Sarkozy marks historic de Gaulle war broadcast in UK

Nicolas Sarkozy addressed veterans at a ceremony in London

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French President Nicolas Sarkozy has completed a visit to London marking the 70th anniversary of Charles de Gaulle's defiant wartime broadcast.

After visiting the BBC radio studio where the general urged France to resist the Nazis, he expressed "eternal gratitude" for Britain's war effort.

Mr Sarkozy and his wife Carla Bruni met the Prince of Wales to lay wreaths at Gen de Gaulle's statue.

The president and British PM David Cameron also met 200 WWII veterans.

'Shoulder to shoulder'

During a ceremony at the Royal Hospital Chelsea, Mr Sarkozy told them he brought the "brotherly greetings and eternal gratitude of the French people" who remembered what Britain had "accomplished... for our freedom".

He also awarded the Legion d'Honneur to six of the veterans - three of them British - who took part in the Operation Dragoon landings in Provence in August 1944.

Analysis

Peter Biles

There was a buzz of excitement outside Broadcasting House as President Sarkozy and his wife Carla arrived at the BBC's headquarters in Portland Place.

Staff had been busy since dawn making final preparations for the French leader's visit.

Inside the Artists' Lobby, the president was shown a wartime microphone and famous tapestry, La Poete, by Jean Lurcat.

Described as a powerful metaphor for broadcasting and freedom, it was given to the BBC by the French government as a thank you for the World War II broadcasts.

The Broadcasting House complex - under redevelopment - is a very different place from when Gen de Gaulle entered studio 4B on 18 June 1940.

The truth is not many people heard that original broadcast, but many more followed.

Few, however, are in any doubt that "L'Appel du 18 Juin" was a turning point in modern French history.

Mr Cameron said the anniversary was a "reminder that Britain and France are not just neighbours in the geographical sense but also in the emotional sense".

He said he was committed to working with France to face "huge challenges".

"Just as our two great countries stood together in the past, so we must stand shoulder to shoulder today," he said.

The leaders' arrival at the home of the Chelsea Pensioners was greeted with a flypast of a Spitfire, Typhoon and French Air Force Rafale.

Troops from the Household Cavalry Mounted Detachment attended the hospital while bands played the two countries' anthems.

A student from the Charles de Gaulle school in London then read the general's speech to Mr Sarkozy.

The UK visit began at BBC Broadcasting House, where Mr Sarkozy unveiled a plaque and viewed a tapestry presented in thanks to the BBC by France after World War II.

The president then met Prince Charles at Clarence House before laying wreaths at the statue of George VI on the Mall.

More wreaths were then laid at Gen de Gaulle's statue, near the headquarters of the Free French forces during the war.

Limited audience

Mr Cameron also held an hour of talks with Mr Sarkozy at Downing Street, focused on efforts to boost European growth, the conflict in Afghanistan and other foreign policy matters.

In total about 800 people from the Charles de Gaulle Foundation, the Free French Foundation and other groups visited London to join events.

Many had made the journey on a specially chartered Eurostar.

DE GAULLE'S HISTORIC BROADCAST

Charles de Gaulle's broadcast on 18 June 1940
  • Gen de Gaulle fled France on 17 June 1940 as a new administration sought an armistice with Hitler
  • The next evening he urged the French to fight on in a BBC radio address from Broadcasting House
  • Britain had turned his request to broadcast down, but the decision was reversed after PM Winston Churchill intervened
  • To the general's fury, his speech was not recorded, so he returned four days later to deliver his message again

Mr Sarkozy's visit was the first by a French president to mark Gen de Gaulle's broadcast on 18 June 1940.

The general had fled his country the day before as a new administration, headed by Philippe Petain, sought an armistice with Hitler.

In the stirring radio appeal Gen de Gaulle declared himself leader of the "Free French", spawning the French Resistance, which went on to play a crucial role in defeating the Germans.

He told his nation that "the flame of the French resistance must not and will not be extinguished".

Posters displaying his words were put up all over London in the days that followed the broadcast, to galvanise French exiles.

Gen de Gaulle was given a hero's welcome after the liberation of Paris in August 1944, but historians point out that he was not seen as a saviour in 1940.

They say his now revered broadcast went almost unnoticed at the time, with a very limited audience on the BBC French Service.

Mr Sarkozy made a state visit to the UK with his supermodel-turned-singer wife in March 2008.

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