Five things you never knew about France’s Charles de Gaulle

Tuesday marks 51 years since former French president Charles de Gaulle died, and politicians from across the political spectrum will be paying homage. Here's what you need to know about the wartime leader, and why he is still important.

Five things you never knew about France's Charles de Gaulle
General Charles de Gaulle. All photos: AFP

Undoubtedly France’s best-known president, de Gaulle is a name that still crops up in the political discourse.

The anniversary of his death is marked with ceremonies and wreath-laying in Colombey-les-deux-Eglises, the small village in eastern France where he is buried, and politicians including Prime Minister Jean Castex and many of the hopefuls for the 2022 presidential elections will be there.

His name is frequently evoked in political debate too, although there seems to be no limits on who can ‘claim’ his political legacy, like the Bible his message can be interpreted how you want it.

The actual heirs of his party politics, however, are the centre-right Les Républicains, currently wrangling over their choice of candidate for next year’s presidential bid.  

He spoke fluent German

Born in Lille in 1890, the young Charles learnt German at school and spent summer holidays in Germany, further cementing his fluency.

His linguistic abilities came in handy later on in life when as a WWI soldier he was wounded and captured by the German army, who held him as a prisoner of war until 1918.

During his imprisonment, de Gaulle was able to inform his fellow POWs of events during the war as he read and translated the German newspapers to them.


De Gaulle had plenty of comical nicknames

French people’s love for General de Gaulle didn’t save the statesman from a whole host of funny monikers, mainly relating to his 1.95m height.

There was “The Great Asparagus” (La Grande Asperge), Double Metre and from his detractors “Fool in the Heights” (Sot en Hauteur, a play on words on saut en hauteur, the high jump in French).

Even Winston Churchill reportedly referred to the lanky military man as “Le Grand Charles” (Big Charles).

He loved the Irish

De Gaulle was proud of the literary works of his grandmother, Julien Josephine Marie, who he was partly named after (his full name was Charles André Joseph Marie de Gaulle).

Her biography of 19th century Irish nationalist Daniel O’Connell titled “The Liberator of Ireland” inspired de Gaulle throughout his life, especially regarding the Irishman’s resistance to religious and political persecution.

When de Gaulle resigned as president after losing a referendum in 1969, he packed his bags and decided to spend six weeks in Ireland, where he insisted on visiting the grave of his hero O’Connell.

De Gaulle’s uncle also wrote a book about the Celts in which he called for a union of Bretons, Scots, Irish, and Welsh people given their shared heritage, another family literary work which is thought to have further consolidated his admiration for the Irish spirit.

As if all this weren’t enough, the French statesman was descended on his mother’s side from an Irish military captain who fought the French army.

It’s fair to say that if he hadn’t been French, de Gaulle wouldn’t have minded being Irish.

He was sentenced to death for high treason by the French government

De Gaulle’s iconic 1940 BBC radio address in which he called for the French to liberate their country from Nazi occupation almost cost him his life.

A French military court sentenced de Gaulle to death in absentia for drumming up support for Free French Forces and for openly opposing Pétain’s Vichy government.

Ironically during World War I Pétain was the hero of Verdun, but during World War II he capitulated to Hitler and collaborated with the Nazis, who may well have instigated the death sentence.


De Gaulle didn’t seem to be a big fan of the US

There’s a lot of evidence to suggest that the French statesman’s relationship with his American counterparts was pretty frosty.

US President Franklin D. Roosevelt (pictured below next to de Gaulle) reportedly found him to be arrogant and cut him out of negotiations during the 1945 Yalta Conference to decide the fate of Germany and Europe post-WWII.

De Gaulle also opposed the UK joining the European Economic Community as he was worried about Britain’s strong ties to the US, and he even pulled France out of NATO in 1966 following a disagreement with the US over their conduct in the Vietnam War.

The US’s hostility towards the French leader seems to have been reciprocal.

“To many Americans de Gaulle seems to embody all that is most objectionable and reactionary in Europe,” wrote the author of a 1965 New York Times op-ed.

So did de Gaulle hate the US? Well, above all he was a staunch nationalist who felt the US didn’t have his country’s best interests at heart, but he didn’t seem to consider them an enemy.

To quote de Gaulle in a 1965 interview: “In truth, who has been America’s staunchest ally, if not France…? Should the worst happen, should the freedom of the world come under threat, who would be the most obvious allies, if not France and the United States?” 

Member comments

  1. When De Gaulle pulled France out of NATO in 1966 he insisted that all American soldiers left French soil. The US Secretary of State asked if that included the 66000 buried there.

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Prosecutors: No new rape inquiry for France’s disabilities minister

France's disabilities minister will not face a new inquiry "as things stand" over a rape allegation that surfaced just after his nomination by President Emmanuel Macron last week, prosecutors have said, citing the anonymity of the alleged victim.

Prosecutors: No new rape inquiry for France's disabilities minister

Damien Abad has faced growing pressure to resign after the news website Mediapart reported the assault claims by two women dating from over a decade ago, which he has denied.

One of the women, identified only by her first name, Margaux, filed a rape complaint in 2017 that was later dismissed by prosecutors.

The other woman, known only as Chloe, told Mediapart that in 2010 she had blacked out after accepting a glass of champagne from Abad at a bar in Paris, and woke up in her underwear in pain with him in a hotel room. She believes she may have been drugged.

She did not file an official complaint, but the Paris prosecutors’ office said it was looking into the case after being informed by the Observatory of Sexist and Sexual Violence in Politics, a group formed by members of France’s MeToo movement.

“As things stand, the Paris prosecutors’ office is not following up on the letter” from the observatory, it said, citing “the inability to identify the victim of the alleged acts and therefore the impossibility of proceeding to a hearing.”

In cases of sexual assault against adults, Paris prosecutors can open an inquiry only if an official complaint is made, meaning the victim must give their identity.

Abad has rejected the calls to resign in order to ensure the new government’s “exemplarity,” saying that he is innocent and that his own condition of arthrogryposis, which limits the movement of his joints, means sexual relations can occur only with the help of a partner.

The appointment of Abad as minister for solidarities and people with disabilities in a reshuffle last Friday was seen as a major coup for Macron, as the 42-year-old had defected from the right-wing opposition.

The new prime minister, Elisabeth Borne, said she was unaware of the allegations before Abad’s nomination, but insisted that “If there is new information, if a new complaint is filed, we will draw all the consequences.”

The claims could loom large over parliamentary elections next month, when Macron is hoping to secure a solid majority for his reformist agenda. Abad will be standing for re-election in the Ain department north of Lyon.