An Appeal for De Gaulle

France’s true greatest day

By Dave Kopel

By Dave Kopel, research director of the Independence Institute & NRO contributing editor.

National Review Online. July 14-15, 2001. More by Kopel on France, and on World War II.

The greatest day in French history is not Bastille Day (July 14), which turned out to be only an important point in a failed revolution that degenerated into dictatorship and imperialism. Rather, the greatest day came the day after the most shameful moment in the history of France, as the greatest man in French history stepped forward, and saved the honor of his nation.

In the spring of 1940, Hitler's army burst through the Ardennes Forest, bypassing the French defensive Maginot Line. In late May and early June, the remnants of the British Expeditionary Force rushed to evacuate the continent, escaping from Dunkirk on British civilian fishing boats and other rescue craft. Germans tanks and bombers drove into Paris on June 14. The battle for France was clearly lost, and the French government, which had fled to Bordeaux, argued about whether to continue the war from the French colonies in North Africa.

On June 16, 1940, the democratic government of Premier Paul Reynaud collapsed, because Reynaud refused to support an armistice with Germany. On June 17, the Vice-Premier Marshal Philippe Petain, a hero of World War I, formed a new government, which offered to conditional surrender to the Nazis. Five days later, an armistice was signed at Rethondes, the same site where Germany and France had signed the armistice ending World War I.

Overwhelmingly ratified by the French legislature, the surrender allowed the Germans to occupy all of Atlantic and northern France. A neutral French government, under a Petain dictatorship, would be allowed to exist in south-central and southeastern France, comprising 40% of France. This government, with a capital at Vichy, could retain control of the powerful French fleet, and of the French overseas colonies. Petain's government promptly abolished the French Third Republic, setting up a fascist dictatorship in the rump state that was the only remnant of the nation which had once been the leader of the free world and Western civilization.

But even as Petain and his cowardly majority were bringing France to its lowest point, the little-known Brigadier General Charles de Gaulle had arrived in London and was meeting with Winston Churchill. Would the British attempt to deal with Petain's government, or would they back de Gaulle's dream of forming a resistance?

On June 18, De Gaulle prepared to speak to the French people, via BBC radio, from London. The British Cabinet attempted to block the speech, but was over-ruled by Churchill. In France, De Gaulle's "Appeal of June 18" could be heard nationwide, at 7:00 p.m. To this day, it remains the most famous speech in French history:

The leaders who, for many years, were at the head of French armies, have formed a government. This government, alleging our armies to be undone, agreed with the enemy to stop fighting.

Of course, we were subdued by the mechanical, ground and air forces of the enemy. Infinitely more than their number, it was the tanks, the airplanes, the tactics of the Germans which made us retreat. It was the tanks, the airplanes, the tactics of the Germans that surprised our leaders to the point to bring them there where they are today.

But has the last word been said? Must hope disappear? Is defeat final? No!

Believe me, I speak to you with full knowledge of the facts and tell you that nothing is lost for France. The same means that overcame us can bring us to a day of victory. For France is not alone! She is not alone! She is not alone! She has a vast Empire behind her. She can align with the British Empire that holds the sea and continues the fight. She can, like England, use without limit the immense industry of United States.

This war is not limited to the unfortunate territory of our country. This war is not finished by the battle of France. This war is a world-wide war. All the faults, all the delays, all the suffering, do not prevent there to be, in the world, all the necessary means to one day crush our enemies. Vanquished today by mechanical force, we will be able to overcome in the future by a superior mechanical force.

The destiny of the world is here. I, General of Gaulle, currently in London, invite the officers and the French soldiers who are located in British territory or who would come there, with their weapons or without their weapons, I invite the engineers and the special workers of armament industries who are located in British territory or who would come there, to put themselves in contact with me.

Whatever happens, the flame of the French resistance not must not be extinguished and will not be extinguished. Tomorrow, as today, I will speak on Radio London.

The next morning, Wednesday, French people living in London, including many young girls, began streaming to de Gaulle's office to volunteer to do whatever they could for the cause. De Gaulle's wife, along with their three children and governess, arrived in England, having escaped on the last boat leaving Brest. In France, General Weygand had issued an order for de Gaulle's arrest, the moment the speech had been broadcast. Yet several newspapers in France dared to print the text of de Gaulle's speech. In northern France, already under German control, young men began to slip away to England in fishing boats, or whatever else they could put to sea, in order to join the Free French.

Most French people, of course, passively acquiesced to the German military government or to the Vichy government. But de Gaulle's speech laid the foundation for the minority who would resist--who would join the Free French overseas, or who in metropolitan France would fight a guerilla war that would help, after four and a half brutal years, drive the Nazis out. Posters of de Gaulle's words sprang up all over France, and although the authorities ripped them down quickly, they could never extinguish the flame of resistance which de Gaulle had lit.

De Gaulle began to form the Free French army. In May-June 1942 at Bir-Hakeim, Libya, the Italian army and Rommel's Afrika Korps were held off for several weeks by an outnumbered Anglo-French army which inflicted heavy casualties on the Axis.

It was the first time since Petain's surrender that the French had met the Germans and Italians in armed combat. On June 18, 1942, exactly one year after the Appeal of June 18, de Gaulle broadcast this message:

The Nation has tremendous pride learning what its soldiers at Bir-Hakeim have done. Brave and pure children of France have written with their blood one of the most beautiful pages of glory!

At the greatest architectural site in France — the Eiffel Tower — the subway station is named "Bir-Hakeim." Much more so than the French victories in Napoleonic or monarchical wars, the French soldiers at Bir-Hakeim fought for the highest principles of freedom and patriotism.

The Charles de Gaulle Foundation's website includes a special section commemorating the 61st anniversary of the Appeal, and if you read French, the site is well worth visiting.  

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