BY JONATHAN FENBY SIMON AND SCHUSTER, £30
In June 1940 Paris was declared an “open city” and surrendered to the Nazis. This pragmatic decision was taken on good military grounds: there was no way that the bustling city and its people could have withstood any serious attack by bombers or artillery. Two German divisions then advanced on the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe. By noon on June 14 the Nazi high command had taken up residence in the Hôtel de Crillon on the Place de la Concorde.
There had been no battle, or even the slightest sign of resistance, just a sullen acceptance. To the Germans, and especially to Hitler, this was direct proof of the morally degenerate nature of the French. But behind it was the determination of Marshal Pétain to avoid the bloodbath which had led to 1.5 million French casualties in the First World War, particularly at the inferno of Verdun.
Though the issue of collaboration, whether active or passive, remains a highly charged issue in France, most people in the unoccupied zone administered from Vichy south of the capital accepted the armistice. Most shrugged and looked after their interests as best they could. It was at this point that an obscure French general called Charles de Gaulle entered the scene. At Verdun, where he’d been wounded then captured as a young officer, Pétain had been his hero – but his opinion was to change in the next conflict. His role in the new war had been limited to overseeing the divisions trying to delay the German advances on the Maginot Line, the fatal flaw in French military strategy.
Within days of the final collapse of France de Gaulle was flown by the British to London where, on June 18, from the studios of the BBC, he made an emotional call for the French to resist the Nazi invaders. The language was fiery and imperious. “Whatever happens, the flame of French resistance must not be extinguished,” he thundered, “and it will not be extinguished.” He demanded that all those who did not accept the Nazi occupation must define themselves as the Free French and in doing so begin the war of resistance.
As Jonathan Fenby, a former Reuters bureau chief in France, points out in this highly readable biography, the speech almost didn’t happen. Earlier that day, de Gaulle lunched with Alfred Duff Cooper, the Minister of Information, who revealed nothing of his disquiet to the general but discreetly advised the Prime Minister’s office that de Gaulle could not quite be trusted.
For de Gaulle was a master of spin as much as the saviour of his nation. Indeed, as Fenby goes on to illustrate in admirable detail, de Gaulle’s domination of the French political landscape in the post-war period had much to do with his understanding of the popular mood and his ability to manipulate it. His admirers argue that he saved France three times – from the Nazis in 1945, from the attempted putsch in Algiers in 1958, and from the rioting students in Paris in 1968. As it turned out, only the first of these is true.
What of the man himself?
Charles was born in 1890 into a strongly Catholic family and the piety practised by his parents was with him from the very start. Standing 6ft 3in tall, he literally looked down his prominent nose on most of those around him. As he confessed, his whole life consisted of making people do what they didn’t actually want to do, the tragedy being that, “I respect only those who stand up to me, but I find such people intolerable”. And despite his apparent aloofness, he was intensely emotional, particularly in his love for his second daughter who suffered from Down’s syndrome.
Having led the French government in exile throughout the war, de Gaulle resigned in 1946 in disgust at the constitution of the Fourth Republic, which he saw as favouring party political interests and a weakened state power. But he was thrust back into power in 1958, when an armed challenge to French government from the anti-independence movement in Algeria threatened a civil war in France.
At the height of the crisis the general flew to Algiers and declared to members of the movement, who were clamouring for him to take power, that he understood their cause. Yet in fact de Gaulle had no interest in preserving French Algeria and worked covertly to negotiate an end to the war and independence for Algeria. In doing so, he avoided much bloodshed, although this was not the saviour of France that his most fervent supporters had imagined, but rather the work of a gifted politician.
By the time of the student riots of May 1968, de Gaulle was exhausted and out of touch. Most importantly, the ideology of Gaullism – a high-handed and paternalistic idea of the nation as a family ruled by a stern, morally correct guardian – was entirely disconnected from the revolt coursing through the veins of France’s youth at this time. Even as the Left Bank burned, de Gaulle dismissed the insurrectionists as “a bunch of clowns” and left France on a state visit. Meanwhile, the revolt was crushed by police action and middle-class fear of anarchy. By 1969 de Gaulle was at a political dead end and considered irrelevant.
The author is able to write about French political culture from the inside, and the man he portrays escapes easy classification. Attempts have been made by psychologists to explain his sudden mood swings but Fenby will have none of this. “Given the stress he was under, this was hardly abnormal and he does not seem to fit the manic depressive character loosely attributed to him by some writers.” Instead, his subject emerges as a heroic, even tragic, figure whose idée fixe of France was finally defeated by events. For all that, he was unique in his time.