Imposingly tall on the landscape, the giant Cross of Lorraine announces this village from afar. Charles de Gaulle, who lived and died here, chose the two-barred cross as the symbol for the Free France he declared, from lonely exile, after the German occupation nearly 60 years ago. It was his finest hour.
Rising more than 1,000 feet from rolling Champagne soil, this memorial is fitting in its height--de Gaulle was 6 feet 4 inches tall, with a lofty character to match--and also in its austerity and solitude.
Nearly 30 years after his death, thousands are drawn every week to Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises to pay their respects at de Gaulle's simple grave in a tiny churchyard, to inspect his modest manor house down a wooded lane, to peek at his plain corner office with its view of what he called the "sad horizons," or to buy a postcard, key chain or plaster bust.
De Gaulle feared as much. He confided once to author Andre Malraux that this hamlet of 400 would become a shrine, like Lourdes, after his death: "They'll sell grandeur in the form of medallions and little flags and Lorraine crosses made of nougat candy."
De Gaulle was on to something, but he probably could not have envisioned what his gradual beatification has wrought today.
A few months ago, another big Lorraine cross went up at the center of a busy intersection in western Paris called the Porte de Maillot. This cross is no mere memorial. It is an advertisement for de Gaulle's return to the stage in an extravaganza of mythmaking titled "The One Who Said No."
Robert Hossein, an impresario who has showcased the lives of Julius Caesar, Joan of Arc and Jesus of Nazareth, has assembled a cast of 200 actors, mostly spear carriers, to perform a sequence of historical tableaux punctuated by World War II film clips and gunfire drumrolls.
The play's opening Oct. 1 has loosed a wave of de Gaulle nostalgia and de Gaulle reconsideration. Every writer and political figure, it seems, has an answer to the question: What does Gaullism mean?
Although the "No" of the title refers to de Gaulle's refusal to accept Germany's dominion over France, Hossein's production has created a virtual parlor game of identifying other things to which he said "No": the Communists, the extreme right, partisan politics as usual, and of course, the Americans.
This fall's de Gaulle boomlet also has prompted endlessly wistful comparisons between de Gaulle's France (economically robust, politically unified) and today's France (not).
"Gaullism is a kind of political Eden in a corner of our brain: the sovereign state, a France free and respected, an economy that creates jobs and security, presidential and parliamentary majorities that coincide," observed Jean-Louis Bourlanges, a member of the European Parliament. "It is a paradise lost."
Contrasts have also been drawn between de Gaulle, unquestioned incarnation of the French state, and his political heir, President Jacques Chirac, whose right of center forces lost the government to the Socialists two years ago and have been unraveling ever since. Chirac attended two performances in the first week.
Given the larger than life figure that de Gaulle has become, actor Jacques Boudet's wartime general looks puny on the vast proscenium. De Gaulle's relentlessly shouted lines sound cranky, petulant, self-righteous. Even in the hands of an admiring director in a celebratory French environment, this de Gaulle is not a terribly likeable character.
That true to life stiffness and stubbornness are exaggerated by the other main player on the stage, Winston Churchill (Robert Hardy), who cajoles and threatens de Gaulle into getting down from his high horse in exchange for the rich reward of being taken seriously by Britain and the United States--de Gaulle's most important victory of all.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt (Lyle Joyce) has one of the few humorous lines in the $6 million production, when he suggests to Churchill, at a moment of maximum exasperation with de Gaulle, "why don't you just send him away to St. Helena?"--the island of final exile for France's first modern autocrat, the much shorter Napoleon.
Reviews of the play have been largely respectful.
De Gaulle, who was born in Lille in 1890, moved here in 1934. He did all his significant thinking, writing and scheming here-- in the years leading up to World War II, when he was a military officer known for his unorthodox (and correct) opinions on defense strategy, and from 1946 to 1958, during his now mythic years in the political wilderness.
After a brief postwar presidency to which he was borne after liberating Paris from the Germans in 1944, de Gaulle withdrew to Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises. He waited patiently here for France to come to its senses, and when it did, he stepped in again and rescued the country from its Algerian morass. As the standard bearer of the Fifth Republic, de Gaulle built and dominated France--and nettled the United States--for more than a decade, when he withdrew again to Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises for his last days.
"Who could have thought a man, all by himself, could have done that?" asked Jean Raullet, who was de Gaulle's veterinarian and the town's mayor. "People still have a need to believe in something or someone. They need a point of reference, and he still offers that."
CAPTION: Jacques Boudet portrays de Gaulle in "The One Who Said No," a play about the former French leader.