British, French leaders hail ties as they mark WWII appeal

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The leaders of France and Britain hailed their nations' battle-forged ties Friday as they marked 70 years since Charles de Gaulle's stirring radio appeal for the French to resist Nazi occupation.

In a ceremony in London attended by World War II veterans, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron also paid tribute to their soldiers who fought and died together in the battles of the last century.

Accompanied by his former model wife Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, the president had earlier met with Prince Charles and visited the BBC studio where the exiled de Gaulle issued the rousing appeal to his compatriots back home on June 18, 1940.

"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 it, the speech is seen as a founding act of the resistance to the Nazis, coming four days after the fall of Paris and as the French government prepared to sign an armistice with Germany.

Sarkozy said the decision to let de Gaulle make the appeal from London -- initially opposed by the cabinet but championed by wartime premier Winston Churchill -- "made possible the very existence of the French resistance."

"The appeal of June 18 could have been made nowhere else than from among the sole free people on earth which continued to resist the forces of Nazism with all its might," he said in a speech at the Royal Hospital Chelsea, an institute for veterans.

Sarkozy made three British and three French veterans knights of the Legion of Honour, a top French award, and he and Cameron were treated to a display of troops from both nations in full ceremonial splendour.

In his speech, the British prime minister hailed the "great relationship" with France and referred in French to "mon ami, M. Le President, Nicolas Sarkozy".

De Gaulle's address was "a call for freedom, a call to fight oppression, a call that inspired countless acts of bravery", he said, and it highlighted the ties between Britain and France "forged through fierce trials".

Sarkozy was the first French president to travel to London to mark the address, the first of a number of messages de Gaulle and his Free French followers would send via the BBC.

The broadcaster also transmitted coded messages to resistance units 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.

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.

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

On his visit, the president also laid a wreath with Prince Charles at the statues of King George VI and his wife Queen Elizabeth, and at the statue of de Gaulle at the general's wartime offices, which now house a law firm.

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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