HC Deb 14 November 1944 vol 404 cc1798-801
The Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs (Mr. Eden)

Since my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has not himself returned to this country, he has asked me to give, with the leave of the House, a brief account of our visit to the French capital this last week-end. The over-whelming impression left upon our minds by those crowded hours was of the sincerity and spontaneity of the welcome accorded to us by every section of the French people. The House will recall, perhaps, that for reasons of security no announcement was made of the Prime Minister's presence, even on the morning of the Armistice ceremony, in the French papers themselves; yet the news of his coming had spread overnight, widely enough at least for immense multitudes to assemble on the main thorough-fares through which he was to pass. It would be a great mistake to interpret this welcome as a momentary effervescence of spirit in a great capital city at last delivered from four years of foreign rule. It was something much deeper than that. It was rather the expression of a deep thankfulness for suffering at last ended. One felt behind the tumultuous greetings of these vast but orderly crowds the heart beat of a nation once again united with its Allies and confident of its own future.

It is difficult for us here to picture the life that is endured by a great nation under enemy occupation, completely severed from all contact with the outside world, dominated by enemy propaganda and able only to get encouragement from time to time from some clandestine listening to broadcasts from overseas. Here it is right that I should say that from countless Frenchmen we heard expressions of the inspiration and the will to live which they have drawn front the broadcasts of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and, let it be added, from the daily regular work of the B.B.C. and its contributors.

Most of the German propaganda was directed against this country but the fact remains—a fact of which we should take note—that the effect of this propaganda, taken together with the sufferings of the French people in this period of tyrannous enemy rule, has been to place our friendship with France on a surer foundation than has ever existed before in the history of our two countries. It seems indeed that the knowledge that our friendship has survived this, the most severe strain that could be put upon it, gives it a deeper and a more vibrant significance. That, I am convinced, is the message which Paris was giving to this country during that week-end.

In the course of his speech of welcome to us, General de Gaulle recalled Hitler's claim that his system would last for a thousand years. "I do not know," said General de Gaulle, "what will remain of his system in a thousand years, but I do know that in a thousand years' time France, which has some experience of blood, sweat and tears, will not have forgotten what has been accomplished in this war through blood, sweat and tears by the noble British people under the leadership of their Prime Minister." These are generous words. They were uttered by a man who himself to-day unquestionably inspires and personifies the unity of the French people. He has around him a band of young and vigorous colleagues who have proved their worth in the ordeal through which France has passed. Among them in particular I would like to mention M. Bidault, now Foreign Minister of France. It was a great pleasure for the Prime Minister and myself to meet this gallant man, who was himself the outstanding leader of the French resistance movement. We could see the same vigour, the same confidence in France's future expressed in the thousands of troops who marched past us in the Champs Elysées, the great majority of whom are very recently enlisted members of the F.F.I., and every man of whom is a volunteer. No one can doubt that when time and opportunity offer, these men will give as splendid an account of themselves against the hated Nazi foe in the field as they have already shown in the bitter and bloody warfare in the interior of France itself.

I would like to make one reference to conditions in France, because I think we should bear in mind that, despite some outward appearances, life in Paris is a constant struggle with material difficulties. The almost total lack of fuel and of transport are, in themselves, a severe hardship in these winter months, but worse than this is the mental suffering which these people have undergone and continue to undergo. There are still over 2,500,000 French prisoners of war, political deportees and forced labourers in Germany. There is scarcely a family of France which has not a husband or a son still in Germany. All parcels and letters have ceased. In fact, deportees have never been allowed any communication of any kind with their families since they were taken away to Germany. When we consider these facts, we can perhaps estimate, too, what the absence of these men means to France, not only in the loss of a great part of what was best in the nation's manhood, with all the social, economic and military consequences entailed, but also in mental distress for those who are left behind.

It is not surprising that in these conditions, France, which after all these years has suddenly regained her freedom, should be like a man emerging from a darkened room into a blaze of light, dazed for a moment and grateful still to his friends for a measure of understanding and encouragement. Let us interpret this in the terms of France's position as a great Power. It was indeed appropriate that the three Allied Powers, the United States of America, the Soviet Union and ourselves, were able to invite France, on this very Saturday, to take her place with us as a permanent member of the European Advisory Commission. The new situation which was thus created and the work that must flow therefrom was naturally the subject of discussion between us in Paris. Of these discussions, I will only say now that both the French Ministers and ourselves regarded them as eminently satisfactory.

I would conclude with this confident message to the House. France's determination to work together with her Allies expresses, I am sure, the heartfelt wish of the French people, and it is the will of the people which is the only sure foundation of a foreign policy in a free land. France will recover. Before now in her history she has shown powers of recuperation which have astounded the world. It is my belief that she will do this again, and she can be assured that in her endeavour she will have the constant friendship, understanding and help of the British peoples everywhere.

Sir Percy Harris

May I ask whether my right hon. Friend is aware how much the nation and Parliament appreciate the visit of the Prime Minister and himself to Paris, particularly as it was realised that it was not without risk? Would it not be possible—I think it will be the general desire of the nation—at an early date to give a reception to the head of the French people, General de Gaulle?

Mr. Eden

It is our hope that the visit that has been paid to Paris will, in due course, be returned, and our French friends know how welcome they will be whenever arrangements can be made.

Mr. A. Bevan

Is it proposed that an early opportunity shall be taken by the Government to inform the House of the decisions arrived at with the French Government concerning the French roles in Europe which are not of a military character?

Mr. Eden

Certainly, Sir, but it is not so much a question of decisions arrived at. As I explained, we examined the consequences that will flow from the French participation in the European Advisory Commission, and I hope that in the Debate on the Address there will be a good opportunity for a statement of the whole position as we see it as a result of these conversations.