How did Charles de Gaulle become the leading figure of French liberation movement? While acknowledging his talents and the personality, I find it hard to believe that he was the only or the most likely person to take this place.

Status in the military De Gaulle was neither particularly highly ranked nor particularly well-known in the military. Indeed, he showed himself well in the beginning of the war, and was made an acting general (au titre provisoire) - the appointment that was never made permanent due to his later split with the official power. He didn't have much to show in terms of past achievements, unlike the people who were considered WW1 heros (Philippe Pétain among them). Neither was he among the commanding French officers evacuated at Dunkirk, as by then he had joined the government.

Political status At the moment of the armstice de Gaulle was a former cabinet member of sub-ministerial rank. Unlike other political figures hosted at that time in London, de Gaulle didn't represent a government in exile or anything like that. Moreover, the allies continued treating Vichy government as the official one for several years after.

Affiliation with Pétain Although at the time of the armstice de Gaulle advocated continuing war (if necessary) in colonies, and thus at odds with Marchal Pétain, he was known to be long-term protégé of the Marchal and owed the latter many of his promotions. A rather poisonous association it seems.

Alliance with Stalin De Gaulles' detractors, notably the descendants of general Giraud, make much of de Gaulles' cooperation with Stalin, whose support was rather costly: giving the Communists the leading role in the French resistance and later inviting them to his government (including some army deserters from 1940). However, to get such a support de Gaulle would have to be by 1941 the head of the French resistance, so the question remains.

Resistance vs. the army Finally, after the allied landing in Africa and the French army re-entering the fight, it is not clear why de Gaulle would be given preference over the other army chiefs, notably Giraud.

Algiers putch of 1961 might have also shown that former combat generals didn't necessarily held high respect for de Gaulle.

In other words, while the man's talents were unquestionable, I see neither a gradual rise to power, nor being the right man in the right place at the right time, nor a preferred choice of Stalin and Churchill.

To suggest more specific questions :

  • Why did Churchill choose de Gaulle to lead the French resistance? (and was it really up to Churchill to decide?)
  • Why did the French in France in June 1940 - June 1941 rally behind de Gaulle ?
  • Why did they continue to support him afterwards, despite his alliance with the communistes, the recent armstice supporters?
  • Why did French military eventually submitted itself to de Gaulle ?

Suggested criteria I think the following were necessary for de Gaulle to become what he became:

  • Being considered as a credible leader by the majority of French
  • Being respected or being able to impose himself on the French military
  • Having the support of the allies (Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin)
  • Being at the right place in the right time to assume this role

Hypothesis From what I gathered in the French media: de Gaulle was one of few outgoing government members favouring continuation of the war, and he had the audacity to flee to Britain on the last day of the validity of his diplomatic credentials (before the new government took office). Churchill authorized de Gaulle's famous broadcast in a hope to attract some bigger figure, but no one showed up (so he was stuck with de Gaulle, though the two didn't really liked each other).

This hypothesis addresses the last of my bullets above, and the some extent the one before the last. It is still unclear what credibility de Gaulle had with the French, and why Churchill looked for a civilian rather than a military leader. It also gives impression that de Gaulle was Churchill's creation - a view that many would probably object.

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    He might not have been the right man in the right place at the right time but I'd suggest that he happened to be the man in the right place at the right time.
    – Steve Bird
    Commented Aug 6, 2021 at 13:51
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    @SteveBird beautifully said... but there are plenty of good men who suffered less glorious fate. Northern France is full of cemeteries.
    – Roger V.
    Commented Aug 6, 2021 at 13:58
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    As Steve Bird says. He was just in the right place (Britain) at the right time (when Britain wanted to drum up support against the enemy). Remembering that at that time the policy of the official French government was peace with Germany, and de Gaulle's action was technically treason. There weren't a whole lot of senior army officers looking to be openly traitorous, and none in the right place. Commented Aug 6, 2021 at 13:59
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    Giraud (for example) was in a German prison until 1942, so not in a position to lead the Free French. I think when we talk about "the right time" it is literally the few days between the French Armistice and De Gaulle's broadcast. But I'm speculating, which is probably not good in comments. Commented Aug 6, 2021 at 14:42
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    I think this question would benefit from listing alternative figures who it seems like would have been better.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Aug 6, 2021 at 15:22

4 Answers 4


Why did Churchill choose de Gaulle to lead the French resistance? (and was it really up to Churchill to decide?)

Churchill could decide among what he had available. De Gaulle was in the UK, had the will to continue the war, had shown that he had initiative. He had got some fame during the war.

Here his relatively lower rank could even be an advantage; a more senior officer or politician would have been tainted by his role in the failure of France in 1940. De Gaulle was low enough that it could be presented as the military leader that could have saved France if he had been given the opportunity to.

Of course maybe you could point to "but Mr. X had all of this, why did Churchill chose De Gaulle?" Well, there were not so many of the candidates, and Churchill had to select one. In fact, for some time it was not clear that De Gaulle was the only candidate (see Darlan, for example).

In any case, and after propping up De Gaulle's figure through the BBC for a long time, changing the "Free France" leader could easily backfire. It could make him look like a puppet, and that would reduce its usefulness.

The relationship with Petain is a red herring. He had had a relationship with Petain while Petain was the hero of Verdun. After Petain became head of Vichy France, De Gaulle was opposed to him. Why would Petain's actions as head of Vichy France stain De Gaulle's reputation*1?

Also Moreover, the allies continued treating Vichy government as the official one for several years after. So they were playing with several actors to see which one was more convenient to them. So what? That is politics 101. De Gaulle had to put up with that, which shows who was calling the shots.

Why did the French in France in June 1940 - June 1941 rally behind de Gaulle ?

Did they? Some did collaborate with the Germans. Many fought for Vichy France. Others fought for the communists. Most tried to survive*2.

But in 1945 a "France united under De Gaulle's leadership" was a nice tale that was very convenient for forgiving those who did not fight (Vichy), for forgetting about those who did fight but did not win (Communists) and for De Gaulle.

Why did they continue to support him afterwards, despite his alliance with the communists, the recent armstice supporters?

For many people it was either to support him, the communists or the Germans. And he was propped up by the UK and USA armies.

Also De Gaulle had to make do with what he had available. De Gaulle did not "give the Communists the leading role in the Resistence"; after Germany invaded the Soviet Union, the communists became the leading force behind the Resistence (the first German officer killed by the resistence was killed by the communists, more than a year after France had been defeated). That title was not something "given", it was something earned by their activities and risk.

And in any case, you seem to overestimate the importance of the Resistance. It did help, but it was from being a decisive factor. But again, it was a nice story to justify the tale that France did not "actually" surrender.

Why did French military eventually submitted itself to de Gaulle?

The combined power of the UK, the USA and the Soviet Union seems like a convincing argument to me. And probably some of them were happy to submit to a French leader (De Gaulle, or perhaps any French leader) who got them rid of the Germans.

*1 Also you should differentiate about Petain's reputation during and after the war. After the war it was easy to say "fight to the last man" and repudiate any appeasement/collaboration towards Germany, during the war "trying to preserve something of France after its crushing defeat" was probably a more popular option.

*2 Again here you seem to have a somewhat romantic, heroic vision in the past. I will take some offense on your I don't like its hidden premise that the remaining 30 million French were somehow all cowards/collaborators comment.

It is sooo easy to see a patriotic film and say "freedom or death". But guess what? Most people want to survive (themselves and their families). In additon to that, the French of 1940 had seen how their army, considered one of the most powerfull in the world, had been crushed in two months. It is not an scenario that entices untrained, unarmed civilians to start a rebellion, isn't it? If you feel that they are "cowards" for that, maybe you are very brave. Or maybe you do not know what it means under the occupation of a foreign army.

  • +1 you've made many valid points. I am however puzzled by the direct critique in my address: on the one hand, you call me "romantic" for not questioning hard enough the role of de Gaulle and resistance... yet, you object for my fighting back un the comments against those who try to reinforce the myth of de Gaulle as the only man standing.
    – Roger V.
    Commented Aug 7, 2021 at 7:43
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    Even Philippe Pétain could hardly be called a "coward" for humiliating himself by signing the armstice with the enemy that he vanquished in 1918, in the name of not repeating the mistakes of the previous war, where millions of French were sacrificed. And I bet many people supported him. He could have simply retired, and he would still have streets and squares named after him in every French town, as Joffre and Foch. And he also had the courage to come back to France after the war and face the trial.
    – Roger V.
    Commented Aug 7, 2021 at 10:05
  • It was you who, when DJClayworth explained that not every French officer was interested in De Gaulle's position, pushed for a disjunctive between "actively fighting Germany" and "being all cowards/collaborators".
    – SJuan76
    Commented Aug 7, 2021 at 10:26
  • that discussion followed the very first comment by Steve Bird, which suggested that de Gaulle was "the man", as if others were not. And that comment has three upvotes.
    – Roger V.
    Commented Aug 7, 2021 at 12:05
  • @RogerVadim I believe that at different points Petain and de Gaulle were each responsible for having the other sentenced to death. But both ended up dying of old age.
    – WS2
    Commented Nov 11, 2021 at 16:30

I don't know if that counts as a full answer, but it might be worth more than a comment.

De Gaulle was one of the French proponents of armored warfare. France lost partially due to its insistence on diluting tanks amongst infantry units, which De Gaulle had argued against. On the other hand Germany won precisely by following the type of warfare that had been theorized by De Gaulle among others (Liddell Hart, Tukhachevsky and Guderian...). Being on the side of those whose new theories had been proven successful beyond all expectations can't have hurt, especially when compared to more senior officers whose outdated thinking led to such a calamitous defeat.

Speaking of Giraud:

When World War II began, Giraud was a member of the Superior War Council, and disagreed with Charles de Gaulle about the tactics of using armoured troops.

And furthermore, Giraud was a POW until his escape in 1942, so he couldn't have picked early on.

Also, there was a dramatic element to De Gaulle's speech about continuing the war on June 18 and I guess that counted for a lot to make him the symbol of the continued war, after the speech.

De Gaulle announced his intention to broadcast again the following evening. He was furious to discover that his historic broadcast had not been recorded, as BBC engineers with limited equipment had failed to recognise the importance of the speaker or of his speech. On the 22nd de Gaulle broadcast again, and repeated his message in a speech that was heard much more widely. This time it was recorded. De Gaulle was recognised by Churchill as "the leader of all Free Frenchmen, wherever they may be" and made many more broadcasts to France.

As far as 1961 goes, I am surprised that is being considered. De Gaulle was brought back to "fix" Algeria and his "fix" consisted of hacking the Gordian Knot and declaring his intention to leave Algeria. No surprise the military elements who wanted to continue the war weren't impressed.

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    +1 indeed, de Gaulles' views and early sucesses in tank warfare were probably an important factor... On the other hand, he wasn't the military commander during the liberation of France - he didn't even have a rank for that.
    – Roger V.
    Commented Aug 7, 2021 at 7:24

A large part of the issue was that de Gaulle (born 1890) was one of the few French leaders who was the optimal age (around 50) for generalship and national leadership. Foreign contemporaries in this group include America's Dwight Eisenhower (1890), Britain's John Verreker, Lord Gort (1886), and Germany's Erwin Rommel (1890). Adolf Hitler himself was born a year earlier, in 1889.

On the other hand, the French leaders were a geriatric bunch. Politicians included Leon Blum (1872), Paul Reynaud (1878), Pierre Laval (1883), and Eduoard Daladier (1884). Among the French military, names and birth years included Jean Darlan (1881), Henri Giraud 1879), Maurice Gamelin (1872), Maxime Weygand (1867), and the "grand old man," Phillippe Petain (1856). Only Jean Lattre de Tassigny (1889) was around de Gaulle's age. Marc Bloch (1886), who also deserves mention as a historian and resistance fighter, was not as strategically placed as de Gaulle.

De Gaulle had a head start on his age group, because their "places" were occupied by the other men above. And when the older men left the scene, they created a vacuum for de Gaulle to fill. Neither individually nor collectively were the older men capable of leading the "liberation."

Source: Wikipedia, various bios.

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    I am not sure why someone found it necessary to downvote this, especially as it lists the alternative contenders, albeit without mentioning if they were in the UK or not. Commented Aug 7, 2021 at 3:11
  • +1 I think this is an important observation - it rings true when compating with the political establishments of today.
    – Roger V.
    Commented Aug 7, 2021 at 7:27
  • @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica: I think the downvoters don't like the idea that "age" has to do with it.
    – Tom Au
    Commented Aug 7, 2021 at 16:44
  • But on this basis, Churchill was one of the geriatrics. What was the difference? (Nb not a carp, a genuine question.)
    – TheHonRose
    Commented Aug 24, 2021 at 21:22

TL; DR :
De Gaulle was one of many people who favored continuing the armed resistance against the Nazis. Being less known and less important served him well, as he could flee to Britain without being accused of deserting his country or reneging on his responsibilities. In the same time, once in London, he was protected from the Vichy government, which moved swiftly to neutralize all possible opponents in the French mainland and the colonies (by imprisoning them or engaging/coercing them into collaboration).

June 16, 1940
This is the last day of Paul Raynaud's government. As it is clear that the party favoring the armstice with Germans is about to come to power, general Edward Spears, the trusted representative of Churchill to the French government, is looking for an influential French politician who could come to London and from the French government in exile, following the example of the Czech and Polish government at the time. Spears notably approaches Raynaud (the outgoing prime minister) and Georges Mandel (the minister of the interior) - both refuse. Next day Spears leaves for London with de Gaulle, who however at that point is not seen as such a figure.

Mandel was apparently the Churchill's preferred choice, as he was a consistent and vocal opponent of Nazism since 1933 (while Raynaud was blamed by Churchill for defeatist attitude and sadden swings of mood). A few days later the British ambassador again offered to Mandel to flee to London on a British destroyer. Mandel refuses, saying that such a move would be seen as a defection, and that he intends to continue fighting from the French colonies. He will then travel to Africa on board of Massilia, be arrested there, imprisoned, handed to Germans and eventually assassinated.

27 members of the parlament, including Georges Mandel, Eduard Daladier, Jean Zay, and Pierre Mendès, tried to reach the French colonies in Africa, in order to organize the resistance from there. Because of a chain of unfavorable events and interference from Pétain government, the boat sails only on June 21, i.e., on the eve of signing the armstice. They arrive to Casablanca a few days later, at which point the local French authorities are inclined to side with Pétain government: most of the passangers are arrested and returned to the mainland.

The process of Riom
The high-profile figures from the Raynaud government and the army, including Raynaud himself, Mandel and Daladier, are judged for plunging the country into the war.

De Gaulle
De Gaulle joined the government on June 5, less than two weeks before its fall. Although officially an undersecretary for war, he was de facto the war minister, since the post was vacant (more precisely, Reynaud acted as his own war and foreign ministers). In practice de Gaulle was spending most of his time shuttling between France and London, acting as atrusted representative of Raynaud, i.e., the French equivalent of general Spears. Thus, de Gaulle was highly placed, while lacking potentially harmful political luggage - the fact that was fully understood by those who promoted him. As Mandel said in his pep-talk to de Gaulle2 (my translation) :

"In any case, we are just at the beginning of the world war. You have big things to accomplish, general! But with an advantage of being, among us all, an untarnished man. Think only about things that need to be done for France and keep in mind that, when necessary, your current role could only ease things."

De Gaulle left France on the first day of Pétain government in the Spears' airplane, with a significant sum of money given to him by Raynaud, and a limited assignment to make a counter-announcement after Pétain declares that his government seeks the armstice. As de Gaulle himself remarked1:

"That's good. They don't want me! I get out of here to London."

By "they" he could have meant both Pétain, for not offering de Gaulle a place in the government, and Raynaud and Mandel, who were removing him away from where the main action was supposed to take place.

To summarize:

  • De Gaulle was well placed and with untarnished reputation
  • There was no shortage of brave and capable men who were willing to continue the war, but they were successfully tracked by the Pétain government
  • de Gaulle's low profile worked in his favor: his reputation was untarnished and he didn't have political responsibilities that would prevent him from leaving France.


  1. "De toute façon, nous ne sommes qu'au début de la guerre mondiale. Vous aurez de grands devoirs à remplir, Général! Mais avec l'avantage d'être, au milieu de nous tous, un homme intact. Ne pensez qu'à ce qui doit être fait pour la France et songez que, le cas échéant, votre fonction actuelle pourra vous faciliter les choses."
  2. "C'est bon, ils ne veulent pas de moi ! Dans ces conditions, je fous le camp à Londres"

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