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De Gaulle at the Barricades

LONDON – By coincidence, this is a busy year for round-number anniversaries for France’s greatest leader since Napoleon. Charles de Gaulle was born 120 years ago in Lille. He died 40 years ago at his home in Colombey-les-deux-Églises, expiring of a heart attack as he played solitaire one evening. Seventy years ago, he delivered his celebrated call to resistance over the BBC after flying to London from France as it collapsed in June 1940.

This year also marks a much less noted anniversary, an occasion on which de Gaulle showed how his rare combination of determination, political skill, and rhetorical ability could be brought to bear to face down determined opposition. It was a central moment in the establishment of the Fifth Republic, which continues to this day.

The war in Algeria played the key role in enabling de Gaulle to return to power in May 1958, at the age of 67. Though his memoirs paint a characteristic portrait of a leader who knew what he was doing, research for my new biography shows that his policy towards the crisis across the Mediterranean combined hope and frustration. He hoped that France could dominate the National Liberation Front (FLN) militarily, and was frustrated at the extremely messy political situation on the ground and the difficulty of persuading the settlers that maintaining the status quo was untenable.

In 1958, he told a crowd in Algiers made up mainly of pieds noirs Europeans “Je vous ai compris” (“I have understood you”). But, by 1960, euphoria had given way to rancor among those whom he had used to regain office but who now saw him as a traitor to be neutralized along with the regime he had brought into being.