UK

More than history behind Sarkozy visit

David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy
Image caption Might the visit prove important in smoothing cross-Channel relations?

French President Nicolas Sarkozy has visited London to mark the 70th anniversary of a defiant wartime broadcast by Charles de Gaulle to rally the French Resistance.

On one level this anniversary is a clear and simple celebration.

It is about not giving in to tyranny, and about defending freedom and relying on friends in time of need.

But beneath the surface the undercurrents are redolent with irony and ambiguity.

For a start, the historic significance of Charles de Gaulle's first speech to his fellow French was by no means evident when he delivered it from BBC studios on 18 June 1940.

In fact, it sounds as though it barely made it to air.

The British cabinet was initially wary of letting him make the broadcast.

By all accounts very few people heard it. BBC engineers also failed to record it - a lapse which provoked that famous De Gaulle temper and an insistence he be allowed to broadcast again.

Just as well: It is thought that only by his third broadcast on 22 June was his call to resistance heard more widely.

If he had not been so prickly and self-important, the main voice galvanizing the Resistance might never have been heard at all.

But at the same time, his difficult manner had another consequence.

It led to uneasy relations with both Winston Churchill, Britain's wartime leader, and the US President, FD Roosevelt.

Their alliance with De Gaulle was constantly marred by quarrels and mutual suspicion - a fact largely glossed over in the celebrations and pageantry in London to mark this 70-year anniversary.

'US snub'

However, in the 1940s, it was a hint of what was to come.

Let us not forget that in later years it was President De Gaulle who twice blocked Britain from joining Europe's Common Market.

He also snubbed the Americans by withdrawing France from Nato's military command.

That spirited independence and very French refusal to follow where America leads is still an instinct that colours the nation's foreign policy to this day.

It lay behind President Chirac's defiant refusal to join Britain in supporting President Bush's occupation of Iraq.

Image caption De Gaulle's prickly character led to conflict with his wartime allies

It surely informed President Sarkozy's rush to forge peace with Moscow in August 2008 at a time when the American administration was aghast at the entry of Russian troops into Georgia.

So why all the fuss about this 70th anniversary of the De Gaulle speech? Why go to all the trouble of coming to London to mark the event?

As far as Mr Sarkozy is concerned, it is a signal that can be read in two ways.

Firstly, it will no doubt do him no harm to be associated with French heroism in World War II and the nation's most presidential of Presidents - especially when his domestic poll ratings are low.

But there is a second, wider reason.

Many in Europe are concerned lest the new Conservative-led government in Britain might be tempted to succumb to Euro-scepticism and loosen ties with the EU.

In that regard the memory of the wartime alliance of 70 years ago serves as a useful bridge.

Mr Sarkozy may be hoping his Gallic charm - and his wife's aura of Latin glamour - can help smooth the way to closer ties across the Channel.

Europe is not at war. But its economy is threatened.

Once again, there is good reason to make sure relations with Britain are kept on an even keel.

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