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Charles de Gaulle’s June 18 call to resist Nazis still defines France 80 years on

This photograph of French General Charles de Gaulle, taken during a speech at BBC studios in London in 1941, is often used to represent the Appeal of 18 June 1940 in which De Gaulle called on France to resist the German occupation.
This photograph of French General Charles de Gaulle, taken during a speech at BBC studios in London in 1941, is often used to represent the Appeal of 18 June 1940 in which De Gaulle called on France to resist the German occupation. © BBC/Public domain
4 min

French General Charles de Gaulle’s call to resist German occupation on 18 June 1940 only took on its status as a defining moment in French history after World War Two and remains a reference point for challenges facing the country today. 

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More than any other intervention, the speech known as the Appeal of 18 June symbolises Charles de Gaulle’s status as a national hero leading France’s resistance to the occupying German army. 

“I, General de Gaulle, currently in London, call upon the officers and the French soldiers who are located in British territory or who might end up here, with their weapons or without their weapons... to get in touch with me,” De Gaulle said in exile, from a studio of BBC radio in London.

“Whatever happens, the flame of the French resistance must not be extinguished and will not be extinguished.”

Coming after France surrendered to the German army and witnessed the arrival of the Vichy government that would collaborate with the Nazis, the Appeal urged the French to see themselves as part of a world war in which they could count on the support of Britain and the United States. 

Appeal’s significance grows over time

But for its grand pronouncements and ensuing status, the Appeal was not even widely heard in France, which was still reeling from the rapid defeat of its army. 

“On 18 June 1940, one would have had to be extremely clairvoyant to imagine the destiny of this largely unknown General De Gaulle and Free France, which did not formally exist until 1 July,” says Erwan Le Gall, a historian at the University of Rennes. 

De Gaulle had only recently attained the rank of general and a junior position in the French cabinet, but his image as a leader grew through future speeches and actions. 

“It’s only because Free France and De Gaulle succeeded in the war that anyone remembers the Appeal,” Le Gall says. “It only took on the status of an event, marking a historical rupture, after the fact.” 

Politicians look to align with De Gaulle

The Appeal is now regarded as one of the most important speeches in French history, and French politicians often seek to align its message with their own perogatives. 

French President Emmanuel Macron, who declared France to be “at war” at the onset of the coronavirus epidemic, was to attend a ceremony marking the 80th anniversary in London on Thursday, hosted by Britain’s Prince Charles. 

Macron has shown himself eager to associate his presidency with De Gaulle with recent and upcoming visits to memorial sites as the country emerges from nationwide confinement sent the economy into a recession predicted to last at least a year. 

Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Rally party, also planned to pay tribute to De Gaulle, despite the wartime leader being long reviled in the party, which was founded in 1972 by former Vichy government collaboraters and Algerian War veterans embittered by the loss of France’s north African colony. 

Residents of Sein island in Brittany, whose residents were among the first to go to Britain following the Appeal, expressed regret at Le Pen’s intentions to hold a tribute there. 

 “They’re taking the ceremony away from us,” Mayor Didier Fouquet told AFP agency, adding that Le Pen was trying “to recuperate images and symbols”.

De Gaulle statue defaced

De Gaulle, who became president in 1958, continues to be touched by contemporary events.  

Officials in the town of Hautmont in northern France reported Monday a statue of De Gaulle had been vandalised with bright orange paint and the word “slaver”. 

The act comes as statues of historical figures associated with the slave trade are being toppled around the world in the wake of the death of George Floyd in the United States, although France abolished slavery in 1848 and De Gaulle was born in 1890.

The vandalism was also reported a day after French President Emmanuel Macron said France would erase “no trace” of its history and would not remove statues

Support for De Gaulle in Africa

As an historian, Erwan Le Gall is reluctant to comment on contemporary events, but does recall part of the wartime events that aided De Gaulle in his push for resistance. 

“At a time of Black Lives Matter, the death of George Floyd, the incidents around Adama [Traoré, a French black man who died in police custody in 2016], it seems important to remember that Free France reconquered France via Africa,” he says. 

“Support from African figures, like the governor Félix Éboué, allowed Free France to exist and for the figure of De Gaulle to become what it is,” Le Gall continues. “If history has a practical use today, I believe it’s this, and this is obviously contrary to the message of Mme. Le Pen.”  

 

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