Charles de Gaulle was one of the most fascinating and controversial political leaders of the twentieth century. Although a devout Catholic, he did not speak much in public about his faith nor make it an express part of his program: Gaullism was a politics of nationalism more than religion. Yet his writings reveal that, for him, the “idea of France”embodied both nationalism and Christianity–both the Republic and the Church. How he was able to accommodate those two commitments is no doubt discussed in an interesting-looking new biography from Harvard University Press: De Gaulle, by historian Julian Jackson (Queen Mary University of London). Particularly now, as conservatives in France and across Europe seek a new way to negotiate the demands of Christianity and liberalism, de Gaulle’s example could be relevant. Here is the description of the book from the Harvard website:
A definitive biography of the mythic general who refused to accept the Nazi domination of France, drawing on unpublished letters, memoirs, and papers in the newly opened de Gaulle archives that show how this volatile and inspiring leader put his broken nation back at the center of world affairs.
In the early summer of 1940, when France was overrun by German troops, one junior general who had fought in the trenches in Verdun refused to accept defeat. He fled to London, where he took to the radio to address his compatriots back home. “Whatever happens,” he said, “the flame of French resistance must not be extinguished and will not be extinguished.” At that moment, Charles de Gaulle entered history.
For the rest of the war, de Gaulle insisted he and his Free French movement were the true embodiment of France. Through sheer force of personality he inspired French men and women to risk their lives to resist the Nazi occupation. Sometimes aloof but confident in his leadership, he quarreled violently with Churchill and Roosevelt. Yet they knew they would need his help to rebuild a shattered Europe. Thanks to de Gaulle, France was recognized as one of the victorious Allies when Germany was finally defeated. Then, as President of the Fifth Republic, he brought France to the brink of a civil war over his controversial decision to pull out of Algeria. He challenged American hegemony, took France out of NATO, and twice vetoed British entry into the European Community in his pursuit of what he called “a certain idea of France.”