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The General: Charles de Gaulle and the France He Saved

Malcolm Crook reads a fascinating biography of Charles de Gaulle

Published: October 21, 2011 at 8:18 am
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Reviewed by: Malcolm Crook
Author: Jonathan Fenby
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Price (RRP): £9.99


Jonathan fenby’s biography of de Gaulle was garlanded with richly deserved laurels when it was published in hardback last year. It is a blockbuster, as befits the general.

It is well researched and a delight to read, brimful of fascinating insights into an extraordinary individual and the nation he served for much of the 20th century. Fenby is a seasoned writer on contemporary history and his most recent outing was the hugely enjoyable On the Brink: The Trouble with France.

Since the revolution of 1789 the French have frequently turned to a saviour at moments of crisis and Charles de Gaulle, who can be located in the Bonapartist tradition, rescued France not just once, in 1940, but again in 1958. In the first instance it was from the ignominy of accommodation with Hitler’s Germany and, in the second, from the Algerian imbroglio.

Cast aside following the liberation, this self-appointed man of destiny craved a further opportunity to assert the greatness of France. On his return to power he founded the strongly presidential Fifth Republic that constitutes his enduring legacy, before proceeding to lead the country for the following decade.

In recounting this epic tale, Fenby errs somewhat on the side of generosity, though he is not uncritical, especially as regards the general’s lack of personal graces.

Conversely, the politicians and parties de Gaulle so deeply despised are given rather short shrift, while the ageing and increasingly aloof ‘grand Charles’ should be subject to greater scrutiny for his inept response to the disorderly events of May 1968.

De Gaulle survived this setback, but the aura of indispensability was shattered and he resigned just a year later. Even so, opinion polls rate him the historical personage most revered by the French people and this excellent study shows why.

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Malcolm Crook, professor of French history, Keele University
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