The Decision

The breach between de Gaulle and the men on the night of 16 June can be broken down into dissidence, followed by revolt and crowned by the proclamation of an alternative legitimacy. The first phase is negative. It is the refusal of any political or military agreement with the conquering and occupying Hitler. De Gaulle, eliminated politically, deprived of any army posting and the holder of a doubtful rank said “No” and went into exile  – a symbolic reaction to the intolerable. At that time he was still wondering about the extent and the meaning of his act. It was only gradually that the mission that he had assumed took shape. A shape that was determined by wills other than his own: he did not know who would come to join him, or take up a position superior to his.

The first phase of the decision, that of Bordeaux, the negative phase, the refusal to compromise, was itself spread over several days. On 9 June, when he saw Churchill and was able to weigh the Prime Minister’s strong determination against the collapsing morale of those about Reynaud, and when he acknowledged that Churchill was right to keep the RAF’s planes for the defence of Britain and not give them to de Gaulle and for the defence of France, he had already entered into spiritual dissidence.

The fact remains that by taking off from Bordeaux for London at 9 am on 17 June, Charles de Gaulle had, for all that matters, burnt his boats and defied the “order” on the capitulation that had been laid down. From that moment, as the forerunner of a movement or the leader of a rising, he had broken with formal legality, rejected the hierarchy and opened the case against the policy based on an armistice that was now and henceforth accepted by the Marshall. It was that moment of the decision which counted more than any of the rest. His hegira dates from the morning of June 17.

Charles de Gaulle was in Bordeaux. An isolated figure who had just learnt that power had escaped from his friend Reynaud’s hands and therefore from his own, and that the country’s future had been handed over to a leader, henceforward all powerful not only because of his glory of former days but even more because of his present humility. A power handed over not for action but for submission. De Gaulle had lost the game for the time being – for a long time being, and so, he thought, had France.

He had to see Paul Reynaud, who, now that he had handed President Lebrun his resignation, had withdrawn to his present solitude, while not far away Marshall Petain, the new head of the government presented his request for an armistice to his ministers; in twenty minutes they had approved it and that same night it was drawn up by Baudouin and sent to Madrid to be transmitted to Adolf Hitler.

I found him without any illusions about what the Marshall’s coming to power would entail and on the other hand he looked as though he had been relieved of an unbearable load. He gave me the impression of a man who had reached the limits of hope.’ Perhaps a mistaken impression. Other people who were present at the time certainly thought Reynaud was exhausted, but as they saw it he had not quite given up looking upon himself as a resource, sure as he was of the confidence of Jeanneney, Herriot and France’s allies- and with certainty that Hitler’s requirements would be unacceptable, so Petain’s move was doomed to failure.

When he refused Spears’ offer to take him back to London, Reynaud did so not only out of weariness or despair but because of the possibility of a recall, the prelude to a departure for North Africa.* In short, de Gaulle seeing him at the very moment he had just laid down the burden, saw in him no more than a broken man. But not broken to the point of not wishing to carry on the fight.

* a possibility that did not prevent him, some days later, from provisionally accepting Petain’s offer of the Washington embassy.

Reynaud approved of his companion’s decision to go to London, where perhaps he might join him one day. Churchill’s plane was there. From that point of view everything was clear. Yet still there were certain problems that had to be solved. Should he leave? Yes. But when?  With what means?  With whom?  By virtue of what “mission”. When? It was essential to leave tomorrow morning. Because the German army would be at the gates of Bordeaux in the next two or three days. Because London’s immense disappointment at the rejection of the offer of union, by Reynaud’s resignation and the cancellation of the Concarneau meeting must as matter of urgency by counterbalancing by striking mark of solidarity, if the alliance was to be saved. Lastly, because General de Gaulle’s personal position was far from secure.

Reynaud at once assured him that since he had secret funds at his disposal until the handing- over of power the next day, he would allot a sum that would deal with de Gaulle’s immediate expenses. Roland de Margerie was told to deal with matter immediately- and also, at the General’s request, to obtain passports for Yvonne de Gaulle and her daughters who were sheltering in Brittany that would allow them to enter Great Britain: they received them the next day.

To leave with whom? A little later that night de Gaulle gathered some of his people, less with the intention of getting them to go with him than of informing them of his decision. Two showed a certain inclination to leave: Jean Laurent promised to join him very soon in London, and gave him the keys o his Mayfair flat; Manor Chomel, posted to his department after having been his Chief of Staff in the 4th DCR for a fortnight, was persuaded not to go by the general himself, who reminded him of his duties towards his numerous family. The others seem to have been reserved, including the faithful Auburtin, whose conduct the general did not resent in the least. “I did not want to take a whole tribe along,” said de Gaulle at a later date.

As for the “mission” that de Gaulle was supposed to accomplish in Great Britain, it has been said that on 16 June Paul Reynaud was still charged with “carrying on current business” and he took it upon himself to draw an order meant for the traveller. The document has never been produced, either by de Gaulle, or by Reynaud, or by diplomatic archives. Although the first letter de Gaulle sent from London on 17 June had, as we shall see, the tone of an official telegram, it will be assumed that the general left for London without any order de mission.

Since it was the question of London and of a British plane, it was important to have at least the approbation of those who represented Britain on the spot. The general’s conversation with Paul Reynaud took place a little after 11 pm. At about midnight Charles de Gaulle called at the Hotel Montre, at which wine-importers had stayed for many years past: it was here that Ambassador Campbell and General Spears had taken up their quarters.

Edward Spears was seven years older than Charles de Gaulle; he belonged to the upper-middle class and was a regular soldier. He had been a liaison- officer with the French General Staff in 1917; this had brought him into contact with Petain, for whom he conceived a very great admiration. He was elected to Parliament as a Conservative at the end of the twenties and he became much attached to Churchill, to whom he was devoted. Like Churchill, he was well known as a Francophile, speaking French excellently and knowing everyone worth knowing in Paris and Nice. It has been uncharitably said that he “loved France as one loves foie gras“. This is unfair. He appreciated the art of living as it is understood in France; he moved about among the “right people”; he admired the Romanesque churches and the landscapes of the Midi. He loathed the left wing, trade unions and “Gallic anarchism”.

He conveyed de Gaulle to London and he thought that this gave him a right to the unalterable gratitude of Free France, which, for almost a year, he supported by his influence with Churchill, in a most devoted and efficacious manner. He never understood that the status thus acquired-and fully justified- did not give him all rights over those whom he had obliged. But the bitterness that these incidents left in the minds of Sir Edward and his wife, the American novelist Mary Borden, led them to express opinions on de Gaulle and Free France even more acid than those on Spears with which the Gaullist legend overflows.

Towards midnight, then, Charles de Gaulle was received at the hotel montre by Campbell and Spears, whom he told of his intention to reach England as soon as possible, using the plane that the prime minister had put at his disposal the day before. They made an appointment to meet at 7.30 am in the hall of the Hotel Normandy, where de Gaulle had at last found a room.

Meanwhile Spears made a last attempt at persuading Mandela to go to Britain too. The now ex- minister of the interior refused, saying that in time of national disaster a Jew, more than anyone, was required to stay on the country ‘s soil: it was with the Algerian departments as a base that he wanted to carry on with the war.*

* three days later, together with about thirty other parliamentarians, he went abroad the Massila, bound for Morocco, and there he was forced to see that at that shameful time a Jew did not even have the right to leave metropolitan France for the empire. He was arrested in Casablanca before being handed over to the Nazis, who first deported him and then delivered him to the Milice.

The next morning, then, a little after seven o’ clock, de Gaulle and Spears met outside the Hotel Normandy; Jean Laurent was also waiting there, with the money Paul Reynaud had promised- 100,000 francs, Free France’s first credit. Courcel also London bound was present as well; de Gaulle, now more than ever before, needed an associate who was a diplomat and who spoke English.

They drove on to in two cars, the one for the three travellers, the other for the baggage. The airfield was the scene of one of the most extraordinary states of disorder and confusion in this disintegrating war, an indescribable mass of people, something between scrap-metal fair and a gypsy encampment. If de Gaulle had been afraid that military security would seize him just as he was about to take off, the sight that met the three travellers’ eyes must have comforted him. The chaos was so great they could be sure of escaping in the little four seater biplane with the RAF colors, in which the British pilot had slept.

Thus on the evening of 17 June, he said to Jean Monnet, with whom he was staying in London, “There is no longer anything to be done in France. It is here that we shall work.” and when Mme Monnet asked him what mission he was engaged upon, he replied “I have not been sent on any mission, Madame. I am here to save the honour of France.” But on 18 June the “irrevocable words” were still limited to the military sphere. On the nineteenth, it is true; the second radio speech began the great denial of the Bordeaux government’s legitimacy. It was on 26 June, the day after the Armistice, when he sent Churchill a memorandum calling for the recognition of a French committee that was already a counter government, that the decision was really taken and formal legality defied: one destroys only that which one supersedes.

How could the youngest general in the French army have failed to bleed from his very depths at breaking with the rules, the affections and principles of a life devoted, at least in appearance, to “the prime strength of armies”, which is, as everyone knows, discipline. And how could this man in the prime of life and already marked out for the highest rank in the field have failed to suffer by breaking with the mangled body of the French army in the midst of a most horrible collapse, quitting the dismasted ship at the height of the storm? However harsh he may have been on the subject of Marshall Petain’s words and behaviour during those June days of 1940, he was also well aware that the demonstration of strict solidarity with the bewildered nation and the broken army and the determination to remain at their side had its grandeur and its necessity. It is not easy to renounce the bitterest task, that which also had to be accomplished on the soil of France.

On 17 June 1940 fate did not strike Charles de Gaulle with a thunderbolt and hurl him into an opposite course. On the collective and mythical level he bore a character that he had been shaping, armouring and sharpening for more than twenty years- the character of the superior man who is aware of his superiority, who does not hamper himself with any hierarchies but who on the contrary flies out against them. A character who believes himself to be so profoundly in tune with the national interest that he finds justification for each one of his actions and who does not consider any proceedings unworthy if they are of such a kind a to ensure the triumph of his arguments- the arguments being legitimate since he himself was legitimacy. A highly sensitive nationalist, a fighting patriot, a repressed theoretician, everything led him to refuse to admit defeat and to do so with the mocking serenity that the old Marshall brought to it. (“I told you so!”).

For Charles de Gaulle, June 1940 was less the revelation of the army’s bankruptcy- he had long since weighed it up and in its collapse he saw nothing but a consequence- than the deliquescence of the State. The sight of Reynaud reduced to impotence, to dubious shifts and to a resignation in favour of his worst opponents was, for de Gaulle, a most striking symbol of the downfall not of a man who retained his esteem but of the State itself. It s not only because those of Bordeaux had adopted a policy contrary to what he believed right for the honour and the interests of France that the Constable removed himself; it was also because he felt his life’s ideal gradually crumbling away beneath his feet, that is to say a State which expressed and which by the most varied paths and ideologies served the unchangeable, incorruptible French nation. Yet on a humbler level there was also this reply to one of his first companions in Britain, who asked him whether he refusal had been based more upon a feeling of honour or upon common sense: “Much simpler than that; I had the sight of treason there before my eyes, and in my heart a disgusted refusal to acknowledge its victory. That’s all”.

The passenger in Winston Churchill’s little biplane that was coming down over a London airfield that 17 June was a rebel, an insurgent in essence and constitution. But it was circumstances that were about to give this rebellion the meaning of a new legitimacy. Charles de Gaulle was to use the challenges and refusals that had permeated his career in the French state and the army to people his world and, for four years on end, to form the basis for a strategy of myths and words.

Like Chateaubriand he knew it was advisable ” to lead the French by dreams”. Like Bonaparte he was to learn ” to make plans out of the visions of his sleeping soldiers”. For four years the words coming out of London were to be the night-voice of the imaginary- that spiritual rebellion against reality which may also be reality’s pre figuration.


Excerpts from De Gaulle The Rebel by Jean Lacouture. Published in English 1990 by Collins Harvill, London. Translated from the French by Patrick O’Brian



Charles André Joseph Marie de Gaulle (22 November 1890 – 9 November 1970) was a French army officer and statesman. He was the leader of Free France (1940–44) and the head of the Provisional Government of the French Republic (1944–46). In 1958, he founded the Fifth Republic and was elected as the 18th President of France, a position he held until his resignation in 1969. He was the dominant figure of France during the Cold War era and his memory continues to influence French politics.

Born in Lille, he graduated from Saint-Cyr in 1912. He was a decorated officer of the First World War, wounded several times and later taken prisoner at Verdun. He tried to escape with a fellow prisoner but failed several times. After the war ended, he was released. During the interwar period, he advocated mobile armoured divisions. At the beginning of the Second World War, he led an armoured division which counterattacked the invading German army, before being appointed to the French Government as Under-Secretary for War. Refusing to accept his government’s armistice with Nazi Germany in 1940, de Gaulle exhorted the French population to resist occupation and to continue the fight against Axis powers in his Appeal of 18 June. He led a government in exile and the Free French Forces against the Axis. Despite frosty relations with Britain and especially the United States, he emerged as the undisputed leader of the French resistance. He became Head of the Provisional Government of the French Republic in June 1944, the interim government of France following its Liberation. As early as 1944, de Gaulle introduced a dirigist economic policy, which included substantial state-directed control over a capitalist economy. It contributed to thirty years of unprecedented growth.

Frustrated by the return of petty partisanship in the new Fourth Republic, he resigned in early 1946 but continued to be politically active as founder of the RPF party (Rassemblement du Peuple Français). He retired in the early 1950s and wrote his War Memoirs, which quickly became a classic of modern French literature. When the Algerian War was ripping apart the unstable Fourth Republic, the National Assembly brought him back to power during the May 1958 crisis. De Gaulle founded the Fifth Republic with a strong presidency, and he was elected in the latter role. He managed to keep France together while taking steps to end the war, much to the anger of the Pieds-Noirs (Frenchmen settled in Algeria) and the military; both previously had supported his return to power to maintain colonial rule. He granted independence to Algeria and progressively to other French colonies.

In the context of the Cold War, de Gaulle initiated his “Politics of Grandeur”, asserting that France as a major power should not rely on other countries, such as the US, for its national security and prosperity. To this end, de Gaulle pursued a policy of “national independence” which led him to withdraw from NATO’s military integrated command and to launch an independent nuclear development program that made France the fourth nuclear power. He restored cordial Franco-German relations to create a European counterweight between the Anglo-American and Soviet spheres of influence. However, he opposed any development of a supranational Europe, favouring a Europe of sovereign nations and twice vetoed Britain’s entry into the European Community. De Gaulle openly criticised the US intervention in Vietnam and the “exorbitant privilege” of the US dollar, and supported an independent Quebec. His antipathy towards Great Britain and Canada in his later years, including twice blocking accession of the UK to the European Union, generated considerable controversy.

Although re-elected President in 1965, in May 1968 he appeared likely to lose power amid widespread protests by students and workers but survived the crisis with backing from the Army and won an election with an increased majority in the Assembly. De Gaulle resigned in 1969 after losing a referendum in which he proposed more decentralization. He died a year later at his residence in Colombey-les-Deux-Églises, leaving his Presidential memoirs unfinished. Many French political parties and figures claim the Gaullist legacy.



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