link between Britain and the United States  was not simply rational, a matter of alliances and purposes, but something existential, an element inextricably lodged in the bone-marrow of London’s reactions to the outside world. That country could never be wholeheartedly committed to any united Europe. His vetoes on British entry to the European Economic Community, in 1963 and 1967, were futile in the short term. But the insight behind them has repeatedly turned out to be well-founded.

He grew older and more remote. On two occasions, I was allowed to attend what were called “press conferences” in the Elysée. These were at once awesome and ridiculous. In a dark, thickly decorated salon, rows of tiny gilt chairs were set out  under the chandelier. Trusted French journalists occupied the front seats. No questions were allowed, certainly not from foreigners. Instead, the president delivered two or three long speeches, apparently in response to prearranged enquiries commissioned from tame hacks.

Then came the upheavals of May 1968. I arrived from Berlin with a bunch of German revolutionaries, to find that for the first time Charles de Gaulle and his Olympian style had become a joke. Nobody feared him, up to the moment when his nerve broke and he fled to the French army in Germany. He had no idea what was going on, describing events with the archaic term chienlit, which can mean either shitting in one’s bed or sharing it with a dog. The Paris students were baffled by the expression, but it made them laugh and prompted some fine cartoons. I went back to Germany, to discover much later that de Gaulle’s government had declared me a subversive agitator and prohibited immigrant.

The builder and the seer

That was my last encounter with him and his arrangements. His departure in 1969 was inglorious, and he died almost at once. But de Gaulle’s Fifth Republic, though shaken by the 1968 events, has withstood the storms for over fifty years. The believer in la France éternelle did paradoxically found a quite new France. And his foreign policies, often resented by France’s neighbours as bullying arrogance, have made the present European Union possible. De Gaulle’s 1963 treaty with Konrad Adenauer forged the Franco-German axle around which Europe still spins. And he persuaded the French to think of a united Europe as a French grand projet, a design which would ensure the cultural and political pre-eminence of France throughout the continent. The euro, seen that way, is a prouder French symbol than the franc.

De Gaulle was a colossus for most of my life. Sometimes he was malign, sometimes worth dying for, sometimes maddeningly aloof and conceited. But I think of the scene when the Frenchwomen who had survived Ravensbrück were brought out of the train in Paris. De Gaulle was supposed to make a triumphalist speech of welcome, but when he saw them, he could only weep. I remember him looking out over sunlit crowds in Normandy and calling out in a strong voice to “votre belle et nombreuse jeunesse”. And I think of his prose, for - like Pilsudski - he was a marvellous writer. This is what he wrote about the fate of his country seventy years ago this month:

“Old age is a shipwreck. So that we should be spared nothing, the old age of Marshal Pétain would soon be identified with the shipwreck of France”.

The man who wrote that understood the tempests of his century well.

About the author

Neal Ascherson is a journalist and writer. For many years he was foreign correspondent and then columnist for the (London) Observer. Among his books are The King Incorporated: Leopold the Second and the Congo (1963; Granta, 1999); The Struggles for Poland (Random House, 1988); Black Sea (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 1996); and Stone Voices: The Search for Scotland (Granta, 2003)

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Neal Ascherson is a journalist and writer. For many years he was foreign correspondent and then columnist for the (London) Observer. Among his books are The King Incorporated: Leopold the Second and the Congo (1963; Granta, 1999); The Struggles for Poland (Random House, 1988); Black Sea (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 1996); and Stone Voices: The Search for Scotland (Granta, 2003)

Also by Neal Ascherson in openDemocracy:

"Pope John Paul II and democracy" (1 April 2005)

"Tbilisi, Georgia: the rose revolution's rocky road" (15 July 2005)

"The victory and defeat of Solidarność" (6 September 2005)

"Victory's lost sister - the wreck of the Implacable" (21 October 2005)

"A carnival of stupidity" (6 February 2006)

"Torture: from regress to redress" (1 March 2006)

"Catholic Poland's anguish" (11 January 2007)

"Ryszard Kapuscinski: from Poland to the world" (25 January 2007)

"Who needs a constitution?" (22 May 2007)

"The Polish March: students, workers, and 1968" (1 February 2008)

"After the war: recognising reality in Abkhazia and Georgia" (15 August 2008)

"Conor Cruise O'Brien: the irascible angel" (22 December 2008)

"1989: how it ended" (4 November 2009)