DE GAULLE

The Rebel: 1890-1944

By Jean Lacouture

Translated from the French

By Patrick O'Brian

Norton. 615 pp. $29.95

THIS YEAR, Charles de Gaulle's admirers celebrated the centenary of his birth with, of all things, an advertising campaign in the Paris metro. Amidst the publicity for soap, cigarettes and soft drinks, billboards promoted the general as the impresario of French grandeur -- the visionary of blitzkrieg warfare in the 1930s, the leader of Fighting France in World War II, the liberator of Paris in 1944, the founder of the Fifth Republic in 1958, the architect of Franco-German rapprochement in the 1960s, and so on.

What Parisians thought of this advertising blitz is difficult to calculate, as metro etiquette forbids any outward display of emotion. It is certain, however, that even in death, de Gaulle's capacity for conjuring up strong and often hostile memories remains undiminished, and not merely among the spiritual heirs of Vichy and the diehards of Alge'rie franc aise. Men of the left complain that, even after eight years under socialist management, the de Gaulle-designed Fifth Republic remains a bloodless technocracy which responds sluggishly to democratic pressures. To those outside of France, especially "les Anglo-Saxons" with memories of World War II, the verdict has generally been that, if Jesus had been burdened with the Cross of Lorraine, he would never have made it to Calvary.

In this stunning biography which traces de Gaulle's life through the liberation of Paris in August 1944, French journalist and historian Jean Lacouture draws a portrait of the leader of Free (later Fighting) France which places his actions in the context of his conservative upbringing, his brilliant but iconoclastic career in the French army prior to 1940, and an unswerving vision of France's great power role which he maintained through defeat, occupation and exile.

Lacouture leaves de Gaulle's reputation for courage, as well as for stubborn conceit, intact. Several times wounded in the trenches of World War I, captured at Verdun in 1916 after which he appears to have caused the Germans far more headaches behind their lines than he ever had to their front, de Gaulle returned to the army determined to get ahead. Churned by ambition, he spent most of the interwar years in staff positions in Paris, leaving only for the obligatory troop commands required for promotion. In the capital, he cultivated important soldiers, especially World War I hero Marshal Philippe Pe'tain. When relations with his military superiors began to sour, he turned up in the antechambers of politicians, especially Paul Reynaud, peddling his ideas on armored warfare.

Lacouture ignores some of the substantial problems which stood in the way of acceptance of de Gaulle's ideas -- indeed, the French high command was not uniformly hostile to concepts of mobile armored warfare. Rather, problems of political acceptance, bureaucratic and budgetary priorities, as well as force structure, required them to move cautiously toward reform. Indeed, de Gaulle made a major public relations blunder when he argued that only professional soldiers rather than conscripts were competent to serve in the armored forces, which automatically made his proposal unacceptable to the parties of the left.

The debacle of May-June 1940 was critical in the development of de Gaulle's attitudes. Although the newly promoted brigadier proved an able, if not a particularly popular or inspired field commander at the head of a hastily created armored division, the defeat brought his brewing rebellion against the military establishment to maturity. He remained convinced that his ideas were the only valid ones, that even the Germans by employing his concepts were, in an oblique way, paying him homage. Furthermore, for a man who saw war as an important element in forging national character, the sheer magnitude of France's collapse threatened to "poison its soul and its life for generations on end." De Gaulle became France's self-appointed redeemer.

This goes a long way toward explaining de Gaulle's conduct as the head of Free France. The fact that he was thrown penniless upon British shores, which might have induced humility in lesser men, stimulated the opposite reaction in Charles de Gaulle, who believed that his beggarly status required him to stand even more upon his dignity. Likewise, his strategic priorities were different from those of the other belligerent nations, especially from Dec. 7, 1941, when the entry of both the United States and the Soviet Union into the conflict put the war's ultimate outcome beyond doubt. Let the other world leaders worry about how best to win the war. De Gaulle's sacred mission was to re-establish France as a great power.

It is in the context of de Gaulle's obsession with French sovereignty that his clashes with Churchill, and especially with Roosevelt, can be seen. Vichy propaganda which denounced de Gaulle as the pawn of perfidious Albion caused him to pick quarrels with the British over the dry bones of the French empire in the Levant. Convinced that France was finished as a great power, President Roosevelt saw no contradiction in treating the leader of Fighting France as a sort of Somoza without bananas. He froze de Gaulle out of every major decision, including those which most intimately concerned the future of France. The great enemy of European colonialism saw no contradiction in attempting to dictate the form of a French government, or occupying and administering France with his own military government complete with currency "Made in USA." Nor was de Gaulle invited to Yalta where the fate of post-war Europe was decided. Roosevelt even contemplated lopping off northern France and joining it with the French-speaking portion of Belgium in a national cocktail to be called Wallonia. But, if in French eyes de Gaulle's case was often a good one, Lacouture notes that he frequently put himself in the wrong by his petulant and boorish behavior.

Roosevelt's chief complaint against de Gaulle was that he carried no mandate from the French people. For this reason, the unification of the French Resistance under the Cross of Lorraine became one of de Gaulle's primary goals. But the value of the Resistance to him lay less in its ability to deliver intelligence or to fight Germans, than in its importance as a symbolic endorsement of popular support for Fighting France. The fact that de Gaulle emerged as the man who forged the unity of the Resistance while at the same time dominating it also gave him the strongest of claims to the leadership of liberated France.

Some have suggested that, if de Gaulle had not existed, he would have to have been invented. Jean Lacouture disagrees. The general was a unique and very personal phenomenon, "the savage embodiment of . . . the principle of national sovereignty -- and the boldest manipulator of that raw material of politics known as circumstances." After reading this fair, well-researched and entertaining biography, de Gaulle may not become a more sympathetic character. But he certainly emerges as a more comprehensible one.

Douglas Porch's "History of the French Foreign Legion" will be published in May.