Why is June 18, 1940 an Important Date in French History?

Last Updated on June 23, 2023

Charles de Gaulle's BBC radio address from London on June 18, 1940 marks for many historians the beginning of the French resistance to Nazi occupation.
Charles de Gaulle’s BBC radio address from London on June 18, 1940 marks for many historians the beginning of the French resistance to Nazi occupation. Anonymous/Wikimedia Commons

In France, June 18th is recognized every year as a solemn and important date in the nation’s history. But what makes the day such an important one?

History buffs may know that it marks, at least on a symbolic level, the beginning of the French Resistance against Nazi occupation (and collaboration) during World War II. On June 18, 1940, a decorated but then little-known war veteran named General Charles de Gaulle– who would later become the first President of France’s Fifth Republic– made a rousing call through English radio waves from the BBC in London.

In the address, which was broadcast at 10 pm London time and 8 pm French time, the exiled General De Gaulle called on French citizens everywhere to join a movement of wholesale resistance against both Occupied France– a government headed by the German Gestapo from Paris– and so-called ‘Free France’, a collaborationist regime helmed by Marshal Philippe Pétain from the thermal spa town of Vichy, in southern France.

Pétain had been gearing up to sign an armistice with Germany that would almost wholly agree to the Nazi regime’s terms of political governance, leading many to consider Vichy as a “puppet” government.

The Vichy regime was partly responsible for the deportation of thousands of French Jewish and Roma citizens, as well as political dissidents, to concentration, work and death camps elsewhere in Europe. Many transited through the Drancy camp outside Paris, where they were detained for days or weeks before being sent by train to camps in Germany, Poland and elsewhere.

{Related: The Pretty Parisian Building With a Dark History of Nazi Collaboration}

Separating Facts From Myths

Many common myths surround De Gaulle’s famed radio address. For one, while the French Resistance is often remembered as being a widely popular movement in which large numbers of citizens participated in, most historians agree that it was supported actively by a minority of the population during the four years of Occupation and collaboration.

So although the radio address is often held up as a point of pride in historical memory– a moment in which French citizens responded to a brave exiled General and his call to resist occupation and tyranny– the reality is that most people did not participate in the Resistance.

{Related: Josephine Baker, Performer, Artist & French Resistance Hero}

Another common myth surrounding the address was that it was De Gaulle’s most widely-heard speech. Many historians have noted that his broadcast of June 18 was not recorded despite being re-broadcast four times the following day, and most did not hear it in France since it didn’t reach their airwaves. A subsequent speech on the BBC on June 22 was in fact much more widely heard.

Despite these common myths, De Gaulle’s rousing appeal was undoubtedly influential, inspiring courage and determination to fight oppression in many who heard it– and its legacy lives on.

Key Quotes From General de Gaulle’s BBC Appeal of June 18, 1940

The 18 June address was brief at only four minutes long, but full of memorable quotes. These are just a few among them. You can read the full speech here, and hear audio of it with commentary here (at the BBC).

“Believe me, I speak to you with full knowledge of the facts and tell you that nothing is lost for France. The same means that overcame us can bring us to a day of victory. For France is not alone! She is not alone! She is not alone! She has a vast Empire behind her”.

“The destiny of the world is here. I, General de Gaulle, currently in London, invite the officers and the French soldiers who are located in British territory or who would come there, with their weapons or without their weapons, I invite the engineers and the special workers of armament industries who are located in British territory or who would come there, to put themselves in contact with me.”

“Whatever happens, the flame of the French resistance must not be extinguished and will not be extinguished.”

Another interesting quote of De Gaulle’s has often been incorrectly attributed to the June 18 BBC address: “La France a perdu une bataille! Mais la France n’a pas perdu la guerre” (“France has lost a battle, but France has not lost the war!”).

While many erroneously link this memorable line to the radio appeal, the quote in fact appeared on a poster that was distributed around London in the summer of 1940 (shown above– credited to the Musée du Général Leclerc- Musée Jean Moulin in Paris, which is also known as the Museum of the Liberation).

Interested in French History? Dig Deeper

The History of Bastille Day in France begins on July 14th, 1789.
Anonyme. Versailles, ch‚teaux de Versailles et de Trianon. MV5517.

You can find our full archive of features, interviews and more related to French history, from the medieval period to the present day, here.

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