France entered the 1960s in a state of chaos. In 1954 the Toussaint Rouge, the killing of several white French colonists by Algeria’s National Liberation Front (FLN) had set in motion the Algerian War of Independence. The war became an iconic anti-colonial struggle, inspiring works such as Albert Camus’ The Stranger and Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth. Eight long years of guerrilla fighting were peppered with allegations of torture on both sides. The FLN began to place bombs in public places, including the offices of Air France in downtown Algiers. The French massacred Muslim civilians in 1956 and in 1961 a peaceful demonstration in central Paris was attacked under the orders of the head of the Parisian Police. Dozens of protesters were drowned in the Seine, a crime covered up by the French government until 1998.
All this brought about the complete collapse of the Fourth French Republic, France’s government since the end of the Second World War. In an effort to regain some sense of stability and bring about a solution to the ‘Algerian question’, René Coty, the sitting President, called upon ‘the most illustrious of Frenchmen’, an old war hero, to confer with him as to what could be done. That man was General Charles de Gaulle.
De Gaulle had been highly critical of the Fourth Republic, which he viewed as leftist and a little too bureaucratic, something he summed up with the remark “how can you govern a country which has two hundred and forty-six different varieties of cheese?” De Gaulle was made President on June 1 1958 and immediately amended the constitution to give himself more executive powers, stating that no one “honestly believes, at age 67, I would start a career as a dictator”. The French People appeared to agree, voting in the new constitution and a Fifth Republic by about 80%.
In 1962 the Algerian war ended with independence. Around 900,000 Pied-Noirs (the descendants of European settlers in Algeria) flooded into France, hastened by the ruinous massacre of French Algerians in Oran. The descendants of these refugees form the vast majority of France’s Algerian population today. The former colony of Indochina (now Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam) was also lost, and in the case of Vietnam, split into two. Yet France itself began to prosper – the Sixties were to be the start of a period known as the trentes glorieuses (Thirty Glorious Years) – and French GNP grew at an average of 5.8% a year. These unprecedented levels of post-war prosperity placed France at the pinnacle of the new European Economic Community (EEC), which had been established in 1957, just before de Gaulle took power. By 1962, several other countries wanted in on this new programme of economic integration. One of these was the United Kingdom.
Like star-crossed lovers, the fates of Charles de Gaulle and the United Kingdom appear to have been inextricably entwined. And like aged, senile lovers embittered by years of close proximity, the relationship was rarely a harmonious one. The most iconic images of de Gaulle tend to depict him in his role as leader of the Free French during the Second World War, a time which saw him not only militarily allied with the British, but also living amongst them in exile.
In reality, de Gaulle harboured more than a little disdain for the ‘Anglo-Saxons’, a term he used to refer to both Britain and the United States, powers he increasingly saw as inseparable and opposed to France’s best interests. During the war, de Gaulle increasingly believed that the Anglo-Saxons had only reluctantly accepted France as allies, and grew particularly suspicious that Winston Churchill was poised to take over France’s colonies in the Middle East. The Anglo-Saxons didn’t show a great amount of love for de Gaulle in return. Churchill was only dissuaded by his War Cabinet from forcibly removing de Gaulle as leader of the French Resistance, and Roosevelt refused to communicate with de Gaulle at all until 1942. Negotiating solely with the puppet Vichy government, the United States had hoped to lure Marshall Pétain away from the Germans and instate him as France’s new leader.
The American preference of Pétain embodied a belief that de Gaulle was a puppet of the British. This was to prove rather ironic, as de Gaulle’s disdain of Britain in 1963 stemmed from a belief that they were Trojan Horse for an American government determined to meddle in European affairs. This was not entirely unfounded – John F. Kennedy had consistently urged Europe to include Britain so that the United States might have a say in the affairs of a continent they had heavily invested in rebuilding and protecting.
In December 1962, Britain agreed to replace its Skybolt nuclear program with Polaris missiles purchased from America, a decision which raised de Gaulle’s hackles and confirmed his prejudices. On January 29, he torpedoed Britain’s entry into the European Economic Community by uttering a simple ‘non’ to the television cameras. The decision itself was no great surprise, but shocked many in the British government who believed that de Gaulle might have exercised his veto privately and with a touch more dignity.
Britain paid a heavy price for not signing up to the European project from the start. In 1964, France’s GDP overtook the UK’s for the first time in almost 100 years. De Gaulle vetoed British entry to the EEC again in 1967 on the grounds of continental solidarity, and Britain would have to wait until after de Gaulle’s resignation in 1969 before they joined in 1973. In 2016, the British government offered its people the chance to exit the European community (now known as the European Union) in a plebiscite referendum, which resulted in a narrow decision to leave.
In France, Charles de Gaulle has been ranked Le Plus Grand Français de tous les temps, or the Greatest Frenchman of All Time. He is revered both for his role in the Second World War and the trentes glorieuses of economic prosperity. Around the world he recieves a more varied reception. In Canada, de Gaulle caused outrage by appearing to support an independent state of Québec during an official visit in 1967. De Gaulle is not fondly recalled in North Africa or Southeast Asia either, but remains one of the most iconic, influential and enigmatic statesmen in modern history.