Visiting Lille, France: birthplace museum of General Charles de Gaulle

Flag of France
Flag of France | Source
Birthplace museum of General Charles de Gaulle, Lille
Birthplace museum of General Charles de Gaulle, Lille | Source
President Richard Nixon and staff with President Charles de Gaulle, 1969
President Richard Nixon and staff with President Charles de Gaulle, 1969 | Source
Map location of Lille, France
Map location of Lille, France | Source

A profoundly thought provoking, historical place

What proved to be a momentous event in French history occurred in rue Princesse, in the northern Frence city of Lille in 1890. The birth occurred of Charles de Gaulle, later an army General, in whom the aspirations of a large proportion of French people rested during the struggle for liberation against Nazi Germany in World War Two. The house in which he was born is now a museum, and I was fascinated to visit it.

Even the bed in which he was born is kept in the museum, as is the Citroën automobile in which he was travelling in 1962, when an assassination attempt was made upon him.

Interestingly, with Lille being situated close to the Belgian border, Charles de Gaulle's parents arranged for part of his schooling to be undertaken in Antoing, Belgium, where the secularist influence of French state schools did not apply. De Gaulle saw military service in World War One, and was injured in Belgium. Between the wars he was noted as an a strong advocate of the mobility advantages of tank warfare. There is a sense in which the German armies took such views to heart more than the French leadership, because France's defeat in 1940 was substantially achieved by the rapid and efficient use of Panzer tank divisions. When General de Gaulle made his famous broadcast from London, England, calling on French people to continue to resist German occupation, he was not well known, and a recording of his original speech did not even survive.

In the years between the World Wars, France was noted for deep social and political divisions and it became clear to de Gaulle that in order to exercise an effective role in political leadership after World War Two, he would have to be perceived as standing above those divisions. Even before his prominence in World War Two, the later General Charles de Gaulle was noted for a fierce privacy in manner and a marked absence of a sense of camaraderie. The extent to which this was natural or contrived is an open question. Eventually he was even known to dismiss aides on the grounds that he might otherwise be perceived as being too friendly with them. But these traits undoubtedly served the General well in his long term aim of appearing to maintain an almost imperial aloofness above the arguments and disagreements of other officers and politicians.

During his years of exile in World War Two, and as leader of the Free French Forces, General de Gaulle's relations with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, American President F D Roosevelt and Allied Supreme Commander General Dwight D. Eisenhower were not without difficulty. It is fair to say that, with a deep knowledge of the French national — indeed, nationalist — psyche, de Gaulle, in seemingly paying little attention to cultivating smooth relations with Allied leaders, was thereby buying credibility with French people, which would later serve him well from a political perspective. General Eisenhower, whose coordinating efforts among Allied forces and personalities were hugely challenging, evidently decided to give General de Gaulle the benefit of a prominence, which in the strictest military — if not political — terms, he was not necessarily owed. Following the Normandy Landings in June 1944, it was de Gaulle who presided over the entry of French troops into Paris in August of that year.

In power from 1944 to 1946, General de Gaulle spent what were perceived to be several years of political exile until the Algerian crisis brought increased pressures for his return to office. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, the Fourth Republic saw many governments come and go, and, with severe military challenges overseas, the country's institutions seemed to be perpetually under great strain. I remember attending a function in Belgium years later when I by chance saw Pierre Pflimlin, then President of the European Parliament, who had been a short-lived Prime Minister during the long-running Algerian crisis, and whose replacement by General de Gaulle in 1958 was viewed with seemingly equal measures of acclaim and dismay.

First as Prime Minister, then, after a constitutional revision, as President, in which office he continued until 1969, General de Gaulle made a number of far reaching changes which increased France's role and prominence in the world. French rapprochement with Germany was already underway before General de Gaulle's return to office, but he notably improved relations with Germany's Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, and sealed measures of Franco-German friendship which have considerably driven the process of European integration, which has found expression in the European Union. However, when one even speaks of the term 'friendship' here, it must be understood in a Gaullist sense of a rational calculation of state interest in a manner worthy of French monarchs such as Louis XIV.

As President, General de Gaulle developed an independent military nuclear deterrent. He withdrew France from the military command structure of NATO. He restored stability to the French franc, and in retrospect this may be seen as a necessary first step towards the single European currency which many members of the European Union eventually adopted. The Constitution of the Fifth Republic, under which he ruled as President for ten years,

He was known for his long monologues at press conferences at the Elysée Palace, at which his ministers were expected to sit silently (like recalcitrant schoolchildren, some said). In 1963 he famously vetoed British membership of what was then known as the European Economic Community: the French 'Non!' He possessed a flair for the dramatic, as when in 1967 he gave an unscripted speech in Montreal perceived as calling for the liberation of Quebec, causing an embarrassed Canadian Prime Minister Lester Pearson — pressed by his minister Pierre Trudeau — to contradict publicly his awkward guest.

In 1961 he received at the Elysée Palace President John F. Kennedy and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy. In 1969 he received President Richard M. Nixon, who shared with him a distrust of the United Nations.

In 1965, General de Gaulle was opposed for reelection by François Mitterrand, who lost the election but eventually became a long-serving Socialist President from 1981 until 1995, and, together with the similarly long-serving Federal German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, maintained and deepened the Franco-German collaboration and friendship — again, understood in terms of a rational calculation of interests. A number of subsequent Presidents of France have been Gaullists. But there is a sense in which General de Gaulle's legacy was felt and actively pursued by successors far beyond the confines of the political movement which subsequently bore his name.

Not noted for a easy, humorous manner, General de Gaulle has yet gone down in history as having wondered how he could govern a country which had such a huge variety of cheeses. He was also on record as having sought somewhat mysteriously to persuade US First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy that Joseph Stalin had been the most humorous leader he had known.

Also worth seeing

Lille has cultural attractions too numerous to mention, but these include the picturesque place du General de Gaulle , with its Old Stock Exchange (la vieille Bourse ) and the nearby Chamber of Commerce belfry.

Roubaix (distance: 13 kilometres) has some distinguished architecture, including a 1911 City Hall and the Medieval church of St. Martin.

Tourcoing (distance: 15 kilometres) has many distinguished buildings, including a belfry, and the City Hall dating from 1885.

Comines, France (distance: 17 kilometres), separated by the Lys River from the Belgian part of its conurbation, itsTown Hall belfry is interesting, and there is a bust of the Medieval chronicler Philippe de Commynes in the grounds of St. Chrysole church.

Antoing , Belgium (distance: 40 kilometres), has a Medieval castle belonging to the de Ligne Princes.

Acknowledgment: In preparing this short article, I am glad to acknowledge courses followed at Reading University many years ago which were led by Dr. D. L. Hanley, Dr. P. T. Kerr and Dr. N. H Waites; any inaccuracies remain solely mine.

How to get there: Brussels Airlines flies from New York to Brussels Airport (Brussel Nationaal / Bruxelles-National ), from where car rental is available. Brussels is the nearest large airport to Lille (distance: 129 kilometres). Continental Airlines flies from New York Newark to Paris (Aéroport Paris-Charles de Gaulle ), from where car rental is available (distance from Paris-Charles de Gaulle airport to Lille: 201 kilometres). Please check with the airline or your travel agent for up to date information. Please refer to appropriate consular sources for any special border crossing arrangements which may apply to citizens of certain nationalities.

MJFenn is an independent travel writer based in Ontario, Canada

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