Theres been plenty in the media today about how the French President Nicolas Sarkozy is in London to mark the 70th anniversary of a supposedly important speech given by Charles De Gaulle, the then Leader in exile of the Free French Forces.
The consensus among historians appears to be that at the time hardly anyone heard the speech first hand – it was only broadcast on the limited BBC French service. Yet somehow it has come to be revered in French national history as a speech that rallied the French, leading to eventual victory in 1945. But the obvious question is, how can this have been the case if no-one actually heard it? Of course, many people will claim to have heard it, but how many of them actually did? Even former French President Valery Giscard d’Estaing states that when he heard the broadcast he had never heard of De Gaulle before, who was then the most junior General in the French Army.
Most historians seem to tacitly agree that the speech’s important was not in the days, weeks or even months after it was given. It was afterwards, when the text of the speech gradually became more widely known that it became a convenient turning point in the low tide of 1940. Of course, this is very much in hindsight. To be a true turning point, a speech has to be effective in its time, not in hindsight.
De Gaulle’s leadership of the Free French during the war was very important. Granted, he was a very difficult character – Churchill once quipped that ‘the only cross I have to bear is the cross of Lorraine’. But he was far more palatable than Petain and the Vichy Regime. And it is imperative not to forget that many french citizens risked their lives fighting during the war, with the resistance or assisting allied fugitives.
Sadly, however, a fair amount of re-writing of history has gone on regarding the French experience of World War Two. While the usual stereoypes are perhaps unkind, France was defeated convincingly in 1940, and for all De Gaulle’s posturing during the liberation in 1944, France was largely liberated by the Allied armies. Indeed, one statue in France which marks the spot where De Gaulle landed after D-Day gives the impression that he liberated France single-handedly. In reality, De Gaulle was little more than a spectator, so untrusted was he by the allied command that he was not involved in any of the planning for the Invasion of Europe.
Its all the more curious how De Gaulle came to be regarded as a French national hero. True, he provided leadership and a focal point during an extremely low period. But he did not win any battles. Yet generals such as Montgomery, who did, are all but forgotten in Britain. Perhaps, due to the traumatic French experience between 1940 and 1945, De Gaulle and his speech have been ready-made focal points for the rebuilding of French self-pride? The desire to forget 1940 possibly also explains some of the more prickly French policy decisions of the latter half of the twentieth century.