Sarkozy and his wife Carla Bruni-Sarkozy toured studio B2 at London’s Broadcasting House, the BBC complex in central London where de Gaulle urged his compatriots to resist the German occupation.
Prince Charles later guided the couple on a tour of the London headquarters of the Free French, the fighters led by de Gaulle to resist Nazi Germany’s advance.
Sarkozy’s visit comes when Europe is wrestling with economic rather than military challenges, and both he and British Prime Minister David Cameron said past triumphs must be matched by effort to resolve the financial crisis and climate change.
“We come as friends, and friends who remember the past and what France owes you,” Sarkozy told an audience of 1,500 veterans and dignitaries at London’s Royal Hospital Chelsea, a hospital and retirement centre for former soldiers.
Sarkozy bestowed the French Legion d’Honneur on six World War II veterans – three British and three French.
British and French jets made a ceremonial fly-past through London’s skies, while red jacketed veterans and guards in plumed helmets mingled with dignitaries. Soldiers from both countries formed a joint guard of honour.
“Britain and France will be true to those who died for them in the skies above London, in the Libyan desert, on the Normandy beaches and the plain of Alsace, when all that we hold most dear was threatened with annihilation,” Sarkozy told veterans who attended the ceremony. He spoke in French.
The fallen will be honoured “by taking on together the defence of freedom and democracy everywhere in the world”, Sarkozy said.
Cameron, who made his first overseas visit as British leader to Paris, greeted Sarkozy warmly before a private lunch with their wives at his official residence in London. Both couples appeared relaxed and friendly – at one point Sarkozy-Bruni leaning across to Cameron’s pregnant wife to swipe a fly from her chest.
“Today is not just about the shared history of Britain and France, it is about our shared responsibilities and our shared future,” Cameron said.
De Gaulle’s appeal, which was largely unheard in France when it was initially broadcast and wasn’t recorded, was read aloud at the ceremony. The French army choir then sang the wartime resistance song Le Chant des Partisans.
British ministers had initially refused de Gaulle’s request to air his appeal using the BBC’s facilities, but relented after the intervention of British wartime leader Winston Churchill.
France was occupied by Nazi Germany and its allies from 1940 to 1944 during World War II, and liberated following the D-Day landings and assault by British, US, Canadian and Free French forces.
During the commemoration, Sarkozy and Charles jointly laid wreaths at the statues of King George VI, the wartime monarch, and his wife Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother.
Some 200 French veterans of the Resistance and World War II boarded a special Eurostar train in Paris yesterday to join ceremonies in London. A portrait of de Gaulle was emblazoned on the train.
“We were but a group of determined and courageous men. But in fact it was Gen de Gaulle who changed the fate of France and not us,” said veteran Emile Chaline, 78, a vice admiral under de Gaulle.
Another veteran, George Zwang, 95, said: “We have to think about those who aren’t here, those we left behind.”
In talks over lunch, Cameron and Sarkozy discussed Europe’s turbulent economies and next week’s G20 and G8 summits.