The recent marking of the 40th anniversary of the death of Charles de Gaulle reminds us how he polarised opinion on both sides of the English Channel.
To the British, he was a stubborn, quarrelsome, prickly man who may have been an inspirational leader to his country during difficult times, but who seemed often to forget that he and his allies were notionally on the same side.
To the French, though, he is their last great man: a political leader who sought to unite his country and who was also free from the smell of corruption that has tainted leaders of both left and right since his death. Both views are correct, and do not contradict each other: there was no middle way with de Gaulle.
His peculiar qualities were well brought out in an exemplary biography of him published in England a few months ago by Jonathan Fenby – The General (Simon and Schuster, £30).
Fenby is good on all aspects of de Gaulle’s character and life – both on his long, slow climb through the officer class of the French army and on the highly conservative background from which he came (his parents were both monarchists who despised the Third Republic into which their son was born in 1890).
When de Gaulle first put on military uniform, the Dreyfus affair was almost literally yesterday. When he quit the Élysée Palace in 1969, Paris had become the world’s focal point of left-wing student agitation. Indeed, the riots of the previous year had very nearly brought him down and, arguably, finished him off within months.
In one of the most famous openings in the history of memoirs, de Gaulle wrote that he had always had “a certain idea of France”. It was the monocultural, catholic, conservative idea instilled in him by his parents, and was a view of a predominantly agrarian nation. De Gaulle felt a strong attachment to the physical entity of the land of France, what it produced and what it represented.
When he was negotiating to become President Coty’s prime minister in the spring of 1958 – a step that would lead to the creation of the Fifth Republic within months, with de Gaulle as its head of state and poor old Coty just a footnote in history – he preferred to return each night to Colombey–les-deux-Eglises, to his home in the symbolic rural fastness that he regarded as the true France, rather than put up in an hotel in Paris. He was magnificent, for the most part, at managing his image.
De Gaulle’s achievement falls into two separate episodes. The first was his assumption of the leadership of the Free French in 1940, despite his only having just been promoted to the rank of the most junior general and despite hardly any of the French having heard of him.
One Frenchman who had, of course, was his former commander and mentor Marshal Pétain, who was now installed at the head of the collaborationist Vichy government. De Gaulle instinctively understood that France could not treat with a conqueror, something that Pétain, by then 84 and looking for some version of the quiet life, did not see in the same way.
The famous proclamation that de Gaulle put out to the French, in which he said that France had lost a battle but not a war, summed up his fighting spirit and his determination to liberate France from its enemy.
Over the next four years, he exasperated Churchill; and caused more than just raised eyebrows when, on entering Paris in August 1944, informed the capital that it had liberated itself.
Technically there was some truth in this. An uprising had begun to undo the Germans, and French forces had been allowed to lead the way into the capital. The thousands of dead British, American, Canadian and other troops whose graves were freshly dug all the way from Caen will have had a different view.
He showed himself politically gifted, however, in unifying his country in a time of inevitable recrimination: and showed great courage in doing it, too. The formula worked only for a while.
As with the British in their ingratitude to Churchill, so do did the French make de Gaulle’s life as Prime Minister a nightmare. His differences with the militant communists and other leftists who controlled the legislature made his position untenable, and in 1946 he went back to Colombey to wait for what he regarded as the inevitable moment when France would come to its senses, and send for him again.
In May 1958, that was exactly what happened. France had become largely ungovernable. There were economic and social difficulties; the left was once more immensely fractious; and there was the running sore of Algeria. Coty and his friends were failing to pull the country round.
Anarchy threatened from one direction and a military coup, possibly ushering in a type of neo-fascism, from the other. It was feared that de Gaulle, who made no secret of his ambition to come back and restore order, wanted to establish himself as some sort of dictator: a suggestion he himself rubbished, asking whether anyone could seriously believe a man of 67 with his record could want to do such a thing.
During his tenure of office, the left might have become agitated by his conservatism: but he made France a nuclear power, made her independent of American influence, solved (with a measure of ruthlessness) the Algerian problem, forged a friendship with West Germany and took the lead in what would become the European Union (notably in recognising how unsuitable Britain was for membership of it). He was the last great man indeed.
As the French today recall the mendacity of Mitterrand, the alleged corruption of Chirac, and the baroque life of Sarkozy, they have reason to lament the General.
Simon Heffer is associate editor of The Daily Telegraph