The Greatest Frenchman

November 22, 1990

Every so often a person is born who knows himself to be his country's destiny. Almost always, that person is wrong; sometimes, evil. Very rarely, he or she is both noble and right. Joan of Arc did save France. So did Charles de Gaulle, who was born 100 years ago today and died in 1970.

In June 1940, as France crumbled before German tanks and the ancient Marshal Philippe Petain ordered surrender and collaboration, an obscure brigadier general in government disobeyed and flew alone to England. In his suitcase, as Winston Churchill later said, de Gaulle carried a change of clothes and the honor of France.

Fighting with the only weapon at hand -- words -- this man broadcast to his countrymen that France had lost a battle but not a war. "Must hope vanish? Is the defeat final? No," he said. "The flame of French resistance must not and shall not go out." Before that broadcast on June 18, few had heard of de Gaulle. After it, he was France.

In constant bickering with British and American governments, this inconvenient patriot insisted that France was in the fight when it wasn't, and that he was its government when he wasn't, until his saying these things made them so. When American troops entered Paris he walked in and claimed the city from the Communist guerrillas waiting to take over. He saw that France sat at the victors' table, and that French administrators returned to French colonies.

For 16 months he was president-prime minister until he found himself just another quarreling politician, and retired. But his country called again in 1958, when colonists and soldiers in Algeria rebelled against losing to Algerian independence. De Gaulle, called to power as their savior, had a constitution and presidency tailored to his needs like a well-made suit (small wonder no successor has fit), and proceeded to liberate France from Algeria. Then he set most of the other colonies free, leading to their voluntary association with the French Community. He governed imperiously for another decade until a referendum loss on local government reform provoked his final retirement.

De Gaulle was not always right. His unbending (at six feet two inches) insistence on French grandeur could be insufferable. He was an ingrate. He engaged in 30 years of distrust and undermining of the "Anglo-Saxons." He kept Britain out of the European Community in the 1960s, led France out of a NATO command led by an American general, condemned the U.S. war in Vietnam and fanned Quebec separatism.

But he could be right. He spoke of a single Europe from the Atlantic to the Urals when none was imaginable by others, a Europe in which Russia belonged, but for which Britain must reform to qualify. It is a Europe that today all can imagine.

If today France needs no de Gaulle, it has the greatest Frenchman of modern times to thank.

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