When it comes to failed governments in our time, it’s hard to ignore French President François Hollande’s administration. Hollande’s record on basic issues like unemployment as well as his ineptness in the face of jihadist terrorism is so unimpressive that he declined to run for reelection. This, however, hasn’t stopped his government from making the type of last-minute defiant gesture beloved of administrations whose days are numbered.
In Hollande’s case, it has taken the form of effectively banning pro-life websites that don’t explicitly identify themselves as pro-life. This follows a 2016 ruling by France’s Conseil d’État endorsing a broadcasting tribunal’s 2014 decision to prohibit a commercial portraying Down Syndrome children as joyful individuals loved by their parents because it might distress those who chose to terminate an unborn disabled child.
Reflecting upon these developments, I couldn’t help thinking how much France owes to one particular Down Syndrome child: a young girl who struggled to speak, needed assistance to walk, and who died of pneumonia at the age of 20 cradled in her father’s arms. Anne de Gaulle’s father, however, was no ordinary man.
Charles de Gaulle was surely the twentieth century’s greatest Frenchman. Yet for all his achievements, the ultimate drama of de Gaulle’s life was his helpless daughter. What Anne gave to him, however, was immeasurable. As de Gaulle confided to a priest at the beginning of his lonely crusade in 1940 to save France’s honor, “for me, this child is a grace, she is my joy, she helps me to look beyond all the failures and honors, and always to look higher.”
Un enfant pas comme les autres
Charles de Gaulle was an austere individual, one who consciously cultivated distance from others. 47 years after his death, however, we know much more about the private man. Thanks to the publication of memoirs, especially those of his son Admiral Philippe de Gaulle, the General emerges as a man who, like many French army officers of his background, found solace in his Catholic faith and a closely-knit family. We’re also discovered that de Gaulle had a rich intellectual life which went far beyond politics. This went hand-in-hand with a wicked sense of humor which, in private, de Gaulle wasn’t averse to using against himself.
By the time he reached his mid-30s, de Gaulle had settled into a milieu in which his faith, family and profession provided many of the certainties required for an ambitious man intent upon shaking up a political and military establishment committed to obsolete ideas. All this was shattered on 1 January 1928 when Charles and Yvonne de Gaulle’s third child was born. Within a few months, it became apparent that Anne was severely disabled.
It’s important to remember that this was an era in which disabled children were neither seen nor heard in polite company. Down Syndrome children were referred to as “mongols.” Some even speculated that the condition resulted from alcoholism or some form of impropriety on the parents’ part. It wasn’t until 30 years after Anne de Gaulle’s birth that another devout French Catholic, Professor Jerome Lejeune, and his research team discovered that Down Syndrome was caused by an extra copy of chromosome 21.
In the 1930s, it was common for French families to place disabled children permanently in hospitals that were woefully ill-equipped to care them. Charles and Yvonne de Gaulle, however, refused to send Anne to live with, as he would say, “strangers.” In de Gaulle’s words, “God has given her to us. We must take responsibility for her, wherever she is and whatever she will be.” In a way, de Gaulle’s reaction to Anne’s entry into his life foreshadowed the spirit of resistance expressed in his famous appeal of 18 June 1940 to Frenchmen to continue the war against Germany.
The de Gaulles worked hard to build a place for, to use de Gaulle’s expression, “a child who is not like the others” in their family. From all accounts, Yvonne de Gaulle adopted a matter-of-fact approach. She focused on the practicalities of caring for a disabled child. Charles de Gaulle’s contribution was to envelop Anne in a web of affection. According to his son, de Gaulle wanted to give Anne the assurance that he loved her just as much as her older brother and sister—that her disability meant nothing to him.
The tall army officer infamous for his air of haughty disdain as leader of Free France during World War II and later as French President didn’t hesitate to unbend to play on the floor with Anne. De Gaulle sang to Anne, told her stories, and even allowed her to play with one of his most treasured possessions: his officer’s kepi hat. De Gaulle also said prayers with Anne in the evening. Painstakingly, she would repeat each word after her father. “You see,” de Gaulle proudly informed his relatives, “she knows her prayers!”
When away on army business, de Gaulle constantly inquired about Anne’s well-being. On one occasion, Anne had an operation while he was absent on maneuvers. De Gaulle telephoned incessantly to ask if she was in pain, whether the procedure had succeeded, what the doctors were saying, etc. Anne seems to have been aware of just how much she meant to her father. Her first governess recalled that Anne adored him and would be visibly upset when his responsibilities took de Gaulle away from his family.
Though the de Gaulles valued their privacy, they didn’t view Anne as an embarrassment. There are pictures of her standing awkwardly with members of the de Gaulles’ extended family. Most striking, however, is a photo of Anne taken at a beach in Brittany in 1933. She is sitting on her father’s lap. He, dressed in a homburg hat and three-piece suit, gently holds her hands as the five year-old girl looks intensely into her father’s eyes. It’s an image of unconditional love.
While Anne lived, the de Gaulles took her everywhere with them. That included less-than-hospitable locations such as the French mandate in Syria and Lebanon. De Gaulle was posted there in 1929, partly because some of his superiors wanted to sideline an officer who asked awkward questions about France’s readiness for the next war. There was, however, no question of leaving Anne behind. Instead she went with them, with the de Gaulles hiring a full-time governess to help them care for Anne in a Middle-Eastern country.
Fragility—and Resistance—in the face of Evil
There was, of course, a cost to all this. Though Charles de Gaulle came from a minor aristocratic family and his wife from an upper-middle class background, the de Gaulles were not wealthy. His modest army pay was their main source of income. Hiring full-time help was subsequently an enormous financial liability, but one they didn’t hesitate to assume.
Then there was the psychological burden. As Yvonne de Gaulle’s biographer Frédérique Neau-Dufour observes, Yvonne was an exuberant, even care-free young woman before Anne was born. After Anne’s birth, that woman gradually disappeared. Yvonne became a much quieter, even somewhat withdrawn person who dreaded public appearances. This, however, didn’t stop her from undertaking the extremely difficult task of successfully fleeing France with the profoundly disabled Anne in tow as the German Army swept across the country in May and June 1940.
This brings into focus another factor of which Charles de Gaulle was undoubtedly aware: how the National Socialist regime treated the disabled. Eugenics was part and parcel of the Nazi view of the world (and most Western liberal opinion for decades). And, as the Nazis made clear right from the beginning, the disabled had no place in a National Socialist world. They were lebensunwertes leben (life unworthy of life).
Starting in September 1939, the Nazi government began removing Down Syndrome children and infants suffering from other disabilities from their parents. These children were taken to “health facilities” and killed by lethal injection or gas poisoning. In the name of “racial health” and other eugenics nonsense, the regime murdered thousands of disabled children. Among them was a 15 year-old Down Syndrome cousin of the future pope, Joseph Ratzinger.
This would have been Anne de Gaulle’s fate if she had ever fallen into Nazi hands. Although de Gaulle never referenced it specifically, it’s likely that the brutal treatment of the disabled was one of the things he had in mind when referring to the evil of the Nazi regime. When de Gaulle refused to surrender in 1940 and was branded a traitor by France’s political and military elites, it was certainly the act of an intensely patriotic man unwilling to accept his country’s abasement by the Nazis. But de Gaulle’s act of resistance also concerned safeguarding his defenseless daughter from those who viewed her as sub-human.
Life after Death
Like many Down Syndrome children, Anne de Gaulle died at an early age. Her brother Philippe recollects arriving at his parents’ house in 1948 to find the entire residence immersed in silence. Noone, he writes, dared to say anything to his grief-stricken father. Anne was subsequently buried in the cemetery at the de Gaulles’ parish church in Colombey-les-Deux-Églises. After attending their regular Sunday Mass and always on the anniversary of her death, Charles and Yvonne de Gaulle would visit Anne’s grave. 22 years after she died, her father was laid to rest beside Anne. Her mother joined them in 1979.
That, however, wasn’t the end of the story. Back in October 1945, the de Gaulles raised enough money from private donors to buy the chateau de Vert-Cœur in the department of Yvelines, not far from Paris. They then began creating a home for intellectually disabled girls. A few months after Anne’s death, the Fondation Anne-de-Gaulle opened its doors at the chateau. Staffed by nuns, funded by the considerable royalties generated by de Gaulle’s memoirs, and presided over by Yvonne de Gaulle until her death, the Foundation continues to serve the disabled today.
One of Charles de Gaulle’s biographers, the late Jean Lacouture, records him as once saying, “Without Anne, I could never perhaps have done what I did. She gave me the heart and the inspiration.” In that sense, the man of June 18 and his beloved pauvre petiteAnne teach us something which we are tempted to forget—that all of us can find strength in weakness and that nothing is more powerful than self-giving love.