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Charles de Gaulle: Christian Warrior and Statesman

EDITOR’S NOTE: So, it’s only the middle of the week and you have already had a chance to read about Benedict, Newman, and our modern predicament; the great Fr. James Schall’s insight into the Mass and holiness; and now George Marlin sets the record straight about one of great and misunderstood  Catholic statesmen in recent history. And there’s more still to come during our Fall fundraising drive. Don’t let others take all the credit for helping to keep truly Catholic commentary like this front and center in the public conversation. Please make your tax-deductible contribution of $25, $50, $100, or more to support the work of
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Like many Americans, I once viewed Charles de Gaulle as an obnoxious, overly ambitious man who, in the grand French manner, strutted sitting down. My impressions probably reflected the distrust and dislike Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill had for him when de Gaulle led the exiled free French forces during the Second World War. FDR referred to de Gaulle as the Allies’ “problem child” while Churchill saw a man who refused to get off his high horse and had a “Jeanne d’Arc complex.”

However, after reading a new biography by British journalist Jonathan Fenby on the fortieth anniversary of de Gaulle’s death (The General: Charles de Gaulle and the France He Saved) I found I was wrong. Badly wrong. De Gaulle was a thoughtful, principled man whose world view stemmed from the traditional values he inherited from deeply Catholic parents.

The third of five children, Charles was born in Flanders in 1890. His father, Henri, who taught philosophy and literature at a Jesuit college, was a “representative of the old true France” who believed that the 1789 French Revolution had been “satanic in essence.”

Henri and his wife, Jeanne, were devout Catholics who did not sing “La Marseillaise” or celebrate Bastille Day. Also, they could not reconcile “revealed religion and a republic which put faith in the overwhelming power of reason and science.”

Charles de Gaulle was educated by the Christian Brothers and the Jesuits, and graduated from the French military academy, Saint Cyr. He inherited his parents’ strict sense of right and wrong and lived modestly even after achieving high military and political rank. “I have never been bourgeois,” he said. “The bourgeois is wealth. . . . My family and I have always been poor.”

During World War I, de Gaulle was wounded several times and was captured in March 1916 during the Battle of Verdun. He spent the remainder of the war organizing escape attempts.

After the war, he was assigned to train Polish forces during Poland’s successful war against the Soviet Union between 1919-1921. He was valiant in battle and was awarded Poland’s highest military decoration, the Virtuti Militari. Returning to France he served under Marshal Philippe Pétain, the hero of Verdun and taught at the Ếcole Militaire.

In April 1921, he married Yvonne Vendroux. They had three children. The apple of his eye was the youngest, Anne, who was born with Down’s syndrome. He spent hours playing on all fours with her, singing an old French song,  “You are beautiful mademoiselle.” The only word she could say was “papa.” De Gaulle believed “Anne made me what I am,” and was crushed when she died in his arms of pneumonia at age twenty: “The priest hurried in to give the blessing. Her soul was freed. But the disappearance of our little girl without hope caused immense suffering. May little Anne protect us from on high.” As Anne’s body was being lowered into the ground, he said to his wife, “She’s like others now.”

Charles de Gaulle and his daughter Anne

When France surrendered to Germany in 1940, de Gaulle refused to join the legally constituted but collaborating Vichy government led by Pétain and Pierre Laval. Instead he escaped to England, proclaimed himself the head of resistance forces, and told the French people over the BBC in his famous L’Appel du 18 Juin, “Has the last word been said? Must hope disappear? Is Defeat final? No!”

Through willpower, tenacity, and – yes – arrogance, de Gaulle managed to outflank opponents and became head of the French Provisional government. After the allies liberated Paris, de Gaulle refused dictatorial powers, then resigned in January 1946 because he would not participate in party struggles and believed the draft constitution for the Fourth Republic was fatally flawed.

After twelve years of self-imposed exile from politics, de Gaulle returned to power at sixty-seven, after the Fourth Republic collapsed over the Algerian crisis. Rejecting all talk of a military coup, de Gaulle legally accepted emergency powers for six months from the National Assembly with the understanding that a new constitution with a strong executive branch would be put to a popular vote. On September 29, 1958, the new constitution, which stands to this day, passed with 78 percent of the vote. “Le Grand Charles” served as President of the Fifth Republic for ten years, reviving France’s morale and economy.

In early 1968, Maoist-inspired French university students, at first only demanding co-ed dormitories, began a strike that was to spread all over France. A shocked de Gaulle, who viewed the insurrection as an eruption of pure anarchy intent on destroying civilization, declared “Reform, Yes; sheer disorder, No!” Dissolving Parliament, de Gaulle described the choice in the next elections as between subversion or order.

The Gaullists won big. For the first time in French history a party gained a parliamentary majority. Ten months later, however, on April 28, 1969, de Gaulle resigned as president when voters rejected his proposed government reforms in a nation-wide referendum. He died two weeks shy of his eightieth birthday on November 9, 1970.

Responding to journalists’ questions on plans for European unity, de Gaulle said, “The spirit of Europe does not lie in coal and steel and tariffs and money. No, the spirit of Europe is the Europe of Dante and of Goethe and of Chateaubriand.” As soldier, politician, national leader, and international statesmen, deGaulle rejected ideology as the foundation of modern nation states and understood, as Christopher Dawson put it, “that a society or culture which has lost its spiritual roots is a dying culture.” Unlike the European secularists who created the E.U. constitution without acknowledging Europe’s Christian roots, de Gaulle knew that Christianity shaped the continent’s moral and cultural values and that a good European order must reflect that heritage. France, and the rest of the world, could do with a few more such “arrogant” men.

George J. Marlin, Chairman of the Board of Aid to the Church in Need USA, is the author of The American Catholic Voter and Sons of St. Patrick, written with Brad Miner. Parts of this essay are excerpted from his forthcoming book to be published on October 23, Mario Cuomo: The Myth and the Man.