(1890–1970) French president
Charles de Gaulle represented French strength and resilience throughout his career, first as an officer during World War I and the interwar period, then as leader of the Free French government abroad during World War II, and finally as the president of the republic during an era characterized by prosperity and foreign policy challenges. His determination to defend France’s independence and freedom of action earned him both plaudits and criticism. His social and cultural conservatism frustrated French youths of the late 1960s, although his supporters appreciated his respect for tradition.
De Gaulle received a solid, humanist education at Catholic-run schools. His father, Henri, was a teacher of history and letters. Having decided not to continue in his father’s footsteps, De Gaulle entered the military academy of Saint-Cyr in 1908. He joined the infantry because it would be exposed to direct fire in wartime. He served as a student officer under Colonel Philippe Pétain. Following graduation from Saint-Cyr in 1912, de Gaulle chose to join Pétain’s 33rd Infantry Regiment from Arras. Lieutenant de Gaulle received several wounds during World War I, though he returned to combat as soon as he recovered from them. He became a colonel before he received a third, nearly fatal wound during the battle of Verdun in 1916. Left for dead, he became a prisoner of war under German supervision. He attempted escape five times without success.
After armistice he briefly returned to France before being posted to Poland. He helped to organize an army to fight against the Soviet Red Army. He spent the years after his 1921 marriage to Yvonne Vendroux in France. In 1931 he joined the general secretariat of National Defense in Paris, where he became involved in politics for the first time.
He also commenced writing and theorizing about warfare during the interwar period. He published several articles that attracted attention due to his unorthodox claims; de Gaulle recommended that commanders adapt to the particular features of their situation. In a series of lectures at the Ecole Supérieure de Guerre, under Pétain, he considered possible reforms of the military. De Gaulle advocated the creation of a corps that combined firepower and mobility in the interest of rapid, daring offensives.
After France declared war against Germany in September 1939, de Gaulle became commander of the 5th Army. After the French troops had been pushed back and many evacuated from Dunkirk, de Gaulle left for London with his aide-de-camp, Geoffroy de Courcel. He expected that the French government would continue the war from abroad. In response to Pétain’s announcement of armistice with Germany, General de Gaulle made his first appeal for continued resistance. Relatively few in France heard the initial message; the next day, however, the press promulgated de Gaulle’s call to arms. In succeeding days, de Gaulle repeated his rejection of the armistice and of Pétain’s government.
De Gaulle organized the Free French Forces and, with the help of French jurist René Cassin, ensured that they would retain their national identity and enjoy a special status when fighting amoung British soldiers. The Free French soldiers would assist the Allies during the campaigns in North Africa, Italy, and France.
De Gaulle established a series of committees designed to give structure to the Free French. The French National Committee, created in September 1941, began as the focal point for the government in exile. Soon after de Gaulle settled in Algiers he organized the French Committee for National Liberation, on June 3, 1943. He helped to coordinate the resistance within France by deputizing Jean Moulin to lead the National Council for the Resistance.
De Gaulle disagreed with the new Constituent Assembly, chosen through elections held in October 1945, about the form of the new French state, so he resigned on January 20, 1946. On April 14, 1947, de Gaulle launched the Rassemblement du Peuple Français (RPF), which he intended as a “gathering” of loyal Frenchmen who opposed the weak executive and sweeping social legislation planned by the government of the Fourth Republic. In practice, the RPF served as a political party akin to the others. The RPF enjoyed local electoral success but had little effect on national politics given their small numbers in the National Assembly. The RPF staged a resurgence in 1958 when de Gaulle returned to the fore after years in the political “desert.”
Between 1955 and 1958 de Gaulle relaxed at his estate at Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises. He remained attuned to current events, especially to the crisis of the Fourth Republic as it confronted the independence movement in Algeria that began with a November 1, 1954, insurrection. Some influential people called for de Gaulle to take control as a means of preventing civil war. On May 19, 1958, de Gaulle expressed his willingness to lead the republic, though he had no intention of staging a coup.
On May 29 then-president René Coty called upon de Gaulle to form a government. The National Assembly accepted his presidency on June 1; he received the power to rule by decree for a six-month period and to introduce constitutional reforms. The constitution approved on September 29, 1958, brought the Fifth Republic into existence and provided for a strong executive and an influential parliament. De Gaulle received a large plurality in presidential elections and assumed the powers given to the president under the new constitution on January 8, 1959.
As president of France, de Gaulle intended to resolve the Algerian crisis, to direct France’s relations with her
European neighbors, and to ensure her independence relative to the United States. He traveled to Algeria on numerous occasions, finally concluding that France had to give the colony its independence. Negotiations proved difficult, given multiple factions in Algeria and the failed putsch staged by French generals in April 1961. After almost a year of talks the Évian Accords were signed on March 22, 1962, and then accepted by the French and the Algerians through referenda.
De Gaulle made important contributions to the formation of a united Europe, though he never accepted the need for France to surrender any sovereignty in the process of building the European Union. He adhered to the requirements instituted by the Treaty of Rome, signed just prior to his arrival in office, by initiating financial reforms and by reducing customs duties and tariffs imposed on trade with other European countries. He pursued cordial relations with Germany; German chancellor Konrad Adenauer and de Gaulle signed the Elysée Treaty on January 22, 1965.
De Gaulle also directed his attention to ensuring French national independence during the cold war. Although always opposed to communism and a sup-
The head of the Free French during World War II, Charles de
Gaulle (right) led France through the postwar period. porter of capitalism, as made evident by his immediate encouragement of American president John F. Kennedy during the Berlin crisis (1961) and the Cuban missile crisis (1962), he nonetheless believed it important for France to retain a “free hand” in the world. In his quest to preserve France’s international stature de Gaulle continued the nuclear program started after World War II; France exploded its first atomic bomb in the Sahara in February 1960. De Gaulle gradually pulled France out of the NATO military command, though the country remained part of the alliance even after 1966.
De Gaulle further demonstrated his determination to maintain an autonomous foreign policy by his decision to recognize the People’s Republic of China in 1964. He criticized the U.S. war in Vietnam during a 1966 speech in Cambodia.
He justified his encouragement of Québecois independence activists as being in line with his lifelong opposition to imperialism and his belief in the right to national self-determination. On the other hand, he developed amicable relations with the Soviet Union and its Eastern European satellite states.
Despite hesitations and almost no campaigning, de Gaulle won reelection to the presidency over François Mitterrand in 1965. Yet trouble was on the horizon. Although his tenure was generally a time of economic prosperity and modernization, many citizens chafed at the lack of social and cultural modernization. The events of May 1968, when students and labor union members engaged in protests and strikes, posed a problem for de Gaulle. Much to the public’s consternation he disappeared from France by helicopter on May 29. After returning from an evening in Baden Baden, where he consulted with a French general, he gave a radio address in which he stressed the need to remain intransigent about the necessity of public order.
The legislative campaigns that followed de Gaulle’s dissolution of the assembly did little to eliminate the social fissures that had been revealed and exacerbated by the events of May 1968. The president became more cut off from the citizenry, while the new assembly refused necessary reforms. Ignoring his advisers, de Gaulle put planned reforms of the Senate to referendum in 1969. French voters responded negatively. He immediately announced his resignation and returned to his estate.
In the year prior to his death he wrote his Mémoirs d’espoir (only the first volume of which was completed) and received visitors at his estate. De Gaulle was buried in the local church according to his instructions.