As we commemorate this year the 80th anniversary of the Appeal of 18 June by Charles de Gaulle, we have dived into the Institut français du Royaume-Uni’s unique archives collections dedicated to that period and picked out some treasures emblematic of the key days of our two countries’ history.
Let’s discover how, “for a brief moment, the Institut français in London was at the centre of the world’s historical stage, owing to its involvement in the early days of Charles de Gaulle’ Free French Movement”.
The quote above and the historical descriptions below are borrowed from historian Charlotte Faucher’s work, especially her Phd thesis, The French intellectual consulate to Great Britain? The Institut Français du Royaume-Uni, 1910-1959 and the article From Gaullism to Anti-Gaullism: Denis Saurat and the French Cultural Institute in Wartime London (in Journal of Contemporary History, 54(1), 60–81.
Picture above: selection of documents from the Denis Saurat and the Forces Françaises Libres archives collections of the Institut français du Royaume-Uni
The Institut français du Royaume-Uni and Lycée new buildings were inaugurated on 21 March 1939 in the presence of French President Albert Lebrun and Princess Mary.
A few months later, on 3 September 1939, as the UK and France declared war on Germany, the Institut launched a series of lectures about the war. In June 1940, after de Gaulle Appeal, the Institut français du Royaume-Uni became, in the words of Free French André Weil-Curiel, “The first bastion of the Résistance” and a platform to promote La France Libre, over the course of war.
Denis Saurat (1890-1958) was a French intellectual, writer and broadcaster. He was professor at King’s College London from 1926 to 1950 and the director of the Institut français du Royaume-Uni from 1924 to 1945.
In June 1940 he immediately rallied Charles de Gaulle, whom he met for the first time on 19 June. During the first month of the war he devotedly used his and the Institute’s networks to promote de Gaulle and the Free French movement to the British francophile elites, French people based in the UK and media, by organising lectures, publishing articles in newspapers and broadcasting at the BBC.
Denis Saurat did not hear de Gaulle’s Appeal on 18 June, but he met him the following day with some of his close friends, principally Lord Ivor Spencer Churchill (Cousin of the Prime Minister), and Jacques Métadier, member of the Mission de l’Information Française in London. On that day, Saurat and Métadier drafted this declaration “Au nom du peuple français” which was then handed to Charles de Gaulle and Winston Churchill and stood as a prefiguration of the constitution of a Free French Government in London.
At that time, he was the only intellectual in de Gaulle’s circle, and the General tasked him to gather academics and artists around him and to build a philosophy for the Free French Movement.One of Saurat’s most important public gestures in the summer of 1940 was to introduce de Gaulle and his ideas to the Londoners during a successful public conference organised at the Queen’s Hall on 17 July 1940 under the auspices of the Institut français. This photo of de Gaulle and Denis Saurat had been taken at the Queen’s Hall after the lecture.
This document is a copy of the Churchill – de Gaulle agreement of 7 August 1940, which recognises de Gaulle as the leader of the Free French Men, who, wherever they might have been in the world, rallied him in support of the Allied cause.
The Institut welcomed many Resistants during the war. Among them, René Cassin, a renowned French jurist who arrived in London with his wife on 28 June 1940. He was driven to the Institut and Denis Saurat presented him de Gaulle to whom he quickly became a close advisor. René Cassin, the author of the statutes of La France Libre (Free France), future co-author of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and laureate of the Nobel Peace Prize lived and gave lectures at the Institut until December 1941.
Revue de la France Libre (Free France Review) was created in September 1940 by two young French resistant refugees in London, the philosopher Raymond Aron and the journalist André Labarthe, with the support of the director of the Institut français, Denis Saurat. The offices of Revue de la France Libre were sheltered at the Institut. Devoted to French and international culture and politics, the journal published contributions by French, British, and European authors including the British artist Vita Sackville-West and the Romanian novelist, mathematician, and diplomat Matilda Ghyka. The first issue (pictured above) includes articles by members of the Free French and de Gaulle’s companions in London, André Labarthe, Denis Saurat, and René Cassin. The eclectic topics covered in the journal made it widely appealing not only to the London French but also to worldwide Free French committees, all the more as Resistance publications outside France were limited in numbers.
During the war, the Institut français and the Lycée Français hosted some of the Free France’s services (mailing services Free French Air Forces) when de Gaulle’s General Quarter at Carlton’s Gardens became too small.
From June 1940 to 31 August 1944 daily radio programmes in French, under the title Radio Londres, were broadcast by the BBC to counter the news from the front redacted by the nazi propaganda, transmit coded messages to the Résistance in France and enhance the moral of French people in the war. This is an example of a programme published in the London based French newspaper France. On 20 June 1940, Denis Saurat, director of the Institut, was the second guest to speak on Ici la France (which would become Les Français parlent aux Français) where he appealed to support and asked for sacrifices to help save France.
20 years after the 18 June Appeal, in April 1960, Charles de Gaulle, President of the French Republic made an official visit in London and paid tribute to the Institut français and the Lycée for their role in supporting the Free French Forces during the war. In his Memoirs of wars, he recalls how the Institut was one of his first and main supporters during the war.
This commemorative plaque in the Institut’s foyer pays tribute to the Free French Forces.
The Free France virtual exhibition has been curated by Marion Loire and Natacha Antolini, Institut français du Royaume-Uni
Special thanks to Charlotte Faucher whose academic research and Phd thesis, The French intellectual consulate to Great Britain? The Institut français du Royaume-Uni, 1910-1959, help us to know better the history of the Institut. For her thesis, a collaborative doctoral award between Queen Mary, University of London and the Institut français, she thoroughly dug into and explored Saurat’s archival material.