1890-1940: the formative years

1890-1914: a traditional education

Charles de Gaulle was born in Lille on 22 November 1890 into a Catholic and patriotic family. His father, Henri de Gaulle, a professor of literature and history, had a great influence on him. The Jesuits and the Assumptionists gave the young Charles a sound, broadly-based and humanist education. He was also influenced by  Péguy and, more particularly,  Bergson. While Henri de Gaulle described himself as “a monarchist by regret” and subscribed to L'Action française, a Royalist review edited by Charles Maurras, his children never questioned the Republic. At the time of the Dreyfus affair, Henri de Gaulle was convinced of the captain's innocence of the charge of treason and actually expressed pro-Dreyfus views fairly rare for one from his social background.

Charles opted for a military career. After a year's preparation at the Collège Stanislas in Paris, he was accepted in 1908 into the military academy of Saint-Cyr, 119th of his class. Among his fellow cadets was the future Marshal Juin.  The cadets were required above all to learn about life in the ranks. De Gaulle chose to serve in the infantry, which he considered more "military" in being directly exposed to enemy fire in time of war. For his year of service, he was detached as an officer cadet to the  33e régiment d’Arras, the 33rd Arras infantry regiment, which was then under the command of Colonel Pétain. When he passed out of Saint-Cyr 13th in the class of 1912, he asked for a posting to the same regiment.

1914-1924: the Great War

Shortly after war was declared on 2 August 1914, Lieutenant de Gaulle was in action with Lanrezac's Fifth Army stationed in the north east. He was wounded on 15 August at Dinant, evacuated and hospitalised, and was not fit to return to the front until October. On 10 March, he was wounded a second time in the fighting at Mesnil-les-Hurlus. Once recovered, he rejoined his regiment first as company commander then as aide to the colonel. He was wounded a third time during the battle of Verdun, at Douaumont, in 1916. Left for dead, he was given a "posthumous" mention in army dispatches. He was, in fact, captured and received hospital treatment in Mainz before being imprisoned in various locations, including the fortress of Ingolstadt in Bavaria.  After five failed escape bids, (between May and September he was interned successively in Osnabrück, Neisse then Sczuczyn, before being transferred to Ingolstadt in October 1916, then to the Rosenberg camp in July 1917, to the military prison in Passau in October 1917, back to Ingolstadt in November 1917, to the Wülzburg camp in May 1918, and finally to the prisons of Tassau and Magdeburg in September 1918), he was not freed until the armistice. His companions in captivity included  Major Catroux, journalist Rémy Roure and Tukhachevsky, a future marshal of the Red Army and victim of the Stalinist purges. He made use of his time in captivity to extend his knowledge of Germany and to read German authors. He also gave lectures, mainly on strategic and geopolitical aspects of the course of the war.

He was released following the armistice of 11 November 1918 and returned to his family in December. From 1919 to 1921, de Gaulle was seconded to Poland where he took part in the formation of the new Polish army which fought victoriously against the Red Army. On his return to France, he married Yvonne Vendroux on 6 April 1921 in Calais. His son Philippe was born on 28 December of that year. Captain de Gaulle became a lecturer at the Saint-Cyr military academy, before being admitted to the École Supérieure de Guerre (staff college) in 1922. He spent a period in training, first in Trier then at the headquarters of the French Army of the Rhine in Mainz in 1924. On 5 May, his daughter Elisabeth was born.

1925-1940: an anti-conformist officer

In 1925, he was posted to the staff of Marshal Pétain, vice-president of the Higher War Council, the Conseil Supérieur de la Guerre. He was again posted to Trier in 1927 as battalion commander.

On 1 January 1928, his second daughter, Anne, was born. In 1929, de Gaulle was transferred to the Levant and spent two years in Beirut with his family. In 1931, he was posted to the general secretariat for national defence in Paris, an important posting that gave him his first experience in the affairs of state.

During this period he published many articles that attracted a certain amount of attention, in particular “Doctrine a priori ou doctrine des circonstances” ("Doctrine of principle or doctrine of circumstances?"), which was considered unorthodox by the chain of command: contrary to the established doctrine that an army's action should be ordered according to predetermined rules,  Captain de Gaulle took the view that,  while certain principles must be respected, it was essential to respond to circumstances. He gave several lectures at the École Supérieure de Guerre under the auspices of Marshal Pétain: he showed himself to be an independent thinker and evolved his own idea of military leadership : “L’Action du chef de guerre” ("The Action of the War Leader") and “Du caractère” ("On character"). De Gaulle also reflected on a reform of the army and on the relations between the army and political authorities. In his first work, La Discorde chez l'ennemi ("Discord among the enemy"), published in 1924, he stressed the fact that the political sphere must take precedence over the military. In 1932, in Le Fil de l'épée ("The Edge of the Sword"), he emphasised the importance of the training given to military leaders and the crucial role played by circumstances. He discussed the theory of the need for an armoured corps combining fire-power with mobility, capable of bold initiatives and offensives. In his work Vers l'Armée de métier ("The Army of the Future"), published in 1934, he developed this fundamental issue, which called for a professional army to be created alongside conscription. The idea met with a largely unfavourable reception, except from right-wing MP Paul Reynaud or Philippe Serre; in the columns of Le Populaire, on the other hand, Léon Blum stigmatised this army of professionals which he, like many others, likened to a Praetorian Guard. Outside France, however, the use of armoured vehicles as recommended by De Gaulle was attracting considerable attention  (Guderian, Liddel Hart). In Paris, de Gaulle spent time with various important figures around Colonel Émile Mayer, a free-thinking retired officer in favour of a reform in France's strategy, which could no longer be content with a defensive stance behind the Maginot line. Neither gained an audience for their views, however.

On promotion to colonel in 1937, he was given command of the 507th tank regiment in Metz. When France and Britain declared war on Germany on 3 September 1939, Colonel de Gaulle was appointed 5th Army tank commander.

In January 1940, de Gaulle sent  a memorandum based on operations in Poland  to 80 influential figures, including Léon Blum, Paul Reynaud and Generals Gamelin and Weygand. The document, entitled L'Avènement de la force mécanique ("The Advent of Mechanised Force"), stressed the need to combine tanks and air-power. As commander of the 4th armoured division, de Gaulle distinguished himself at Montcornet and Laon, and halted the German advance at Abbeville (27-30 May 1940).

Appointed acting brigadier general with effect from 1 June, de Gaulle was invited on 5 June by Paul Reynaud, president of the Council, to serve as under-secretary of state for National Defence and War. His task was to co-ordinate action with the UK in order to continue the war. On 9 June, he met Churchill and tried in vain to convince the British leader to commit more forces, including air forces, to the battle. On 10 June de Gaulle left Paris, now declared an open city, for Orleans, Briare and Tours. On 16 June, returning to Bordeaux from a mission to Britain, he learned of Paul Reynaud's resignation as President of the Council (of Ministers), his replacement by Marshal Pétain and the call for an armistice. General de Gaulle was thus no longer a member of the government.

1940-1946: The Man of 18 June

June 1940: the call

On 17 June de Gaulle returned at once to London with his aide-de-camp Geoffroy de Courcel, with the intention of continuing the war. After Marshal Pétain's announcement of the armistice, the General broadcast his call for resistance over the airwaves of the BBC on 18 June, with Churchill's consent. The broadcast was not recorded, and was not widely heard in France, but the text was published in the press the following day and repeated by radio announcers. In the days that followed, he made other BBC broadcasts repeating his denunciation of the government's armistice and his call for resistance, in a speech of 22 June in particular: "Honour, common sense and the interest of the nation command all free French men and women to continue the combat, wherever they may be and however they are able". The Pétain government punished this act of rebellion by demotion from the rank of General and compulsory retirement from the army, then condemned him to death in absentia in August.

1940-1944: Free France and the Fighting French

On 28 June, Churchill acknowledged him as leader of the Free French. De Gaulle organised the armed forces that were to become the  Forces Françaises Libres (FFL) or Free French Forces. Under an agreement drawn up by an eminent lawyer, René Cassin, and recognised by the British on 7 August, the FFL were to be considered not as a foreign legion within the British armed forces but as an independent national force. Though still few in number, the French forces now had official status and growing numbers of men and women rallied to the cause in Britain and throughout the Empire. The unfortunate affair of the British bombing of the French fleet at Mers El Kébir on 4 July 1941, however, caused the number of recruits to slump. 

General de Gaulle set up a political body, the Conseil de Défense de l'Empire (Empire Defence Council), in Brazzaville on 27 October 1940, but stressed that he would answer to France for his actions once the war was over. The German army invaded the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941 and Japanese aircraft attacked the US naval base at Pearl Harbour on 7 December: the whole world was now at war. In September 1941, de Gaulle formed the French National Committee, the precursor to a government in exile; on 3 June 1943, after the General's arrival in Algiers, this became the Comité Français de la Libération Nationale (French Committee of National Liberation, or FCNL), which he co-chaired with General Giraud. In the early days of the war, Giraud had remained loyal to the Marshal but his troops later rallied to the FFL. From his base in Algiers, General de Gaulle provided the allied command with an army which was to play an active part in the North African and Italian campaigns and make a major contribution to the liberation of France and the subsequent defeat of Germany. General de Gaulle became the President of the Gouvernement Provisoire de la République Française (GPRF) or Provisional Government of the French Republic formed one year later, on 3 June 1944.

From 1942 onwards, closer relations had developed between the Free French and the Resistance inside France. De Gaulle tasked Jean Moulin with organising the Conseil National de la Résistance (National Resistance Council) in France, which was to include representatives of political parties, trades unions and resistance groups of all leanings, in order to co-ordinate the struggle against the occupier and against Vichy with the aim of liberating France. The council was also designed to present a united national front to the Allies come the Liberation. De Gaulle came up against opposition from the Allies who refused to recognise him as the legitimate representative of France despite all the assurances given by himself and those around him: his authority did not derive from democratic elections. It was not until 23 October 1944, three months after the liberation of Paris, that the Provisional Government was recognised by the three great powers: the USA, the USSR and Britain. The General had always maintained that the choice of the French people would be made freely and democratically once the country had been liberated: a number of orders on the organisation of the public authorities and the re-establishment of republican legality, drawn up in that year of 1944, provided the democratic backing for the authority of the leader of the Free French.

1944-1946: Liberation

General de Gaulle re-established the authority of a national government with a firmness and speed that forestalled the introduction of the AMGOT (Allied Military Government for Occupied Territories) planned by the Americans, which would have made liberated France into a state administered and occupied by the victors. After the Normandy landings on 6 June 1944, de Gaulle argued vigorously with General Eisenhower, commander-in-chief of the Allied forces, for a speedy liberation of Paris instead of Eisenhower's own strategy of thrusting directly eastward without passing through the capital.  

General Leclerc's 2nd Armoured Division liberated Paris on 25 August and took the surrender of von Choltitz. On the same day de Gaulle, who had landed on Courseulles beach in Normandy on 14 June 1944, moved back into the War Ministry in the rue Saint-Dominique in Paris, reclaiming the office he had occupied until 10 June 1940. In so doing, he signified that Vichy had been no more than an interlude and that the Republic had never ceased to exist. Then he proceeded to the Hôtel de Ville where he made a speech in which he underlined the essential role played by the French in their own liberation. The following day, 26 August, he led a triumphant victory parade along the Champs-Élysées. The “peuple dans ses profondeurs” ("the people in all its depths") was in a state of enthusiasm hard to describe. On 9 September a government of national unity was formed under his presidency. A constituent National Assembly was then elected in October 1945, six months after the end of the war.

Although President of the provisional government, he was in disagreement with the constituent National Assembly on the conception of the state and the role of the parties, and on 20 January 1946 he tendered his resignation to the chairman of the National Assembly, Félix Gouin, over the issue of military spending. He had fulfilled the task he set himself on 18 June 1940: to liberate France, to restore the Republic, to organise free and democratic elections, to embark on economic and social modernisation. De Gaulle hoped nonetheless that he would be called upon again in the very near future.  

The politician

1947-1953: the Rassemblement du peuple français

After a period of silence, the General spoke out at Bayeux on 16 June 1946. In his speech, he set out a complete constitutional agenda advocating a strong executive and a clear separation of powers, the germ of what would become the Constitution of the Fifth Republic. He reiterated these ideas in Bar-le-Duc and then in Épinal on 29 September, after the constituent National Assembly had voted in favour of the draft constitution, but his voice was  not heeded and electors voted in favour of the draft constitution on 13 October. The vote was more a sign of weariness than of support, however, since one third of the electorate failed to turn out. In the end, no more than a third of the electorate actually voted for what went on to become the Constitution of the Fourth Republic.  

From then on, de Gaulle was a member of the opposition. On 14 April 1947, he launched a movement known as the Rassemblement du Peuple Français (RPF) or Rally of the People of  France, a movement which rapidly gained support and made an excellent showing in the municipal elections that autumn. Its aim was to fight against the "exclusive" regime of the party system, in favour of constitutional reform and against the "separatists", i.e. the communists. De Gaulle wanted this political movement to be not a party but a rallying point. It was for this reason that he proposed a dual allegiance, i.e. that members of all political parties except the French communist party, the CPF, should be eligible to join the RPF. This idea proved a failure, since the traditional parties rejected the concept of dual allegiance.

During this period, de Gaulle, nom a politician, was prevented from broadcasting by his status as a political leader. He was therefore obliged to travel around France, from Bruneval to Strasbourg, to circulate his ideas. This gave him an opportunity to familiarise himself with the country, and to prepare for subsequent political action. The RPF failed to have the hoped-for impact in the 1951 general election, however: it had too few members of parliament to influence either social policy or institutions. De Gaulle therefore decided to wind down the RPF gradually between 1953 and 1955. The experience had nonetheless provided an occasion for training and mobilising activists, and for forming a cadre that would prove both important and effective in 1958.

1953-1958: the years in the desert

For General de Gaulle, the period between 1955 and 1958 were "years in the desert". He withdrew to Colombey-les-Deux-Églises, wrote his war memoirs, Mémoires de Guerre, travelled a little (to the Union Française in particular) and continued to receive visitors at the former RPF headquarters in the rue de Solférino in Paris. His public life was significantly reduced, but he continued to keep abreast of events.

May-December 1958: the nation turns to de Gaulle

            Ministerial instability and the Fourth Republic's inability to deal with the Algerian crisis, which was sparked off by an insurrection on 1 November 1954, led the regime into serious difficulties. Political figures from all camps found themselves wishing for the return of the General. 

On 13 May 1958, a vigilance committee called for a demonstration against the FLN in Algiers. A Committee of Public Safety was created, headed by General Salan who issued a call for the return of General de Gaulle on 15 May. The insurrection spread and risked degenerating into civil war. On 19 May, the General expressed himself as "ready to assume the powers of the Republic". Some saw this declaration as a message of support for the army, and their fears were aroused. De Gaulle soothed their fears, stressing the need for national unity and that, although tendering his services to the nation once again, he favoured neither the army nor any other institution. 

On 29 May, President of the Republic René Coty called upon the services of “the most illustrious of Frenchmen”. Charles de Gaulle agreed to form a government which was voted into office by the National Assembly on 1 June, by 329 votes out of 553. General de Gaulle thereupon became the last President of the Council of the Fourth Republic. The members of the National Assembly granted him the power to govern by decree for a period of six months, and to carry through the constitutional reform of the country.  The new Constitution, drawn up over the summer of 1958, was very close in spirit to the proposals of the Bayeux speech, with a strong executive. General de Gaulle accepted, however, that the Parliament should play a stronger role than he initially desired.

The Constitution was adopted by referendum on 28 September 1958, with 79.2% voting “yes”. The Empire, too, voted in favour with the single exception of Guinea, which thus became the first African state to gain independence. Charles de Gaulle was elected by a broadly-based electoral college to the Presidency of the French Republic and the African and Malagasy Community, on 21 December. He took  up office on 8 January 1959.

            In the period between taking up office as President of the Council and his election to the  Presidency of the Republic, Charles de Gaulle had already begun establishing the policies that would mark his term of office: in addition to his desire to provide France with a new Constitution, the General had concerns about France's European policy (meeting with Chancellor Adenauer on 14 September), her independence from the United States (memorandum of 17 September to President Eisenhower), the state of public finances (measures of 27 December) and the fate of Algeria (he rejected the choices of the committees of public safety and called for “the hatchets to be buried” in October).

The statesman

1959-1962: the early years of the  Fifth Republic

The most pressing task was Algeria. De Gaulle visited the country frequently (his first visit was on 3 June 1958), and came to consider independence as the only solution: in 1959 he offered the Algerians self-determination. The referendum of 8 January 1961 on the principle of self-determination showed massive support for the President's policy, with 75% of votes in favour. The negotiations proved difficult to conduct, however, and were complicated by the partisans of a French Algeria, by the intransigence of the single Algerian party, the FLN, and by the attempted putsch mounted by French army leaders on 22 April 1961, although this proved an instant failure. Following on from  unofficial talks between Georges Pompidou and FLN representatives, the official negotiations opened under the chairmanship of Louis Joxe, Minister of Algerian Affairs. They led to the Evian agreements, signed on 22 March 1962 and ratified by referendum in France on 8 April and in Algeria on 1 July. Algeria was free to pursue independence, but the two states agreed to maintain their co-operation.

At the same time, the President intended France to abide by her signature of the Treaty of Rome in 1957. To enable France to join the European Economic Community on 1 January 1959, Antoine Pinay introduced a series of financial reforms, including the launch of the new franc: Customs barriers came down, opening up the French market to competition from Europe. France was being steered towards modernisation.

1962-1968: the consolidation of the regime

1962 marked a turning-point, on the institutional front most of all. In the wake of the assassination attempt by the OAS, or Secret Army Organisation, at Petit-Clamart on 22 August 1962, the General proposed that the head of state should henceforth be elected by direct universal suffrage. This reform was intended to guarantee his successor the degree of democratic legitimacy that future presidents would need in their dealings with the National Assembly, to replace the historic legitimacy which only de Gaulle could claim. It met with considerable opposition from defenders of the parliamentary tradition, who were suspicious of what they perceived as a drift towards personal power. A motion of censure was passed and the Pompidou government fell. De Gaulle dissolved the National Assembly, as the Constitution empowered him to do, and waited for the outcome of the referendum on the change in the presidential election system on 28 October 1962 before calling a new general election.

On questions of major importance, the President had no hesitation in calling on popular support through the referendum: the constitutional reform of 1962, an enormous success attracting 62.2% support, was one occasion, but other issues put to voters included self-determination for Algeria (referendum of 8 January 1961), the Evian agreements (8 April 1962) and the regionalisation and reform of the Senate (27 April 1969).

Although the effects of the war in Algeria continued to be felt (repatriation of French citizens, OAS terrorist attacks), the head of state was now  free of the problem of Algeria and henceforth able to pursue a policy of national independence to reinforce the role of France on the world stage.

He actively pursued the independent nuclear policy adopted under the Fourth Republic. The first French atomic bomb was exploded at Reggane in the Sahara in February 1960. De Gaulle rejected the hegemony of the USA and gradually withdrew France from the integrated NATO structure. The withdrawal was completed in 1966, but France remained a member of the Atlantic Alliance.

General de Gaulle also tried to build a truly European Europe and soon forged a closer relationship with Federal Germany. In 1958 he invited Chancellor Adenauer to his private residence at Colombey, and the Treaty of the Élysée, signed on 22 January 1963, created a Franco-German axis independent of other European structures. When he vetoed Great Britain's entry into the European Economic Union, it was because he saw Britain as a “Trojan Horse” for the USA, and he did not wish to see two European powers face to face on the continent.

He strengthened the EEC with the Common Agricultural Policy in 1963, but in general rejected the concept of a supranational Europe, although never calling the Treaty of Rome into question. The “empty chair” crisis he precipitated between July 1965 to January 1966 was designed to prevent the European Commission from augmenting its power at the expense of the nation states, while developing the Common Agricultural Policy at France's expense.

His policy of maintaining a “free hand” policy meant refusing to be bound by the policies of the two power blocs, even if de Gaulle did support the USA during the August 1961 Berlin and the 1962 Cuba crises. It also meant strengthening the French presence around the world: in the states that emerged from the former African and Malagasy Community, and which became independent in 1961, but also in Asia and Latin America. In 1964, de Gaulle officially recognised the People's Republic of China and visited Latin America. In 1966 he gave a speech in Phnom Penh in which he attacked American policy in Vietnam. In July 1967, his cry of “Vive le Québec libre! (Long live free Quebec !)” underscored his opposition to imperialism while standing up for France's historic presence in North America. The episode also marked the General's commitment to the right of self-determination for all peoples.

Yet de Gaulle also engineered a rapprochement with the Soviet Union and its satellites to build a “Europe stretching from the Atlantic to the Urals”. His policy of “détente, entente and co-operation” was launched by a visit to the Soviet Union in June 1966, followed by a trip to Poland in 1967 and another to Romania in the following year. The General was nonetheless unwavering in his loyalty to the Western bloc; during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, for example, he was the first world leader to support Kennedy against Khrushchev.

In 1965, a presidential election by universal suffrage was held for the first time. After his first seven-year term, de Gaulle hesitated as to whether to stand for re-election. He was late in announcing his candidacy and did not campaign, whereas his opponents were extremely active (François Mitterrand and Jean Lecanuet in particular). Failing to secure a majority in the first round (with 43.7% of the vote), he at first toyed with the idea of withdrawing but finally reconsidered. Three television interviews showed him to be much closer to the concerns of the French electorate during the campaign for the second round. He was elected in the run-off against Mitterrand, with 54.8% of the vote. 

May 1968-1970

In addition to the financial reform of 1958, France was enjoying its “Thirty Glorious Years” and the economic growth that had begun under the Fourth Republic. The economy had been modernised, standards of living rose. Yet a certain disenchantment with the rigidity of society was beginning to emerge, as the events of May 1968 were to reveal. In France, as in many other countries, student unrest began to simmer in March 1968. Unions and left-wing political parties took advantage of student demonstrations to launch a general strike which gained massive worker support. The general strike paralysed the country throughout the whole month of May, causing a severe crisis which shook the power structure to its roots.

On 24 May the General made clear his intention that the state should restore order and preserve the Republic: the mob stood for unruliness, disorder, the threat of totalitarianism. The Grenelle agreements reached between the government and representatives of trades unions and employers' federations led to a series of conventional measures. The sudden and unexplained disappearance of the head of state, flying off  by helicopter on 29 May for an unknown destination, caused stupefaction and gave rise to the wildest suppositions. He stopped off in Baden Baden to visit General Massu. Was he planning on stepping down? Was he testing sentiment in the army, or simply trying to stand back and take stock? Whatever the real reason, the speech broadcast by radio on his return to Paris the following day sounded a note of firmness. It was followed by a mass demonstration by Gaullist supporters on the  Champs-Élysées. De Gaulle dissolved the National Assembly. The general election campaign occupied the energies of the political parties and the country gradually returned to work.

The elections failed to reinvigorate the government sufficiently, however. The National Assembly, which had shifted more to the right after the election, was also more nervous of embarking on the reforms so badly needed. The Elysée Palace seemed more isolated from the French people, and confidence had not really been restored.

Despite all advice to the contrary, the head of state decided to hold a referendum on regionalisation and the reform of the Senate. On 27 April 1969, the proposal was rejected by 52.4% of voters. True to his promise and to his respect for the sovereignty of the people, de Gaulle resigned: at ten minutes past midnight, a communiqué announced to the country: “I am ceasing to carry out my functions as President of the Republic. This decision will take effect today at midday.”

1969-1970 : Retirement

He retired to Colombey-les-Deux-Églises, refused to take any public stand or position, received visits from a few faithful followers and continued to work on his memoirs.  His war memoirs, Mémoires de Guerre, began appearing in print in 1954, but only the first volume of his post-war Memoirs of Hope (Mémoires d’Espoir) had been completed when Charles de Gaulle passed away on 9 November 1970.

In 1952, he had made a will expressing the wish for a private rather than a state funeral. At  Colombey-les-Deux-Églises, his coffin was carried by an armoured reconnaissance vehicle to the small village church, accompanied only by his family, members of the Compagnons de la Libération and village residents. He was buried in the cemetery alongside his daughter Anne, with the plainest of inscriptions on his tomb: “Charles de Gaulle 1890-1970”. On 12 November, a state ceremony was held in the cathedral of Nôtre-Dame de Paris, attended by government figures and foreign dignitaries.