Magazine article History Today

La France Libre and the Legacy of De Gaulle

Magazine article History Today

La France Libre and the Legacy of De Gaulle

Article excerpt

* It is a commonplace of the study of French history that what took place in France from 1789 to 1815 set the pattern for all that followed, at least until 1939. To understand the dilemmas of France today, the years between 1940 and 1945 are no less relevant. A work which both tells the absorbing story of the establishment of the Free French endeavour and its many vicissitudes, doing full justice to the drama itself and the personalities involved, while pointing to the wider implications of the saga, makes a massive contribution to our political understanding.

Its study has been a long pre-occupation of Jean-Louis Cremieux-Brilhac, who as a twenty-year-old escaped prisoner of war, joined de Gaulle in London and was thereafter deeply involved in the great adventure. For someone like myself, who was a little on the fringe of these events, both the narrative and the abundant illustrations in his book La France Libre de l'appel du 18 juin a la Liberation, (Gallimard, Paris 1996) reproduce the feeling of the time, while the use or archival material -- most recently from Soviet sources -- gives a depth to the narrative which could not have been fully perceived by contemporaries. It is a pity that its length probably means that it will not be translated. The story itself develops on three planes. To begin with there is the creation of the Free French movement itself out of the scattered d groups and individuals, civil and military, mainly in London but partially and with difficulty in North America. As with all emigre movements the tale is full of personal rivalries and policy disputes. With the development of internal resistance movements in France itself there are the efforts to create durable links with the London headquarters, and after the Allied invasion of French North Africa and the movement to Algiers of de Gaulle and his committee, with the reinforced authority there. This task was further complicated when, after Hitler's invasion of Russia, the Communist Party created its own internal resistance whose tactics were not always easy to reconcile with those demanded by de Gaulle's emissaries. The blending of heroism and tragedy that is the story of the entire resistance is told with feeling and in depth.

The second plane is imperial and military -- the attempts to bring France's African empire into the war at first with only limited success, and marred early on by the Dakar catastrophe; the struggle with the Vichy authorities over Syria and Lebanon and many minor episodes from the Pacific to the Caribbean. In the course of the developments `Free France' became `Fighting France', signalled by General Koenig's feat of arms at Bir Hakeim.

Finally Fighting France and the Resistance came together to assist in the liberation of the homeland itself and to make sure that France could claim a share of the credit alongside the Allied armies, in particular in the liberation of Paris. A recent exhibition at the Hotel de Ville of memorabilia from that event shows how sensitive it remains in French consciousness.

For those seeking clues to France's current problems in both the constitutional and the foreign policy domains, the third plane is the most important of all. It is the level at which one is brought face to face with de Gaulle's own vision of France's place in the world and of his own remedy for the institutional failures which he held responsible for the debacle of 1940. These matters were, of course, set out in de Gaulle's own memoirs and other writings, and subsequently in the biographies his extraordinary career inspired -- notably those by Jean Lacouture and Charles Williams. But by placing de Gaulle in the framework of his movement and of the network of personal relations that conditioned what he was able to do Cremieux-Brilhac adds a great deal.

What de Gaulle faced was a France crushed by its more powerful, military neighbour as in 1870, and ruled by a group of military men and civilians around the venerable and venerated Marshal Petain, who increasingly accepted the idea of permanent subordination to Germany, and whose hopes were that France would be accepted as the most useful and collaborationist of the nations of German-dominated Western Europe. …

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