French leader in London 70 years after WWII appeal

18th June 2010, Comments 0 comments

French President Nicolas Sarkozy visits London Friday to mark the 70th anniversary of Charles de Gaulle's rousing radio appeal to his compatriots to resist the Nazi occupation of France.

On June 18, 1940, four days after the fall of Paris and as the French government prepared to sign an armistice with Germany, the exiled general issued an impassioned appeal over the BBC airwaves to those left behind.

"Whatever happens, the flame of the French resistance must not and will not be extinguished," de Gaulle said, urging those who had escaped to Britain to join him in London and for those still in France to hold firm.

Although very few French actually heard his words, the speech has come to be seen as a founding act of the four-year French resistance to the Nazis.

Sarkozy is the first French president to travel to London to mark the event, which comes at the end of a week of commemorations at schools, war memorials and town halls across France.

As part of his visit he will see the BBC studio where de Gaulle made his address, an idea that was initially opposed by the British cabinet but was championed by prime minister Winston Churchill, who persuaded them to agree.

It was the first of a number of radio messages de Gaulle would send via the BBC, which also played host to coded messages from the exiled French to the resistance fighters across the English Channel.

For example, the use of the phrase "the tall blond man is called Bill" meant fighters should stand by for a parachute drop of weapons near a certain area.

The most famous messages were variations on the first six lines of Paul Verlaine's poem "Chanson d'automne" (Autumn Song) which were transmitted ahead of the D-Day invasion in 1944 and triggered acts of sabotage across France.

The French leader and his wife former model Carla Bruni-Sarkozy will also visit de Gaulle's wartime offices. Now home to a law firm, a statue of de Gaulle still stands outside, where Sarkozy is to lay a bouquet of flowers.

There are no recordings of the June 18 appeal, but the full text is inscribed on a bronze plaque at the foot of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.

The words will be read out once again Friday, by a student from the French Lycee in London, in a ceremony attended by Sarkozy and 800 others -- many travelling to London on a Eurostar train emblazened with pictures of de Gaulle.

The French president will have time for lunch with Prime Minister David Cameron, who took power last month ahead of Britain's first coalition government since World War II, before he returns to Paris.

© 2010 AFP

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