Commentary Magazine

The Trial of Charles de Gaulle, by Alfred Fabre-Luce; and A Modern French Republic, by Pierre Mendes-France

De Gaulle and After

The Trial of Charles de Gaulle.
by Alfred Fabre-Luce.
Translated by Antonia White. Praeger. 270 pp. $4.95.

A Modern French Republic.
by Pierre Mendès-France.
Translated by Anne Carter. Hill & Wang. 192 pp. $3.95.

Both these books—one a political fiction, the other a political blueprint—deal ostensibly with the future. The first looks forward to an unspecified date when General de Gaulle, having fallen from power, is brought before the French Senate, sitting as a court, to be tried for crimes against the state. The second starts from the assumption that the Gaullist regime can be no more than an interlude in French history, an accident associated with the General’s personality, and must inevitably be followed by some new system that all good democrats should be busy working out here and now. However, only Mendès-France is really thinking about the future. Fabre-Luce is supposing a future collapse in order, once again, to rake over the unsatisfactory embers of the past. He could have little or no place, for instance, in Mendès-France’s vision of the new republic. Nor has he any vision of his own; as an unrepentant Petainist, he is committed to a perpetual reassessment of the war years, because he refuses to be put on the scrap-heap of history. Those moments of supreme choice are now fading into the distance, but Fabre-Luce repolishes his arguments to show that the options he preferred, although perhaps strategically wrong, were intellectually and morally justified. As one might expect, “The Trial of Charles de Gaulle” is also “The Defense of Alfred Fabre-Luce.”

The book is banned in France, much to the delight, I imagine, of Fabre-Luce himself. I had the pleasure of reading it in Paris in 1962, at Christmas, and I must say it was rather fun to be handed the precious volume, wrapped in a newspaper, in the entrance hall of a hotel and then to return it, again by hand, to a secretary sitting in a little back room in a street significantly named rue Monsieur le Prince. The ban was a comic blunder on the part of the Gaullist authorities; as Fabre-Luce himself pointed out in an interview, all the criticisms he makes of the President have been voiced at some time or other in the French press. And—what is more interesting—the book can be read as a grudging tribute to de Gaulle by someone who, in slightly different circumstances, might very well have been on his side.

De Gaulle is not humiliated in the book; he is represented as refusing to utter a word, since he considers himself to be above all such contingencies. Fabre-Luce has even been criticized by anti-Gaullists for ending the story just before the Court pronounces its verdict; his hesitation probably arises not from chicken-heartedness but from a genuine uncertainty about his attitude toward the General.



The indictment, although very wittily expressed, is on familiar lines. Going back to the beginnings of de Gaulle’s fame, Fabre-Luce argues that the General’s reputation as a military expert is based on misunderstandings. He was in favor of tank warfare, but did not foresee the combination of tanks and dive-bombers which accounted for the German success. He wanted to create une redoute bretonne, i.e. to defend Brittany against the German invader—a policy which, if it had been accepted, would have led to still greater disaster. His famous saying: “France has lost a battle; France has not lost the war” was borrowed from Duff Cooper. The one expedition entirely under his control—the attack on Dakar—was a complete failure. The whole creation of the Free French Movement was of doubtful value because it split the French nation, whereas Petain’s armistice gave the Allies a valuable breathing space and inveigled Hitler into making a mistake.

De Gaulle’s postwar maneuvering and resignation are hardly mentioned; Fabre-Luce jumps almost directly to the circumstances of the return to power in 1958, and here, of course, he has little difficulty in showing how the General, with extraordinary skill, played one side against the other and was carried back to the Elysée through the combined efforts of mortal enemies, all of whom thought he was their man. Ultimately, de Gaulle owes his return to the supporters of l’Algérie Française, who were willing to risk civil war for their cause and to whom he gave definite encouragement. He has betrayed them and, by granting independence to Algeria, has signed away part of the national territory he was more or less pledged to defend. He is a monster of self-centered pride, who is prepared to make any sacrifice to his bloated ego.

This is all true enough but, as one reads the book, different conclusions can appear almost equally true. De Gaulle may have been wrong about technicalities, but his stand, as a symbol of resistance, was no doubt an essential element in the Allied war effort, whatever the confusion he made between the French nation and his own personality. His tactical duplicity in the months and years preceding his return to power in 1958 is undeniable; can he be blamed for it, when he himself has repeatedly stated that such duplicity is an essential weapon of the statesman? He must be given credit for using his unique personal position to bring the Algerian War to an end, while avoiding civil strife. For him, political action is an expression of his megalomania, yet, to do him justice, one must admit that he has progressed. From his early writings, he could have been expected to develop in the direction of the unintelligent, semi-fascist Right, and this is precisely the part of French opinion that he has at once flattered and defeated. Fabre-Luce, although he is on the Right too, cannot be called unintelligent, and it is clear that he senses, with something approaching admiration, how complex a figure Charles de Gaulle is.



It is nevertheless obvious that the personal rule of one man, whether he is complex or not, is no substitute for the normal “breathing” of a country through its representative organs. France had difficulty with her breathing, so her democratic lungs were collapsed and General de Gaulle’s ample chest is left to swell for the whole nation. While accepting this situation a shade too lightly, almost as if it were a kind of accidental lull a country is entitled to from time to time, M. Mendès-France is concerned to take advantage of it to sketch out a plan for the new France which should follow de Gaulle’s withdrawal from public life and which will be neither like the Gaullist regime nor like the France of the Fourth Republic. His proposals are based on the impressions he collected during a tour of France in 1961, when he discussed the nation’s problems with some hundreds of individuals in all walks of life. He examines each department of the national activity and makes rational suggestions for its improvement. His most important proposal, no doubt, is that centralized economic planning should be carried much further, though with far greater flexibility in regional development.

I can find nothing to quarrel with in the book, as a statement of aims; it is lucid, unprejudiced, all-embracing. Why, then, should it be rather depressing? The reason probably is that it has the brightness and slickness of a confident academic exercise. De Gaulle is in power through a welter of all-too-human psychological causes; Mendès-France devotes part of the leisure thus provided to writing a neo-Cartesian discourse on the ideal political arrangement of the country, but has little or nothing to say about the viscous density of human psychology which governs all political change. He showed considerable political realism during his short spell as Prime Minister; it is a pity there is no detailed realism in this book to give us genuine hope for the future.



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