On 28 June 1940, Alexis Léger, the former head of the French Foreign Ministry told Winston Churchill that against a background of growing anti-British sentiment in France following the defeat, Britain might make use of the fact that BBC broadcasting was widely listened to in France and that by ‘clever use of the […] wireless’, they might be able to turn French public opinion around. In order to do this, however, they needed to know what was being said on the radio in France.
The axis powers were quick to realise the importance of controlling the airwaves, ordering the closure of all existing French radio stations as part of the armistice terms. In their place, two new stations were established: Radio Paris under German supervision in the northern occupied zone and Radiodiffusion Nationale, known as Radio Vichy, in the unoccupied zone. However, BBC radio could be picked up across much of France and evidence suggests that many French people considered the BBC to be the most trusted source of information. Listening to the BBC was outlawed, but the ban was regularly flouted and the Vichy government that came into office after the French defeat resisted German demands to make it a capital offence until the total occupation of France in November 1942.
The BBC Monitoring Service transcripts give historians important insights into how, faced with the challenges of the French defeat and occupation, British and French radio became at once locked in battle and connected in a dialogue. In the struggle for veracity and legitimacy, each shaped the other’s agenda and each was compelled to respond to the other’s claims. The BBC Monitoring transcripts gave up-to-date insights into the Vichy government’s responses to British actions and British propaganda and provided vital information on where Vichy saw itself going domestically and internationally.
Relations between Britain and France
Between the summer to the autumn of 1940, France went from being allied to Britain to collaborating with Nazi Germany. It was therefore a period of extraordinary sensitivity in Britain’s relations with France. The two key assets that Vichy retained under the June 1940 armistices, namely its colonial empire and naval fleet, were the very elements that caused the greatest concern for London. Fearing that they might yet fall into axis hands, the British government found itself compelled to defend the interests and security of Britain in ways that were damaging to the interests and security of France. These actions gave not just Vichy, but also the Free French, legitimate cause to question British intentions, resurrecting old suspicions about ‘perfidious Albion’. The first such incident was the British attack on the French fleet at Mers-el-Kébir on 3 July 1940. The British government claimed that it needed to ensure that the French fleet could not be seized by the Germans or Italians, but many in France saw it as unjustified aggression causing the deaths of almost 1300 French sailors. The fallout was significant, but it was only aggravated by a British and Free French attack on Dakar on 23-5 September 1940.
The delicate nature of relations between Britain and France during this period meant that it was critically important that British propaganda be precisely framed and targeted. Regardless of any military or strategic justifications, British actions directly affected Vichy’s move towards collaborating with Nazi Germany and provoked a wave of anti-British sentiment within many sections of French society. Getting accurate, up-to-date information was therefore vital.
Propaganda and the French public
It is generally acknowledged that to have any real impact, propaganda needs to have a receptive audience, and that to be credible it needs to have some grounding in reality. The problem for the BBC and for the Free French was how to counter the fact that many of the claims made by Radio Vichy seemed to ring true with many French people. A 1940 official document on British propaganda to France therefore stated that the primary task of radio propaganda for France was to counteract Anglophobia and to rebuild confidence in Britain’s power to continue the war. Following a strategy proposed by Maurice Schumann on 9 July 1940, French service broadcasts on the BBC sought to insist upon the continuing close connections and shared ordeals of the British and French people and to combat suspicions that Britain did not wish to see France restored to its former standing. The BBC Monitoring transcripts help us to gain a greater understanding of these strategies.
From its establishment in June 1940, Radio Vichy regularly refuted the claims made by the British government. Yet it was somewhat slower to respond systematically to the Free French broadcasts on the BBC, only beginning to do so in earnest in mid-April 1941. Radio Vichy tried to claim that the ‘stupidity of this propaganda’ had ‘seemed so obvious’ that it did not need to be refuted. But a more plausible explanation is that the shift in Radio Vichy’s strategy was a measure of the headway that the French broadcasts from London were making with the French public. The conscious and explicit nature of the responses from Radio Vichy was striking. One broadcast from late April 1941 conceded that ‘hundreds of thousands of people’ had indeed been ‘taken in’ by General de Gaulle’s words. The response from Radio Vichy revealed an increasingly sophisticated understanding of the strategies employed on BBC radio. Its claims that the attacks against Pétain were conducted with ‘infinite precision so as not upset public feeling’ suggested an awareness of how the BBC was mindful of many French people’s loyalty towards the marshal, even if they did not feel the same towards the Vichy regime.
Reacting to British actions at Dakar
The British and Free French attack on Dakar on 23-25 September 1940 was easy prey for Vichy’s propaganda narrative that Britain was only interested in seizing defeated France’s colonies and that De Gaulle was a traitor implicated in Britain’s crimes. With the BBC depicting Vichy as the puppet of Nazi Germany, so Radio Vichy portrayed De Gaulle as ‘England’s servant’. Addressing De Gaulle’s adherents directly, Radio Vichy dramatically accused Free French supporters of complicity in the deaths of French servicemen. On 25 September 1940, the broadcaster declared: ‘Frenchmen […] some of you remained attached to De Gaulle. You have remained deaf to the cry for help of our soldiers who were burned, drowned, crushed without defence. […] Frenchmen… every one of you must become a judge. Those dead at Dakar united to those at Mers-el-Kébir demand justice. Hear them, answer them, as otherwise their blood will be on you’.
With the attack a failure, within days Vichy was able to send reporters out to Dakar to refute directly the claims being made by the BBC. A number of BBC Monitoring transcripts are highly evocative in describing the background noises included in the broadcasts, including the sounds of a plane at Dakar airport, crowds on the streets and a market scene. The sounds, as described in the transcripts, conveyed a defiant impression of life carrying on despite the actions of the British and Free French. The level of detail, on-location reports and eye-witness accounts lent the Dakar broadcasts a directness and credibility with which the BBC could not compete. They highlight how despite its reputation for trustworthy reporting, the BBC’s task of countering Vichy’s radio propaganda was far from simple.