The importance of France’s role in the Cold War is often overlooked when compared with that of both the two superpowers and the other major West European countries. Germany self-evidently occupied a central position in the East–West conflict from its inception and was a decisive actor at its end, and Britain’s role during the Cold War was much enhanced thanks to the “special” relationship with the United States. By contrast, the French contribution often comes across as less important. This may be partly explained by a comparatively modest French input in the historiography, especially in the English-speaking literature. Yet the perception of France as a lesser player in the Cold War is misleading.
To be sure, the country was in a somewhat peripheral position at the very beginning of the East–West conflict. Wartime leader Charles de Gaulle and – following his withdrawal from politics in January 1946 – his immediate successors were indeed reluctant to accept the emerging logic of the Cold War and its consequences. By the late 1940s, however, the intensification of the Cold War had led to the country’s active alignment within the West, thus making France a key protagonist in the East–West conflict. Yet France’s position in the Cold War soon provoked a number of frustrations that the country’s painful decolonization process and chronic internal instability only aggravated, and these tensions together played no small part in the demise of the Fourth Republic and General de Gaulle’s return to power in 1958.