Saturday, May 29, 2021

De Gaulle and the Americans: I

In London, Koenig simply ignored de Gaulle's instructions about ending contacts with Eisenhower, and Eisenhower, desperate to invite de Gaulle to London, pushed to the limits what was permitted by Roosevelt. Roosevelt seemed on the verge of conceding that de Gaulle could be brought into technical military discussions about the Liberation as long as the discussions avoided 'politics': he told Eisenhower that the French were `shell-shocked' (his way of explaining away the irrefutable evidence of de Gaulle's popularity). Eisenhower replied that there seemed to be only two factions in France: the 'Vichy gang, and the other characterized by unreasoning admiration for de Gaulle' (the 'unreasoning' presumably added for Roosevelt's benefit)." In the same vein, even Churchill cabled Roosevelt arguing that 'it is very difficult to cut the French out of the liberation of France.'" He was under increasing pressure from British public opinion, parliament and his own government to bring de Gaulle into the discussions about the Liberation. 

(Julian Jackson, A Certain Idea of France)

As bad as de Gaulle's relationship was with the English it was even worse with the Americans.  Put simply, the American Government put their hopes in cutting a deal with Vichy--and were quite prepared to turn a blind eye to some of their more odious policies--if they would switch sides. Indeed, what struck me in reading about US-French relations during the Second World War is just how disturbingly accommodating the Americans were to the Pro-Nazi French, not really the image one gets from the movies.  Soon after American entered the war, the Free French captured some small islands in control by Vichy.

The U.S. demanded that they give them back.  

What's really interesting about the Pro-Vichy approach that the U.S. took is that it took no account of both French culture and the internal dynamics of French politics: The French Left hated the French Right. One of de Gaulle's principle achievements was in convincing the French Left that he wasn't of the Right, but rather someone who transcended the divide. The U.S. seemed clueless about this dynamic. Indeed de Gaulle's description of Cordell Hull, the U.S. Secretary of State is particularly apt,  "he had an elevated soul".."handicapped by his limited knowledge of everything that was not America."

The thrust of U.S. foreign policy was to gain the support of Vichy and to use the Vichy French as co-liberators of France, not that the Vichy would assume control of France after victory, rather that U.S. government would govern France "like an occupied country" until "free elections" were held. As Roosevelt told de Gaulle in Casablanca:

The sovereignty of France, as in our country, rested with the people, but ... unfortunately the people of France were not now in a position to exercise that sovereignty . . . The Allied Nations fighting in French territory at the moment were fighting for the liberation of France and they should hold the political situation in 'trusteeship' for the French people ... France was in the position of a little child unable to look out and fend for itself.
This would have gone down like a lead balloon with de Gaulle but how this would have gone down with the French is anybody's guess. It's highly likely that it would of made the post war stability of France much more difficult.  What would have made matters worse would of been the planned issuance of "liberation currency" which would have have given allies an unfair exchange advantage,  been highly inflationary and likely financially ruinous for many of the French.  It's not hard to see how the communists would have exploited this to their own ends.  It was fortunate that Eishenhower was able to mitigate the most idiotic aspects of American policy.

The U.S. hostility to the Free French wasn't driven by public opinion, in fact it was the opposite. The U.S. public, like the English, was incredibly supportive and friendly to de Gaulle, it's just like the case with the U.K. , the people were supportive and the government was hostile. De Gaulle recognised this. In fact when the US government brokered a deal with the Vichyite Darlan the public hostility was so great that they had to reassure the public that it was only a "temporary" arrangement. The public were on the side of the Free French.

A lot of the U.S. administration's hostility to de Gaulle came from Roosevelt himself. He seemed to go out his way not to give recognition to the Free French (He also had the same attitude to the Polish Government in exile).A lot of the pressure that Churchill put on de Gaulle was as result of pressure he himself got from Roosevelt.  As  Churchill was keen on U.S. support he initially did Roosevelt's bidding, but towards the end of the war, when the British realised that U.S. wouldn't be so mindful of their interests they recognised the benefits of having another power by their side and were less hostile to the French, beginning to advocate for them. In fact they and Stalin had to pressure the U.S. to recoginise the provisional government of liberated France.

De Gaulle once said that that he and Churchill fought often but ultimately got along. He also said that he and Roosevelt never fought but never got along. The problem was in the natures of De Gaulle and Roosevelt; they were fundamentally incompatible. Both men were idealists to a certain degree but De Gaulle was a from a deeply "radical" Catholic cloth which is foreign to in many ways to the American mind, Roosevelt a Wilsonian idealist in the manichean tradition. He wanted France liberated and transformed into an American styled democracy. For Roosevelt people were "abstractions"--in that people were all alike--and therefore American style democracy was the best form of government for everyone.  For de Gaulle  blood, soil and a history were one, which meant that democratic conventions were always contingent on temporal circumstance. French democracy was going to be different to the U.S. version because the French were different to Americans. 

Roosevelt worked hard to keep de Gaulle out of Potsdam and Yalta and in my opinion the fate of Central Europe, in particular, may have taken a completely different course had he been there. Churchill, in particular wanted to push the Iron Curtain east. But as he was the junior partner of the triumvirate, he was sidelined by Roosevelt and Stalin who basically divided Europe up. Churchill--and middle Europe--would have had a stronger hand if de Gaulle had been there.

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

De Gaulle and Perfide Albion


The one thing that did worry some members of the Free French were de Gaulle's bouts of Anglophobia. Larminat and Eboue wrote in September 1941 to warn him against those who "in order to pay court to you or just out of stupidity feel it necessary constantly to denigrate the English. One ends up asking oneself who we are fighting the war against." But this gradually ceased to be to be an issue partly because the force of de Gaulle's personality succeeded in imposing his way of seeing the world on his followers and partly because objective circumstances had given some credence to de Gaulle's suspicions[ED]. Passy, who had started out with few of these prejudices, found himself battling constantly against the British secret services; and even the most Anglophile Free French were shocked by the Madagascar landings.

I think that this passage from Jackson's book in some ways highlights the his lack of objectivity when it comes to de Gaulle and it's typical of the approach he uses throughout the book. Through the use of both emphasis and understatement, Jackson tends to highlight de Gaulle's faults and downplay the less than honorable actions by the British. On one hand, we are told by Jackson that de Gaulle was a dour personality without significant charisma but on the other hand we find him able to his impose his world view upon the quarrelsome French through the force of his personality.  The claim is contradictory.  The reality of the situation was that while men respected de Gaulle for his moral position, his officious personality pushed many away and what pushed men into accepting his world view was primarily his moral example and secondly it was the actions of the British and Americans, which shocked even the most anglophile of the French and vindicated him.

One of the things that English and American authors tend to constantly emphasise de Gaulle's legendary  prejudice against the "Anglo-Saxons", painting it as if it were some kind of irrational prejudice without any basis. But one thing that never gets asked is, was his hostility justified.  A little digging around the history of time will show that De Gaulle's had quite a bit of justification for his "anglophobia".


Charles de Gaulle's position in England after the Fall of France is in many ways like that of man, married to a beautiful wife, who is suddenly destitute and without lodgings.  Gratefully accepting the offer of accommodation by his next door neighbour, he moves in and is horrified to find that his neighbour is soon making advances on his wife. Every time he complains or puts up a fight, he is reminded of just how ungrateful he is for his neighbour's generosity and that his suspicions of him are completely unjustified. A lot of de Gaulle's "disagreeableness" with the English, especially in the early to mid stages of the war, are easily understood by taking this perspective.

After the fiasco at Dakar, the British attitude to him changed.  Firstly, because he was delivering so little in the way of rallying the French to the allied cause and secondly because he was pushing France's interests in a way that was not congenial to British. Secondly, the British attitude to France changed, seeing it less as a victim and more as a opportunistic collaborator. So the British started looking for other options. Their general attitude seemed to be to find someone else rather than De Gaulle to represent the French. Firstly, they started courting other Free French Leaders in an effort to undermine him, courting Muselier and Catroux. They made contact with Vichy military leaders Darlan, Giraud  and Weygand offering to deal with them instead of De Gaulle, by passing the Free French. 

Furthermore there were also territorial considerations.

Vichy Syria was part of the French Mandate and was proving to be rather friendly to the Germans.  De Gaulle had lobbied for a joint British-French force to invade it and prevent it from giving the Germans material assistance.  De Gaulle had both patriotic and pragmatic reasons. He wanted the traitorous Vichy replaced but was also desperate to have Free French score some "runs on the board". The British agreed but for other reasons.

The British were also keen to invade the region but not for the same reasons as the French. British Cabinet documents reveal that they were eager to increase their influence in the Arab world, and their plan was to push the French out of Syria by agitating for local native independence. (Note: At the same time native independence movements in British held territories were suppressed). The British plan was to invade the area with the aim of "liberating" it, and forcing a referendum on independence.  The French would be given civilian control but the British military would have final say on events. Effectively there would be a transfer of power from the French to the British. The involvement of the Free French would politically "sanitize" the plan.

Cabinet documents reveal that de Gaulle was to be kept in the dark and deliberately misled. Furthermore, in order to be "kept on the leash" he wouldn't have a chance to recruit from the newly captured Vichy soldiers to change sides. The British wanted de Gaulle militarily weak and dependent on them, incapable of independent action. Five minutes of searching the internet can verify these claims. Jackson, in a book that goes into considerable detail seems to deliberately gloss over this. Which is odd because Anglo-Free French relations rapidly declined after this.

The Armistice of St Jean d'Acre screwed over betrayed the Free French. Given his weakened position, de Gaulle's only response to throw a political tantrum. De Gaulle raged against the British and managed to secure some concessions, which the British reneged on later. But his rage and tactics so angered Churchill that he was prepared to be rid of him and actually advocated it to cabinet and parliament. He was denied access to BBC, not allowed to leave the country, had his means of communication to the outside world limited and was shadowed by the British security apparatus.

However, what saved De Gaulle at this moment was that an opposition movement in France was beginning to solidify around him, the number of recruits were beginning to increase and the Free French in London recognised him as their only leader. As one of the men who rallied to him said:

General de Gaulle symbolizes that France which did not despair, which did not give in. He alone acted. At a moment when people feel that force of character is the essential quality for a leader, the name of General de Gaulle exerts on the French a political attraction which perhaps London is not aware of ... France needs a myth, and for the moment France has fallen so low that this myth cannot be found in a formula or an idea: it needs to be incarnated in a man. Whatever the person of de Gaulle may be . . . if France is to remake herself again it can only be around the 'de Gaulle myth'.'
Perhaps more important for his own survival was the fact that he enjoyed high esteem among the Anglo-Saxon peoples--if not their politicians--who admired his moral position and he enjoyed an enormous amount of popularity. De Gaulle was beginning to have some political clout and military use as a rallying point for the Resistance. In most biographies of de Gaulle, there is a strong emphasis of his political role, but what's missed is that his "intransigent nature" stemmed in a large degree from a deep moral and religious dimension which in many ways helps understand the man. It's something I want to do deeper analysisin later posts later. But whats really fascinating is that it was this aspect of him that ultimately gave him the critical political support that ensured his survival. Churchill, no matter how much this "fly in the ointment" pained him, couldn't get rid of him. The political costs were became too high. (Though he came close to doing so on several occasions.)

That, of course didn't stop the British from pursuing their interests at the cost of their ally.

They invaded Madagascar (French Territory) excluding the Free French.  The Free French were so demoralised them that they wondered if there was any point for their existence, if their allies didn't bother to take notice of them. De Gaulle only found out about it when rang by the Press. The British then invaded North Africa (French Territory) without his--or the Free French involvement--but in this instance they were not solely to blame because the Roosevelt administration, preferring Vichy to the Free French,  insisted on him not being informed. As they did with the planning for the Normandy landings.

Now, De Gaulle is frequently charged with anglophobia but I think this brief--and not exhaustive---recounting of events--and there's a lot more that the British did that I've not included-- gives him a fair amount of justification for his attitude. Indeed, from a moral perspective, the British have quite a bit to be embarrassed about. The attitude of the British was that the Free French were more an asset than an ally with which they were free to do as they pleased. De Gaulle made that assest unreliable and this was problematic. As a man who stood side by side with them in their "darkest hour" the British did treat him, and the Free French he represented, very shabbily.

In many ways the relationship between De Gaulle and Churchill is fascinating. Churchill, in my opinion, had an underlying decency that was frequently overridden by practical considerations. De Gaulle on the other hand was a man of principle who could be ruthless in its application. I particularly can't seem to work out why De Gaulle was so benevolent to Churchill after the war, given his history with him. Both men were patriots of their countries and both men pursued their respective interests but I can't help the feeling that de Gaulle was the more honorable of the two.

Especially since I can't find any instance where the Free French acted in any manner analogous to the British when they clearly had the opportunity to do so.

***However , an important qualifier: De Gaulle was an "identitarian" in the sense that nationalities have unique identities and while he clearly preferred the French, he had a great admiration for the British people if not its government, So when he criticises the Anglo-Saxons, he is criticising their government and not the people.

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

De Gaulle and Albion

When Charles de Gaulle ended up on the shores of England he had very little in the way of resources, men or support of any kind from the French. He was relatively unknown to the French so its understandable that there was an initial reticence in joining him. One thing he did have however was the support Winston Churchill who admired him in not sharing the defeatism that had permeated throughout French leadership.

Their relationship would later become very tempestuous but what I think is important is trying to understand why Chruchill supported him in the first place. My own reading of the Churchill would lead me to the impression that he supported De Gaulle for two reasons:

Firstly, because Churchill had a strong "romantic" streak which admired De Gaulle's defiance in the face of hopeless odds. I think that despite their future tumultuous relationship, Churchill never lost respect for this dimension of De Gaulle. It's what made De Gaulle stand out from his contemporaries

Secondly, Churchill had a strong pragmatic element to his personality which could verge on the cold and calculating.  The fact of the matter was with Nazism triumphant and the Americans reluctant to join the war, Britain was alone and he could use all the help he could get. In the early days of the War, Churchill recognised that because of his moral qualities, De Gaulle could provide a rallying point for the French who wanted to fight. This, of course, was premised on the British notion that the French wanted to fight. As events unfolded, the British rapidly became "red pilled" about the true nature of the French spirit. The reality is that most of the French didn't want to meaningfully fight for their liberation and rally to De Gaulle, and this, more than Anglo perfidy did more to undermine his position.

Once the the French had signed their armistice with the Germans, life in France became a relatively peaceful affair. In the early stages of the war French Communists caused no problem for the Germans since Russia was allied to Germany.  On the other hand, many "right wing"  Frenchmen were happy with Vichy France calling De Gaulle an English puppet.  Except for a small isolated elements in the country many, French adapted to the new circumstances of life. As for the Germans, they were relatively well behaved in the early stages of the war and this kept tensions low. There was virtually no Resistance, unlike in Poland or Russia. As a side issue, the first German to be killed by the Resistance did not die till over a year after France's surrender, killed by a communist a month after the invasion of Russia.

It's important to understand that for the French this wasn't just a passive acceptance of the facts but an active approval of them.  France's moral rot was deep.

After the evacuation of Dunkirk, there were approximately fifty thousand French troops in England. De Gaulle put out an appeal, only one thousand joined. Recruiting was a constant problem.  De Gaulle's son Phillipe, remembers his father raging against the French while admiring the English will to fight.

The British noticed.

What perhaps undermined De Gaulle's position the most however was the raid on Dakar.

Just three months after the Fall of France,  an Anglo-French force set out to capture the African port of Dakar, part of Vichy held territory. At the sight of the liberators De Gaulle confidently predicted that the French would come over and join the Allied cause.  What happened was the opposite. The Vichy defenders fought with a determination against the British that they did not show to the Germans. The invasion force was defeated and it sailed back to London. It was a farce. During the trip back, De Gaulle contemplated suicide. As he mentioned to one of his comrades at the time "If you knew, Major, how alone I feel."

Though the battle is mentioned briefly in Jackson's book, he tends to attribute De Gaulle's despair at the military failure of the episode. What I think Jackson misses is the psychological dimension to this defeat. De Gaulle thought of France "mystically", and this notion conveyed certain ideas of the French character. The idea that French men, when given the choice between liberation by the allies or slavery under the German yoke would actively chose slavery would have gutted him.  The French character had changed.

For the British,  the failure of the French to rally to de Gaulle, diminished his political and military  usefulness and also seemed to have changed the British attitude to Vichy. Following Dakar his relationship with the British would never be the same and the British would see Vichy France as less of potenitial ally and more of a competitive power.

British policy was thus "adjusted".

Monday, May 10, 2021

Charles De Gaulle: The Oddity

When leaders fail, new leaders are projected upward out of the eternal spirit of France: from Charlemagne to Joan of Arc to Napoleon, Poincaré and Clemenceau. Perhaps this time I am one of those thrust into leadership by the failure of others.

Charles De Gaulle


The First World War resulted in a pyrrhic victory for France.  During the course of the war, it lost about one and half million men which equates to roughly one thousand men a day, about ten percent of the male population. Six and half million men were wounded of which over a million were mutliés, i.e. maimed or disfigured. The experience of war had deeply traumatised the  country and and had and had changed its national  temperament, similar in the way the U.S. was affected after Vietnam.  The country's strong sense of militant nationalism gave way to a malaise. Whereas before the war, the military were held in esteem, the experience of war and sense of national grief lead to a loss its prestige and an air of pacifism and hedonism took its place.

The needs of war temporarily put aside the national conflict between left and right, which gradually asserted itself again with the onset of peace. Further complicating matters was the relationship between the religious and the secular, which while still tense, was not as poisonous as in the pre-war years. And even within the French Catholic Church there was a broad division between the traditionalists and the liberals.

With regard to the French Left, and I'm painting in broad strokes here, who were the the lackeys for soviet communism, they worked to co-opt pacifistic trends for their masters advantage. Through economic and industrial sabotage the damaged the french economy, policy and national will.  There loyalty was primarily to a Soviet France and they danced to the tune played by Moscow. Their loyalty to France was conditional on soviet directives. and when the soviets wanted them to support Germany they did.

The Right in France were an all-together different beast. The main right organisation was Action Francaise.  It was pro-monarchy, pro-France, pro-Catholic and anti-Left. Led by Charles Maurras, a brilliant writer and journalist, he had dubious distinction of advocating a Catholic France while being totally contemptuous of religion.  Despite regarding belief with disdain, Maurras regarded it as valuable because of its social utility. He supported Catholicism because it was the historical religion of France, but but to him this was just an accident of history, and if France had had an Islamic tradition, he would have supported it as well.  The fact that the leading advocate of the largest right wing organisation in France was openly contemptuous of religion did bother some  of the religious, but that didn't stop many clergy--some of them at extremely high levels of the French church-- from supporting it and singing its praises.

The picture that I'm trying to paint is of a divided, depressed, hypocritical and wounded society which had deep social, economic, moral and religious problems. Two books which deal with the subject matter well are Eugen Weber's The Hollow Years which tackles the subject from a sociological level, and Yves Simon' brilliant book, The Road to Vichy which tackles it from a moral one. Simon's book is better, in my opinion, in understanding the near utter corruption of France's cultural institutions and population. A good summary of it can be found here.

The bottom line is that the France was a deeply traumatised country which seemed to want to forget the war and enjoy itself, all the while avoiding the menacing reality on its eastern border. What also strikes you, when you read the biographies of De Gaulle, is just how "culturally" different he was both to his contemporaries, and outside the temper of his own times. In many ways he was a throwback to values from before the war--though from the avant-garde* conservative element -- possessing a sense of realism that was lacking in many Frenchmen.  While he was not a "popular" fellow, he had superiors who recognised his intellect and abilities and ensured his progression through the ranks. By the eve of the war in France, he was a brigadier general commanding a tank division, attaining his rank from success in armoured combat. His success in battle earned him a promotion as the government minister. Even in government he was an oddity, because when the French finally capitulated against the Germans he decided to fight on.

The point that I'm trying to emphasise here is that De Gaulle  was an outsider and not someone  cut from the same prevailing cloth that made up the French governing classes of the time. He possessed a different set of values and this is the key to understanding the man and his subsequent actions.

It is very important to understand that the French ruling class of the 1930's--both right and left--was rotten.  De Gaulle was an outsider, and his rise through the ranks was not political but driven by the force of circumstances which highlighted competency in a time of crisis and rendered "political" skills inconsequential . And when I reflect on his rise, it always strikes me as remarkable how this oddity, this man who was different, ended up being in a position where he were he could with legitimacy speak for a France that did not want to capitulate.

There were Frenchmen who wanted to fight but it appears to be that there were none in Government. What further emphasises this point, it that when he put out his appeal for men to join him in England, not one intellectual, politician or senior diplomat wanted to join him.  As Don Cook, in his biography of him wrote:

In those early days, it was not men of experience or leadership, it was not the intellectuals or politicians or administrators or serving officers who were the first Gaullists and rallied to the Cross of Lorraine. They did not come from the châteaus or cathedrals, but from the parish churches and the synagogues, the French of the Paris Métro, the fishing villages, the factories, for whom all was clear and simple.
By and large the French educated and administrative classes were rotten and De Gaulle seemed to be the last vestigal element of what was good in it. I'm not trying to be melodramatic here but the facts speak for themselves. As De Gaulle took off from french soil for England, Churchill's comments were close to the mark.
He carried with him in his small air plane the honor of France

When De Gaulle arrived in England he was looking for an officer or official to serve under. He wrote to various French officials who could of assumed the role but none replied. Then he realised he was on his own. He didn't seek power, it was thrust on him. Realising he was on his own he made the decisive choice:

It was up to me to take responsibility for France
All his subsequent actions can be understood as the application of his principles to the custodianship of France. The reason why he baffled and infuriated his allies is because he was not like them.

*I think a point that doesn't get emphasised enough is just how well read and intelligent De Gaulle was. What really surprised me as I looked into him more deeply, is just how intellectual actually he was and just how influenced he was by the small coterie of French dissident Right thinkers who were repelled by Action Francaise and yet did not drift to the Left.