Today, in towns and villages across France, there will have been commemorations of 18th June 1940. It is fitting that President Emmanuel Macron has come to London to mark the anniversary because it was from London that eighty years ago today was eighty years ago today that General Charles de Gaulle’s made his appeal to the French people.
De Gaulle’s broadcast that day in the summer of 1940, on the English-speaking BBC, was only actually heard by a minority of French people. His broadcast on the BBC four days later on 22nd June would attract a larger number of listeners. But it is the speech of 18th June 1940 that is seen as one of the most important in French history, the one that is seen as the starting point of the French Resistance to the Nazi occupation of their country.
De Gaulle’s achievement was extraordinary. He was a brigadier general who had become a junior minister in the government, but he projected himself as the French leader.
His “London Poster”, calling on French exiles in the city to join him, was to appear in France and in Francophone countries. It became an icon of French spirit and reproductions of it are still to be found in towns and villages across France.
The response to de Gaulle was hardly overwhelming, a few hundred exiles joined his Free French Army, supplemented by a number, (estimated between 3,000 and 7,000, according to which source one reads), of soldiers from the French army who had been evacuated at Dunkirk, (the majority of the 123,000 French troops evacuated returned to France to try to continue the struggle against the invasion in the south and the west of the country).
The details of the events of the summer of 1940 have become a prologue to the story of the conflict that followed. The commemorations today marked the beginning of the process that led to the liberation in 1944.
Despite the conflicts within France at the time, despite the formation of the collaborationist government at Vichy, and the later execution of the Vichy leaders, France managed to create a narrative of history that unified its people.
Even eight decades later, there will be people whose family memories will have moments of bitterness and division. The summary execution of thousands of collaborators in 1945 will still be matters of contention. There will still be stories of distrust. But the overwhelming story is one of a united and free people. The signs bearing de Gaulle’s words still have the power to evoke the spirit of resistance.