French President Emmanuel Macron on Thursday (18 June) made his first overseas trip since the coronavirus outbreak began, visiting London to mark the 80th anniversary of wartime resistance leader Charles de Gaulle’s rallying cry against Nazi occupation from the British capital.
In a ceremony full of pomp and pageantry, Macron awarded London, where the exiled general made his famous BBC broadcast on 18 June 1940, the Croix de la Légion d’honneur.
“I wanted to bear witness to the eternal gratitude of the French Republic to the city of London by awarding it,” he said, hailing the city for “giving birth to a Free France”.
He later held talks with Prime Minister Boris Johnson, where he was given a montage of telegrams between de Gaulle and British leader Winston Churchill at the end of hostilities.
Johnson also presented him with a miniature replica of Churchill’s open-topped Land Rover Defender to go with the president’s model of de Gaulle’s car in his Elysée office.
The symbolic visit comes after celebrations to mark the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe were curtailed because of the coronavirus outbreak.
But it also comes against a tense backdrop of Britain’s departure from the European Union, and controversial coronavirus travel restrictions.
Prince Charles, who received Macron at his Clarence House residence, said de Gaulle’s words – to never give up hope – still resonated, particularly with the response to the current global pandemic.
“To this day, his resolute determination offers an example upon which both of our countries can draw, as we work together to face new issues and challenges,” Charles said.
Beyond the commemorations, Macron’s meeting with Johnson at 10 Downing Street also focused on the grinding search for an agreement on Britain’s exit from the European Union.
Britain, which left the EU in January, is negotiating a trade deal to govern relations after December 31, when it stops abiding by EU rules.
Macron has expressed impatience with the drawn-out process and on Thursday, the EU’s envoy to Britain dismissed UK optimism of a new trade deal by as early as next month.
Joao Vale de Almeida told a London conference “the negotiating table was empty”, and an October deadline was more realistic to avoid a damaging no-deal split.
Macron and Johnson upheld two-metre social distancing rules when they met outside Downing Street, joining hands in “namaste” greetings before posing for pictures.
The French leader’s status as a visiting foreign dignitary also spared him the two-week virus quarantine now demanded by the British authorities of most visitors from abroad, including France.
France, which unlike Britain has fully reopened its cafes and restaurants after the lockdown, had expected French travellers to be exempt.
Johnson earlier announced honorary British MBE awards to four surviving French resistance fighters – one aged 100 and three in their late 90s.
Before jetting across the Channel, Macron met one of them, Hubert Germain, 99, in Paris, saluting his courage and promising to ensure that “every young person knows what they owe you”.
In Britain, Churchill’s legacy is under question, after his statue in central London was targeted during recent anti-racism protests that led to it being boxed up.
Activists daubed graffiti on the monument in protest at what they say were his racist policies during a 1943 famine in the Indian state of Bengal, which left millions dead.
The protective wraps were removed for Macron’s visit and Johnson, who has written a biography of Churchill, defended his hero, as calls mount for other statues of colonial-era Britons to be removed.
But on Wednesday night, an Oxford University college voted in favour of removing a statue of 19th century colonialist Cecil Rhodes, after years of protests.
Macron, who displays de Gaulle’s war memoirs on his desk in his official photograph, is making much of 2020 as an anniversary year for the French resistance leader who went on to become president of post-occupation France.
The general’s iconic stature and his defiant wartime spirit are being tapped into even more during the unprecedented challenges posed by the epidemic.
In a telling reflection of his status, the vandalisation of a de Gaulle bust in northern France this week was met with a torrent of outrage.