Tribute to De Gaulle’s defiance
Allied leaders mark general’s WWII broadcast
LONDON: French President Nicolas Sarkozy marked the 70th anniversary of Charles de Gaulle’s defiant World War II broadcast from London yesterday, visiting the studio where the leader urged his compatriots to resist the German occupation.
Sarkozy and his wife, Carla BruniSarkozy, went to Britain and toured Broadcasting House, the BBC complex in central London where UK officials initially refused De Gaulle’s request to air his appeal, but relented after the intervention of British wartime leader Winston Churchill.
The visit comes at a time when Europe is wrestling with economic rather than military challenges, and it offers a further chance for the French president and British Prime Minister David Cameron, who took office last month, to strengthen ties.
“We come as friends, and friends who remember the past and what France owes you,” Sarkozy told an audience of about 1 500 veterans and dignitaries at London’s Royal Hospital Chelsea, a hospital and retirement centre for ex-soldiers.
Amid pomp and ceremony, Sarkozy bestowed the French Legion d’Honneur on six World War II veterans _ three British and three French.
British and French jets made a ceremonial fly-past through London’s cloudy skies, while red-jacketed veterans and guards in plumed helmets mingled with dignitaries. Soldiers from both countries formed a joint guard of honour.
“Britain and France will be true to those who died for them in the skies above London, in the Libyan desert, on the Normandy beaches and the plain of Alsace, when all that we hold most dear was threatened with annihilation,” Sarkozy told veterans who attended the ceremony. He spoke in French.
Sarkozy and Cameron said commemorations of the past must be matched by strong ties between their two governments on present challenges, including Europe’s financial crisis and climate change.
The fallen would be honoured “by taking on together the defence of freedom and democracy everywhere in the world”. Sarkozy said.
Cameron, who made his first overseas visit as British leader to Paris, greeted Sarkozy warmly before a private lunch with their wives at the prime minister’s official residence in London.
“The bravery we celebrate today is not just a thing of the past, it is present every day,” said Cameron, praising the effort of British and French troops in Afghanistan.
“Today is not just about the shared history of Britain and France, it is about our shared responsibilities and our shared future,” he said.
De Gaulle’s appeal, which was largely unheard in France when it was initially broadcast and wasn’t recorded, was read aloud at the ceremony. The French army choir then sang wartime resistance song Le Chant des Partisans.
Earlier, Prince Charles accompanied Sarkozy and his wife on a tour of the London headquarters of the Free French, the fighters led by De Gaulle.
Sarkozy and the prince jointly laid wreaths at the statues of King George VI, the wartime monarch, and his wife Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother.
About 200 French veterans of the Resistance and World War II boarded a special Eurostar train in Paris on Friday to join ceremonies in London. A portrait of De Gaulle was emblazoned on the train.
“We were but a group of determined and courageous men. But in fact it was De Gaulle who changed the fate of France, and not us,” said veteran Emile Chaline, 78, a vice-admiral under De Gaulle. Another veteran, 95-year-old George Zwang, said: “We have to think about those who aren’t here, those we left behind.”
Other commemorations were planned yesterday across France. – Sapa-AP