HC Deb 10 November 1970 vol 806 cc211-6

4.45 p.m.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Edward Heath)

Mr. Speaker, the House will have heard with sadness of the news of the death of General de Gaulle. I know that I speak on behalf of all Members of this House in paying tribute to him and in offering our deep sympathy to Madame de Gaulle and all her family.

Over the centuries France has produced many great men, and Charles de Gaulle stands amongst the greatest of all of them. At times he seemed to personify France. Inevitably we think first of 1940, when so much around him seemed to lie in ruins. In that crumbling world his unconquerable determination to restore France to her proper position amongst the nations was one of the few sure and certain things, and we remember with pride and affection all those Frenchmen who then fought alongside us.

The same determination to re-establish the greatness of France marked his period of office as President of the Fifth Republic. Looking back on those years, we can recognise the magnitude of his achievement, even when we remember that his policies were sometimes in conflict with our own. He brought to the conduct of his office an unmistakably Gallic and, at the same time, individual style. Never was it more brilliantly dis- played than in that splendid address he gave during his State visit in 1960 to both Houses of Parliament assembled in Westminster Hall.

He was sustained by an austere faith; inspired by an unswerving patriotism; and guided by an uncompromising loyalty to the service of France.

Those of us who met him and talked to him will never forget his personal charm and the unfailing kindness and courtesy he showed to us.

Mr. Speaker, we in Parliament today pay tribute to a man who was a great statesman and a great Frenchman.

Mr. Harold Wilson

Mr. Speaker, I should like to associate my right hon. and hon. Friends and myself with the tribute paid by the right hon. Gentleman to the memory of General de Gaulle.

Over the past years there have been many occasions when members of successive Governments and other right hon. and hon. Members have felt it necessary to express their disagreement with some of his actions or some of his policies, whether on Anglo-French issues or in the context of the wider world issues. But none of that detracts from the universal recognition that the statesman whose passing we mourn today was a towering figure in his own country and a man whose authority was respected throughout the world.

As we pay tribute to him today for his whole life of service to France, of which he was for so many years the embodiment, we pay tribute to him equally for his gallantry in the defence of freedom 30 years ago.

His death marks the passing of the last of the four great world leaders in the fight against Hitler, and while about his life there seemed a certain inevitability in all that he did, what he did in 1940 could not have been forecast and none should under-estimate the courage which was required of him when he took that decision to come to England to establish and rally the Free French Forces, just as none could or would deny him the pride which he felt when he led those forces back into a Paris liberated from the German yoke.

Then there were the long years in political exile which soon followed, and his return to power in 1958. None but he could have solved the problem of Algeria without tearing France asunder in the process. It was some of his later actions which led to controversy here and abroad, and Mr. Harold Macmillan has given his own account of some of these events in what we have read this week.

But there is a personal note which is as relevant today, in this, our first brief assessment as a House of Commons of his contribution to the history of France and Europe and the world. Those right hon. and hon. Members who had the privilege of frequent, perhaps lengthy, discussions with him will remember his manner on those occasions. Still more, those of us who were allowed to enter into his family circle, if only briefly, for private meals which I recall, for example, with only the President, Madame de Gaulle, my wife and myself, will remember, though apparently unbending, how unutterably courteous and friendly he was, how different from the public image drawn of him, when we heard him and his wife talking of their family and home, and how he spent his leisure.

I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman referred, as we would all want him to do, to his superb speech in Westminster Hall, when he came to this country in 1957 on that Presidential visit. I had the privilege between 1964 and 1970 of meeting him for five meetings or series of meetings. On every occasion, what was noticeable, as the right hon. Gentleman said, was his great courtesy, the great trouble he went to for his guests, his great basic love of this country and our people—and everything he said expressed in that superb, uncompromising, classical French of which he had so great a command.

It happened that, yesterday morning, the day he died, I was writing an account of one of my most memorable meetings with him. The words I wrote then, without of course today in mind, would express what I want to say: The President thanked me with his usual courtesy, and then opened up. As ever, he was relaxed, he spoke very quietly, fluently, in his measured classical French, without any notes, yet the whole speech as logical in its framework and order as if he had written down every word. This he could not have done as he replied almost point by point to what I had said. The President of France in his broadcast to the French people today has expressed a sense of mourning—his word was "widowhood"—through which France is now passing. Our thoughts will go to the French people and Government and all of us would associate ourselves with what has already been said by the right hon. Gentleman in the message that he has sent of our sympathy for one who has shown great kindness to many of us, Madame de Gaulle, and to her family.

Mr. Thorpe

May I briefly associate myself with the remarks of the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition? Charles de Gaulle was always a controversial figure. He challenged conventional ideas about nearly all the great questions of war and peace. He often shocked those who thought that they were in agreement with him, and he often pursued policies which many of us here deplored, but some things about him are beyond dispute and above controversy.

First is his moral and physical courage, which he displayed first as a young officer in the First World War, as a critic of the military establishment between the wars, as the founder, leader and inspirer of the Free French in 1940, as the ferocious defender of French interests as he saw them in the inter-allied wrangles of the Second War, as the man who defied the assassins' bullets in newly liberated Paris, in the long-drawn out agony of the Algerian war. For sustained, lonely courage, it is a record with few parallels in history.

Second, I think, is his willingness to accept defeat with dignity. Although authoritarian by temperament and training, he accepted the loss of power in 1946 and again in 1969 with as little hesitation as he had assumed great responsibilities in 1940 and 1958. Few men who have held great authority have exercised such self-restraint and received such disappointments so stoically.

Third, no one can dispute his sense of style. His memoirs will be read as literature so long as the French language is appreciated, and his speeches had a power which was sometimes prophetic. It is told that, when Charles de Gaulle came to London, to Downing Street, in June of 1940, Winston Churchill, with his customary percipience, said, "Here comes the Constable of France". The Constable of France in the Middle Ages was the champion of the French King, and as such, the upholder of national honour.

That, I believe, is how Charles de Gaulle would wish to be remembered, and that is how he deserves to be remembered. The honour of a great nation like France touches us all, and de Gaulle was a great European figure who stood at the heart of the crises of our age. He was the last of the dominant political figures of the world's most terrible war, and his record is enduring proof of the power and the strength of the individual man to defy and sometimes to turn the tides of history.

Mr. Turton

May I, as one who, in age, was rather closer to General de Gaulle than most right hon. and hon. Members, add a word or two? The first mention that I heard of General de Gaulle was when I was serving under General Martel, who was the commander of the 50th Division and was the greatest armoured expert in Britain. He used to talk of "this Charles de Gaulle" he used to write to, who in his view was the greatest exponent of the tactics of armoured formations then in the whole of Europe. At that time, or shortly after, we witnessed a loss of spirit of France, and those of us who came across the Channel in 1940 felt that that great France had been destroyed in its spirit and its soul. A few months later, at Bir Hacheim, when the Free French were fighting side by side with the 50th Northumberland Division, we realised that a transformation had been achieved by one man.

I should like to remind the House of what General de Gaulle wrote at the close of the first volume of his memoirs. This gives an indication of the inspiration: Poring over the gulf into which the country has fallen, I am her son, calling, holding a light for her, showing her the way of rescue. Many people have joined us already; others will come, I am sure. I can hear France now answering me. In the depths of the abyss, she is rising up again, she is on the march, she is climbing the slope. Our mother, such as we are, we are here to serve you. Those are great and noble words and they describe the inspiration of the man we mourn today.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has mentioned the divergencies between policies of successive British Governments and General de Gaulle. I think that there is a little misunderstanding. General de Gaulle was always an admirer and friend of Britain. He always felt that Britain, with her triple rôle as a bridge across the Atlantic, as the leader of a great maritime, multi-racial Commonwealth, and as an ally of Western Europe, would not make a good member of the European Economic Community, nor of his conception of one Europe, stretching from the Atlantic to the Urals. I perhaps understand that view, because I share it.

The Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition have both mentioned the speech that the General made and which we all heard just 10 years ago in Westminster Hall. Surely that gave a measure of his affection and admiration for this country. He ended that speech with these words: I declare, at this very important juncture, France feels herself shoulder to shoulder with Britain. What other countries have as much as ours, and, over and above their divergencies, such similar aims? What peoples know better than France and Great Britain that nothing will save the world except just those qualities of which they are, par excellence, capable: wisdom and resolution? It is appropriate that this great leader has died just at a time when we are all here commemorating the fallen in two World Wars. We mourn him as a great soldier, as the architect of the French revival and as a Friend and admirer of Britain.