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A Certain Idea of France: The Life of Charles de Gaulle by Julian Jackson

A Certain Idea of France: The Life of Charles de Gaulle by Julian Jackson
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Charles de Gaulle, the subject of Julian Jackson’s masterly biography, was “among the most extraordinary visionaries of the 20th century”, said Max Hastings in The Sunday Times. He led his country over two separate periods: during and immediately after the Second World War, when he spearheaded the Resistance and oversaw France’s liberation, and then between 1958 and 1969, when he came out of retirement to deliver his country from “looming civil war over Algeria”. As a man, de Gaulle wasn’t likeable: he was arrogant, humourless, graceless and “almost demented” in his lack of gratitude towards France’s allies, while his instincts as a leader were authoritarian. Yet while Jackson acknowledges his subject’s “inconsistencies and limitations”, he “leaves not a scintilla of doubt about his greatness”. De Gaulle, he writes, “saved the honour of France”. This “awesome” biography does full justice to a man who makes most modern politicians seem like “pygmies”.

De Gaulle’s “supreme moment” came in June 1940, when he flew to England and convinced Churchill to “adopt him as a symbol of France’s continuing fight” against the Nazis, said Simon Heffer in The Daily Telegraph. For the next four years, he led the Resistance from its London headquarters, before returning triumphantly to France in 1944. Yet a deeply embedded “Anglophobia” meant that he never displayed any gratitude towards his British hosts; instead, he drove them to “despair with his absurd demands and vanity”. Such behaviour was of a piece with his myth-making tendencies: convinced all his life of France’s greatness, de Gaulle refused to accept the reality of France’s dependence on her allies, and even stuck to the script after the War, when he claimed that France “had liberated itself”.

Having overseen democracy restored to his homeland, de Gaulle resigned in 1946, when his “plans for political reform failed”, said Robert Tombs in The Spectator. For the next 12 years, he “remained a brooding presence” before another national disaster – the Algerian War – enabled him “to take power on his own terms”. He started with no clear policy on the issue, “but when he realised what had to be done – to get rid of Algeria – he did it ruthlessly”. Jackson’s de Gaulle is a pragmatist rather than an idealist, and someone whose world view was a “strange mixture of the archaic and the far-sighted”. Comprehensive, scholarly and superbly readable, this is a biography that “ought to remain for years the standard work”.