When Charles de Gaulle Crossed the Rubicon

Eighty years ago, France suffered perhaps the greatest humiliation in its history. Between May and June 1940, France was brought to its knees by a German Wehrmacht which achieved in just 43 days what the Kaiser’s army hadn’t been able to realize in four years.

Perhaps even more shocking was how swiftly France’s leaders adjusted to their new circumstances. Seventeen days after France signed an armistice with Germany, its National Assembly effectively dissolved the Third Republic and granted full powers to the Great War hero, Marshal Philippe Pétain. On October 30, 1940, Vichy France’s slow slide into collaboration with Hitler’s regime became official when Pétain declared on the radio, “I enter today on the path of collaboration.” 27 days earlier, Vichy had enacted the first of several anti-Semitic laws, a legal process that culminated in French officials helping to deport Jews to death camps in the East.

Notwithstanding postwar myths, there’s little doubt that France was overwhelmingly behind Pétain well into 1941. As awareness that Germany might not win the war grew, and its occupation of France became harsher, organized resistance spread. But those who chose to resist from the beginning were pitifully small in number. Those who put everything at risk—career, family, reputation—were even fewer.

Everyone’s life involves free choices which turn out to be decisive for everything else they do. June 18, 1940, was the day in which an obscure French general made such a choice by delivering a 360 word broadcast on the BBC. What became known as L’appel du 18 juin was the personal Rubicon of Charles de Gaulle. Nothing would be the same for him or France again.

Not an Unknown

Though de Gaulle’s broadcast was the first time that he spoke directly to the French nation, it did not mark his entry into public life. During the 1930s, de Gaulle had pursued a concerted campaign to prepare his country for the threat emanating from a resurgent Germany. On one level, that involved writing articles and books like Vers l’Armée de Métier [Towards a Professional Army] (1934). This called for the development of a professional armored force as the spearhead of France’s army. While attracting praise from across the political spectrum, the book drew criticism from the radical left. That is partly because it remained suspicious of conservative Catholic career officers like de Gaulle whom many of France’s left regarded as hostile to the Republic. But the left also saw de Gaulle’s proposal to professionalize much of the army as contrary to the Revolutionary tradition of a conscript levée en masse.

De Gaulle’s attempts at persuasion also involved joining an influential Parisian intellectual circle which gravitated around a retired Jewish army officer, Émile Mayer. He had been forced into retirement in 1899 for defending another Jewish officer, Captain Alfred Dreyfus, who had been wrongly convicted of treason in the 1890s. Mayer’s group included journalists, liberals, intellectuals, socialists, and non-conformists, many of whom were well-positioned to shape policy and public opinion.

Nor did de Gaulle hesitate to lobby politicians directly. He was as willing to speak to Léon Blum, also Jewish and who became France’s first Socialist prime minister in 1936, as he was to the market liberal and conservative anti-appeasement politician, Paul Reynaud. It was the latter, when serving as prime minister between March and June 1940, who appointed de Gaulle Under-Secretary of State for War on June 5 as the full scale of the disaster engulfing France became evident.

De Gaulle spent the eleven days between June 5 and June 16 fighting a losing battle against defeatists in the Council of Ministers, including his former patron, Marshal Pétain. De Gaulle also undertook trips to London for consultations with the British government and had long arguments with the French army’s commander-in-chief, General Maxime Weygand, who was convinced that an armistice was inevitable. De Gaulle realized the game was up when Reynaud resigned on June 16 and Pétain was appointed prime minister with a mandate to seek terms with Germany.

What de Gaulle did next was extraordinary and, in one sense, totally out of character. Though already well-known for his independence of mind, de Gaulle’s entire social, military and religious background was one which venerated authority, discipline, and hierarchy. Instead, however, of accepting the pro-armistice ministers’ victory, he boarded a plane to London with his aide-de-camp, Lieutenant Geoffroy Chodron de Courcel, and a British general, Edward Spears, on the morning of June 17. He took with him two suitcases, 100,000 francs given to him by Reynaud, keys to a London apartment, and only a vague idea where his family was.

That same day, Pétain addressed the country stating that he was going to seek an armistice with Germany. Upon arriving in London, de Gaulle met with Winston Churchill who assented to de Gaulle’s request to make his own broadcast over the BBC airwaves. The British cabinet agreed, but only after some significant lobbying. Britain had, after all, not yet severed ties with the French government. Giving de Gaulle a platform was thus a risk. But taking risks was swiftly becoming the order of the day.

The Unforgettable Speech That Few Heard

De Gaulle spent the morning of June 18 drafting his remarks for the broadcast. Perhaps he realized that he could not assume that he would have regular access to the BBC. In any case, he was determined to get his points across as succinctly as possible. At 6:00pm London time, de Gaulle arrived at the BBC to record his speech. It lasted just four minutes. The BBC broadcast his remarks at 8:00pm Paris time.

The speech was rebroadcast on several occasions in the next 24 hours. Hardly anyone in France, however, heard it. The BBC didn’t even preserve the actual recording. But what mattered was not that the broadcast had been heard. Its importance lay in the fact that someone had made such a speech at such a time.

De Gaulle’s address did three things. First, it analyzed what had befallen France. In de Gaulle’s view, it was the failure to take seriously developments in military technology and strategy which had rendered the French army seriously unprepared for modern war. For those few in the know, this was a pointed criticism of France’s military and political leadership—including Pétain. They had neglected to fulfill their most basic responsibility to defend the country from foreign aggression. But this also implied that France’s defeat was not the result of some fundamental flaw on the French people’s part.

Second, de Gaulle offered hope and a way forward. Yes, a catastrophe had befallen France, but it need not be a lasting defeat. “Because France is not alone! She is not alone! She is not alone!” he repeated. It possessed, de Gaulle reminded listeners, a vast colonial empire from which war against Germany and Italy might be waged. Moreover, Britain and its even bigger empire was still in the fight. Most of all, de Gaulle stressed, there was the great and yet untapped industrial power of America. In short, he was urging his listeners to look at the lost struggle in France from a global perspective. “This war is not,” de Gaulle said, “decided by the Battle of France. This war is a world war.” These words amounted to asking everyone—especially those French soldiers and civilians disinclined to surrender but struggling to envisage other options—to think strategically and outside continental European horizons.

In the face of prodigious odds and at enormous personal risk, he chose to defend the honor of his country. For that alone, France and the free world will always be in his debt.

Third, and most crucially, de Gaulle’s appel had a moral core to it. We find this in the second last sentence. “Whatever happens,” de Gaulle said, “the flame of the French resistance must not be extinguished and will not be extinguished.”

It’s worth contemplating what de Gaulle meant by “must not” and “will not.” By “must not,” de Gaulle was appealing to his compatriots’ honor. Honor is best understood here as self-respect. To give in, de Gaulle was stressing, was to lose self-respect and begin walking down what, in Vichy’s case, turned out to be a very dishonorable path indeed.

De Gaulle’s “will not” was something different. He was asking France to do what he was doing: to make free choices and to act. Wherever they were to be found, Frenchmen had the obligation to continue to fight—more precisely, to resist—an enemy with whom no compromise was possible. Words may have been the only weapons that de Gaulle had at his disposal on June 18, but he made every one of them count.

Enduring Legitimacy

De Gaulle’s address concluded with the seemingly casual remark: “Tomorrow, as today, I will speak on Radio London.” On the surface, this has a matter-of-fact quality to it. But we should recall that the British government had not granted de Gaulle permission to deliver any more addresses on the BBC. It had not even accorded him recognition, let alone a regular broadcasting spot. In fact, de Gaulle had no formal status in Britain’s eyes until June 28 when Churchill described him as “Leader of the Free French wherever they might be.” The previous day, the French government ordered de Gaulle to return home to answer accusations of disobedience. His refusal to do so marked the point of no-return.

De Gaulle’s statement that he would be back on the radio the following day was the beginning of his long struggle to put flesh on the bones of what resistance meant. For the next four years, that resistance often seemed more directed at de Gaulle’s allies than Germany. Indeed, it took time for actual Frenchmen to rally to his call for resistance. By July 1940, only 7,000 Frenchmen had enlisted in his cause.

Certainly, those who did came from often quite different backgrounds. They ranged from the Catholic nobleman and conservative army officer, Philippe Leclerc de Hauteclocque (a future marshal of France), to the left-leaning and pacifist-inclined French Jewish jurist, René Cassin (a future Nobel Prize winner and drafter of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights). That said, it took a long time before most Frenchmen rallied to de Gaulle. Even today, you can find apologists for Vichy.

Despite these obstacles, de Gaulle never doubted the unique legitimacy he acquired as the first French leader to insist publicly that there were alternatives—far more honorable alternatives—to an armistice with Nazi Germany. For the rest of his life, de Gaulle would invoke this legitimacy during crises. Whether it involved replacing the tottering Fourth Republic in 1958, or refusing to buckle before radical Marxists trying to plunge France into chaos in May 1968, no-one could forget that de Gaulle had been the first to say “no” to dishonor and “yes” to resistance. When de Gaulle gave his dramatic televised address of April 23, 1961, as he faced down army officers attempting a putsch to preserve France’s sovereignty over Algeria, he wore his general’s uniform for a reason. It was all about conjuring up the unique status which June 18 had conferred upon him: something possessed by no-one else.

In many ways, Charles de Gaulle was a notoriously difficult man. While remarkably prescient about the future, de Gaulle also badly misread some situations throughout his public career. His treatment of others, including close collaborators, sometimes verged on the brutal. But on June 18, 1940, de Gaulle did something spectacular. In the face of prodigious odds and at enormous personal risk, he chose to defend the honor of his country. For that alone, France and the free world will always be in his debt.

Reader Discussion

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on June 18, 2020 at 08:02:01 am

I would add a contrarian view to Gregg's essay: Charles de Gaulle was of no military consequence to the Allies yet was a military thorn in the side of Eisenhower and Montgomery in North Africa. Thereafter de Gaulle was a diplomatic thorn in the side of Churchill and FDR as he insisted on being accorded a role in decision-making as if he were important, which he was not, and he insisted on receiving both the status of the leader of France and of France being treated as a great power, even though he was not the leader of France and even though France was definitely not a great power.

In fact de Gaulle had nothing of consequence to do with defeating Nazi Germany even in occupied France, yet in the victory parade de Gaulle was allowed to enter Paris first and he pretended to be the liberator of Paris. This charade in deference to de Gaulle's hubris was not merely to the great chagrin of General Patton, it was an act humiliation for the men of Patton's heroic Third Army which in fact drove the Nazis out of Paris and liberated much of France. Thanks for that Charlie!

And de Gaulle led France in its imperialist military disasters in Indochina, its defeat at Dien Bien Phu and France's exit from its crumbling, obdurate Indochina empire, only to be replaced, at de Gaulle's urging, with Eisenhower's small commitment, which became JFK's larger commitment, which became LBJ's out-of-control Vietnam War. Thanks a lot Charlie!

As for French statesmen, while de Gaulle was a soi-disant role model, he was a role model nobody followed. Since the Age of de Gaulle the nation has been led by hollow men, socialists like Mitterrand or quislings like Macron. Indeed, 20th century France is a reflection of its mediocre leadership. Except for de Gaulle's moments of self-induced moments of rhetorical pride, France with or without de Gaulle has been a shamed and shameful nation more often than not and has little to be proud of except its great art films of the 1960's. Even Paris today, while still beautiful in its grand center of history, architecture and art, is now blighted, surrounded and all-but swallowed by its walled-off, ethnic ghettoes of crime, poverty and racial animosity. France was once a great nation intellectually, culturally and especially artistically, if one considers its artists of the 19th and early-to-mid 20th century century, but it no longer contributes significantly to the culture or even the defense of western civilization for which it once was a great influence.
And France is a great nation politically in historic memory only and only if one looks back to Napoleon and considers the Emperor's egomania, total war, mass murder and totalitarianism as expressions of grandeur. The French still celebrate the French Revolution! "Hear no evil and see no evil in our past, but speak evil of the United States at every opportunity" might well be considered be a French motto.

Gregg concludes his paean to de Gaulle: "In the face of prodigious odds and at enormous personal risk, he chose to defend the honor of his country. For that alone, France and the free world will always be in his debt."

But for the so-called honor of that single act, ostensibly an act of personal courage, it would be an honor for de Gaulle alone, a personal act which cannot be viewed as one of honor or redemption for the French people or their nation. Why in the world would Gregg say something as grandiloquently ridiculous as "the free world will always be in his debt"?

Other than serving in November, 1963 as a physically-imposing, uniformed, photogenic, military stage prop in JFK's funeral parade down Pennsylvania Avenue, I fail to see what all the fuss about de Gaulle is about.

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on June 18, 2020 at 09:56:56 am

I pretty much grant you most if not all of your contrarian view of de Galle, but it seems like the fundamental point you missed was that by God's grace someone was given the courage LOUDLY to say NO to collaboration with the vile Nazi godless with delusions of godhood, something cowardly traitor Pétain didn't have, and Churchill in his dire straits recognized and needed that voice despite the tremenedous cost of all the frustration of de Gaulle's incessant arrogance and hubris. I've rarely been able to question the immeasurably great Churchill's WWII decisions, and even when I have I've always presumed there was something I missed to prove him right.
I'm really unimpressed by Monday-morning quarterbacking amazingly close to a century later by those in comfy chairs with no skin in the game whose country and counrtrymen weren't destroyed by vile Nazi butchering barbarism, and so have no real, gripping understanding informing the contrarianism.

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Russ Davis
on June 18, 2020 at 08:36:09 am

De Gaulle’s great insight was that there was no compromise possible with evil. Although most of the original Petainists were honest patriots - there’s a French book about early Vichy called 40 Million Petainists - they soon found out that the Nazis would exact a heavy moral price before making the slightest concession.

And I disagree with the first comment. de Gaulle’s military contribution was indeed negligible. His annoyances to the Anglophones were both severe & frequent. But at the end of the war his resistance gave him the moral authority needed to keep Stalin from taking over France.

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Martin Adamson
on June 18, 2020 at 12:07:21 pm

I accept and certainly did not overlook the fact that de Gaulle said "no" to the collaboration government and that his voice of resistance was an inspiration to the French resistance. Saying "no" by radio and while abroad took little courage as an act of resistance but great political insight as to how the war was likely to end (although I do not in the least doubt de Gaulle's patriotic motives.) I also do not talk as a Monday-morning quarterback since I am quite aware (by history not by personal experience) of the Nazi barbarism everywhere the Nazis touched ground, including France, but most especially in Poland, Ukraine and Russia. Resistance was everywhere, and in most occupied countries far greater than in France. As far as Stalin taking France that was never a possibility after Normandy, albeit the French Communist Party made lots of post-war noise which was largely silenced not by de Gaulle's supposed moral courage but by the Marshall Plan which gave France 18% of its European expenditures.

My essential point is that de Gaulle was not a Solzhenitsyn nor a Churchill nor an FDR nor a Marshall, and it is sheer romanticism that would say "the free world will always be in his debt."

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on June 18, 2020 at 12:37:15 pm

paladin is quite correct in distinguishing the 'courage" of a "radio-talk show host" such as Le grande Charles from the innumerable actual resistance fighters, supported almost totally by British special Services operatives who risked, and in many instances forfeited their lives to oppose the utter brutality / beastiality of the Nazis.
DeGaulle may be better likened to what we commenters here at LLB do:
Decry the evil and stupidity of the world, some of whom, probably not unlike DeGaulle (and myself, have been known to sip a fine vintage of red wine while issuing rhetorical fussilades against the enemy.

I would attribute greater courage (and common sense) to Eisenhower, who realizing that the US was not prepared nor willing to occupy post-War France recognized that DeGaulle could serve as a serviceable bridge to normalcy.
And of course, the "debt" to Gen Marshall is far greater debt owed by Europe than is the debt owed to DeGaulle who himself FAILED to recognize the debt HE OWED to the US.

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on June 18, 2020 at 14:13:53 pm

Comments about de Gaulle’s personal courage are grossly unfair - if Britain had surrendered, as they might have, he would have gone to the gallows. There were many instances throughout his life where de Gaulle showed extraordinary calmness under fire.

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Martin Adamson
on June 18, 2020 at 14:42:20 pm

I would note, however, that while de Gaulle was not a Solzhenitsyn nor a Churchill nor an FDR nor a Marshall (nor an Eisenhower,) neither was he a Judas Iscariot nor a Petain nor a John Roberts. He had the courage not to collaborate with the enemies of liberty.

And yes, Democrats, you have found your Anthony Kennedy redux.

I find it a mystery how the lawyer whom I heard Antonin Scalia dub the best Supreme Court advocate he had seen turns out to have such legacy- crippling legal flaws: Roberts fails to understand the difference between a tax and a penalty; he fails to grasp elementary principles of administrative law (that repeal of a rule which was adopted unlawfully with no administrative procedure need not follow the procedures of the APA,) and he lacks the advocacy skills necessary to persuade his best and brightest colleagues of the correctness of his aberrant legal analysis.
It would seem that Roberts aspires to join William Brennan's ranks among Harvard Law's legally-dullest, most politically-progressive famous graduates.

The Congress and the Court are a lost cause; the media and journalism are fake news co-conspirators of the Democrat Party, the military has been so co-opted that its most senior active and retired officers now sound like Burt Reynolds in Seven Days in May, the institutions of intelligence-gathering, criminal investigation and criminal prosecution are corrupted, and local law enforcement, police protection and penal detention are collapsing before our eyes.
Truly, "the center does not hold."

Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide.
Except with the fearless fighter, Donald Trump, and his loveable, undaunted deplorables.

We may lose the war but not yet.
And if it was meant to be that this greatest of nations should fail, when that moment arrives, as the Hollywood Moses said, "You'll have to pry (the constitution) from my cold, dead hands."

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on June 18, 2020 at 16:21:45 pm

I do not argue that the great man lacked great courage. But what did he do in WWII that required courage? In WWII uncommon valor was common where it counted, under fire, which he was not. He chose not to collaborate and fled to safety.

Had England surrendered before December 12, 1941 de Gaulle would certainly not have hanged except, perhaps, around the White House waiting for VE Day.

Adams, Franklin, Jefferson etc. faced the certainty of a public hanging. de Gaulle did not face a serious threat of execution, ever. Nor did Albert Lebrun.

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on June 20, 2020 at 16:05:05 pm

So, if I understand this article and its Rubicon analogy correctly, de Gaulle crossed the metaphorical Rubicon (actually British channel) in reverse of what Caesar did - he fled in resistance to rule over his home country and Vichy France's collaboration with the Nazis. de Gaulle went into a sort of self-imposed exile hoping that the prospect of his return would galvanize the resistance. Jesus went into the wilderness and then returned to Israel under occupation by the Romans. Napoleon went into exile in St. Helena. French King Louis Phillippe I went into exile in Britain. Napoleon III also fled to Britain. Put differently, the Rubicon metaphor is not apt. Conversely, Caesar crossing the Rubicon River precipitated the Roman Civil War.

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Wayne Lusvardi
on June 21, 2020 at 12:51:22 pm

“ He had the courage not to collaborate with the enemies of liberty.”

It appears there is no safe haven for our Holy Father, Benedict from the Judas Iscariots Of The World.



Come Holy Ghost! Protect our Pope. May Our Blessed Mother Mary, Destroyer Of All Heresy, Who, Through Her Fiat, Affirmed The Filioque, Intercede for us Through Her Immaculate Heart

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on November 09, 2020 at 03:07:01 am

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