General Charles De Gaulle, France's wartime leader and later its President, will be 80 on November 22 this year.
General Charles De Gaulle, France's wartime leader and later its President, will be 80 on November 22 this year. He was the symbol of Free France in the Second World War and later came out of retirement to restore his country's international prestige and avert the threat of civil war.
Gen.De Gaulle's role was prophetically foretold by Winston Churchill in 1940, just before the French surrender, when the British war leader called him France's "man of destiny". After the war he became its most powerful Head since Napoleon 3rd.
The 6 ft, 6 inch. (1.8 metres) general has always been an enigmatic character, autocratic and the subject of endless controversy. But his intense integrity has never been questioned.
Born at Lille on November 22, 1890, he entered the St. Cyr Military Academy in 1910. There his unusual height earned him the nickname of "La Grande Asperge" (the tall asparagus). Later his political and military stature, as much as his physical height, led to his being called "Le Grand Charles".
He had an outstanding record in the First World War and was in the thick of the fighting at Verdun. During the German "blitzkrien" in the Second World War his brilliant counter-attacks with an improvised division resulted in his promotion to General on the field of battle.
After the French surrender he escaped to Britain. "France has lost a battle; she has not lost the war" he declared in a broadcast to his countrymen. He formed the Free French and refused to take a subservient role to his Allies.
When Paris was liberated he returned in triumph and was met by a hail of sniper's bullets when he went to Notre Dame for a thanksgiving service. Unperturbed, he refused to take cover.
After the war he was unanimously chosen as President of the Fourth Republic but in 1946 he resigned, saying that the conditions in which he was expected to lead the government had proved impossible.
He was in the political wilderness for many years until his hour came for the second time in 1958. After a revolt by the European settlers in Algeria following years of bloody fighting by the nationalists, he issued a declaration that he was ready to "assume the powers of the republic". He became first President of the Fifth Republic in December 1958 and he got full powers.
Despite intense opposition and open revolt by military units he granted Algeria complete independence in 1962. Other French colonial territories became independent and he succeeded in maintaining friendly links with most of them.
On the international scene he insisted on France having her own nuclear armament industry, refused all military integration inside the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), visited the Soviet Union to stimulate a growing rapprochement between East and West, and persistently blocked British attempts to enter the Common Market. He aroused antagonism by his apparent support for the separatist movement in the French speaking Canadian province of Quebec and by his sympathy for the attempt by Biafra to break away from Nigeria.
In 1969 France was hit by nation-wide strikes, industrial unrest and student revolt. The President gambled his political future on a national referendum giving him powers to introduce Senate and regional reforms. He lost and went into retirement at his home at Colombey.
Since then he has lived quietly, writing his life story. A French write has said that the general, still totally convinced of the rightness of his policies, has no intention of dying yet as he need several more years to complete his memoirs.