DE GAULLE: THE REBEL 1890-1944; by Jean Lacouture; translated by Patrick O'Brian; W.W. Norton; 615 pages; $29.95
Make no mistake: This is biography in the French grand manner, an intense, glittering portrayal of the greatest and most controversial Frenchman since Napoleon. Reading it, however, is like gorging on a second souffle. Its very richness, high drama and passionate Gaullism may defy American appetites - precisely as de Gaulle did himself.Jean Lacouture enjoys a deserved reputation, first as a journalist for Le Monde, and then as a biographer of Andre Malraux, Leon Blum and other political and intellectual figures. He experienced the German occupation and has been close to great events and their creators ever since. He writes from the heart about that great turning point in recent French history, the vicious quarrel between Vichy and the Resistance.
Lacouture is writing for readers who feel those terrible days as he did, who already know that the famous Jean Moulin's cover name was "Max," who - unlike the rest of us - will not confuse the FTP with the FFI, or the SOE with the OSS, and who are less concerned with facts than with interpretation and assessment. And, certainly they will devour his denunciations of the Anglo-Americans, Roosevelt above all, for treating "The Hero" so brusquely. Be forewarned: Lacouture's grand rhetoric makes few concessions to mundane questions of precisely what happened, where, when and especially why.
Nevertheless, he makes it all come alive, as
most academic historians do not, by focusing on de Gaulle, his hopes, ideas, often brilliant political insights - and often absurd arrogance and contentiousness.
Or so the standard accounts would have it. Lacouture contends that de Gaulle was always and inevitably contentious, a rebel from boyhood onward who saw his destiny in grand and sweeping terms.
Consider, therefore, "The Hero" who, having broken out of military obscurity at age 50 with the defeat of France, fled to a Britain both loved and hated, battled ceaselessly against friend and foe alike, and finally emerged victorious in August 1944 as he led a huge procession through liberated Paris.
De Gaulle both impressed and irritated close observers, particularly those Anglo-Americans who dismissed him merely as an anachronism, a potential man on horseback. He later wrote about June 1940, "At that moment, the worst in her history, it was for me to assume the country's fate, to take France upon myself."
That this caused raised eyebrows in London and Washington is overlooked by Lacouture: It recalled Marshall Petain's public "gift of his person" to shield conquered France from danger. De Gaulle knew Petain well, having been a ghostwriter for him in the 1920s and having quarreled with him in the 1930s over the army's use of tanks - but were they so far apart in personal style and political thinking?
The question was often raised in Washington, but not simply - as Lacouture (who virtually ignores the relevant American scholarship) would have it - because Roosevelt disliked de Gaulle. The French collapse of 1940, following on weak-kneed French politics in the 1930s, turned the global balance of forces upside down, exposing everyone to Nazi conquest. Terrible words like "decadent" or even "degenerate" were thrown at France.
De Gaulle, a traditional-minded officer distrusted by most liberal French exiles, hardly seemed the fresh, democratic voice that could stir the French to arms.
The irony is that de Gaulle was hardly a would-be dictator. But his manner, his occasional words and some of his subordinates all suggested just the opposite. De Gaulle didn't realize this; neither does Lacouture.