Charles de Gaulle’s L’Appel du 18 Juin, the ‘Appeal of 18 June’, is of huge symbolic importance for the French. Former French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, once said “We (the French) are all children of the 18 June”.
Here, below, is a brief resume of the fall of France and the first of Charles de Gaulle’s many broadcasts from the BBC in London.
On 14 June 1940, Hitler’s forces entered Paris, a city largely deserted with over two million Parisians having fled south to escape the Nazi invasion. Soon the swastika flag was flying from the Arc de Triomphe.
Charles de Gaulle
On 15 June, the French general, Charles de Gaulle, escaped from France to begin his life of exile in London. At the age of 49, De Gaulle was the youngest and most junior general in the French Army and although he had fought at Dunkirk and had met Winston Churchill he was generally unknown.
In London de Gaulle sought permission to broadcast to France from the studios of the BBC. The British government refused until Churchill stepped in and granted the Frenchman his wish.
“I speak for France”
And so, on 18 June 1940, Charles de Gaulle broadcast his declaration, asserting that France was not alone, “La France n’est pas seule!” “The flame of the French resistance,” he cried, “must not be extinguished and will not be extinguished”.
At the time, very few heard the general’s auspicious words. Although, another future French president, Giscard d’Estaing, did hear the broadcast: ‘We heard that a French general would speak and we listened to him with no idea who he was. It had a huge effect on us all. We all understood that the war was not lost… The appeal said the war is not over.’
De Gaulle returned the following day and this unknown Frenchman with his patriotic-sounding name boldly announced, “I, General de Gaulle, a French soldier and military leader, realise that I now speak for France.”
The BBC however had failed to record De Gaulle’s initial speeches and the general insisted on doing them again – for the sake of prosperity. He waited until the French had formally surrendered, which they did on June 22 – in a railway carriage, the same railway carriage 50 miles north-east of Paris that the Germans had surrendered to the French in 1918.
This time, on 22 June, the microphones were on and De Gaulle re-read and recorded the L’Appel du 18 Juin. His words soon spread and became the battle cry of the Free French movement.
The new French government was led by the 84-year-old Marshal Philippe Petain (pictured shaking hands with Hitler), hero of the 1916 Battle of Verdun. Petain accepted France’s defeat and immediately his puppet government was enforcing Nazi rule from the spa town of Vichy in central France. One of its first acts was to sentence De Gaulle to death – in absentia. Indeed, on 17 June Petain delivered his own speech in which he said, ‘we are defeated and will accept an armistice’.
In August 1944, Paris was liberated and Charles de Gaulle made a triumphal return to the capital. Paris, he said in a speech on 25 August, had been ‘liberated by itself, liberated by its people with the help of the French armies with the support and the help of all France.’
Rupert Colley’s enthralling novel, set in Nazi-occupied France, The White Venus, is now available.