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1964: First state visit to France by a Canadian PM

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On Jan. 15, 1964, Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson stepped off a plane in Paris and into the history books. Over the next three days, the state visit generated headlines both in France and at home, as Pearson broke bread with President Charles de Gaulle during a glitzy tour. This CBC Radio clip reviews the historic trip and looks at what the two leaders accomplished.
• Pearson's visit marked his first major international trip since becoming prime minister nine months earlier.
• The occasion also marked a first for a Canadian leader - until January 1964 no prime minister had ever been invited for a state visit to France.
• The goal of the visit, according to the Toronto Star, was to "develop a relationship between Paris and Ottawa somewhat comparable to that between Ottawa and Washington."

• The highest form of diplomatic contact between two countries, state visits involve military reviews and ceremonial dinners. Unlike regular tours, state visits are initiated by the host country which also pays for all expenses.
• Other prime ministers to travel to France for non-state visits include Wilfrid Laurier (1903) and Louis St-Laurent (1951 and 1954).
• Prior to Pearson's visit, there was concern among his inner circle that he and de Gaulle would not get along. The Globe and Mail reported that the prime minister's aides worried that he'd be "unable to find any sort of rapport with the enigmatic and haughty French president."

• Indeed, the trip got off on the wrong foot moments after Pearson, External Affairs Minister Paul Martin Sr. and 27 Canadian journalists stepped off the plane at Paris's Le Bourget airport.
• Surprisingly, de Gaulle was not on hand to greet them. Instead they were welcomed by Georges Pompidou, the premier of France.
• De Gaulle cited government protocol as explanation for the apparent snub, which required him to greet only heads of state upon their arrival. (The Queen is Canada's head of state.)

• But the Toronto Star reported that the French president had ignored that protocol during a 1961 visit by Jean Lesage, Quebec's premier. Lesage, the architect of Quebec's "Quiet Revolution", was greeted at the airport by de Gaulle and given a "virtual head-of-state reception."
• Pompidou, in his welcoming address, described Canada as a country "in which five million speak our language and share our culture and in whose veins flows our blood."
• Pearson exercised his tenuous grasp of the French language in his official address, part of which can be heard in this clip.

• Despite his poor French, Pearson and de Gaulle reportedly communicated with little problem and spoke to each other in their respective languages.
• "He understands my English better than you do my French," Pearson joked in the Globe and Mail.
• This was not the first time the two world leaders had met. Their first meeting happened during the Second World War in Washington, D.C., when General de Gaulle was the head of the Free French forces and Pearson was an employee at External Affairs.

• Pearson's visit to France also made headlines in the French media, with one newspaper's headline calling him a "Former Footballer, Aviator [and] Nobel Prize Winner."
• The newspaper France Soir questioned Pearson's intentions, saying the visit was an attempt to shore up his support in French Canada. (Pearson was four seats shy of a majority government).
• In addition to a ceremonial dinner attended by 1,500 people at the Elysée Palace, Pearson paid a visit to Quebec House and laid a ceremonial wreath at the Arc de Triomphe to honour the country's war dead.

• The night before he left, Pearson invited Premier Pompidou and French officials to pay a state visit to Canada. According to a Globe and Mail article, he said "I hope that before long I shall have the honour of receiving you in Ottawa and showing you something of the exciting progress and development in our country."
• That visit would eventually come 3½ years later, when Charles de Gaulle arrived for a cross-country tour during the 1967 Centennial. However, the trip was cut short after he delivered his controversial "Vive le Québec libre" speech in Montreal.

Medium: Radio
Program: Sunday Morning Magazine
Broadcast Date: Jan. 19, 1964
Guest(s): Lester B. Pearson
Host: Bruce Rogers, Bob Willson
Reporter: Stanley Burke
Duration: 7:56
Photo: Library and Archives Canada (PA-110784)

Last updated: January 15, 2014

Page consulted on September 10, 2014

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