Charles de Gaulle’s way

Posted in France by Deputy city editor on May 30, 2007

As Sarko was formally taking over the helm of the 5th republic, I was in the shadow of Charles de Gaulle. His memorial Foundation and Institute is housed in a sound but unpretentious hotel particulaire in the 6th arrondissement, around the corner from the Musée d’Orsay and across the river from where Sarko is being handed the launch codes for the force de frappe. It flies not a regular tricolour but the tricolour with the cross of Lorraine – the flag of the Free French. This is the only place I have seen this flag in Paris.

After his retirement, this is where the general would see his many visitors, humble and grand, each for 30 minutes at a time. Hidden to the visitor was a clock by which the general timed himself to rise after 25 minutes, to ensure that his guest would leave on time.

De Gaulle has an image as a haughty man and his study is a sparsely furnished and utilitarian room. It is dominated by maps – he was very fond of maps – and a large model tank. De Gaulle’s theories on tank warfare were ignored by the French general staff, although intently studied by the Germans. De Gaulle’s office is a spooky and awesome place that is definitely inhabited by the spirit of the general. As if the terrifying lanky figure might stride in at any moment and demand to know your business. This impression of presence is cultivated by the small but devoted staff who attend to his memory.

The foundation’s valuable library includes what can only be the world’s best collection of published materials but is only part of the de Gaulle treasure in Paris. The de Gaulle collections spill into the National Archives and the specialised archives of the foreign and defence ministries. I am helping Patricia E. Bauer, an American journalist who is looking for evidence that de Gaulle may have had knowledge of the Nazi Action T-4 from 1938-41, in which Hitler’s eugenicists systematically killed up to 250,000 people with physical and intellectual disabilities.

If he knew, did his knowledge and outrage play any part in the almost singular ferocity with which he rejected the settlement of Vichy? The question is presented because Gaulle had a personal stake in this. His daughter Anne had been born profoundly affected with Down’s syndrome, or trisomy 21, as it is now more accurately described.

Those who knew the general say that not only was he a man who stood tall and embodied the very essence of France (his amazing speech to France on June 18, 1940 can be read in English and French here) but he was also a saintly father, keeping her as close to him as he could, reading and singing to her when she was alive and holding her in his arms when she died. De Gaulle and his wife Yvonne were devoted Catholics and having lived in Germany understood only too clearly what the Nazis were about. so it may not have been necessary for the general to have known about Hitler’s specific atrocities, for him to have known his destiny.

The resolution and fortitude with which the de Gaulle’s faced the responsibilities of their daughter and the resolution and fortitude with which he faced Hitler may have come from more generalised moral and ethical imperatives. One simply wonders whether Anne may have been an influence, and in her own way, to have helped change the face of history.

It is not surprising that the French themselves still consider de Gaulle the greatest of their presidents. After the war, the de Gaulle family created a foundation to look after other young handicapped women and it still exists near Versailles where grandchildren and cousins of the de Gaulle family still discreetly involve themselves, comforting the afflicted. The foundation bears Anne’s name, so she is not forgotten, although there are fewer and fewer people born with Trisomy 21 and other disabilities in France. Because of ubiquitous pre-natal screening, almost all are destroyed before they are born, in a process called IVG – interruption volontaire de grossesse. This is very much the same story in Britain and the United States. It is morally paradoxical, at least.



Patricia Bauer writes well about this here.


One Response

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  1. swaps said, on November 25, 2008 at 9:18 am

    Wow!! I must visit this place someday. It’s a resolution.

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