A Certain Idea Of France –
The Life Of Charles De Gaulle
By Julian Jackson
Allen Lane – £35.00
De Gaulle’s admirers have included both Henry Kissinger and Osama bin Laden. He has been compared by admirers and detractors to French figures as diverse as Charlemagne, Joan of Arc, Richelieu, Henri IV, Louis XIV, Danton, Saint-Just, Napoleon I, Chateaubriand, Napoleon III, General Boulanger, Leon Gambetta and Georges Clemenceau; and to non-French figures as diverse as Bismarck, Franco, Kerensky, Mussolini, Salazar, Mao, Bolivar, Castro and Jesus Christ. The range of these comparisons reflects de Gaulle’s extraordinary contradictions: he was a soldier who spent most of his career fighting the army; a conservative who often talked like a revolutionary; a man of passion who found it almost impossible to express emotions.
De Gaulle may have had a certain idea of France ‘all his life’ but it was not always the same idea.
De Gaulle had genuinely convinced himself that it was his mission to introduce participation into French society, despite the fact that his way of exercising authority was the antithesis of participatory.
(‘The End, June 1968 – November 1970’)
During the Charles de Gaulle era, it could be argued that France was and quintessentially remained, a work in progress. A (working) prognosis of assumptive thought, fundamentally underlined by the many perplexing parameters of an idea. An idea, not only occasionally derided and deliberated upon within the seemingly impossible context of both persuasive and non-persuasive French politics itself – but the very rubric of a seemingly idealistic idea.
And regardless of anything other – such as irritating outside influence – the varying ideas and the utmost dense trajectory thereof, remained totally de Gaulle’s and totally De Gaulle’s alone.
After all, ”in the 1960s, when he was President of France, it was often said that he governed through the magic of his rhetoric and his mastery of television.” A quality, which (if true) may partially explain the country’s inexorable, political bumpy road, and its most fraught, internal passionate division – with which de Gaulle is still associated.
Indeed, a non-diversionary division, which de Gaulle was supposedly, so very capable of igniting among his followers and non-followers alike.
A quality, which as Julian Jackson makes clear right at the very outset of A Certain Idea Of France – The Life Of Charles De Gaulle, was overwhelmingly inflammatory to say the least: ”The extraordinary unanimity around de Gaulle in France could not have been predicted when he left power in 1969. It airbrushes out of history how much, throughout his career, he was a brutally divisive figure. During his thirty years in politics, de Gaulle was the most revered figure of modern French history – and the most hated. He was reviled and idealized, loathed and adored, in equal measure. Other twentieth-century French political figures have been hated but none with such intensity as de Gaulle. For some people hating him gave meaning to their lives; others were driven mad by it.”
Now there’s a certain calamity for thought.
Voltaire wouldn’t have been at all pleased.
Although when current French President, Emmanuel Macron, had his first official photograph taken, he had on the table behind, him a copy of Charles de Gaulle’s memoirs, the aforesaid division really does need to be placed into some sort of considered context.
As such, these 777 pages (excluding Acknowledgements, several pages of maps – among them, De Gaulle’s Paris and The Free French in London – Biographical Notes, Biographies, Notes and Index), are an altogether exquisite and rather erudite examination of one of the most towering figures in French history.
To be sure, many would no doubt argue the most towering figure; which , either way you choose to look at it, more than substantiates this veritable tomb of both book and analyses. Two reasons for the latter being the degree to which Jackson was given unrestricted access to new archives, and his altogether commanding knowledge of the period.
Just one example of this (and there are many) really does come to light throughout the book’s penultimate chapter – the afore-quoted ‘The End, June 1968 – November 1970’ – where Jackson resoundingly writes: ”[…] Nixon was accompanied by his main foreign policy adviser Henry Kissinger, who had his first and only opportunity to meet the man on whom he had written so perceptively when still an academic:
Somewhat awestruck, I approached the towering figure. Upon seeing me he dismissed the group around him and, without a word of greeting…welcomed me with this query: ‘Why don’t you get out of Vietnam?’ I replied with some diffidence that a unilateral retreat would undermine American credibility. De Gaulle was not impressed, and asked where such a loss of credibility might occur. When I indicated the Middle East, his remoteness turned into melancholy and he remarked: ‘How very odd. I thought it was precisely in the Middle East that your enemies were having the credibility problem.”’
It is just such investigation which alerts the reader to the fact that A Certain Idea Of France – The Life Of Charles De Gaulle really is – in and of itself – something of a mighty achievement.
It’s designated five parts (‘De Gaulle before ‘De Gaulle,’ 1890-1940,’ ‘Exile, 1940-1944,’ ‘In and Out of Power, 1944-1958,’ ‘Republican Monarch, 1959-1965’ and ‘Toward the End, 1966-1970’) are profoundly revelatory in detail, and written in such a way as is almost impossible to put aside.
In conclusion, this is a tremendous modern biography of a man who both saved and remade France at nigh the same time. I therefore, wouldn’t be surprised if it re-sets the bar; due to quite possibly being the finest biography written on de Gaulle.