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Paul Reynaud, who assumed the role of Prime Minister of France during an ominous and darkening period in French history. With the ousting of Edouard Daladier on March 20 and the appointment of Reynaud on March 21, France was in a desperate situation and doing anything it could to rescue itself from a devastating end.
The Battle of France began less than two months after Reynaud came to office. France was badly mauled by the initial attack in early May 1940, and Paris was threatened. On 15 May, five days after the invasion began, Reynaud contacted Churchill and famously remarked, “We have been defeated… we are beaten; we have lost the battle…. The front is broken near Sedan.” Indeed, such was the situation regarding equipment and morale that Reynaud received a postcard found on the body of an officer who had committed suicide in Le Mans. It stated: “I am killing myself Mr President to let you know that all my men were brave, but one cannot send men to fight tanks with rifles.”
On 18 May Reynaud removed commander-in-chief Maurice Gamelin in favour of Maxime Weygand.
On 26 May, around lunchtime, Reynaud attended a meeting in London with Churchill. At 2 pm Churchill reported to the War Cabinet that Reynaud had stated that the French military situation was hopeless, that he had no intention of signing a separate peace with Germany, but that he might be forced to resign and that others in the French government might sign such a treaty. At this stage Churchill told Reynaud that he did not rule out talks with Mussolini altogether (Italy was still neutral). The Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax met Reynaud later in the afternoon, before the latter’s return to France. This was the beginning of the British May 1940 War Cabinet Crisis, in which Halifax favoured what was euphemistically described as “the Reynaud Option”: approaching the Italians to see if acceptable peace terms could be negotiated, perhaps by giving up some British territory in the Mediterranean. Halifax was eventually overruled by Churchill.
On 28 May Churchill sent a telegram to Reynaud stating that there would be no approach to Mussolini at that time but still leaving the possibility open. Mussolini had rejected an approach by President Roosevelt along the lines suggested by Britain and France. On 28 May, it was learned that Italy was planning to enter the war on Germany’s side, which would happen on 10 June.
In early June Charles de Gaulle, whom Reynaud had long supported and one of the few French commanders to have fought the Germans successfully in May 1940, was promoted to brigadier general and named undersecretary of war.
Shortly after assuming the office of Prime Minister, Reynaud delivered an address to the French people, which in turn was broadcast via shortwave to North America. Here is that address.