Charles De Gaulle And The France He Saved
By Jonathan Fenby
Simon & Schuster – £30.00
Surely, one of the most admirable of human traits is the elongated and focused desire to see something though to fruition. Regardless of pitfalls and invariable pangs of doubt. Regardless of the no-goes, the no-shows, the various platoons of assorted wheelers, dealers and schemers who, for whatever biased reason, will always reckon on hurling a menagerie of hurdles forth – lest the long and winding road suddenly find itself a little easier to walk. When someone is overtly well versed in their particular field, or is simply drenched with oodles of appropriate passion to see something through; and, lo and behold, might still retain something of a hungry heart to boot, chances are, they’ll eventually arrive at their destination. It might take a long time, and the road travelled might indeed be littered with the varying potholes of self-induced doubt and allotted scathing sentiment; but those who behold their vision are more oft than not, likely to see their dream evolve unto reality.
No doubt, there are reams of applicants upon whom such regal sentiment can, and ought, be placed, but perhaps none more so than the founder and first President of France’s Fifth Republic, Charles De Gaulle. Although, as this highly readable, refreshingly honest and rather terrific new book on The General – as he became known from 1940 onwards – makes clear, De Gaulle wasn’t exactly a barrel of laughs or the most entertaining of dinner dates. Writing in chapter eleven (‘At The Summit’) of The General – Charles De Gaulle and the France He Saved, highly respected writer, editor and author Jonathan Fenby, refers to British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who, following a dinner with President Roosevelt in Marrakech in 1942, is quoted as saying: ‘’the General was a Joan of Arc and that the British were trying to find some bishops to burn him.’’
To be sure, De Gaulle was awkward and difficult, precocious and self-assuming, at times highly belligerent, not to mention one of the most dour and distant of world leaders. To this list might also be added ungrateful. As following yet another defiant fallout with Churchill regarding French territory in Madagascar, The General remarked: ‘’it’s better to see those English pigs in Diego Suarez than those pigs of Germans’’ (‘Allies At Odds’).
Moreover, as Fenby highlights throughout these 636 pages, there was always a silent and underlying voluminous vulnerability to that of De Gaulle’s character, which future British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan detected quite early on, whilst dealing with him during the war in North Africa: ‘’there was a terrible mixture of inferiority complex and spiritual pride… He wanted immensely to be liked, and the smallest act of courtesy or special kindness touches him with deep emotion’’ (‘France Has Not Lost The War’).
Apart from France itself, it was Charles De Gaulle’s family life and his immense love for his wife Yvonne (and his second daughter, Anne, who suffered from Down’s syndrome), wherein his quintessentially deepest emotions fundamentally lie. In relation to his wife in ‘Family Time,’ Fenby writes with a more than considered delicacy: ‘’In his letters, Charles acknowledged his failure to write to her often enough, but also bemoaned the shortage of correspondence form her. ‘I want to know everything about you and les Babies!’ he told her from Africa in the autumn of 1940. Expressions of affection were always evident, along with the recognition of how important her companionship was to him, and how inseparable she was from his role in life. I send you all my deepest tenderness,’ he wrote before departing on another trip in March 1941. ‘I embrace you with all my heart… my dear little beloved wife, and also my friend, my companion so courageous and good, through a tumultuous life.’’
Suffice to say, amid all the clinical statesmanship for which The General remains renowned, there was obviously a far more than humane side to his character; a trait which until now, hasn’t really garnered anywhere near enough attention over the years. As mentioned at the outset, it was De Gaulle’s all pervading, solipsistic vision of France, by which he will forever, albeit in assorted quarters, not always fondly, be remembered. As Fenby makes quite clear early on (in ‘France Has Not Lost The War’): ‘’That he emerged triumphant from the war years was a tribute to his strategic vision, tactical skill, sheer pig-headedness and ability to channel his strong emotions in constructive directions for both himself and his cause. It was a performance which catapulted him on to the world stage, and ensured that, for most of the three decades between his flight to London and his death, he would be a unique global player.’’
With more than just astute analysis and a rhetorical flourish, Jonathan Fenby has herein cast a shimmering new light on one of the twentieth-century’s most profound, prolific and poignant of world leaders. One would be hard pressed to find another such readable biography, on such a complex subject.