by Mona Sabalones Gonzalez


“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.” ~Charles de Gaulle

Charles de Gaulle was described as arrogant, cold, contemptuous, authoritarian, smug, close-minded, and egocentric. These traits make him sound like a dictator, but he was actually a conservative Republican who advocated democracy and France’s independence.

The trajectory of de Gaulle’s political leadership was altered by his daughter, Anne (1928 – 1948), who had Down’s Syndrome. Despite Anne’s many demands, de Gaulle said she was “a grace” to the family. He said that Anne helped him overcome many failures that he experienced until 1940. Anne’s influence over her father changed the course of history in France.

De Gaulle led the Free French Forces against Germany in World War II (1939 to 1945) and was France’s president from 1959 to 1969. He survived 30 assassination attempts and is considered among France’s best presidents.

What is Down Syndrome?

 Normally, a newborn has 46 chromosomes, each containing genes that influence body formation and function in utero and after birth. A child with Down syndrome has either an extra chromosome or part of an extra chromosome.

Physically, the child has low muscle tone, which affects motion. The child also has one deep line on the palm of a hand that extends straight across it. When viewed sideways, the child’s face is slightly flat, including at the bridge of the nose. The ears are small, the tongue may protrude, and the eyes slant upward. The neck is short, and the hands and feet are small.

Children with Down syndrome can be impetuous and have difficulty concentrating. However, with regular therapy, they may be able to go to school and become active in their communities.

Intellectually, they have learning disabilities, resulting in developmental delays such as learning to sit, turn, and stand. They are also delayed in speaking.

An Asian Child

 When she was five years old, Anne could only say one word clearly: “Papa.” De Gaulle responded, “My joy.” Their relationship was symbiotic. Anne’s fragility sustained her father’s resolve. Before Anne, he was an inflexible soldier. After Anne, he was both flexible and disciplined. This he learned from a child who would always need help walking.

When de Gaulle would bring her out, onlookers murmured about Anne’s “Asian” features. A stigma was attached to mental illness at that time, and people wrongly blamed the parents’ alleged alcoholism, degeneracy, and/or venereal disease for their child’s debility. Today, we know better.

Anne’s Mother

 Yvonne de Gaulle was never an attention grabber. She never gave an interview, whether on radio or television, and although she was always with her husband, she never tried to get any attention away from him. She preferred her privacy and the company of her children. With Anne, Yvonne focused on the practicalities of caring for her, knowing that her husband was more than sufficient in enveloping the child with love.

When she became First Lady of France, she often told her children, “The presidency is temporary, family is permanent.” She loved horticulture, and her gardens were beautiful.

Yvonne was a conservative Catholic who campaigned against prostitution, the sale of pornography on newsstands, and the televised display of nudity and sex. Because of this, the French people nicknamed her Tante (Auntie) Yvonne.

Protecting Anne  

 The de Gaulles lived in a time when disabled children were neither seen nor heard in polite company, and children with Down syndrome were called Mongols. All special children were normally confined in poorly equipped institutions to care for them. Children who were institutionalized often led shortened lives.

The de Gaulles protected Anne from the institution, and she lived her entire life in the family home, along with her sister Elisabeth and her brother Philippe. De Gaulle treated all his children equally.

Of Anne he said, “God has given her to us. We must take responsibility for her, wherever she is and whatever she will be.” To ensure that Anne never felt less than or different from anyone else, de Gaulle kept his family secluded. To protect Anne from the comments of strangers, the de Gaulles built a high wall around their home and created lovely gardens where father and daughter could walk in privacy.

Leaving France for Anne

 In 1940, the de Gaulles left France for England, as did many French people, in anticipation of a German invasion. The de Gaulles left to protect Anne. The year before, Hitler invaded Poland, and the Nazis snatched all disabled infants and children, taking them to a “health facility” where they were killed either by lethal injection or gas poisoning.  In Hitler’s regime the disabled didn’t deserve to live.

In England Anne played with de Gaulle’s army hat for hours. When away from home he often called her, especially when Anne had surgery. De Gaulle called to monitor her progress and to ensure that her pain was manageable.

Anne turned de Gaulle into a different man. He told her stories, sang songs, danced, and did pantomimes for her. He’d even bend down to sit on the floor to play games with her. She made him feel accepted. “She helped me overcome the failures in all men and to look beyond them,” he said.

Anne’s Death

 Anne was 20 years old when she died in her father’s arms. She lived for 20 years when up to 1960, a person with Down syndrome usually lived for 10 years on average.

De Gaulle said, “Her soul has been set free. But the disappearance of our little suffering child, of our little girl with no hope, has brought us immense pain.” He also said, “Maintenant, elle est comme les autres,” meaning “Now, she is like the others.”


What happened to de Gaulle’s other children? His eldest, Philippe, became Inspector General of the Navy before he retired in 1982 and then served as a senator in 1986. He published several books about his father to preserve the memory of his legacy. Philippe married Henriette de Montalembert in 1947, with whom he had four sons.

Elisabeth married Alain De Boissieu, who was part of de Gaulle’s military cabinet in 1945. His last post before he died in 2006 was honorary president of the Mouvement Initiatives et Libertés (MIL).

Elisabeth chaired the Anne de Gaulle Foundation from 1979 to 1988.

Daughter Saves Father

De Gaulle survived 30 assassination attempts in his political career, but he survived the one that came closest to him because of a small framed photograph of Anne that he always kept in his pocket. The bullet that was aimed at him hit the frame instead.

Charles de Gaulle is considered to be the twentieth century’s greatest Frenchman. When asked what gave him the courage, stamina, and vision to fight so hard for his country, de Gaulle said, “The love of Anne de Gaulle.”

In October 1945, Yvonne de Gaulle raised sufficient funds to buy the Château de Vert-Cœur at Milon-la-Chapelle (Yvelines), where they installed a private hospital for intellectually handicapped and disabled young girls. The place was called the Fondation Anne de Gaulle. Nuns staffed it, and the huge royalties generated by de Gaulle’s memoirs kept the foundation afloat until Yvonne de Gaulle’s death.

It was a forward-thinking foundation grounded on respect, love, empathy, and commitment. The first of its kind, it sought to apply new technologies to help the most vulnerable. Through this Foundation, Anne contributed to changing people’s perceptions of children born with disabilities. We can see tremendous strength in weakness; nothing is more powerful than self-giving love. Today, the Foundation continues to serve the disabled.

Some people change the world through their courage and brave deeds, and others through their astounding intellect and leadership. Anne, the daughter of two leaders, changed the world by changing her parents. De Gaulle became a better leader, and through Anne, her father pulled France out of poverty and into prosperity, instilling national confidence and pride.

The well-being of others like Anne, born with Down Syndrome and other disabilities, has also been changed because of her. Today, the world looks at disabled children and people with mental disorders with more sympathy, knowledge, and understanding. True, we still have a long way to go. However, Anne was instrumental in this change of perception. Through the foundation that her mother made, the way that people suffering from mental and physical disorders were treated became more learned and humanitarian.

De Gaulle wasn’t by nature affectionate, but with Anne he displayed outbursts of affection, whereas he was miserly to others who lived with him. Anne made De Gaulle a great man, and he knew it, saying, “Without Anne, perhaps I would never have done what I did. She gave me heart and inspiration.”

Theirs is a beautiful father-daughter love story, and the world has become a better place. There is a saying, “It takes a village,” and that’s true. But Anne and her father, Charles de Gaulle, proved that sometimes, it takes less than a village. Two people can be more than enough.

Note: Originally featured in Enrich Magazine, February 2023