Charles de Gaulle . . . the history maker

Syed Badrul Ahsan
Thursday, November 16th, 2017

Mourners gather at the tomb of former French President General Charles de Gaulle in 1970 (Internet)


Charles de Gaulle died quietly forty seven years ago on 9 November 1970. The end came to him as he sat watching the news on television in his country home in Colombey-les-deux-Eglises. It was the passing of a man who had played an instrumental role in the reshaping of Europe and the reinvention of France in the aftermath of the Second World War. He ascended to power once the Nazis had been defeated and France had been liberated, but left when he discovered, to no one’s surprise, that the French political system would not permit him to carry out the political and constitutional reforms he thought were necessary to transform France into a country ready to meet changed times.


De Gaulle waited, as he had waited in exile in London during the years of the Nazi occupation of his country and meanwhile making sure that his Free French forces were causing enough trouble for Hitler to permit him any peace, either of mind or policy. During the war, General De Gaulle had electrified his people with his exhortations of defiance of the Nazis. ‘France has lost a battle,’ he declared in bold strokes, ‘but she has not lost the war.’ That was his rallying cry. And where the Vichy regime of Marshal Petain and Pierre Laval was in collaboration with Germany, Charles de Gaulle made sure that French pride did not falter, that his people, in alliance with their friends in America, Britain and the Soviet Union, intensified the struggle for a renewal of liberty. In the end, they succeeded and De Gaulle came home to preside over a restructured France.


But that task would be deferred for more than a decade. Returning to his village once his efforts at reform were thwarted, De Gaulle made it clear that he would only return when France called him again. The call came in 1958. The national assembly and political parties across the aisle had been left with no choice but to entrust the future of the country in De Gaulle’s hands. He took charge, quickly decided that France would need to get out of Algeria and despite the deep opposition to his plans to bring all Frenchmen home from the colonized country succeeded in his task. At home, he went ahead to give his country a new constitution, one that would promote and uphold political stability. Under it, the President would be in charge of foreign affairs and defence, with a Prime Minister looking into other affairs of state. The President would be elected by direct vote, but in the event of none of the competing candidates coming by at least fifty per cent of the vote a second round would be necessary.


And thus was the Fifth Republic born. It has served France well. It is still the underpinning of the country’s political system.


Charles de Gaulle was a history maker in very many ways. The idea of French grandeur was what mattered to him. In association with the philosopher Andre Malraux, he reinvented French heritage. With politicians like Georges Pompidou and Maurice Couve de Murville and Valery Giscard d’Estaing he forged an alliance that would be replicated long after he was gone. In his dealings with the world outside France, he was clear about the need for his country to play a prominent role in global affairs. He believed in European political unity and went to great lengths to normalize relations with West Germany’s Konrad Adenauer and Ludwig Erhard. At the same time, though, it was his conviction that within and despite such alliances as Nato, France had to demonstrate its independence in no uncertain terms. He therefore took his country out of the military component of Nato in 1966. Two years earlier, in January 1964, he had gone ahead with his recognition of the People’s Republic of China as the only legitimate government of China. This was at a time when the American-led SEATO and CENTO were still obsessed with thoughts of checking communism around the world.


The European Economic Community, today’s European Union, was an enterprise that had President De Gaulle’s full backing, but it was also a body in which he believed Britain had no place. He vetoed all attempts by London to gain membership of the organization and not until he had left the presidency would Britain finally be welcomed into it.


De Gaulle was, in very large measure, the embodiment of France. His country, he was convinced and with good reason, was destined to play a great role in the shaping of the modern world. He made sure that the role was played in his time as also in that of his successors. He was often prescient about the future of other politicians. In the early 1960s, as Richard Nixon, holding no political office, travelled the world and wrote incisive articles on foreign policy, De Gaulle made the prediction that the former American vice president yet had a good future ahead of him. He was vindicated when Nixon was elected President, after the failures of 1960 and 1962 — when he lost the presidential election to John F. Kennedy and the California gubernatorial race to Edmund G. ‘Pat’ Brown, in that order — in November 1968.


It was therefore in the fitness of things that one of the most poignant of tributes paid Charles de Gaulle came from President Nixon. Recalling his meeting with President De Gaulle in Paris soon after his inauguration, Nixon tells readers in his memoirs that he went on with a long discourse on the ramifications of the Second World War with the French leader. At one point, De Gaulle intervened, to tell a clearly impressed Nixon: ‘Mr. President, during the Second World War, all the nations of Europe lost. Two were defeated.’


The world has not quite been the same since Charles de Gaulle resigned office in April 1969. He had just lost a referendum on constitutional reforms. He had vowed that if a majority of French voters rejected the proposed reforms, he would leave office. He kept his promise and went back home to Colombey-les-deux-Eglises.

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