de Gaulle in USSR

1966 was an extraordinarily busy year for Charles de Gaulle. Re-elected the previous year, le Grand Charles had envisioned a France acting as a balancing force in the dangerous rivalry between the US and the Soviet Union. He moved away from the Atlantean foreign policy into more neutral waters by withdrawing the French commitments from NATO and demanding all foreign bases removed from French soil. In January, he scored a victory in Empty Chair Crisis, thus permanently killing off European Federalism.

In July, De Gaulle made an 11-day, 6,200 mile trip across Russia, during which he attended a Soviet satellite missile launch at Baikinour. On the other hand, he rebuffed the Soviet demands to recognize the co-existence “of the two German states”. Devoutly Catholic, he insisted on attending mass in Leningrad, and he ended his visit with a joint call for an end to foreign intervention in Vietnam, a proclamation he would echo in a famous Phnom Penh speech two months later. Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin reciprocated the visit with a grand 9-day visit to France.

De Gaulle capped the year of diplomatic frenzy with an emotional, yet controversial state visit to Poland. The first non-Communist European leader to visit Poland since the Second World War, the president who actually had led the Poles against the Soviets after the First World War was enthusiastically received. There were hails of Duzy Karolek (Long Charlie) from the youth who wore copies of the képi military cap he wore during the war. (To this day the cap is known in Poland as Degolówka). But de Gaulle angered the West Germans by visiting the once-German town of Hindenburg, which had become Zabrze, and said it was la ville la plus polonaise de la Pologne (the most Polish town in Poland).

Elliot Erwitt was the only American photographer covering de Gaulle’s visit. His photo of the General and the Soviet Presidium in the most casual of settings indeed made the cover of Paris Match and was published worldwide. He remembered the curious affair:

“I was there at the French Embassy with all the other dozens of photographers taking the usual handshaking pictures and when it was all over I went back to my hotel and took my shoes off and suddenly thought I should not have left. So I put my shoes on again and went back to the Embassy. There were only a few people still there, the event was over, so I just walked in and opened a few doors and then opened one door and there was the entire Soviet government sitting down with de Gaulle and chatting. Nobody looked up so I just walked in with my camera and started taking pictures. They didn’t question my presence because I acted natural. Noboday said anything and after a while I got up and left. It is very important to know when to leave. No one took any notice. I went back to my hotel and called Paris Match, who could hardly believe it. They broke their cover waiting for my pictures.”

Gatecrashing the Liberation

26th August 1944. The Liberation of Paris. From left to right, Georges Bidault, head of the Conseil National de la Résistance; General Charles de Gaulle; de Gaulle’s personal aide, Alexandre Parodi. And who is on the right of Parodi? Wearing both civilian and military clothes and his arm in a sling was a gatecrasher, one George Dukson.

The 22-year old minor hero of the Resistance assumed that he had as much right to be there as anyone else, and pushed his way into the parade to the place of honor, and remained there until the guards led him off the parade at gun point. There were a lot of incidents like this one on that fateful day when everyone tried to bask in the radiance of de Gaulle and the liberated nation. De Gaulle himself reflected in his memoirs: “Some people with minor walk-on roles joined the cortege of my comrades, even though they had no right to. But no one paid them any attention.”

However Dukson had been one of the few black people on the demonstration, and this incident was singled out as a symbol of injustice the black people received. De Gaulle wanted to lead the Allied forces’ entry into Paris himself with his own troops, and the Allies agreed to this on one condition: the liberation should be seen as a “whites only” victory, despite the fact that many blacks indeed fought in Europe during WWII. When the actual liberation came, the shortage of white troops meant that many liberators were Spanish, and some were North Africans and Syrians.

As France’s West African Tirailleurs Senegalais, despite forming 65% of Free French Forces and dying in large numbers, they didn’t receive heroes’ welcome in Paris. Many were simply stripped of their uniforms and sent home and in 1959 their pensions were frozen.

De Gaulle in Ireland


In 1969, General Charles De Gaulle, the retired President of France visited Ireland. The great Anglophobe was descended from the Irish clan of McCartan on his mother’s side and had a keen interest in Irish history. He fulfilled a lifetime ambition to visit Ireland in 1969. It was on the anniversary of L’Appel du 18 Juin (Appeal of June 18), de Gaulle’s famous speech from London that the war was not yet over with the fall of France. It was de Gaulle’s first visit abroad as a simple French citizen.

On 19th June, De Gaulle invited many McCartans from County Down to a reception in Árus an Uachtaráin–the Presidential Residence at Dublin–where he also met with the Irish President Eamon De Valera. De Gaulle commented to Valera that in Ireland, he saw what he looked for right in front of him. (“J’ai trouvé ici ce que je cherchais : être en face de moi-même.”). The above photo was taken by André Lefebvre.

Dans Les Portraits des Presidents



The official portraits of French officials are an integral part of a long tradition. In Dans Le Portrait du roi (1981), Louis Marin analyzes the practices of representation of power under Louis XIV, whose celebrated portrait by Rigaud provides a model to be imitated by many rulers.

The first President of the Republic to adopt the photographic portrait is Adolphe Thiers in 1871; with full dress, a neutral background, a classical pose, the formal looking president rests his hand on a stack of books. His successor, René Coty, was the only president during the Fourth Republic to smile.

With the portrait of Charles de Gaulle, color and modernity arrived, but he revived the portraiture’s traditionalist roots too. His choice of the library inside the Elysees Palace also started a tradition followed by most presidents of the Fifth Republic. But not Valéry Giscard d’Estaing. VGE’s 1974 photo, taken by Jacques-Henri Lartigue, is now in the MoMA in New York. It was the first time that the portrait of French head of state is taken by a renowned artist. When d’Estaing asked Lartigue, Lartigue replied that he was not an official photographer; d’Estaing stated that was why he wanted Lartigue to take his portrait.

Giscard definitely set the bar high; even France’s only socialist president Francois Mitterrand, who campaigned on “quiet strength”, couldn’t resist engaging a high-profile photographer. In his case, it was the celebrated Gisele Freund, the intellectual portraitist of many great writers of the 1930s. Socialist and minimalist in appearance, the photo did away with the most conspicuous trappings of the exalted office. Mitterrand poses in an intellectual manner as if he too belonged to those artisans of the 30s, a book of Montaigne’s Essays lay open on his lap.

Jacques Chirac took the photo session outside. Relaxed looking president definitely looked more distant than his predecessors in this photo by Bettina Rheims. The current president Nicholas Sarkozy chose relatively unknown photographer Philippe Warrin (better known for his paparazzi work) but he brought back the grandeur of the office unseen since the days of Charles de Gaulle. The photo was criticized for imitating the American official portrait styles; it is the first official portrait of a French president with a European Union flag; the stars of the European flag with the stripes of the French flag created a faux American flag, many Frenchmen complained.

Vive Le Quebec Libre!


On July 24, 1967, French President Charles de Gaulle was one of many world leaders invited to Expo 67 to help celebrate Canada’s 100th birthday. The relations between two countries were not at their best: earlier that year, the French government had not sent a representative to the funeral service for Governor General Georges Vanier. General de Gaulle held a grudge against Canada for its objection to France’s military position in the Suez crisis.

De Gaulle refused to land in the Canadian capital, Ottawa, as par with proper political protocol. Instead, he flew to the French colony of Saint Pierre and Miquelon, off Newfoundland, and sailed on a French frigate to Quebec City. There, de Gaulle was cheered enthusiastically, while the new Governor General was booed. The next day de Gaulle arrived in Montreal; although he was not scheduled to speak that evening, but the crowd chanted for him; de Gaulle stepped out onto the balcony of the Hôtel de Ville and gave a short address. [It was later said that his address was preplanned and he used it when the opportunity presented itself.

In his address he commented that his drive down the banks of the St. Lawrence River, lined as it had been with cheering crowds, reminded him of his triumphant return to Paris after the liberation from Nazi Germany. The speech appeared to conclude with the words “Vive Montréal! Vive le Québec!” (Long live Montreal! Long live Quebec!), but he then added, “Vive le Québec libre! Vive le Canada français! Et vive la France!” (“Long live free Quebec! Long live French Canada! And long live France!”). The speech was broadcast live on radio.

This statement, coming from a head of state, was considered a serious breach of diplomatic protocol. Standing inside, Pauline Vanier, the widow of the Governor General Vanier pressed a note into his hand containing only a date, 1940–a rebuke on behalf of the Canadians who had fought for the liberation of France. A media and diplomatic uproar ensued thereafter, which resulted in de Gaulle cutting his visit to Canada short. The day after the speech de Gaulle visited Expo 67, before flying back to Paris the following morning, instead of continuing his visit on to Ottawa where he was to have met with Prime Minister. Influential Canadian statesman Pierre Trudeau, publicly wondered what the French reaction would have been if a Canadian Prime Minister shouted “Brittany to the Bretons.”

As a bizarre footnote to history, de Gaulle instituted a series of crackdowns on Breton nationalism the very next year, and was accused of double standards for, on the one hand demanding a “free” Quebec because of its linguistic differences from English speaking Canada, while on the other oppressing the movement in Brittany.

The Summit Meeting at Elysees


December 21, 1959. The Western Big Four Leaders stand together for a picture on the steps of the Palais de l’Elysee following the final meeting of the Western summit conference. Left to right are British Prime Minister Harold MacMillan, American President Dwight Eisenhower, French President Charles de Gaulle, and West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer.

de Gaulle assassination attempt


A man examines one of the bulletholes in French president General de Gaulle’s Citroën DS in Paris, following an assassination attempt in Le Petit-Clamart suburb on 22 August 1962.

The members of a French army secret organization, the OAS believed de Gaulle had betrayed France by yielding Algeria to the Algerian Nationalists. As dusk fell, de Gaulle’s signature black Citroen DS was speeding down the Avenue de la Liberation in Paris at 70 mph when 12 OAS men opened fire on the car. But they saw the open-fire signal too late, but most of their bullets hit the Citroen from behind, shattering the rear window.

The DS (also known as Déesse, or Goddess) was well-known for its futuristic, aerodynamic body design. Produced by Citroën between 1955 and 1975, it was also the favorite car of Charles de Gaulle. Of the many futuristic features the DS was the ability to run on three wheels only, allowing one flat tire. The headlights turn with the steering wheel, so you can see around the turn, a very useful safety feature. These futuristic features saved the president’s life–the assassination attempt blew out a front tire, but because of the car’s steering and suspension,Chauffeur Marroux was able to speed away to safety to Villacoublay where a helicopter was waiting to take the de Gaulles to their country retreat.