Useful Notes: Charles De Gaulle

Charles de Gaulle (1890-1970) was a French military and politician, who fought with distinction during World War I and World War II, later becoming the the embodiment of the French Resistance after the Fall of France. After the Liberation of France by the Allies, he led the French Provisional Government from 1944 until 1945, later becoming President of France from 1958 until 1969. Suffice to say, he is probably the most influential French political figure of the 20th century, and his legacy continues to shape French politics to this very day.

An élève de Saint-Cyr, de Gaulle was educated as an officer in France's most prestigious military academy. Commanding a platoon, he fought in some of the earliest battles of World War I, sustaining numerous injuries while earning praise for his bravery and unconventional tactics. He was eventually captured during the Battle of Verdun, spending the remainder of the war in German captivity. Between the World Wars, he was a leading advocate of mechanization and manoeuvre warfare, contrasting official French military doctrine that emphasized infantry and defensive warfare.

At the outbreak of World War II, de Gaulle initially served as a colonel; he was eventually appointed to lead a hastily-formed armoured division after the Wehrmacht's breakthrough at Sedan. His limited success at countering German advances promoted him to the rank of acting brigadier-general. Nevertheless, it was all too little, too late, and France was forced to sign an armistice with Germany on June 22, 1940. By then, de Gaulle (along with a few other officers who opposed the surrender) had fled to England. De Gaulle was one of the handful of people who saw any point in what was largely symbolic resistance at the time. Few people saw the point in fighting on once Paris had fallen — Marshall Pétain's coup had a lot of popular support, and unlike Great Britain, France had limited capacity to wage war outside of the European continent.

On June 18, 1940, the BBC broadcast a speech by de Gaulle urging the French people to continue resisting the Germans. Although it had limited impact at the time, the speech cemented him as the leader of the Free French Forces, which grew over time to become a significant military force in its own right. This, along with Churchill's determination to avoid being isolated between Roosevelt and Stalin during negotiations, effectively made him the de facto Allied leader of France. He would eventually assume such a role in the Provisional French Government, following the liberation of France by the Allies in 1944.

After the war, de Gaulle spent about a decade out of the spotlight. He was later elected as the first President of the French Fifth Republic during the Algerian War for his apparently firm and rock-like determination to retain Algeria as a French possession. It turned out that he wasn't firm and rock-like the way his supporters wanted, as he ultimately granted Algeria its independence. This led to several assassination attempts on his life by the Organisation de l'armée secrète (OAS), a far-right paramilitary organization mainly comprising veterans and others who opposed Algerian independence.

Internationally, de Gaulle was often stereotyped as an arrogant jackass for his apparently stubborn and self important behaviour, although it could be argued that his actions were more or less following the Realpolitik of the time. As he himself said, "France has no friends, only interests", and this helped restore French international prestige and independence in foreign policy, counterbalancing the influence of the Anglo-American partnership and the Soviet Union in European politics.

Under his tenure, France became a nuclear power and was withdrawn from the NATO command structure (while still remaining part of the alliance). De Gaulle personally kept the United Kingdom from joining the European Union, arguing that the UK's interests diverged too much from those of other European nations — a perspective that remains accurate to this day. He also opposed the United States' intervention in the The Vietnam War, despite the fact that it was largely France's fault that they got involved in the first place. Canadians remember him best for his infamous "Vive le Québec libre!" comment at Expo 67 in Montreal, which represented a breach in diplomatic protocol, emboldened Quebec separatists, and pissed off English Canadians (and Quebec federalists) to no end.note  He also was quick to put France and (West) Germany on the road to reconciliation and cooperation, as formalized in the Elysée friendship treaty of 1963, signed by him and West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer.

Despite his charisma and popularity, he was increasingly being seen as a dictator, and was considered too conservative for the France of The Sixties. To young students, de Gaulle — who spent much of his life opposing conventional practice and authority — was the symbol of everything that was old, conservative and out-dated. He managed to survive the May 1968 revolt by calling a snap election where his party won a crushing majority, but quit after a referendum on reforming the Senate and administrative divisions was overwhelmingly defeated. He died at the age of 79 on November 9th, 1970, a few months after his resignation.

De Gaulle is still seen as one of the greatest Frenchmen of all time - expect to see a monument to his memory and an important street or place to be named after him in any French town you visit.

Famously caricatured as being very tall, with a big nose, wearing his brigadier-general military uniform with the trademark two-starred kepi and for raising his arms into the air, while clenching his fists.

Referenced in the following works:

  • The plot of The Day of the Jackal revolves around a hired assassin trying to murder De Gaulle, because he gave Algeria its independence.
  • De Gaulle has a cameo in the Suske en Wiske album De Kaartendans when Wiske says: People come to a jumble sale to find books that help them with their problems. Cut to a shot of de Gaulle consulting a book about Algeria.
  • In the Suske en Wiske album Het Mini-Mierennest Tante Sidonia imitates him, causing Wiske to think that it is de Gaulle himself.
  • In the original version of Tintin Tintin And The Picaros Thompson and Thomson think of any last words, while standing in front of a firing squad and suggest: People of San Theodoros, I've understood you. This is a reference to Charles De Gaulle, who in 1959 said to the Algerian people wanting independence: People of Algeria, I've understood you.
  • Nero: In Nero against the F.F.F. Adhemar is kidnapped by the French intelligence service to use his scientific knowledge. When Nero and Meneer Pheip try to find out where he is residing they are informed: That's confidential. Nobody knows, except for Charles himself, while a huge portrait of him looms over them in the background.
  • Young Indiana Jones: As a young adult Indiana Jones meets him during World War One, after they are both taken prisoner of war. When they try to escape Indy is able to flee, but de Gaulle is recaptured.
  • His head is seen in a jar in Futurama.
  • In The Simpsons "The Trouble With Trillions'' Mr. Burns steals a Trillion Dollar Bill that was intended to re-build France after WW2. While waiting for the never arriving money the de Gaulle knockoff declares: "I say we just act snooty to [the Americans] forever!"
  • Appears as a character in the videogame Swarm on the Somme.
  • Is seen on the television in The Triplets of Belleville.
  • Dougal in The Magic Roundabout is named after de Gaulle — or at least that's what the French creators thought when they saw the English version.