Charles de Gaulle was a French general and statesman who led the Free French Forces during World War II. After the war, he founded the French Fifth Republic in 1958. The next year, de Gaulle became its first president for an entire decade. He is considered by many to be the most influential leader in modern French history.
At the outbreak of World War II, de Gaulle was only a colonel, having antagonised the leaders of the military through the 1920s and 1930s with his bold views. Initially commanding a tank regiment in the French Fifth Army, de Gaulle implemented many of his theories and tactics for armoured warfare against an enemy whose strategies resembled his own.
After the German breakthrough at Sedan on 15 May 1940 he was given command of the improvised 4e Division cuirassée. Two days later, de Gaulle attacked German tank forces at Montcornet with 200 tanks but no air support. Although de Gaulle’s tanks forced the German infantry to retreat to Caumont, the action brought only temporary relief and did little to slow the spearhead of the German advance. Nevertheless, it was one of the few successes the French enjoyed while suffering defeats elsewhere across the country. In recognition of his efforts, de Gaulle was promoted to acting brigadier general on 24 May, a rank he would hold for the rest of his life.
On 5 June, Prime Minister Paul Reynaud appointed de Gaulle Under Secretary of State for National Defence and War and put him in charge of coordination with the United Kingdom. As a junior member of the French government (but the most senior French military officer), he unsuccessfully opposed surrender, advocating instead that the government remove itself to North Africa and carry on the war as best it could from France’s African colonies.
De Gaulle learned that Marshal Pétain had become prime minister and was planning to seek an armistice with Nazi Germany. General and other allied officers rebelled against the new French government. On the morning of 17 June, de Gaulle and a few senior French officers flew to Britain with 100,000 gold francs in secret funds provided to him by the ex-prime minister Paul Reynaud. Narrowly escaping the Luftwaffe, he landed safely in London that afternoon and gave a famous radio address, broadcast by the BBC the following day, exhorting the French people to resist Nazi Germany. Later he organised the Free French Forces with exiled French officers in Britain.
After the war he founded his own political party, the Rally of the French People (RPF). Although retired from politics after the RPF’s election failure, he was voted back to power as prime minister during the May 1958 crisis. During his term, de Gaulle faced political opposition from Communists and Socialists, as well as from the far right.
De Gaulle led the writing of a new constitution founding the Fifth Republic, and was elected President of France, an office which now held much greater power than in the Third and Fourth Republics. As President, Charles de Gaulle ended the political chaos that preceded his return to power.
Immensely patriotic, de Gaulle and his supporters held the view, known as Gaullism, that France should continue to see itself as a major power and should not rely on other nations – like the US – for its national security and prosperity. Often criticised for his Politics of Grandeur, de Gaulle oversaw the development of French atomic weapons and promoted a foreign policy independent of the U.S. and British influences.
Despite having been re-elected as president, in mid 1960s, in May 1968 de Gaulle appeared likely to lose power amidst widespread protests by students and workers, but survived the crisis with an increased majority in the National Assembly. However, he resigned in 1969 after losing a referendum in which he proposed more decentralization.