The Pain in the Neck

De Gaulle and the Strategy of Ingratitude

General de Gaulle saved France or so he often said. But who saved De Gaulle and why did he repay them with spite, obstinacy and ultimately betrayal?

President Charles de Gaulle, a six-foot-four-inch humourless Frenchman with "a head like a banana and hips like a woman" (as one British official remarked), did not hit it off with Winston Churchill, the man who during the Second World War was his chief protector, paymaster and propagandist. 

Once, during dinner at Chequers, Churchill was informed by his butler that de Gaulle wished to speak to him on the phone. Churchill, in the middle of soup, refused to take the call and others that immediately followed. Eventually he stumped off to the phone, returning ten minutes later, crimson with rage. "Bloody de Gaulle! After all we’ve done for him, he had the impertinence to tell me that the French regard him as the reincarnation of Joan of Arc." Pause. "I found it necessary to remind him we had to burn the first one”.

To a man as colossally vain as General de Gaulle, the fact that he is barely remembered now outside France except as the butt of Churchill anecdotes – and a rather ramshackle airport – would have been infuriating. And, as his life and history show, there was nothing de Gaulle liked more than paying off scores against old friends. If France and the French are sometimes called ungrateful, it was “le grand Charles” who made ingratitude into enduring national policy.

The Early Years: “The Monster of Ambition

If he was anything, de Gaulle was lucky. He graduated from military college just in time for the Great War which killed 1,375,000 French soldiers. De Gaulle missed most of it. Two weeks after the outbreak of war, he was wounded in the leg and out of action for three months. Wounded again in March 1915, he convalesced for eight months. Fit at last, he was sent to Verdun where he was captured and spent the last thirty-two months of the war in German prison camps.

On his return, his luck really paid off. He found that the colonel of his old unit, Phillipe Pétain, was now Marshal Pétain, the hero of the defence of Verdun and France’s most venerated commander. De Gaulle latched into Pétain’s boots like chewing gum

It was Pétain who got him into the elite army staff college, the Ecole Supérieure de Guerre, generally a fast-track to the top but de Gaulle’s sour, cocky attitude alienated his commanding officers. He left with only an average grade (and Pétain had to intervene to get him that). General Chauvin, one of his then classmates, described him as “a monster of ambition who would sell his own mother to get ahead.” 

De Gaulle got ahead in these years before the Second World War because the way was cleared for him by Pétain who became Minister for War in 1934. De Gaulle named his son Phillipe after him and almost every one of his books on his pet theories of war has a dedication to the old man so oily the ink nearly runs off the page. Once when he was threatened with close arrest for forcing troops on a double forced march in deliberate defiance of orders, de Gaulle was able to say smugly: “You will see. Everything will die down, because I belong to the maison Pétain.”

In 1939, at the outbreak of war, de Gaulle was a full colonel, commander of the French Fourth Armoured Division and about to be appointed to the Cabinet as Under-Secretary of State for National Defence.

“The old man is a traitor”, de Gaulle pronounced of his old friend and mentor within two years, “I will have him shot. I alone represent France.”

The War Years: “The Obstructionist Saboteur”

Pétain’s mistake, a mistake shared by very nearly the entire French army, was to think that the Germans had won the war. 

In May 1940, as the Germans swept over the border, de Gaulle’s tanks at Caumont forced a large formation of Panzers to retreat. As a reward for being the first and only French commanding officer to check any German advance during the invasion, he was given the provisional –never confirmed – rank of brigadier general (thus his title of Général de Gaulle).

With no one wanting to take the blame, the elderly and feeble marshal became France’s government and sought peace with the Germans. 

De Gaulle was not in Paris but in Bordeaux, the right place at the right time. The British liaison officer, General Louis Spears, who was about to debark for England, bundled him onto a plane and took him to London, where, as the only French officer available, he proclaimed himself head of the “Free French Forces” in a broadcast over the BBC put at his disposal by Churchill. As an afterthought, he also proclaimed Pétain a traitor and ordered anyone who cared, to shoot him.

De Gaulle had no resources at all beyond 100,000 francs (about £500). The British government gave de Gaulle a plush headquarters in Carlton Gardens and provided all his funds. In the first year alone he received $40 million, de Gaulle insisting on dollars since, as he told Jean Monnet, his economic advisor, he had “no faith in sterling”. 

Churchill gave de Gaulle continued access to the BBC and his broadcasts drew an increasing number of French to his cause that the British then armed and trained. De Gaulle responded with a policy of obstruction all the way down the line. 

As soon as British troops liberated Syria, the Free French administration Churchill allowed to take over control of the Vichy colony were instructed not to cooperate with British soldiers (commanded, incidentally, by Major General Spears, the same man who had saved de Gaulle at Bordeaux). 

When American troops sailed for the islands of Miquelon and Saint-Pierre in the Atlantic which Roosevelt wished to reinforce during the Battle of the Atlantic, de Gaulle gave orders that if they attempted a landing, they were to be fired upon by his garrison. When British and American troops finally landed in North Africa as part of Operation Torch, de Gaulle snapped: “Well, I hope the people of Vichy throw them into the sea. You can’t break into France and get away with it”. 

Churchill was confounded by this paranoia. At one point, driven beyond endurance, he shouted at a visibly delighted de Gaulle: “Si vous m'obstaclerez, je vous liquiderai !" (If you get in my way, I'll destroy you !), and contingency plans were laid to have the man who had become “this obstructionist saboteur” interned on the Isle of Wight. 

During D-Day, de Gaulle refused permission for 170 French liaison officers in Britain to embark with the Allied invasion forces. He became more cooperative as American forces approached Paris but only because he needed Eisenhower’s agreement to pause the advance and allow a Free French division under General Leclerc (one of nine divisions equipped and paid for by the Americans) to take Paris on 25 August 1944.

De Gaulle himself then proceeded to the Hôtel de Ville where he made a speech, proclaiming himself head of the government and underlining “the essential role played by the French in their own liberation”. The effect was rather spoiled when he was forced to request Eisenhower to loan him two US Army divisions to return to Paris and march down the Champs-Elysées in order to secure the city properly.

President de Gaulle: “The most ungrateful man since Judas Iscariot”.

Ironically but characteristically, the people of France did not show themselves adequately grateful to de Gaulle after the war. When they rejected the constitution he drew up centering power on himself, de Gaulle resigned, retiring to Colombey-les-deux-Églises to sulk and write his war memoirs, Mémoires de Guerre (War Memoirs), called by George Pompidou, his successor as president, “a three-volume love letter to himself”.

In the late 1950s the conflict between native Algerians struggling for independence and French settlers threatened to spill over into France itself . In 1958 a senior army commander, General Jacques Massu, rebelled against Paris, proclaiming "Vive de Gaulle!" from the balcony of the Algiers Government-General building. De Gaulle answered two days later that he was ready to “assumer les pouvoirs de la République” (take on the powers of the Republic).

His first acts as President, obviously, involved selling out the people who put him in power. He quickly conceded Algeria its independence and disowned the French-Algerians who put him in power. (Right-wing elements of the French army never forgave him and tried to assassinate him throughout the 1960s, failing hopelessly.)

At home, grandeur meant a heavily state-directed economic strategy. As American investment from the Marshall Plan ebbed away, de Gaulle was able to replace it with German investment after the Franco-German Friendship treaty he signed with Chancellor Adenauer in 1963. 

Friendship, as the Germans soon found out, did not necessarily mean “friendliness”. When German ministers dared to criticise the amount of money that the new European Economic Community was ploughing into French agriculture, de Gaulle refused to negotiate and his "empty chair" policy meant that all E.E.C. business between July 1965 to January 1966 was frozen.

Naturally, he did not forget his old friends. At a time of industrial depression for the UK, de Gaulle vetoed British entry – twice – into the new European Common Market. At the same time, he was anti-American. In 1968, he made a state visit to Phnom Penh where he made an aggressively pro-Vietminh speech, forgetting that the only reason US troops were in Vietnam was because of French failure in its former colony.

“France is violently opposed to blatant American imperialism now rampant in the world. France will continue to attack and oppose the United States in Latin America, in Asia and in Africa”, he told Gloria Emerson of the New York Times in 1967.

His intention was to establish France, a medium-weight, not very rich, not very powerful nation, as some kind of “third force” in foreign affairs and so establish her independence of the economic and military alliances that grew up in the Free World after the war. 

Finally, he announced that France could no longer tolerate an “American protectorate” masquerading “under the cover of NATO”. He withdrew from NATO’s military integration though, to ensure his country remained within the US’ nuclear umbrella, not the organisation as a whole. 60,000 US troops were ordered to leave the country and thirty bases were shut down. The Americans were shocked. “The most ungrateful man since Judas Iscariot betrayed his Christ”, he was called by one congressman in the U.S.

He was equally troublesome beyond the Atlantic Alliance. Having encouraged Israel to become a major client of the French arms industry, he cut off supplies and supported its numerous (and oil-rich) Arab enemies during the Six Day War. “The Jews”, he sneered, “are an elite people, sure of itself and domineering.” During a state visit to Canada, a country beset by a wave of separatist terrorism, he made a speech from a balcony on Montreal’s city hall and ended it shouting “Vive le Québec libre” ("Long Live Free Quebec"). The tour was immediately cut short by the Canadian government who reminded him of the thousands of Canadian soldiers who twice fought and died for the freedom of France.

His comeuppance came not from outside but inside France. During May 1968, Paris erupted in a wave of student protests against the dull, oppressive and corrupt system that he represented. De Gaulle responded true to form when confronted by real trouble. He fled the country. 

He flew to French army bases in Germany where General Massu, the soldier who put him in power in the first place, gave him a stiff talking to and sent him back. His bluff was called and he became a joke in the streets. He lost a national referendum and resigned. 

A year later, while writing yet more memoirs at Colombey-les-deux-Églises, he suddenly said: “I feel a pain here,” pointing to his neck, just seconds before he fell unconscious due to a ruptured aneurysm. Within minutes he was dead.

Harold Macmillan, a former British Prime Minister and someone who had dealt with de Gaulle during his time in London provided the best epitaph: “How odd he should die of a pain in the neck. We always thought he was a carrier, not a sufferer.”


A Long Story Short: De Gaulle, Charles Andre Joseph Marie (1890-1970), French “general” (promotion never confirmed) and president of France (1945-6, 1958-69). Born, second son into conservative teaching family. Became professional soldier, early career hindered by accusations of arrogance. Known inaccurately as advocate of mechanised warfare. Wounded during World War I and taken prisoner, taken into the French cabinet during World War II. Opposing surrender to Germany, fled to London and “assumed” total control of the Free French Forces which, though contributing little to actual victory, ensured he received a hero’s welcome in Paris after liberation. After a brief period leading a post-war government, unsuccessfully attempted to form his own political party and retired from politics in 1953. As France descended into chaos over the Algerian War, de Gaulle became president again in a semi-official coup d’état. To the consternation of right-wing supporters, he withdrew France from Algeria but pursued a hyper-nationalist foreign policy, characterised by “anti-Anglo” actions such as leaving NATO (1966) in protest against “American hegemonism” and vetoing the UK’s entrance into the European Economic Community . Despite a policy of state intervention in the economy (“dirigisme”), labour and student unrest made his position untenable and he resigned in 1969, dying a year later at his home in Colombey-les-deux-Églises and bequeathing France a legacy of anti-Americanism in foreign affairs and government interference in social and economic matters.

Chirac and de Gaulle: In November 2004, President Chirac, heading the main Gaullist party in France, made a speech at the unveiling of a bronze statute to de Gaulle. “I take great joy in this moment”, said Chirac. “The heritage of General de Gaulle was a very special idea of France, but one resolutely open, open to Europe, open to the world. It was a dream, above all, of independence.” The statue stands at the bottom of a street dedicated to the man who really created de Gaulle and guaranteed the independence of modern France. It is the Avenue Winston-Churchill.

With Friends Like These... “De Gaulle is out to achieve one-man government in France. I can’t imagine a man I would distrust more. His whole Free French movement is honeycombed with police spies, he has agents spying on his own people. To him, freedom of action means freedom from criticism. Why should anyone trust the force backing de Gaulle.” President Roosevelt to his son, Casablanca, 1941

No Friend of the People: “In politics it is necessary either to betray one's country or the electorate. I prefer to betray the electorate.” De Gaulle, 1961, on his decision to abandon the French-Algerians who helped sweep him to power.

No Friend of the Germans: “Treaties are like roses and young girls. They last while they last.” De Gaulle, 1963, after signing the Franco-German “Friendship” Treaty.

No Friend of the Americans (1): “You may be sure that the Americans will commit all the stupidities they can think of, plus some that are beyond imagination.” De Gaulle, 1968 Phnom Penh.

No Friend of the Americans (2): In 1966 upon being told that President Charles de Gaulle had taken France out of NATO and that all US troops must leave French soil, US Secretary of State Dean Rusk asked him: "Does that include the 60,000 American dead in military cemeteries as well?" De Gaulle made no reply.

No Friend to the Canadians: “The people of Canada are free. Every province of Canada is free. Canadians do not need to be liberated. Indeed, many thousands of Canadians gave their lives in two world wars in the liberation of France. Canada will remain united and will reject any effort to destroy her unity”. Lester Be. Pearson, Canadian Prime Minister, Nobel Prize winner and former Canadian soldier in France responding to de Gaulle's “Vive Québec libre” speech.

No Friend to his Friends: General de Gaulle : Alors Massu, toujours aussi con ? (So, Massu, still a twat?) General Jacques Massu’s answer : Toujours aussi gaulliste, mon Général? (Still a gaullist, general?).Generals de Gaulle and Massu in conversation in French army base during 1968.


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