One thing that really strikes an Irish reader of Jonathan Fenby’s excellent “The General” are the parallels between De Valera and the general. Both men built a political movement based on a set of personal values, both men had a certain flexibility when it came to using force to overthrow democratic institutions they did not approve of, and yet both men ultimately remained anchored to democratic beliefs. Both betrayed sections of society (The IRA and the French Algerians) who had believed that the men in question were their strongest supporters. Both were replaced by protégés who abandoned large sections of their creed, and left parties that essentially became vehicles for ambitious but politically flexible individuals like Chirac, Haughey or Sarkozy.
Having said that, De Gaulle can also be used as an example of an historical figure like Harry Truman who just happens to be in the right place at the right time, and whose values are those needed. That’s not to say that De Gaulle was without talent. In the 1930s he was one of the few military figures to argue for armour based modernisation in a French Army that spent four times as much on horse feed as it did on petrol, and his book on the subject was found, with approving handwritten notes, in Hitler’s bunker in 1945.
De Gaulle’s return to power in 1958, ahead of a potential military coup which he may tacitly have supported, allowed him to create a political office, the French presidency, which remains to this day the most powerful (read unchecked) elected office in the democratic world. To his credit, it did allow him to finally put some order on France’s Italian style political chaos. Where he was not a success was in foreign policy, where his paranoia about the United States mixed with his inability to grasp European unity fully led to France striking dramatic poses on the international stage (like leaving NATO’s military structure) which did little to enhance France’s actual global influence. Indeed, De Gaulle’s opposition, whilst out of power, to the creation of a European Army in 1950 can be traced right through to 21st Century France being unable to defeat Libya without US military help, a task surely a 60-year-old combined (and probably French led) European Defence Force would have been able to achieve.
When he left office in 1969, he left not as a result of the 13 attempted assasination attempts on his life but because the French people had voted against a proposed senate reform (ironically to turn the French senate into something similar to the Irish vocational model). He then came to Ireland, where he made a passionate “Vive Quebec Libre” style speech at a banquest held in his honour in favour of a United Ireland which didn’t get picked up by the media because the microphone broke!
Many people from FDR to the French Left were convinced that he would attempt to become a dictator, and he could have given it a serious go, but he didn’t, in fact securing French democracy (although turning a blind eye to the thuggishness of his secret service). But for resisting that temptation, he deserves the mantle of greatness.
Fenby is always readable, keeping De Gaulle’s tale moving with just enough quotations and anecdotes to keep it interesting.