No European statesman of the last century enjoys so exalted a reputation in his homeland as Charles de Gaulle. Of his contemporaries, Adenauer and Macmillan were, by contrast, middling figures. Intensely divisive in his own lifetime, the General’s star began to rise in the 1980s. The centenary of his birth in 1990 signalled the consolidation of a glorious consensus, stretching across the political spectrum and anointed with scholarly office by Pierre Lefranc’s Institut Charles de Gaulle, organizer of a week-long international conference that kicked off with a mass at Notre Dame. The intervening decades have borne out the impression, confirmed in official rites, popular culture and the tables of public opinion alike. Memorial embalmment poses its own challenges to scholarship. Any biographer of de Gaulle must contend with the accretions of a personal myth, concocted in the first instance by its subject. Here lies the Épinal image of the Connétable, Cassandra of the interwar crisis, redeemer of a defeated France and architect of the modern Republic.

As the British historian Julian Jackson observed a decade on from the 1990 festivities, one of the peculiarities of de Gaulle’s canonization was its near-perfect coincidence with the decline of a version of the past that he did much to help solidify. The Occupation, the Resistance and the Algerian war have all been subject to sweeping reassessment in recent years, aiming to undermine if not demolish key tenets of ‘Gaullism’, whilst fresh attention has focused on murky periods of the General’s own activity, from the fiasco of the postwar Rassemblement du Peuple Français (rpf) to the prolonged endgame in North Africa. Embellishment of myth has proceeded in step with historiographical debunking. Jackson revisits this paradox in his new biography of de Gaulle, taking up from a short book published in 2003. The result displays the virtues at the level of literary composition that characterized the author’s previous work on the 1930s, the Occupation and gay life in postwar France, an authoritative quartet of studies distinguished by their gifts of synthesis.

Nourished by newly opened archives and consultation of the prodigious existing scholarship, A Certain Idea of France enters a crowded field. Only Napoleon has elicited more attention from French biographers. Towering over the rest is Jean Lacouture’s three-volume opus (1984–86, bowdlerized in translation a few years later). A slew of offerings from outside the Hexagon have followed, notably De Gaulle e il Gaullismo (2003), signed by right-wing Italian senator Gaetano Quagliariello, and British journalist Jonathan Fenby’s The General (2010). In addition to Lacouture, Jackson identifies the outstanding biographies by Paul Marie de La Gorce (1999) and Éric Roussel (2002). Comparable in length (each edging over a thousand pages, a third the size of Lacouture’s trilogy), these arrive at contrary verdicts, in line with their authors’ sympathies: left-wing Gaullism, in the case of de La Gorce, a Resistance fighter and longtime contributor to Le Monde diplomatique, inspiring admiration for the decolonizer and champion of non-alignment; conservative Euro-Atlanticism for Roussel, who delivered a more negative reckoning. Jackson proposes a view shorn of idolatry and animus alike; if his entry makes no claim to radical reappraisal, it faithfully registers the tremors that belie mausoleal harmony.

Born in Lille on 22 December 1890, de Gaulle spent his early years amid the ‘military melancholy’ of the capital’s Seventh Arrondissement, flanked by the Invalides and the École Militaire. Descended on his mother’s side from the northern bourgeoisie, wealthy industrialists with Irish relations, his father’s line belonged to the minor noblesse de robe, a cultured Parisian family of declining fortunes. Both were deeply Catholic conservative lineages, hostile to the secular values of the Third Republic. Educated by the Christian Brothers, then the Jesuits, de Gaulle also imbibed the vitalist romantic nationalism of the time: Bergson, Péguy, Barrès. He matriculated to Saint-Cyr in 1908 and on graduation joined an infantry regiment in Arras, under the command of Philippe Pétain. The young lieutenant greeted the outbreak of World War One with satisfaction, hailing an atmosphere of ‘unanimous élan’. Surviving the hecatombs of Champagne and Verdun, he was wounded and captured by German forces at Douaumont in 1916 and spent the rest of the war as a pow. Though mortified at not having played a greater role in France’s victory, this proved no obstacle to further preferment. He was seconded to Pétain’s personal staff and, after an interlude in the Levant, joined the Secretariat of the National Defence Council, at the heart of civil-military relations and defence planning.

These were years that saw de Gaulle’s intellectual ambit expand, with entry into the circle of intellectuals and independent-minded officers around Emile Mayer, military modernizer and former Dreyfusard. He first came to public attention as the author of Vers l’armée de métier (1934), a programmatic call for the reform and mechanization of the armed forces. Jackson describes de Gaulle’s ‘political ideal’ at this period as a combination of ‘managerial authoritarianism with charismatic leadership’. Reserved in the era of the Popular Front, he rejected the idea of a pronunciamento on the Spanish model and distanced himself from mainstream French conservatism on nationalist grounds, supporting the Franco-Soviet pact and execrating Munich. When German forces broke across the Meuse in May 1940, Colonel de Gaulle’s tanks led three valiant but fruitless counter-attacks against the 1st Panzer Division. Back in Paris, newly promoted to the rank of brigadier-general, he joined Reynaud’s cabinet as under-secretary of state for defence, lobbying without avail for Weygand to be cashiered and plans put in place for withdrawal to a Breton redoubt. Ten days later, he was in exile in London.

Notwithstanding the accretions of fable and propaganda, de Gaulle’s departure from France on 17 June remains an astonishing act. Few may have heard the broadcast of his speech the following day, attacking Pétain’s decision to seek an armistice, but Jackson is surely right that this is beside the point. The audacity of the 18 juin furnished a warrant for much of what came next. Its portent, however, was yet to be determined. The visibility of monarchists among the small number of officers who rallied to him and the reactionary complexion of the intelligence service under Passy gave cause for concern. Churchill personally pressed de Gaulle to dispel rumours of his ‘fascist views’. De Gaulle did not shift tack till 1942, motivated by rising Communist influence over the fledgling internal Resistance. ‘Betrayed by her elites and privileged classes, we are living the greatest revolution of France’s history’, he announced in a radio address that April. ‘Her secret agony is creating an entirely new France whose leaders will be new men . . . a France in revolution always prefers to win a war with General Hoche than lose it with Marshal Soubise.’

Jackson gives a memorable picture of de Gaulle’s personality during the war years, when his intransigence and relish for confrontation were on full display. Moody, vindictive and given to blistering rodomontades, the Free French leader could also be an attentive listener. Never afraid to bite the hand that feeds, de Gaulle’s umbrage at British designs on Syria and Lebanon rattled interlocutors. In Algiers in 1943–44, de Gaulle successfully transformed the ad-hoc Committee of National Liberation into a state-in-waiting. He moved guilefully to secure French military participation in retaking the continent and outmanoeuvre the Communists, forestalling the spectre of dual power and presiding over a triumphant Liberation. With the fanfare of victory past, postwar reconstruction cast the General in a lesser part. Thwarted in his projects for constitutional reform by a left-dominated parliament and frustrated by the renascent party system, he resigned as head of government in January 1946, only two months after legislative elections. Privately he appears to have been disappointed that this fit of pique did not arouse a more impassioned response. ‘Historic day’, recorded the veteran Communist deputy Marcel Cachin. ‘We got rid of de Gaulle without frightening the population.’