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Charles de Gaulle

General Charles-André-Joseph-Marie de Gaulle (November 22, 1890 - November 9, 1970) was a French soldier and politician. He was the leader of the Free French Forces in World War II and head of the provisional government in 1944-46. Called to form a government in 1958, he inspired a new constitution1 and was the Fifth Republic's first president from 1958 to 1969.

General Charles de Gaulle of France

Table of contents
1 1912-1940: Military career
2 1940-1945: The Free French Forces
3 1946-1958: The desert crossing
4 1958: The collapse of the Fourth Republic
5 1958-1969 The Fifth Republic
6 1969 The retirement
7 Retrospect
8 Footnote
9 Works
10 Things named after Charles de Gaulle
11 External link

1912-1940: Military career

Born in Lille, de Gaulle was the son of a teacher and was educated at the École Spéciale Militaire de Saint-Cyr. He graduated in 1912 and joined the infantry. In World War I he was taken prisoner in March 1916 during the Battle of Verdun.

When the war ended, he remained in the military, serving on the staff of Gen. Maxime Weygand and then Gen. Philippe Pétain. During the Polish-Soviet war in 1919-1920, he volunteered to the Polish army and was an infantry instructor. He fought and distinguished himself in fighting near the river Zbrucz and received the highest Polish military award, Virtuti Militari. He was promoted to mayor and offered possibility of a further career in Poland, but chose instead to return to France. He was heavily influenced by that war, namely by the use of tanks, fast manouvres and lack of trenches.

Based partially on his observations during war in Poland, which was so different from experiences from WWI, he published a number of books and articles on the reorganisation of the army, particularly Vers l'Armée de Métier (published in English as "The Army of the Future") in which he supported the new ideas of mechanised troops and specialised armoured divisions in preference to the static theories exemplified by the Maginot Line.

While Heinz Guderian and the German Army General Staff were influenced by de Gaulle, Pétain rejected most of de Gaulle's theories, and the relationship between them became strained. French politicians also dismissed de Gaulle's theories with the notable exception of Paul Reynaud who would later play a major role in de Gaulle's career.

At the outbreak of World War II he was a colonel, by May 1940 he was a brigadier general and in command of the 4th Armoured Division in Alsace.

On May 17, 1940 de Gaulle attacked the German tank forces at Montcornet. With only 200 French tanks and no air support, the offensive had little impact on stopping the German advance. There was more success on May 28, when de Gaulle's tanks forced the German armour to retreat at Caumont. He became the first and only French commanding officer to force the Germans to retreat during the invasion of France.

On June 6, 1940 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 member of the cabinet he resisted proposals to surrender. De Gaulle was in England when on June 16 Pétain became premier with the intention of seeking an armistice with Germany.

De Gaulle decided to reject French capitulation and to set about building a movement which would appeal to overseas French opponents of a separate arrangement with Germany.

1940-1945: The Free French Forces

On June 18, de Gaulle prepared to speak to the French people, via BBC radio, from London. The British Cabinet attempted to block the speech, but was overruled by Churchill. In France, de Gaulle's "Appeal of June 18" could be heard nationwide, at 7:00 p.m. To this day, it remains one of the most famous speeches in French history.

From London, de Gaulle formed and led the Free French movement. Whereas the USA continued to recognise Vichy France, the British government of Winston Churchill supported de Gaulle, initially maintaining relations with Vichy but subsequently recognising the Free French.

On July 4, 1940, a court-martial in Toulouse sentenced de Gaulle in absentia to four years in prison. At a second court-martial on August 2, 1940, de Gaulle was condemned to death for treason.

In his dealings with his British allies and the United States, de Gaulle insisted at all times in retaining full freedom of action on behalf of France, even where this might embarrass or inconvenience his partners in the war: "France has no friends, only interests" is one of his best-remembered statements. "Of all the crosses I have had to bear during this war, the heaviest has been the Cross of Lorraine [de Gaulle's symbol of Free France]" is one of Churchill's.

Working with the French resistance and supporters in France's colonial possessions in Africa, after the Anglo-American invasion of North Africa in November 1942, de Gaulle moved his headquarters to Algiers in May 1943, becoming first joint head (with the less resolutely independent Gen. Henri Giraud, the candidate preferred by the United States) and then sole chairman of the Committee of National Liberation.

At the liberation of France following Operation Overlord, he quickly established the authority of the Free French Forces in France, avoiding a Allied Military Government for Occupied Territories in France. On his return to Paris, he moved back into his office at the War Ministry, thus proclaiming continuity of the Third Republic and denying the legitimacy of Vichy France.

After the war he served as the President of the provisional government from September 1944 but resigned on January 20, 1946, complaining of conflict between the political parties, and disapproving of the draft constitution for the Fourth Republic which he believed placed too much power in the hands of parliament with its shifting party alliances.

1946-1958: The desert crossing

De Gaulle's opposition to the proposed constitution failed as the parties of the left supported a weak presidency to prevent any repetition of the Vichy regime. The second draft constitution narrowly approved at the referendum of October 1946 was even less to de Gaulle's liking than the first.

In April 1947 de Gaulle made a renewed attempt at transforming the political scene with the creation of the Rassemblement du Peuple Français (Rally of the French People, or RPF), but the movement lost impetus after initial success. In May 1953 he withdrew again from active politics, though the RPF lingered until September 1955.

He retired to Colombey-les-deux-Églises and wrote his war memoirs, Mémoires de guerre. During this period of formal retirement, de Gaulle however maintained regular contact with past political lieutenants from wartime and RPF days, including sympathisers involved in political developments in Algeria.

1958: The collapse of the Fourth Republic

The Fourth Republic was tainted by political instability, its failures in Indochina and its inability to resolve the Algerian question.

On May 13, 1958, the settlers seized the government buildings in Algiers, attacking what they saw as French government weakness in the face of demands among the Arab majority for Algerian independence. A 'Committee of Civil and Army Public Security' was created under the presidency of General Jacques Massu, a Gaullist sympathiser. General Raoul Salan, Commander-in-Chief in Algeria, announced on radio that the Army had 'provisionally taken over responsibility for the destiny of French Algeria'.

Under the pressure of Massu, Salan declared "Vive de Gaulle!" from the balcony of the Algiers Government-General building on May 15. De Gaulle answered two days later that he was ready to "assume the powers of the Republic" (assumer les pouvoirs de la République). Many worried as they saw this answer as support to the army.

On May 19 de Gaulle asserted again (at a press conference) that he was at the disposition of the country. He declared that, "at sixty-seven, he had no intention to begin a career as a dictator". A republican by conviction, de Gaulle maintained throughout the crisis that he would accept power only from the lawfully constituted authorities of the state.

The crisis deepened as French paratroops from Algeria seized Corsica and a landing near Paris was discussed. Political leaders on all sides agreed to support the General's return to power, except François Mitterrand, and the Communist Party (which misguidedly denounced de Gaulle as the agent of a fascist coup). On May 29 the French President, René Coty, appealed to the "most illustrious of Frenchmen." to become the last Prime Minister of the Fourth Republic.

De Gaulle remained intent on replacing the constitution of the Fourth Republic, which he blamed for France's political weakness. He set as a condition for his return to be given wide emergency powers for 6 months and that a new constitution1 shall be proposed to the French people. On June 1, 1958 de Gaulle became premier and was given emergency powers for 6 months by the National Assembly.

On September 28, 1958, a referendum took place and 79.2% of those who voted supported the new constitution and the creation of the Fifth Republic. The colonies (Algeria was officially a part of France, not a colony) were given the choice between immediate independence and the new constitution. All colonies voted for the new constitution except Guinea, which thus became the first French African colony to gain independence, at the cost of the immediate ending of all French assistance.

1958-1969 The Fifth Republic

In the November 1958 elections de Gaulle and his supporters (initially organised in the Union pour la Nouvelle République-Union Démocratique du Travail, then the Union des Démocrates pour la Vème République and later still the Union des Démocrates pour la République) won a comfortable majority, in December de Gaulle was elected President with 78% of the vote, he was inaugurated in January 1959.

He oversaw tough economic measures to revitalise the country, including the issuing of a new Franc (worth 100 old Francs). Internationally he rebuffed both the USA and the USSR, pushing for an independent France with its own nuclear weapons. He set about building Franco-German coooperation as the cornerstone of the EEC (now the European Union), and he took the opportunity to deny the British entry for the first time (January 1963).

De Gaulle believed that while the war in Algeria was militarily winnable it was not defensible internationally, and he became reconciled to the country's independence. This stance created huge anger among the French settlers and their metropolitan supporters, and de Gaulle was forced to suppress two uprisings in Algeria by French settlers and troops, in the second of which (April 1961) France herself faced threatened invasion by rebel paratroops. He was also targeted by the settler OAS terrorist group. In March 1962 de Gaulle arranged a cease-fire in Algeria and a referendum supported independence, finally accomplished on July 3.

In September 1962 he sought a constitutional amendment to allow the president to be directly elected by the people. Following a defeat in the National Assembly, he dissolved that body and held new elections, the Gaullists won an increased majority. Although the Algerian issue was settled the prime minister, Michel Debré, still resigned over the final settlement and was replaced with Georges Pompidou. v

State Portrait of President de Gaulle

In December1965 de Gaulle was returned as President for a second seven-year term, but only after a second round of voting in which he defeated François Mitterrand. Internationally de Gaulle continued to pursue an independent policy, again rejecting British entry into the EEC (December 1967), condemning the US over Vietnam and the Israelis over the Six Day War, and withdrawing France from the common NATO military command (February 1966).

On an official State visit to Canada in July 1967 to celebrate that country's 100 years of nationhood, President de Gaulle ignited a storm of controversy in the anglophone world when he stood before a crowd of 100,000 Quebecers in Montreal and declared: Vive le Québec libre! While this implied support for Québec's independence was a monumental diplomatic blunder and interference into another country's private affairs, it was one that inflamed the passion of some nationalist Quebecers and inspired members of the emerging secession movement.

Following de Gaulle's remark, the Prime Minister of Canada, Lester B. Pearson, cancelled plans for de Gaulle's visit to the capital of Ottawa, and asked the French President to leave the country. Criticised at home in France for the remarks, his opponents reminded the wartime general of the thousands of Canadian soldiers (see: Vimy Ridge) buried in France who fought and died for France's freedom in both World Wars. Critics also drew the parallel for interference between Quebec independence and past Franco-German contestation of ownership of Alsace-Lorraine.

The huge demonstrations and strikes in France in May 1968 were another challenge, in the course of which de Gaulle briefly flew to meet Massu, now French commander in Germany (to discuss army intervention against the protesters, it has been alleged), while Pompidou sent tanks into the suburbs of Paris as a precautionary measure.

But de Gaulle offered to accept some of the reforms the demonstrators sought. He again considered a referendum to support his moves, but Pompidou persuaded him to dissolve parliament (in which the government had all but lost its majority in the March 1967 elections) and hold new elections instead. The June 1968 elections were a major success for the Gaullists and their allies: when offered the spectre of revolution or even civil war, the majority of the country rallied to him. His party won 358 of 487 seats, but Pompidou was suddenly replaced by Maurice Couve de Murville in July.

1969 The retirement

Charles de Gaulle resigned on April 28, 1969 following the defeat of his proposals to transform the Senate into an advisory body while giving extended powers to regional councils. The general retired once again to Colombey-les-deux-Églises, where he died in 1970.


Though controversial throughout his political career, not least among ideological opponents on the left and among overseas strategic partners, de Gaulle continues to command enormous respect within France, where his presidency is seen as a return to political stability and strength on the international stage.

Domestically, for all its flaws, his regime presided over a return to economic prosperity after an initially sluggish postwar performance, while maintaining much of the social contract evolved in previous decades between employers and labour. The associated dirigisme (state economic interventionism) of the Fifth Republic's early decades remains at odds with the trend of western economic orthodoxy, though French living standards remain among the highest in Europe.

De Gaulle's presidential style of government was continued under his successors. Internationally, the emphasis on French independence which so characterised de Gaulle's policy remains a keynote of foreign policy, together with his alignment with the former rival Germany, still seen in both countries as a foundation for European integration.


1 As he commissioned the new constitution and was responsible for its overall framework, de Gaulle is sometimes described as the author of the constitution. De Gaulle's political ideas were written into a constitutional by Michel Debré who then guided the text through the enactment process. Thus while the constitution reflects de Gaulle's ideas, Michel Debré was the actual author of the text.


French Editions

English Translations

Things named after Charles de Gaulle

Many streets and public buildings in France bear the name of Charles de Gaulle. Let us cite:

External link

Preceded by:
Vichy France
Head of the Provisional Government of France
Followed by:
Félix Gouin

Preceded by:
Pierre Pflimlin
Prime Ministers of France
Followed by:
Michel Debré

Preceded by:
René Coty
President of France
Succeeded by:
Georges Pompidou