Churchill

As we know, the relations between two such extraordinary characters as Winston Churchill and Charles de Gaulle, each burdened with crushing responsibilities in extremely difficult circumstances, were not always easy. There were many exchanges, now famous, but which at the time were kept from the public for fear of their being misunderstood and of their damaging morale. For example Churchill's famous phrase, "Si vous m'obstaclerez, je vous liquiderai!" (If you get in my way, I'll destroy you!), to which the General retorted "Libre à vous de vous déshonorer" ("You are at liberty to dishonour yourself"): heated words, expressed in private or reserved for a close circle of associates, and which must be taken in the context of the particularly stormy circumstances of the meeting with Giraud and Roosevelt at Anfa, at the end of January 1943.

Looking beyond such disagreements, it is important, in the first place, to understand and identify the values and objectives for which these two statesmen worked together. After this, we can identify the issues of momentary disagreement and understand why they disagreed on such topics.

From their very first meeting on 9 June 1940, a spark was struck between the two men. Churchill saw immediately that General de Gaulle refused all thought of ceasing the fight: he believed in "l'idée De Gaulle" (the De Gaulle idea), saw in him "l’homme du destin" (the man of destiny), for he felt that the patriotism of this man was of the same stuff as his own. Hence his courageous decision, against the advice of his own government, to support the leader of the Free French by allowing him access to the BBC and recognising him as his partner in the struggle to defeat Germany and Nazism (28/06/1940). The mutual esteem between the two men was nonetheless founded on a different perception of the other, arising from their culture and their respective situations. Churchill was very familiar with the history of France and had great admiration for it; he was an undoubted Francophile, although he occasionally showed a certain condescension which never failed to irritate his ally. The education the General had received, fed through both family tradition and his schooling on images of Joan of Arc and Napoleon or memories of Fashoda, did not incline him towards friendship for "Albion" and the Anglo-Saxons. He nonetheless recognised the British virtues of courage, discipline and fair play, and acknowledged the great political and diplomatic experience of Churchill, his senior. He showed on numerous occasions his gratitude to the King and to the people of Britain for the warm welcome they extended to himself and to the free French.

The General's understanding at the time of the bombing of Mers-el-Kébir and Churchill's solidarity after the failure of the Dakar expedition kept the alliance between the two men on an even keel until the summer of 1941. From then on, however, a number of external factors created by the geographical extension of the conflict, and in particular the entry of the USA into the war, were to have repercussions on relations between De Gaulle and Churchill.

The widening of the conflict into the eastern Mediterranean from 1941 onwards brought back into play the latent old colonial rivalries that would poison the relationship between the two allies. Two issues of contention were Syria and Lebanon, where General de Gaulle feared that the British were seeking to take advantage of France's weakness to force her to abandon her League of Nations mandates, or to supplant her in the region using Iraq and Palestine as bases. The same fears were felt on the subject of Madagascar where, to make matters worse, the Allies made a military landing in May 1942 without first informing their allies. De Gaulle's position now became extremely delicate, caught between the supporters of Vichy who accused him of playing into the hands of the English, and his own nationalism which made him particularly sensitive to any Allied interference, especially in France's colonial empire. The entry into the war of a powerful new ally also changed the situation, in that President Roosevelt continued throughout much of the war to consider France a defeated nation and to see De Gaulle as no more than a blundering adventurer, who was arrogant, dangerous, in no way representative of the French and unworthy of the least trust (deemed fit, in May 1943, at most to govern Madagascar). Churchill, now relegated to second place in the Allied coalition, was unable to change Roosevelt's way of thinking and resigned himself to following Roosevelt's political guidelines at the expense of a closer alliance with Free France and even at the cost of his friendship with the General.

As early as 1941 and even more so from 1942 onwards, signs began to emerge of sometimes explosive disagreements between the two leaders, interspersed with sudden bursts of  confidence when Churchill reasserted his faith in a common victory with his French partner. Two particularly dramatic episodes of such disagreement were provoked by Allied landings on French soil. The first came in November 1942, when the Americans landed in North Africa after refusing to inform De Gaulle or to include him in the operation. This caused a political storm in Algiers that lasted over 6 months and generated understandable rancour towards Churchill, which provoked the General to threaten to transfer Free France to Moscow. Matters did not improve, since the date of the Normandy landings was also kept secret from De Gaulle, and on the very eve of D-day there was a terrible row with Churchill, sparked off in part by Anglo-Saxon plans to treat liberated France as occupied territory with the installation of an Allied Military Government (AMGOT).

It must be admitted that these lapses were due partly to the extraordinary personalities of the two partners and the awareness each had of his overriding responsibilities. Churchill's volcanic temper and mercurial moods were matched only by the calculated phlegm of the General, while both men were masters of argument to the borders of honesty and beyond.  De Gaulle felt that his objective weakness, due to his status as a dissident from the Vichy regime and his relative lack of material resources, required him to be all the more intractable on the slightest details in that he represented France, the true France, and was determined to see her legitimacy recognised in diplomatic terms. Hence the claims considered arrogant and intolerable by his foremost ally, the leader of a nation that had throughout history frequently been France's rival. Again and again Churchill expressed his inability to understand the inflexibility, which he sometimes felt to be beyond all bounds, of the General's attitudes and reactions. Both nations were lucky that such exceptional leaders had the wisdom to surround themselves with competent and reasonable men, capable of intervening at the right moment to temper any excesses in their leaders' behaviour: such was the helpful role played by Anthony Eden, Duff Cooper and Harold Macmillan on one side, and by Pierre Viénot, René Massigli, René Pléven, Maurice Dejean, etc. on the other.

Churchill, torn between the vital need to remain true to the American alliance and at the same time to consolidate his French partner, retained all his admiration for the General's energy and  genius (only a few hours after brutally reminding him of his preference for the choice of the "high seas" on the eve of 6 June 1944, he wept with emotion as he listened to the text of De Gaulle's proclamation to the French on the evening of that historic day). He gradually learned how to distance himself from Roosevelt's interdict, in particular when the liberation of France enabled French public opinion to demonstrate De Gaulle's popularity spontaneously and massively. He was well aware, for example, of the catastrophic effect the General's resignation would have had on the French people, had it come about as a result of pressure from the Allies. De Gaulle and Churchill's triumphant parade along the Champs-Elysées, on 11 November 1944, during which they both received the acclamation of the crowd, sealed the two men's friendship for a time. After Yalta, a perception of the Soviet menace and the new status of the American superpower brought Churchill closer to De Gaulle and to French interests. Churchill's  efforts to ensure the restoration of France's "standing" and the elation of victory combined to drive the conflicts which still divided the French and their British allies, in particular in Syria and Lebanon, into the background.

His electoral defeat and Labour's return to power in July 1945 made him henceforth, perhaps because he was no longer in power, the closest friend of the head of the Provisional Government. De Gaulle in his turn went into opposition in 1946, while the "old lion" returned to lead his nation once again from 1951 to 1955. In November 1958 General de Gaulle, now President of the Council, was at last able to decorate his "ally in time of war and friend in time of peace" with the cross of the Liberation. Each was therefore able to appreciate the partial truth of Plutarch's words, which Churchill recalled to his friend, "ingratitude towards great men is the mark of a strong people". In the end, the public attending the ceremony at the Hôtel de Ville in Paris on 12 November 1944 were in no doubt that behind the understatement which Churchill used with consummate skill and in his own idiosyncratic form of French, "I have had some very lively discussions with him from time to time", the feelings between the two great men were all the warmer for the contrast with the coldness of national interest.