Charles De Gaulle
De Gaulle, Charles (1890-1970), president of France, who was the leader of
the Free French movement during World War II and the chief architect of the Fifth
Charles Andre Joseph Marie de Gaulle was born in Lille, France, on Nov. 22,
1890, the son of a teacher of philosophy and literature at a Jesuit college. From
early childhood he took a keen interest in reading. Fascinated by history, he formed
an almost mystical
conception of service to France.
De Gaulle graduated from the Ecole Militaire of Saint-Cyr in 1912 and joined an
infantry regiment. In World War I he was wounded and captured at Douaumont in the Battle
of Verdun in March 1916. As a war prisoner, he wrote his first book, published in
1924, La discorde chez l'ennemi. After the armistice he served on the staff of Gen.
Maxime Weygand's military mission to Poland and then taught military history at
Saint-Cyr. He served on Marshal Henri Philippe Petain's staff, then with the French
army occupying the Rhineland, and later in Lebanon. In the 1930's de Gaulle wrote
various books and articles on military subjects that marked him as a gifted writer
and an imaginative thinker. In 1931 he published Le fil de l'epee (Eng. tr., The
Edge of the Sword, 1960), an analysis of military and political leadership. He also
published Vers l'armee de metier
(1934; Eng. tr., The Army of the Future, 1941) and La France et son armee (1938; Eng. tr.,
France and Her Army, 1945). He urged the creation of a mechanized army with special
armored divisions manned by a corps of professional specialist soldiers. Armored mobility
and air power, he argued, would provide better defenses than fixed fortifications such as
the Maginot Line. His theories were rejected by the military and by left-wing
leaders who saw professional armies as a potentially dangerous political weapon.
Free French Leader
At the outbreak of World War II, de Gaulle was a colonel commanding a tank
regiment in Alsace. In May 1940, at the time of the German offensive, he was
promoted to brigadier general and placed in charge of the hastily formed 4th Armored
Division, which helped check the German advances under desperate conditions. On June
6, 1940, Premier Paul Reynaud, who for many years had championed de Gaulle's ideas in the
Chamber of Deputies, appointed him undersecretary of state for war. De Gaulle was
one of the few in the cabinet to resist surrender and to propose that the government
withdraw if necessary to North Africa to continue the struggle. When Marshal Petain,
who was committed to an armistice with the Germans, became premier, de Gaulle left for
London. On June 18 he broadcast the first of his appeals to his compatriots to
continue the struggle.
He soon became the very symbol of the entire Resistance, even though the exiled
armed forces at his disposal were few in number. He impressed upon British Prime
Minister Winston Churchill the significance of the movement but
did not succeed in impressing the highly skeptical leaders in Washington--including
President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who thought of him as a potential
dictator and as an obstacle to U.S. relations with the Vichy regime. In July 1940 a
French court martial sentenced de Gaulle to death for treason.
From 1942 on, de Gaulle's Free (or Fighting) French movement gained in power
and influence, winning over the French colonies in West Africa, and establishing close
ties with the underground Resistance movement in France itself. De Gaulle reiterated
his intention to allow the French people to decide their political destiny after
liberation and won the backing of many of the former republican political leaders.
In November 1942, when American and British expeditionary forces landed in
North Africa, they persuaded Adm. Jean Francois Darlan, head of the Vichy armed
forces and Marshal Petain's representative in North Africa, to order a cease-fire, in
return for which Darlan was named high commissioner for French North Africa. De Gaulle and
many segments of the British and American press denounced the step. After Darlan's
assassination a month later, the Allies named Gen. Henri Giraud as high commissioner.
Seeing his opportunity, de Gaulle moved his headquarters to Algiers in May 1943. He
organized the French Committee of National Liberation, with himself and General Giraud as
cochairmen, and soon eased out the less adroit Giraud.
By 1944, de Gaulle was widely recognized as political leader of the Resistance
movement. In June 1944 he transformed the Committee of National Liberation into a
provisional government of the French republic. Although he was not permitted to land
on D-Day, he arrived on French soil a week later on June 14 and on August 25 he entered
Paris in triumph.
Head of the Provisional Government
After the war, de Gaulle was unanimously elected president of the provisional
government in October 1945. Representing the newly restored political parties and
the Resistance groups, his provisional government carried out the spirit of the Resistance
programs, instituting a number of far-reaching economic reforms, including the
nationalization of various industries and the inauguration of plans for economic
modernization. The country could not agree on a new constitution, however, and two
successive constituent assemblies had to be elected.
While the constitution was still being debated, President de Gaulle grew
impatient with the role played by the political parties and with the subordination of the
executive branch to the legislature. He had already let it be known that he favored
a constitution that would provide for a strong executive and a stable government. In
January 1946 he resigned precipitously.
Retirement and Recall
De Gaulle disapproved of the constitution of the Fourth Republic, adopted in
October 1946, and he returned to his country home at Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises to write
his war memoirs. He made a renewed political effort in 1947 by organizing the
Rassemblement du Peuple Francais (Rally of the French People), a national coalition
"above parties, which the left viewed as an authoritarian threat to democratic
institutions. The organization had little success, and de Gaulle again withdrew from
politics in May 1953 to complete the three volumes of his brilliant war memoirs: L'appel
(1954; Eng. tr., The Call to Honor, 1955), L'unite (1956; Eng. tr., Unity, 1959), and Le
salut (1959; Eng. tr., Salvation, 1960).
Meanwhile the Fourth Republic, despite economic prosperity, met military
disaster in Indochina in 1954 and then faced an insoluble colonial war in Algeria, which
began that same year. In the grave crisis that broke out in the spring of 1958, army
leaders and European settlers in Algeria staged a mass demonstration in Algiers on May 13,
directed against any attempt in Paris to form a government that would make concessions to
the Algerian nationalists. Civil war threatened in the continuing crisis, and
political leaders of various persuasions turned to de Gaulle as the one person who could
avert disaster. On June 1, 1958, the National Assembly named de Gaulle premier and
granted him wide emergency powers, including the right to prepare a new constitution to be
submitted to a popular referendum. In September 1958 the new constitution, providing
for a presidential system, was overwhelmingly adopted by 83% of the electorate.
President of the Fifth Republic
Legislative elections in November 1958 assured a majority for the new Gaullist
party (the Union for the New Republic) and other supporters of de Gaulle, and in December
1958 he was elected president of the Fifth Republic by a 78% vote of the electoral
college. He was inaugurated in January 1959. Michel Debre became the first
premier of the Fifth Republic, but the President retained the decisive voice in all
matters involving foreign affairs, national defense, and even key domestic policies.
The President also had the power under the constitution to rule by decree in the
event of emergency and to dissolve the legislature and hold new elections.
The new government adopted important financial and economic measures to combat
inflation and to protect the industrial expansion already under way. It devalued the
franc and (for psychological reasons) issued a new franc worth 100 old francs.
Modernization plans and state investment in key sectors of the economy were
continued. By the 1960s the French economy was experiencing unprecedented rates of
growth and remarkable stability.
In international affairs President de Gaulle asserted France's independence of
all outside control, calling for policies that would make France and Europe independent of
the two superpowers, the United States and the USSR. He refused to admit Britain
into his European scheme and blocked Britain's effort to join the European Economic
Community (Common Market). In 1960, France showed its strength by successfully
exploding its first atomic bomb.
The Algerian War continued after 1958. Abandoning the hope of reconciling
Algeria to integration with France, de Gaulle unexpectedly began to speak of independence.
The groups that had helped bring him to power with the thought that his views on
French grandeur would guarantee the retention of Algeria turned against him in open
revolt, and in February 1960 and in April 1961 he had to use emergency powers to put down
risings by the European settlers and the military in Algeria. The Secret Army
Organization (OAS) resorted to terrorism in Paris and to attempts on his life.
In 1962, de Gaulle arranged a cease-fire with the Algerian National Liberation
Front, and Algerian independence was approved in a popular referendum in France in April.
It was widely conceded even by critics hostile to de Gaulle that he had succeeded
in ending a crisis that no other French political leader had been able to resolve.
By the early 1960's all other French colonies in Africa had also been granted
Fluctuations in Popularity
In September 1962, de Gaulle's strong-minded domestic rule alienated many in
parliament. He proposed that the constitution be amended to permit election of the
president of the republic by direct popular vote. However, instead of submitting the
proposed amendment to the National Assembly first, as the constitution provided, he
insisted on putting it directly to the people in a referendum. When the Assembly
passed a motion of censure, de Gaulle promptly dissolved it and held new elections.
The referendum supported the de Gaulle amendment. The elections in November also resulted
in increased strength for the Gaullists. In April 1962, after the Algerian
settlement, Michel Debre submitted his resignation as premier and was replaced by Georges
In 1965, de Gaulle was reelected president for a second 7-year term, and he was
inaugurated in January 1966, but with a marked decline in prestige. During the
election campaign the hitherto muted criticism of his administration burst forth.
Despite economic and technological growth, political stability, and a strong foreign
policy, resentment was expressed at de Gaulle's excessive nationalism and at the failure
of the government to cope with inflation and other economic problems. In the
election de Gaulle received only a 44.6% plurality, and a runoff was necessary. He
was then elected by a 55% vote.
In the legislative elections of March 1967 the Gaullist coalition won only a
narrow victory despite de Gaulle's personal appeal. Political protests and massive
economic strikes began, including demonstrations by farmers, and the government had to
seek special powers to deal with the slowdown of the economy. Meanwhile the President
continued his assertive foreign policy, forcing NATO forces to leave French soil,
continuing to oppose British entry into the Common Market, condemning the American war in
Vietnam, stirring up extremist separatist sentiments in Quebec, and tending to support the
Arabs in their war with Israel.
Triumph in Adversity--1968
In the spring of 1968 the Gaullist regime faced a stern test. Massive
student demonstrations and street fighting in Paris, in which the students occupied the
Sorbonne for weeks, sparked a series of gigantic labor strikes--the greatest strike wave
in French history--that paralyzed the economy. More than 8 million workers were on
strike, over one third of the nation's labor force. The students agitated for reform
of the nation's educational system, expansion of educational facilities, and a voice in
decision making. The workers demanded a more equitable share in an economy that had
been expanding dramatically since the 1950's but was suffering from severe inflation.
De Gaulle at first planned a series of reforms to placate the students and labor
and to ask backing for his reforms in a referendum. Premier Pompidou, whose
government narrowly survived an attempt to censure it in parliament, advised against such
a referendum and persuaded the President to dissolve parliament and hold new general
In the election of June 1968, de Gaulle, effectively using the threat of a
Communist takeover and gaining the support of many Frenchmen who were frightened by the
student excesses, won a landslide victory for his regime. The Gaullist party, the
Union for the New Republic, won 358 of the 487 seats, the first time in republican history
that any party had won an absolute majority in the legislature. Despite Premier
Pompidou's share in the Gaullist victory, the President startled the French people by
replacing him with Maurice Couve de Murville in July 1968.
The keynote for the new phase of the Gaullist regime was the building of a
"society of participation. Distinct from both capitalism and communism, the new
society was pledged to give labor and students a share in the making of decisions that
affected their lives and to assure workingmen a share in the profits of industry.
In 1969, de Gaulle submitted proposed constitutional reforms, which would have
transformed the Senate into an advisory body and given extended powers to regional
councils. When his proposals were defeated, de Gaulle resigned the presidency on April 28
and retired to his home in Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises. There he worked on his
memoirs, a legendary figure in his own time, until his death on Nov. 9, 1970.
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