Charles de Gaulle: Why Your Parents Hate France

De Gaulle, the Lunatic Liberator

The era of revanchisme was the angriest and most patriotic time in French history. Lasting until the opening shots of the First World War, it was a culture born in a single moment: the loss of the Franco-Prussian Was to Germany in 1871. Germany, the hereditary enemy of France, had won their great test of wills – and had then “amputated” the nation, carving off the region of Alsace and plunging the entire country into shame and bitterness.

The people wept. The government fell. De Gaulle was born. He, like others of his generation, was saturated in pride and anger and an all-encompassing nationalism. Villages and counties erected hundreds of monuments to the war dead, each one a cry for vengeance. Schoolchildren were taught about the criminal Germans and their theft of French land, for each one would be a soldier in the next, surely triumphant, war.

The "amputated province" is the one in mourners’ black.

The “amputated province” is the one in mourners’ black.

True to his formative years in the last breath of the nineteenth century when France still held a great empire, de Gaulle would always remain a frustrated nationalist. France was great, but it kept losing wars; de Gaulle was its noble agent, but he kept underperforming in battle. Captured in World War I, he failed to escape on five separate attempts. Given control of 200 tanks in World War II, he made the Germans retreat from a small hill – actually the best effect France’s army had during the invasion – but was eventually overwhelmed. A little time later, his own government gave up to the Nazis. What to do when the nation you know to be greatest of all falters, stumbles, surrenders?

Le général knew what to do: Refuse to be defeated. Never surrender. Embody the nation, and save it from itself. When most of the French government acquiesced to German rule after 1940’s defeat, he picked up a suitcase with 100,000 gold francs in it – supplied by anti-surrender allies in the government – and took the last plane for London. There, he declared himself the head of a government in exile.

All he got in London, though, was some limited recognition of his authority and a corner office. Though de Gaulle impressed Winston Churchill personally, the leader of wartime Britain was not about throw away all diplomatic ties with Nazi-controlled Vichy France on a whim. From moment one, de Gaulle was a junior partner, not privy to the plans Churchill made with Roosevelt above his head.

While the U.K. and the U.S. sought out other possible representatives of France, those perhaps more pliable to their plans, De Gaulle fumed. He considered himself the embodiment of the nation and its interests – far superior to the cowards back across the Channel – and would sooner set Winston Churchill on fire than see him make deals with the collaborators. A warrior whose country had shamefully surrendered, he demanded that the Allies bring the fight back home; a dictator without a polity, he arrogantly dictated policy to the Allies to whom he owed a great deal. (Speaking of de Gaulle’s tirades and tantrums, a British diplomat said that he had “never seen anything like it in rudeness since [Nazi Foreign Minister] Ribbentrop.”)

When shouting at Churchill, who shouted back, and Roosevelt, who took great pleasure in smirking while ignoring him, didn’t produce results, he took matters into his own hands. With his meager troops, de Gaulle “redeemed French honor” by reconquering French colonies that now answered to the Nazi-loving Vichy collaborators, managing to reclaim such vital strategic centers of the empire as Equatorial Guinea:

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And Saint Pierre and Miquelon, the famed “Bahamas of Newfoundland,” which was so small it only required a single submarine to conquer:

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Strangely, neither of these conquests helped the war effort much.

Yet de Gaulle did eventually begin to shine when the French Resistance, impressed by the uncompromising anti-Vichy rhetoric he broadcast by London Exp radio, named him their leader in exile in exchange for weapons shipments. Here, he found Frenchmen he could respect, those willing to risk death and torture for the sake of the nation; and as the importance of the Resistance grew, so did de Gaulle become increasingly un-ignorable. In a series of twists in Algiers, a city the Resistance had captured for the Allies, de Gaulle outmaneuvered his rival claimants to the throne of French wartime dictator and finally seized command of the free French forces. He was now more than just a voice.

When D-Day came, le général returned to his country with every soldier he could muster and raced U.S. general Eisenhower to the interior. Twice, Eisenhower balked at conquering symbolic cities (Paris, then Strasbourg) because of unacceptable casualty estimates and a lack of military necessity; each time, de Gaulle engaged the Germans with his men alone and forced the Americans to follow. The other Allies had to come to de Gaulle’s aid more than once, but his forces certainly never lacked for spirit. He eventually outpaced the other Allies so much that he conquered more of Germany than France had been allotted, edging into Stuttgart and the American occupation zone. (American indignation forced him to withdraw.)

Having given Allied funds and commitment on a whim, the Americans and British suddenly found themselves unable to get rid of de Gaulle. In the months after the war, he consolidated a provisional government – in which, thanks to an imperial-style decree he had issued a year before, French women voted for the first time in history – and placed himself squarely in the center of postwar politics, mostly by shouting at people who disagreed on who should lead postwar France.

The Allies hadn’t planned for this new French government. In fact, the Allies hadn’t planned on any French government. Anticipating a collapse of all authority, they had hatched schemes to fill the power vacuum – schemes that would have shocked and appalled the people they were supposedly liberating. Roosevelt envisioned occupying the whole country like it were a defeated enemy nation: placing France under the Allied Military Government for Occupied Territories (AMGOT), the same organization that would administer Germany and Italy; giving the U.S. direct control over minting currency and governing all France’s African colonies; and merging Belgium, Luxembourg, and part of northeast France into a new country called “Wallonia.” De Gaulle was never told – he might have spontaneously combusted – but his suspicious nature clued him in to something nefarious in the works. It was only by his seizing power that an American occupation, to replace the German one, was averted.

Although the Allies still thought so little of de Gaulle and his nation that they didn’t even invite France to the Yalta Conference, where Europe’s postwar fate would be decided, it was already too late: Charles de Gaulle had entrenched himself. By stubbornly refusing to accept what others might have seen as political reality, by turning up his nose at both a Nazi army and Britain’s negligence and keeping the nationalist spirit of 1870 alive, he had retaken France and redeemed its honor.

He, the true France, had never surrendered to the Nazis. In the postwar world, he would never bow to his overweening Allies.