Charles de Gaulle was the third child of a morally conservative but socially progressive catholic bourgeois family. On his father’s side was an old aristocratic family from Normandy and Burgundy settled in Paris for a century already, whereas on his mother’s side was a family of rich entrepreneurs from the industrial region of Lille in French Flanders. Born in Lille, de Gaulle was raised and educated in Paris.
De Gaulle’s family was an intellectual family. His grand-father was an historian, hisCharles de Gaulle of France grand-mother a writer, his father was a professor in private catholic schools who founded his own private school. Political debates were frequent at home, and since an early age de Gaulle was initiated by his father to the major conservative authors.
The family was very patriotic and he was raised in the cult of the Nation (“My mother felt an uncompromising passion for the fatherland, equal to her religious piety.” — C. de Gaulle in his memoirs).
Although traditionalist and monarchist, the family was legalist and respected the institutions of the French Republic. Their social ideas were also more liberal, influenced by social Catholicism. During the Dreyfus affair the family distanced itself from the more conservative nationalist circles and supported Dreyfus.
Young Charles de Gaulle chose a military career and spent four years at the École Spéciale Militaire de Saint-Cyr (the French equivalent of West Point). He graduated in 1912 and joined the infantry. During World War I, then captain de Gaulle was severely wounded at the gruesome Battle of Verdun in March 1916, and left for dead on the battlefield. Alive, he was taken prisoner by the Germans. He made five unsuccessful escapes, and was put in solitary confinement in a retaliation camp.General de Gaulle reviewing troups
When the war ended, he remained in the military, serving on the staff of Gen. Maxime Weygand and then Gen. Philippe Pétain. During the Polish-Soviet war in 1919-1920, he volunteered to the Polish army and was an infantry instructor.
He fought and distinguished himself in fighting near the river Zbrucz and received the highest Polish military award, Virtuti Militari. He was promoted to major and offered possibility of a further career in Poland, but chose instead to return to France. He was heavily influenced by that war, namely by the use of tanks, fast manoeuvres and lack of trenches.
Based partially on his observations during war in Poland, which was so different from experiences from WWI, he published a number of books and articles on the reorganisation of the army, particularly Vers l’Armée de Métier (published in English as “The Army of the Future”) in which he supported the new ideas of mechanised troops and specialised armoured divisions in preference to the static theories exemplified by the Maginot Line.
While Heinz Guderian and the German Army General Staff were influenced by de Gaulle, Pétain rejected most of de Gaulle’s theories, and the relationship between them became strained. French politicians also dismissed de Gaulle’s theories with the notable exception of Paul Reynaud who would later play a major role in de Gaulle’s career.
General de Gaulle reviewing troupsAt the outbreak of World War II he was only a colonel, having encountered hostility from the leaders of the military all through the 1920’s and 1930’s due to his bold views. After the German breakthrough at Sedan on May 10, 1940, he was finally given command of the 4th Armoured Division.
On May 17, 1940 de Gaulle attacked the German tank forces at Montcornet. With only 200 French tanks and no air support, the offensive had little impact on stopping the German advance. There was more success on May 28, when de Gaulle’s tanks forced the German armour to retreat at Caumont. He became the first and only French commanding officer to force the Germans to retreat during the invasion of France. Prime Minister Paul Reynaud promoted him provisional brigadier general (thus his title général de Gaulle).
On June 6, 1940 Paul Reynaud appointed him under-secretary of state for national defence and war and put him in charge of coordination with the United Kingdom. As a member of the cabinet he resisted proposals to surrender. He served as a liaison with the British government, and with Churchill carved a project of union between France and the United Kingdom on the morning of June 16 in London.
This was a last minute effort to try to strengthen the resolve of those members of the French government who were in favor of continuing the war. He took the plane back to Bordeaux (provisory seat of the French government) on that same afternoon, but when landing in Bordeaux in the evening he learned that Pétain had become premier with the intention of seeking an armistice with Germany.
That same day he took the most important decision in his life, and also in the modern history of France: he would refuse the humiliation of a French surrender, he would rebel against the legal (but illegitimate in his eyes) government of Pétain, he would return to London and call for the continuation of war.
On the morning of June 17, with 100,000 gold francs from the secret funds given to him the previous night by Paul Reynaud, he fled Bordeaux by plane, narrowly escaped German aviation, and landed in London that same afternoon. De Gaulle decided to reject French capitulation and to set about building a movement which would appeal to overseas French opponents of a separate arrangement with Germany.
General de Gaulle speaking on the BBC during the warOn June 18, de Gaulle prepared to speak to the French people, via BBC radio, from London. The British Cabinet attempted to block the speech, but was overruled by Churchill. In France, de Gaulle’s “Appeal of June 18” could be heard nationwide in the evening. “France has lost a battle but has not lost the war” was its most famous line. General de Gaulle speaking on the BBC during the war
Although only few people actually heard the speech that night (BBC was seldom listened to on the continent, and millions of Frenchmen were refugees on the road), excerpts of the speech appeared in French newspapers the next day in the yet unoccupied southern part of France, and the speech was repeated for several days on the BBC.
Soon enough, among the chaos and bewilderment that was France in June 1940, the news that a French general was in London refusing the tide of events and calling for the end of despair and the continuation of a winnable war was spread from mouths to mouths. To this day it remains one of the most famous speeches in French history.
From London, de Gaulle formed and led the Free French movement. Whereas the USA continued to recognise Vichy France, the British government of Winston Churchill supported de Gaulle, initially maintaining relations with Vichy but subsequently recognising the Free French.
On July 4, 1940, a court-martial in Toulouse sentenced de Gaulle in absentia to four years in prison. At a second court-martial on August 2, 1940, de Gaulle was condemned to death for treason.Casablanca conference, January 1943. From left to right: general Giraud, president Roosevelt, general de Gaulle, Winston Churchill
In his dealings with his British allies and the United States, de Gaulle insisted at all times in retaining full freedom of action on behalf of France, even where this might embarrass or inconvenience his partners in the war: “France has no friends, only interests” is one of his best-remembered statements. “Of all the crosses I have had to bear during this war, the heaviest has been the Cross of Lorraine [de Gaulle’s symbol of Free France]” is one of Churchill’s.
Casablanca conference, January 1943. From left to right: general Giraud, president Roosevelt, general de Gaulle, Winston Churchill. Working with the French resistance and supporters in France’s colonial possessions in Africa, after the Anglo-American invasion of North Africa in November 1942, de Gaulle moved his headquarters to Algiers in May 1943. He became first joint head (with the less resolutely independent Gen. Henri Giraud, the candidate preferred by the United States) and then sole chairman of the Committee of National Liberation.
At the liberation of France following Operation Overlord, he quickly established the authority of the Free French Forces in France, avoiding a Allied Military Government for Occupied Territories in France. On his return to Paris, he moved back into his office at the War Ministry, thus proclaiming continuity of the Third Republic and denying the legitimacy of Vichy France.
After the war he served as the President of the provisional government from September 1944 but resigned on January 20, 1946, complaining of conflict between the political parties, and disapproving of the draft constitution for the Fourth Republic which he believed placed too much power in the hands of parliament with its shifting party alliances.
De Gaulle’s opposition to the proposed constitution failed as the parties of the left supported a weak presidency to prevent any repetition of the Vichy regime. The second draft constitution narrowly approved at the referendum of October 1946 was even less to de Gaulle’s liking than the first.
In April 1947 de Gaulle made a renewed attempt at transforming the political scene with the creation of the Rassemblement du Peuple Français (Rally of the French People, or RPF), but the movement lost impetus after initial success. In May 1953 he withdrew again from active politics, though the RPF lingered until September 1955.
He retired to Colombey-les-deux-Églises and wrote his war memoirs, Mémoires de guerre. During this period of formal retirement, de Gaulle however maintained regular contact with past political lieutenants from wartime and RPF days, including sympathisers involved in political developments in Algeria.
The Fourth Republic was tainted by political instability, its failures in Indochina and its inability to resolve the Algerian question.
On May 13, 1958, the settlers seized the government buildings in Algiers, attacking what they saw as French government weakness in the face of demands among the Arab majority for Algerian independence. A “Committee of Civil and Army Public Security” was created under the presidency of General Jacques Massu, a Gaullist sympathiser. General Raoul Salan, Commander-in-Chief in Algeria, announced on radio that the Army had “provisionally taken over responsibility for the destiny of French Algeria”.
Under the pressure of Massu, Salan declared “Vive de Gaulle!” from the balcony of the Algiers Government-General building on May 15. De Gaulle answered two days later that he was ready to “assume the powers of the Republic” (assumer les pouvoirs de la République). Many worried as they saw this answer as support to the army.
On May 19 de Gaulle asserted again (at a press conference) that he was at the disposition of the country. As a journalist expressed the concerns of some who feared that he would violate civil liberties, de Gaulle retorted vehemently: “Have I ever done that? Quite the opposite, I have reestablished them when they had disappeared. Does anyone believe that, at age 67, I am going to launch a career as a dictator?!!” A republican by conviction, de Gaulle maintained throughout the crisis that he would accept power only from the lawfully constituted authorities of the state.
The crisis deepened as French paratroops from Algeria seized Corsica and a landing near Paris was discussed. Political leaders on all sides agreed to support the General’s return to power, except François Mitterrand, and the Communist Party (which denounced de Gaulle as the agent of a fascist coup). On May 29 the French President, René Coty, appealed to the “most illustrious of Frenchmen” to become the last Prime Minister of the Fourth Republic.
De Gaulle remained intent on replacing the constitution of the Fourth Republic, which he blamed for France’s political weakness. He set as a condition for his return that he be given wide emergency powers for 6 months and that a new constitution (See Footnote) be proposed to the French people. On June 1, 1958 de Gaulle became premier and was given emergency powers for 6 months by the National Assembly.
On September 28, 1958, a referendum took place and 79.2% of those who voted supported the new constitution and the creation of the Fifth Republic. The colonies (Algeria was officially a part of France, not a colony) were given the choice between immediate independence and the new constitution. All colonies voted for the new constitution except Guinea, which thus became the first French African colony to gain independence, at the cost of the immediate ending of all French assistance.
In the November 1958 elections de Gaulle and his supporters (initially organised in the Union pour la Nouvelle République-Union Démocratique du Travail, then the Union des Démocrates pour la Vème République and later still the Union des Démocrates pour la République) won a comfortable majority, in December de Gaulle was elected President with 78% of the vote, he was inaugurated in January 1959.State Portrait of President de Gaulle
He oversaw tough economic measures to revitalise the country, including the issuing of a new franc (worth 100 old francs). On 22 August 1962, he and his wife narrowly escaped an assassination attempt when their car was targeted by machine gun fire.
Internationally he rebuffed both the USA and the USSR, pushing for an independent France with its own nuclear weapons. He set about building Franco-German cooperation as the cornerstone of the EEC (now the European Union), giving the first state visit to Germany by a French head of state since the time of Napoleon. Also he took the opportunity to deny the British entry for the first time (January 1963).
De Gaulle believed that while the war in Algeria was militarily winnable it was not defensible internationally, and he became reconciled to the country’s independence. This stance created huge anger among the French settlers and their metropolitan supporters, and de Gaulle was forced to suppress two uprisings in Algeria by French settlers and troops, in the second of which (April 1961) France herself faced threatened invasion by rebel paratroops.
He was also targeted by the settler OAS terrorist group. In March 1962 de Gaulle arranged a cease-fire in Algeria and a referendum supported independence, finally accomplished on July 3.
In September 1962 he sought a constitutional amendment to allow the president to be directly elected by the people. Following a defeat in the National Assembly, he dissolved that body and held new elections, the Gaullists won an increased majority. Although the Algerian issue was settled the prime minister, Michel Debré, still resigned over the final settlement and was replaced with Georges Pompidou.
With the Algerian conflict behind, de Gaulle was able to achieve his two main objectives: 1- to reform and develop the French economy, in order to support 2- an independent foreign policy and a strong stance of France on the international stage, the so called “policy of grandeur” (politique de grandeur).
In June 1967, he condemned the Israelis over their occupation of the West Bank and Gaza following the Six Days War. This was a major change in the policy of France towards Israel. Thus far, France had been the staunchest ally of Israel, helping Israel militarily, and plotting jointly the Suez Campaign in 1956. Under de Gaulle, following the independence of Algeria, France embarked in a pro-Arab foreign policy, still a distinct aspect of French foreign policy today. Israel then turned towards the United States for military support.
In July 1967 he visited Canada, then celebrating the centennial of its existence as a nation with a World’s Fair known officially as Expo ’67. Desiring, in his view, to redeem France for its lack of support to the French settlers facing English conquest 200 years before, he endorsed the claims for an autonomous if not independent Québec, and uttered his famous “Vive le Québec libre” (“Long Live Free Québec”) from the balcony of the city hall in Montréal on July 24, in a clear reference to the liberation of France 23 years earlier, of which he was a symbol himself.
Harshly critized by English-speaking Canadians (including those in the government), de Gaulle’s stance was welcomed by a significant part of the Québecois population, which was already in the process of getting rid of 200 years of English supremacy with the Quiet Revolution. The tumult forced de Gaulle to cut short his visit to Canada.
In December 1967, in the name of France he rejected one more time British entry into the EEC. Again, his desire to build an independent Europe led him to consider that Britain, whose foreign policy was aligned with that of the US since 1940, would only stall the efforts of the other EEC countries if it was allowed in.
Many have commented that the “policy of grandeur” was probably too ambitious and heavy for the shoulders of France. This policy, it is argued, was made possible by the exceptional historical figure of de Gaulle, but was not sustainable by post-imperial France in the long run. In any case, it is still remembered in France as a defining moment of French modern foreign policy, and it still largely inspires French foreign policy today.
The huge demonstrations and strikes in France in May 1968 were a big challenge to de Gaulle’s presidency. In the course of the May 1968 events he briefly fled and met Massu, now French commander in Germany (to discuss army intervention against the protesters, it has been alleged).May 1968 poster
But de Gaulle offered to accept some of the reforms the demonstrators sought. He again considered a referendum to support his moves, but Pompidou persuaded him to dissolve parliament (in which the government had all but lost its majority in the March 1967 elections) and hold new elections instead.
The June 1968 elections were a major success for the Gaullists and their allies: when offered the spectre of revolution or even civil war, the majority of the country rallied to him. His party won 358 of 487 seats, but Pompidou was suddenly replaced by Maurice Couve de Murville in July.
Charles de Gaulle resigned on April 28, 1969 following the defeat of his referendum to transform the Senate (upper house of the French parliament, wielding less power than the French National Assembly) into an advisory body while giving extended powers to regional councils. Some said this referendum was a self-conscious political suicide committed by de Gaulle after the traumatizing events of May 1968.
As proven already in 1946, de Gaulle was no man to stay in power without feeling that the people where following him. He retired once again to Colombey-les-deux-Églises, where he died in 1970, while in the middle of writing his memoirs. One of his daughters, Anne, sufferred from a Down syndrome and died at 20.
Though controversial throughout his political career, not least among ideological opponents on the left and among overseas strategic partners, de Gaulle continues to command enormous respect within France, where his presidency is seen as a return to political stability and strength on the international stage.
Domestically, for all its flaws, his regime presided over a return to economic prosperity after an initially sluggish postwar performance, while maintaining much of the social contract evolved in previous decades between employers and labour.
The associated dirigisme (state economic interventionism) of the Fifth Republic’s early decades remains at odds with the trend of western economic orthodoxy, though French living standards remain among the highest in Europe.
De Gaulle’s presidential style of government was continued under his successors. Internationally, the emphasis on French independence which so characterised de Gaulle’s policy remains a keynote of foreign policy, together with his alignment with the former rival Germany, still seen in both countries as a foundation for European integration.
As he commissioned the new constitution and was responsible for its overall framework, de Gaulle is sometimes described as the author of the constitution. De Gaulle’s political ideas were written into a constitution by Michel Debré who then guided the text through the enactment process. Thus while the constitution reflects de Gaulle’s ideas, Michel Debré was the actual author of the text.
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