As a British citizen who spent 11 years living in France and who benefitted from a rigorous French education at the Lycée Français Charles de Gaulle in London, I felt moved that the city of my birth was awarded the Légion d’Honneur this week by the French president.
On the 80th anniversary of ‘Appel du 18 juin’ (as de Gaulle’s famous call-to-arms against Hitler’s occupation of his country is known), Emmanuel Macron came to honour the place from which that call was made. He was greeted by Prince Charles and by Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall.
In the afternoon, he met with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and spoke for ten minutes on the telephone to the Queen.
In a speech in front of General de Gaulle’s statue at Carlton Gardens, Macron expressed infinite gratitude for the vital role that London had played in the hosting of the fledging forces of Free France, which enabled them to commence the fight against Nazi occupation during World War II.
‘Britain gave shelter to France,’ was how the French president put it (all divisive feelings stirred up by Brexit seemingly far from his mind).
Prince Charles returned the sentiment in perfect French, insisting that the people of France and Great Britain possessed a shared determination that must and will endure.
Celebrating the 18th of June 1940 in London on 18th June 2020 was also a way to rekindle - at least symbolically - the Franco-British ties strained by Britain’s costly exit from the European Union.
What was apparent was not division, but an ‘Entente Cordiale.’ The joint Red Arrows and Patrouille de France flypast which Mr Macron and Mr Johnson watched together, was certainly rousing.
It was obvious that both men were enjoying the spectacle. At the end of a video posted on The Telegraph’s Twitter Account, one could hear President Macron thanking Mr Johnson for this warm welcome.
As a firm believer in the great benefits and delights of learning foreign languages, I found it heartening to hear the Prince of Wales speaking in excellent French to Mr Macron. He finished his speech by saying: ‘Let us renew our links as neighbours, friends and allies and let us look towards the future.’
In Britain as in many places across Europe, this has been a month characterised by great battles over statues and their meanings, which were given impetus by the Black Lives Matter protests held around the world. Though Winston Churchill’s statue was the subject of protests and polarised polemic, President Macron’s pause at Charles de Gaulle’s statue went without controversy.
Both wartime figures became heroes in their own countries as well as across the Western world, for their significant contributions to defeating Hitler. But both men were seen as ardent - often ruthless colonialists - by diverse peoples who had to bear the yoke of imperial invasion, occupation and harsh colonial rule.
It took de Gaulle 18 years after his June 18, 1940 speech - which was broadcast by the BBC (but not recorded or preserved in its archive, as it was not thought significant enough) to make another and equally-significant speech addressed to the people of Algeria.
They had sacrificed a million of their number to rid themselves of French colonial rule. It was in 1958, that de Gaulle finally acknowledged that the twilight of colonialism was upon France and upon him personally. This long overdue acknowledgement led him to utter the now historic words to France’s subjugated Algerians: ‘Je vous ai compris’ (I have understood you).
These words were to mark the beginning of the end of France’s blood-soaked military presence in North Africa.
But Macron had come to celebrate his presidential predecessor in London, and highlight an entirely different moment in France’s history.
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