Take a Frenchman, an Englishman and then...

December 22, 2006

...throw in sex and money - and what do you get? World leaders who weren't all they seemed, says Richard Vinen

In his memoirs, Winston Churchill recalls his first meeting with Charles de Gaulle. It was during France's collapse of 1940 when British and French leaders assembled for a conference. Catching sight of the young general standing morosely apart from the squabbling politicians, Churchill went up to him and said, in excruciating French: " L'homme du destin ." A French historian later asked de Gaulle about this episode, but he denied that it had ever taken place. Churchill, he explained, "was a romantic".

This is a revealing remark. Romance is a quality that we associate with the French, blunt speaking with the English. De Gaulle and Churchill defy national stereotypes in other ways. The Englishman - short, fat, hedonistic and charming - resembled the quintessential Third Republic Frenchman. De Gaulle - tall, thin and ascetic - looked like a product of Victorian England.

Money and sex illustrate much about the worlds of Churchill and de Gaulle. We associate 19th-century England with prim rectitude in both matters and France with immorality. However, it was Churchill's mother who reputedly had 200 lovers. De Gaulle's, by contrast, was said to have regretted that " le bon Dieu " had not devised a more dignified manner in which human beings might reproduce.

The Frenchman never took a centime that did not belong to him. When his grandchildren came to tea at the Elysee Palace, he told the servants to bring him a bill for their cakes. The Englishman was fond of money and was not scrupulous about how he got it.

Churchill's "finest hour" speech and de Gaulle's "Call to Honour", in which he refused to accept French defeat, were both made in London on June 18, 1940. But the circumstances were different. Churchill was Prime Minister of a huge, if beleaguered, imperial power and he had spent almost his whole life preparing to give such a speech. De Gaulle's speech came from nowhere.

Just the day before, he had been in France and seemed genuinely undecided about whether to leave when he was bundled aboard an aircraft by Churchill's envoy.

The Frenchman, who had addressed no audience larger than a room of officers, walked into the BBC studio, said two words - "La France" - to test the microphones, then gave one of the most important speeches in the history of the world.J Churchill's speech marked an end. He would never again command attention as he did during the summer of 1940. The final 20 years of his life were blighted by electoral defeat, a disastrous return to government, personal tragedy and ill health.

But for de Gaulle, June 18, 1940 marked a beginning. For a while, like Churchill, he was eclipsed in the aftermath of the war, but he triumphantly returned to power a second time in 1958, and seemed like the saviour of his country again as he extracted France from Algeria, fended off military putsch, and survived a dozen assassination attempts. De Gaulle was never touched by the indignities of old age. He died suddenly in 1970, barely a year after leaving power.

The English imagined that France was living off the glories of the vanished past. Churchill himself sometimes suggested that de Gaulle's vision of himself was rooted in history - "he thinks he's Joan of Arc, but I can't get my bloody bishops to burn him".

In fact, it was Churchill who lived in the past. He was obsessed by British history but was ill at ease with, or indifferent to, the problems that his country confronted after 1945.

De Gaulle was also a great nostalgic but, unlike Churchill, he understood that national survival depended on change. It is no accident that 1958, the year of de Gaulle's return to power, was also the year in which the British woke up to their economic decline.

For all their arch references to "Winston", Thatcherites knew that Churchill had squandered postwar opportunities. The man admired most by the more intelligent Conservative ministers in the 1980s was, in fact, de Gaulle. Peter Lilley even hung a picture of the general on his office wall.

In 1944, Lawrence Olivier's film Henry V was released. Historians sometimes suggest that the film enlisted Shakespeare in the cause of "Churchillianism".'

I am sceptical about this. Anyone who knows the history plays would surely have no trouble in identifying the Churchillian character: drunken, sentimental, wedded to the past and easily hurt. It is Falstaff. Henry V is a man of clear-eyed ruthlessness who knows that the past must die so that the future can be born. Surely this is Charles de Gaulle.

Richard Vinen is reader of history at King's College London and author of The Unfree French: Life under the Occupation , published by Allen Lane, Pounds 24.

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