The Myth and Reality of Charles de Gaulle, Part II

(Part one is found here.)

In the first part of this article I made the point that myth surrounds the figures of all men recognized as leaders and that the leaders who loom largest in history textbooks are those most steeped in it. The point was not that a leader may as a public figure present himself as morally upright but privately can be a reprobate. Such a hypocrite simply fails in his manhood; he lacks integrity. What I’m trying to get at in discussing Charles de Gaulle (who certainly is not unique in this regard) is that the perception of him as a leader was and is false, thanks to the myth of him. The myth of de Gaulle was that as a leader he was the savior of France. The reality of him was that as a leader, and even as he endlessly invoked the “glory” of France, he diverted the nation from the historical mission that had made it truly glorious: spreading and defending European Christian civilization and the Faith from which it derived. (I said diverted. The better word would be abandoned.)

Why should this interest a reader? To speak of only one reason, and supposing you are somebody striving to live in the world according to the will of God, don’t you think you might feel less threatened and alone if there was still at least one nation — moreover a major power — whose mission was to get the world to living as God wishes instead of according to “the will of the people”? If it did nothing else, that nation would provide support, including financial assistance, to apostolates working to make America Christian. This in the same way that the United States supports organizations and agencies which seek their countries’ entry into the liberal world order of which today’s United States is the center.

We can date the beginning of France’s historical mission to defend the Faith to 1095 when a French pope, Urban II, journeyed to his native land to proclaim the First Crusade to an assembly of French Churchmen and knights. The mission continued in the thirteenth century when King Saint Louis IX embarked on another Crusade to the Holy Land and died during it. It continued into modern time. In his private life the Second Empire’s Napoleon III was no paragon of virtue and piety, but until he needed them to fight Prussia in a war that would cost him his crown, he kept French troops garrisoned in Rome to deter the Piedmontese from invading the Papal States and stripping the pope of his temporal power. Also, in the 1860s, he sent French troops into Lebanon to stand between that land’s Christians and the Muslims persecuting them. That same decade he attempted to replace the Freemasonic republic of Benito Juarez in Mexico with the Catholic monarchy of Emperor Maximilian I. When Napoleon III was gone, in the 1880s, a sort of female latter-day Julian the Apostate became queen of Madagascar. The island nation had been evangelized by French missionaries in the eighteenth century. The new ruler decided that the Malagasy people should revert to their ancient pagan religion and ordered churches to be burned and Catholic priests and religious massacred. News of this quickly reached France. Paris reacted by dispatching an army and navy expeditionary force. The burning and killing was stopped, and regime change followed.

Many other instances could be cited of France acting to spread and defend the Faith and benefits of European Christian civilization, but we shall speak of only one more: Algeria. It became French territory in the 1830s during the reign of King Louis-Philippe I.

It is vital to understand that after 1848 Algeria was not a colony. It was a departement of France. (France is divided into departements as the U.S. is divided into states.) As was declared by a general who led an unsuccessful revolt against de Gaulle in 1961: “The Mediterranean runs through France as the Seine runs through Paris.”

In 1954 about two million Algerians were ethnic Europeans (French, Spanish, Italian, etc.) known colloquially as pieds noirs. They were a fifth of the population but the majority in Algeria’s two largest cities, Algiers and Oran. Most were Catholic. The cathedral in Algiers was the largest in Africa. Not all of the remaining population was Arab. There were probably as many of the indigenous Berber population as there were Europeans. Even among the Arab population there were a great many, known as harkis, who were European in all save religion, many even adopting French first names.

I speak of 1954 because that year a group of Marxist-inspired Arab intellectuals formed what they called the Front de Liberation Nationale (FLN), recruited some young men into it, found guns for them, and launched an insurgency with the goal of making Algeria an independent Arab-ruled Marxist republic. The FLN insurgency began with harkis and their families being especially targeted. About 150,000 of them were killed. Of course pieds noirs were also targeted. Bombs planted in cafes, markets and other urban gathering places were the favored means of terrorizing them. Of course, too, authorities endeavored to crush the insurgency. In a word, there was war. During the course of it 700,000 would die. The number includes FLN insurgents, French armed forces members, and civilians.

We need to recall at this juncture that the French army had been defeated and disarmed by the Germans in 1940. Like much of France itself, it had to be rebuilt after World War II. The task was made the more difficult because in 1947 Communists led by Ho Chi Minh launched an insurgency in French Indochina.

Indochina was not an integral part of France like Algeria, but millions of Indochinese had become Catholic, especially in the southern region that would later be the Republic of South Vietnam. French missionaries had converted them and the army, though still not up to full strength, felt duty-bound to defend them.

Charles de Gaulle had no role in these developments. After two years as president of the provisional government set up at “Liberation,” he tired of the struggle for power going on between the Communists and politicians of other parties and quit. He simply picked up his marbles and went home. A Fourth Republic was installed and its leaders were not as committed as the military to keeping Indochina French. They didn’t give the army needed backing, no more than would U.S. politicians provide it to the U.S. Army in Vietnam years later. In 1954 “peace” was agreed with Ho Chi Minh (it was really surrender). The army felt betrayed, especially younger officers who had signed up after World War II with the idea they would be the “sword” of French rule, defending it wherever it existed.

Four years after the war in Algeria began, young colonels fighting it, as well as pieds noirs, could see the politicians in Paris wavering again. They resolved that Paris would not sell them out as in Indochina and showed it with a revolt that their generals soon had no choice but to join. Paris was put on notice: step aside. The question was what or who would replace the weak-kneed politicians? Why, who else but the man who supposedly (according to myth) saved France fifteen years before?

Fearing to see tanks in the streets of Paris, the politicians agreed, and so did de Gaulle. The differences between the Fifth Republic he established on 4 October 1958 and previous French regimes don’t concern us here. Only one thing does. As soon as he was ensconced in the Elysees Palace (the French White House), de Gaulle flew to Algeria and in a watershed moment in French history stepped onto the balcony of government headquarters in Algiers and declared to the thousands of pieds noirs gathered in the square below, “Je vous ai compris” (“I have understood you”). The declaration was Jesuitical in its cunning. De Gaulle could always claim afterward, “I promised nothing. All I said was that I understood them.” But to the pieds noirs, the young colonels and all the rest of the world it sounded as if he was committed to keeping Algeria French.

He was not. The French flag was pulled down in Algeria in March 1962. In April 1961, the commanders of the army, navy and air force in Algeria, and their overall commander General Salan, had attempted to overthrow de Gaulle (there were tanks in the streets of Paris this time) but failed. A far-reaching purge of the military followed. In 1962 the army was reduced to protecting pieds noirs scrambling for ships and planes to flee their native land lest the fate of the harkis befall them also.

Even as he abandoned Algeria, de Gaulle ended French rule in the country’s black African territories. As a gauge of how beneficial that rule was, we can recall that Robert Cardinal Sarah’s parents were converted from animism by French missionaries.

Perhaps the most renowned French missionary in black Africa in the twentieth century was Marcel Lefebvre, a Holy Ghost Father who eventually became this order’s superior but was also Apostolic Delegate to French Africa and Archbishop of Dakar. If he is chiefly remembered today for founding the Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX), it remains that most of his life was dedicated to the spread of the Faith in Africa, a work that bore much fruit for as long as there was a French Africa. Is it any wonder that after de Gaulle ended French rule everywhere in the continent Archbishop Lefebvre would always refer to him as le serpent (the snake)? After all, far more than mere territory was abandoned.

Readers may not be aware that the Archbishop’s father, who died in a Nazi concentration camp, was a fervent monarchist. I mention this because the subject of royalism brings us to a last example of the duplicity of Charles de Gaulle.

Reporters who covered the Elysees Palace were astounded one day in 1961 when they saw a car carrying Henri Count of Paris, pretender to the throne of France, drive into the Elysees’s courtyard. It wasn’t Henri who astounded them but de Gaulle’s greeting. Whenever visiting chiefs of state or heads of government arrived at the Elysees, de Gaulle would always stand at the top of the steps and wait for the visitor to climb up to him before shaking his hand. When the Count of Paris arrived de Gaulle walked down the steps to greet him as soon as he got out of his car. That wasn’t all. When the two men reappeared after an hour-long meeting, de Gaulle walked down the steps with Henri to see him into his car and drive away. What was the meaning of de Gaulle’s startling behavior, his amazing show of deference?

What it meant was that during their meeting de Gaulle told Henri that he, de Gaulle, was thinking of not running for reelection when his present term in office expired in 1965. Further, in his view the republican form of government “was not natural to France” and the monarchy ought to be restored. Of course this couldn’t be done overnight but steps could be taken, steps in a transition from republic to monarchy. Naturally a certain continuity in affairs of state was necessary. For instance, a monarchy could hardly take back the independence that the republic was about to concede to Algeria.

Henri understood what de Gaulle was getting at, or thought he did. In the Bulletin Politique he published through his Political Office he had voiced opposition to the negotiations known to be going on between the government and the FLN. He would now close his Political Office and stop publication of the Bulletin. Putting two and two together, LExpress magazine, the French equivalent of Time or Newsweek in those days, put the Count of Paris on its cover with the caption Le Dauphin (the title of the heir to the throne under the Bourbon monarchy).

The meeting in 1961 wasn’t the only one between Henri and de Gaulle. In 1963 de Gaulle advised the pretender that perhaps the best way to transition to monarchy would be for him, Henri, to run first for president in 1965. There was a precedent. Napoleon III had got himself elected President of the Second Republic — that republic’s only president — before calling a referendum that approved his becoming emperor. Poor Henri, still doing as advised by de Gaulle, set up a television studio in his home outside Paris so he could practice giving campaign speeches before the cameras. (A snippet of one of his practice sessions can be found on You Tube.)

There must have been communication between de Gaulle and Henri besides the meetings we know about. When Henri’s son, today’s Count of Paris, sued his wife for divorce, he testified in open court that he would never have married her except that de Gaulle had “indicated” to his father that restoration would be “facilitated” if he, the son, married a German princess. As for the known meetings, notes of them that Henri took were published after his death. We can see from them what Henri did not see — at least not at the time. Nowhere does de Gaulle say, “I am determined to restore the throne of France and put you on it.” He says that the monarchy ought to be restored, that the republican form of government is not natural to France, but there is nothing definite. Henri heard what he wanted to hear exactly as had the crowd in Algiers when de Gaulle told them “I have understood you,” but this is only a way of saying that all of them heard what de Gaulle intended them to hear.

The Count of Paris finally awoke to his having been duped when he turned on his television in 1965 and heard de Gaulle announce that he was running for another seven-year term. He then asked for another meeting. De Gaulle did not refuse it. To be sure, there was no greeting in the courtyard on this occasion. A flunky ushered Henri to de Gaulle’s office. Henri asked, in effect, what happened? De Gaulle’s reply was brusque. He was personally a royalist, he said, but had concluded restoration of the monarchy would be “inopportune.” And that was it.

What more is there to say? I’ll say this. I lived in France, in Paris, when de Gaulle was president and saw him in action. For instance, I was at the news conference where he famously said “non” to Britain’s entry into the Common Market, predecessor of the E.U. Now I live in Washington D.C. and little Emmanuel Macron was in town the other week. I couldn’t help thinking of the contrast between the two men, and by extension the France of de Gaulle and the France that would elect a nullity like Macron as its president. Believe me, Donald Trump would not have dared to flick dandruff from de Gaulle’s shoulder. It would have been unimaginable.

Of course there was a time in America when it was unimaginable the U.S. would have as president somebody like Donald Trump. My contention is that if it’s been downhill for everybody for a long time, de Gaulle helped push. He “saved” nothing.