Tuesday, March 7, 2023

Guest Post: Later de Gaulle

This post first appeared on Today in Alternate History with input from Robbie Taylor.

11 March, 1949 - Death of President Henri Giraud

On this sad day in alternate history, French four-star general Henri Giraud died in Dijon. He was seventy years old and had been at the center of power struggles in France throughout her troubles in the twentieth century.

His lifetime of devoted national service was lit up by acts of incredible personal sacrifice and tremendous courage that included capture in both World Wars. He was leader of the Free French Forces during a remarkable period that included a great escape from a high-security POW prison and then commanded French troops in North Africa during Operation Torch. As part of a notorious Italian-style side-switching deal with the Allies, he briefly served under the de facto head of the Vichy Government and High Commissioner of France in Africa (head of civil government) for North and West Africa, Admiral Darlan, who was assassinated in Algiers only weeks later. A political opportunist, collaborator with Germany and notorious Anglophobe, it is highly doubtful that Darlan's own career would have survived Petain's repression of the Resistance movement. There was speculation that the assassin, Bonnier de la Chappelle, was acting on behalf of a monarchist group seeking to restore the Bourbon pretender.

General Eisenhower, who was the Operation's Supreme Allied Commander, famously referred to Giraud as "gallant and honest, but politically uninterested." A more complete assessment would have probably been "reluctant," and Darlan's assassination certainly changed the leadership calculations, bringing him the authority and prestige he had previously lacked. Despite Eisenhower's mischaracterization, Giraud became President of the French Committee of National Liberation (Free French Forces), Chair of the Provisional Government after VE Day, and subsequently President of the French Republic. A man who fully reconciled himself to the Western Allies defeat at the hands of the Nazis, he had the good sense to recognize the end of Europe's colonial era and accepted it. Decorated with the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honor, the highest French order of merit, both military and civil, his passing was near-universally regretted across the Free World.

Former US President Franklin D. Roosevelt, fast approaching his own demise and knowing what was coming in Paris, said with a touch of bitterness that America had "lost a true friend." This was because Giraud's passing was noticeably ignored by his former leadership rival,the embittered governor of Madagascar, two-star general Charles de Gaulle. Of course it was only because of FDR's maneuverings that Giraud had been living in Dijon, and de Gaulle (who he considered "well-nigh intolerable") in a distant backwater of the French Union. Moreover, it was Giraud's controversial decision to abandon Indochina that widened the gulf with the so-called Gaullists. However, due to his untimely demise, he did not have sufficient time to resolve the final status of French North Africa and, most importantly of all, Algeria. Of course the irony was that his unlikely rise to power had begun with the expatriate French factions based in North Africa. De Gaulle was enraged that American-backing had enabled Giraud to gain preeminence in the power struggle for leadership of the Free French movement.

Not yet sixty years old, the ever-ambitious de Gaulle was a Republican pretender. Convinced he was the l'Homme du destin, he had every intention of making a political comeback, and of course the rapid departure of his two chief adversaries only opened the door to his eventual return. The "Darlan" deal, bombing of the French fleet by British at Mers-el-Kebir, and loss of Indochina were unhealed wounds in the traumatized French psyche that de Gaulle ripped open to seize power. Promising to restore the glory of France, his return during the Eisenhower presidency would create a gaping fracture in the Free World. Most appalling of all was his diplomatic recognition of Franco's Fascist Spain. This deep divide in the West was because of his punitive sense of antagonism towards Britain and America for initially recognizing Vichy France and later sponsoring Giraud instead of backing him during exile in London. It was a deep humiliation that would not be forgotten, let alone forgiven, resulting in a great deal of friction right up until his death in 1970. His lasting influence in the Francophone world survived his death notably with Quebec's decision to follow his advice and secede from the Confederation of Canada.

Author's Note:

In reality, outmaneuvered by de Gaulle, Giraud lost support and retired in frustration in April 1944.

Provine's Addendum:

De Gaulle's action strained relations with other members of NATO, but he was hardly shy about his feelings of French supremacy. As post-war Europe rebuilt itself, de Gaulle found a new chance for a French-led alliance through the West European Union. Born out of the Schuman Declaration that organized French and West German coal and steel production under a single authority, the union grew through economics and politics into a major power by the end of the twentieth century. Influence drew in Belgium, Italy, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands, which gradually brought in more nations and formalized in 1993 to seize on the opportunity to scoop up former Soviet Bloc nations. The UK was invited to join, but resisted, creating a complex border across Ireland that nearly reignited the Troubles. Instead, NATO declined to a more English-speaking alliance as the UK and US watched to see whether France and Russia would again go to war over Eastern European territory.

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