June 18, 1940 : from a BBC studio, an obscure brigadier general, Charles de Gaulle, urges the French to continue the fight. What will go down in history as the call of June 18 echoes that launched the day before by Marshal Pétain, new President of the Council, who told the French "heavy heart "The need to"stop fighting ". The government, taking refuge in Bordeaux, is preparing to negotiate an armistice with Nazi Germany, which had just entered Paris a few days earlier. All resistance now seems futile, and yet some refuse to lay down their arms. Their will to resist will be embodied on this day by the famous call of June 18.
From debacle to refusal to lay down arms
May-June 1940. According to a perfectly executed plan, the German army launched an offensive in the west. The French army, which had advanced into Belgium, was taken from behind by a German offensive in the Ardennes and quickly found itself surrounded with its British ally in Dunkirk. From then on nothing seems to be able to oppose the lightning advance of the Germans. In the midst of the debacle, the military authorities and the French government questioned the need to continue the fight. A question that a French officer does not ask himself ...
This general, who left mainland France on June 17 and will not see him again for 4 years, is called Charles de Gaulle. For the general public, it is almost unknown. A brilliant theorist, commander of the 4th Reserve Battleship Division during the first weeks of the French campaign, he was appointed Under Secretary of State for War and National Defense on 6 June.
In contact with the British to coordinate the war effort, he developed a relationship of esteem with Prime Minister Winston Churchill. De Gaulle is determined that France will continue the war and Churchill, who has to face supporters of peace with Germany within his own government, supports his initiatives. This is for the British Prime Minister to show that the UK will not be alone in the struggle ahead. On the 17th, the tenant of 10 Downing Street sided with an unconvinced cabinet, so that the French general could express his position on the air. Still only one recording is planned, the British reserving the right to edit certain details. It is that some still fear a too clear break with the government of Pétain ...
June 18, 1940: from London, De Gaulle launches his appeal to the BBC
On the day of 18 De Gaulle wrote his speech with the help of Geoffroy de Courcel, the first of the officers engaged in the future FFL. This speech, the general will record in the studios of the BBC around 6 pm. The first words uttered by De Gaulle come back to the petain government's request for an armistice: "The chiefs who have been at the head of the French armies for many years have formed a government. This government, alleging the defeat of our armies, got in touch with the enemy to stop the fight. »
If De Gaulle concedes the defeat he attributes so much to the "mechanical, land and air force of the enemy " that to his "tactical », He challenges Pétain's views by asserting that "That nothing is lost for France ". De Gaulle justifies his position by asserting that France "is not alone "Since she has "A vast Empire behind her. "But also the support of the British Empire and"the immense industry of the United States. "Where Pétain, even Hitler, consider the conflict which began in September 1939 as European, De Gaulle (like Churchill) shows his lofty views by announcing that"This war is a World War. ". He, the simple exiled general, assures us that victory is possible: “We will be able to overcome in the future by a higher mechanical force. The fate of the world is here. »
It was following this presentation that the famous appeal to the French came: "I, General de Gaulle,… invite the French officers and soldiers who are in British territory or who come to be there… I invite the engineers and workers specializing in the armaments industries… to get in touch with me. "For De Gaulle it is obvious that" the flame of the French resistance must not be extinguished and will not be extinguished. »
Impact of the June 18 appeal
How many French people share this opinion on June 18? Little. How many have heard it expressed on the air? much less still. Enough in any case for Bordeaux to understand the scope, the consequences of this act. The following Saturday General de Gaulle was retired for insubordination. He will soon be sentenced to death in absentia. In the meantime, a radio duel will have started between Pétain, who poses as a shield of a defeated nation, and the rebel general who brandishes a sword, admittedly broken but still sharp, against Hitler. In this regard, the appeal of June 18, although revised later (and more than once), is indeed the starting point of the adventure of Free France. This is why it occupies, several decades after its release, such a place in the French collective imagination ...
- The appeal of June 18 from Jean-Louis Crémieux-Brilhac. Armand Colin, 2010.
- The appeal of June 18, by Aristide Luneau. Flammarion, 2020.
- War memoirs: Volume 1, The call: 1940-1942 by Charles De Gaulle. Pocket, 2010.
- That day everything changed - The call of June 18. DVD, France television Distribution, 2010.