De Gaulle Steps Down Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Charles de Gaulle stepped down from the French presidency, easing France’s struggle for a place among the world’s great nations and marking the emergence of domestic concerns as the predominant theme in French national politics.

Summary of Event

On April 28, 1969, President Charles de Gaulle of France picked up the telephone in his home in Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises and dictated a brief farewell statement to the Elysée Palace in Paris: “I am ceasing to exercise my functions as president of the republic. This decision takes effect today at noon.” The call signaled the end of de Gaulle’s eleven-year reign as president of the French Republic. This period witnessed the birth of the Fifth French Republic, the end of the Algerian crisis, and the exit of France from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s defense structure. It saw the development of a French nuclear arsenal and striking force, and a French drive for leadership of the developing nations in Africa and Asia. The French people reacted with optimistic anticipation of new leadership with its greater attention to pressing social and economic problems at home. Nostalgia and a sense of loss tempered their reflections upon de Gaulle and the end of a great era in French history. Presidency, French [kw]De Gaulle Steps Down (Apr. 28, 1969) [kw]Gaulle Steps Down, De (Apr. 28, 1969) Presidency, French [g]Europe;Apr. 28, 1969: De Gaulle Steps Down[10240] [g]France;Apr. 28, 1969: De Gaulle Steps Down[10240] [c]Government and politics;Apr. 28, 1969: De Gaulle Steps Down[10240] Gaulle, Charles de [p]Gaulle, Charles de;resignation from presidency Pompidou, Georges Poher, Alain Frey, Roger Messmer, Pierre Ortoli, François-Xavier Mitterrand, François Mollet, Guy Cohn-Bendit, Daniel Giscard d’Estaing, Valéry

De Gaulle’s downfall began eleven months before his official resignation. On March 22, 1968, a student demonstration against the Vietnam War, led by Daniel Cohn-Bendit, erupted at the Nanterre branch of the University of Paris; five Nanterre students were jailed. Nanterre’s Rector closed the Nanterre branch of the University after consulting the French ministry of education. Incensed by the rector’s arbitrary action, Nanterre’s faculty joined the fray on the side of the students.

Cohn-Bendit, who was known as “Danny the Red,” was ordered to appear before the disciplinary council at the Sorbonne in Paris. He made the three-hour walk from Nanterre to his hearing in Paris at the head of a student procession. May, 1968, French uprisings[May, nineteen sixty eight, French uprisings] French leftist uprisings (1968) At the Sorbonne campus in Paris, the procession was met by a group of hard-core anticommunist war veterans. The rector of the Sorbonne called on the police to keep order. There were 596 arrests.

French labor unions joined the protest by staging one-day general strikes throughout industrial France. After six weeks of chaos, the one-day protest strikes had burgeoned into a national strike of the national workforce. Airports, railroads, and bus lines were shut down; utilities were cut off; mail delivery ceased. Restaurants and hotels closed for lack of business. By early 1969, France had approached a state of anarchy. At the height of the unrest, President de Gaulle called for a national referendum. He vowed to resign “without delay” if his bid for a personal power mandate was defeated. The 53 percent “no” vote registered by the French electorate on April 27, 1969, was the immediate cause of de Gaulle’s retirement.

In the long-term view, de Gaulle and the French people had drawn apart on many issues. The president had concerned himself more with the French military, France’s foreign policy, and the pursuit of “greatness” abroad than with domestic problems. By 1969, the high cost of making France a power on the international scene went far beyond the country’s economic and military resources, and the French electorate was weary of the austerity in domestic spending it dictated.

France had moved into the age of mass consumerism, pop culture, discotheques, and travel abroad. French interest in reorganization of business and farming along American lines, involving computers and computer management, required lower taxes and tax incentives to produce money for these activities. De Gaulle neither understood these needs nor addressed them in budgetary matters. To the French people who voted “no” on April 27, his lack of foresight made him seem out of step with the times. De Gaulle’s domineering style and omnipresent personality had become an embarrassment to many and a frequent irritant to French sensibilities.

The president’s cabinet members joined in the massive effort to achieve an affirmative vote for de Gaulle. Pierre Messmer, de Gaulle’s defense minister, informed voters that the government planned to reduce compulsory military service from sixteen to twelve months. Finance Minister François Xavier Ortoli promised that no new taxes would be levied in the year ahead. Minister of State Roger Frey drew a frightening picture of France without de Gaulle. Even Georges Pompidou, the former premier who had been dismissed by de Gaulle after his successful management of the campaign for a “yes” vote in the 1968 referendum, campaigned vigorously in support of the president’s proposals. In opposition to de Gaulle, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, the former minister of finance, and Alain Poher, president of the French senate, stumped France in defense of “the separation of powers.” Socialist Party chief Guy Mollet and the Socialist maverick François Mitterrand supported their efforts.


A new emphasis on domestic problems followed de Gaulle’s exit from power. France’s archaic road system, which had only one-fifth of the turnpike miles of West Germany, now received greater funding. The new budget allowed for a preliminary attack on France’s outmoded and inefficient telephone system. As de Gaulle’s successor, Pompidou no longer denied French workers higher wages because of “prestige” projects abroad. He rescued the French educational system, far too rigid and woefully overcrowded, from Gaullist inattention. The French began to feel a shift in governmental policy.

In foreign affairs, where de Gaulle had registered his greatest successes, Pompidou moved less boldly. Nevertheless, unmistakable shifts in policy direction were visible. De Gaulle’s pro-Arab stance in the Middle East relaxed. This shift eased tension in the Western bloc and possibly paved the way for more cordial Franco-Israeli relations. France’s adamant insistence on British exclusion from the Common Market appeared certain to dissolve under Pompidou. British inclusion in the Common Market meant a unified Western Europe, strong enough to be independent of both the United States and Soviet Union. Pompidou moved quickly after his election to extend the rapprochement that de Gaulle had begun with the United States. Two important programs of the Gaullist period, however, stayed in place. French forces remained outside NATO, and the French government continued to enhance its nuclear power facilities and weaponry. Presidency, French

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Chalaby, Jean K. The de Gaulle Presidency and the Media: Statism and Public Communications. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002. Focuses on the public perception of de Gaulle’s presidency, the president’s public relations, and the role of the media in his political successes and failures. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cook, Don. Charles de Gaulle: A Biography. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1983. As Paris Bureau Chief, Don Cook covered the European political arena for the Los Angeles Times. He produced this de Gaulle biography from an American viewpoint.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Furniss, Edgar S., Jr. France, Troubled Ally: De Gaulle’s Heritage and Prospects. New York: Harper & Row, 1960. Produced by the Council on Foreign Relations, this volume reviews the key episodes of French foreign policy since World War II, centering on the prime influence of French domestic demands on the policy-making process and the continuity of policy as the Fourth French Republic gave way to the Fifth.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hoffmann, Stanley, et al. In Search of France: The Economy, Society, and the Political System in the Twentieth Century. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1963. Six knowledgeable students of French history, social structure, politics, and economy focus on the changed and changing French situation; a well-integrated and informative discussion of postwar France that concludes with a reassessment of the national character.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jackson, Julian. Charles de Gaulle. London: Haus, 2003. Biography focused on de Gaulle’s early life and the circumstances under which he returned to power in 1958. Provides the background to his presidency. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lacouture, Jean. De Gaulle: The Ruler, 1945-1970. Translated from the French by Alan Sheridan. New York: W. W. Norton, 1991. Lacouture’s extensively annotated and indexed second volume of his biography of de Gaulle covers the creation of France’s Fourth Republic to de Gaulle’s death in 1970.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Macridis, Roy C., and Bernard E. Brown. The de Gaulle Republic: Quest for Unity. Homewood, Ill.: The Dorsey Press, 1960. This analysis of de Gaulle’s Fifth Republic outlines and submits to careful critical scrutiny the origins, institutions, and prospects of the new constitution and leadership.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pickles, Dorothy. The Fifth French Republic: Institutions and Politics. New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1960. This book analyzes the nature and purposes of the Constitution of the Fifth Republic adopted on October 4, 1958. The author employs her understanding of French politics to estimate how its purposes were achieved after a brief period of implementation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Williams, Charles. The Last Great Frenchman: A Life of General de Gaulle. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1993. The author, Lord Williams of Elvel and deputy leader of the opposition in the British House of Lords in 1993, has put together this fine analysis of Charles de Gaulle, the private man and the public figure.

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Categories: History