General Articles


Like Joan of Arc, de Gaulle hears a call to save France. And he who scorns dictators may yet become one himself

MATTHEW HALTON January 15 1948
General Articles


Like Joan of Arc, de Gaulle hears a call to save France. And he who scorns dictators may yet become one himself

MATTHEW HALTON January 15 1948


Like Joan of Arc, de Gaulle hears a call to save France. And he who scorns dictators may yet become one himself


CBC European Correspondent

A FRENCHMAN and his wife and an English diplomat and myself were dining in Paris on a recent Saturday night and talk came round to the good old argument that great men are catastrophic. Apropos, of course, of General Charles de Gaulle.

“Great men always leave a country with a hang-over,” said the Frenchman.

“I don’t care,” said his wife. “De Gaulle is the only man who can save France.” Millions of others, from right-wing Socialists to ex-Petainists and Fascists, were saying the same thing.

“He’s the only man who can break France,” replied her husband, a prominent liberal Conservative. “No one man can save France. If she needs a dictator to save her, then she’s beyond saving. But De Gaulle could break her.”

With a wave of his hand he indicated the food we were eating—a perfect omelet, a succulent chicken, butter, crepes suzettes, a velvet wine: the black market. “In London,” he said, “you would not for shame patronize such a restaurant; but when in Rome . . . France needs discipline. But to be effective it must come from within. The discipline that comes from personal government saps the moral independence of a people.”

The Englishman said: “De Gaulle could save

France or ruin her. If he comes to power, events are almost bound to push him toward dictatorship —which means ruin. If he can control events and give this country discipline without destroying democracy, he saves her.”

As so often before, so much now depends on the wisdom, character and personality of one man. A great man beyond doubt and a good man I think. But. the “sea-green incorruptible” can be catastrophic, too, as more than one society has found.

The Struggle for France

AS WE dined there, many others in Paris were - eating their small ration of rough yellow corn bread—and for that reason and others, France seemed to be at another crossroads in her history. There were near riots at that hour in the Place de la Republique, strikes were increasing in number, and all over the country there was the impatient malaise which precedes and forces an hour of decision. The Communists, reverting to action after their two years of pretended collaboration, were trying to precipitate not a civil war, because they knew they would lose that, but an economic paralysis that would emasculate the Marshall Plan and so, perhaps, save Western Europe for the Comintern. Extremes beget extremes and moderation was dying. Many people—including men and women of democratic good will as well as the powerful forces on the Right hankering as ever for some form of the authoritarian state—were saying, “Only De Gaulle can save France.”

Moderation was dying. The Socialists and Popular Republicans were trying desperately to save the Fourth Republic, but their uneasy alliance was without cohesion. The struggle for France was reaching boiling point. That struggle was the key to the struggle for Europe. And the outcome might well depend on the character of the extraordinary Charles de Gaulle, who believes with a simple faith that destiny has matched him with this hour.

When the war ended, Frenchmen dreamed of a renaissance of their country. The wine of liberation was itself a tonic. One read everywhere that the sins and weaknesses of the past have been burnt out in the fire of suffering,” and all that. There would now be a redressement morale (a moral straightening up)—

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splendid phrase!—as there was after 1870, and a new flowering of the genius and greatness of France. But the dream died and the problems remained. The new constitution was little different from the old and no more effective —as De Gaulle had warned. “The French are a terribly intelligent people,” he said, “more intelligent even than the Anglo-Saxons. They see too many fine points and therefore they are disputatious. Therefore, they have many parties. Therefore, they cannot have strong government unless the executive is strong and the legislative responsible. Has this not bedevilled all our history?”

The wine of liberation lost its sparkle, the new constitution was no more effective than the old, and the old troubles were aggravated by new ones, from world shortages to local droughts. The black market contaminated every aspect of the national economy and the economic situation was exploited by the Communists. “All this is as the unrolling of a scroll which we know off by heart,” said the General, already famous as a prophet. Feeling himself predestined, he could wait. “Great men can always forestall events,” he said in another tantalizing paradox, “but only if they have the genius to wait.” And some of his own adherents have called him a Fabius, after the Roman general who beat Hannibal by refusing a decisive battle. But De Gaulle waited calmly for the scroll to unroll; and at last the crisis was precipitated—by the Marshall plan.

The Marshall plan was designed to save Europe from chaos and so from Communism. The Communists reacted immediately and in their traditional way. The tactics of temporary collaboration with other parties were swiftly abandoned and a new International was formed to exploit and foment economic difficulties and social discontents in every possible way and thus vitiate the Marshall plan before it could go into effect. De Gaulle came

down from Olympus and formed his new movement, the Rally of the French People. “It is not a party,” he said, “it is a movement.” That chilled one stout Tory democrat in the British Foreign Office, who said to me, “Movements are dangerous. The General is talking like Bonaparte.” But party or movement, the Rally is the strongest force in France.

It may peter out. The Communists may back down, economic conditions may improve, the Schuman coalition may show unexpected strength and wisdom, the Rally may dissolve for lack of a crisis and De Gaulle fade off the stage. But as this is written it seems pretty certain that the General will come to power; and that for good or ill another Hero will take his place in history.

Evil or Benign?

He would be one of the very interesting heroes on the long rich tapestry of France. Charles de Gaulle—excoriated by the defeatists and pro-Fascists and “better-Hitler-than-Blum” Bourbons in 1940 and hailed by the same people as a savior in 1947. The soldierprophet who wrote in 1934 how a mechanized army could save France and saw such an army used to crush her in 1940. The man unknown in June of that year who became the voice of France a month later—and signed a treaty in his person with the British Empire. The cold man who knelt to kiss the sands of Noimandy in 1944. The sceptic who believes God has called him, the modest man who speaks with the roya! “we.” The man who says the French are too intelligent to accept dictatorship but may soon be their dictator. And he does look like a Man of Destiny. But will his influence be evil or benign?

We know what his purpose is. It is to become head of the state, crush and destroy Communism, reform the constitution, instill higher standaids of public and private morality into France, and so restore her greatness. His love of France isa white-hot passion. All agree that France needs more

authority—but authoritarianism? No. That is the road to ruin. He has said so himself.

“The first steps (taken by a dictatorship) may seem attractive,” he wrote in his “Philosophy of Command.” “Amid the enthusiasm of some and the resignation of others, amid the rigor of the. order it imposes and with the help of spectacular staging and one-way propaganda, dictatorship can at first assume a dynamic aspect which contrasts agreeably with the anarchy that preceded it. But it is the fate of dictatorship to exaggerate. . .. The nation becomes a machine which the master progressively and frantically exaggerates ... In the end the spring breaks and the grandiose edifice crumbles in sorrow and in blood.”

Great stuff. Yet even the man who wrote that might be pushed by the logic of developing events. It has happened so often before. Selfish or unselfish, patriotic or only ambitious, Cromwell or Robespierre-— power corrupts or at least blinds. Charles de Gaulle seems to have the stuff of greatness and he himself has written that the great man is futile without ambition: “He would be condemnet!

to emasculation or corruption if he lacked the grim impulse of ambition to spur him on.” The spur is not, he says, the desire for ranks and honors, which are mere gauds to the great man, but “the hope of p'aymg a great role in great events.”

De Gaulle is a great soldier, a bold and deep thinker, a brilliant writer, and a prophet. I have met him only a few times, but I have been fascinated by his character ever since I first heard of him in 1936.

The Germans Knew

In Berlin one day, during the Olympic games of that year, I stumbled over the foot of an S. S. colonel as I left my seat in the stadium. I apologized, we began to talk, and the colonel invited me out to the gardens foi a drink. We discussed the Spanish civil war, which had just started, and our conversation came around to the importance of

tanks in modern wai. So viral times the German mentioned the teachings of one De Gaulle and at last 1 said, “Who is this De Gaulle?”

“De Gaulle? But you must have heard of De Gaulle! île wrote *Ven L'Armée de Métier' (Toward u Professional Army,’ ti ansia ted into English as ‘The Army of the Future’). It’s a textbook in our classes.”

In Paris a little later I bought the book. Its writing was superb, its prophecies terrifying, its brilliant exposition of what could save France wus thrilling. 1 talked about the book among friends in Paris and got the response I myself had given in Berlin: “De Gaulle? Who is I)e Gaulle?” But then I met Paul Reynaud and he knew who De Gaulle was. “He is the lud who will suve France,” he said—und he had been saying it since 1934.

The staff colonel, as De Gaulle was then, was obviously France’s most daring and original military thinker. He saw, of course—which did not tuke brilliance—that Germany would soon attack France again. The Germans would make another lightning stroke, he predicted. He named exactly where they would come, and the time of year, and the weather; and then he described the winning army that France must have ready.

The levée en masse of citizen-soldiers trained for only three years or less, wrote De Gaulle, was not enough to defend France—-and the allies always come so late! The time for impassioned citizen-soldiers singing the “Marseillaise” was gone. When whole armored divisions could move 50 miles in a day, there was not time to mobilize the vast reserves and mount the counterattack before the eternal enemy would be at the gates of Paris. Therefore, he said, Fran«* must have a professional army, a full-time, mobile, highly trained, armored mass which could disjoint the enemy’s attack right at the outset. One hundred thousand men would be almost enough, in 10 armored divisions. De Gaulle invented the armored division.

Well, that is history now. France’s greatest soldier wrote a plan to save the state and Germany used it to

destroy her. Guderian, the great blitzer, based hi« own textbook, “Achtung—Panzer,“on De Gaulle’s. But the French general staff, obsessed with the cult of the defensive as they had been with that of the offensive in 1914, described De Gaulle’s theories as nothing bul “a collection of witticisms!” “The Germans aie smiling, in any event,” answered De Gaulle.

The tragedy carne as foretold and with it the collapse of France. Called in by Premier Reynaud as Minister of War, De Gaulle worked like a Titan to stave off collapse until he could improvisi* some kind of an offensive. But where he needed months he had only hours. It was too late. And a few days later millions of people were hearing the name of De Gaulle for the first, time. A lone heroic figure, he had flown to England out of the wreckage of his country. “What moral authority the man has!” exclaimed Churchill. “He calmly comes here and demands that the British Empire sign an alliance with him and it does!” The General was as cool as if the world had not collapsed. He began his famous first proclamation to France with the words, “Frenchmen, France has lost a battle but she has not lost the war.” One of his followers described him as “a cold fish,” but a passion throbbed under his cold exterior and he too could make words fight.

Without “Color”

In writing of other men one often describes their home life, their family background, their personal habits and idiosyncrasies; one looks for the revealing detail. But in De Gaulle’s case there is nothing to find, no colorful details that 1 can discover. We know that Charles André Joseph Marie do Gaulle, son of a professor of philosophy, was born in Lille f>7 years ago; that even in childhood he loved learning; that he is steeped in philosophy and the French classics. When he was 15 he decided to be a soldier and when asked why he replied simply, “to protect France.” He spends his spare time at his pleasant country house at

Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises, southeast of Paris. His wife, Yvonne Vendroux, comes from a prominent Calais family. They met by chance in front of a picture gallery in Paris. They have two daughters and a son. His eating and drinking habits are moderate; he smokes a good deal. He is 6 feet 4 inches tall and weighs nearly 200 pounds. His mouth is undistinguished, he wears a little Chaplin or Hitler mustache, his big nose is the joy of caricature; yet the sum of his appearance is impressive. He is proud and reticent. But what else do we know? What makes him tick?

His love of France.

It is almost a banality-—worse still, a formality—to say a man “loves his country,” but not in the case of De Gaulle. With him the love of France is a sweet and tender passion as well as a white hot flaming thing. Commenting once to me on the accusation that he had a “Joan-of-Arc complex,” he said: “My mystique is France.”

But, like Joan, he has a conviction that he was born to save France; he chose the Cross of Lorraine as the symbol of fighting France; and a man close to him said, “I believe the General actually finds something significant in the fact that his name is De Gaulle.” Charles of Gaul!

In “The Army of the Future” De Gaulle has a brilliant and incisive comparison of the French and German characters. I quote it at length to illustrate his remarkable insight:

“How could a German understand or trust a Frenchman, this creature who has so much order in his head and so little in his actions, this sceptical logician, this hard-working lazybones, this homebody who acquires colonies; this passionate lover of Alexandrines, tail coats and public parks, who sings at the top of his voice, goes about in unpressed clothes and throws paper on the grass; this man who unites in himself the spirits of Colbert and Louvois —a Jacobin who cheers for the Emperor, a politician who yet believes in. the Holy Alliance, a soldier whipped at Charleroi picking himself up to attack on the Marne—in short, a

flighty, changeable contradictory person.

“On our side, Germany bothers us, too. Too much a child of the nature to which she clings, a bundle of strong but hazy emotions, a nation of born artists who have no taste, skilled technicians who cling to feudal ideas, bellicose fathers of families, fond of restaurants that look like churches, factories in the wildwood, toilets built like Gothic palaces; a race of oppressors who expect to be loved, individualists who obey blindly, romant ic knights who put their fingers down their throat after too much beer . . . Their soul is an ocean, magnificent and glassy, giving up to the fisherman’s net a mixture of monsters and treasures; a cathedral whose multicolored nave, a conjunction of noble arches and delicate sounds, fuses the emotion, the light and the religion of the world into a symphony for the senses, the intellect and the soul, but whose gloomy transept,echoing with barbarous cacophony, offends the eyes, the mind and the heart.”

He Detests Reds

De Gaulle’s love of France plainly does not blind him to her shortcomings. But thk bold, clear mind may be led to excess by his hate of Communism.

De Gaulle is not altogether a Conservative in the economic sense; he is not an unrestricted free-enterprise man. In home affaiis he is an enthusiastic supporter of the Monnet plan for the economic rehabilitation of France, which means that a large dose of socialism would not worry him. He hates the Communists chiefly because they are the tools of Russia. He refuses even to call them Communists: with

a cold detestation he calls them Separatists.

Incidentally, one of his closest lieutenants, his director of propaganda, is a former Communist, André Malraux. Malraux is the author of two excellent Communist novels, “La Condition Humaine'* and “Le Temps du Mépris.” He fought with the Communists in the Chinese Nationalist revolution of 1927 and with the Loyalists in the Spanish

civil war. “Knowledge of Communism made me a liberal,” said Malraux, “and I support the greatest liberal I know, De Gaulle.”

I hope that is not too good to be true.

De Gaulle is now talking to his intimates like this: “The stage is set, and no matter what happens now, you and I will soon lead France. It is implicit in events.” This is the way he talks. “Western Europe cannot be saved until Communism is completely rebuffed. In France itself things cannot go well until the French return to the old virtues—some of which we have never had! France must have a government which can govern and we offer her such a government. The people and events will summon us, today or tomorrow, this year or next.

“The proof that we have no totalitarian longings is in our knowledge of the French people. We know they are too proud, too contentious and even too fickle to suffer a dictator. Dictators are for servile people like the Germans or for people like the Russians who have never known freedom.

“There is still fire in the belly of the French people.”

Great stuff again, if he means it— and if he can control “the logic of events” of which he loves to speak. If he comes to power he will reform the constitution to give the president powers similar to those held by American presidents. He would like also to outlaw the Communist paity—and there at once he will face the great dilemma of liberalism, of democracy. If you outlaw a party or an idea, even one which seeks the destruction of your democracy, are you still democratic? “That’s a sophist’s question,” says De Gaulle; “pure casuistry.” But is it? It’s not a long step from outlawing one party to outlawing all opposition.

That is why I think De Gaulle is dangerous, great man though he is, good man though I think he is. If Communism is to wither away in France it must only he because the French democracy rises in strength and prosperity and obviates it. If Communism is crushed by force in France, it will grow there. ★