If Pierre de Gaulle can attract press attention when desired, his family name has more than a little to do with it. Known to many simply as ‘le Général‘, his grandfather Charles led Free France against Nazi Germany during WWII, rewrote the French constitution, and was twice elected president in the 1960s. A few years ago, Charles de Gaulle was even voted the greatest Frenchman of all time. One of 5 grandchildren today carrying the family line forward, Pierre has recently stepped in the spotlight to expound his provocative, nonconformist views on the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Coming from a De Gaulle, his remarks didn’t please everyone – the French government especially. This spring, I went to Barcelona to make Pierre’s portrait for a Swiss magazine.
I was having my own altercation with a government department at the time. During a simple renewal procedure, the British Passport Office had lost my passport at their office in London, generating an administration farce that lasted for months (see my interview on iNews for an emotional account by a frequently travelling, freelance photographer with a livelihood in jeopardy). Yet, although I had exhausted my allowance of emergency travel documents and still had no passport, I was determined to fulfil this assignment in Barcelona – just over the border from the South of France. The Spanish embassy in Paris suggested “off the record” that I take a chance and drive in; a photographer friend in Spain told me that cars are regularly checked at the border and the train would be safer; another Spanish friend advised taking the TGV instead of a slower train, which would have more thorough police controls. There were no seats left on the TGV from Nice, so I booked the last seat available from Montpellier and drove there. As the train whizzed through the Pyrenees, a couple of purposeful policemen progressed down the carriage, looking carefully at everyone, but fortunately, despite my sweaty palms, I did not get picked out for an ID check.
Mr De Gaulle lives between Switzerland and Spain, and he had also just had a tricky trip, on a delayed flight from Geneva. When he at last arrived, apologetic and having just rushed across the city, I suggested we sit for a moment before starting the portraits. We settled down, with a cool drink, in the sumptuous salon of the genteel, old-world-hotel that was our meeting place. After his initial reticence to discuss the topic of the article, Pierre sounded out the temperature and nature of my own political opinions (cool; interested in all perspectives), before opening up. Geopolitics ahoy – this was to be a fascinating ‘settle down’ conversation indeed.
In a nutshell, Pierre places the blame for the current conflict in the Ukraine almost entirely on America. He considers that an economic war is being waged against Russians by the US, through the EU and NATO. His declaration to this effect, delivered in a televised speech at the Russian embassy in Paris – on Russia’s national day, no less -, delighted the Kremlin as much as it horrified the French administration. Pierre considers Putin to be a “great leader for his country“, and maintains that Russian war technology is more advanced than equipment provided by Americans in the conflict. He laments the enduring fact that, in a broader commercial and political context, Europe is not more open to partnerships with China and Russia. It would be hard to write off De Gaulle’s erudite, coherent opinions as conspiracy theorism and, even if he lives outside France, he is certainly not anti-French. Au contraire. Pierre says he has, above all, French interests at heart.
Pierre is in the middle of something of a career change. Going public with his views has led this formerly quiet, financial advisor to lose a bunch of clients – yet in other circles, he has gained new ones, and is now in lively demand too as an after dinner speaker. He delights in his self-appointed mission: to denounce manipulation and open people’s eyes to the reality of US-Russia relations, contributing to a shift in public opinion and, hopefully, French foreign policy. The French far right is unsurprisingly desperate to be his new best friend, but the love isn’t reciprocated, he says. For starters, Pierre doesn’t believe that Europe should be split up. He might like to see technocrats in Brussels replaced, but it would be by “big projects truly shared between nations”. He explains that his ‘going public’ stems from concerns about the future. “The world is changing, and Europeans will be the losers in all this.” I had the feeling that for everything he said, there was plenty more that he didn’t: at one point, he pointed at his phone’s microphone and told me that since his Russian embassy speech, all his conversations are under surveillance by the French government.
Eventually, it was time to make his portrait. Pierre seems as happy posing for a photographer as he is speaking – predilections he thinks he perhaps inherited from his grandfather. Charles de Gaulle died when his grandson Pierre was only seven, so the latter has no real memories of him, but there are many other family members around today (contrary to what the Queen of England assumed when she met Pierre: putting an arm around his shoulder, she asked sympathetically “are you the last one?“). The press gleefully announced that Pierre’s views had cleaved the family apart, but while he admits that brother Yves’ proximity to the president means he keeps a certain distance from Pierre publicly, it apparently doesn’t stop the De Gaulles having nice Christmases together. In any case, although Charles was taller than his grandson is, and with much bigger feet (Charles de Gaulle’s were a whopping size 47), I looked for, and found, a distinct physical family likeness.
While the Louis XV-style drawing room I’d commandeered was perfectly fine for portraits, after I’d done the first set-up, Pierre told me he knew of a place nearby that might be of more interest to a photographer. He wasn’t wrong. The Cotton House is a 19th century, neoclassical textile industry headquarters repurposed as a luxury hotel – an eclectic blend of contemporary design and past colonial glory. Pierre de Gaulle may show the world a neutral, conservative exterior, but his sensitivity to quirky design and taste in music (he owns a stack of vinyl records, and raved about PJ Harvey’s new album) are not the only unexpected aspects of his character: Pierre loves the Barcelona vibe (as does his Algerian-Turkish wife); he happily discussed astrology – both western and Chinese (he’s a Gemini water rabbit); and he talked nostalgically about his youth, when he dressed outrageously and was a regular fixture of 1980s Paris and London nightlife scenes.
My train back to the South of France the following day had been cancelled due to strikes. During the long, arduous journey that eventually took me to my car, I reflected on how appropriate my ‘illegal’, passport-less travel had been to meet this man, whose establishment name and appearance belies his anti-establishment soul. I had, at one point, expressed my sadness to him that a reportage I’d wanted to do in Russia now had to be dropped, as, due to the conflict, I had as much chance of getting a visa to the moon. “It depends on who you know“, Pierre had replied, charismatically. I don’t doubt that Mr de Gaulle knows some very interesting people indeed.
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