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This brief anecdote, included in Julian Jackson’s new biography, A Certain Idea of France: A Life of Charles de Gaulle (Allen Lane, £22.75), tells us a great deal about de Gaulle. It illustrates his rather callous sense of humour, his indifference to other people’s feelings, his pitiless judgment of other people’s unimportance — and his ruthless ability to press ahead to the next goal. Professor Jackson’s work is a tour de force, and by far the best biography in English to date. Working with a wealth of primary sources in England and France, and some secondary French sources, Jackson has traced the course of de Gaulle’s career, bringing him to life in all his grandeur and turpitude. It is also a fascinating study in how one man’s character can change the course of history, and it traces the formation of a political monster.

De Gaulle, who had briefly led the country from 1944 to 1946, was recalled to deal with a national crisis — Coty did not exaggerate when he said that the country was on the verge of civil war. A military insurrection had taken place in Algeria, which was regarded by many as essentially part of France, and the colonial authorities were using torture to combat the terrorism of the FLN Algerian nationalists. The rebel generals had drawn up plans to drop 50,000 paratroopers on Paris and seize key government buildings. De Gaulle’s return to power was presented as providential, a moment of salvation, but Jackson shows that this “national saviour” was in fact, behind the scenes, stoking the crisis. In the weeks before his return to government de Gaulle conducted a series of secret manoeuvres, mixing duplicity with ambiguity and encouraging the insurrectionary generals in Algeria to believe that he was really on their side, and might even be prepared to lead a military coup, while at the same time tempting the Socialist leader, Guy Mollet, to support him on the grounds that he was the best guarantee of law and order. He was prepared to take that risk, starting a civil war, in order to regain power.

When a friend asked him what he thought the generals would do next de Gaulle replied, “Rien — ce sont des militaires.” (“Nothing — they’re just soldiers.”) And the gamble paid off. In response to de Gaulle’s assurances the paratroopers were stood down, “Monsieur Coty” issued his invitation and the National Assembly voted to invest de Gaulle first as prime minister and shortly afterwards as president.

What followed when the supporters of Algérie française realised they had been duped, and the new president was preparing to grant Algeria independence, was a wave of terrorism that once again brought the country to the brink. Taking their example from the FLN, French Algerian ultras formed their own terrorist movement, the OAS (Organisation de l’armée secrète, “the Secret Army”), while the FLN moved their lethal operations from Algeria to the cities of France. Thirteen policemen were killed in Paris alone and when the police retaliated by murdering several hundred peaceful Algerians, President de Gaulle merely commented that the press were exaggerating the figures as a means of attacking him. On another occasion, when a peaceful left-wing demonstration against OAS violence ended with nine demonstrators dead, forced against a metal grill or with their heads beaten in by police batons, de Gaulle confined himself to the observation that it was the Communist Party’s fault for organising the demonstration in the first place.

The OAS attempted to assassinate de Gaulle at least 30 times. In one attack a bomb exploded directly in front of his car and his driver had to accelerate through the flames. In another the presidential limousine was machine-gunned while the de Gaulle, aged 74, and his wife, Yvonne, crouched inside.
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Anonymous
June 10th, 2018
3:06 PM
The "X" have ruled for long enough to forget that the Battle of the Palace of the Martyrs was not the finish of Empire-building, but only a setback for the losers. This time the invasion is all but complete and just awaits the end-game.

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