Cameron and Sarkozy in London
June 18, 2010. French President Nicolas Sarkozy travels to London with his government and about 800 guests in a specially-chartered and decorated Eurostar train this morning. Throughout the day, important visits and ceremonies are to take place before the President returns to Paris in the evening to lay a wreath in front of the statues of Winston Churchill and Charles de Gaulle on France's most famous avenue, Les Champs Elysées. On his side of the Channel, British Prime Minister David Cameron will also be paying tribute to General de Gaulle.
June 18, 1940. A man broadcasts an address over a BBC microphone. His speech stretches into the depth of the night. General de Gaulle's call combines the most reasonable of all reasons and the maddest of all hopes. It is the sheer expression of will rising up to say "no". For the few French who hear the call by mere chance, the echo of this distant voice, that of a man whose face was still unknown, the impact is crucial. It is as if fate itself has come to their homes to lead them.
In just 35 days, France suffered the most radical of defeats in its history. On June 10, the government leaves Paris. Driven by despair, our people roam the roads of exile. On June 13, Bordeaux is chosen as the headquarters of the new government. Churchill travels to France for the last time. On June 14, the Germans enter Paris marching down the Champs Elysées.
On June 16, de Gaulle is informed by Churchill and Sir Robert Vansittart, the Foreign Office's permanent secretary, of a project of unprecedented generosity. Against the Nazi peril, they offer a Franco-British Union of States, neither more nor less. De Gaulle informs his government, which rejects the British proposal. On June 17, de Gaulle leaves for London "without romanticism, without difficulty" as he said, "carrying with him the honour of France", as Churchill would put it later. On June 18, after lunch with the British Minister of Information Duff Cooper, de Gaulle prepares the text he will read that same evening on BBC, as authorised by Churchill. The recording (since lost) is broadcast at 10 in the evening.
"I, General de Gaulle, currently in London, urge French officers and soldiers to carry on the struggle."
In the morning of June 19, the first volunteers, soon to be called the Free French, call on him at his flat of Seamore Grove in London.
For those who become Free French, these few words, similar to a message in a bottle, from an unknown general, are sufficient. They immediately embrace "action with master's pride". To them, France cannot be defeated as long as they, personally, are not. This minority resists wherever possible, while, in other places in our country, teachers in the Limousine region, students from Alsace, leather workers in Ménilmontant, railway employees in Lyon, delineate the face of a France that would not let herself be dishonoured by the Vichy regime.
The Free French are present in London, of course, at the general's side at Seamore Grove and then at Carlton Gardens but, above all, they confront the foe, in British waters (aboard the ship Le Triomphant), along the Norwegian coasts, in the North Sea or in the Atlantic, in the Pacific, in the African skies against the Luftwaffe. "Stirring connivance (between) an extraordinary ragged band of beggars, with dissimilar outfits made of shorts or trousers, greatcoats or burnous, but united more by the passion and will to wage war than by grime and rough beards," as would-be Nobel prize-winner François Jacob writes about those African fighters who volunteered from everywhere.
Soon, the Mediterranean becomes one of the important stakes of the war. As early as the summer of 1940, the first act of a four-year-long play is enacted in nearly every harbour. The beginning of Free France speaks of a history marked by the seal of youth that surprisingly blends improvisation, humour and scorn for death along with a laidback attitude, boldness and unflagging determination. In Bizerte, after the call of June 18, Commander Drogon sends a message that has remained famous: "Betrayal all along the line, I am joining a British Harbour." And, thus, he leads his submarine Le Narval to Malta (Malta that will suffer from a 30-month-long siege). The resistance of the Maltese and that of the British will prevent the Germans from having a free supply-line to Rommel's Afrika Korps.
I have had the privilege of meeting a number of the men who wanted to be Free French and of making friends with some of them. They would always talk about that time with a great deal of simplicity. In fact, there was, in each of them, a trait that said: "We had good fun, thank you and good bye". They did have good fun risking their lives because they shared the same idea of our country. Their anecdotes were never pompous. Some were so funny that they seemed like characters out of an Evelyn Waugh novel, always intense and simple, as lively as their adventurous youth and the hope that spurred them.
It is important not to forget June 18. To us French, de Gaulle is the one who gave us back our pride and our freedom before shaping France into a modern, social and technically advanced state, always cherishing its independence. He is important to us as Europeans. We must not forget the British hospitality and the great friendship that united former enemies, Chancellor Konrad Adenauer and General de Gaulle. De Gaulle welcomed Adenauer to his family home in Colombey. He laid a rose from his garden on the Chancellor's bedside table before taking him to pray at Rheims cathedral.
Finally, to all those in today's world who resist alone against all odds, freedom still bears the face of those Free French who fought cheerfully because their country did not want to die.
The author is French Ambassador to Malta.