No. 220 NAI DFA Paris Embassy 19/34A

Confidential report from Seán Murphy to Joseph P. Walshe (Dublin)
(P.19/34A) (Copy)

Vichy, 10 July 1940

I gave you a short summary in my telegram No 681 of some of the most important statements on French foreign policy contained in the declaration made to the press on the 4th inst. by the French Minister of Foreign Affairs in connection with the Mers-el-Kebir incident.2 The following is the full text of the passages in question of M. Baudouin's declaration:

'French foreign policy has for years past been dictated by the desire to do nothing which could disassociate us from the foreign policy of Great Britain. The policy of sanctions which separated us from Italy is due solely to this anxiety; the same way our policy vis-à-vis Central Europe and Germany. The negotiations which led to the Munich agreement were carried on personally by Mr. Chamberlain; we entered into war against Germany in the wake of England who first declared war … these facts (the attack on the French vessels at Mers-el-Kebir and the blocking of French war vessels in Alexandria) cannot fail to exercise a profound influence on the reaction of our policy. Our relations with England pass on to a new plane. We had this morning sorrowfully to take the decision to break diplomatic relations with a country responsible for the blood of our sailors … To this unconsidered act of hostility the French Government did not reply by an act of hostility. It remains calm, attentive to the development of a situation which it did not wish, only anxious to defend by the means which rest to it and by a new policy which it will feel called upon to adopt, the honour and the interest of France'.

M. Baudouin said also in the course of his declarations that for the previous six days England had no diplomatic representation in France although 'on several occasions I asked our Chargé d'Affaires in London3 to intervene with the British Government to get it to re-establish direct contact with the French Government'.

The whole press followed the Government's lead in condemning in unmeasured terms the British attack on Mers-el-Kebir. Incidentally the French Government ordered certain air squadrons in North Africa to attack in Gibraltar the British units which had bombarded the fleet at Mers-el-Kebir. This action was likewise applauded by the press. Apart from the characterisation of the incident the French press was at one in regarding the British action as an enormous psychological blunder. Many organs (Figaro, Le Temps, etc.) attributed the British action to bad advice on the part of French men in London. Mr. Churchill was also represented as being the prime instigator. The only exception I saw in the press to the general violent outcry raised against Great Britain was an article in the Jour by Fernand-Laurent in which, while he deplored what had happened, he urged that the strong ties which had united Great Britain and France for so many years should not be forgotten and that no precipitated action should be taken. He expressed the hope that what had happened would not mean an irremediable breach of Franco-British good understanding. Some local newspaper went so far as to suggest that French foreign policy should make a complete volt-face. The Figaro said that the action freed France from a 'moral load' put upon her by the armistice; as a result of the armistice France was in a position of a flock of sheep without guidance, being driven from one side to another; her sentiments called her towards Great Britain, but necessity pulled her away, the Mers-el-Kebir incident 'has restored liberty to French diplomacy'. The Temps which treated Franco-British relations in a number of successive articles started off immediately after the incident by asking as a question to be put seriously whether war was likely to come about between Great Britain and France. Developing the theme of Mr. Baudouin's speech as to the subordination of France to British foreign policy the Temps said 'for the last 20 years Great Britain, while favouring the rise of Germany so as to prevent a development of France, who was however in no way a menace, always prevented any rapprochement between Paris and Berlin as well as any intimacy between our country and Italy. At the time of the Abyssinian conquest we stifled one of the strongest currents of our public opinion to apply to Italy the sanctions wanted by England. In Central Europe our policy has been modelled on that of Great Britain. It was Mr. Chamberlain who conducted the negotiations of Munich. It was England who, after having inspired this policy of conciliation decided us suddenly to change our attitude and to enter into war with Germany.' The Temps adds that 'it was France which supported the total weight of land hostilities'. The article continues 'let us not reproach England with the incoherence of her guiding principles and do not let us reproach her either for having by pressure or persuasion decided us to follow her like a shadow in her capricious and dangerous promenades … let us particularly know how to draw a profitable lesson from our maladresses and misfortunes. Let not our future resemble our past. Let our diplomacy become at last free. Let it not be any longer the instrument either of hollow ideologies or of foreign schemes. France only became a great nation in the course of centuries only thanks to the independence of her external policy.'

I have been informed that Mr. Churchill's speech in the House of Commons in justification of the Mers-el-Kebir action was much more full than reported in the French press and in particular that the British squadron offered a third alternative to the French Admiral (namely to go to one of the French possessions such as the Martinique) besides the two published in the French press and official communiqués (either to join the British fleet or to scuttle his ships). The only reference I have seen to the third alternative in the French press was contained in a leading article in Le Temps of the 8th inst. which mentioned the matter incidentally in saying that 'the English suggestion to send the French ships to the Martinique – a suggestion which if it had been accepted would have constituted a violation of the armistice – would not have offered any guarantee for our fleet and would only have underlined the suspect nature of the English manoeuvre'.

The French Government and press have treated this incident as a gratuitous and unjustified action on the part of the British Government and in so far as the reason given by London for undertaking it is concerned (i.e. lack of confidence in the German undertaking not to use the French fleet against England) as an insult to French honour. Both the Minister for Foreign Affairs and the Admiralty and other official sources have asserted emphatically that the French Plenipotentiaries who signed the armistice had expressed instructions to break off negotiations if the Germans insisted on the unconditional surrender of the French fleet and that the British Government was aware of this fact. The feeling provocated against Great Britain has been enhanced by the insistence with which official quarters and the press have blamed the failure of full British support on land for France's defeat. The political writer of the Action Française considers that British history itself will pass a very severe judgment on the British action. He thinks that 'England committed an act of inexcusable violence and traitory' and that the British Admiralty 'satisfied its passion and followed a long tradition in endeavouring by every possible means to destroy a navy of which it is jealous and which it fears'.

The anti-British theme in regard to foreign policy was developed both by M. Laval and M. Georges Bonnet (Minister for Foreign Affairs from April 1938 to end September 1939) at one of the informal sessions of the Chamber last week. M. Laval was reported to have emphasized the extent to which during his administration of the Quai d'Orsay in 1935-36 he endeavoured to free French foreign policy from its subordination to that of England. M. Bonnet pointed out (this was alleged at the time both by the German and Italian news agencies) that he had accepted the Italian offer of mediation of the 2nd September without insisting on the withdrawal of the German troops from Poland but that 'his efforts were frustrated by the British and Polish intransigence'.

1 Not printed.

2 The Royal Navy destroyed the French fleet at anchor at the French Algerian port town of Mers-el-Kebir near the port of Oran on 3 July 1940. The British were concerned that France's main warships would fall into German hands after the signing of the armistice between France and Germany on 25 June 1940. The incident is also referred to as the Oran affair.

3 Marquis de Castellane, French Chargé d'Affaires in London (1940).

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