Georges Pompidou, the crafty banker-president of France who died in office in 1974, is remembered today for two things. One is the damage he allowed his business chums to inflict on the Paris skyline with tasteless skyscrapers. The other is his eloquent announcement to the nation of his predecessor's death in 1970: "General de Gaulle is dead. France is a widow."

Which is to say that skylines and words still count in France. So does Charles de Gaulle, as Pompidou foresaw. The widow simultaneously grieves and celebrates in this month marking the 20th anniversary of de Gaulle's death (Nov. 9) and the centennial of his birth (Nov. 22).

De Gaulle the military leader, national psychoanalyst and creator of the French Fifth Republic will dominate most of the commentary to come in this season of remembrance. But in an American election week, it is de Gaulle the communicator and media icon who is worth a moment of reflection.

This de Gaulle dominates the most provocative and insightful new commentary on le general of this centennial year. It is an admiring book-length essay by Regis Debray titled "A Demain de Gaulle" ("Tomorrow, de Gaulle"). Debray, the New Leftist revolutionary, recants a lifetime of bitter, ideological criticism of de Gaulle to pay homage to "the last great man of the 19th century and perhaps the first great man of the 21st."

In media politics as well as in military strategy and political vision, de Gaulle exists outside time. For Debray, he is "the contemporary of Sarah Bernhardt adapting classical theater to the small screen" of television in the 1960s. De Gaulle also spans an electronic lifetime. "When he took power {in 1958}, there were 1 million television sets in France: We still had television in the home. When he left {in 1969} there were 10 million sets: We had the home in the television," and it was time for de Gaulle to go.

Because he could remember another time -- and another set of values that he refused to surrender -- de Gaulle could initially master the tools of media politics and communication rather than become enslaved by them. He talked politics and governance not with media consultants and pollsters, but with the writer Andre Malraux, whom de Gaulle made minister of culture and the highest ranking member of his government to show that "history precedes politics," not vice-versa.

De Gaulle rarely used the telephone, explaining to friends that while the urgent came on the telephone, the important came in writing. He understood that the immediate chases away the future.

It is his clarity and simplicity that the French miss most as they look back in regret on their final, Oedipal gesture of driving him from office with the twin blows of the 1968 student revolt and a 1969 negative vote in a referendum on administrative decentralization. De Gaulle said he would resign if the electorate voted against him. It did, and he did, stunning his cynical nation by keeping his word.

His resignation was announced in a two-sentence statement that explained nothing more than the fact that he had quit. De Gaulle retired to his simple country house at Colombey-les-deux-Eglises without press officers and ghost writers, never again to give an interview, much less to accept lucrative lecture or memoir contracts.

Debray's book is fascinating not because it charts the ideas and life of de Gaulle (it doesn't), but because it charts the intellectual metamorphosis of Debray, a mustachioed, epigrammatic radical who discovers in middle age he shares le general's traditionalist values. That is a 180-degree turn for the former Castroist revolutionary who accompanied Che Guevara in Bolivia and who was jailed and nearly killed by the Bolivians for his zeal.

Debray later served as a foreign-policy adviser to Francois Mitterrand, de Gaulle's lifelong rival and France's current Socialist president. This paean to de Gaulle makes clear Debray's deep disillusionment with the Socialists, whom he accuses of having become as corrupt and indifferent in power as the right.

Do not mistake Debray's trip as the kind of crossover that American New Lefties of the '60s or '70s took to go hard right in the '80s and make careers out of renouncing their former ideas and colleagues. Fortunately for him and for his readers, Debray lacks both the streak of vengeance-seeking and opportunism the American aisle-crossers show.

He says that it is precisely because he has stopped seeing the world in black-white, left-right terms that he has adopted de Gaulle as a political totem. The end of the Cold War may give the world the chance to put aside ideology as the only prism through which politics and values should be filtered, as de Gaulle once predicted. Debray has decanted the message of this great man's life: Resist, in all circumstances. Be yourself, at all costs.

It is de Gaulle the rebel that we should celebrate this year.