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This article was originally published by the BBC and can be found here.
On 18 June 1940 a little known general from the French army made a speech, broadcast by the BBC, urging the people of France not to capitulate to the Nazis, but to resist. Allan Little reports on Charles de Gaulle’s famous address, its effect on France then, and the influence it continues to exert.
No-one really knows the whereabouts of the BBC Broadcasting House studio from which General Charles de Gaulle did his famous broadcast – in fact the studio probably does not even exist any more.
The day before, Marshal Petain had said France would surrender.
The BBC studio manager who put Gen de Gaulle on the air on the evening of 18 June 1940 thought so little of the time that the broadcast was not even recorded. In France almost no-one heard it, though many later claimed they had.
But the speech that Gen de Gaulle made that night has found a pivotal place in French history and became later, in retrospect, one of those moments on which the fate of a nation turns.
Gen de Gaulle, the most junior general in the French army, made a lonely, defiant call to arms in which he told his countrymen that France had lost a battle, but not the war.
Former French President Valery Giscard d’Estaing, whose mother was a regular BBC listener, heard the broadcast:
“Yes I heard it with my own ears – the two appeals of Charles de Gaulle including the one we are celebrating.
“My mother was a patriot and her father had been at Oxford. She listened to the BBC everyday.
Former French President Giscard d’Estaing heard the speech.
“We heard that a French general would speak and we listened to him with no idea who he was. It had a huge effect on us all. We all understood that the war was not lost. Before the defeat and the Germans arrived there were so many French people on the road. The appeal said the war is not over,” he explains.
Only the day before, Marshal Philippe Petain, who had just been made premier of France, had made a broadcast to announce his decision to seek an armistice with Nazi Germany and to accept that France had been defeated, a speech which bitterly divided the French.
Two versions of France
Daniel Cordier, who will be 90 this August, was a teenager living in Pau in the south of the country when he heard Marshal Petain’s broadcast on 17 June:
“It was unbearable – it made me cry. I went to my room to cry for rather a long time. I told myself this is not possible. Not possible.”
According to historian Julian Jackson, it is these two key speeches that framed the history of France for next four years of the war:
Stephane Hessel was so moved that he made his way to London.
“You have Marshall Petain on the 17th of June saying ‘we are defeated and will accept and armistice’, and the next day de Gaulle saying ‘no we are not defeated – this is the first battle of a world war which we can win’.”
Two different Frances were represented by Marshal Petain – who did his deal with the Nazis – and Charles de Gaulle, the only member of the French government who refused to accept it.
The majority of French people might not have heard Gen de Gaulle’s broadcast, but they quickly heard about it.
Gen de Gaulle began to present himself, on the airwaves, as the embodiment of an alternative France, the real France, the France that had not capitulated, and the France that had chosen to continue the war.
Journey to London
Stephane Hessel was one of those inspired by his words:
“The text of his appeal, of not only continuing to fight, but that forces are still there which will rise up and finally triumph, was extremely encouraging. The words inspired me and I was convinced to continue to fight as a Frenchman.”
Gen de Gaulle thought of the Resistance existing outside France.
Mr Hessel made his way to London to join de Gaulle’s resistance, as did the-then teenager Daniel Cordier.
Mr Cordier spent his first night in the city billeted with other recent arrivals at the Olympia Exhibition Halls:
“There was a moment, which was the most overwhelming of the war for me, when we entered the Olympia hall,” he recalls.
“We arrived at 9pm with all our luggage and we arrived from the back. Our guide opened the large doors and it was dark. It was quiet and he lit a light and we were all squashed into the middle.
“There were communists, and socialists, and Jews, all kinds of Frenchmen. We were all young. We lay down to try to sleep in the dark all crammed together like that. London was blacked out. We didn’t know each other. Then someone started to sing the Marseillaise and we all joined in.”
View from France
Seventy years on, the memory of that night causes Mr Cordier to break down:
Gen de Gaulle claimed Paris had liberated itself
“I’m sorry”, he says. “You can see the effect that moment still has on me. Even now it is the most extraordinary moment of my life.”
At the beginning, Gen de Gaulle thought of the French Resistance as existing outside France. He exercised, at first, no leadership over those few who were actively resisting inside the country.
Raymond Aubrac who joined the resistance in Lyon explains:
“At that time we called him the ‘symbol’ not the ‘chief’… If you read de Gaulle’s speech on the 18 June there is no reference to resistance within France.”
In August 1944, Gen de Gaulle returned to a liberated Paris. Americans, British, Canadians and others had done the liberating, but Gen de Gaulle went straight to the Hotel de Ville to declare that Paris had liberated itself – with the help of all the armies of France.
The real France, the France that had not capitulated, had, in this version of events, ultimately triumphed.
Need to rewrite history
This became the founding narrative of the post-war French republic. It was a narrative in which the French could take pride, one that would allow them to rebuild national self-esteem.
It remains vital to France’s sense of itself.
It is an easy accusation for the British to hurl at the French, that after the war they exaggerated the heroism of the Resistance, that everyone suddenly had been in the resistance all along.
For the French the question is more difficult.
I asked the former president, Mr Giscard d’Estaing, who once worked for Gen de Gaulle as a junior minister, whether post-war France had been honest about its war time history.
“A very indiscreet question – it is a question that the British of course can still ask,” Mr Giscard d’Estaing said, before giving his answer: “No.”
“Because it was a defeat.
“If it was a victory you accept the victory. You tell your children, your parents [about] the part you took in the victory. If it’s a defeat you hide it, of course.”
The speech itself is on the BBC website here.