France pays tribute on Thursday to one of the last Companions of the Liberation, the most distinguished order of resistance heroes decorated by Charles De Gaulle. Daniel Cordier, who served as secretary to iconic French resistance leader Jean Moulin during World War II, died last week at the age of 100.
Born in Bordeaux in 1920, Cordier became involved in politics at an early age with the far-right Action Française movement. An admirer of French ultra-nationalist figure Charles Maurras, the young Cordier was immersed in monarchist, nationalist and anti-Semitic ideas. In June 1940, when the French army was swept aside by the Nazi Wehrmacht, Cordier had yet to turn 20. He was outraged when Marshal Philippe Pétain called for an armistice with Germany and the teenager decided to continue the fight.
“I ran up the stairs to my room because I didn’t want my parents to see me crying. I threw myself down on my bed and sobbed because, to me, France could not be beaten,” he told FRANCE 24 in a December 2017 interview. “After those tears, I decided to do something, but I didn’t yet know what.” With around 15 volunteers he set off from Bayonne, on the Atlantic Coast, initially for North Africa. But the vessel Cordier and his comrades boarded ultimately would take them to England.
Cordier joined the first Free French Forces, organised by De Gaulle from his exile in Britain. “What you must understand is that I am the child of combat veterans of World War I. Deep down, what we wanted was to do what our parents had done, no more no less,” he would explain.
‘Devotion and courage’
After training in an infantry battalion, Cordier was assigned to the Central Bureau of Intelligence and Operations (BCRA), the secret service arm of the Free French Forces. In July 1942, he was airdropped near Montluçon in central France. Days later he met Jean Moulin, code-named “Rex”, who represented De Gaulle and was a delegate of the French National Committee, France’s government in exile. Moulin took Cordier on to help establish his office in Lyon.
After the June 1943 arrest of the “boss” – as Cordier called Moulin – in Caluire near Lyon, Cordier continued his mission. Pursued by the Gestapo, Cordier fled through the Pyrénées. Interned in Spain, he would return to England in late May 1944. There he was named to lead the section charged with airdropping BCRA agents.
Cordier was awarded the Cross of Liberation medal on November 20, 1944, for displaying “the qualities of devotion and courage unparalleled”. He was credited with working “tirelessly throughout his long mission and never ceasing to distinguish himself in his tenacious energy, his selflessness, his spirit of sacrifice and his composure”.
Deep into Cordier’s old age, that distinction had particular significance for the former Resistance fighter. It was the only medal that he wore every year on June 18 to commemorate Charles De Gaulle’s 1940 appeal for his compatriots to resist German occupation, issued via radio from London. “The only thing that was an absolute reward was being a Companion of the Liberation,” Cordier liked to say.
‘Liberty is the sunshine of life’
Cordier relinquished his early far-right ideas – later writing of his shock and “unbearable shame” during the war at seeing an old man and a child in Paris adorned with the yellow stars that marked them out as Jews – and became a socialist humanist.
After the war, Cordier dedicated his life to his painting and began collecting contemporary art. In the early 1980s he became a historian to defend Jean Moulin’s memory. In 2009 he published an autobiographical narrative entitled “Alias Caracalla” that he deemed a homage “to all the people who died”.
Regularly called on to take part in conferences or meet with schoolchildren, Cordier still did not see himself as a role model. “I did what I believed in. I fought throughout the full four-and-a-half-year war. I did everything that was asked of me,” he said with humility.
Seventy-five years after the end of World War II, Cordier would say that “liberty is the sunshine of life”. “We must remain free for our entire existence. No one can permit themselves to change our lives, to impose another vision,” he said. “We fought for liberty for almost five years. If it had to be done again, I would do it again immediately. It is the only aspect of my existence that I am sure that I would do again right away.”
One remaining ‘Companion of the Liberation’
French President Emmanuel Macron paid his respects shortly after the news of Cordier’s death, announcing plans for Thursday’s ceremony in tribute. “Daniel Cordier, member of the Resistance, secretary of Jean Moulin, has passed away. When France was in peril, he and his companions took every risk so that France would remain France. We owe them our liberty and our honour. We will pay them a national homage,” Macron wrote on Twitter.
After the passing of Pierre Simonet on November 5 and Cordier’s death on November 20, there remains only one living Companion of the Liberation – and Hubert Germain is also 100 years old. Some 1,038 people, including six women, were granted the title, as were 18 military units and the five French municipalities of Nantes, Grenoble, Paris, Île de Sein and Vassieux-en-Vercors, the latter the site of a Resistance uprising brutally suppressed by the Nazis.
It was decided that the last of the “Companions” to die would be interred at the Mont Valérien, the principal location of the execution of Resistance fighters and hostages by the Germans during the Second World War. The site, just west of Paris, is home to the Memorial to Fighting France, inaugurated by De Gaulle in 1960.