French leader in London for 70th anniversary of WWII appeal

18th June 2010, Comments 0 comments

French President Nicolas Sarkozy and World War II veterans visited London Friday to mark the 70th anniversary of Charles de Gaulle's rousing radio appeal to his compatriots to resist the Nazi occupation.

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 military leader issued an impassioned appeal over the BBC airwaves to those back home.

"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 French resistance to the Nazis and Sarkozy paid tribute Friday to his countrymen who never gave up.

"At a time when there are fewer and fewer living witnesses from the era, this anniversary is a chance to pay tribute to the first members of the resistance, to those who never stopped believing in France and who served it with honour," he said in a statement.

Sarkozy is the first French president to travel to London to mark the event, which comes at the end of a week of commemorations across France. He will meet with both the British prime minister and Prince Charles.

His first stop was 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 and his followers 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.

British Prime Minister David Cameron said the anniversary was a "poignant and enormously important" reminder of the two countries' ties forged during the two world wars and which remained today.

"Great emotional bonds are forged through fierce challenges and shared troubles. So it is with Britain and France," he said, ahead of a lunch with the president and his former model wife Carla Bruni-Sarkozy.

Cameron said de Gaulle's appeal "was a call for freedom, a call to fight tyranny, a call that inspired countless acts of bravery" and "today we honour and remember the courage of all those who fought for the cause of freedom."

Joining Sarkozy in the commemorations were World War II veterans, who arrived with more than 700 dignitaries on a special cross-Channel Eurostar train emblazoned with pictures of de Gaulle and other French wartime figures.

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 and will be read out to Sarkozy Friday by a student at the French Lycee in London.

Amid the surge of patriotism generated by the anniversary, leading historian Jean-Pierre Azema warned this week that some truths about France's wartime past -- notably its collusion with the Nazis -- were being played down.

"History is being used as a political tool in a kind of national story-telling," he told AFP.

© 2010 AFP

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