Charles de Gaulle

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Charles de Gaulle
Wartime portrait, 1942
18th President of France
In office
8 January 1959 – 28 April 1969
Prime Minister
Preceded byRené Coty
Succeeded byGeorges Pompidou
Prime Minister of France
In office
1 June 1958 – 8 January 1959
PresidentRené Coty
Preceded byPierre Pflimlin
Succeeded byMichel Debré
Chairman of the Provisional Government of the French Republic
In office
3 June 1944 – 26 January 1946
Preceded by
Succeeded byFélix Gouin
Chairman of the French National Committee
In office
18 June 1940 – 3 June 1944
Preceded byPosition established
Succeeded byPosition abolished
Minister of Defence
In office
1 June 1958 – 8 January 1959
Prime MinisterHimself
Preceded byPierre de Chevigné
Succeeded byPierre Guillaumat
Minister of Algerian Affairs
In office
12 June 1958 – 8 January 1959
Prime MinisterHimself
Preceded byAndré Mutter
Succeeded byLouis Joxe
Personal details
BornCharles André Joseph Marie de Gaulle
(1890-11-22)22 November 1890
Lille, France
Died9 November 1970(1970-11-09) (aged 79)
Colombey-les-Deux-Églises, France
Resting placeColombey-les-Deux-Églises, France
Political partyUnion of Democrats for the Republic (1967–1969)
Other political
Union for the New Republic (1958–1967)
Spouse Yvonne Vendroux ​(m. 1921)​
Alma materÉcole spéciale militaire de Saint-Cyr
Military service
Years of service1912–1944
RankBrigade general
  • Infantry
  • Armoured cavalry
  1. ^ Chairman of the French National Committee between 24 September 1941 and 3 June 1943 and Chairman of the French Committee of National Liberation between 3 June 1943 and 3 June 1944.
  2. ^ Free France was a political entity set up in opposition to the Nazi occupation of France and the collaborationist Vichy régime headed by Marshal Philippe Pétain.
  3. ^ Following the success of Operation Overlord and subsequent expulsion of the Nazi occupiers and dissolution of the Vichy régime, General Charles de Gaulle became Chairman of the Provisional Government of the French Republic.

Charles André Joseph Marie de Gaulle (/də ˈɡoʊl, də ˈɡɔːl/ də GOHL, də GAWL, French: ; 22 November 1890 – 9 November 1970) was a French military officer and statesman who led the Free French Forces against Nazi Germany in World War II and chaired the Provisional Government of the French Republic from 1944 to 1946 to restore democracy in France. In 1958, amid the Algerian War, he came out of retirement when appointed Prime Minister by President René Coty. He rewrote the Constitution of France and founded the Fifth Republic after approval by referendum. He was elected President of France later that year, a position he held until his resignation in 1969.

Born in Lille, he was a decorated officer of the First World War, wounded several times and taken prisoner by the Germans. During the interwar period, he advocated mobile armoured divisions. During the German invasion of May 1940, he led an armoured division that counterattacked the invaders; he was then appointed Undersecretary for War. Refusing to accept his government's armistice with Germany, De Gaulle fled to England and exhorted the French to continue the fight in his Appeal of 18 June. He led the Free French Forces and later headed the French National Liberation Committee and emerged as the undisputed leader of Free France. He became head of the Provisional Government of the French Republic in June 1944, the interim government of France following its liberation. As early as 1944, De Gaulle introduced a dirigiste economic policy, which included substantial state-directed control over a capitalist economy, which was followed by 30 years of unprecedented growth, known as the Trente Glorieuses. He resigned in 1946, but continued to be politically active as founder of the Rally of the French People. He retired in the early 1950s and wrote his War Memoirs, which quickly became a staple of modern French literature.

When the Algerian War threatened to bring the unstable Fourth Republic to collapse, the National Assembly brought him back to power during the May 1958 crisis. He founded the Fifth Republic with a strong presidency; he was elected with 78% of the vote to continue in that role. He managed to keep France together while taking steps to end the war, much to the anger of the Pieds-Noirs (ethnic Europeans born in Algeria) and the armed forces. He granted independence to Algeria and acted progressively towards other French colonies. In the context of the Cold War, De Gaulle initiated his "politics of grandeur", asserting that France as a major power should not rely on other countries, such as the United States, for its national security and prosperity. To this end, he pursued a policy of "national independence" which led him to withdraw from NATO's integrated military command and to launch an independent nuclear strike force that made France the world's fourth nuclear power. He restored cordial Franco-German relations with Konrad Adenauer to create a European counterweight between the Anglo-American and Soviet spheres of influence through the signing of the Élysée Treaty on 22 January 1963.

De Gaulle opposed any development of a supranational Europe, favouring Europe as a continent of sovereign nations. De Gaulle openly criticised the US intervention in Vietnam and the "exorbitant privilege" of the US dollar. In his later years, his support for the slogan "Vive le Québec libre" and his two vetoes of Britain's entry into the European Economic Community generated considerable controversy in both North America and Europe. Although reelected to the presidency in 1965, he faced widespread protests by students and workers in May 68 but had the Army's support and won a snap election with an increased majority in the National Assembly. De Gaulle resigned in 1969 after losing a referendum in which he proposed more decentralisation. He died a year later at the age of 79, leaving his presidential memoirs unfinished. Many French political parties and leaders claim a Gaullist legacy; many streets and monuments in France and other parts of the world were dedicated to his memory after his death.

Early life

Childhood and origins

Charles André Joseph Marie de Gaulle was born on 22 November 1890 in Lille, the third of five children. He was raised in a devoutly Catholic and traditional family. His father, Henri de Gaulle, was a professor of history and literature at a Jesuit college and eventually founded his own school.: 42–47 

Henri de Gaulle came from a long line of parliamentary gentry from Normandy and Burgundy.: 13–16  The name is thought to be Dutch in origin, and may have derived from van der Walle, de Walle ("from the rampart, defensive wall") or de Waal ("the wall"): 42  De Gaulle's mother, Jeanne (born Maillot), descended from a family of wealthy entrepreneurs from Lille. She had French, Irish, Scottish, and German ancestry.: 13–16 

De Gaulle's father encouraged historical and philosophical debate between his children, and through his encouragement, de Gaulle learned French history from an early age. Struck by his mother's tales of how she cried as a child when she heard of the French capitulation to the Germans at Sedan in 1870, he developed a keen interest in military strategy. He was also influenced by his uncle, also named Charles de Gaulle, who was a historian and passionate Celticist who advocated the union of the Welsh, Scots, Irish, and Bretons into one people. His grandfather Julien-Philippe was also a historian, and his grandmother Josephine-Marie wrote poems which impassioned his Christian faith.: 42–47 

Education and intellectual influences

De Gaulle began writing in his early teens, especially poetry; his family paid for a composition, a one-act verse play, to be privately published. A voracious reader, he favored philosophical tomes by such writers as Bergson, Péguy, and Barrès. In addition to the German philosophers Nietzsche, Kant, and Goethe, he read the works of the ancient Greeks (especially Plato) and the prose of Chateaubriand.

De Gaulle was educated in Paris at the Collège Stanislas and studied briefly in Belgium.: 51–53  At the age of fifteen he wrote an essay imagining "General de Gaulle" leading the French Army to victory over Germany in 1930; he later wrote that in his youth he had looked forward with somewhat naive anticipation to the inevitable future war with Germany to avenge the French defeat of 1870.

France during de Gaulle's adolescence was a divided society, with many developments which were unwelcome to the de Gaulle family: the growth of socialism and syndicalism, the legal separation of Church and state in 1905, and the reduction in the term of military service to two years. Equally unwelcome were the Entente Cordiale with Britain, the First Moroccan Crisis, and above all the Dreyfus Affair. Henri de Gaulle came to be a supporter of Dreyfus, but was less concerned with his innocence per se than with the disgrace which the army had brought onto itself. The period also saw a resurgence in evangelical Catholicism, the dedication of the Sacré-Cœur, Paris, and the rise of the cult of Joan of Arc.: 50–51 

De Gaulle was not an outstanding pupil until his mid-teens, but from July 1906 he focused on winning a place at the military academy, Saint-Cyr. Lacouture suggests that de Gaulle joined the army, despite being more suited to a career as a writer and historian, partly to please his father and partly because it was one of the few unifying forces which represented the whole of French society. He later wrote that "when I entered the Army, it was one of the greatest things in the world",: 51  a claim which Lacouture points out needs to be treated with caution: the army's reputation was at a low. It was used extensively for strike-breaking and there were fewer than 700 applicants for Saint-Cyr in 1908, down from 2,000 at the turn of the century.

Early career

Officer cadet and lieutenant

De Gaulle as a cadet in Saint-Cyr, 1910

De Gaulle won a place at Saint-Cyr in 1909. His class ranking was mediocre (119th out of 221). Under a law of 21 March 1905, aspiring army officers were required to serve a year in the ranks, including time as a private and as an NCO, before attending the academy. Accordingly, in October 1909, de Gaulle enlisted (for four years, as required, rather than the normal two-year term for conscripts) in the 33rd Infantry Regiment of the French Army, based at Arras. This was a historic regiment with Austerlitz, Wagram, and Borodino amongst its battle honours. In April 1910 he was promoted to corporal. His company commander declined to promote him to sergeant, the usual rank for a potential officer, commenting that the young man clearly felt that nothing less than Constable of France would be good enough for him. He was eventually promoted to sergeant in September 1910.

De Gaulle took up his place at Saint-Cyr in October 1910. By the end of his first year he had risen to 45th place. He was nicknamed "the great asparagus" because of his height (196 cm, 6'5"), high forehead, and nose.: 301  He did well at the academy and received praise for his conduct, manners, intelligence, character, military spirit, and resistance to fatigue. In 1912, he graduated 13th in his class and his passing-out report noted that he was a gifted cadet who would undoubtedly make an excellent officer. The future Marshal Alphonse Juin was first in the class, although the two do not appear to have been close at the time.

Preferring to serve in France rather than the overseas colonies, in October 1912 he rejoined the 33rd Infantry Regiment as a second lieutenant. The regiment was now commanded by Colonel (and future Marshal) Philippe Pétain, whom de Gaulle would follow for the next 15 years. He later wrote in his memoirs: "My first colonel, Pétain, taught me the art of command".

It has been claimed that in the build-up to World War I, de Gaulle agreed with Pétain about the obsolescence of cavalry and of traditional tactics, and often debated great battles and the likely outcome of any coming war with his superior. Lacouture is sceptical, pointing out that although Pétain wrote glowing appraisals of de Gaulle in 1913, it is unlikely that he stood out among the 19 captains and 32 lieutenants under his command. De Gaulle would have been present at the 1913 Arras manoeuvres, at which Pétain criticised General Gallet to his face, but there is no evidence in his notebooks that he accepted Pétain's unfashionable ideas about the importance of firepower against the dominant doctrine emphasizing "offensive spirit". De Gaulle stressed how Maurice de Saxe had banned volley fire, how French armies of the Napoleonic period had relied on infantry column attack, and how French military power had declined in the nineteenth century because of – supposedly – excessive concentration on firepower rather than élan. He also appears to have accepted the then fashionable lesson drawn from the recent Russo-Japanese War, of how bayonet charges by Japanese infantry with high morale had succeeded in the face of enemy firepower.

De Gaulle was promoted to first lieutenant in October 1913.

First World War

Combat A plaque in Dinant commemorating the place where Charles de Gaulle, then an infantry lieutenant, was wounded in 1914

When war broke out in France in early August 1914, the 33rd Regiment, considered one of the best fighting units in France, was immediately thrown into checking the German advance at Dinant. However, the French Fifth Army commander, General Charles Lanrezac, remained wedded to 19th-century battle tactics, throwing his units into pointless bayonet charges against German artillery, incurring heavy losses.

As a platoon commander, de Gaulle was involved in fierce fighting from the outset. He received his baptism of fire on 15 August and was among the first to be wounded, receiving a bullet in the knee at the Battle of Dinant.: 58  It is sometimes claimed that in hospital, he grew bitter at the tactics used, and spoke with other injured officers against the outdated methods of the French army. However, there is no contemporary evidence that he understood the importance of artillery in modern warfare. Instead, in his writing at the time, he criticised the "overrapid" offensive, the inadequacy of French generals, and the "slowness of the English troops".

He rejoined his regiment in October, as commander of the 7th company. Many of his former comrades were already dead. In December he became regimental adjutant.

De Gaulle's unit gained recognition for repeatedly crawling out into no man's land to listen to the conversations of the enemy, and the information brought back was so valuable that on 18 January 1915 he received the Croix de Guerre. On 10 February he was promoted to captain, initially on probation. On 10 March 1915, de Gaulle was shot in the left hand, a wound which initially seemed trivial but became infected. The wound incapacitated him for four months and later forced him to wear his wedding ring on the right hand.: 61  In August he commanded the 10th company before returning to duty as regimental adjutant. On 3 September 1915 his rank of captain became permanent. In late October, he returned to command of 10th company.

As a company commander at Douaumont (during the Battle of Verdun) on 2 March 1916, while leading a charge to try to break out of a position which had become surrounded, he received a bayonet wound to the left thigh after being stunned by a shell and was captured after passing out from the effects of poison gas. He was one of the few survivors of his battalion.: 63  The circumstances of his capture would later become a subject of debate as anti-Gaullists spread rumour that he had actually surrendered, a claim de Gaulle nonchalantly dismissed.

Prisoner Captain De Gaulle (right) with another French POW

De Gaulle spent 32 months in six different prisoner camps, but he spent most time in the Ingolstadt Fortress,: 40  where his treatment was satisfactory.

In captivity, de Gaulle read German newspapers (he had learned German at school and spent a summer vacation in Germany) and gave talks on his view of the conflict to fellow prisoners. His patriotic fervour and confidence in victory earned him the nickname Le Connétable ("The Constable"), the title of the medieval commander-in-chief of the French army. In Ingolstadt were also journalist Remy Roure, who would eventually become a political ally of de Gaulle, and Mikhail Tukhachevsky, a future commander of the Red Army. De Gaulle became acquainted with Tukhachevsky, whose theories about a fast-moving, mechanized army closely resembled his. He also wrote his first book, Discorde chez l'ennemi (The Enemy's House Divided), analysing the divisions within the German forces. The book was published in 1924.: 83 

Originally interned at Rosenberg Fortress, he was quickly moved to progressively higher-security facilities like Ingolstadt. De Gaulle made five unsuccessful escape attempts, and was routinely punished with long periods of solitary confinement and the withdrawal of privileges such as newspapers and tobacco. He attempted escape by hiding in a laundry basket, digging a tunnel, digging through a wall, and even posing as a nurse. In letters to his parents, he constantly spoke of his frustration that the war was continuing without him. As the war neared its end, he grew depressed that he was playing no part in the victory, but he remained in captivity until the armistice. On 1 December 1918, three weeks later, he returned to his father's house in the Dordogne to be reunited with his three brothers, who had all served in the army and survived.

Between the wars

Early 1920s: Poland and staff college De Gaulle during the mission to Poland, c. 1920

After the armistice, de Gaulle served with the staff of the French Military Mission to Poland as an instructor of Poland's infantry during its war with communist Russia (1919–1921). He distinguished himself in operations near the River Zbrucz, with the rank of major in the Polish army, and won Poland's highest military decoration, the Virtuti Militari.: 71–74 

De Gaulle at the École supérieure de guerre, between 1922 and 1924

De Gaulle returned to France, where he became a lecturer in military history at Saint-Cyr. He studied at the École de Guerre (staff college) from November 1922 to October 1924. Here he clashed with his instructor Colonel Moyrand by arguing for tactics based on circumstances rather than doctrine, and after an exercise in which he had played the role of commander, he refused to answer a question about supplies, replying "de minimis non curat praetor" (roughly: "a leader does not concern himself with trivia") before ordering the responsible officer to answer Moyrand.

He obtained respectable, but not outstanding grades on many of his assessments. Moyrand wrote in his final report that he was "an intelligent, cultured and serious-minded officer; has brilliance and talent" but criticised him for not deriving as much benefit from the course as he should have, and for his arrogance: his "excessive self-confidence", his harsh dismissal of the views of others "and his attitude of a King in exile". Having entered 33rd out of 129, he graduated in 52nd place, with a grade of assez bien ("good enough"). He was posted to Mainz to help supervise supplies of food and equipment for the French Army of Occupation.: 82  De Gaulle's book La Discorde chez l'ennemi had appeared in March 1924. In March 1925 he published an essay on the use of tactics according to circumstances, a deliberate defiance of Moyrand.

Mid-1920s: ghostwriter for Pétain

De Gaulle's career was saved by Pétain, who arranged for his staff college grade to be amended to bien ("good"—but not the "excellent" needed for a general staff posting).: 82–83  From 1 July 1925 he worked for Pétain (as part of the Maison Pétain), largely as a "pen officer" (ghostwriter). De Gaulle disapproved of Pétain's decision to take command in Morocco in 1925 (he was later known to remark that "Marshal Pétain was a great man. He died in 1925, but he did not know it") and of what he saw as the lust for public adulation of Pétain and his wife. In 1925 de Gaulle began to cultivate Joseph Paul-Boncour, his first political patron. On 1 December 1925 he published an essay on the "Historical Role of French Fortresses". This was a popular topic because of the Maginot Line which was then being planned, but he argued that the aim of fortresses should be to weaken the enemy, not to economise on defence.

Friction arose between de Gaulle and Pétain over Le Soldat, a history of the French soldier which he had ghost-written and for which he wanted greater writing credit. He had written mainly historical material, but Pétain wanted to add a final chapter of his own thoughts. There was at least one stormy meeting late in 1926 after which de Gaulle was seen to emerge, white with anger, from Pétain's office. In October 1926 he returned to his duties with the Headquarters of the Army of the Rhine.

De Gaulle had sworn that he would never return to the École de Guerre except as commandant, but at Pétain's invitation, and introduced to the stage by his patron, he delivered three lectures there in April 1927: "Leadership in Wartime", "Character", and "Prestige". These later formed the basis for his book The Edge of the Sword (1932).

Late-1920s: Trier and Beirut

After spending twelve years as a captain, a normal period, de Gaulle was promoted to commandant (major) on 25 September 1927. In November 1927 he began a two-year posting as commanding officer of the 19th chasseurs à pied (a battalion of élite light infantry) with the occupation forces at Trier.: 94 

De Gaulle trained his men hard (a river crossing exercise of the freezing Moselle River at night was vetoed by his commanding general). He imprisoned a soldier for appealing to his deputy for a transfer to a cushier unit, and when investigated initially tried to invoke his status as a member of the Maison Pétain, eventually appealing to Pétain to protect himself from a reprimand for interfering with the soldier's political rights. An observer wrote of de Gaulle at this time that although he encouraged young officers, "his ego...glowed from far off". In the winter of 1928–1929, thirty soldiers ("not counting Annamese") died from so-called "German flu", seven of them from de Gaulle's battalion. After an investigation, he was singled out for praise in the ensuing parliamentary debate as an exceptionally capable commanding officer, and mention of how he had worn a mourning band for a private soldier who was an orphan earned praise from the Prime Minister Raymond Poincaré.

The breach between de Gaulle and Pétain over the ghost-writing of Le Soldat had deepened in 1928. Pétain brought in a new ghostwriter, Colonel Audet, who was unwilling to take on the job and wrote to de Gaulle in some embarrassment to take over the project. Pétain was quite friendly about the matter but did not publish the book. In 1929 Pétain did not use de Gaulle's draft text for his eulogy for the late Ferdinand Foch, whose seat at the Academie Française he was assuming.

The Allied occupation of the Rhineland was ending, and de Gaulle's battalion was due to be disbanded, although the decision was later rescinded after he had moved to his next posting. De Gaulle wanted a teaching post at the École de Guerre in 1929. There was apparently a threat of mass resignation of the faculty were he appointed. There was talk of a posting to Corsica or North Africa, but on Pétain's advice he accepted a two-year posting to Lebanon and Syria.: 93–94  In Beirut he was chief of the 3rd Bureau (military operations) of General Louis-Paul-Gaston de Bigault du Granrut, who wrote him a glowing reference recommending him for high command.

1930s: staff officer

In the spring of 1931, as his posting in Beirut drew to a close, de Gaulle once again asked Pétain for a posting to the École de Guerre. Pétain tried to obtain an appointment for him as Professor of History there, but once again the faculty would not have him. Instead de Gaulle, drawing on plans he had drawn up in 1928 for reform of that institution, asked Pétain to create a special post for him which would enable him to lecture on "the Conduct of War" both to the École de Guerre and to the Centre des Hautes Études Militaires (CHEM – a senior staff college for generals, known as the "school for marshals"), to civilians at the École Normale Supérieure, and to civil servants.

Pétain instead advised him to apply for a posting to the Secrétariat Général du Conseil Supérieur de la Défense Nationale (SGDN – General Secretariat of the Supreme War Council) in Paris. Pétain promised to lobby for the appointment, which he thought would be good experience for him. De Gaulle was posted to SGDN in November 1931, initially as a "drafting officer".: 94 

He was promoted to lieutenant-colonel in December 1932 and appointed Head of the Third Section (operations). His service at SGDN gave him six years' experience of the interface between army planning and government, enabling him to take on ministerial responsibilities in 1940.: 97 

After studying arrangements in the US, Italy, and Belgium, de Gaulle drafted a bill for the organisation of the country in wartime. He made a presentation about his bill to the CHEM. The bill passed the Chamber of Deputies but failed in the Senate.

Early 1930s: proponent of armoured warfare

Unlike Pétain, de Gaulle believed in the use of tanks and rapid maneuvers rather than trench warfare.: 108  De Gaulle became a disciple of Émile Mayer, a retired lieutenant-colonel (his career had been damaged by the Dreyfus Affair) and military thinker. Mayer thought that although wars were still bound to happen, it was "obsolete" for civilised countries to threaten or wage war on one another. He had a low opinion of French generals, and was a critic of the Maginot Line and a proponent of mechanised warfare. Lacouture suggests that Mayer focused de Gaulle's thoughts away from his obsession with the mystique of the strong leader (Le Fil d'Epée: 1932) and back to loyalty to Republican institutions and military reform.

In 1934 de Gaulle wrote Vers l'Armée de Métier (Towards a Professional Army). He proposed mechanization of the infantry, with stress on an élite force of 100,000 men and 3,000 tanks. The book imagined tanks driving around the country like cavalry. De Gaulle's mentor Emile Mayer was somewhat more prophetic than he was about the future importance of air power on the battlefield. Such an army would both compensate for France's population shortage, and be an efficient tool to enforce international law, particularly the Treaty of Versailles. He also thought it would be a precursor to a deeper national reorganisation, and wrote that "a master has to make his appearance whose orders cannot be challenged – a man upheld by public opinion".

Only 700 copies were sold in France; the claim that thousands of copies were sold in Germany is thought to be an exaggeration. De Gaulle used the book to widen his contacts among journalists, notably with André Pironneau, editor of L'Écho de Paris. The book attracted praise across the political spectrum, apart from the hard left who were committed to the Republican ideal of a citizen army. De Gaulle's views attracted the attention of the maverick politician Paul Reynaud, to whom he wrote frequently, sometimes in obsequious terms. Reynaud first invited him to meet him on 5 December 1934.

De Gaulle was deeply focused on his career at this time. There is no evidence that he was tempted by fascism, and there is little evidence of his views either on domestic upheavals in 1934 and 1936 or the many foreign policy crises of the decade. He approved of the rearmament drive which the Popular Front government began in 1936, although French military doctrine remained that tanks should be used in penny packets for infantry support (ironically, in 1940 it would be German panzer units that would be used in a manner similar to what de Gaulle had advocated). A rare insight into de Gaulle's political views is a letter to his mother warning that war with Germany was inevitable and reassuring her that Pierre Laval's pact with the USSR in 1935 was for the best, likening it to Francis I's alliance with the Turks against Emperor Charles V.

Late 1930s: tank regiment

From April 1936, whilst still in his staff position at SGDN, de Gaulle was a lecturer to generals at CHEM. De Gaulle's superiors disapproved of his views about tanks, and he was passed over for promotion to full colonel in 1936, supposedly because his service record was not good enough. He called on his political patron Reynaud, who showed his record to Minister of War Édouard Daladier. Daladier, who was an enthusiast for rearmament with modern weapons, ensured that his name was on the promotion list for the following year.: 109 

In 1937 General Bineau, who had taught him at Saint-Cyr, wrote on his report on his lectureship at CHEM that he was highly able and suitable for high command in the future, but that he hid his attributes under "a cold and lofty attitude". He was put in command of the 507th Tank Regiment (a battalion of medium Char D2s and a battalion of R35 light tanks) at Metz on 13 July 1937, and his promotion to full colonel took effect on 24 December that year. De Gaulle attracted public attention by leading a parade of 80 tanks into the Place d'Armes at Metz, in his command tank "Austerlitz".

By now de Gaulle was becoming a well-known figure, known as "Colonel Motor(s)".: 117  At the invitation of the publisher Plon, he produced another book, La France et son Armée (France and Her Army) in 1938. De Gaulle incorporated much of the text he had written for Pétain a decade earlier for the uncompleted book Le Soldat, to Pétain's displeasure. De Gaulle agreed to include a dedication to Pétain (although he wrote his own rather than using the draft Pétain sent him), which was dropped from postwar editions. Until 1938 Pétain had treated de Gaulle, as Lacouture puts it, "with unbounded good will", but by October 1938 he privately thought his former protégé "an ambitious man, and very ill-bred".

World War II

Early war

At the outbreak of World War II, de Gaulle was put in command of the French Fifth Army's tanks (five scattered battalions, largely equipped with R35 light tanks) in Alsace. On 12 September 1939 he attacked at Bitche, simultaneously with the Saar Offensive.: 118 

At the start of October 1939, Reynaud asked for a staff posting under de Gaulle, but remained at his post as Minister of Finance. De Gaulle's tanks were inspected by President Lebrun, who was impressed, but regretted that it was too late to implement his ideas. He wrote a paper L'Avènement de la force mécanique (The coming of the Armoured Force) which he sent to General Georges (commander-in-chief on the northeast front – who was not especially impressed) and the politician Leon Blum. Daladier, Prime Minister at the time, was too busy to read it.

In late February 1940, Reynaud told de Gaulle that he had been earmarked for command of an armoured division as soon as one became available. Early in 1940 (the exact date is uncertain), de Gaulle proposed to Reynaud that he be appointed Secretary-General of the War Council, which would in effect make him the government's military adviser. When Reynaud became prime minister in March, he was reliant on Daladier's backing, so the job went instead to the politician Paul Baudouin.

In late March, Reynaud told de Gaulle that he would be given command of the 4th Armoured Division, due to form by 15 May. The government appeared likely to be restructured, as Daladier and Maurice Gamelin (commander-in-chief) were under attack in the aftermath of the Allied defeat in Norway, and had this happened de Gaulle, who on 3 May, was still lobbying Reynaud for a restructuring of the control of the war, might well have joined the government. By 7 May he was assembling the staff of his new division.

Battle of France

Division commander

The Germans attacked the West on 10 May. De Gaulle activated his new division on 12 May. The Germans broke through at Sedan on 15 May 1940. That day, with three tank battalions assembled, less than a third of his paper strength, he was summoned to headquarters and told to attack to gain time for General Robert Touchon's Sixth Army to redeploy from the Maginot Line to the Aisne. General Georges told him it was his chance to implement his ideas.

The attack at Montcornet, a key road junction near Laon, began around 04:30 on 17 May. Outnumbered and without air support, he lost 23 of his 90 vehicles to mines, anti-tank weapons, and Stukas. On 18 May he was reinforced by two fresh regiments of armoured cavalry, bringing his strength to 150 vehicles. He attacked again on 19 May and his forces were once again devastated. He ignored orders from General Georges to withdraw, and in the early afternoon demanded two more divisions from Touchon, who refused. Although de Gaulle's tanks forced German infantry to retreat to Caumont, the action brought only temporary relief and did little to slow the spearhead of the German advance. Nevertheless, it was one of the few successes the French enjoyed while suffering defeats across the country.

De Gaulle's rank of brigadier-general became effective on 1 June 1940.: 127  That day he was in Paris. After visiting his tailor to be fitted for his general's uniform, he met Reynaud, who appears to have offered him a government job for the first time, and afterwards the commander-in-chief Maxime Weygand, who congratulated him on saving France's honour and asked for his advice. On 2 June he sent a memo to Weygand vainly urging that the French armoured divisions be consolidated from four weak divisions into three stronger ones and concentrated into an armoured corps under his command. He made the same suggestion to Reynaud.

Government minister

On 5 June, the day the Germans began the second phase of their offensive (Fall Rot), Prime Minister Paul Reynaud appointed de Gaulle Under-Secretary of State for National Defence and War, with particular responsibility for coordination with the British. Weygand objected to the appointment, thinking him "a mere child". Pétain (deputy prime minister) was also displeased and told Reynaud the story of the ghost-writing of Le Soldat. His appointment received a good deal of press attention, both in France and in the UK. He asked for an English-speaking aide and Geoffroy Chodron de Courcel was given the job.

On 8 June, de Gaulle visited Weygand, who believed it was "the end" and that after France was defeated Britain would soon sue for peace. A day later, de Gaulle flew to London and met British Prime Minister Winston Churchill for the first time. It was thought that half a million men could be evacuated to French North Africa, provided the British and French navies and air forces coordinated their efforts. Either at this meeting or on 16 June, he urged Churchill in vain to throw more Royal Air Force (RAF) aircraft into the Battle of France but conceded that Churchill was right to refuse.

On 11 June, de Gaulle drove to Arcis-sur-Aube and offered General Charles Huntziger Weygand's job as Commander-in-Chief. Huntziger accepted in principle, but de Gaulle was unable to persuade Reynaud to sack Weygand. On 13 June, de Gaulle attended another Anglo-French conference at Tours with Churchill, Lord Halifax, Lord Beaverbrook, Edward Spears, Baron Ismay, and Alexander Cadogan. De Gaulle was dissuaded from resigning by the Interior Minister Georges Mandel, who argued that the war was just beginning, and that de Gaulle needed to keep his reputation unsullied. Nevertheless, at around 9:00 on 17 June, de Gaulle flew to London on a British aircraft with Spears. De Gaulle later told André Malraux of the mental anguish which his flight to London – a break with the French Army and with the recognised government, which would inevitably be seen as treason by many – had caused him.

Leader of the Free French in exile

Appeal from London General de Gaulle speaking on BBC Radio during the war

De Gaulle landed at Heston Airport soon after 12:30 on 17 June 1940. He saw Churchill at around 15:00 and Churchill offered him broadcast time on BBC. They both knew about Pétain's broadcast earlier that day that stated that "the fighting must end" and that he had approached the Germans for terms. That evening de Gaulle dined with Jean Monnet and denounced Pétain's "treason".: 125–128  The next day the British Cabinet (Churchill was not present, as it was the day of his "Finest Hour" speech) were reluctant to agree to de Gaulle giving a radio address, as Britain was still in communication with the Pétain government about the fate of the French fleet. Duff Cooper (minister of information) had an advance copy of the address, to which there were no objections. The cabinet eventually agreed after individual lobbying, as indicated by a handwritten amendment to the cabinet minutes. De Gaulle's Appeal of 18 June exhorted the French people not to be demoralized and to continue to resist occupation. He also – apparently on his own initiative – declared that he would broadcast again the next day. Few listened to the 18 June speech;: 4–6  the speech was published in some newspapers in mainland France. It was largely aimed at French soldiers who were in Britain after being evacuated from Norway and Dunkirk; most showed no interest in fighting for de Gaulle's Free French Forces and were repatriated to France to become German prisoners of war.

General de Gaulle reviews Free French Air Forces' airmen during Bastille Day parade at Wellington Barracks, 14th July 1942.

The small audience of the 18 June appeal grew for later speeches,: 5–6  and the press by early August described Free French military as fighting under de Gaulle's command, although few in France knew anything about him.: 5–6 

The Vichy regime had already sentenced de Gaulle to four years' imprisonment; on 2 August 1940 he was condemned to death by court martial in absentia, although Pétain commented that he would ensure that the sentence was never carried out. De Gaulle said of the sentence, "I consider the act of the Vichy men as void; I shall have an explanation with them after the victory". He and Churchill reached agreement on 7 August 1940, that Britain would fund the Free French, with the bill to be settled after the war (the financial agreement was finalised in March 1941). A separate letter guaranteed the territorial integrity of the French Empire.

De Gaulle at the inauguration of the Brazzaville Conference, French Equatorial Africa, 1944

De Gaulle's support grew out of a base in the colonial French Equatorial Africa. In the autumn of 1940, the colonial empire largely supported the Vichy regime. Félix Éboué, governor of Chad, switched his support to General de Gaulle in September. Encouraged, de Gaulle traveled to Brazzaville in October, where he announced the formation of an Empire Defense Council in his "Brazzaville Manifesto", and invited all colonies still supporting Vichy to join him and the Free French forces in the fight against Germany, which most of them did by 1943.


Working with the French Resistance and other supporters in France's colonial African possessions after Operation Torch in November 1942, de Gaulle moved his headquarters to Algiers in May 1943. He became first joint head (with the less resolutely independent General Henri Giraud, the candidate preferred by the US who wrongly suspected de Gaulle of being a British puppet) and then—after squeezing out Giraud by force of personality—sole chairman of the French Committee of National Liberation.

De Gaulle was held in high regard by Allied commander General Dwight Eisenhower. In Algiers in 1943, Eisenhower gave de Gaulle the assurance in person that a French force would liberate Paris and arranged that the army division of French General Philippe Leclerc de Hauteclocque would be transferred from North Africa to the UK to carry out that liberation. Eisenhower was impressed by the combativeness of units of the Free French Forces and "grateful for the part they had played in mopping up the remnants of German resistance"; he also detected how strongly devoted many were to de Gaulle and how ready they were to accept him as the national leader.

Preparations for D-Day Winston Churchill and General de Gaulle at Marrakesh, January 1944

As preparations for the liberation of Europe gathered pace, the US in particular found de Gaulle's tendency to view everything from the French perspective to be extremely tiresome. President Roosevelt, who refused to recognize any provisional authority in France until elections had been held, referred to de Gaulle as "an apprentice dictator", a view backed by a number of leading Frenchmen in Washington, including Jean Monnet, who later became instrumental in setting up the European Coal and Steel Community that led to the modern European Union. Roosevelt directed Churchill not to provide de Gaulle with strategic details of the imminent invasion because he did not trust him to keep the information to himself. French codes were considered weak, posing a risk since the Free French refused to use British or American codes. De Gaulle refused to share coded information with the British, who were then obliged secretly to break the codes to read French messages.

Upon his arrival at RAF Northolt on 4 June 1944 he received an official welcome. Later, on his personal train, Churchill informed him that he wanted him to make a radio address, but when informed that the Americans continued to refuse to recognise his right to power in France, and after Churchill suggested he request a meeting with Roosevelt to improve his relationship with the president, de Gaulle became angry, demanding to know why he should "lodge my candidacy for power in France with Roosevelt; the French government exists".

Return to France General de Gaulle delivering a speech in liberated Cherbourg from the hôtel de ville (town hall)

On 14 June 1944, he left Britain for the city of Bayeux, Normandy, which he proclaimed as the capital of Free France. Appointing his Aide-de-Camp Francois Coulet as head of the civil administration, de Gaulle returned to the UK that same night on a French destroyer, and although the official position of the supreme military command remained unchanged, local Allied officers found it more practical to deal with the fledgling administration in Bayeux in everyday matters. De Gaulle flew to Algiers on 16 June and then went to Rome to meet the Pope and the new Italian government. At the beginning of July, he visited Roosevelt in Washington, where he received the 17-gun salute of a senior military leader rather than the 21 guns of a visiting head of state. De Gaulle successfully lobbied for Paris to be made a priority for liberation on humanitarian grounds and obtained from Allied supreme commander General Dwight D. Eisenhower an agreement that French troops would be allowed to enter the capital first. A few days later, General Leclerc's division entered the outskirts of the city, and after six days of fighting in which the resistance played a major part, the German garrison of 5000 men surrendered on 25 August, although some sporadic fighting continued for several days.

The 2nd Armored Division passes through the Arc de Triomphe. Signs read "Long live de Gaulle" and "De Gaulle to power".

On the evening of 26 August, the Wehrmacht launched a massive aerial and artillery barrage of Paris in revenge, leaving several thousand dead or injured. The situation in Paris remained tense, and a few days later, de Gaulle asked General Eisenhower to send American troops into Paris as a show of strength. On 29 August, the US 28th Infantry Division was rerouted from its journey to the front line and paraded down the Champs Elysees.

The same day, Washington and London agreed to accept the position of the Free French. The following day General Eisenhower gave his de facto blessing with a visit to the General in Paris.

1944–1946: Provisional Government of the French Republic

General de Gaulle with General Leclerc and other French officers at Montparnasse railway station in Paris, 25 August 1944

Roosevelt insisted that an Allied Military Government for Occupied Territories (AMGOT) should be implemented in France, but this was opposed by both the Secretary and Under-Secretary of War, as well as by Eisenhower, who had been strongly opposed to the imposition of AMGOT in North Africa. Eisenhower, unlike Roosevelt, wanted to cooperate with de Gaulle, and he secured a last-minute promise from the President on the eve of D-Day that the Allied officers would not act as military governors and would instead cooperate with the local authorities as the Allied forces liberated French Territory. De Gaulle would later claim in his memoirs that he blocked AMGOT.

With the prewar parties and most of their leaders discredited, there was little opposition to de Gaulle and his associates forming an interim administration. In order not to be seen as presuming on his position in such austere times, de Gaulle did not use one of the grand official residences such as Hotel de Matignon or the Élysée Palace, but resided briefly in his old office at the Ministry of War. When he was joined by his wife and daughters, they moved into a small state-owned villa on edge of Bois de Boulogne which had once been set aside for Hermann Göring.

On 10 November 1944, Churchill flew to Paris to a reception by de Gaulle and the two together were greeted by thousands of cheering Parisians on the next day. Harold Nicolson stated that Anthony Eden told him that "not for one moment did Winston stop crying, and that he could have filled buckets by the time he received the Freedom of Paris." At an official luncheon, de Gaulle said:

It is true that we would not have seen if our old and gallant ally England, and all the British dominions under precisely the impulsion and inspiration of those we are honouring today, had not deployed the extraordinary determination to win, and that magnificent courage which saved the freedom of the world. There is no French man or woman who is not touched to the depths of their hearts and souls by this.

Keenly aware of the need to seize the initiative and get the process under firm judicial control, de Gaulle appointed Justice Minister François de Menthon to lead the Legal Purge (Épuration légale) to punish traitors and clear away traces of the Vichy regime. Knowing that he would need to reprieve many of the 'economic collaborators'—such as police and civil servants who held minor roles under Vichy to keep the country running—he assumed, as head of state, the right to commute death sentences. Of the near 2,000 people who received the death sentence from the courts, fewer than 800 were executed. De Gaulle commuted 998 of the 1,554 capital sentences submitted before him, including all women. Many others were given jail terms or had their voting rights and other legal privileges taken away. It is generally agreed that the purges were conducted arbitrarily, with often absurdly severe or overly lenient punishments being handed down. Less well-off people who were unable to pay for lawyers were more harshly treated. As time went by and feelings grew less intense, a number of people who had held fairly senior positions under the Vichy government—such as Maurice Papon and René Bousquet—escaped consequences by claiming to have worked secretly for the resistance or to have played a double game, working for the good of France by serving the established order.

Pétain received a death sentence, which his old protégé de Gaulle commuted to life imprisonment, while Maxime Weygand was eventually acquitted. There was a widespread belief, particularly in the years that followed, that de Gaulle was trying to appease both the Third Republic politicians and the former Vichy leaders who had made Laval their scapegoat.

Yalta and Potsdam

De Gaulle was never invited to the summit conferences of Allied leaders such as Yalta and Potsdam. He never forgave the Big Three leaders (Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin) for their neglect and continued to rage against it as having been a negative factor in European politics for the rest of his life.

After the Rhine crossings, the French First Army captured a large section of territory in southern Germany, but although this later allowed France to play a part in the signing of the German surrender, Roosevelt in particular refused to allow any discussion about de Gaulle participating in the Big Three conferences that would shape Europe in the post-war world. Churchill pressed hard for France to be included 'at the inter-allied table', but on 6 December 1944 the American president wired both Stalin and Churchill to say that de Gaulle's presence would "merely introduce a complicating and undesirable factor".

At the Yalta Conference in February 1945, despite Stalin's opposition, Churchill and Roosevelt insisted that France be allowed a post-war occupation zone in Germany, and also made sure that it was included among the five nations that invited others to the conference to establish the United Nations. This guaranteed France a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.

Victory in Europe

De Gaulle presenting the Legion of Honour to American Army and Navy officers William D. Leahy, George C. Marshall, Ernest J. King, Henry H. Arnold and Brehon B. Somervell

In May 1945 the German armies surrendered to the Americans and British at Rheims, and a separate armistice was signed with France in Berlin. De Gaulle refused to allow any British participation in the victory parade in Paris. However, among the vehicles that took part was an ambulance from the Hadfield-Spears Ambulance Unit, staffed by French doctors and British nurses. One of the nurses was Mary Spears, who had set up the unit and had worked almost continuously since the Battle of France with Free French forces in the Middle East, North Africa and Italy. Mary's husband was General Edward Spears, the British liaison to the Free French who had personally spirited de Gaulle to safety in Britain in 1940. When de Gaulle saw the Union Flags and Tricolours side by side on the ambulance, and heard French soldiers cheering, "Voilà Spears! Vive Spears!", he ordered that the unit be closed down immediately and its British staff sent home. A number of French troops returned their medals in protest and Mary wrote, "it is a pitiful business when a great man suddenly becomes small."

Another confrontation with the Americans broke out soon after the armistice when the French sent troops to occupy the French-speaking Italian border region of Val d'Aoste. The French commander threatened to fire on American troops if they tried to stop them, and an irate Truman ordered the immediate end to all arms shipments to France. Truman sent de Gaulle an angry letter saying that he found it unbelievable that the French could threaten to attack American troops after they had done so much to liberate France.

Within the same month another crisis developed in Syria where French troops tried to quell nationalist protests at the continued occupation of the Levant. Winston Churchill opposed French action and after they refused to negotiate he ordered British forces into Syria from Transjordan with orders to fire on the French if necessary. Known as the Levant Crisis, British forces swept into Syria forcing the French to stand down, and with political pressure added by the United States and Soviet Union, the French ordered a ceasefire. This crisis further infuriated Truman, and France evacuated its troops later in the year but de Gaulle said to the British ambassador Duff Cooper, 'you have betrayed France and betrayed the West. That cannot be forgotten'.: 47 

De Gaulle was generally well received in the United States immediately after World War II and supported the US in public comments. He visited New York City on 27 August 1945 to great welcome by thousands of people of the city and its mayor Fiorello La Guardia. On that day, de Gaulle wished "Long live the United States of America". He visited New York City Hall and Idlewild Airport (now John F. Kennedy International Airport), and presented LaGuardia with the Grand Croix of the Legion of Honour award.

New elections and resignation

Since the liberation, the only parliament in France had been an enlarged version of the Algiers Provisional Consultative Assembly, and at last, in October 1945, elections were held for a new Constituent Assembly whose main task was to provide a new constitution for the Fourth Republic. De Gaulle favoured a strong executive for the nation, but all three of the main parties wished to severely restrict the powers of the president. The Communists wanted an assembly with full constitutional powers and no time limit, whereas de Gaulle, the Socialists and the Popular Republican Movement (MRP) advocated one with a term limited to only seven months, after which the draft constitution would be submitted for another referendum.

On 13 November 1945, the new assembly unanimously elected Charles de Gaulle head of the government, but problems immediately arose when it came to selecting the cabinet, due to his unwillingness to allow the Communists any important ministries. The Communists, now the largest party and with their charismatic leader Maurice Thorez back at the helm, were not prepared to accept this for a second time, and a furious row ensued, during which de Gaulle sent a letter of resignation to the speaker of the Assembly and declared that he was unwilling to trust a party that he considered to be an agent of a foreign power (Russia) with authority over the police and armed forces.

Eventually, the new cabinet was finalised on 21 November, with the Communists receiving five out of the twenty-two ministries, and although they still did not get any key portfolios, de Gaulle believed that the draft constitution placed too much power in the hands of parliament with its shifting party alliances. One of his ministers said he was "a man equally incapable of monopolizing power as of sharing it".

De Gaulle outlined a programme of further nationalisations and a new economic plan which were passed, but a further row came when the Communists demanded a 20-percent reduction in the military budget. Refusing to "rule by compromise", de Gaulle once more threatened to resign. There was a general feeling that he was trying to blackmail the assembly into complete subservience. Although the MRP managed to broker a compromise which saw the budget approved with amendments, it was a stop-gap measure.

Barely two months after forming the new government, de Gaulle abruptly resigned on 20 January 1946. The move was called "a bold and ultimately foolish political ploy", with de Gaulle hoping that as a war hero, he would be soon brought back as a more powerful executive by the French people. However, that did not turn out to be the case. With the war finally over, the initial crisis had passed. Although there were still shortages, particularly of bread, France was now recovering, and de Gaulle suddenly did not seem so indispensable. The Communist publication Combat wrote, "There was no cataclysm, and the empty plate didn't crack".

1946–1958: Out of power

The statement of Charles de Gaulle in reference to World War II

De Gaulle suddenly dropped out of sight and returned to his home in Colombey to write his war memoirs. De Gaulle had told Pierre Bertaux in 1944 that he planned to retire because "France may still one day need an image that is pure ... If Joan of Arc had married, she would no longer have been Joan of Arc". The famous opening paragraph of Mémoires de guerre begins by declaring, "All my life, I have had a certain idea of France (une certaine idée de la France)",: 2  and ends by declaring that, given the divisive nature of French politics, France cannot truly live up to this ideal without a policy of "grandeur". During this period of formal retirement, however, de Gaulle maintained regular contact with past political lieutenants, including sympathizers involved in political developments in French Algeria, becoming "perhaps the best-informed man in France".

In April 1947, de Gaulle made a renewed attempt to transform the political scene by creating a Rassemblement du Peuple Français (Rally of the French People, RPF), which he hoped would be able to move above the party squabbles of the parliamentary system. Despite the new party's taking 40 percent of the vote in local elections and 121 seats in 1951, lacking its own press and access to television, its support ebbed. In May 1953, he withdrew again from active politics, though the RPF lingered until September 1955.

As with all colonial powers France began to lose its overseas possessions amid the surge of nationalism. French Indochina (now Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia), colonised by France during the mid-19th century, had been lost to the Japanese after the defeat of 1940. De Gaulle had intended to hold on to France's Indochina colony, ordering the parachuting of French agents and arms into Indochina in late 1944 and early 1945 with orders to attack the Japanese as American troops hit the beaches. Although de Gaulle had moved quickly to consolidate French control of the territory during his brief first tenure as president in the 1940s, the communist Vietminh under Ho Chi Minh began a determined campaign for independence from 1946. The French fought a bitter seven-year war (the First Indochina War) to hold on to Indochina. It was largely funded by the United States and grew increasingly unpopular, especially after the stunning defeat at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu. France pulled out that summer under Prime Minister Pierre Mendès France.

The independence of Morocco and Tunisia was arranged by Mendès France and proclaimed in March 1956. Meanwhile, in Algeria some 350,000 French troops were fighting 150,000 combatants of the Algerian Liberation Movement (FLN). Within a few years, the Algerian war of independence reached a summit in terms of savagery and bloodshed and threatened to spill into metropolitan France itself.

Between 1946 and 1958 the Fourth Republic had 24 separate ministries. Frustrated by the endless divisiveness, de Gaulle famously asked, "How can you govern a country which has 246 varieties of cheese?"

1958: Collapse of the Fourth Republic

1958 Time Man of the Year cover (portrait by Bernard Buffet)

The Fourth Republic was wracked by political instability, failures in Indochina, and inability to resolve the Algerian question.

On 13 May 1958, the Pied-Noir settlers seized the government buildings in Algiers, attacking what they saw as French government weakness in the face of demands among the FLN demand for Algerian independence. A "Committee of Civil and Army Public Security" was created under the presidency of General Jacques Massu, a Gaullist sympathiser. General Raoul Salan, Commander-in-Chief in Algeria, announced on radio that he was assuming provisional power, and appealed for confidence in himself.

At a 19 May press conference, de Gaulle asserted that he was at the disposal of the country. As a journalist expressed the concerns of some who feared that he would violate civil liberties, de Gaulle retorted: "Have I ever done that? On the contrary, I have re-established them when they had disappeared. Who honestly believes that, at age 67, I would start a career as a dictator?" A constitutionalist by conviction, he maintained that he would accept power only from the lawfully constituted authorities. De Gaulle did not wish to repeat the difficulty the Free French movement experienced in establishing legitimacy as the rightful government. He told an aide that the rebel generals "will not find de Gaulle in their baggage".

The crisis deepened as French paratroops from Algeria seized Corsica and a landing near Paris was discussed (Operation Resurrection).

Political leaders on many sides agreed to support the General's return to power, except François Mitterrand, Pierre Mendès France, Alain Savary, the Communist Party, and certain other leftists.

On 29 May the French President, René Coty, told parliament that the nation was on the brink of civil war, so he was

turning towards the most illustrious of Frenchmen, towards the man who, in the darkest years of our history, was our chief for the reconquest of freedom and who refused dictatorship in order to re-establish the Republic. I ask General de Gaulle to confer with the head of state and to examine with him what, in the framework of Republican legality, is necessary for the immediate formation of a government of national safety and what can be done, in a fairly short time, for a deep reform of our institutions.

De Gaulle accepted Coty's proposal under the precondition that a new constitution would be introduced creating a powerful presidency in which a sole executive, the first of which was to be himself, ruled for seven-year periods. Another condition was that he be granted extraordinary powers for a period of six months.

De Gaulle remained intent on replacing the weak constitution of the Fourth Republic. He is sometimes described as the author of the new constitution, as he commissioned it and was responsible for its overall framework. The actual drafter of the text was Michel Debré who wrote up de Gaulle's political ideas and guided the text through the enactment process. On 1 June 1958, de Gaulle became Prime Minister and was given emergency powers for six months by the National Assembly, fulfilling his desire for parliamentary legitimacy.

De Gaulle's cabinet received strong support from right-wing parties, split support from left of center parties, and strong opposition from the Communist Party. In the vote on 1 June 1958, 329 votes were cast in favor and 224 against, out of 593 deputies. On 28 September 1958, a referendum took place and 82.6 percent of those who voted supported the new constitution and the creation of the Fifth Republic. The colonies (Algeria was officially a part of France, not a colony) were given the choice between immediate independence and the new constitution. All African colonies voted for the new constitution and the replacement of the French Union by the French Community, except Guinea, which became the first French African colony to gain independence and immediately lost all French assistance.

1958–1969: Return to power

The first meeting between David Ben-Gurion and de Gaulle at Élysée Palace, 1960

In the November 1958 election, Charles de Gaulle and his supporters (initially the Union pour la Nouvelle République-Union Démocratique du Travail, then the Union des Démocrates pour la Vème République, later still the Union des Démocrates pour la République, UDR) won a comfortable majority. On 21 December, he was elected President of France; he was inaugurated in January 1959. As head of state, he became ex officio the Co-Prince of Andorra.

De Gaulle oversaw tough economic measures to revitalise the country, including the issuing of a new franc. Less than a year after taking office, he was confronted with national tragedy, after the Malpasset Dam in Var collapsed in early December, killing over 400. Internationally, he rebuffed both the United States and the Soviet Union, pushing for an independent France with its own nuclear weapons and strongly encouraging a "Free Europe", believing that a confederation of all European nations would restore the past glories of the great European empires.: 411, 428 

He set about building Franco-German cooperation as the cornerstone of the European Economic Community (EEC), paying a state visit to West Germany in September 1962, the first to Germany by a French head of state since Napoleon. In January 1963, West Germany and France signed a treaty of friendship, the Élysée Treaty.: 422  France also reduced its dollar reserves, trading them for gold from the United States, reducing American economic influence abroad.: 439 

On 23 November 1959, in a speech in Strasbourg, he announced his vision for Europe:

Oui, c'est l'Europe, depuis l'Atlantique jusqu'à l'Oural, c'est toute l'Europe, qui décidera du destin du monde.

Yes, it is Europe, from the Atlantic to the Urals, it is the whole of Europe, that will decide the destiny of the world.

His expression, "Europe, from the Atlantic to the Urals", has often been cited throughout the history of European integration. His vision stood in contrast to the Atlanticism of the United States and Britain, preferring instead a Europe that would act as a third pole between the United States and the Soviet Union. As the last chief of government of the Fourth Republic, de Gaulle made sure that the Treaty of Rome creating the European Economic Community was fully implemented, and that the British project of Free Trade Area was rejected, to the extent that he was sometimes considered as a "Father of Europe".


The French Community in 1959

Upon becoming president, de Gaulle was faced with the urgent task of ending the bloody and divisive war in Algeria. Although the military's near coup had contributed to his return to power, de Gaulle soon ordered all officers to quit the rebellious Committees of Public Safety. Such actions greatly angered the pieds-noirs and their military supporters.

He faced uprisings in Algeria by the pied-noirs and the French armed forces. On assuming the prime minister role in June 1958, he immediately went to Algeria, and neutralised the army there. For the long term he devised a plan to modernize Algeria's traditional economy, deescalated the war, and offered Algeria self-determination in 1959. A pied-noir revolt in 1960 failed, and another attempted coup failed in April 1961. French voters approved his course in a 1961 referendum on Algerian self-determination. De Gaulle arranged a cease-fire in Algeria with the March 1962 Évian Accords, legitimated by another referendum a month later. It gave victory to the FLN, which declared independence.

Prime Minister Michel Debré resigned over the final settlement and was replaced with Georges Pompidou. France recognised Algerian independence on 3 July 1962, and a blanket amnesty law was belatedly voted in 1968, covering all crimes committed by the French army during the war. In just a few months in 1962, 900,000 Pied-Noirs left the country. After 5 July, the exodus accelerated in the wake of the French deaths during the Oran massacre of 1962.

Assassination attempts

Charles de Gaulle's motorcade passes through Isles-sur-Suippe (Marne). The president salutes the crowd from his famous Citroën DS.

De Gaulle was targeted for death by the Organisation armée secrète (OAS), in retaliation for his Algerian initiatives. Several assassination attempts were made on him; the most famous occurred on 22 August 1962, when he and his wife narrowly escaped from an organized machine gun ambush on their Citroën DS limousine. The attack was arranged by Colonel Jean-Marie Bastien-Thiry at Petit-Clamart.: 381  It is claimed that there were at least 30 assassination attempts against de Gaulle throughout his lifetime.

Direct presidential elections

In September 1962, de Gaulle sought a constitutional amendment to allow the president to be directly elected by the people and issued another referendum to this end. After a motion of censure voted by the parliament on 4 October 1962, de Gaulle dissolved the National Assembly and held new elections. The Gaullists won an increased majority.

De Gaulle's proposal to change the election procedure for the French presidency was approved at the referendum on 28 October 1962. Thereafter the president was to be elected by direct universal suffrage for the first time since Louis Napoleon in 1848.

In December 1965, de Gaulle returned as president for a second seven-year term.

"Thirty glorious years"

With the Algerian conflict behind him, de Gaulle was able to achieve his two main objectives, the reform and development of the French economy, and the promotion of an independent foreign policy and a strong presence on the international stage. This was named by foreign observers the "politics of grandeur".

In the immediate post-war years France was in poor shape; wages remained at around half prewar levels, the winter of 1946–1947 did extensive damage to crops, leading to a reduction in the bread ration, hunger and disease remained rife and the black market continued to flourish. Germany was in an even worse position, but after 1948 things began to improve dramatically with the introduction of Marshall Aid—large scale American financial assistance given to help rebuild European economies and infrastructure. This laid the foundations of a meticulously planned program of investments in energy, transport and heavy industry, overseen by the government of Prime Minister Georges Pompidou.

Aided by these projects, the French economy recorded growth rates unrivalled since the 19th century. In 1964, for the first time in nearly 100 years France's GDP overtook that of the United Kingdom for a time. This period is remembered in France as the peak of the Trente Glorieuses ("Thirty Glorious Years" of economic growth between 1945 and 1974).

Fourth nuclear power

President John F. Kennedy and de Gaulle at the conclusion of their talks at Elysee Palace, 1961

As early as April 1954, de Gaulle argued that France must have its own nuclear arsenal. Full-scale research began again in late 1954 when Prime Minister Pierre Mendès France authorized a plan to develop the atomic bomb. France's independent Force de Frappe (strike force) came into being soon after de Gaulle's election with his authorization for the first nuclear test.

With the cancellation of Blue Streak, the US agreed to supply Britain with its Skybolt and later Polaris weapons systems, and in 1958, the two nations signed the Mutual Defence Agreement. Although at the time it was still a full member of NATO, France proceeded to develop its own independent nuclear technologies—this would enable it to become a partner in any reprisals and would give it a voice in matters of atomic control.

The Redoutable, the first French nuclear missile submarine

After six years of effort, on 13 February 1960, France became the world's fourth nuclear power when a high-powered nuclear device was exploded in the Sahara. In August 1963, France decided against signing the Partial Test Ban Treaty because it would have prohibited it from testing nuclear weapons above ground. France continued to carry out tests at the Algerian site until 1966, under an agreement with the newly independent Algeria. France's testing program then moved to the Mururoa and Fangataufa Atolls in the South Pacific.

In November 1967, an article by the French Chief of the General Staff (but inspired by de Gaulle) in the Revue de la Défense Nationale caused international consternation. It was stated that the French nuclear force should be capable of firing "in all directions"—thus including even America as a potential target. This surprising statement was intended as a declaration of French national independence and was in retaliation to a warning issued long ago by Dean Rusk that US missiles would be aimed at France if it attempted to employ atomic weapons outside an agreed plan. However, criticism of de Gaulle was growing over his tendency to act alone with little regard for the views of others.

Foreign policy

De Gaulle with President Lyndon B. Johnson in Washington, D.C., 1963

De Gaulle hosted a superpower summit on 17 May 1960 for arms limitation talks and détente efforts in the wake of the 1960 U-2 incident between United States President Dwight Eisenhower, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, and United Kingdom Prime Minister Harold Macmillan. When Khrushchev condemned the United States U-2 flights, de Gaulle expressed to Khrushchev his disapproval of 18 near-simultaneous secret Soviet satellite overflights of French territory; Khrushchev denied knowledge of the overflights. Lieutenant General Vernon A. Walters was struck by de Gaulle's "unconditional support" of the United States during that "crucial time". De Gaulle then tried to revive the talks by inviting all the delegates to another conference at the Élysée Palace to discuss the situation, but the summit ultimately dissolved in the wake of the U-2 incident.

In February 1966, France withdrew from the NATO Military Command Structure but remained within the organisation. De Gaulle wanted France to remain the master of the decisions affecting it; he also ordered all foreign military personnel to leave France within a year.: 431  This latter action, in particular, was poorly received in the US.

De Gaulle and Konrad Adenauer in 1961

De Gaulle established a good relationship with West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer—culminating in the Elysee Treaty in 1963—and in the first few years of the Common Market, France's industrial exports to the other five members tripled and its farm export almost quadrupled. The franc became a solid, stable currency for the first time in half a century, and the economy mostly boomed. De Gaulle vetoed the British application to join the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1963, and again in June 1967. In June 1965, after France and the other five members could not agree, de Gaulle withdrew France's representatives from the EC. Their absence left the organisation essentially unable to run its affairs until the Luxembourg compromise was reached in January 1966. De Gaulle succeeded in influencing the decision-making mechanism written into the Treaty of Rome by insisting on solidarity founded on mutual understanding.

In January 1964, France was, after the UK, among the first of the major Western powers to open diplomatic relations with the People's Republic of China (PRC). By recognizing Mao Zedong's government, de Gaulle signaled to both Washington and Moscow that France intended to deploy an independent foreign policy. The move was criticized in the United States as it seemed to seriously damage US policy of containment in Asia. De Gaulle justified this action by "the weight of evidence and reason", considering that China's demographic weight and geographic extent put it in a position to have a global leading role. De Gaulle also used this opportunity to arouse rivalry between the USSR and China. In September 1966, in a famous speech in Phnom Penh in Cambodia, he expressed France's disapproval of the US involvement in the Vietnam War, calling for a withdrawal.

With tension rising in the Middle East in 1967, de Gaulle declared an arms embargo against Israel on 2 June, just three days before the outbreak of the Six-Day War. This, however, did not affect spare parts for the French military hardware with which the Israeli armed forces were equipped. Under de Gaulle, following the independence of Algeria, France embarked on foreign policy more favorable to the Arab side. President de Gaulle's position in 1967 at the time of the Six-Day War played a part in France's new-found popularity in the Arab world. In his letter to David Ben-Gurion dated 9 January 1968, de Gaulle expressed conviction that Israel had ignored his warnings and overstepped the bounds of moderation by taking the territory of neighbouring countries by force, believing that it amounted to annexation, and considered withdrawing from these areas the best course of action.

Under de Gaulle's leadership, France supported the breakaway Republic of Biafra against the Nigerian government during the Nigerian Civil War. Although French arms helped to keep Biafra in action for the final 15 months of the civil war, its involvement was seen as insufficient and counterproductive. The Biafran chief of staff stated that the French "did more harm than good by raising false hopes and by providing the British with an excuse to reinforce Nigeria."

General Charles de Gaulle on the Chemin du Roy, Sainte-Anne-de-la-Pérade, 1967

In July 1967, during a visit to Canada, de Gaulle shouted "Vive le Québec libre! Vive le Canada français! Et vive la France!" (Long live free Quebec! Long live French Canada, and long live France!) to a large crowd from a balcony at Montreal's city hall; de Gaulle abruptly left Canada two days later. The speech was heavily criticized in both Canada and France, but was seen as a watershed moment by the Quebec sovereignty movement.

May 1968 and resignation

De Gaulle's government was criticized within France, particularly for its heavy-handed style. While the written press and elections were free, and private stations such as Europe 1 were able to broadcast in French from abroad, the state's ORTF had a monopoly on television and radio. This monopoly meant that the government was in a position to directly influence broadcast news. In many respects, Gaullist France was conservative, Catholic, and there were few women in high-level political posts (in May 1968, the government's ministers were 100% male).

The mass demonstrations and strikes in France in May 1968 severely challenged De Gaulle's legitimacy. He and other government leaders feared that the country was on the brink of revolution or civil war. On 29 May, De Gaulle fled to Baden-Baden in Germany to meet with General Massu, head of the French military there, to discuss possible army intervention. De Gaulle returned to France after being assured of the military's support, in return for which De Gaulle agreed to amnesty for the 1961 coup plotters and OAS members.

In a private meeting discussing the students' and workers' demands for direct participation in business and government he coined the phrase "La réforme oui, la chienlit non", which can be politely translated as 'reform yes, masquerade/chaos no.' It was a vernacular scatological pun meaning 'chie-en-lit, no' (shit-in-bed, no). The term is now common parlance in French political commentary.

But de Gaulle offered to accept some of the reforms the demonstrators sought. He again considered a referendum to support his moves, but on 30 May, Pompidou persuaded him to dissolve parliament and hold new elections. The June 1968 elections were a major success for the Gaullists. His party won 352 of 487 seats, but de Gaulle remained personally unpopular.

De Gaulle resigned the presidency at noon, 28 April 1969, following the rejection of his proposed reform of the Senate and local governments in a nationwide referendum. Two months later Georges Pompidou was elected as his successor.

Later life


Newly inaugurated U.S. president Richard Nixon visiting President De Gaulle one month before De Gaulle's retirement

De Gaulle retired once again to his nine-acre country estate, La Boisserie (the woodland glade), in Colombey-les-Deux-Églises, 120 miles southeast of Paris. There the General, who often described old age as a "shipwreck", continued his memoirs, dictated to his secretary from notes. To visitors, de Gaulle said, "I will finish three books, if God grants me life." The Renewal, the first of three planned volumes to be called Memoirs of Hope, was quickly finished and immediately became the fastest seller in French publishing history.


On the evening of 9 November 1970, de Gaulle, who had generally enjoyed good health in his lifetime, died suddenly from an aneurysm while watching the news on television. His wife asked that she be allowed to inform her family before the news was released. President Georges Pompidou, who was informed early the next day, announced the general's death on television, simply saying "General de Gaulle is dead. France is a widow."

Grave of Charles de Gaulle at Colombey-les-Deux-Églises

De Gaulle had insisted his funeral be held at Colombey, and that no presidents or ministers attend—only his Compagnons de la Libération. Since a large number of foreign dignitaries wanted to honor de Gaulle, Pompidou arranged a separate memorial service at the Notre-Dame Cathedral, to be held at the same time as his actual funeral.

The funeral on 12 November 1970 was the biggest such event in French history and a national mourning was declared. Thousands of guests attended, included De Gaulle's successor Georges Pompidou, U.S. president Richard Nixon, British prime minister Edward Heath, UN secretary-general U Thant, Soviet statesman Nikolai Podgorny, Italian president Giuseppe Saragat, West German chancellor Willy Brandt and Queen Juliana of the Netherlands. The General was conveyed to the church on a turretless Panhard EBR and carried to his grave, next to his daughter Anne, by eight young men of Colombey. As he was lowered into the ground, the bells of all the churches in France tolled, starting from Notre Dame and spreading out from there.

De Gaulle specified that his tombstone bear the simple inscription of his name and his years of birth and death.

Personal life

De Gaulle's home, La Boisserie, in Colombey-les-Deux-Églises

De Gaulle married Yvonne Vendroux on 7 April 1921 in Église Notre-Dame de Calais. They had three children: Philippe (1921–2024), Élisabeth (1924–2013), who married General Alain de Boissieu, and Anne (1928–1948). Anne had Down syndrome and died of pneumonia at the age of 20.

De Gaulle always had a particular love for his daughter Anne; one Colombey resident recalled how he used to walk with her hand-in-hand around the property, talking quietly about the things she understood.

De Gaulle had an older brother Xavier and sister Marie-Agnes, and two younger brothers, Jacques and Pierre.

One of de Gaulle's grandsons, also named Charles de Gaulle, was a member of the European Parliament from 1994 to 2004, his last tenure being for the far-right National Front. The younger Charles de Gaulle's move to the anti-Gaullist National Front was widely condemned by other family members. "It was like hearing the pope had converted to Islam", one said. Another grandson, Jean de Gaulle, was a member of the French parliament for the centre-right UMP until his retirement in 2007.



Portrait by Donald Sheridan

De Gaulle made 31 regional tours during his presidency, visiting every French department; for many small towns, the visit was an important moment in history. He enjoyed entering the welcoming crowds; an aide noted how often people said, "he saw me" or "he touched me", and another recalled how a mother begged de Gaulle for the king's touch on her baby. They, supporters, and opponents surmised that de Gaulle was a monarch-like figure for the French.: 616–618 

Historians have accorded Napoleon and de Gaulle the top-ranking status of French leaders in the 19th and 20th centuries. According to a 2005 survey, carried out in the context of the tenth anniversary of the death of François Mitterrand, 35 percent of respondents said Mitterrand was the best French president ever, followed by Charles de Gaulle (30 percent) and Jacques Chirac (12 percent). Another poll by BVA four years later showed that 87% of French people regarded his presidency positively.

Statues honouring de Gaulle have been erected in London, Warsaw, in Moscow, Bucharest and Quebec. The first Algerian president, Ahmed Ben Bella, said that de Gaulle was the "military leader who brought us the hardest blows" prior to Algerian independence, but "saw further" than other politicians, and had a "universal dimension that is too often lacking in current leaders." Likewise, Léopold Sédar Senghor, the first president of Senegal, said that few Western leaders could boast of having risked their lives to grant a colony independence. De Gaulle was admired by the US President Richard Nixon; after a meeting at the Palace of Versailles just before the general left office, Nixon declared that "He did not try to put on airs but an aura of majesty seemed to envelop him ... his performance—and I do not use that word disparagingly—was breathtaking." On arriving for his funeral, Nixon said of him, "greatness knows no national boundaries".

In 1990, President Mitterrand, de Gaulle's old political rival, presided over the celebrations to mark the 100th anniversary of his birth. Mitterrand, who once wrote a vitriolic critique of him called the "Permanent Coup d'État", quoted a recent opinion poll, saying, "As General de Gaulle, he has entered the pantheon of great national heroes, where he ranks ahead of Napoleon and behind only Charlemagne." Under the influence of Jean-Pierre Chevènement, the leader of CERES, the left-wing and souverainist faction of the Socialist Party, Mitterrand had, except on certain economic and social policies, rallied to much of Gaullism. Between the mid-1970s and mid-1990s there developed a left-right consensus, dubbed "Gaullo-Mitterrandism", behind the "French status" in NATO: i.e., outside the integrated military command.

A number of commentators have been critical of his failure to prevent the massacres after Algerian independence, while others take the view that the struggle had been so long and savage that it was inevitable. The Australian historian Brian Crozier wrote, "that he was able to part with Algeria without civil war was a great though negative achievement which in all probability would have been beyond the capacity of any other leader France possessed."

De Gaulle was an excellent manipulator of the media, as seen in his shrewd use of television to persuade around 80% of Metropolitan France to approve the new constitution for the Fifth Republic. He afterwards enjoyed massive approval ratings, and once said that "every Frenchman is, has been or will be Gaullist".

That de Gaulle did not necessarily reflect mainstream French public opinion with his veto was suggested by the decisive majority of French people who voted in favour of British membership when Pompidou called a referendum on the matter in 1972. His early influence in setting the parameters of the EEC can still be seen, most notably with the controversial Common Agricultural Policy.

Some writers take the view that Pompidou was a more progressive and influential leader than de Gaulle because, though also a Gaullist, he was less autocratic and more interested in social reforms. Although he followed the main tenets of de Gaulle's foreign policy, he was keen to work towards warmer relations with the United States.

In 1968, shortly before leaving office, de Gaulle refused to devalue the Franc on grounds of national prestige, but upon taking over Pompidou reversed the decision almost immediately. During the financial crisis of 1968, France had to rely on American (and West German) financial aid to shore up the economy.

Perry has written that the

events of 1968 illustrated the brittleness of de Gaulle's rule. That he was taken by surprise is an indictment of his rule; he was too remote from real life and had no interest in the conditions under which ordinary French people lived. Problems like inadequate housing and social services had been ignored. The French greeted the news of his departure with some relief as the feeling had grown that he had outlived his usefulness. Perhaps he clung onto power too long, perhaps he should have retired in 1965 when he was still popular.

Brian Crozier said "the fame of de Gaulle outstrips his achievements, he chose to make repeated gestures of petulance and defiance that weakened the west without compensating advantages to France"

Régis Debray called de Gaulle "super-lucide" and pointed out that virtually all of his predictions, such as the fall of communism, the reunification of Germany and the resurrection of 'old' Russia, came true after his death. Debray compared him with Napoleon ('the great political myth of the 19th century'), calling de Gaulle his 20th-century equivalent.

While de Gaulle had many admirers, he was also one of the most hated and reviled men in modern French history.


Blue plaque commemorating the headquarters of General de Gaulle at 4 Carlton Gardens in London during World War II

A number of monuments have been built to commemorate de Gaulle. France's largest airport, located in Roissy, outside Paris, is named Charles de Gaulle Airport. France's nuclear-powered aircraft carrier is also named after him.

Honours and awards





French editions

English translations

See also


  1. ^ Also known by other names.


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Further reading


World War II


Foreign policy

Ideas and memory

Charles de Gaulle at Wikipedia's sister projects