De Gaulle and his visits abroad

Setting aside any of his pre-1940 postings abroad, General de Gaulle made many visits abroad both in and out of office. Their purpose was to consolidate or strengthen France's "rank": for him, France was "never so great as when she spoke to the world".

In the period from 1940 to 1946, despite the mutual distrust that had grown up between Roosevelt and de Gaulle during the war, the French leader accepted the US President's invitation to visit the USA (New York and Washington) and Canada (Ottawa, Montreal and Quebec) between 5 and 12 July 1944, wiping out some of the unhappy memories of their past differences, but the Provisional Government had still not received  official recognition at this point. De Gaulle also paid a visit to the USSR (24 November - 2 December 1944). As President of the GPRF (provisional government), he travelled via Baku and Stalingrad on his way to Moscow. His meetings with Stalin were hard going. A Franco-Soviet pact was signed, but this was more of a compromise than any real victory for France: in exchange, France had to send an unofficial representative to the Lublin Committee, even though de Gaulle considered the Polish government in exile as the sole legal government. Stalin was less inclined than the allies to grant France any favours. 

During his years in the desert, the General made two visits to the Empire: in March 1953 (Senegal, Niger, Chad), and then the following September (Madagascar, Djibouti, the Comoro Islands, Réunion). After winding down the Rassemblement du Peuple Français, he toured the world in August-September 1956: Guyana, the French West Indies then through the Panama Canal to Tahiti, New Caledonia and the New Hebrides. His last overseas trip was to the Algerian Sahara in March 1957. These visits did much to make de Gaulle better known throughout the Empire, and to increase his own understanding of it. 

On his return to power, he resumed his travels. The first reason, and the most pressing in 1958, was the situation in Algeria and the need to explain the reasons for the constitutional referendum, while the second was, as ever, to assert France's rank in the world. From 20 to 29 August, the Head of State visited sub-Saharan Africa, Madagascar and Algeria to explain the future constitution and the federal status of the Community, stressing wherever he went – and particularly in Conakry where Sékou Touré announced that Guinea would vote no in the referendum – that no possible solutions were ruled out, including secession. Algeria was his most frequent destination, however. It was on his first visit to Algeria (3 to 7 June 1958), during a speech in the Place du Forum in Algiers, that he made the famous remark "I have understood you...", which has been interpreted in so many different ways. The purpose of the seven trips he made there between June 1958 and December 1960 was to try and understand the state of mind of the European and Muslim populations and also to remind the army where its duty lay; he did not return to the country after its independence.

In Europe, the rapprochement between France and Germany was his primary concern, while the UK was looked on with suspicion as a result of its links to the USA. His most frequent visits were to West Germany (twelve in ten years), whereas he visited Britain only twice, once in 1960 and again in January 1965 to attend Churchill's funeral. This did not prevent him from making other visits to Western European countries, to Italy and the Vatican, to the Netherlands. 

Once the Algerian question was settled, de Gaulle felt himself more at liberty to engage in truly global politics. France must be able to offer a third way between the two power blocs created at Yalta, and must have a presence in the Third World. Franco-American relations were fraught with suspicion and de Gaulle, the standard-bearer of national independence, would not permit the leader of the Western bloc to give orders to France, even if they were on the same side. His trips to the USA were few: one in April 1960, and two others for the funerals of Kennedy (November 1963) and Eisenhower (March 1969). It was as a mark of his commitment to independence that de Gaulle turned towards Eastern Europe, seeking to create a Europe stretching "from the Atlantic to the Urals". His visit of 20 June to 1 July 1966 to the Soviet Union was spectacular from this point of view, and opened the way for further visits to the Soviet bloc: to Poland (6-12 September 1967) and to Romania (14 - 18 May 1968), during the May crisis. Everywhere he went, de Gaulle was acclaimed; everywhere he went, he advocated a policy of independence, scorning political regimes for the historical reality of the nation.

It was this desire for independence which he displayed on so many occasions that led him to venture into America's "backyard". The Head of State made two visits to Latin America, the first to Mexico in March 1964, where in the main square of Mexico City he pronounced the famous "marchemos la mano en la mano!"; a few months later (20 September – 16 October), he took up the same themes of co-operation in the ten other states of South America. In reality, co-operation between the Latin sister-states remained tenuous, and the visits failed to have the impact de Gaulle had hoped for, either in terms of French standing in this part of the world, or in encouraging greater independence from the Anglo-Saxon world. Against the backdrop of the Vietnam war, his Phnom Penh speech in Cambodia on 1 September 1966 was an appeal for the defence of national sovereignty and independence. On the occasion of the Great Exhibition held in Montreal in July 1967, de Gaulle decided to travel by sea on board the cruiser Colbert. He made a stop-over at Saint-Pierre-et-Miquelon, which had rallied to Free France in December 1941, sailed into the mouth of the Saint Lawrence on 23 July, then followed the Chemin du Roy leading to Montreal. At each stopping-point he raised the topic of the "French people of Canada", right up to the speech given from the balcony of Montreal city hall, where his "Vive le Québec libre!" provoked so many reactions, some warm, many others negative. He cut short his visit at Montreal, without continuing to Ottawa as initially planned.

After 1962, de Gaulle made no further visits to the former empire, even though he considered  it important from the point of view of co-operation in all its forms, and from the more recent viewpoint of promoting the French language.

Even so, all de Gaulle's overseas visits contributed significantly to demonstrating France's position in the world, and making the General's personality more widely known. He spoke in the language of the host country, which won him extraordinary enthusiasm and consideration. He sought to show by this that the idea of the nation takes precedence over any other consideration, and he was acclaimed for this recognition of peoples. His other motivation, of course, was to make it clear that France was an independent and sovereign power. 

After stepping down from power, Charles de Gaulle made two private journeys, the first to Ireland from 10 May to 19 June 1969, while the presidential election campaign was being held in France, and the second to Spain from 3 to 27 June 1970.