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|Charles De Gaulle
President of the Fifth Republic, 1958-1969
Charles André Joseph Marie De Gaulle [duh gahl'] was born in Lille, on November 22, 1890. His father, Henri, was an officer in the Franco-Prussian War, then taught philosophy, literature, and mathematics. His mother, Jeanne Maillot de Gaulle, came from a literary and military family. As a boy, Charles enjoyed reading stories of famous French battles. When he played soldiers with his friends, he always had to be "France." After studying at the College Stanislas in Paris, he served a year in the infantry. He was graduated with honors in 1911 from the St. Cyr military school.
De Gaulle was wounded four times during the First World War, and was captured at the Battle of Verdun (1916). After the war, he served with the French Army in Poland, then taught military history at St. Cyr for a year. He then held various military commands and taught at the French War College. His book The Edge of the Sword (1932) stressed the importance of powerful leadership in war. In The Army of the Future (1934), he outlined the theory of a war of movement in which tanks and other mechanized forces would be used. Ironically, his theory was largely ignored by the French military establishment, but was studied and used by the Germans during World War II.
Free French Leader
After the Germans invaded France in May 1940, De Gaulle was put in charge of one of France's four armored divisions. He was made Undersecretary for War in June, but France surrendered to Germany a few days later (June 22).
De Gaulle, now a general, refused to accept the surrender and escaped to London. He also refused to recognize the authority of Marshal Pétain, who headed the Vichy government. From London he broadcast such messages as "Soldiers of France, wherever you may be, arise!" He also organized the Free French forces in Great Britain and some of the French colonies. In September 1941, he became president of the French National Committee in London, and by 1943 the Allies had accepted him as the unquestioned leader of the "Fighting French."
De Gaulle entered Paris with the Allies in August 1944, and became head of the French Provisional Government in September. He spent the next fourteen months getting the machinery of government up and running again, but was unable to gain the support of France's left-wing parties and resigned in January, 1946.
He bitterly opposed the constitution of 1946 because it did not provide a strong executive power. In 1947 he organized a new party, the Rally of the French People (R.P.F.) to reform the constitution, but the party lost its strength after the elections of 1951 and 1956.
De Gaulle spent the next few years in semi-retirement at his country home, where he wrote his World War II memoirs and kept an eye on France's political situation.
President of the Fifth Republic
By May 1958, France was on the verge of civil war. Dissatisfied French officers, afraid they would lose the government's support against the Algerian rebels, seized power in Algiers and demanded that De Gaulle form a new government. On May 19 De Gaulle offered to take the leadership of France. Premier Pflimlin submitted his resignation to President René Coty on May 28, and in a statement issued on May 29 De Gaulle said that he would assume the premiership if "the government would receive for a fixed time the full powers necessary to act in the present ... grave situation" and if certain constitutional changes were made. De Gaulle was named Premier-designate by President Coty on May 31, and confirmed Premier by the National Assembly on June 1 by a vote of 329 to 224.
In June, he accepted President René Coty's request to form a government on the condition that he have full powers for six months. De Gaulle drew up a new constitution establishing the Fifth Republic and providing broad powers for the President, who was to be elected for seven years by an electoral college. French voters approved the plan, the electoral college chose De Gaulle as President on December 21, 1958, and he was inaugurated on January 8, 1959.
After another revolt in Algeria in 1960, President De Gaulle arrested many of the same French officers there who had initially supported him. He then negotiated with Algerian nationalist leaders, and the agreement that was signed in March 1962 ended more than seven years of bloodshed. In April 1962, at De Gaulle's urging, the French people voted, by a 10 to 1 margin, to grant independence to Algeria.
The French Assembly ousted the De Gaulle government in October 1962, but De Gaulle dissolved the Assembly. In the election that followed, De Gaulle's Union for a New Republic won an absolute majority. In a separate referedum, the voters approved De Gaulle's proposal to elect future Presidents by direct popular vote.
In January 1963, De Gaulle and West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer signed a treaty providing for political, scientific, cultural, and military cooperation. That same year he blocked Great Britain's entry into the European Economic Community. In 1964, France became the first Western power to recognize Communist China.
De Gaulle narrowly won a second seven-year term as President in 1965. In 1966, he announced his decision to withdraw French forces from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and remove NATO headquarters from France. In 1967, he again blocked Britain's entry into the Common Market.
De Gaulle maintained popular support throughout most of his presidency, despite high inflation and currency problems. In April 1969, however, his proposals for more constitutional changes were defeated in a referendum, and he resigned.
He died on November 9, 1970, after suffering a heart attack.
Charles de Gaulle married Yvonne Vendroux in 1921. The couple had a son and two daughters.
This page was last updated on February 11, 2017.