Interim President of the French Republic

Speech made to the Assembly

Monday, 6 May 1974

Mr President, Ladies and Gentlemen, there is no need for me to tell you with what pleasure President Georges Pompidou had accepted your invitation to come to Strasbourg for this 25th anniversary of the signing of the Statute of the Council of Europe. His visit was to have been his own personal witness to the value that France attaches to your organisation, which is a vital element in the enterprise of Europe and inseparable from it.

You have done me the great honour – which touches me all the more deeply as the erstwhile friend and still the disciple of Robert Schuman – of inviting me here as the head of your host state and, despite circumstances which have affected us all profoundly, I was determined to be with you on this day. Life goes on; Europe continues to live and progress, and the Council of Europe continues its work.

May I add, Mr President, how particularly happy I am to find myself once again in this Chamber. Some of those present today will certainly remember how one of your own predecessors, Sir Geoffrey De Freitas, and myself, as President of the European Parliament, took it in turn to preside over the joint debates between the two Assemblies.

Faithful to the ideal that inspired the signatories of its Statute, the Council has fulfilled the hopes of its founders by effecting a greater unity between those European countries which are firmly devoted to the spiritual and moral values which are the true source of individual freedom, political liberty and the rule of law principles, which form the basis of all genuine democracy. Nor is that the least of your Council’s merits. At a decisive turning-point for the destiny of mankind, it is called upon to fulfil its historic mission by seeking to offer all of us, all our peoples, a better life – that quality of life for which President Pompidou called so earnestly at the 1972 Summit Conference in Paris. And by this we mean, not a privilege for ourselves alone, but a better life that we want to share with the less fortunate inhabitants of other continents, some of whom are undergoing the cruellest physical privations. In particular, I would recall those whose representatives used once, as members of the French Parliament, to sit in this Chamber. On their behalf, on behalf of all those who are suffering the same privations, let me appeal to the spirit of international solidarity and, above all to those European countries which have always had special links with certain of these areas.

Exactly twenty-five years and one day ago, on 5 May 1949, the Statute giving birth to the Council of Europe was signed at St James’s Palace in London. History provides many examples of attempts to unite the peoples and nations of Europe, some by force, others by agreement. How many men have not called for this unity: Victor Hugo, Wolfgang Goethe, Aristide Briand, to name only a few. As Chairman of a Peace Congress in 1849 – by an odd coincidence, just 100 years before the foundation of the Council of Europe – Victor Hugo proclaimed:

“The day will come when you France, you Italy, you Russia, you England, you Germany, all you nations of the continent, without losing your own characteristic quality, your own glorious individuality, will merge in a higher unity to become the European Fraternity.”

The dream of a great visionary? No. Your organisation, your Assembly, are the beginnings that will prove him right. It is simply that, among the earlier attempts to which I have alluded, few have been as strongly willed and sustained as that which resulted in the creation of the Council of Europe. The proof lies before us: the organisation brought to birth in 1949 whose silver jubilee we are celebrating today.

Need I remind you that at one of the most dramatic moments of Europe’s history Sir Winston Churchill’s action was decisive. That great statesman, whose memory we all cherish, was not in turn the man who knew how to make war and the man who wanted to build Europe – he was both at once. For it was in 1943, well before the end of the second world war, that Churchill invented the Council of Europe, gave it its name and outlined its institutions. Afterwards, in Zurich in 1946, the old lion, true to his idea, to his overriding concern, made his famous appeal to a bruised and scarcely convalescent Europe to struggle to her feet (“Let Europe arise”) defining the “sovereign remedy” needed in order to dwell in “peace, security and freedom” and declaring that “the first step in the re-creation of the European family must be a partnership between France and Germany”. This last part of his proposal was at the root of the choice of Strasbourg, of this city symbolising a reconciliation that history demanded, as the headquarters of your organisation.

Winston Churchill, supported by the European Movement, led by its founder, my friend Duncan-Sandys, the organiser of the 1948 European Congress at The Hague, foresaw that the transformation of our Western Europe, so long a community tom by dissension, into a community of hope was to be the basis, first for détente and later for entente and co-operation.

The Council of Europe and its Consultative Assembly marked the first stage in this transformation, for the Council was the first “European” organisation. It is one of the cornerstones of an enterprise to which we are all committed: a united Europe, making for peace and prosperity, where justice and friendship among peoples prevail. But also an outward-looking Europe. Let me remind you here of what U Thant, when Secretary General of the United Nations, said on this very spot in Strasbourg a few years ago, when he appealed to this Assembly not to fall into a “prosperous European provincialism”. The task is an immense one – but at the same time magnificent in its vastness. There are any number of impediments, halts and hesitations, for nobody can expect to achieve anything lasting without spending a long time in careful thought and discussion and hammering out the result on the anvil of difficulty. But the faith, the enthusiasm reborn with each new day are still alive despite the trials and tribulations, and of that your presence here is the best proof, if any were needed.

You are aware, Ladies and Gentlemen, of the vital role that is yours. The Council of Europe, which is the oldest and most broadly based of the European institutions, is irreplaceable. The Committee of Ministers reaffirmed this once again at its 53rd Session last January. The needs are immense, but so are the opportunities. The identification, analysis and solution of the problems facing European society and its relationships with the world are matters of extreme complexity.

The working methods you have adopted here for a number of years past have made it possible to achieve practical results in manifold fields like those of the law in general, human rights, social affairs, public health, education, the conservation of nature and historic sites and many other realms as well. This has meant long and exacting work, work that goes into problems in depth, work that is sometimes unspectacular, but which is useful and fruitful and which always has man as its main concern. The first task which the founder members of the new organisation set themselves after the horrors of a conflict which had seen the most elementary rights of the human person trampled underfoot, was to work out and secure the adoption of a European Convention on Human Rights. Today, at this moment when I am addressing you, this convention has become applicable in nearly all the countries which belong to the Council, since France’s instruments of ratification were deposited with the Council of Europe last Friday, 3 May. (Applause)

I pay tribute to your work, but I am far from forgetting the vital political role of the Council. In the Committee of Ministers, its seventeen members possess an invaluable instrument for political discussion, and in your Assembly you have an important parliamentary forum. In accordance with the terms of the declaration published by the ten Ministers for Foreign Affairs who originally signed the 1949 Statute, the Consultative Assembly was to be a means of formulating and expressing the aspirations of the European peoples, thus enabling the governments to remain constantly in contact with European public opinion. Your Assembly fulfils this mandate, and remains an ideal forum for the expression of the parliamentary opinions of Europe as a whole. As you know, I can bear witness to this personally.

Europe must be strong and happy. The road which they have travelled already gives Europeans just reason for optimism although the difficulties must not be underestimated. The upheavals of last autumn, which surely hit all the countries of Europe, showed only too well – and this is a lesson which we must not forget – how much the maintenance of our prosperity, of Europe’s place in the vanguard of scientific and technical progress, its success in improving the quality of life and the success of its relations with the outside world, depend on a pooling of our energy and other resources. Europe has everything to gain from unity and will, when united, have much to give the rest of the world. United, the seventeen member states can make a full and effective contribution to world prosperity and security and to solving the problems of poverty and ideological conflict.

I have spoken of seventeen member states – in reality, the Council has an eighteenth Member, a Member without frontiers and with a population of more than 10 million. I refer to the migrant workers and their families, and the Committee of Ministers would do itself credit by establishing a special status for them.

Nowadays, no country, no idea, no man, is isolated. For the younger generation, frontiers have already ceased to exist. The problems which face one country spread rapidly to its neighbours. The parents and children of Europe all share the same problems, even when separated by thousands of kilometres. And all of them united in an evolutionary process which is certainly arduous, but also enormously promising, are conscious of our continent’s strength and weakness and, above all, of the remarkable prospects which are opening before it and of its heavy responsibilities in a world which is trying to find itself and will, perhaps, continue its search for many years to come, but which already has an idea, if only a vague idea, of the happiness to which it can aspire.

Here I should like to quote and re-echo the remarks of one of the most prestigious orators ever to speak in this Chamber, President Leopold Senghor:

“Among the whirlwinds which are rising on every side, the fate of the world is, strangely enough, in our hands, which seem so frail and, above all, in the hands of you Europeans. All we need is to have the faith and the will. To will is easy since there is no risk. The risk would be to refuse the contest.”

Nor should we forget the advice recently given us by the academician, Jean Guitton, when he said that over and beyond the Europe of consumers and the Europe of ideas, we must think first of spiritual values and must light in Europe what he called the home fires of love. These fires would keep alive and spread from man to man that living flame without which Europe will never be born.

Let us all learn, therefore, to believe and to will with perseverance and determination, so as to bring about that juster and more human world which we all hope to see. France and the city of Strasbourg are proud to house one of the organisations which is working most effectively to realise that aim. (Loud applause)