French President Emmanuel Macron travels to Britain on Thursday to commemorate Charles de Gaulle’s call for resistance in World War II, against the very modern backdrop of grappling with Brexit and the coronavirus crisis.
Macron will hold talks with Prime Minister Boris Johnson in a hugely symbolic visit that is his first foreign trip since the coronavirus pandemic began.
The visit marks 80 years since de Gaulle, the exiled wartime resistance leader, made his famous call on June 18, 1940, from BBC studios to a defeated France from London not to give into the Nazis.
Johnson has announced honorary British MBE awards to four surviving French resistance fighters — one aged 100 and three in their late 90s.
“The struggles we face today are different to those we confronted together 80 years ago,” Johnson said.
“But I have no doubt that -– working side by side -– the UK and France will continue to rise to every new challenge and seize every opportunity that lies ahead.”
– ‘Need to be careful’ –
But beyond the historic symbolism, Macron’s meeting with Johnson at 10 Downing Street will also focus on the grinding search for an agreement on Britain’s exit from the EU.
Britain, which left the EU in January, is negotiating a trade deal to govern relations after December 31, when it stops abiding by EU rules. Macron has on occasion expressed impatience with the drawn-out Brexit process.
Macron’s status as a visiting foreign dignitary will spare him the controversial two-week virus quarantine now demanded by the British authorities of all visitors from abroad.
France, where unlike in Britain cafes and restaurants are now fully open after the virus lockdown, had expected French travellers to be exempt from the rule.
“We just want to be very careful — yes, to open up, but to do so when it’s safe and responsible. So we’ll work through all of that with our French friends,” foreign minister Dominic Raab told BBC TV.
– ‘Proud of your courage’ –
Before heading to Britain, Macron met in Paris with Hubert Germain, 99, one of the four surviving Resistance heroes.
“Our country is proud of your courage and it still inspires us. We will make sure every young person knows what they owe you,” he told the veteran.
After arriving in Britain by air with a scaled-down delegation, Macron will meet heir to the throne Prince Charles in London, with both set to pay their respects to de Gaulle and make speeches.
A statue of Churchill that was controversially boxed up after anti-racism protests will be uncovered for Macron’s visit, the London mayor’s office said.
Macron will award the Legion of Honour to London, making it the seventh city to be decorated with France’s highest order of merit.
He will then head to Downing Street for the talks with Johnson, himself an avowed fan of Britain’s wartime leader Winston Churchill, who allowed de Gaulle to broadcast from the BBC.
The day will be given added poignancy by news of the death of British singer Vera Lynn, who famously who helped keep up morale during World War II. She was 103.
– ‘Nothing lost’ –
Macron, who displays de Gaulle’s war memoirs on his desk in his official photograph, is making much of 2020 as an anniversary year for the French resistance leader who would later become president of post-occupation France.
The general’s iconic stature and his defiant wartime spirit are being tapped into even more during the unprecedented challenges posed by the epidemic.
In a telling reflection of his status, the vandalisation of a de Gaulle bust in northern France this week was met with a torrent of outrage.
In his radio broadcast from London, de Gaulle urged all those who could to carry on fighting for France, words that laid the foundation of the resistance movement and helped keep alive hope that France would be liberated, as it finally was in 1944.
“Has the last word been said? Should hope disappear? Is the defeat final? No! Believe me, I… tell you that nothing is lost for France,” he said.