Monday, July 13, 2009

The Unsinkable Charles De Gaulle

by Julia Buckley
Last night we watched The Day of the Jackal, the 1973 movie based on Frederick Forsythe's novel in which an assassin (the Jackal) is hired to kill French President Charles de Gaulle.

I remember watching this movie as a youngster and feeling unbearable suspense, wondering if the Jackal (who happened to be a handsome, ascot-wearing Englishman with a jaunty walk and impeccable style) would be caught before he could do his heinous work. Since I really didn't understand which side was which, I was of course rooting for the Jackal.

These days I am more interested in the political machinations on both sides. De Gaulle was a frequent target for assassinations because, for one thing, he favored independence for French Algeria. A variety of sources suggest that there were at least thirty attempts made on De Gaulle's life, and that De Gaulle had a surprisingly cavalier attitude about them.

In one 1962 attempt, which is portrayed at the beginning of Jackal, "gunmen attacked a motorcade carrying De Gaulle and his wife. De Gaulle's car was raked with gunfire; tires were punctured and the rear window shattered, but the de Gaulles were unhurt. After the car had rolled safely to a stop, de Gaulle climbed out and made the famous remark, "They really are bad shots." (Source:Almost Assassinated;

A previous attempt to kill De Gaulle occurred in 1961 in the Pont-Sur-Seine District, in which plastic explosives were stuffed into a propane container and hidden in a sandpile. According to this source, "De Gaulle's car (a Citroen Deesse) sped toward the sandpile at 70 mph, driven by his favorite chauffeur, Francis Marroux. As it came abreast, the sand exploded, causing the Deesse to lurch sharply and throwing a sheet of flame across the roadway.

De Gaulle ordered Marroux to drive straight through the flames. "Faster!" he commanded, as the car plunged straight for the inferno. "Faster!"

Neither the De Gaulles nor Marroux was hurt. They continued on their way, merely stopping to change cars at a military barracks nearby."

A 1973 TIME Magazine article referenced both the Forsythe novel and the attempts on De Gaulle, and pointed out that one of the reasons why so many of the plots failed is that so many of them were stupid.

"One zany plot called for poisoning the Communion Hosts at the village church in Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises, where De Gaulle attended Mass. The idea was discarded after the plotters realized that the first person to receive a Host would keel over dead and give the scheme away. And there was no way to guarantee that De Gaulle would be first at the Communion rail.

Equally harebrained was a scheme for a kamikaze pilot to crash a small private plane into the French President's helicopter. While circling over Algeria's Blida Airport in anticipation of De Gaulle's departure, the pilot was dismayed to see that a swarm of helicopters had taken off at once. There was no way of knowing which one De Gaulle was in (French security forces routinely used dummy planes and juggled limousines as a precaution)." (link to this Time article from 1973).

Ironically, Charles De Gaulle did not die by any sort of violence; he died suddenly, of a heart attack, at the age of 79. He was sitting in a chair in his own living room, watching television.

By his request, he received no promotions or commendations after his death, and his tombstone bears only his name and the dates of his birth and death.


Sandra Parshall said...

I can never get wrapped up in the suspense when I already know a story's outcome -- in this case, I knew the target was never killed -- but I can still enjoy the suspense over whether the villain will be caught, and how, and whether he'll kill other innocent people in the process. The Day of the Jackal never made me worry about De Gaulle, but it was a great suspense story in other ways.

Forsythe is one of those writers who will always be known primarily for one book, and Jackal is his signature novel. He has never equaled it.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Julia, I understand your rooting for the Jackal. The first time I saw Othello (at the Shakespeare Festival in Central Park in the Fifties, when I was a teenager), I rooted for Iago most of the way through because he was cute. Whatever teenagers think, grownups really do know more!

Julia Buckley said...

Sandra, I felt the same way when I saw VALKYRIE, since we all know Hitler wasn't assassinated.

Liz, I didn't root for him this time, although I did admire his methodical procedures. He was one cool assassin.

Lonnie Cruse said...

Facinating, Julia! And I don't remember whether or not I saw this movie. Most likely I did.

Julia Buckley said...

It's worth another look, if only for a nostalgic look back at the 1960s. The cars, the clothing--it's our past captured onscreen.