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Sarkozy marks anniversary of General de Gaulle's BBC broadcast

General de GaulleVive La France!

There's no denying that we British are a bit funny about the French. We love them for our houses in their countryside, their tasty gourmet food, their filmstars, their sex appeal. But when it comes to politics, it's a very different story. So it's a turn up for the books when there's a real moment of entente cordiale. And not token co-operation, but absolute open emotionalism.

I witnessed it at the French Institute, when I went to the first UK screening of a film about 'the Free French' in London during WW2. At the end of the film, an auditorium of (mainly) French viewers stood up and applauded their surviving Resistance fighters but also the BBC that gave them a unique voice.

It will be even more publicly expressed when President Sarkozy, his wife and an entourage of over 800 people come to the UK - and more especially the BBC - for the 70th anniversary of General de Gaulle's famous broadcast on BBC airwaves to occupied France on 18 June 1940. We in Britain know little about this momentous broadcast, but for the French it is absolutely huge. For this broadcast did in some way create the public personality of General de Gaulle, create the Resistance movement, and in turn create (in modern memory) the idea of unified and free France. President Sarkozy has himself said - 'We are all the children of the 18 June'.

So what exactly happened? General de Gaulle had fled his country on June 17, 1940, as the new administration, sought an armistice with Hitler. A relative unknown, de Gaulle entreated the British government to let him broadcast to France from London in a last ditch attempt to save his country. The cabinet initially refused but Winston Churchill insisted. And so the general went on air urging the French not to capitulate, but to fight on alongside Britain and the US, ending his broadcast with the famous words: 'The flame of French resistance must not, and will not be extinguished.'

The French Resistance - which went on to play a crucial role in defeating the Germans - was born as a result, and de Gaulle named as its leader. The Free French (as his followers were called) were allowed five minutes each day on the BBC French Service to broadcast to occupied France and orchestrate their defiance. Many impassioned addresses were made by de Gaulle himself, either from Broadcasting House or Bush House, and he was regarded as the 'secret hope' by those living under German rule. Even today, the sound of the opening jingle of those BBC broadcasts can bring tears to the eyes of surviving listeners. 'Unprecedented in media history' is how one of the most famous Resistance survivors described these lifeline broadcasts.

It's moving and humbling to be told by others of the impact of the BBC 70 years ago, and it's salutary to remind ourselves that wars go on, media freedom is still a precious thing, and many of our BBC News and World Service colleagues are today carrying on that vital role of giving voice to the voiceless on air.


Robert Seatter is Head of BBC History




  • Comment number 1.

    Hi Robert

    I worked in Bush House -Spanish service- for almost six years and loved to walk into those history laden studios.

    I was told once that De Gaulle inscribed the Free French Lorraine Cross in one of the studio doors, which disappeared in a renovation. Is this true?



  • Comment number 2.

    Read the early part of 'Notre Guerre' (translated as Résistance), the memoirs of Resistance heroine Agnès Humbert, to learn of the effect that De Gaulle's speech had on her in Paris. Not everyone took him seriously, but those who did were inspired to supreme acts of courage and defiance. Sadly, Humbert herself, spent most of the war in horrific conditions in a labour camp in Germany, but she did survive to tell her story, while many of her friends in the Resistance did not.

  • Comment number 3.

    What a Sarkozy?

    I was put off by the president Sarkozy and his wife's public presentation during the De Gaulle ceremony in london. The president kept his arms fold on his chest, smiling and laughing unneccesarily,and paying no attention to the speeches read to him. His wife was non better; she appeared to use the function as a photo shoot, continually positioning herself and seeking camera attention. This is not presidential material especially for a country like France, French deserve better.

  • Comment number 4.

    Why exactly would he 'urge the French not to capitulate, but to fight on alongside Britain and the US' on June 17th 1940? That's nearly 18 months before the US actually entered the war.

  • Comment number 5.

    It is interesting to see how the BBC was deployed as a Government tool of propaganda. I wonder how this might compare with current BBC ethos. We should have more then and now comparisons with insights in to BBC history. As opposed to the simplistic approach of the BBC being founded, launching and broadcasting, in years x, y and z.

    Incidentally the term propaganda does not imply criticism. I would also add that some of us quite like certain aspects of French politics. Still, I'm sure the grass is always greener on the other side. Especially when viewing from a distance.

  • Comment number 6.

    Re #4

    Good point, Peter. De Gaulle did, in fact, refer to America in his speech, but as you rightly suppose, he did not imagine that they were 'fighting alongside' France, or anyone else. What he said was "[France] peut, comme l’Angleterre, utiliser sans limites l’immense industrie des États-Unis," – that France had unlimited access to US industry. Something of an exaggeration in itself, you may feel, but certainly not a claim that USA was one of the belligerents.

  • Comment number 7.

    #6. Thanks for that explanation. That was truly helpful.

    I wonder what he was planning on paying the bills with though? The US were very generous later in the war with their lend-lease and low interest loans for extremely high grade equipment (like Sherman tanks, DC3 transports and B24 bombers) but at the start of the war Britain was paying with gold and then trading land in the west Indies for fairly dubious aid (clapped out WW1 destroyers and aircraft fit only for the desert). De Gaulle didn't even have the gold or the land to trade.

    I was thinking earlier that if he DID want to list those nations fighting alongside France he'd have quite a list. If France is still be considered a nation even though occupied he could have added Norway, Denmark, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Belgium and Holland plus unoccupied commonwealth nations like Canada, New Zealand, India, Australia and South Africa. Its widely forgotten too that (Trans-)Jordan declared war on Germany the same day as Britain did too.

  • Comment number 8.

    Vive la liberté d'expression!

    BBC, an well-reputed int'l media, not only bring the voice the Free French Movement to France which was then under control of Nazi, but also bring the voice of Freedom to China, Vietnam,and other media-controlled country even today.

    The the tyrant controls media with the aim to master people's though, but BBC's Short-wave radio penetrates the iron curtain and send fresh air to those areas. From this point, I believe in the last words of your post, that is BBC are today carrying on that vital role of giving voice to the voiceless on air.

    With due respect and gratitude to BBC!

  • Comment number 9.

    I'm not sure that David Cameron's remark about standing "shoulder to shoulder" was the best way to secure the entente cordial:

    On a more serious note, Churchill went from this in 1940:
    "Our old comradeship with France is not dead. In General de Gaulle and his gallant band, that comradeship takes an effective form. These free Frenchmen have been condemned to death by Vichy, but the day will come, as surely as the sun will rise tomorrow, when their names will be held in honor, and their names will be graven in stone in the streets and villages of a France restored in a liberated Europe to its full freedom and its ancient fame."

    to this in 1943:
    "I ask my colleagues to consider urgently whether we should not now eliminate De Gaulle as a political force ... I ... will show them and the world that the 'no surrender' movement in France, around which the De Gaulle legend has been built up, on the one hand, and this vain and even malignant man on the other have no longer any common identity... He hates England and he has left a trail of Anglophobia behind him everywhere."

    He did however have the historical perspective to distinguish his feelings for de Gaulle from a far warmer sentiment towards the French nation. In these days of personality politics, perhaps we should take note.

  • Comment number 10.

    17th June 1940, 70 years ago. A greatly overlooked tragedy (at the time due to a 'D-notice' to protect public morale - and prevent the enemy from learning of the event) which continues to be almost airbrushed from history to this day.
    RMS Lancastria (converted to troopship status (HMT)), taking part in operation Ariel (evacuation of personnel (200,000) from western France) was attacked/bombed near St Nazaire. Although the numbers of lives lost continue to be debated (estimates vary between 4,000 and 7-9,000 on board) The consensus is that more people (military, civilians, refugees) lost their lives in this one incident than that of the Titanic and the Lusitania combined.
    In five years time, 7th May 2015 and 17th June 2015 the RMS Lusitania (Centenary) and HMT Lancastria (75th anniversary) MUST be remembered on a national scale.


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