THE spirit of Charles De Gaulle - the larger-than-life French statesman who was vilified
by Anglo-Saxons the world over but exalted throughout the Francophone sphere of nations
- revisited Cambodia last week, as the 30th anniversary of his Phnom Penh address
Although the turn-out at Olympic Stadium on Sunday was far less than the tens of
thousands who showed up to greet the old general on that first day of September,
1966, an enthusiastic crowd of 5,000 managed to put in an appearance.
They waved little tri-colors as his speech was re-broadcast across the stadium, and
as the guest of honor, former French prime minister Pierre Messmer unveiled a bronze
plaque marking the occasion.
After the public festivities were concluded, Messmer, paid homage to the late president's
landmark address, in a private speech on the other side of town.
De Gaulle's 1966 speech did more than just broadcast to the world the policies which
came to be the hallmarks of his presidency - decolonisation and national self-determination
to name but two - at a time when African nations were joining the ranks of the Non-Aligned
Movement of the newly-emancipated states of the South.
He famously used the occasion to put his weight behind then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk's
doctrine of neutrality in keeping out of the war in Vietnam, much to the outrage
of the Americans at whom he thumbed his magnificent nose.
In his speech, De Gaulle condemned them for operating double-standards.
He accused them of championing the cherished principle of national self-determination,
while, at the same time, entertaining "relative illusions" of military
grandeur in an Indo-chinese expedition whose failure he predicted as "certain".
Another famous passage which underscored the speech were the words which described
the Cambodia of yesterday as "a fecund land, straddled by vulnerable frontiers,
surrounded by foreign ambitions, and over which peril looms large."
In his tribute, Messmer, who was De Gaulle's defence minister from 1960 to 1969,
reiterated the themes which were enshrined in the 30-year old address, stressing
that they are still pertinent to the Cambodia of today.
"During 20 years, unfortunate Cambodia, cut off from the world, was abandoned
to illegitimate regimes and to the worst abominations," Messmer said.
"In a new global context, France which had only been able to help by welcoming
Cambodian refugees, largely contributed to the process which culminated in the Paris
conference and the 1991 accords, at which she - together with Indonesia - assumed
"At present, France participates in the reconstruction of Cambodia, not only
through material cooperation, but also through the reaffirmation of the political
and historical principles of independence and sovereignty of the Kingdom, by accompanying
it in its progress, determined, above all, by the choices of Cambodians themselves,"
he concluded his speech.
"The concept of national self-determination is very much linked to the problems
of Cambodia today," Messmer later told the Post. "In order for Cambodia
to forge a truly national identity for itself, there must be internal unity among
the Khmers and harmony in Cambodia's external relations with its neighbors."
The 81-year old Messmer is not only well-versed in the venerated concept of fighting
for a nation's freedom, he has practiced it in his long life from the perspective
of both the liberator and the oppressor.
An ex-colonel in the Foreign Legion, in 1940, Messmer fought with the Free French
Forces at the battle of Bir-Hakeim.
He is also no stranger to Indochina where he was later posted for three years. In
1945, he parachuted into enemy-held territory in Tonkin, where he was taken prisoner
by the Viet Minh.
Ho Chi Minh's maxim about the Indochina war not being a classic conflict in the military
sense, but a struggle-to-the-death between "the tiger and the elephant",
was not lost on Messmer.
In fact, he fondly recalled a conversation he had had with Robert McNamara, the US
Secretary of Defence, the technocrat who masterminded the American intervention in
Vietnam, at the height of the war in the mid-1960s.
"I told McNamara that all his conventional technological superiority would never
break the fighting spirit of Ho Chi Minh's cadres," Messmer related.
"When I told him that only the atomic bomb would defeat them, McNamara replied,
'That's out of the question.'"
"Then I told him, 'Then you will lose this war.'"
Listening to Messmer, it was hard to tell whether or not he was joking.
After all, 1966 was also the year in which France - much to the consternation of
Washington and the European nations which largely conformed to its dictates - withdrew
from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
The indomitable De Gaulle had insisted that France's national sovereignty could only
be guaranteed by an independent nuclear deterrent.
Small wonder, that as part of the exhibition which commemorates De Gaulle at the
French Cultural Center until the end of the month, there is one photograph which
stands out from the rest.
Ten days after his presidential DC-8 carried him away from the turbulent Indochinese
peninsula to the tranquil reaches of the South Pacific, there is De Gaulle - who
in Phnom Penh had clamored about the right of peoples to their national self-determination
- pictured on the bridge of a French Navy frigate.
There he is, his leonine profile fixed on the horizon as a French nuclear test rips
through the skies over Mururoa.