In a morning full of resonances of the darkest days of the Second World War, comrades from both sides of the Channel assembled outside the wartime headquarters of the Free French Army in central London yesterday for the unveiling of the first statue in Britain to France's wartime leader and later president, General Charles de Gaulle.
De Gaulle asked that there be no statues of himself, and there remains no officially sanctioned one in the whole of France. But the presence of his son, Admiral Phillipe de Gaulle, the former Prime Minister Jacques Chirac and the speaker of the French Parliament, Philippe Seguin, at the unveiling in Carlton Gardens showed that Lady Soames had convinced them of the appropriateness of a statue in such a place.
She has led a committee for three years to raise pounds 300,000 for the statue and a bursary trust to send young people from France and England on exchanges.
Yesterday, grizzled veterans of de Gaulle's Free French troops sat with their heads bowed as the French ambassador spoke lengthily in French, the Queen Mother briefly in English, and Lady Soames in both languages. A small crowd had gathered, largely to see the Queen Mother making her first public appearance after her recent illness. But as the National Anthem was followed by the Marseillaise, they soon sensed they were present at an altogether grander occasion than mere royal-watching.
Lady Soames, in the French tradition of the next of kin wearing their parent's decoration, wore Churchill's Croix De La Liberation (he and George VI were the only two honorary British holders of the award). She quoted her father, who wrote of de Gaulle's flight to England in June 1940, that the general 'carried with him in that small aeroplane the honour of France'.
Unveiling the statue, the Queen Mother said only: 'It gives me great pleasure to unveil the statue of General Charles de Gaulle, a great Frenchman and a great patriot whose life and achievements were so important to France and to us.'
The bronze statue, by the British sculptor Angela Conner, shows de Gaulle defiant in the uniform of a General de Brigade, with one palm curiously raised, almost as though in supplication.
In an article in yesterday's Le Figaro, Jean d'Ormesson, a member of the French Academy, said that the London statue of 'the greatest of Frenchmen' called for a Paris statue of Churchill, 'the greatest of Englishmen'.
Lady Soames last night did not wish to comment directly on the possibility of a statue of her father in Paris, as she did not want the de Gaulle statue to be seen as part of a quid pro quo. She added: 'There is a bust in a suburb of Paris which I unveiled. I've never felt the French were backward in expressing their love of my father.'