Charles André Joseph Marie de Gaulle, former French President and General, was born on November 22, 1890. One of his formative memories was his mother’s accounts of her deep pain when France surrendered during the Franco-Prussian war. This made the young de Gaulle choose the military.
Based on his experiences in World War I, de Gaulle advocated for the vital importance of armored tank units, but France put its trust in the Maginot Line, a system of static border defenses that the Germans simply bypassed. One of France’s few military successes prior to the surrender in 1940 was a tank offensive led by de Gaulle. When the fall came, he escaped to Britain where he made a famous address via the BBC, exhorting the French to resist the Nazis. He rallied other exiled French military to him and he ran the Free French from England. He had been a close personal friend of Maréchal Pétain, who led the Vichy government associated with capitulation and collaboration, which must have profoundly grieved de Gaulle. He insisted that France be treated as an independent power by the Allies.
At the end of the war, he was named Prime Minister in the Provisional Government, but he resigned in 1946 due to disputes with political opponents. De Gaulle certainly had the reputation of being a difficult man to deal with, convinced as he was of his own position. He was back as Prime Minister in 1958 to deal with the Algerian crisis. He had an active role in writing the new constitution of the Fifth Republic and was elected President – with much greater power than had been enjoyed in the previous Republics. De Gaulle led France out of Algeria, which was a highly controversial move. He saw France as a great power on the international stage and took steps to enhance its prestige and independence wherever possible. By the time of student unrest in 1968, de Gaulle was considered a dinosaur. After losing a referendum in 1969, he resigned, but his political influence lives on. Even today, many French politicians identify themselves as Gaullists. He died on November 9, 1970, at the age of 80.
Today’s expression, “Le talent est un titre de responsabilité” (luh talohn et uhn teetruh duh respohnsabileetay) is a de Gaulle quotation that means “Talent is a title of responsibility.” De Gaulle may not have been an easy man to deal with, but he put his whole life and all his talents on the line for France.