De Gaulle
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Charles De Gaulle

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 Republic.

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.

Algerian Settlement

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 independence.

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 Pompidou.

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 elections.

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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