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Early resistance Symbols Transnational Resistance

The fishermen of Ile de Sein

The Ile de Sein, an island about half a square kilometer located 7 km from the tip of the Breton mainland in the Atlantic, was inhabited by around 1000 people in 1940. They  lived mainly from fishing. Despite its remote location and harsh weather, the island played a significant role in the French Resistance. In June 1940, Marshal Pétain concluded the armistice with Germany, resulting in the occupation of much of France. Shortly afterwards, on 18 June, the largely unknown General Charles de Gaulle, who had fled to London, called on all soldiers in a radio speech to join the “Free France” he was leading and to continue the war. But few listened to his speech, and even fewer followed his call.


The Ile de Sein was an exception. After de Gaulle spoke again on the BBC on 22 June, 127 male inhabitants boarded their fishing boats, crossed the English Channel, and joined “Free France” in England, which at that time gathered only a few hundred people. When de Gaulle reviewed his soldiers in July 1940, he remarked: “So the Ile de Sein makes up a quarter of France!”


The inhabitants of the Ile de Sein showed a different face of France than that of indifference, war-weariness or willingness to collaborate. While most of the population adopted a wait-and-.see-attitude or was prepared to cooperate with the Germans, the men of the Ile de Sein decided to resist immediately. The island’s proximity to England made the journey more feasible, and the fishermen of the Ile de Sein were certainly also keen to avoid being taken prisoner by the Germans or being called upon to provide services for the occupying forces. However, their action represents a determination that few French people were capable of at the time.


Charles de Gaulle paid great tribute to the small Breton island. When the war was over, he went to the Ile de Sein and awarded the island and its inhabitants the “Croix de la Libération”, the highly exclusive Order of Merit of the Resistance he had created. A monument in the shape of the Cross of Lorraine on the island commemorates the commitment of the 127 fishermen. To this day, the island occupies an important place in the French culture of remembrance: On 18th June 2024, President Emmanuel Macron went to the Ile de Sein to commemorate de Gaulle’s appeal for resistance.


Matthias Waechter

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