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Reporter’s Notebook: Remembering De Gaulle’s Speech 70 Years Later

Former France Libre members salute Charles deGaulle’s grave. Photo by Francois Nascimbeni/AFP/Getty Images

A small radio studio in London came back to life Friday, 70 years after it was the venue for lighting the flame of resistance in Nazi-conquered France.

In ceremonies in London and across France, there were celebrations marking the 70th anniversary of a radio speech by an exiled brigadier general, Charles de Gaulle, urging his countrymen not to abandon the fight against Germany, even as French leaders were officially capitulating to Hitler.

It was a speech that almost never got made.

De Gaulle and a few thousand French soldiers had managed to flee to Britain after the June 1940 conquest of France by the Germans. A collaborationist government was in office in France, doing the bidding of the Germans who had swept through French defenses as if they were tissue paper. England was awaiting a German invasion, and a recently installed Prime Minister Winston Churchill was rallying his people and vowing never to surrender. Seventeen months before Pearl Harbor, the United States was officially still neutral and trying to figure out how to do diplomatic business with the official French government in Vichy.

Into this maelstrom entered the imposing figure of General de Gaulle, asserting himself as the leader of a French resistance which at that moment was more a figment of his imagination than any kind of a fighting force or organized movement. Only Churchill’s intervention persuaded the British government and BBC to turn over a microphone to de Gaulle to broadcast back to France.

But for the few who heard it, de Gaulle’s appeal was electrifying:

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

And it was that appeal that was celebrated today in several ceremonies in London by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, British Prime Minister David Cameron, Prince Charles and some surviving French and British soldiers from World War II.

But the ceremonies came amid reminders that other echoes remain from that era. Cameron is just back from a European Union summit, once again voicing ever present British doubts about efforts to expand Europe-wide decision making over that of national governments. Doubts that de Gaulle shared when he was president of France between 1958 and 1969.

French newspapers are carrying philosophical commentaries, as they are wont to do, wondering if the political ideology of Gaullism can exist without de Gaulle. A point put into sharp relief by the sinking poll ratings of the Gaullist president Sarkozy. But it was Sarkozy who last year reversed the 1966 decision by de Gaulle to remove France from NATO’s integrated military command, an act that most historians attribute to de Gaulle’s lingering resentment over America’s barely tepid support of his resistance movement.

But for a brief moment, as even the remarks of Euro-skeptic Cameron eloquently highlighted, today was a moment to celebrate and to recollect that a heroic figure reminded the world in dark moments 70 years ago that tyranny is not a historic inevitability.

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