French President Emmanuel Macron whose visit to London today in order to commemorate the 80th anniversary of General Charles de Galle’s ‘Viva la France’ address broadcast live from the BBC at Broadcasting House, is as timely as it is also a welcome. The French people went through hell during the Nazi invasion and through the remainder of the Second World War and it is the courage and sacrifice of those who, encourage by Charles de Gaulle in London, continued to fight through the next five years that we rightly recall today. The French people and particularly the French resistance and the support that they provided to us and of what we did for them through the years of occupation is something that we and those who follow us should never forget.
The British and French may have had – and continue to have their many differences – but this symbolic visit by the French leader, one that recalls the appeal made by Charles de Gaulle to the ‘Free French’ to rally following the fall of France to the Nazi regime, is a timely reminder that despite our differences over Brexit that the ‘entente cordial’ – a series of agreements which had arguably been led behind the scenes diplomacy on the part of King Edward V11 continues to be at the heart of our relationship.
Weather permitting, having taken off from RAF Brize Norton at approximately 1640 Hours this afternoon the Royal Air Force Red Aerobatic Team along with their French counterparts, Patrouille Acrobatique de France (PAF), will fly across parts of Oxfordshire, Wiltshire and Berkshire before heading east to fly over parts of London including Buckingham Palace in order to mark 80 years since Charles De Gaulle delivered his historic speech to what was then, occupied France. The display teams will then fly over parts of Essex, Suffolk before heading over Norfolk and back to their RAF Scampton base in Lincolnshire. The statue of Charles de Gaulle in Sterling Square will also be honoured.
It is interesting to note that it was only by the intervention of Winston Churchill that the broadcast by General de Gaulle took place at all. The Cabinet were, I believe, against the idea that someone who was not even a high-ranking member of the French military at the time should be doing this.
History tells us of the difficult political relationship that followed in the years after the second world war and that left the relationship between France and the United Kingdom sometimes less than harmonious. Sadly, I sometimes feel that while the people of Belgium, Netherlands and Norway never fail to recognise the huge part that Britain played in their eventual freedom from tyranny, just as they had similarly played during the Great War, that French politicians over the past fifty years have often been less inclined to remember the huge part that we and our allies played in freeing France.
Fifty years after his death General Charles de Gaulle continues to be revered in France and rightly so. He may not have been the founder of what became the Common Market – that honour goes to that great Frenchman and European Jean Monnet of whom the late John F Kennedy said that by a constructive idea, had done more to unite Europe in twenty years than all the conquerors in a thousand” – but he was the man who picked up France by its bootstraps and rebuilt it.
As the self-acclaimed leader of the Free French during WW2 Charles de Gaulle’s relationship with Winston Churchill would be less than perfect. Roosevelt distrusted him and indeed, the US would continue to mistrust the French until relatively recently. But for all that, Charles de Gaulle never lost his genuine respect for what Winston Churchill, working with our French, Commonwealth and Polish allies achieved.
Let today serve as a reminder to French and British people alike that despite mistrust and wars of the past, we have and we must always ensure that we maintain an enduring relationship. Yes, we will compete against each other but we will also work alongside each on the world stage in order to secure the peace and stability.
And as members of the NATO alliance, despite the constant calls from France for European based defence, let us work together to find solutions. It was Jean Monnet who first coined the phrase ‘Politics is the art of the possible” and “the greatest risk of all would be to do nothing and change nothing”. All these remarks have great merit but it was his remark that “we are uniting people, not forming a coalition of states” that stands out most to me. Perhaps those who determine policy ideals in the European Union today need to be reminded of Jean Monnet’s ideals.
Today we recall what was undoubtedly a very important speech by Charles de Gaulle 80 years ago. For centuries Europe was a region of many states and many wars and whatever we may feel here in the UK let us not forget that Monnet’s drafting of the Schuman Plan that established the European Iron and Steel Community and of which he would be the first president and that later led to the development of the European Common Market has played an equal part with NATO ensuring that Europe has enjoyed 75 years of peace.
In these very difficult times those of us that wish to see the enduring relationship that we have with France continue are very pleased to see President Emmanuel Macron in London today.
CHW (London – 18th June 2020)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785