Charles de Gaulle
- Category : Political
- Type : MGE
- Profile : 6/2 - Role Model / Hermit
- Definition : Single
- Incarnation Cross : LAX Uncertainty 2
Charles André Joseph Marie de Gaulle (22 November 1890 – 9 November 1970) was a French general and statesman who led the Free French Forces during World War II.
He later founded the French Fifth Republic in 1958 and served as its first President from 1959 to 1969. A veteran of World War I, in the 1920s and 1930s, de Gaulle came to the fore as a proponent of mobile armoured divisions, which he considered would become central in modern warfare. During World War II, he earned the rank of brigadier general (retained throughout his life) leading one of the few successful armoured counter-attacks during the 1940 Battle of France in May in Montcornet, and then briefly served in the French government as France was falling. De Gaulle was the most senior French military officer to reject the June 1940 armistice to Nazi Germany right from the outset.
He escaped to Britain and gave a famous radio address, broadcast by the BBC on 18 June 1940, exhorting the French people to resist Nazi Germany and organised the Free French Forces with exiled French officers in Britain. As the war progressed, de Gaulle gradually gained control of all French colonies except Indochina. By the time of the Allied invasion of France in 1944 he was heading what amounted to a French government in exile. From the very beginning, de Gaulle insisted that France be treated as a great power by the other Allies, despite her initial defeat. De Gaulle became prime minister in the French Provisional Government, resigning in 1946 because of political conflicts.
After the war ended he founded his own political party, the Rally of the French People (RPF) on 14 April 1947. Although he retired from politics in the early 1950s after the RPF's failure to win power, and was banned from the government-controlled TV and radio, he was voted back to power as President of the Council of Ministers by the French Assembly during the May 1958 crisis. De Gaulle led the writing of a new constitution founding the Fifth Republic, and was elected President of France.
As President, Charles de Gaulle was able to end the political chaos that preceded his return to power. A new French currency was issued in January 1960 to control inflation and industrial growth was promoted. Although he initially supported French rule over Algeria, he controversially decided to grant independence to that country, ending an expensive and unpopular war but leaving France divided and having to face down opposition from the European settlers and French military who had originally supported his return to power.
Immensely patriotic, de Gaulle and his supporters held the view, known as Gaullism, that France should continue to see itself as a major power and should not rely on other countries, such as the United States, for its national security and prosperity. Often criticized for his Politics of Grandeur, de Gaulle oversaw the development of French atomic weapons and promoted a foreign policy independent of American and British influences. He withdrew France from NATO military command — although remaining a member of the western alliance—and twice vetoed Britain's entry into the European Community. He travelled widely in Eastern Europe and other parts of the world and recognised Communist China. On a visit to Canada in 1967, he gave encouragement to Québécois separatism with his historical "Vive le Québec Libre" speech.
During his term, de Gaulle also faced controversy and political opposition from Communists and Socialists, as well as from the far right. Despite having been re-elected as President, this time by direct popular ballot, in 1965, in May 1968 he appeared likely to lose power amidst widespread protests by students and workers, but survived the crisis with an increased majority in the Assembly. However, de Gaulle resigned in 1969 after losing a referendum in which he proposed more decentralization. He is considered by many to be the most influential leader in modern French history.
De Gaulle's birth house in Lille, now a national museum.
De Gaulle was born in the industrial region of Lille in French Flanders, the third of five children of Henri de Gaulle, a professor of history and literature at a Jesuit college, who eventually founded his own school. He was raised in a family of devout Roman Catholics who were patriotic and traditionalist, but also quite progressive.
His father came from a long line of parliamentary gentry from Normandy and Burgundy, while his mother, Jeanne Maillot, descended from a family of wealthy entrepreneurs from Lille. His mother's family was of part Irish (MacCartan), Scottish (Fleming) and German (Kolb) ancestry. According to Henri, the paternal family's true origin was never determined, but could have been Celtic. He thought that the name could be derived from the word gaule—a long pole which was used in the Middle Ages to beat fruits from the trees. Another source has the name deriving from Galle, meaning "oak" in the Gaulish language, and the sacred tree of the druids.
The oldest recorded ancestor of de Gaulle could well be that of a Richard de Gaulle, squire of King Philippe Auguste, who endowed the de Gaulle with a fiefdom in Elbeuf-en-Bray in Normandy in 1210.
De Gaulle's father, Henri, encouraged historical and philosophical debate between his children at mealtimes, and through his encouragement, Charles grew familiar with French history from an early age. Struck by his mother’s tale of how she cried as a child when she heard of the French capitulation to the Germans at Sedan in 1870, he developed a keen interest in military strategy and endlessly questioned his father about the other failures of the brief war at Vionville and Mars-la-Tour, and though a naturally shy person his entire life, often organised other children to re-enact ancient French battles.
The wider de Gaulle family were also very literary and academic, and he was raised on tales of the flight of the Scottish Stuarts into France, to whom he was related on his mother's side. He was also impressed by his uncle, also called Charles de Gaulle, who was a historian and passionate Celticist who wrote books and pamphlets advocating the union of the Welsh, Scots, Irish and Bretons into one people. His grandfather Julien-Philippe was also a historian and his grandmother Josephine-Marie wrote poems which impassioned his Christian faith.
When he was eight years old, the young Charles suffered what he regarded as the most traumatic event of his childhood; the French humiliation at being forced to withdraw its expeditionary force from the upper Nile region to prevent the Fashoda Incident developing into outright war with Britain. This marked the beginning of his lifelong mistrust of Great Britain.
Always a voracious reader, he particularly loved to read his father’s books by such writers as Henri Bergson, Charles Péguy, and Maurice Barrès. In addition to the German philosophers Friedrich Nietzsche, Immanuel Kant and Johann Goethe, the works of the ancient Greeks (especially Plato) and the prose of the romanticist poet François-René de Chateaubriand. By the time he was ten, he was reading medieval history, such as the Froissart’s Chronicles of the Hundred Years War. He began his own writing in his early teens, and later his family paid for one composition, a one-act play in verse about a traveller, to be privately published.
When he was 11, the family moved to Paris, where he loved to climb the tower at Notre Dame de Paris to look out over the city, and also visit the Catholic Church of Saint-Sulpice with his parents to listen to the world famous organ music.
De Gaulle was educated in Paris at the College Stanislas and also briefly in Belgium where he continued to display his interest in reading and studying history, and shared the great pride many of his countrymen felt in their nation’s achievements. France made a significant contribution to European culture with its Impressionist painters, the sculpture of Rodin, writers such as Émile Zola and Marcel Proust and the music of Claude Debussy, and helped lead the way with technological advances such as with the construction of the Suez Canal and the Eiffel Tower and in recent developments in aviation, the cinema and the motor car. As he grew older, he also developed a profound belief in his destiny to achieve great things, and, eager to avenge the French defeat of 1870, decided upon a military career as being the best way to make a name for himself.
Before he could become an officer cadet, regulations which had recently been introduced dictated that he had to spend a year as an ordinary soldier. As an individualist, de Gaulle was an average soldier. He was promoted to corporal after six months, then to sergeant. He disliked barrack life and what he saw as pointless regulations, not because he objected to military discipline, but because he considered the procedures to be time wasting and out of date to the point of possibly damaging the military potential of the best new recruits.
Afterwards, de Gaulle spent four years studying and training at the elite military academy, Saint-Cyr. While there, and because of his height, high forehead, and nose, he acquired the nicknames of "the great asparagus" and "Cyrano".
He did well at the academy and received praise for his conduct, manners, intelligence, character, military spirit and resistance to fatigue. However, he often quarrelled with his company commander and other officers that there was a lack of preparation for war with Germany, and that the French training and equipment were inadequate to deal with a numerically superior adversary. Graduating in 1912 in 13th place out of 210 cadets, his passing out report noted that he was a highly gifted cadet who should go on to make an excellent officer. Preferring to serve in France rather than far away in North Africa or Indochina, he joined the 33rd infantry regiment of the French Army, based at Arras and commanded by Colonel (and future Marshal) Philippe Pétain. De Gaulle's career would follow Pétain's for the next 20 years.
First World War
While at Arras in the build up to World War I, de Gaulle developed a good rapport with his commanding officer, Pétain, with whom he shared a number of ideas on French military affairs, and was often seen on exercise and in officer’s quarters with his superior debating great battles and the likely outcome of any coming war. Both men agreed that the invention of the machine gun and rapid-firing artillery rendered cavalry virtually obsolete and would require a shift to semi-static positions from which attacks would be made under the protection of a heavy barrage at the enemy.
When war finally broke out in late July 1914, the 33rd Regiment, considered one of the best fighting units in France was immediately thrown into checking the German advance at Dinant. However, the traditionally minded French Fifth Army commander, General Charles Lanrezac threw his units into pointless bayonet charges with bugles and full colours flying against the German artillery, incurring heavy losses.
Promoted to platoon commander, de Gaulle was involved in fierce fighting from the outset but was among the first to be wounded. In hospital, he grew bitter at the tactics used, and spoke with other injured officers against the outdated methods of the French army. Yet, with General Joseph Joffre's decision to stop the retreat and counter-attack, favoured by the arrival of British units and by changes in the command structure, the rapid German advance was eventually stalled by mid September at the First Battle of the Marne. Returning to find many of his former comrades dead, he was put in charge of a company. De Gaulle's unit gained recognition for repeatedly crawling out into no-mans-land to listen to the conversations of the enemy in their trenches, and the information he brought back was so valuable that in January 1915 he received a citation for his bravery. After a more serious wound which incapacitated him for four months, he was promoted to capitaine (captain) in September 1915. Taking charge of his company, he narrowly escaped death shortly afterwards when he was blown up by a mine, leaving him with a wound in his left hand which obliged him later to wear his wedding ring on his right hand.
At the Battle of Verdun in March 1916, while leading a charge to try to break out of a position which had become surrounded by the enemy, he received a bayonet wound to the leg after being stunned by a shell and, passing out from the effects of poison gas, was captured at Douaumont, one of the few survivors of his battalion. Initially giving him up for dead, Pétain, who was later to achieve great acclaim for his role in the battle, wrote in the regimental journal that de Gaulle had been "an outstanding officer in all respects".
In captivity de Gaulle acquired yet another nickname, Le Connétable ("The Constable"). This came about because of his reading German newspapers (he had learned German at school and spent a vacation in the Black Forest region) and giving talks on his view of the progress of the conflict to fellow prisoners. These were delivered with such patriotic ardour and confidence in victory that they called him by the title which had been given to the commander-in-chief of the French army during the monarchy.
While being held as a prisoner of war, de Gaulle wrote his first book, co-written by Matthieu Butler, L'Ennemi et le vrai ennemi ("The Enemy and the True Enemy"), analysing the issues and divisions within the German Empire and its forces; the book was published in 1924.
In all, he made five unsuccessful escape attempts, being moved to higher security accommodation and punished on his return with long periods of solitary confinement and with the withdrawal of privileges such as newspapers and tobacco. In his letters to his parents he constantly spoke of his frustration that the war was continuing without him, calling the situation "a shameful misfortune" and compared it to being cuckolded. As the war neared its end, he grew depressed that he was playing no part in the victory, but despite his efforts, he remained in captivity until the German surrender. On 1 December 1918, three weeks after the armistice, he returned to his father's house in the Dordogne to be reunited with his three brothers, who had all served in the army yet somehow survived the war.
Between the wars
After the armistice, de Gaulle continued to serve in the army, and was with the staff of the French military mission to Poland as an instructor of Polish Infantry during its war with Communist Russia (1919–1921). He distinguished himself in operations near the River Zbrucz and won the highest Polish military decoration, the Virtuti Militari - although the award was granted in five classes at the time, with class I and class II reserved largely for royalty and field marshals, and de Gaulle received the class V award sans cross.
He was promoted to commandant in the Polish Army and offered a further career in Poland, but chose instead to return to France, where he taught at the École Militaire. Although he was a protégé of his old commander, Marshal Philippe Pétain, de Gaulle believed in the use of tanks and rapid manoeuvres rather than trench warfare.
De Gaulle served with the Army of Occupation in the Rhineland in the mid 1920s. As a commandant ("major") by the late 1920s, he briefly commanded a light infantry battalion at Treves (Trier) and then served a tour of duty in Syria, then a French protectorate under a mandate from the League of Nations. During the 1930s, now a lieutenant-colonel, he served as a staff officer in France. In 1934 he wrote Vers l’Armée de Métier ("Toward a Professional Army"), which advocated a professional army based on mobile armoured divisions. Such an army would both compensate for the poor French demography, and be an efficient tool to enforce international law, particularly the Treaty of Versailles which forbade Germany from rearming. The book sold only 700 copies in France, where Pétain advocated an infantry-based, defensive army, but 7,000 copies in Germany, where it was read aloud to Adolf Hitler.
Second World War
The Battle of France
The plaque commemorating the headquarters of General de Gaulle at 4 Carlton Gardens in London during World War II.
At the outbreak of World War II, de Gaulle was still a colonel, having antagonised the leaders of the military through the 1920s and 1930s with his bold views. Initially commanding a tank regiment in the French Fifth Army, de Gaulle implemented many of his theories and tactics for armoured warfare against an enemy whose strategies resembled his own. After the German breakthrough at Sedan on 15 May 1940 he was given command of the improvised 4e Division cuirassée.
On 17 May, de Gaulle attacked German tank forces at Montcornet with 200 tanks but no air support. Although de Gaulle's tanks forced the German infantry to retreat to Caumont the action brought only temporary relief and did little to slow the spearhead of the German advance. Nevertheless, it was one of the few successes the French enjoyed while suffering defeats elsewhere across the country. In recognition for his efforts, de Gaulle was promoted to acting brigadier general on 24 May, a rank he would hold for the rest of his life. On 28, he took part in an attempt to rescue the Allied force trapped at Dunkirk by cutting an escape route through German forces at Abbeville.
On 5 June, Prime Minister Paul Reynaud appointed him Under Secretary of State for National Defence and War and put him in charge of coordination with the United Kingdom.
As a junior member of the French government, he unsuccessfully opposed surrender, advocating instead that the government remove itself to North Africa and carry on the war as best it could from France's African colonies. While serving as a liaison with the British government, de Gaulle telephoned Reynaud from London on 16 June informing him of the offer by Britain of a Declaration of Union. The declaration, inspired by Jean Monnet, would have merged France and the United Kingdom into one country, with a single government and army. The offer was a desperate, last-minute effort to strengthen the resolve of Reynaud's government; his cabinet's hostile reaction to the offer contributed to Reynaud's resignation.
In rejecting the proposal, Marshal Philippe Pétain, believing that Germany would soon defeat Britain as well and who later went on to lead the collaborationist Vichy regime, told British Prime Minister Winston Churchill that "in three weeks, England will have its neck wrung like a chicken" and that such a plan would be like "fusion with a corpse".
General de Gaulle speaking on BBC Radio during the war.
Returning the same day to Bordeaux, the temporary wartime capital, de Gaulle learned that Marshal Pétain had become prime minister and was planning to seek an armistice with Nazi Germany. De Gaulle and other allied officers rebelled against the new French government; on the morning of 17 June, de Gaulle and a few senior French officers flew to Britain with 100,000 gold francs in secret funds provided to him by the ex-prime minister Paul Reynaud. Narrowly escaping the Luftwaffe, he landed safely in London that afternoon.
Leader of the Free French
"To all Frenchmen" : De Gaulle exhorting the French to resist to the German occupation
De Gaulle strongly denounced the French government's decision to seek armistice with the Nazis and set about building the Free French Forces from the soldiers and officers deployed outside France or who had fled France with him. On 18 June, de Gaulle delivered a famous radio address via the BBC Radio service. Although the British cabinet initially attempted to block the speech, they were overruled by Churchill.
De Gaulle's Appeal of 18 June exhorted the French people not to be demoralised and to continue to resist the occupation of France and work against the collaborationist Vichy regime, which had signed an armistice with Nazi Germany. Although the original broadcast could only be heard in a few parts of occupied France, de Gaulle's subsequent speeches reached many parts of the territories under the Vichy regime, helping to rally the French resistance movement and earning him much popularity amongst the French people and soldiers. On 4 July 1940, a court-martial in Toulouse sentenced de Gaulle in absentia to four years in prison. At a second court-martial on 2 August 1940 de Gaulle was condemned to death for treason against the Vichy regime.
With British support, the de Gaulle family made their exile home in England. For the first four months they rented a home in Petts Wood near Bromley, London, then moved further inland to Shropshire, where they rented Gadlas Hall, Dudleston Heath, near Ellesmere. They later lived at Rodinghead near Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire (36 miles northwest of London) from October 1941 to September 1942. He organised the Free French forces and gradually the Allies gave increasing support and recognition to de Gaulle's efforts. In dealings with his British allies and the United States, de Gaulle insisted at all times on retaining full freedom of action on behalf of France and he was constantly on the verge of being cut off by the Allies. Many denials of the deep and mutual antipathy between de Gaulle and political leaders of Anglo-American allies of the French are on historical record.
He harboured a suspicion of the British in particular, believing that they were surreptitiously seeking to steal France's colonial possessions in the Levant. A self-confessed francophile, Winston Churchill was often frustrated at de Gaulle's patriotic egocentricity, but also wrote of his "immense admiration" for him during the early days of his British exile. Though their relationship later became strained, Churchill tried to explain the reasons for de Gaulle's behaviour in the second volume of his history of World War II;
"He felt it was essential to his position before the French people that he should maintain a proud and haughty demeanour towards "perfidious Albion", although in exile, dependent upon our protection and dwelling in our midst. He had to be rude to the British to prove to French eyes that he was not a British puppet. He certainly carried out this policy with perseverance".
Clementine Churchill, who admired de Gaulle, once cautioned him, "General, you must not hate your friends more than you hate your enemies." De Gaulle himself stated famously, "France has no friends, only interests." The situation was nonetheless complex, and de Gaulle's mistrust of both British and U.S. intentions with regards to France was mirrored by a mistrust of the Free French among the U.S. political leadership, who for a long time refused to recognise de Gaulle as the representative of France, preferring to deal with representatives of the Vichy government. Roosevelt in particular hoped that it would be possible to wean Pétain away from Germany.
Working with the French resistance and other supporters in France's colonial African possessions after the Anglo-U.S. invasion of North Africa in November 1942, de Gaulle moved his headquarters to Algiers in May 1943. He became first joint head (with the less resolutely independent General Henri Giraud, the candidate preferred by the U.S. who wrongly suspected de Gaulle of being a British puppet) and then – after squeezing out Giraud by force of personality – sole chairman of the French Committee of National Liberation.
Rival French leaders Henri Giraud (left) and Charles de Gaulle sit down after shaking hands in presence of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill (Casablanca Conference, 14 January 1943) – a public display of unity, but the handshake was only for show.
De Gaulle was held in high regard by Allied commander General Dwight Eisenhower. In Algiers in 1943, Eisenhower gave de Gaulle the assurance in person that a French force would liberate Paris and arranged that the army division of French General Philippe Leclerc de Hauteclocque would be transferred from North Africa to England to carry out that liberation. Eisenhower was impressed by the combativeness of units of the Free French Forces and "grateful for the part they had played in mopping up the remnants of German resistance"; he also detected how strongly devoted many were to de Gaulle and how ready they were to accept him as the national leader.
Preparations for D-Day
As preparations for the liberation of Europe gathered pace, the Americans in particular found de Gaulle's tendency to view everything from the French perspective to be extremely tiring. Roosevelt, who refused to recognise any provisional authority in France until elections had been held, considered de Gaulle to be a potential dictator, a view backed by a number of leading Frenchmen in Washington, including Jean Monnet, who later became an instrumental figure in the setting up of the European Coal and Steel Community that led to the modern European Union. He also refused to allow Churchill to provide de Gaulle with strategic details of the imminent invasion because he did not trust him to keep the information to himself. French codes were known to be weak, but because the Free French refused to use British or American codes, this posed a major security risk.
Nevertheless, a few days before D-Day Churchill, whose relationship with the General had deteriorated since the days he first came to Britain, decided he needed to keep him more or less informed of developments, and on 2 June he sent two passenger aircraft and his representative, Duff Cooper to Algiers to bring de Gaulle back to Britain. De Gaulle refused because of Roosevelt's intention to install a provisional Allied military government in the former occupied territories pending elections, but he eventually relented and flew to Britain the next day.
Upon his arrival at RAF Northolt on 4 June 1944 he received an official welcome, and a letter reading "My dear general! Welcome to these shores, very great military events are about to take place!" Later, on his personal train, Churchill informed him that he wanted him to make a radio address, but when informed that the Americans continued to refuse to recognise his legitimate right to power in France, and after Churchill suggested he request a meeting with Roosevelt to improve his relationship with the president, de Gaulle became angry, demanding to know why he should "lodge my candidacy for power in France with Roosevelt; the French government exists".
Winston Churchill and General de Gaulle at Marrakesh, January 1944
De Gaulle was concerned at a general break down of civil order and of a potential communist takeover in the vacuum which might follow a German withdrawal of France. During the general conversation which followed with those present, de Gaulle was involved in an angry exchange with the Labour minister, Ernest Bevin, and, raising his concerns about the validity of the new currency to be circulated by the Allies after the liberation, de Gaulle commented scornfully, "go and wage war with your false money". De Gaulle was much concerned that an American takeover of the French administration would just provoke a communist uprising.
Churchill then also lost his temper, saying that Britain could not act separately from America, and that under the circumstances, if they had to choose between France and the US, Britain would always choose the latter. De Gaulle replied that he realised that this would always be the case. The next day, de Gaulle refused to address the French nation because the script again made no mention of his being the legitimate interim ruler of France. It instructed the French people to obey Allied military authorities until elections could be held, and so the row continued, with de Gaulle calling Churchill a "gangster". Churchill in turn accused the general of treason in the height of battle, and demanded he be flown back to Algiers "in chains if necessary".
In the years to come, the hostile dependent wartime relationship of de Gaulle and his future political peers re-enacted the historical national and colonial rivalry and lasting enmity between the French and English, and foreshadowed the deep distrust of France for post-war Anglo-American partnerships.
Return to France
Perhaps inevitably, de Gaulle ignored les Anglo-Saxons, and proclaimed the authority of the Free French Forces in France the next day. Under the leadership of General de Lattre de Tassigny, France fielded an entire army – a joint force of Free French together with French colonial troops from North Africa – on the western front. Initially landing as part of Operation Dragoon, in the south of France, the French First Army helped to liberate almost one third of the country and actively rejoined the Allies in the struggle against Germany. As the invasion slowly progressed and the Germans were pushed back, de Gaulle made preparations to return to France.
On 14 June 1944 he left Britain for France for what was supposed to be a one day trip. Despite an agreement that he would take only two staff, he was accompanied by a large entourage with extensive luggage, and although many rural Normans remained mistrustful of him, he was warmly greeted by the inhabitants of the towns he visited, such as the badly damaged Isigny. Finally he arrived at the city of Bayeux, which he now proclaimed as the capital of Free France. Appointing his Aide-de-Camp Francois Coulet as head of the civil administration, de Gaulle returned to England that same night on a French destroyer, and although the official position of the supreme military command remained unchanged, local Allied officers found it more practical to deal with the fledgling administration in Bayeux in everyday matters.
De Gaulle flew to Algiers on 16 June and then went on to Rome to meet the Pope and the new Italian Government. At the beginning of July he at last visited Roosevelt in Washington, where he received the 17 gun salute of a senior military leader rather than the 21 guns of a visiting head of state. The visit was ‘devoid of trust on both sides’ according to the French representative, however Roosevelt did make some concessions towards recognising the legitimacy of the Bayeux administration.
Meanwhile, with the Germans retreating in the face of the Allied onslaught, harried all the way by the resistance, there were widespread instances of revenge attacks on those accused of collaboration. A number of prominent officials and members of the feared Milice were murdered, often by exceptionally brutal means, provoking the Germans into appalling reprisals, such as in the destruction of the village of Oradour-sur-Glane and the killing of its 642 inhabitants. Of little strategic value, Paris was initially not high on the list of Allied objectives, but both de Gaulle and the commander of the 2nd Armoured Division, General Philippe Leclerc were concerned that a possible communist attempt to take over the capital would plunge France into civil war. De Gaulle successfully lobbied for Paris to be made a priority for liberation on humanitarian grounds and obtained from Allied Supreme Commander General Dwight D. Eisenhower an agreement that French troops would be allowed to enter the capital first. A few days later, General Leclerc's French Armoured Division entered the outskirts of the city, and after six days of fighting in which the resistance played a major part, the German garrison of 5000 men surrendered on 25 August, although some sporadic outbreaks of fighting continued for several days. In surrendering, the German commander General Dietrich von Choltitz ignored Hitler's orders to raze the city to the ground.
It was fortunate for de Gaulle that the Germans had forcibly removed members of the Vichy government and taken them to Germany a few days earlier on 20 August; it allowed him to enter Paris as a liberator in the midst of the general euphoria, but there were serious concerns that communist elements of the resistance, which had done so much to clear the way for the military would try to seize the opportunity to proclaim their own 'Peoples' Government' in the capital. De Gaulle made contact with Leclerc and demanded the presence of the 2nd Armoured Division to accompany him on a massed parade down the Champs Elysees, "as much for prestige as for security". This was in spite of the fact that Leclerc's unit was fighting as part of the American 1st Army and were under strict orders to continue their next objective without obeying orders from anyone else. In the event, the American General Omar Bradley decided that Leclerc's division would be indispensable for the maintenance of order and the liquidation of the last pockets of resistance in the French capital. Earlier, on 21 August, de Gaulle had appointed his military advisor General Marie Koenig as Governor of Paris.
As his procession came along the Place de la Concorde on Saturday 26 August, it came under machine gun fire by Vichy militia and fifth columnists who were unable to give themselves up. Later, on entering the cathedral at Notre Dame to be received as head of the provisional government by the Committee of Liberation, loud shots broke out again, and Leclerc and Koenig tried to hustle him through the door, but de Gaulle shook off their hands and never faltered. While the battle began outside, he walked slowly down the aisle. Before he had gone far a machine pistol fired down from above, at least two more joined in, and from below the F.F.I, and police fired back. A BBC correspondent who was present reported;
"…the General is being presented to the people. He is being received…they have opened fire!… firing started all over the place... that was one of the most dramatic scenes I have ever seen.... General de Gaulle walked straight ahead into what appeared to me to be a hail of fire... but he went straight ahead without hesitation, his shoulders flung back, and walked right down the centre aisle, even while the bullets were pouring about him. It was the most extraordinary example of courage I have ever seen.. . there were bangs, flashes all about him, yet he seemed to have an absolutely charmed life."
Later, in the great hall of the Hotel de Ville, de Gaulle was greeted by a jubilant crowd and, proclaiming the continuity of the Third Republic, delivered a characteristically Franco-centric proclamation;
"Paris outraged, Paris broken, Paris martyred, but Paris liberated! By herself, liberated by her people, with the help of the whole of France! We will not rest until we march, as we must, into enemy territory as conquerors. France has a right to be in the first line among the great nations who are going to organize the peace and the life of the world. She has a right to be heard in all four corners of the world. France is a great world power. She knows it and will act so that others may know it."
That night the Germans launched a massive artillery and air bombardment on Paris by way of revenge, killing over a thousand people and wounding several thousand others. The situation in Paris remained tense, and a few days later de Gaulle, still unsure of the trend of events asked General Eisenhower to send some American troops into Paris as a show of strength. This he did 'not without some satisfaction', and so on 29 August, the US 28th Infantry Division was rerouted from its journey to the front line and paraded down the Champs Elysees.
The same day, Washington and London bowed to the inevitable and finally came to an agreement to accept the position of the Free French. The following day General Eisenhower gave his de facto blessing with a visit to the General in Paris.
Prime Minister of France 1944–1946
With the pre-war parties and many of their leaders discredited, there was little opposition to de Gaulle and his associates forming an interim administration. In order not to be seen as presuming on his position in such austere times, de Gaulle did not use one of the grand official residences such as Hotel de Matignon or the Presidential palace on the Elysee, but resided briefly in his old office at the War Ministry. When he was joined by his wife and daughters a short while later, they moved into a small state owned villa on edge of Bois de Boulogne which had once been set aside for Hermann Göring.
Living conditions immediately after the liberation were even worse than under Nazi rule. A quarter of housing had been damaged or destroyed, basic public services were at a standstill, petrol and electricity was extremely scarce and, apart from the wealthy who could afford high prices, the population had to get by on very little food. Large scale public demonstrations erupted all over France protesting at the apparent lack of action at improving the supply of food, while in Normandy, bakeries were pillaged. The problem was that although wheat production was around 80% of pre war levels, transport was paralysed over virtually the whole of France. Large areas of track had been destroyed by bombing, most modern equipment, rolling stock, lorries and farm animals had been taken to Germany and all the bridges over the Seine, the Loire and the Rhone between Paris and the sea had been destroyed. The black market pushed real prices to four times the level of 1939, causing the government to print money to try to improve the money supply, which only added to inflation.
Curbing the Communist Resistance
After the celebrations had died down, de Gaulle began conferring with leading Resistance figures who, with the Germans gone, intended to continue as a political and military force, and asked to be given a government building to serve as their headquarters. The Resistance, in which the Communists were competing with other trends for leadership, had developed its own manifesto for social and political change known as the National Council of the Resistance (CNR) Charter, and wanted special status to enter the army under their own flags, ranks and honours. Despite their decisive support in backing him against Giraud, de Gaulle disappointed some of the resistance leaders by telling them that although their efforts and sacrifices had been recognised, they had no further role to play and that unless they joined the regular army they should lay down their arms and return to civilian life.
Believing them to be a dangerous revolutionary force, de Gaulle moved to break up the liberation committees and other militias. The political outlook of the Communists represented the complete opposite of his own views, and he was concerned at the amount of support they were receiving from the public. The potential power of the Communists also troubled the American government. As early as May 1943, the US Secretary of State Cordell Hull had written to Roosevelt urging him of need to take action to attempt to curb the rise of Communism in France.
The provisional government of the French republic
On 10 September 1944, the Provisional Government of the French Republic, or Government of National Unanimity was formed. It included many of de Gaulle’s Free French associates such as Gaston Palewski, Claude Guy, Claude Mauriac and Jacques Soustelle, together with members of the main parties, which included the Socialists and a new Christian Democratic Party, the MRP under the leadership of Georges Bidault, who served as Foreign Minister. The President of the prewar Senate Jules Jeanneney was brought back as second ranking member, but because of their links with Russia, de Gaulle allowed the Communists only two minor positions in his government. Although they were now a major political force with over a million members, of the full cabinet of 22 men, only Augustin Laurent and Charles Tillon - who as head of Francs-Tireurs-Partisans had been one of the most active members of the resistance – were given ministries. However, de Gaulle did pardon the Communists' leader Maurice Thorez, who had been sentenced to death in absentia by the French government for desertion. On his return home from Russia, Thorez delivered a speech supporting de Gaulle in which he said that for the present, the war against Germany was the only task that mattered.
There were also a number of new faces in the government, including a literary academic, Georges Pompidou, who had written to one of de Gaulle’s recruiting agents offering his services, and Jean Monnet, who in spite of his past opposition to the General now recognised the need for unity and served as Commissoner for Economic Planning. Of equal rank to Ministers and answerable only to the Prime Minister, a number of Commissioners of the Republic (Commissaires de la République) were appointed to re-establish the democratic institutions of France and to extend the legitimacy of the provisional government. A number of former Free French associates served as Commissioners, including Henri Fréville, Raymond Aubrac and Michel Debré, who was charged with reforming the Civil Service. Controversially, de Gaulle also appointed Maurice Papon as Commissioner for Aquitaine in spite of his involvement in the deportation of Jews while serving as a senior police official in the Vichy regime during the occupation. Over the years, Papon remained in high official positions but would continue to be implicated in controversial events such as the Paris Massacre of 1961, eventually being convicted of crimes against humanity in 1998.
Tour of major cities
De Gaulle’s policy was to postpone elections as long as 2.6 million French were in Germany as prisoners of war and forced labourers. In mid-September he embarked upon a tour of major provincial cities to increase his public profile and to help cement his position. Although he received a largely positive reception from the crowds who came out to see him, he reflected that only a few months previously the very same people had come out to cheer Marshal Pétain when he was serving the Vichy regime. Raymond Aubrac said that the General showed himself to be ill at ease at social functions; in Marseilles and Lyon he displayed great irritation when he was forced to sit next to local Resistance leaders at the post-rally banquet and was particularly scathing at what he regarded as the vulgar displays of exuberance among young men and women during the Masquisards parades which preceded his speech. When he reached Toulouse, de Gaulle also had to confront the leaders of a group which had proclaimed themselves to be the provincial government of the city.
During the tour, de Gaulle showed his customary lack of concern for his own safety by mixing with the crowds and thus making himself an easy target for an assassin. Although he was naturally shy, the good use of amplification and patriotic music enabled him to deliver his message that though all of France was fragmented and suffering together they would rise again. During every speech he would stop halfway through to invite the crowd to join him in singing La Marseillaise, before continuing and finishing by raising his hands in the air and crying Vive la France!
The legal purges (Épuration légale)
As the war entered its final stages, the nation was forced to confront the reality of how many of its people had behaved under German rule. In France, collaborators were more severely punished than in most other occupied countries. Immediately after the liberation, countless women accused of fraternising with the enemy were publicly shaved in the steets or daubed with feathers, although a significant number were less fortunate, being viciously killed. With so many of their former members having been hunted down and killed by the Nazis and paramilitary Milice, the Partisans had already summarily executed an estimated 4500 people, and the Communists in particular continued to press for severe action against collaborators. In Paris alone, over 150,000 people were at some time detained on suspicion of collaboration, although most were later released. Famous figures accused included the industrialist Louis Renault, the actress Arletty, who had lived openly with a German officer in the Ritz, the opera star Tino Rossi, the stage actor Sacha Guitry and Coco Chanel, who was briefly detained but fled to Switzerland.
Keenly aware of the need to seize the initiative and to get the process under firm judicial control, de Gaulle appointed Justice Minister François de Menthon to lead the Legal Purge (Épuration Légale) to punish traitors and to clear away the traces of the Vichy regime. Knowing that he would need to reprieve many of the ‘economic collaborators’ – such as police and civil servants who held minor roles under Vichy in order to keep the country running as normally as possible – he assumed, as head of state, the right to commute death sentences. In all, of the near 2000 people who received the death sentence from the courts, less than 800 were actually executed. De Gaulle commuted 998 of the 1554 capital sentences submitted before him, including all those involving women. Many others were given jail terms or sentenced to national humiliation (loss of civil rights). It is generally agreed that the purge was not well conducted, with often absurdly severe or overly lenient punishments being handed down. It was also notable that the less well-off people who were unable to pay for lawyers were more harshly treated. As time went by and feelings grew less intense, a number of people who had held fairly senior positions under the Vichy government – such as Maurice Papon and René Bousquet – escaped justice by claiming to have worked secretly for the resistance or to have played a double game, working for the good of France by serving the established order.
Later, there was the question of what to do with the former Vichy leaders when they were finally returned to France. Marshal Pétain and Maxime Weygand were war heroes from World War I and were now extremely old; convicted of treason, Pétain received a death sentence which his old protégé de Gaulle commuted to life imprisonment, while Weygand was eventually acquitted. In all, three Vichy leaders were executed; Joseph Darnand, who became an SS officer and led the Milice paramilitaries who hunted down members of the Resistance, was executed in October 1945, while Fernand de Brinon, the third ranking Vichy official was found guilty of war crimes and executed in April 1947. The two trials of the most infamous collaborator of all, Pierre Laval, who was heavily implicated in the murder of Jews were widely criticised as being unfair for depriving him of the opportunity to properly defend himself, although Laval antagonised the court throughout with his bizarre behaviour. He was found guilty of treason in May 1945 and de Gaulle was adamant that there would be no commuting the death sentence, saying that Laval’s execution was "an indispenable symbolic gesture required for reasons of state". There was a widespread belief, particularly in the years that followed, that de Gaulle was trying to appease both the Third Republic politicians and the former Vichy leaders who had made Laval their scapegoat.
Winter of 1944
The winter of 1944-45 was a miserable time. Inflation showed no sign of slowing down and the lives of ordinary people were still blighted by severe shortages. The Prime Minister and the other Gaullists were forced to try to balance the desires of ordinary people and public servants for a return to normal life with pressure from Bidault’s MRP and the Communists for the large scale nationalisation programme and other social changes that formed the main tenets of the CNR Charter. At end of 1944 the coal industry and other energy companies were nationalised, followed shortly afterwards by major banks and finance houses, the merchant navy, the main aircraft manufacturers, airlines and a number of major private enterprises such as the Renault car company at Boulogne-Billancourt, whose owner had been implicated as a collaborator and accused of having made huge profits working for the Nazis. In some cases unions, feeling that things were not progressing quickly enough took matters into their own hands, occupying premises and setting up workers committees to run the companies. Women were also allowed the vote for the first time, a new social security system was introduced to cover most medical costs, unions were expanded and price controls introduced to try to curb inflation. At de Gaulle’s request, the newspaper Le Monde was founded in December 1944 to provide France with a quality daily journal similar to those in other countries. Le Monde took over the premises and facilities of the older Le Temps, whose independence and reputation had been badly compromised during the Vichy years.
During this period there were a number of minor disagreements between the French and the other Allies. The British Ambassador to France Duff Cooper said that during this time de Gaulle seemed to seek out real or imagined insults to take offence at wherever possible. De Gaulle believed that Britain and America were intending to keep their armies in France after the war and were secretly working to take over her overseas possessions and to prevent her from regaining her political and economic strength. In late October he complained that the Allies were failing to adequately arm and equip the new French army and instructed Bidault to use the French veto at the European Council.
On Armistice Day in 1944, Winston Churchill made his first visit to France since the liberation and received a good reception in Paris where he laid a wreath to Clemenceau. The occasion also marked the first official appearance of de Gaulle’s wife Yvonne, but the visit was less friendly than it appeared. De Gaulle had given strict instructions that there should be no excessive displays of public affection towards Churchill and no official awards without his prior agreement. When crowds cheered Churchill during a parade down the Elysee, de Gaulle was heard to remark, "Fools and cretins! Look at the rabble cheering the old bandit".
Visit to USSR
With the Russian forces making more rapid advances into German held territory than the Allies, there was a sudden public realisation that the Soviet Union was about to dominate large parts of Eastern Europe. In fact, at the Cairo and Tehran Conferences in 1943 Britain and America had already agreed to allow Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary to fall under the Russian sphere of influence after the war, with shared influence in Yugoslavia. Britain was to retain hegemony over Greece, although there had been no agreement over Poland, whose eastern territories were already in Russian hands under the Brest-Litovsk agreement with Germany, and which retained a government in exile in London. De Gaulle had not been invited to any of the ‘Big Three’ Conferences, although the decisions made by Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt in dividing up Europe were of huge importance to France.
By now it was clear that although for the time being they remained allies, in the coming years the western capitalist democracies would increasingly clash with the Communist ideology. De Gaulle and his Foreign Minister Bidault stated that they were not in favour of a ‘Western Bloc’ that would be separate from the rest of Europe, and hoped that a resurgent France might be able to act as a ‘third force’ in Europe to temper the ambitions of the two emerging superpowers, America and Russia. He began seeking an audience with Stalin to press his ‘facing both ways’ policy, and finally received an invitation in late 1944. In his Memoirs, de Gaulle devoted 24 pages to his visit to Russia, but a number of writers make the point that his version of events differs significantly from that of the Russians, of foreign news correspondents, and with their own eye witness accounts.
De Gaulle wanted access to German coal in the Ruhr, the left bank of the Rhine to be incorporated into French territory, and for the Oder-Neisse line in Poland to become Germany's official Eastern border. De Gaulle began by requesting that France enter into a treaty with the Soviet Union on this basis, but Stalin, who remained in contact with Churchill throughout the visit, said that it would be impossible to make such an agreement without the consent of Britain and America. But he suggested that it might possible to add France’s name to the existing Anglo-Soviet Agreement if they agreed to recognise the Soviet-backed provisional Polish government known as the Lublin Committee as rightful rulers of Poland. De Gaulle responded that this would be ‘un-French’, as it would mean her being a junior partner in an alliance.
During the visit, de Gaulle accompanied the deputy Russian leader Vyacheslav Molotov on a visit to the Stalingrad battleground where he was deeply moved by the scene of carnage he witnessed and surprised Molotov by referring to "our joint sacrifice".
The treaty which was eventually signed by Bidault and Molotov was of little relevance to Stalin because of France’s lack of political and military power, and it did not affect the outcome of the post-war settlement, but it carried a symbolic importance in that it enabled de Gaulle to demonstrate that he was representing France as official head of state and that France’s voice was being heard. However, Stalin later commented that he found Gaulle awkward and stubborn, that he lacked realism by claiming the same rights as the great powers and believed that he was ‘not a complicated person’ He also did not object to Roosevelt's refusal to allow de Gaulle to attend the Big Three conferences that were to come at Yalta and Potsdam.
At the end of 1944 French forces continued to advance as part of the American armies, but during the Ardennes Offensive there was a dispute over Eisenhower’s order to French troops to evacuate Strasbourg, which had just been liberated so as to straighten the defensive line against the German counterattack. Strasbourg was an important political and psychological symbol of French sovereignty in Alsace and Lorraine, and de Gaulle, saying that its loss would bring down the government, refused to allow a retreat, predicting that "Strasbourg will be our Stalingrad". At a cabinet meeting he said that the French should be willing to die there alone if the US pulled out its own troops. Churchill backed the French, and Eisenhower was so impressed with the French resolve that he eventually left his own troops in the city even at the risk of being cut off, for which de Gaulle expressed his extreme gratitude.
By early 1945 it was clear that the price controls which had been introduced to control inflation had only served to boost the black market and prices continued to move ever upwards. By this time the army had swelled to over 1.2 million men and almost half of state expenditure was going to military spending. De Gaulle was faced with his first major ministerial dispute when the very able but tough minded economics minister Pierre Mendes-France demanded a programme of severe monetary reform which was opposed by the Finance Ministry headed by Aime Lepercq, who favoured a programme of heavy borrowing to stimulate the economy. When de Gaulle, knowing there would be little appetite for further austerity measures sided with Lepercq, Mendes-France tendered his resignation, which was rejected because de Gaule knew he needed him. Lepercq was killed in a road accident a short time afterwards and was succeeded by Pleven, but when in March, Mendes-France asked unsuccessfully for taxes on capital earnings and for the blocking of certain bank accounts, he again offered his resignation and it was accepted.
The Yalta Conference
After the Rhine crossings, the French First Army captured a large section of territory in southern Germany, but although this later allowed France to play a part in the signing of the German surrender, Roosevelt in particular refused to allow any discussion about de Gaulle participating in the Big Three conferences that would shape Europe in the post war world. Because the Americans were planning to bring their troops home from Europe soon after the war was over, Churchill, who shared many of de Gaulle’s concerns over the inexperience of Russia and America in world affairs, realised the need for French troops to help administer Germany and pressed very hard for France to be included ‘at the inter-allied table’, but on 6 December 1944 the American president wired both Stalin and Churchill to say that de Gaulle’s presence would "merely introduce a complicating and undesirable factor".
At the Yalta Conference in February 1945, Churchill and Roosevelt agreed that Poland should be ruled by the Lublin Committee and that she should give Russia her eastern lands in return for German territory. It was also agreed that Germany should be disarmed and occupied after the war, that war criminals would be brought to justice and that Russia would enter the war against Japan, from whom she would detach certain disputed territories.
Despite Stalin’s opposition though, Churchill and Roosevelt insisted that France be allowed a post-war occupation zone in Germany, and also made sure that she was included among the five nations that invited others to the conference to establish the United Nations. This was important because it guaranteed France a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, a prestigious position that despite pressure from emerging nations she still holds today. Although Churchill had tried to have him involved and went to great lengths to fight for French interests during Yalta, assistance he never acknowledged, de Gaulle never forgave the Big Three leaders for not inviting him to the summit and continued to rage against it as having been a negative factor in European politics for the rest of his life.
On his way back from Yalta, Roosevelt asked de Gaulle to meet him in Algiers for talks. The General refused, believing that there was nothing more to be said, and for this he received a rebuke from Georges Bidault and from the French press, and a severely angered Roosevelt criticised de Gaulle in the United States Congress. Soon after, on 12 April 1945, Roosevelt died, and despite their uneasy relationship de Gaulle declared a week of mourning in France and forwarded an emotional and conciliatory letter to the new American President Harry S. Truman, in which he said of Roosevelt, "all of France loved him".
Unfortunately, de Gaulle’s relationship with Truman was to prove just as difficult as it had been with Roosevelt. With Allied forces advancing deep into Germany, another serious situation developed between American and French forces in Stuttgart and Karlsruhe, when French soldiers were ordered to transfer the occupation zones to US troops. Wishing to retain as much German territory in French hands as possible, de Gaulle ordered his troops, who were using American weapons and ammunition, to resist, and an armed confrontation seemed imminent. Truman threatened to cut off supplies to the French Army and to take the zones by force, leaving de Gaulle with little choice but to back down. De Gaulle never forgave the new President, while Truman told his staff simply, "I don’t like the son of a bitch."
The first visit by de Gaulle to Truman in America was not a success. Truman told his visitor that it was time that the French got rid of the Communist influence from her government, to which de Gaulle replied that this was France’s own business. But Truman, who admitted that his feelings towards the French were becoming ‘less and less friendly’, went on to say that under the circumstances, the French could not expect much economic aid and refused to accept de Gaulle’s request for control of the West bank of the Rhine. During the argument which followed, de Gaulle reminded Truman that the US was using the French island of Noumea in New Caledonia as a base against the Japanese.
Victory in Europe
When, in May 1945 the German armies surrendered to the Americans and British at Rheims, a separate armistice was signed with France in Berlin. De Gaulle refused to allow any British participation in the victory parade in Paris. However, among the vehicles that took part was an ambulance from the Hadfield-Spears Ambulance Unit, staffed by French Doctors and British nurses. One of the nurses was Mary Spears, who had set up the unit and had worked almost continuously since the Battle of France with Free French forces in the Middle East, North Africa and Italy. Mary’s husband was General Edward Spears, the British liaison to the Free French who had personally spirited de Gaulle to safety in Britain in 1940. When de Gaulle saw the Union flags and Tricolours side by side on the ambulance, and heard French soldiers cheering, "Voilà Spears! Vive Spears!" he ordered that the unit be closed down immediately and its British staff sent home. A number of French troops returned their medals in protest and Mary wrote, "it is a pitiful business when a great man suddenly becomes small."
Another confrontation with the Americans broke out soon after the armistice when the French sent troops to occupy the French-speaking Italian border region of Val d'Aoste. The French commander threatened to open fire on American troops if they tried to stop them, and an irate Truman ordered the immediate end to all arms shipments to France, and sent de Gaulle an angry letter saying that he found it unbelievable that the French could threaten to attack American troops after they had done so much to liberate France.
Confrontation in the Levant
On VE Day, there were also serious riots in French Tunisia, while soon after there came a dispute with Britain over Syria and Lebanon which quickly developed into a major diplomatic incident. The two Arabian countries, occupying a region known as the Levant, had been ruled under a French mandate given by the League of Nations at the end of World War I, but for several months both countries had seen demonstrations against the French. Bidault told reporters that France intended to defend her economic and cultural rights in Syria and Lebanon, and that there would be "no problem, as long as the British do not interfere" In May, de Gaulle sent General Beynet to establish an air base in Syria and a naval base in the Lebanon, provoking an outbreak of nationalism in which some French nationals were attacked and killed.
On 20 May, French troops opened fire on demonstrators in Damascus with artillery and mortars while aircraft dropped bombs. Later, colonial Senegalese troops were sent in with machine guns and after several days hundreds of Syrians lay dead in the bazaars and narrow streets of the capital, with reports of looting by the attacking forces. The British, who had substantial forces in the region, said that they would be forced to intervene if the violence did not stop. They were backed by President Truman, who declared "those French ought to be taken out and castrated".
Following the visit to Paris the previous year, and in spite of his efforts to preserve French interests at Yalta, Churchill’s relationship with de Gaulle was now at rock bottom. In January he told a colleague that he believed that de Gaulle was "a great danger to peace and for Great Britain. Af