France skips Waterloo to honour De Gaulle

While the rest of Europe marked the anniversary of Waterloo on Thursday, France and its president preferred to commemorate a very different moment in French history, one that is a little easier to celebrate, perhaps.

France skips Waterloo to honour De Gaulle
A file photo from 2010 when De Gaulle's "Appeal" was played again at the Town Hall in Paris. Photo: AFP

French leaders have been criticized on Thursday for appearing to snub the 200th year anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo.

But as the country’s Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian pointed out, there is “another historic” event that needs to be acknowledged on Thursday and one that is slightly easier perhaps for the French to reminisce about.

On June 18th 1940 as the French government prepared to make peace with Hitler’s invading army, Charles de Gaulle took to the airwaves to broadcast an appeal to his French people via the BBC.

De Gaulle, the leader of the Free French Forces based in London, told his countrymen that the war was not over.

The speech, actually had to be rebroadcast on June 22nd because technical problems meant very few French people actually heard it.

And it also failed to have an immediate impact with many French soldiers who were with De Gaulle in the UK subsequently returning to France

Nevertheless De Gaulle's words were considered extremely influential, and were repeated throughout the war to inspire the French people to rise up against their occupiers.

For that reason the speech was considered to be the start of the French Resistance against the Nazis.

Although it came at a dark time in French history, De Gaulle’s speech, simply known in France as the Appeal of June 18th, is celebrated with pride.

On Thursday, President François Hollande headed to Mont-Valérien, a hill just outside Paris that was used by the Nazis for executions during the war, to commemorate the appeal along with the mayor of Paris Anne Hidalgo and Britain’s ambassador Sir Peter Ricketts.

He was also accompanied by several survivors of the Resistance.

Although there is no recording of De Gaulle’s original speech the second one from June 22th still remains (see video below).

Here is a section from De Gaulle’s famous appeal:

“Honour, common sense, and the interests of the country require that all free Frenchmen, wherever they be, should continue the fight as best they may.

“It is therefore necessary to group the largest possible French force wherever this can be done. Everything which can be collected by way of French military elements and potentialities for armaments production must be organised wherever such elements exist.

“I, General de Gaulle, am undertaking this national task here in England.

“I call upon all French servicemen of the land, sea, and air forces; I call upon French engineers and skilled armaments workers who are on British soil, or have the means of getting here, to come and join me.

“I call upon the leaders, together with all soldiers, sailors, and airmen of the French land, sea, and air forces, wherever they may now be, to get in touch with me.

“I call upon all Frenchmen who want to remain free to listen to my voice and follow me.

“Long live free France in honour and independence!”

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‘Lost’ manuscript of pro-Nazi French author published 78 years later

A book by one of France's most celebrated and controversial literary figures arrives in bookstores this week, 78 years after the manuscript disappeared

'Lost' manuscript of pro-Nazi French author published 78 years later

It is a rare thing when the story of a book’s publication is even more mysterious than the plot of the novel itself.

But that might be said of Guerre (War) by one of France’s most celebrated and controversial literary figures, Louis-Ferdinand Celine, which arrives in bookstores on Thursday, some 78 years after its manuscript disappeared.

Celine’s reputation has somehow survived the fact that he was one of France’s most eager collaborators with the Nazis.

Already a superstar thanks to his debut novel Journey to the End of the Night (1932), Celine became one of the most ardent anti-Semitic propagandists even before France’s occupation.

In June 1944, with the Allies advancing on Paris, the writer abandoned a pile of his manuscripts in his Montmartre apartment.

Celine feared rough treatment from authorities in liberated France, having spent the war carousing with the Gestapo, and giving up Jews and foreigners to the Nazi regime and publishing racist pamphlets about Jewish world conspiracies.

For decades, no one knew what happened to his papers, and he accused resistance fighters of burning them. But at some point in the 2000s, they ended up with retired journalist Jean-Pierre Thibaudat, who passed them – completely out of the blue – to Celine’s heirs last summer.

‘A miracle’
Despite the author’s history, reviews of the 150-page novel, published by Gallimard, have been unanimous in their praise.

“The end of a mystery, the discovery of a great text,” writes Le Point; a “miracle,” says Le Monde; “breathtaking,” gushes Journal du Dimanche.

Gallimard has yet to say whether the novel will be translated.

Like much of Celine’s work, Guerre is deeply autobiographical, recounting his experiences during World War I.

It opens with 20-year-old Brigadier Ferdinand finding himself miraculously alive after waking up on a Belgian battlefield, follows his treatment and hasty departure for England – all based on Celine’s real experiences.

His time across the Channel is the subject of another newly discovered novel, Londres (London), to be published this autumn.

If French reviewers seem reluctant to focus on Celine’s rampant World War II anti-Semitism, it is partly because his early writings (Guerre is thought to date from 1934) show little sign of it.

Journey to the End of the Night was a hit among progressives for its anti-war message, as well as a raw, slang-filled style that stuck two fingers up at bourgeois sensibilities.

Celine’s attitude to the Jews only revealed itself in 1937 with the publication of a pamphlet, Trifles for a Massacre, which set him on a new path of racial hatred and conspiracy-mongering.

He never back-tracked. After the war, he launched a campaign of Holocaust-denial and sought to muddy the waters around his own war-time exploits – allowing him to worm his way back into France without repercussions.

‘Divine surprise’
Many in the French literary scene seem keen to separate early and late Celine.

“These manuscripts come at the right time – they are a divine surprise – for Celine to become a writer again: the one who matters, from 1932 to 1936,” literary historian Philippe Roussin told AFP.

Other critics say the early Celine was just hiding his true feelings.

They highlight a quote that may explain the gap between his progressive novels and reactionary feelings: “Knowing what the reader wants, following fashions like a shopgirl, is the job of any writer who is very financially constrained,” Celine wrote to a friend.

Despite his descent into Nazism, he was one of the great chroniclers of the trauma of World War I and the malaise of the inter-war years.

An exhibition about the discovery of the manuscripts opens on Thursday at the Gallimard Gallery and includes the original, hand-written sheets of Guerre.

They end with a line that is typical of Celine: “I caught the war in my head. It is locked in my head.”

In the final years before his death in 1961, Celine endlessly bemoaned the loss of his manuscripts.

The exhibition has a quote from him on the wall: “They burned them, almost three manuscripts, the pest-purging vigilantes!”

This was one occasion – not the only one – where he was proved wrong.