De Gaulle’s myth of Paris freeing itself leaves a complex legacy

Simon Heffer looks at France's liberation myth, and how it reconciles with its history under Nazi Occupation

Charles de Gaulle, here seen with Queen Elizabeth II, built a founding myth of France after WWII.
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In the early 1980s I worked with a very genial and modest man who had landed on D-Day in 1944 and fought all the way to the surrender on Luneberg Heath in Germany in May 1945. 

I only learned this when he took a couple of days off work to attend, with many other comrades, the 40th anniversary commemorations. 

Like most old soldiers he was very reticent about his own part in the invasion of France and the defeat of Nazism, so hardly anyone who worked with him knew of his part in the campaign. 

I recall, though, that only one thing about the whole heroic episode wound him up. 

He recalled being on the outskirts of Paris when French troops, by arrangement and for overtly political reasons, led the final flushing out of the occupier from the capital: and word spread that General de Gaulle had told his people that France “had liberated itself ”. 

“It bloody well hadn’t,’ my colleague, then in his mid-60s, protested: and although the Free French were involved in the campaign, the cemeteries that stand to this day all over Normandy and through northern France filled with the bodies of British, American, Canadian and other allied warriors prove his point in a poignantly eloquent way. 

Now another 40 years have passed, and he and virtually all his comrades who survived have now run the natural course of their lives.

Few survivors live to tell the tale 

The liberation of France, and indeed of the rest of the Europe, has almost entirely passed from living memory to recorded history. 

But even recorded history, with its newspaper reports – famously, the ‘first draft’ of history – regimental histories, documents, newsreels, memoirs, military histories and archives of recorded interviews can be open to interpretation, misinterpretation, forgetfulness, falsification, manipulation, distortion and misunderstanding. 

Above all, it has to compete with myth: and since many people don’t read or study history, and myth is simply received wisdom, myth often prevails. 

What France calls the Débarquement happened around dawn on 6 June 1944. 

As is well known and uncontested, the invaders sustained heavy casualties at five separate landing points along the Normandy coast.

After putting up a ferocious fight for over two months, the Germans, who were already overstretched because of having to fight on the attritional Eastern Front and in Italy, were quickly driven back across France and, by the end of the summer, into Belgium.

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Liberation of Paris was starting point for 'New' France

The liberation of Paris was of enormous symbolic value, not just in view of what France and its people had suffered, but in terms of the founding myth of post-war France – a society in which there would no longer be résistants and collabos, but just French people, going into the future. 

But first, it was accepted that scores would have to be settled with those felt to have betrayed France – whether the unfortunate women who had their heads shaved in public, and were in some cases forced to parade half-naked, because they had slept with the enemy, or major league traitors such as Pierre Laval, the sinister prime minister who ended up in the autumn of 1945 in front of a firing squad. 

This ‘purge’ or épuration also included the banishment to prison for life of the 89-year old former Great War hero Marshal Pétain. 

However, even before this reckoning took place, de Gaulle – who intended to rule France post-war, and who indeed did until he fell out with the dominant hard left – had worked out what the founding myth of the Fourth (and later Fifth) Republic would be, and was determined to enforce it.

At the Hôtel de Ville in the capital on August 25, 1944 de Gaulle said (and it is on film; it is undisputed) “Paris! Paris outragé! Paris brisé! Paris martyrisé! mais Paris liberé!” 

Thus far, so good: but then he said “liberé par lui-même, liberé par son peuple avec le concours des armées de la France, avec l’appui et le concours de la France tout entière, de la France qui se bat, de la seule France, de la vraie France, de la France éternelle.”* 

They did it all themselves even though, of course, they did not. De Gaulle was an unquestionably great man: but he had maintained in his own mind throughout the occupation – while causing such irritation that Churchill would rather have liked to have him shot – the fiction that France was undefeated. 

Now it was replaced by the equivalent fiction that France had, through its people and army, kicked out the Nazis. De Gaulle’s flannel was far less harmful than the wickedness of the Nazis over the preceding four years. 

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Awkward reckoning with Occupation events

No-one rained on his parade then because the Allies’ first priority was to make France believe in itself again and move forward in unity – once the essential dirty work was done. 

But the trouble with the myth was it was so unquestioned that it remained unquestionable, and it had a longterm effect on the French psyche. 

It was not until Jacques Chirac became president, half a century later, that there was an admission of and an apology for France’s participation in the genocide of the Jews. 

When Marcel Ophuls’s devastatingly brilliant documentary 'Le Chagrin et la Pitié' was released in 1969, it was banned from public exhibition until the 1980s because of the truths it told about collaboration and France’s dependence on the Allies to free it. 

Britain was lucky not to be occupied during the war, and we cannot be certain how some British would have behaved: so it ill-becomes any Briton to belittle the French for what they did in an appalling situation. 

But France now is a country again facing some economic and social turmoil, and a society largely unused, since 1944, to confronting the reality of the basis of its problems. 

That, too, regrettably, is part of de Gaulle’s complex legacy. 

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*“liberated by itself, liberated by its people with the help of the armies of France, with the support and help of the whole of France, of the France that fights, of the only France, the true France, the eternal France”. You can see the speech and scenes of the liberation here.