De Gaulle, Charles

World War Two, DE GAULLE, Charles (1890-1970).

Edited By: Robert A. Guisepi

Date 2001

Twice in 20 years France looked to Charles de Gaulle for leadership in a time of trouble. General de Gaulle led the Free French government in the dark days of World War II. In 1958 he returned to power in an attempt to save France from civil war. Throughout his career as military leader and statesman De Gaulle was guided by a belief in the greatness of France.

Education and Early Military Career

Charles de Gaulle was born on Nov. 22, 1890, at Lille, in northern France. His father was a philosophy professor. His mother was a descendent of Scottish and Irish refugees who had fled to France with the Stuarts. In 1911 De Gaulle was graduated near the head of his class from the military school at St-Cyr, the "West Point" of France.

He was wounded three times in World War I. At the battle of Verdun in 1916 he was captured by the Germans. De Gaulle made five unsuccessful attempts to escape. He was released after the 1918 armistice.

Teaching and Writing Between Wars

In 1921 De Gaulle married Yvonne Vendroux, the daughter of a biscuit manufacturer from Calais. They had three children. Their only son, Philippe, was named after De Gaulle's old commander, Marshal Henri Philippe Petain.

Between World Wars I and II De Gaulle taught military history at St-Cyr. He served on a military mission to Poland and later became aide to Petain. He wrote several books on military subjects. Perhaps the most important was 'The Army of the Future', in which he was one of the first to suggest the use of mechanized infantry.

Leader of Fighting French in World War II

When Germany invaded France in 1940 De Gaulle was made a general and was given command of an armored division. France failed to check the German advance, and Petain signed a truce with Hitler.

De Gaulle flew to London for a series of conferences with Winston Churchill. With Churchill's approval he took command of the Free French resistance movement and broadcast to the world: "France has lost a battle, but she has not lost the war."

De Gaulle kept in constant touch with the French underground. After the American invasion of North Africa he joined Gen. Henri Giraud in Algiers to serve as copresident of the French Committee of National Liberation. De Gaulle later became sole president of the committee and chief of the armed forces. He returned to Paris in 1944 on the heels of the retreating Germans.

Provisional President

Appointed president of the newly established French provisional government, De Gaulle tried to unite France's many political parties into a strong national administration. He fought the extremist measures of both the Communists and the reactionaries, urged cooperation among the political groupings, and tried to establish a moderately liberal regime.

De Gaulle had always been opposed to France's historic system of an all-powerful legislature. He advocated a strong presidency as a check on the National Assembly. De Gaulle's proposed constitutional reforms met with increasing hostility from the Assembly, and early in 1946 he resigned as president.

In 1947, still working for a strong central government, he organized a new political party--the Rally of the French People. His influence declined, however, and he dissolved the party in 1953. In the years that followed, De Gaulle's warnings against unstable government were justified. No French government was able to stay in power for more than a few months. A major cause of the political uproar was the civil war fought in Algeria over French attempts to preserve colonialism in North Africa

Return to Power in 1958 Crisis

De Gaulle was popular with the French army. In 1958 a group of officers in Algeria appealed to him to restore order to the French government. De Gaulle then went to Paris for an interview with President Rene Coty. Coty asked him to try to form a new government. De Gaulle agreed but only if the National Assembly would vote him the executive powers that he had long sought. France's Fifth Republic was formed in December, and De Gaulle took office as its first president on Jan. 8, 1959.

De Gaulle promoted peace negotiations in Algeria, and in a nationwide referendum, the voters of France overwhelmingly supported a cease-fire agreement announced by him in March 1962. De Gaulle attributed the attainment of peace to his broad presidential powers. He declared Algeria's independence on July 3.

In a move to consolidate the powers he had added to the French presidency, De Gaulle proposed that future presidents be chosen by popular election. His plan was approved in a national referendum. In the 1960s De Gaulle increased his efforts to make France a leading world power. At his urging the French developed a nuclear force and a space program. In international affairs De Gaulle rejected the nuclear test ban treaty; blocked Great Britain's entry into the European Economic Community, or Common Market; and granted formal recognition to Communist China.

After a runoff election, De Gaulle was inaugurated president for a second seven-year term in January 1966. Later in the year he ended French participation in the military activities of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

In the 1967 parliamentary elections De Gaulle's control of the National Assembly was weakened. It was threatened further by a students' and workers' revolt in 1968. On June 23 he dissolved the National Assembly and called new elections. His party won an overwhelming majority in the National Assembly. Nevertheless, dissatisfaction continued to grow. In 1969 De Gaulle again demanded a vote of confidence when he submitted a number of constitutional changes to a national referendum.

On April 27 the people of France voted down his proposals. The following day De Gaulle submitted his resignation and retired to his home at Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises, where he died on Nov. 9, 1970. A memorial Cross of Lorraine was erected near his grave in 1972.

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