BOOK REVIEW / L'Etat? It's a fairy-story princess in a fresco: The Last Great Frenchman - Charles Williams: Little, Brown, pounds 25

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE FORMER banker and Labour peer Charles Williams has written a fine one-volume biography of Charles de Gaulle. Inevitably, he has had to work in the shadow of Jean Lacouture's monumental three-volume life, published recently in a shortened English version. But he brings fresh insights and qualities to the task.

He sees the provincial background as crucial. De Gaulle was a typical product of 19th- century, northern French upper class society - austere, Catholic, monarchist and nationalist. His army career, his dislike of parliamentary politics and attraction to authoritarian models of leadership, his attachment to an idealised France and his distrust of supranational institutions all flowed from this.

Lord Williams is interesting about De Gaulle's wife, Yvonne, whom he considers the ideal companion for the General, uninterested in politics but strongly supportive of her husband. In his way, De Gaulle was devoted to her, as well as to his Downs Syndrome daughter Anne. He explains De Gaulle's extraordinary flight to Baden-Baden during the events of 1968 by the General's concern for his wife, who had been insulted in the Place de la Madeleine.

Lord Williams has tramped the battlefields - Dinant Bridge where De Gaulle was wounded in 1914, and Abbeville, where he unsuccessfully led a French offensive in the humiliating defeat of 1940. He has visited the various houses and headquarters where De Gaulle was based in wartime Britain. One can almost smell the intrigue and conspiracy in Algeria in 1942 and 1943. And the contrast between the peace and quiet of the country retreat at Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises, and the pomp and splendour of the Elysee Palace, is well drawn.

However, the author's most effective contribution is the judgement he brings, as a practising politician, to De Gaulle's motives and ideas, and to the dramatic turning points in his subject's extraordinary career.

De Gaulle's underlying belief was in the greatness of France. 'The emotional side of one naturally imagines France, like the princess in the fairy stories or the Madonna in the frescos, as dedicated to an exalted and exceptional destiny,' he wrote in his Memoires de Guerre.

It was this romantic nationalism which drove and sustained him. In 1940, it lifted him from a relatively unsuccessful military career, in which he had only attained the rank of temporary Brigadier General, to the inspired leadership of the Free French. When he came back to power in the world of the late Fifties and Sixties, his 'certain idea of France' sometimes served him less well. He was quick to see that a reconciliation with Germany was in France's interest, but his attitude to the EEC (especially Anglo-Saxons) was potentially harmful.

Lord Williams draws a sharp and convincing distinction between De Gaulle's view of Britain and his attitude to the United States. He argues that, though he was an anglophobe by tradition, his wartime experience and admiration of Churchill softened his approach and that on three occasions in 1940, 1944 and 1969, he was prepared to offer Britain a partnership with France. It was only when Britain appeared to lean towards America rather than Europe that he turned hostile.

His relationship with America and her presidents, particularly Roosevelt, was always prickly and difficult. He never understood what made Americans tick and was profoundly jealous of American power. In the Sixties much of his foreign policy was devoted to the ultimately futile baiting of 'Uncle Sam'.

But although, by 1969, De Gaulle and old style 'Gaullism' seemed anachronistic, the French have much to thank him for. In 1940 he saved the reputation of France. By double-crossing those who had helped bring him to power in 1958, he delivered France from the Algerian imbroglio, an achievement that Lord Williams underestimates. And the constitution of the Fifth Republic, though devised to suit De Gaulle's ruthless idea of leadership, still survives 23 years after his death.