French historian worries about De Gaulle mythmaking

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A leading World War II historian has warned against manipulating history as France this week commemorates 70 years since Charles de Gaulle made his stirring appeal to resist Nazism.

Jean-Pierre Azema, author of more than a dozen works, said he was worried that some truths about France's wartime past were being played down amid the surge of patriotism around De Gaulle's June 18 appeal from London.

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

The French did not then regard De Gaulle as the national hero he subsequently became, he pointed out.

Dozens of conferences, exhibitions and film screenings are being held in schools, memorial sites and town halls across France this week to remember De Gaulle's appeal broadcast on BBC radio.

"Whatever happens, the flame of the French resistance must not and will not be extinguished," De Gaulle said, a day after Marechal Philippe Petain had announced plans for an armistice with the German invaders.

The week-long commemorations will culminate on Friday when President Nicolas Sarkozy pays a visit to London to mark the anniversary and attend a ceremony at the Mont Valerien memorial to the French Resistance near Paris.

In London, Sarkozy will visit the BBC's studio B2 where De Gaulle made the appeal and his wartime offices, now leased by a law firm.

Azema said the French public must remember that De Gaulle's now-revered appeal went almost unnoticed at the time and came from a man not at all seen as destined to lead the country out of its darkest hour.

"De Gaulle then was seen as an emigrant, a divisive figure who had left France," said Azema. "The man of the hour was Petain," a World War I hero whom history would remember as a collaborationist.

"Very few people heard the appeal because millions of French refugees were fleeing in exodus. On the road, they had other things to do than listen to the BBC," he said.

"A few newspapers in the provinces published the appeal but it was lumped in with other news, including that of another speech, that of Philippe Petain," he said.

Petain on June 17, 1940 announced the French surrender in his appeal, saying "It is with a heavy heart that I say to you today that the fighting must stop."

That appeal was welcomed with relief by a majority of the French.

Azema recalls that on that same day, De Gaulle had been sent to London to meet with Prime Minister Winston Churchill, whom the historian describes as the true visionary of the time.

"The man who decided, the man of destiny, was not De Gaulle, but Churchill," said Azema, who recalled that on June 18, he had delivered a rousing speech to the House of Commons as Britain appeared to stand alone against the Nazis.

"De Gaulle became a man of history because one man chose him, gave him access to the BBC and overcame resistance from the war cabinet and that man was Churchill," he said.

The British war cabinet had initially turned down De Gaulle's request to use the BBC to broadcast to France, but Churchill convinced his ministers to reverse their decision.

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

That plaque was inaugurated in 1990 to mark the 50th anniversary.

© 2010 AFP

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