At the end of the Second World War, France and Britain were weakened powers which had suffered economically and materially from years of conflict. While they concentrated on repairing the economic and physical cost of the war, calls emerged from British authorities to ‘restore … the greatness of France’ and ‘build up France’.Footnote 1 At the same time, British society's hostility and resentment towards France's military defeat in 1940 and the French state's subsequent collaboration with Germany were strong.Footnote 2 In order to deflate this enmity and thus prepare the ground to forge western European co-operation, the French and British governments co-operated and developed gendered public and media strategies within which citizens, and, in particular, former female resistance fighters, were central to the dissemination of positive images of France. As historians of ‘new diplomacy’ have recently highlighted, paying attention to how citizens contributed to diplomatic strategies is a significant scholarly step towards writing a richer history of international relations.Footnote 3 Not only does this approach reveal a hitherto neglected cast of foreign policy actors, but it also allows us to appreciate how governments understood that public diplomacy was integral to their national power and how prestige was a real source of concern for states.
This article examines Franco-British media strategies that centred around female resistance fighters who paraded in the streets of Britain, attended ceremonies, and delivered lectures at the end of the war. While women as subjects of international relations are too often relegated to studies of ‘public opinion’ or analysed as the targets of policies, this article stresses that they were also central pawns on the diplomatic and media chessboard.Footnote 4 Drawing on recent works that have called for a more careful consideration of diplomatic culture and performativity,Footnote 5 I consider how diplomatic strategies in post-war Britain relied on the gender, age, and bodily appearance of female members of the French resistance who visited Britain in late 1944. These women appeared to be familiar figures of French middle-class femininity to the British audiences. Thus, they disrupted conventional images of the masculine, military, or political resistance which existed in Britain. Their femininity and their relationship to a fighting movement – a combination which had proved effective in other contexts during the war, such as with female members of the Special Operations ExecutiveFootnote 6 – turned out to be a unique mobilizing force that diplomats used in their efforts to restore the prestige of France in 1944. This article also considers the ideas about France that these women disseminated, and it argues that for a brief moment they were significant in the production of one body of knowledge about the resistance among British audiences. This stood in contrast to practices of the 1950s and 1960s, when discourses about resisting France were chiefly designed by former male figures of the resistance, while women were relegated to minor public roles in the gathering and generating of information.Footnote 7
The women's war and post-war trajectories are largely absent from official repositories, first because most of the archives for the years 1944 and 1945 of the Ministry of Information (MOI), which organized one of the lecture tours discussed in this article, have not been preserved at The National Archives. This explains in part why most of the scholarship on the MOI focuses on its early organization and planning in 1939–40, but there are fewer publications on the years leading up to its closure in 1946. This case study thus contributes to revising this approach by identifying evidence of the MOI's activities at the end of the war.Footnote 8 Second, the individuals studied in this article elude the conventional typology of women in the resistance. They do not fit into the category of well-known women resistance members in metropolitan France who left oral testimonies, memoirs, and personal documents.Footnote 9 Nor do they belong to the group of French women who joined the Free French female military auxiliary service or worked as nurses and medics in Britain, North Africa, and the US, and who are beginning to attract the attention of scholars.Footnote 10 Finally, although historians have started to examine the women who produced work in the media to promote Charles de Gaulle's resistance movement, Free France, they have so far mostly focused on famous women such as Eve Curie, the daughter of the Nobel prizewinners and scientists, who toured the US between 1940 and 1943, and Elisabeth de Miribel, who famously typed de Gaulle's Appeal of 18 June, before travelling to Canada to undertake propaganda activities.Footnote 11
The women discussed in this article conducted wartime resistance activities in mainland France, such as hosting Allied pilots, distributing clandestine newspapers, and working for the resistance's intelligence service; they went abroad after the liberation of Paris. Following the war, they did not become well-known leading figures of the metropolitan resistance, nor did they engage in the cultural tradition of publishing war memoirs that could have given some exposure to their activities. The notability they acquired during their trips abroad was short-lived. And yet their visits were carefully crafted by the French and British governments and well monitored by national and international media, which is a testament to the political and diplomatic significance of their mission and of the impact they made on the British news cycle.
While researching this article, I not only analysed French and British government archives and newspapers, but I also interviewed one of these women, Hedwige Morris (née Gillet). Together with official records and Morris's private archives (including MOI mission orders and reports which had been weeded from The National Archives at Kew), her interview constitutes a precious source that allowed me to correct the literal exclusion of these French women from the MOI archives. This approach is very much in tune with the ideals of the first oral historians and it also allows the article to consider the fragility of oral interviews.Footnote 12 In addition, the multiplicity and variety of sources which were produced allow me to discuss the gendered workings of soft power, flesh out tensions between women as objects, subjects, and agents of international relations, and revise conventional studies of Franco-British relations at the end of the war.
This article reaches conclusions that have broader significance for our understanding of post-war French diplomacy and British history. First, whereas Robert Frank has suggested that French power after 1945 was mostly economic in nature,Footnote 13 it is clear that media strategies and public diplomacy were two indispensable strands at the service of France's power both within the country and abroad. This argument also adds nuance to studies emphasizing that Britain's support in rebuilding the prestige of France after the war occurred through military, material, and economic backing.Footnote 14 Second, contrary to dominant studies of cultural diplomacy and prestige that tend to consider a nation's prestige as the result of unilateral efforts, this article argues that, in the context of post-war Europe, prestige was the product of binational and reciprocal discussion and co-operation. This matters not only for the methodology of international relations but also for our understanding of post-war Britain. Indeed, despite the persistence during and after the war of the myth that Britain had fought alone,Footnote 15 this article shows that, at the liberation, French and British authorities joined forces to construct a narrative that French resistance fighters had co-operated with Britons throughout the war. Behind this façade of unity, there were certainly strong disagreements and diplomatic tensions between French and British representatives, but examining French soft power in Britain adds nuance to our understanding of how nations constructed and projected accounts about themselves.
The argument unfolds in three parts. The first section considers how and why the British government intervened to restore the image of France in Britain. As British diplomats opened negotiations with their French counterparts to design a Franco-British alliance, staff at lower levels of the MOI and the Foreign Office also co-operated with their French peers to rebuild the ‘greatness’ of France, as discussed in the second section. In particular, they designed and organized the visits of several groups of French men and women who had taken part in the resistance, and invited them to showcase their wartime stories. However, this focus on the war period was short-lived, and the third section examines why a consensus emerged among diplomats in 1947 that discussions pertaining to the war period ought to be avoided. The years between June 1944 and 1947 therefore constitute a brief parenthesis that allowed the French government to achieve a ‘cultural demobilization’ before resuming a public diplomacy that resembled strategies that had developed during the interwar period.Footnote 16
During the months of the liberation of France, British politicians and diplomats established that it was their duty to help restore the image of France in Britain because France was their main partner for engaging in discussion about the creation of a western bloc. This attitude drew on ideas and practices elaborated during the Second World War when the British government had employed political campaigning to explain to Britons why it was strategically astute for the nation to support Free France militarily, politically, and financially.Footnote 17 As early as 1940, British civil servants were also motivated to boost British prestige on the back of French greatness. As The Economist noted in 1940, ‘[Britons] lose part of [themselves] when France's liberties are trampled underfoot.’Footnote 18 The idea that the ‘eclipse’ of France and its civilization would have serious consequences for Britain fits in with the pattern identified by the political scientist Jonathan Mercer: ‘A state is most likely to obtain prestige from its allies. … the more admirable my ally is, the more admirable I am.’Footnote 19
This framework continued to guide British policies towards the Provisional Government of the French Republic (GPRF) after the liberation of Paris in August 1944. For example, in late September 1944, the prime minister, Winston Churchill, declared in the House of Commons that ‘the aim, policy and interest of H.M. government … [was] to see erected, once more, at the earliest possible moment, a strong, independent and friendly France’.Footnote 20 Two months later, the foreign secretary, Anthony Eden, promised the House of Commons that ‘France … can be assured that in her endeavour [to recover] she will have the constant friendship, understanding and help of the British peoples everywhere’.Footnote 21 The Labour government, elected in July 1945, expressed similar hopes for France and highlighted the notion that culture was a key tool that could increase France's capital of esteem in Britain. Ernest Bevin, the foreign secretary, spoke movingly in the House of Commons at the end of that year, declaring that ‘in the case of France there is a great history, and I am convinced that there is a great future’.Footnote 22 Meanwhile, Charles de Gaulle and his foreign minister, Georges Bidault, also publicly acknowledged the role that Britain had played in supporting France during the war and in contributing to the victory of the Allies.Footnote 23
These ostentatious public declarations about Franco-British rapprochement notwithstanding, tense negotiations between the two governments went on behind closed doors. In particular, issues of military power, security, and political alliance impaired Franco-British relations in late 1944. It is on those aspects that the historiography of post-war Franco-British relations has largely concentrated. First, the status of the Levant (under French mandate) caused much irritation to the British government, which was pursuing a policy of Arab unity in the area. The situation would only be partly resolved in 1946 when both Britain and France agreed to withdraw their forces.Footnote 24 Second, French and British diplomats failed to find common ground concerning European policy because of security fears regarding Germany.Footnote 25 Third, while de Gaulle, in the context of the early part of the Cold War, hoped that a Franco-British alliance could constitute a counter-power to the US and the USSR, Churchill remained committed to his own involvement as part of the Great Alliance.Footnote 26
While the scholarship has insisted that in 1944 and 1945 these colonial and geopolitical disagreements meant that diplomats were not yet ready for a Franco-British alliance,Footnote 27 we know far less about British society's views regarding the idea that Britain and France might move closer together in the near future. Since French and British diplomats paid attention to Britons’ opinion on France when designing binational policies, it is crucial to integrate this element into any post-war history of France and Britain.Footnote 28 In a survey conducted from mid-1943 to mid-1945 and published later in 1945, a Chatham House study group found that public opinion was largely averse to France and was not ready to support a Franco-British alliance.Footnote 29 Studies led by the independent social research organization Mass ObservationFootnote 30 and by the MOI placed the poor reputation of France in Britain at the centre of their questions about contemporary and post-war Franco-British relations. They found that France's military record and its collaboration with Nazi Germany meant that France and its people ranked low in Britons’ esteem. An MOI document also stressed that the resentment among British society was sustained by pictures of ‘well-fed and well-dressed people in Paris’ during the liberation and anecdotes spread by British soldiers returning from continental Europe that ‘You can buy anything you like in Paris or Brussels; no shortage there.’Footnote 31 Such an idealized vision of liberated France, which was partly built on rumours,Footnote 32 contrasted with how large sections of British society perceived their own plight, and encouraged British and French authorities to design a large-scale diplomacy of esteem that was directed at Britons.Footnote 33
In the summer of 1944, Anthony Eden and Lord Bessborough, the head of French welfare (a branch of the Foreign Office that oversaw French interests in Britain during the war), instigated the creation of the Franco-British Society with the aim of improving the image of France in Britain.Footnote 34 By appearing to be a civil society offshoot rather than a government arm, the society organized private gatherings, ceremonies, and charity events aimed to restore the prestige of France in Britain. It also had its own magazine, in which writers such as David Scott, the former correspondent for The Times and The Daily Telegraph, published pieces with self-explanatory titles such as ‘We must think well of France’. In this piece, Scott rejected the widespread British opinion that France had let its closest ally down in 1940 and urged Britons to cease to ‘look down’ on France for its military failure.Footnote 35
Members of the Franco-British Society shaped policy-making decisions at the level of the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Take, for example, the Francophile, journalist, and former civil servant B. S Townroe, who, under the auspices of the Franco-British Society, undertook a lecture series and organized private meetings with clergymen, mayors, trade unionists, and academics in the north of England in late September 1944. At the end of his tour, Townroe concluded that the British public was ignorant and prejudiced towards France. The knowledge he had gathered on the matter led him to encourage the Foreign Office to organize the visit of ‘a Frenchman who is not a political speaker in outlook and who has real experience of conditions in France and who understands British audiences to make a tour of the provinces’.Footnote 36 The practice of organizing lectures was certainly not new: in co-operation with Free France, the Foreign Office and the MOI had overseen talks by Free French officials during the war. But now that the German army was withdrawing from France, it was possible to invite individuals who had lived in German-occupied France. Townroe's report reached London and Paris at a moment when civil servants were actively rethinking their methods of promoting France in Britain, in light of the liberation and the growing suspicion of British audiences towards France. Following Townroe's suggestions, in the autumn of 1944 both governments turned their discussions to how they might use citizens with ‘real experience of conditions in France’ to signal that France was a country of resistance fighters.Footnote 37
To correct what Bessborough described as the ‘under-currents of ill-formulated and unfounded criticism of our French neighbours, due almost entirely to lack of knowledge’, he and Richard Langford Speaight, acting counsellor at the Foreign Office, co-operated with René Massigli, the French ambassador, who was a renowned anglophile and former Free French member.Footnote 38 They co-ordinated a carefully crafted programme of visits from the French Forces of the Interior (FFI) to Britain. Such ceremonies, which took place in France and Britain at the same time, allowed military and civil personnel to be celebrated in public and civic spaces.Footnote 39
In early November 1944, 150 men and 50 women from the FFI paraded in London and a dozen cities in Wales, Scotland, and England.Footnote 40 The choreography of these events did not solely celebrate the metropolitan resistance but also Franco-British wartime co-operation, something that Massigli stressed in his speech welcoming the FFI to Britain.Footnote 41 When twenty FFI members visited Manchester, they paraded through the streets in a double-decker bus lent by the city corporation. The vehicle had been decorated with the French and British flags, a large cross of Lorraine (the insignia of the Free French Forces), and red, white, and blue bunting.Footnote 42 At the same time, two other FFI members, Marguerite Demanges and Henriette Durand, who had looked after the tombs of fallen Royal Air Force (RAF) soldiers near Paris between 1940 and 1944, were invited by the RAF to Britain, where they were received by British civil and military dignitaries. These visits served as a reminder to British audiences that their armed forces had not fought alone against Germany and that French men and women had taken risks to look after living and dead British soldiers.Footnote 43
The Foreign Office and the RAF services in charge of co-organizing the FFI visits aimed to publicize these events through the press using the well-oiled network of political communication that had existed since the interwar period.Footnote 44 This was not always a success: the archives of the Imperial War Museum contain a dozen photographs of Demanges and Durand's tour taken and captioned by the RAF, but the only articles about these two women that were published in the press were those without photographs.Footnote 45 In contrast, pictures of the 200 FFI who paraded through Britain were widely reported in the national and regional press, as well as in the US and Palestine.Footnote 46 These resistance fighters thus became powerful diplomatic intermediaries whose performance stressed the military skills and restraint of France, signalling that the country had not lost its greatness. Articles and photographs published in national newspapers, such as The Times and The Manchester Guardian, emphasized the masculinity of FFI members and the orderly fashion in which these ‘disciplined’ soldiers marched in the streets of London.Footnote 47 In a country where the narrative of the ‘people's war’ had been an important propaganda message,Footnote 48 these publications also stressed that many of these French resistance fighters had had very little military training prior to the war.Footnote 49 While photographs of FFI troops chiefly pictured men, some pieces focused on small groups or individual female FFI members. A series of Daily Mail articles, for example, chronicled the visit of Jacqueline Darcy, mentioning that she had made false identity papers for RAF soldiers during the war, and insisting on her ‘normal’ tastes: three pictures of Darcy's visit to London, captioned ‘she buys gloves’, ‘she takes tea’, and ‘she dances’, were featured in the piece.Footnote 50
High political events relied on similar public displays of Franco-British friendship, erasing evidence of the aforementioned colonial and strategic cross-channel tensions.Footnote 51 On Armistice Day in 1944, Churchill attended ceremonies in Paris, making a strong impression on the public opinion of both nations.Footnote 52 As Eden noted in his memoirs, this trip had a clear ‘political consequence’: the Foreign Office and Churchill were now ready to examine the ‘so-called western bloc’.Footnote 53 By the end of November, the MOI reported that ‘People [were] pleased by signs of more settled conditions in France and have growing faith in her powers of recovery … However, minority distrust of the French continues.’Footnote 54
It was at this point that the French and British governments co-ordinated a unique lecture series on occupied France delivered by French women. The scholarship on British propaganda during and after the war has largely emphasized that the Foreign Office and the MOI employed modern communication techniques, including colour posters, radio programmes, and, increasingly, films.Footnote 55 Although the British government used these media to target audiences in metropolitan and imperial France,Footnote 56 it also invested time, money, and energy in organizing public events that constituted spaces of contact between British audiences and French private citizens. Between November and December 1944, ten French women who had lived in occupied France and had been part of the resistance toured Britain and gave 35-minute talks on their wartime experiences to various audiences, from members of women's institutes to workers in arms factories. These women were in their early twenties and all came from well-to-do families. They spoke English and had been recruited for this mission in Paris through a mutual acquaintance, the well-known resistance member Claire Chevrillon, a teacher of English and the niece of André Chevrillon, a celebrated member of the Académie française.Footnote 57 Among the ten women were Hedwige Gillet, the daughter of an American woman and a French engineer who ran an international aero-component-manufacturing company (Gillet's uncle was the renowned scholar of English literature Louis Gillet); Ginette Delmas (born into a wealthy protestant family); Sabine Wormser (whose relatives ran the eponymous bank); Adrienne ‘Nono’ Dukas, the daughter of the composer Paul Dukas; and a relative of Lucien Herr, a former librarian of France's most competitive higher education institution, the Ecole normale supérieure (ENS). Some of these women had attended the ENS, while others, like Gillet, had studied at the prestigious Sorbonne. During the war, the women had had several typically ‘feminine’ roles in the resistance,Footnote 58 from coding for the Bureau central de renseignements et d'action (BCRA, the resistance's intelligence service) and its successor, to posting clandestine underground bulletins.Footnote 59 By selecting these middle-class, socially privileged, and anglophone women, the British and French governments were assured that the women's home-grown accounts would intertwine narratives of suffering in occupied Paris with descriptions of involvement in the resistance.
Gillet and her nine counterparts were unpaid; their lecture series was sponsored by the French government while practical matters were overseen by the MOI, which had set up numerous such lecture tours for British speakers on the home front and abroad since 1939, and was thus relying on an efficient circuit.Footnote 60 The visit of the ten French women had been designed between September and October 1944 by one French woman and two British women. Suzanne Borel was the first woman to have passed the entrance exam for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in 1930. She had spent her career working for the office for cultural diplomacy in Paris and would leave her position in 1946 following her marriage to Bidault.Footnote 61 Overseeing the details of the project was Natalie Hogg, who had divorced her husband, Quintin Hogg, a member of parliament (later known as Lord Hailsham), to continue her relationship with François Coulet, Charles de Gaulle's chief of cabinet.Footnote 62 The final member of the design team was an MOI staff member, Enid McLeod.Footnote 63
While Borel, Hogg, and McLeod did not comment on the gender of the ten lecturers (who themselves did not consider this to be a feature worthy of remarkFootnote 64) to male French and British diplomats, these ‘girls’ were mostly a means to help address the surge in requests by private British groups to host French speakers who had been involved in the resistance.Footnote 65 Since the end of the First World War, and throughout the Second World War, the French government had chiefly commissioned middle-aged French men who had established careers in academia, politics, or the military to give public lectures about France around the world.Footnote 66 But the liberation of France brought about a change in the gender and age of French guest lecturers. This was necessary in part because, in November 1944, many French men were still involved in military liberation battles and were therefore unavailable. Still, the gender of these lecturers offered much more than a way to make up for numbers: it contributed to making them ideal agents to sustain the international prestige of France, conceptualized in feminine and resistance terms.
In 2019, I interviewed one of these female resistance members, Hedwige Morris, née Gillet, who had lectured in Britain in 1944 and was selected the following year to conduct the same sort of work in Canada before returning to England, where she joined the French embassy's lecture office as a paid member of staff for a few months. In 1946, following her wedding to a British man, she moved away from London to start a family in Britain (she returned to France after the death of her husband). This humble and spirited ninety-eight-year-old French woman who had distributed the resistance paper Témoignage chrétien, hosted Allied pilots, and worked for the BCRA stressed that her role in the resistance was minor compared to that of famous figures. She explained to me in French that the MOI had provided her with a booklet of photographs of the liberation of Paris entitled ‘The rising of the Parisians’ to illustrate the talks she delivered throughout Britain.Footnote 67 As she flicked through the pages of the album, I noticed scenes of fighting, pictures featuring barricades, and images of wounded and dead FFI fighters.
Scholars have rightly underlined the importance of photographs in contributing to the making of the history and memory of the liberation.Footnote 68 However, Morris remarked that the audiences who attended her talks showed little interest in these documents and their captions in English. Attendees’ attention chiefly turned to her. She explained that this was because she and her nine colleagues appeared to be ‘young, innocent, untrained women who had gone through the occupation’ and could answer endless questions about daily life in wartime Paris. Morris's daughter, Anne Oates, sat with us during our meeting and intervened at this point:
[in French to her mother] You remember you told us how shocked the audience was when they saw you walking on the stage: a young, fresh-looking woman, [in English to her mother] as you said, innocent; you almost heard them gasp. They were expecting to see someone who was ill perhaps, who looked grey and pale, damaged. [In French, looking at me] But mum was young, alive, and elegant.Footnote 69
The language choice is significant here.Footnote 70 The interview was conducted in French and it is noteworthy that Oates joined in in French but then switched to English when she spoke to her mother. Oates grew up in a Franco-British household in England and her use of English suggests closeness with her mother. She reverted to French when she wanted to convey a point to me because, although I understand English well, she had interiorized that my mother tongue is French and that we were conducting the interview in French.
These white, young, well-educated, healthy-looking French women sporting the Lorraine cross and speaking, in good English and without notes, to British audiences contrasted with those audiences’ images of masculine resistance. They therefore embodied an essentialist reading of French middle-class identity which had been so central to the promotion of France in Edwardian Britain and had normalized the idea that ordinary French women were intrinsically chic and sophisticated.Footnote 71 Gillet herself had grown up in a socially successful family and had been educated by an English governess and later in prestigious Parisian schools, where she mingled with illustrious families such as the Chevrillons. The lecturers’ appearances and class notwithstanding, the women spoke at length about everyday difficulties in Paris in obtaining food and sources for heating, offering a strong verbal rebuttal of the aforementioned opinions of wartime prosperity in France.Footnote 72
Between 22 November and 1 December 1944, these women gave an average of fifteen lectures each. Hedwige Gillet's tour started at the Women's Section of the Royal British Legion in the London suburb of Epping and finished at the University of Nottingham in central England. In total she spoke to 16,170 individuals, with audience sizes varying from 30 at the Women's Club in Loughborough to 4,500 people at the Rolls Royce Factory in Derby. The nature of the audiences points to civil servants’ aim of reaching multiple groups within society, including women, industrial workers, and Francophiles.Footnote 73 Lecturers received many letters of thanks from the committees of the societies and factories they had visited. After Gillet's talk at the Derby factory, employees sent her the following note, which stressed the significance of gender and perceived normalcy as powerful tools of prestige:
It was indeed a pleasure to hear and meet such a charming representative of the people of France, and we hope it will be only the first of many such visits both to us and to you, for we believe that it is only by the cooperation of ordinary people everywhere that we can avoid a repetition of the misery of the last few years.Footnote 74
Although Gillet's social background disqualified her from firmly belonging to the category of ‘ordinary citizen’, this note reveals how far this trope infused British society by the time of the liberation; it also echoed the public relations theory of the time that the historian Deborah Cohen has outlined in her article ‘The geopolitical is personal’.Footnote 75 The title of this article chimes with Gillet's impression, which she penned in a mission report in 1944: ‘one feels that what the audiences want and desire are details and narrations about lived experiences’. The scepticism about France which existed among the public subsided as her talks went on: she felt ‘that a personal contact is enough to dispel this uneasiness’ towards France.Footnote 76
The lecture series reached well beyond the audiences in attendance. The female lecturers spoke to the Anglo-French parliamentary committee at the House of Commons and recorded a programme for the domestic service of the BBC, which had been an important supporter of the French resistance.Footnote 77 These women were also featured in the BBC Yearbook for 1945: a photograph showing four of them in uniform was captioned ‘Young Frenchwomen who had worked in the underground movement in France visited England in December 1944’.Footnote 78 Finally, the lectures were discussed in the national and local press, with articles stressing the youth of the women and praising their university education. Aside from a couple of instances when the full names of Colette Dubuisson and Andrée Cheutin were given, journalists referred to them by their first name only, a demeaning practice that nonetheless did not completely discredit the importance of their clandestine activities and the content of their lectures, which were reported in great detail.
The series of lectures also supported France's aim of altering the British view that France had not been materially damaged by the war. For example, one journalist noted that these women were ‘sorry to see, in the British papers, reports of well-being and plenty of food in France. If it were so it could only be so due to the using up of supplies left by the Germans in their hasty retreat.’Footnote 79 Other French cultural events organized in Britain at the time were curated to stress economic hardship and urban destruction. In November 1944, Massigli had declared that it was ‘important that the British public realize, visually, the sufferings experienced in France and the gigantic reconstruction and reorganization effort that the government must undertake’.Footnote 80 To support this line, the French government oversaw the screening of La libération de Strasbourg (one of the last cities to have been freed from German occupation by the Allies) throughout Britain in 1945.Footnote 81
The rhetoric that stressed post-war hardship and economic and material difficulties aligned with the negotiations that Massigli was conducting to obtain food supplies and British material help, including coal, to assist with reconstruction.Footnote 82 During a press conference in Scotland in May 1945, he spoke at length of France's economic suffering, making detailed references to the lack of coal. He was pleased to report to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that the information he had given had largely been published in the Scottish local press.Footnote 83
The focus on the recent past, especially the role of the metropolitan resistance and life under the occupation, which saturated discourses on France at the end of the war, was not solely the doing of the French and British authorities.Footnote 84 There was a real desire on the part of some British people to hear, read, and see testimonies about occupied France, all the more so as limited news had circulated between the two countries during the war. This interest in France was conspicuous in the question-and-answer sessions that followed lectures and which Massigli had asked lecturers to report on to gain a better understanding of the ‘spirit of the audiences and its current preoccupation’.Footnote 85 Meticulously put into tables by the office staff dealing with the lecture series, audiences’ questions focused on life under German occupation and the resistance, rather than on collaboration. This might suggest that lecturers had spoken little about this topic and therefore had not sparked the interest of their audience in it. Morris explained to me that, because she gave personal accounts of life in Paris and had had no encounters with public collaborators, she instinctively did not mention this topic in her talk but willingly answered questions if they were asked.Footnote 86 We can also posit that, as was the case throughout France and the world, there was little awareness in Britain of the extent to which lower levels of French society had engaged in collaboration, a view that would prove long-lasting.Footnote 87
While there was a great deal of co-operation between France and Britain in the area of public diplomacy, the GPRF also developed a policy of its own that blended culture and information. By 1944 it had at its disposal a vast network of cultural groups that criss-crossed Britain and offered suitable platforms from which to promote ideas about France. Nowhere was the intricate entanglement between cultural policy and information more visible than within the French Institute in London.Footnote 88 Massigli clearly situated the institute's work within the framework of the national effort to regain France's prestige and explained that this organization aimed to promote ‘the various forms of intellectual and cultural renaissance’.Footnote 89 A brief overview of the programme of the institute reveals what Massigli meant: in late 1944, a talk on ‘The spirit of the resistance’ was scheduled.Footnote 90 In the spring term of 1945, T. S. Eliot presided over a lecture on ‘The rebirth of French poetry during the war’. A lecture on French musicians in the resistance and a much-anticipated talk on clandestine publishing houses by Vercors (the pseudonym under which Jean Bruller wrote), who had gained fame as a resistance writer at the end of the war, also took place. Vercors delivered a similar lecture in a dozen English and Scottish cities in April and May 1945.Footnote 91 These events, in French and English, were part of the invention of a language of renewal and rebuilding that infused the French public sphere at the timeFootnote 92 and also crossed the Channel through the intermediation of French cultural institutions in Britain.
The visits of FFI members, the lecture tour by the ten French women, and cultural gatherings that focused on the resistance reproduced aspects of the narrative about resisting France that was being churned out in metropolitan France at the same time.Footnote 93 Both the content and the personnel of these events were central in the production of light-hearted propaganda that skirted around well-known stories of wartime valour and instead stressed the universalism of resistance among French people while concomitantly exploiting the intellectual curiosity of British audiences. Resistance was understood as a broad spectrum of practices, from intelligence-gathering and assistance for Allied soldiers to military action and publishing activities. In both France and Britain, public strategies overlooked the contribution of colonial troops to the point of reaching what historians would later call the ‘whitening’ of wartime narratives, although this claim has been complicated by recent research that shows the process of forgetting these resistance fighters accelerated during the period of decolonization.Footnote 94
At the same time, there were striking differences between the narratives in metropolitan France and the one which developed in Britain. First, French public diplomacy in Britain stressed the co-operation between white French citizens and British soldiers in the fight against a common enemy. This was not done through showcasing members of Free France, however – perhaps because French authorities felt that, by now, Britons were familiar with this group. They thought that the emphasis ought to be put on the less well-known phenomenon of metropolitan resistance. Second, public celebrations of the liberation in mainland France mostly excluded female fighters; however, the nation was gendered and turned into a ‘woman victim’, which benefited the country because it demonized Germany (which continued to be a source of diplomatic insecurity for France).Footnote 95 In Britain this narrative developed alongside the idea that ‘ordinary people’, including women, had engaged in everyday resistance activities as well as military combat. This confusion over gendered roles in the resistance indicated the universalism of the resistance among the French people, but also nodded to the growing importance of women in French public life: in April 1944, they had gained the right to vote.Footnote 96
Third, discourses in Britain de-ideologized the resistance because very little distinction between resisting political groups emerged from events organized as part of Franco-British media strategies to restore the prestige of France. Certainly, Britons were aware of the role that socialists and communists had played in the resistance; they were also familiar with domestic political tensions in France.Footnote 97 However, by overlooking these wartime and post-war political divisions, the British-based production of knowledge about France could define the war as chiefly an apolitical fight against the German enemy. In many ways, this was what the Gaullists had set out to achieve in metropolitan France, but they were soon tested by the communist and socialist parties.Footnote 98
In contrast with the growth of narratives about the resistance in the public sphere in France throughout the 1940s,Footnote 99 official discourses about this topic began to recede in Britain following the liberation of all French territories in mid-1945.Footnote 100 This was strengthened in 1947 by Massigli, who judged that the resistance was an inappropriate topic to be discussed at public events: Britons had heard so much about it over the last three years that French agents ran the risk of making audiences feel tired of it and of France. Mentions of the past, unless they helped to analyse the present, were best left out of talks on France, he suggested.Footnote 101 As a result, civil servants altered the content of public and cultural policy. In 1947, executives at the French Institute in London scheduled mainly literary and artistic events, from which any references to current issues and politics were absent, which was very much in tune with its interwar programme.Footnote 102 For example, Michel Saint Denis and Jean Paulhan, who were invited to the institute in late 1947, did not discuss their involvement in the resistance (the former had been a leading speaker on the BBC's French programmes and the latter had been active within clandestine publishing). Instead they each gave a lecture about the French classical playwrights Molière and Corneille.Footnote 103
Massigli had been right in his analysis of Britons’ interest in the resistance and the war. After 1947, the topics for talks requested from the French lecture office and indeed questions from audiences firmly shifted towards current issues. Two of the French lecturers who had toured women's institutes in January 1948 reported that audiences primarily asked about ‘living conditions in France (about which the audience knows nothing)’. The same month, the audiences of the United Nations association branches in the south-east of England asked French lecturers about contemporary international relations. When attendees referred to the past in their questions, they did not evoke the war but rather specific historical periods to which they drew comparisons to illuminate a point about the present. For example, one audience member likened the 1875 constitution of the Third Republic to France's constitution instigated in 1946.Footnote 104
As the aforementioned Chatham House report had pointed out, in 1944 and 1945 British public opinion was not ready to support the creation of an alliance with France. By 1947, opinions on France remained divided: while some circles of British society had come around to thinking of France as a great country and praised French citizens’ resistance achievements,Footnote 105 others continued to believe that France had lost its greatness for good.Footnote 106 Certainly, public diplomacy strategies to restore the image of France had limited effect upon British audiences, and negative associations between France and the 1940 military defeat endure in British popular memory to this day.Footnote 107 Still, such policies matter to our understanding of foreign affairs because they underline that forms of diplomatic power were diverse, and that the prestige of France was important to diplomats of both nations, who considered it necessary to resolve various issues at the level of society in order to further Franco-British co-operation. By 1947, France had once again become a valued partner in the eyes of British diplomats and some members of civil society. Along with the US, France could counterbalance the growing Soviet preponderance in the east, as well as offer a potential stepping stone towards creating a western union in which Britain would have a central position. This co-operation was made official with the signing of the Franco-British Alliance (also known as the treaty of Dunkirk).Footnote 108 While Bidault hoped that, in the context of the nascent Cold War, this treaty would contribute to form a middle way between the US and the USSR, as well as consolidate the alliance of France and Britain against Germany, the Franco-British partnership never formed a third force, and, after 1947, cross-channel relations were increasingly influenced by European and Cold War politics.Footnote 109
As the war was coming to an end, a reciprocal process involving the French and British governments emerged to enhance France's image in Britain. During the liberation and in the ensuing months, the heroic actions of the resistance became the dominant state-led representation of wartime France, with the suffering inflicted by German occupation and the liberation close behind. Lower-level Franco-German collaboration and political tensions among resistance movements were largely kept out of state-led discourses. By 1947, the French ambassador had put an end to this strategy based on narratives of the resistance and was instead focusing on current issues and French classical culture.
Analysing strategies of soft power conjointly with high political negotiation is an important approach to methodologies of international relations because this allows the better appreciation of how policy-makers might employ multiple forms of power in the service of a nation's diplomacy. Britain and France's long-term policies of building up France through a gendered public diplomatic strategy must be integrated into the story of the restoration of Franco-British relations that developed in a discrete period, between the liberation of Paris and the emergence of new geopolitical questions that would further destabilize the Franco-British partnership after 1947, including European integration and the growth of the USSR and the US on the international stage.Footnote 110 Culture and political information mattered to the French and British governments because it was through these means that they judged they could best project images of a France worthy of British friendship and compassion at a time when France's prestige and the country's material and economic power were weak. These strategies required new personnel to become actors in international relations, such as well-educated, upper-middle-class, and anglophone French women who had worked for the metropolitan resistance. The messages that these individuals disseminated to British audiences, as well as their gendered performance and appearances, made them priceless champions of France's prestige in Britain. In order to capture the complexity of diplomacy, we need to pay more attention to how countries framed narratives about themselves overseas and to the diversity of the individuals who produced and disseminated these stories.