HL Deb 10 November 1970 vol 312 cc589-94

2.56 p.m.


My Lords, your Lordships will have heard this morning with a very real sense of shock of the death of General de Gaulle, the former President of the French Republic. I am sure your Lordships will wish to join with me in extending our deep sympathy to that very distinguished lady, Madame de Gaulle, and all her family.

In 1940 I was a young officer of 22, but those days are still vividly etched in my mind, and I have still a very clear memory of that tall, rather Roman figure of the French General who stood firm when all seemed lost in France. For part of the war I had the honour to serve with a detachment of Free French troops in the Middle East. This was in 1942 at the nadir of France's fortunes. Those young Frenchmen were brave, indeed recklessly brave, and firm in their determination to prove to us, their English allies, and perhaps to themselves, the fact that the spirit of France was far from dead, with all that this meant for the freedom and enrichment, the lucidity, and indeed the gaiety, of Western civilisation. One thing was clear to me as I got to know those brave and gifted young men, and that was that they drew their strength and inspiration not only from their innate toughness and belief in their country, the belief which almost every Frenchman possesses, but also from the example of their lonely, brave, ruthless and uniquely dedicated leader, General de Gaulle himself.

It would be idle to pretend, even at a moment like this, that there have not been occasions, in war time and in peace time, when we and de Gaulle have differed; but beneath the sometimes rather rough surface storms there was always, I suggest, on our side a deep respect for a man who we recognised had dedicated his life to his country. I think, too—and this emerges from his Memoirs—that there was on his part a similar recognition of the virtues of our land and of our people.

Few of us who heard the Address which the late President of the Republic delivered in Westminster Hall, on his State visit ten years ago in April, 1960, will forget it. May I recall the concluding words of that memorable speech: 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? And may I also recall the significant fact that General de Gaulle issued the text of that Address to the Press before he made it and delivered it, word perfect, without a note.

What are the characteristics by which we remember this great French leader? There was, of course, his enduring physical courage—a courage demonstrated time and time again in total disregard of personal safety. Allied to this courage were his military virtues and his understanding of what war meant, which enabled him to talk in those war-time years to Winston Churchill as a full equal. Then, again, as anyone who has heard a speech made or a Press conference given by the General knows, there was his outstanding literary ability. Allied to those qualities was a creative political imagination and a large vision of the world which enabled him to see events which for others were still sometimes concealed beneath the horizon. I would not claim that his vision was perfect. Like all great men, General de Gaulle made great mistakes; but no one can deny his quality of statesmanship.

Finally, there was the most vital ingredient of all in his formidable personality: that belief in France with which he was born and which burned within him like a flame until his death. I can think of no Frenchman who has had so passionate a dedication not only to the land but also to the idea of France. My Lords, our sympathy on this occasion must be extended not only to the immediate family of the late President, but also to that great nation to whose service his life was dedicated. We are all, I feel, in a certain measure the losers with the loss of this great man.


My Lords, I have seldom, if ever, heard a tribute which could so clearly and fully represent the views of the whole of your Lordships' House. Every word that the noble Earl has spoken finds full agreement, I am sure, in all quarters, and certainly on this side of the House. I would only add, quite briefly, that we all feel a great sense almost of historic loss. One of the most towering figures of an age which has not been without towering figures has been removed, and a man with an extraordinary range of achievement has left us. Not only was he a great military thinker, a very valiant soldier, but possibly, in his way, as important a Constitution-maker as Napoleon. Some may think this an exaggeration, but we shall see how long his Republic lasts. When we recall the problems that he inherited and the real, astounding measure of his achievements, we should certainly wish to put on record that that famous speech to the French from London in June, 1940, was an inspiration to the British and not just to the French.

There were, of course, during the war periods of unease and discord with allies, and there will be some noble Lords in the House, like the noble Earl, Lord Swinton, who will remember them directly. But I always find it appropriate that a really great man—this I think can be said of Churchill—can be involved in struggles and at times can seem to those with whom he is working to be unreasonable. After all, what was General de Gaulle's position? He had been sentenced to death by court-martial, yet he was the one hope of France. How he has fulfilled that hope! We ought to recognise that the great services he rendered for France he has rendered in fact for us all. When we look back on those days immediately after the war and remember the concern that was expressed about France and her future, and then look at the achievement, the establishment of a firm sense of national pride, we must recognise that that is a contribution not just to France but to France's ally, Britain, and indeed to all the world. I can only say again that any tribute that the noble Earl has paid is fully echoed by us on this side of the House.

3.6 p.m.


My Lords, I have been asked to say a few words on this sad occasion on behalf of my noble friends on these Benches, presumably because I was Ambassador to France during the first two and a half years of de Gaulle's second tenure of power, and because I had known him for many years previously and was, I suppose, in so far as this was possible in the circumstances, a personal friend.

In paying tribute to this great man we must all surely first think, as indeed the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, thought, of the war years, when he raised the flag of Free France in London and began that process of building up the shattered morale of France which resulted in the Resistance and in her re-emergence as a nation. It is a fearful thought that, but for him, France might have been divided and torn in pieces by civil strife after the war, and hence, of course, a danger to all the democracies of Western Europe.

De Gaulle's subsequent long sojourn in the political wilderness and deep meditations confirmed him in political conclusions which some may hold were good for France, but others hold were bad for Europe. The result, when he came back into power once more, is well known. What cannot be denied is the intensity of his own conviction and the force which he was able to place behind the effort to attain his ends. To this extent he may certainly be said, along with Churchill, to have been the greatest political figure to have emerged in our generation—and indeed no one perhaps was his equal in, as it were, bending history to his will.

My Lords, many think that his attitude towards this country was inspired by jealousy and resentment. They are wrong. As I know from my own experience, de Gaulle had a real and perfectly genuine regard, and indeed I think an admiration, for this country. His great speech in Westminster Hall, to which reference has rightly been made, on the occasion of his State visit in 1960, which doubtless many of your Lordships heard, was not lip service to our institutions; on the contrary, his great ambition was to establish in France that continuity of policy, that basic co-operation for the good of the nation between the Parties, which he rightly thought was the result of our ancient political wisdom; and of course his immense regard for the Royal Family was perfectly sincere.

That, like all great men, he had also great faults few will deny. That his policy or, rather, his foreign policies were rather more suited to the eighteenth than to the twentieth century is a conviction held by all Europeans in this country and I think indeed on the Continent. But that he saved France, that he gave Frenchmen a renewed sense of purpose and a recognition of the great role that France, happily, can still play in the world, and that, to do him justice, he exploded quite a few untenable myths—all this is surely something that we should admit. So we mourn the passing of a great and formidable figure. Certainly, taking all in all, we shall not look upon his like again.


My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, has truly said that I had a great and close working life with de Gaulle during the war. Certainly I cannot add anything to the quite admirable tributes which have been paid and with which I entirely agree. Having had that very close asso ciation with the General, I should not like his death to pass entirely in silence from these Benches. I worked closely with him, both in London and in Africa. He was an odd sort of colleague in some ways. One could have awful rows with him—we did—but one would have them and then it was all over. One could have a showdown over quite a number of things, but it was always absolutely frank, and there was certainly never the faintest rancour on his side or on mine. What will always remain in my mind of his great qualities were his courage, his sincerity, his love for France; and what is perfectly true also is that his love for this country, though somewhat slightly disguised, was very real indeed. I should like to join in the tributes which have been paid to one of the greatest Frenchmen in all history.


My Lords, may I, as a very humble Back-Bencher add a sentence to the tributes paid to this great man? He will be remembered, perhaps, not so much for the wars he won and came through, but rather for the wars in which he was defeated—the Algerian war, and the war in Indo China—when he threw away pride and prestige and followed a constructive policy.