World War II

Macron marks the Appeal of 18 June with highest honours to WW2 veterans

President Macron attends a WWII ceremony to mark the 81st anniversary of Gen. de Gaulle's resistance call from London on June 18, 1940, at Mont Valérien, in Suresnes, near Paris on 18 June, 2021.
President Macron attends a WWII ceremony to mark the 81st anniversary of Gen. de Gaulle's resistance call from London on June 18, 1940, at Mont Valérien, in Suresnes, near Paris on 18 June, 2021. AP - Michel Euler

President Emmanuel Macron has awarded the Legion of Honour to Léon Gautier, the last surviving member of a French commando unit that took part in the 1944 Normandy D-Day landings and to fellow WW2 veteran René Crignola, during a ceremony marking Gen. Charles De Gaulle’s appeal on 18 June 1940 for the people of France to resist the Nazis.

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Gautier, 98, rose from his wheelchair to stand, leaning on two walking sticks, as Macron pinned the medal for Grand Officer of the Legion of Honour on his chest.

Gautier, who had escaped to Britain when Germany invaded France, was one of 177 French marine commanders of the Kieffer unit chosen to help spearhead the first wave of D-Day landings in Normandy, stepping ashore on 6 June 1944.

The last other remaining member of that unit, Hubert Faure, died in April this year, making Gautier the sole survivor.

President Macron talks to Leon Gautier during a ceremony to pay homage to the Kieffer commando, Thursday, June 6, 2019 in Colleville-Montgomery, Normandy. The Kieffer commando, an elite French unit, was among the first waves of Allied troops to storm the heavily defended beaches of Nazi-occupied northern France, beginning the liberation of western Europe.
President Macron talks to Leon Gautier during a ceremony to pay homage to the Kieffer commando, Thursday, June 6, 2019 in Colleville-Montgomery, Normandy. The Kieffer commando, an elite French unit, was among the first waves of Allied troops to storm the heavily defended beaches of Nazi-occupied northern France, beginning the liberation of western Europe. AP - Francois Mori

Remembering the D-Day landings in a 2019 interview, Léon Gautier recalled how a British commander had let the French unit disembark from their landing craft first, in a symbolic recognition that they were reclaiming their homeland.

Gautier ran up the beach as bullets fizzed overhead, tasked with securing a German bunker that was directing fire at the beach. “By the end of the day I didn’t have many bullets left,” Gautier said.

His home today is just a few hundred metres from the location of that same German bunker.

Reflecting back, he said: “War is a misery. You kill a man who’s done nothing to you, that’s war and you do it for your country.”

Mont Valérien

Macron also presented medals to René Crignola and other service personnel during the ceremony outside Paris to mark the anniversary of the 18 June 1940 appeal by exiled leader General Charles de Gaulle.

In his speech, delivered on the BBC in London, de Gaulle called on the French people to rise up against the Nazi occupation.

The ceremony was held at the Mont Valérien war memorial, west of Paris, where most of the executions of WW2 resistance fighters and hostages took place. 

Inaugurated on 18 June 1960 by General de Gaulle, the memorial remembers the more than 1,000 people who were shot there – not just French, but Armenians, Spanish, Hungarian, Polish, Italians and even Germans.

Macron was joined at the ceremony by Hubert Germain, the only surviving Compagnon of the Liberation, and Colette Marin-Catherine, whose story during the French resistance was told in an Oscar-winning documentary.

(with newswires)

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