Charles de Gaulle and “Vivre le Quebec Libre!”

par Portes, Jacques

General de Gaulle on the Balcony of Montreal’s City Hall, Jully 24th, 1967, Montreal.

On July 24th, 1967, French President Charles de Gaulle ended his speech on the balcony of Montreal's city hall with the salute "Vivre le Québec libre! [May Quebec live long and free!]" This extraordinary statement echoed around the world and has helped put Quebec on the map, particularly for the French. This event was not the natural outcome of long standing relations between the French Republic and the Province of Quebec. In fact, it constituted a total break away from everything that had happened up to that point, particularly since the reestablishment of trade relations in 1885.  For the first time, a visiting French dignitary had decided to take revenge for the 1763 defeat, deliberately ignoring the sensibilities of Ottawa, London and Washington's susceptibility, all of which he ended up annoying considerably. France and Quebec have since then enjoyed close relations maintained by their successive governments.

Article disponible en français : De Gaulle et « Vive le Québec libre! »

A Significant Statement

General de Gaulle's statement "Vivre le Québec Libre! [May Quebec live long and free!]" is an event that left its mark on recent history in Quebec. It entered the province's collective memory as a symbol of the rise of nationalism that took place during the 1960s and the 1970s. De Gaulle's speech has been reused many times since 1967. Footage from the event is now available on many websites, and an extract of the most poignant moment of De Gaulle's speech was used by a popular music group. (NOTE 1).


De Gaulle and Canada

General de Gaulle Addressing the Crowd on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, July 11th, 1944. BAC.

General de Gaulle would have learned of New France's history in 1913, during a presentation delivered to fellow second lieutenants. When asked about the heroes who inspired him, he was said to have responded: "Joan of Arc, Du Guesclin and Montcalm". The occasion to discover a bit more crossed his path once again in 1937, while helping his son with some homework on how France had lost its holdings in Canada (NOTE 2). His three visits to Canada, in 1944, 1960 and 1967, were excellent occasions for him to renew this interest. On July 11th and 12th, 1944, he made his first visit to Ottawa, which was followed by a visit to Quebec City. Wishing to appease the province's clerical elite during a press conference, he managed to make it known that he was a true catholic and not an atheist republican. However, during that visit, he hardly had any contact with the population and there were only few present to greet him. He was not to blame for this half-hearted welcome. During the war, the French-Canadians had been almost equally divided between those holding to a sympathetic view of Maréchal Pétain and the values he embodied and those who admired the exploits of the Free French Forces (to whom the official Quebec propagandists, Élizabeth de Miribel and Gabriel Bonnaud had been loyal). (NOTE 3). Then from April 18th to 21st, 1960, Charles de Gaulle, President of the French Republic, made an official state visit to Ottawa, Quebec City and Montreal. The official greeting was warm, but even in Montreal, crowds were sparse and offered only a half-hearted welcome.

In the first volume of Mémoires d'Espoir [Memoires of Hope], de Gaulle draws cautious conclusions about his initial contact with Quebec: "As I leave this country, I ask myself if it is not the result of the establishment of a state of French origin, which cooperates freely at every level alongside with another of British origin; preferably by compounding the freedom each has won - and in order to safeguard both, that Canada will one day erase the historic injustice that has so deeply mark edit. That it will organise itself in accordance with its own realities and thus remain Canadian." On September 4th, 1963, Charles de Gaulle's idea continues to evolve, as he adds: "Before doing anything else, we must make special efforts to establish cooperative relations with the French Canada, in order to keep what we are doing for her and with her from being submerged in an affair that could involve the whole dynamic of the two Canadas. Anyway, French Canada is destined to become a [sovereign] state and we must act with this perspective in mind."


Vivre le Quebec Libre! [May Quebec Live Long and Free!]

The France Pavilion at Expo 67. Gabor Szilazi/BAnQ.

It was not until 1967 that Charles de Gaulle would make his third visit. That De Gaulle would use the Exposition Universelle [Expo 67] "Man and His World" as an excuse to make a state visit could not have been foreseen. It meant a break from the long-standing tradition of circumspect diplomatic policy faithfully observed by a long line of French presidents in the past. Nevertheless, French President De Gaulle chose to distance himself from past leaders such as Belvèze, Drouyn de Lhuys or Fayolle, who had held office from 1855 to 1921. This is because he had decided not concern himself with Canadian or British "sensibilities".The General's opposition to Great Britain's entry into the Common Market had spoiled relations between the two countries. De Gaulle also rejected the Canadian model of federal state, a model that, at the end of World War II, had seduced him for a time with its rapid modern development. Much like De Gaulle, Pierre Mendès France, on an official visit around the same time (in 1954), had also admired Canada. He had been a friend of Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson, but had only "conversed formally" with Maurice Duplessis (NOTE 4).

Armed with this new attitude, General de Gaulle was determined to take the side of the "French speaking people of Canada" and to respond to what promised to be a warm welcome, according to observers at the time. This decision was emphasised by the French President's refusal to respect diplomatic protocol, which usually required him to land in Ottawa. He chose to come by sea on the cruiser Colbert and arrived in Quebec City, where Federal formalities would necessarily have been lessened. This plan allowed him to make the trip to Montreal on the Chemin du Roy. There, at each stop along the way, the people's welcome grows more and more enthusiastic under the July sun, with ecstatic crowds and triumphal arches erected in the villages. As they got closer to Montreal, the General's speeches become more eloquent and Charles de Gaulle starts to show his sympathy for Quebec. The Quebecois' greeting is exceptionally warm and even out of proportion when taking into account that the official purpose of his visit is no more than to visit to the World's Fair.


The Enthusiastic Reception

General de Gaulle Arrives at Montreal City Hall, July 24th, 1967. City of Montreal Archives.

In July 1967, even before his arrival in Montreal, Quebecois had given the president of the French Republic an unprecedented welcome. It was a greeting fit for one of the country's most significant political events. Quebecois were proud of the progress they had made as a people and wished above all to make this champion of France's greatness aware of it. But this time, the distinguished visitor did not follow his predecessors' prudent example, a decision that he had already made 1963: "In 1967, we will not go celebrate the hundredth anniversary of the Canadian Confederation in Montreal, as English Canadians and the federal government would like us to. If we go, it will be to celebrate two hundred years of French Canadian loyalty to France (NOTE 5)."

On July 24th, the General stood on the balcony of Montreal City Hall. There, he delivered his carefully planned speech with an emotion that echoed the sentiments of Fayolle, his predecessor of 45-years before. Even though the French President consciously created a stir, the greeting of the citizens of Quebec remained the same: "It fills my heart with a great emotion to see before me the city of French Montreal. On behalf of the old country, on behalf of France, I salute you. I salute you with all my heart. I will confide in you a secret I know you will not repeat. Here this evening and all along the route I took to get here, I found myself in an atmosphere resembling that of the Liberation.  And along the road, I have observed what substantial effort you have expended in the cause of progress and development and, by extension, the emancipation you have successfully claimed here. It is in Montreal, and only here, that I can say this because, if there is a city that embodies modern success in this world, it is your city. I say yours and allow myself to add, it is also ours.[...] All of France hears, realises and knows of what is happening here. And I can tell you it will only get better. Long live Montreal! Long live Quebec! May Quebec live long and free! Long live French Canada and long live France (NOTE 6)!"

General de Gaulle Greets the Crowd, July 24th, 1967. City of Montreal Archives

At first, the crowd is thunderstruck by this unexpected statement before exploding in cheers. Furthermore, "Vivre le Quebec libre! [May Quebec live long and free]!" was also the rallying cry of the Rassemblement pour l'Indépendance Nationale (RNI). Militants from the group had worked hard to work up the enthusiasm of the crowd standing in front of Montreal City Hall. For the first time in the history of relations between France and Quebec, a direct contact had been established between the visiting dignitary and his ecstatic hosts. Upon returning from Montreal, the President explained his gesture to his aide-de-camp, who had not been present at that time: "Ah! If you could have seen the excitement. They expected support from France to help them. So I set everything in motion. In fact, it might have been a little premature... but I am old, it was now or never. Besides, who but me would have the nerves to say it had I not said it (NOTE 7)?"

Knowing he had carefully prepared his appearance while crossing the Atlantic and that he had not let himself be carried away by the people's enthusiasm, what could have been the French President's true intentions? Born before World War I, he came from a Catholic family. His intellectual background was thus highly influenced by the 19th century and the era's irrefutable certainties. For him, Quebec was a homogenous nation of French cultural origins, which explains his use of the name: "French Canada". He believed that Quebec's next natural step would be to ascend to the state of nationhood. De Gaulle truly believed his duty was to speed up this process so the people of French descent could be strengthened - and his speech in Montreal was a way to achieve just that.

General de Gaulle. City of Montreal Archives.

Beyond the enthusiasm of the moment and Ottawa's annoyance, many Quebeckers have since pondered on the possible significance of General de Gaulle's cry: what exactly did he want people to understand? Was it truly in Quebec's interest to follow his example? Was Quebec just being manipulated by a man who talked of the "French People in Canada"? Following this staggering declaration, René Lévesque decided to delay, by a few months, the creation of the Mouvement Souvereneté-Association (whichwould eventually become the Parti Quebecois), so as not to appear to follow to closely President de Gaulle.  As for Daniel Johnson, Canadian Prime Minister at the time, he tried to contain the General's enthusiasm, not wanting to be led where he did not immediately want to go: "We all agree on a certain form of integration of French Canada into the French speaking world. But, Mr. President, I must be realistic. We have major economic problems and my first duty is one of responsibility (NOTE 8)."

Despite these reservations and the very reserved reception the event received in France and abroad, from 1967 on, cooperation between France and Quebec increased remarkably. More importantly, this cooperation would never be questioned thereafter by any of the respective and successive governments of either France or Quebec, even if some of their members were critical of the ideology behind the statement "Long live free Quebec!" In establishing a closeness with Quebec, Charles de Gaulle had severed with his predecessors' timidity. Nonetheless, his spectacular speech did not suffice in helping Quebec attain its destiny of becoming a sovereign nation, a fate he had believed certain and at hand.


A Declaration that Still Resonates across Quebec

The Statue of the General de Gaulle in Quebec City. Photo: Martin Fournier

General de Gaulle's visit and particularly his speech on the balcony of Montreal City Hall immediately became part of the legend of Quebec's nationalism. The memory of Charles de Gaulle is honoured all around the province. Fourteen roads, two lakes, a public park and a bridge, the very same one General de Gaulle crossed on his journey in 1967, which links Terrebonne to Montreal, are named in his honour. The bridge was thus named in 1985 to honour the 15th anniversary of Charles de Gaulle's passing. In 1992, during the celebrations marking the 350th anniversary of the city, a 17 meter-high obelisk was erected in Montreal's Place Charles-de-Gaulle to commemorate the 25th anniversary of his famous speech. In 1997, Quebec City also honoured the General's visit with the controversial inauguration of a statue in Place Montcalm, only a stone's throw away from a monument dedicated to the glory of Montcalm. Finally, in 2007, on the 40th anniversary of De Gaulle's "Vivre leQuébec libre" speech, numerous newspaper articles were written and television reports were broadcasted. It was an opportunity to analyse the General's intentions a new and to ponder the impact his declaration has had on Quebec nationalism. Rarely has a political speech ever been appropriated so many times over.

In France, de Gaulle is honoured in many events, but never expressly for his famous "Vivre le Québec libre" speech. In Quebec however, the rallying cry is, in and of itself, justification enough for it to go down in history as an essential part of Quebec's living heritage.



Professor, Université de Paris-VIII, Saint-Denis

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Note 1. Loco Locass, a French language rap band, used the sequence of General de Gaulle's "Vivre le Quebec Libre!" in one of their videos.

Note 2. Marcel Jobert, Par trente-Six Chemins, Paris, Albin Michel, 1984, 174 p.

Note 3. Philippe Prévost, La France et le Canada. D'une après-guerre à l'autre (1918-1944), Winnipeg, Les éditions du Blé, 1994. See also Éric Amyot,« Vichy, la France Libre et le Canada Français : Bilan Historiographique », Bulletin d'histoire politique, vol. VII, no 2, winter 1999, p. 9-17.

Note 4. Letter from Pierre Mendès France to Jacques Portes, October 4th, 1982.

Note 5. Alain Peyrefitte, C'était de Gaulle, Paris, Fayard, 2000, 311 p.

Note 6. Général de Gaulle's speech on the balcony of Montreal City Hall on the 24th July, 1967, in Jacques Portes, Le Canada et le Québec au XXe siècle, Paris, Colin, 1994, 124 p.

Note 7. Quoted by Pierre Godin, Daniel Johnson, 1964-1968 : la difficile recherche de l'égalité, Montréal, Éditions de l'Homme, 1980, 227 p.



Godin, Pierre, Daniel Johnson, 1964-1968 : la difficile recherche de l'égalité, Montréal, Éditions de l'Homme, 1980.

Lescop, Renée, Le parti québécois du général de Gaulle, Montréal, Boréal Express, 1981.

Peyrefitte, Alain, C'était de Gaulle, Paris, Fayard, 2000.

Portes, Jacques, « Les États-Unis et le « Vive le Québec libre » du général de Gaulle», Bulletin d'histoire politique, vol.XV, n°1, automne 2006, p. 227-231.


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