After his death on November 9th 1970 in his family home, La Boisserie, in Colombey-les-deux-Eglises in the Champagne-Ardenne region, Charles de Gaulle did not, allegedly, want anything to be built in his memory. Nevertheless, less than two years later, on June 18th 1972, the massive 44-metre-high Croix de Lorraine, at the summit of the highest hill in the village, was inaugurated by President Georges Pompidou and de Gaulle’s wife and family in commemoration of his “Appel du 18 juin”.
Arguably, the cross represents a tribute to the Free French movement and to the heroism of French resistance, rather than to de Gaulle himself. On Saturday October 10th 2008, however, the Mémorial Charles de Gaulle, built at the foot of the Croix de Lorraine, was officially opened by President Sarkozy and Angela Merkel. Despite de Gaulle’s wishes, it is dedicated to the leader of the Free French movement himself, to his life, achievements and impact on French twentieth-century history.
Its inauguration coincides with the anniversary of de Gaulle and Adenauer’s meeting at La Boisserie on September 14th, 1958. The focus of the first temporary exhibition is thus on the history of Franco-German relations over the past fifty years. De Gaulle desired their meeting to represent a “marque exceptionnelle” towards a Franco-German rapprochement and he consequently invited the German chancellor to his family home in the belief that:
“le cadre d’une maison familiale a plus de signification que n’en aurait le décors d’un palais” (“the surroundings of a family home is far more symbolic than the décor of a palace”).
According to the museum’s curators and designers, the memorial is not intended as a glorification of de Gaulle; its aim is to provide an insight into his personality. He is portrayed neither as a politician nor as a military figure, but instead as a man, a family man and a man attached to the land of Colombey-les-deux-Eglises. In the words of Christian Le Conte, the exhibition designer, the aim was to depict
“l’homme d’abord, l’homme privé” (the man, above all, the private man”).
An outstanding feature of the exhibition is de Gaulle’s love of nature and of Colombey-les-deux-Eglises in particular, where he used to take long walks in the surrounding countryside. The opening room of the display is thus hung with large screens upon which are projected images of trees throughout the seasons. If de Gaulle is not glorified, he is, however, portrayed as a great figure of French history and there appears a slight gulf between the discourse and the actual display. On the one hand, it is very difficult to dissociate the man from the political figure; the exhibition is not solely about de Gaulle’s private life, but rather seeks to put forward his personality as well as his political and military achievements. Secondly, this gulf is also a reflection of the designers’ and curators’ pride that de Gaulle was so attached to their homeland.
De Gaulle was “l’homme attaché au people, à la terre de France”. He is the “man of Colombey” and Colombey is a “terre gaullienne” (Christian Le Conte).
He left such an imprint that the exhibition presents French twentieth century through the figure of de Gaulle. It addresses some of the difficulties of de Gaulle’s career and the times when he was not a French hero, in particular at the beginning of the Second World War under the Vichy government when he was sentenced to death for treason in August 1940 and threatened to be stripped of his French identity.
However, de Gaulle was ultimately able to overcome these difficulties and was consequently all the greater. He became the leader of the Free French and, in 1959, he was elected the leader of France. My interest in the memory of the harkis, who fought on the French side during the Algerian War of Independence, but were then left, after the ceasefire, to be massacred by the Algerian independence forces, made me curious to see how the designers had presented de Gaulle’s role in the Algerian War. The leaders of the Fifth Republic ordered the French army not to intervene over the massacres and forbade the repatriation of the majority of the harkis. Following the ceasefire their memory was erased from French national history.
To my disappointment, the section on the Algerian War was the only part of the exhibition that had not been completed! Merely a coincidence perhaps, but my conversation with Christian Le Conte did reveal the extent to which the memory of de Gaulle remains influenced by some of the shortcomings of his leadership which are, still today, difficult to come to terms with. Memory also remains a political issue: the construction of the Mémorial was initiated by the Fondation de Gaulle; nevertheless, when the local regional council took over the project became tainted by politics.
The President of the General Council of the Haute-Marne, which funded its construction, is from the centre-right UMP (Union pour un Mouvement Populaire) party, notably inspired by Gaullist ideals, which suggests a possible reluctance to condemn the darker sides of de Gaulle’s’ leadership. Le Conte thus feared that some of the more controversial aspects of de Gaulle’s career may be tainted by the “ambiguous” position of local political leaders.