All entries for August 2011

August 17, 2011

De Gaulle part 3

In an age where the Gaullist myth has been debunked, it is simply incredible that the Musée de l'Armée commissioned a film with such subjectivity and a lack of historical context. The question, of course, would be whether the huge number of French people who visit the museum approve of the film–I didn't notice anyone else shaking their heads. In any case, it is clear that the myths of two great French leaders–Napoleon and de Gaulle–are preserved for posterity at the Invalides.

*According to the website of the 'Fondation Charles de Gaulle', around 800,000 foreigners visit the Invalides each year, of which many will inevitably speak English. See

De Gaulle at the Invalides

The Gaullist myth, punctured by both Paxton and Marcel Ophuls's Le Chagrin et la Pitié, is now considered to be one phase in the French memorial process, as outlined by Henry Rousso. That phase has long since been surpassed by a focus on French complicity in the Holocaust (which I talked about in my blog entry on 'Selective Memory'). I visited the Hôtel des Invalides yesterday not so much for Napoleon's tomb (as impressive as that is), but to investigate the new 'Historial Charles de Gaulle', an audiovisual experience on de Gaulle's life. The permanent exhibition is superb: you carry an audio-guide-style set of headphones which click into action as you move around the exhibits. The range of archival footage is also very impressive, although around two-thirds of the documents have not yet been translated into English, which is surprising given the number of Anglophone tourists who visit the Invalides.*

There is also a film on offer in a purpose-built cinema. The film is bitterly, terribly disappointing. Dramatic music and split-screen video footage tries, and fails, to make up for the inaccurate commentary and the misappropriation of newsreel imagery. The film could have been made in 1968, before the appearance of either Paxton's book or Ophuls's Chagrin. The viewer is left with the impression that not only did de Gaulle single-handedly liberate France (no mention whatsoever is made of American-Canadian-British participation in the D-Day landings), but he also liberated much of Africa. The fact that the first African countries to go over to the Free French were of little material importance is glossed over. Vichy is given sparse treatment, and what is actually a clip of Pétain's birthday celebrations is accompanied with a voice-over suggesting that 'A Vichy, le malheur règne' (In Vichy, unhappiness reigns). De Gaulle's coup d'état of May 1958 is depressingly passed off as a democratic rise to power, l'homme providentiel returning to the fold. The context of May '68 is not discussed, and according to the voiceover it is de Gaulle, not Georges Pompidou (the then-Prime Minister) who refused to send in the army to deal with student-worker demonstrations. De Gaulle's absence from France, when he disappeared to consult army leaders in Germany, is simply ommitted.

Two steps forward, two steps back

In 1972, the American historian Robert O. Paxton published what is now considered to be the seminal text on the Vichy regime, his much-read, and incidentally much-translated, Vichy France 1940-1944: Old Guard and New Order. Paxton's book made such an 'impact', to use the modern-day academic parlance, because it smashed the so-called 'Gaullist myth', based on de Gaulle's speech from the Hôtel de Ville on the 25th August 1944. In his speech, de Gaulle claimed that Paris had been liberated by 'la France combattante'. The idea of a France which resisted the occupier and liberated itself single-handedly was the foundation for the Gaullist myth. Nearly 67 years ago, de Gaulle refused to proclaim the Republic, arguing that it had never ceased to exist.

Robert Paxton approached Vichy from the standpoint of an objective, impassionate researcher and looked not in the French archives (closed at the time) but in the German and American state archives. Vichy henceforth took on a different shape: not a regime forced into collaboration, but one which entered actively into a (mostly one-sided) partnership with the Nazis. The Republic had, as Paxton found, been voted out of existence by democratically-appointed parliamentarians. Legally, the Republic ceased to exist on the 10th July 1940. Yet in de Gaulle's view, he had been the Republic incarnate, la France résistante; Vichy was illegal, Pétain an illigitimate leader. De Gaulle's insistence on re-uniting the French people, split, as Pierre Laborie argues, between 40 million Pétainistes and 40 million Gaullistes, effectively swept the more sinister moments of the 'Dark Years' under the carpet. That so many civil servants served both the Vichy regime and the Gaullist transitional government with the same fervour was largely ignored.

August 14, 2011

The problem with Q

I have a problem. I've been aware of this for some time now, ever since I first went on a French exchange to Bordeaux back at school. My problem is that I can't pronounce the word 'beaucoup' in French, thus rendering me unable to really quantify how much I like the food on offer, or how many rioters there were in Manchester the other week (really beaucoup). Instead, I'm reduced to the linguistic equivalent of clutching at straws, blagging my way through conversations using 'merci bien' or 'plein de' in lieu of the dreaded 'b' word. Last academic year, I gave a first-year grammar lecture, in which I was forced to admit that I could not pronounce that word. I think that was the first step in the right direction; I'm now completely open about what I see as a huge problem.

I remember that French trip quite vividly, largely because whenever I used the 'b' word, I was greeted with hysterical laughter from everyone in hearing distance. My so-called pen 'friend' at the time actually made me repeat the word over and over again in front of her friends one day at her lycée. Imagine a whole bunch of teenage girls in Seconde (the French equivalent of Year 11) laughing at you like hyenas. Of course that improved my confidence no end. Somehow, and I'm not sure quite how, I managed to get through a whole seven months in Tours without using the dreaded word. I suppose I'm lucky that the Bordelais use 'merci bien' quite frequently, thus providing me with a weapon to defend against 'beaucoup'.

As anyone who has every read Stephen Clarke's superb Year in the Merde novels will know, the problem with mis-pronouncing the 'b' word is that in French the 'coup' part of the word in queston can sound a bit like 'cul', meaning backside. Hence why I haven't been giving the very friendly people at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France too many thank yous–one dreads to think how that kind of comment would go down with archivists or librarians. Probably not too well. I did realise yesterday, journeying through the epic corridors of the BNF, that where there should be a 'Salle Q' next to the 'Salle P' in which I'm doing my research, there's no such reading room. Perhaps, and this is a tentative suggestion, the good staff of the BNF wanted to spare the blushes of countless foreign researchers, like myself, who struggle with the pronunciation of anything to do with the letter 'q' or 'coup' for that matter. Or it could be that it simply follows the architectural illogic that is the BNF. One of my favourite procedures is the transferring of your bag contents into a transparent satchel with the BNF logo. It's not that you can't take certain items into the Library, but that you have to walk around with identical accessories to everyone else, like in an artist's impression of what a Library could look like. Personally, the presence of a 'Salle Q' might have pushed me to confront my pronunciation conundrum, but then again I've taken a vow to avoid complimenting French people on their derrières for ever and ever. So perhaps it's best the Inathèque de France is located in the easy-to-pronounce 'Salle P'. That way I'm not being branded an English DSK. Having said that, I've always wanted to visit the town of Ars on the Ile de Ré...

August 10, 2011

Selective memory (part 3)

If you walk around Paris, especially around the Ile de la Cité, home to Notre Dame Cathedral, you see countless light grey plaques, emblazened with the tricolore, remembering the deaths of policemen and Résistants during the Liberation. Only relatively recently–since Jacques Chirac's 1995 apology for crimes committed under the auspices of the Vichy regime–have new, dark grey plaques emerged round the city, especially in the traditional Jewish quarter of the Marais. On the wall of the École Maternelle (the infant school) opposite my flat there is one such plaque, remembering the young children from this area who were deported during the Occupation. Few tourists take notice of such plaques, nor indeed the grey slab opposite the exit to the Bir Hakeim exit commemorating the Rafle du Vél d'Hiv. It will be interesting to see how next year, 70 years since the round-ups, the event itself is commemorated. Will there be as much newspaper coverage as that given to the controversey surrounding the 14th July 'Citizens' Parade'? The 2010 film, La Rafle, pulled no punches in the treatment it gave to the French police and civil servants involved in the round-ups, which has perhaps helped to immortalize the victims of the event more than any monument could do. Let's hope that the 2012 election campaigns make much of remembering the crimes committed by the French authorities, in the alleged 'City of Light', and that whoever the next President is (it could, of course, remain Sarkozy), the memory of the innocent victims is not forgotten.

plaque ile saint louis

A plaque on the Ile St-Louis (4th Arrondissement) commemorating a group of Jewish children deported from the property during the Occupation. Image ©David Lees


Richard Burton, Blood in the City: Violence and Revelation in Paris 1789-1945 (New York: Cornell University Press, 2001)

J.G. Shields, The Extreme Right in France from Pétain to Le Pen (London: Routledge, 2007)

La Rafle (Dir: Rose Bosch, 2010)

Selective memory (part 2)

By contrast, I saw a poster in Nation Métro Station the other day advertising an event in memory of the 67th anniversary of the Liberation of Paris, in which the Parisian police, along with the Forces Françaises de l'Intérieur (FFI), engaged in armed skirmishes with the Nazi occupiers shortly before the arrival of General Leclerc's tanks. It is highly likely that many of the Parisian policemen involved in the 'Paris Insurrection' were also involved in the mass round-up of Jews during the Occupation. Yet it is their involvement in the Liberation, perhaps unsurprisingly, given France's long-standing subscription to the Gaullist myth of the Second World War (in which France had never given up the fight, and the Republic had never ceased to exist), which is celebrated each year, and not the memory of the Jews sent to their deaths in the Extermination Camps in the East.

Rafle Memorial

The Memorial to the victims of the Rafle du Vél d'Hiv, 7th Arrondissement. Image ©David Lees

Selective memory (part 1)

In the shadows of the Eiffel Tower, a short walk from the Bir Hakeim Métro station, is a peaceful, long garden leading to a bronze sculpture. Groups of young men–mostly of Sub-Saharan African origin–perch on the handful of benches that line the route to the sculpture, clutching bulky drawstring bags probably containing mini Eiffel Towers. Unlike the iconic Parisian landmark, the small memorial in the garden has very few visitors. The sculpture is of a handful of families, clutching suitcases with a look of uncertainty and misery in their eyes.

On the 16th and 17th July 1942, two days after the 'Day of Reflection on the National Revolution' of 14th July (the day which replaced, during the Occupation, the traditional Republican Festival celebrating the taking of the Bastille in 1789), 13, 152 Jewish men, women and children were rounded up in the notorious Rafle du Vél d'Hiv. Many of the individuals rounded up were new arrivals in France, who had fled the Nazis as the Blitzkrieg spread from one country to another. Some, however, were French Jews who were simply living in the Occupied two-thirds of the country.

I arrived in Paris this summer on the 69th anniversary of the second day of the Rafle, named for the winter velodrome which once stood on the spot of the current memorial in which the rounded-up Jews were held, before being shipped to transit camps in France (like the Drancy estate on today's RER line to Roissy-Charles de Gaulle airport). The newspapers this year dedicated some considerable wordage to the national outrage caused by the suggestions of a Green Party député, Eva Joly, who suggested that the military parade on the Champs-Elysées on the 14th July should be replaced by a so-called 'Citizens' Parade.' (It's worth reading Stephen Clarke's blog on the anger this suggestion caused). There was nothing in the newspapers that I picked up (or indeed online) that hinted at the horrific round-up of 69 years before.

Rafle plaque

The plaque commemorating the spot where the Winter Velodrome once stood , 7th Arrondissement. The last line of the inscription reads: 'Those who pass, remember them.' Image ©David Lees

August 09, 2011

Sur les émeutes: Part 3

Le Monde's startling front-page headline today reads 'L'Angleterre flambe'. The accompanying photograph–an image of firefighters in Croydon–could have been cut and pasted from a shot of the Blitz. The newspaper's coverage of the riots correctly refers to the rioters as 'des jeunes hooligans', and alludes to the central difference between London and Paris: the lack of security afforded by a Boulevard Périphérique separating the trouble in the Banlieue from affluent Parisians. Unlike the inhabitants of the Banlieues, the disaffected and, it would seem, largely bored, young people involved in the London riots are living on the doorstep of Parliament. Perhaps the Coalition could do with taking a leaf from the Parti Socialiste's book: there is an underclass in the UK, and one which needs tackling. Much like the main characters of La Haine: Vince, Hubert and Saïd, there are young people in London literally doing nothing. London might not have the same scale of Banlieues as Paris, but that does not mean that it does not have the same problems.


Nick Hewlett, The Sarkozy Phenomenon (London: Imprint Academic, 2011)

Parti Socialiste, Le Changement: Projet Socialiste 2012 (Paris: Odile Jacob, 2011)

La Haine (Dir: Mathieu Kassovitz, 1995)

Le Monde, 9th August 2011

**All translations from the French are my own**

'L'Angletterre flambe' (Part 2)

Paris above ground in the summer is largely a city of tourists and a handful of professionals that don't up sticks and move to the coast before the Rentrée. The Métro and the RER, by contrast, are a different proposition. The carriages heading to the outskirts give a much better idea of the socio-economic makeup of the Banlieues than the streets of the capital. It seems that the London riots have been spurned on by the same ignored, unemployed section of society that populate the Eastern suburbs. Unlike Versailles, or Sarkozy's political fiefdom of Neuilly, few Parisians, tourists or politicians venture to places like Viliers-le-Bel or Sarcelles. Sarkozy famously threatened to have the rioters in Clichy-sous-Bois swept away with a Karcher power-washer, calling the young people involved 'la racaille'–loosely translated as 'scum'. Suffice to say this did not have a healing affect. It's hard to see how the Banlieues have changed since the 1995 film La Haine, in which three young men of mixed ethnic origin spend their time doing very little and getting into fights.

France still has a hidden 'underclass' in the suburbs, a fact which neither politicians nor the press can really ignore. The Parti Socialiste's programme for the 2012 Presidential Elections, entitled Le Changement ('Change') suggests that France is today facing its 'greatest challenge since the Second World War.' It states that the 'inequalities' which affect the inhabitants of the Banlieues have progressively 'got worse' ('se sont aggravés') over the past ten years. For a mainstream party to acknowledge that there are some seriously disaffected individuals literally and metaphorically on the fringe of society is an unprecedented move. Unlike Sarkozy, the PS is not suggesting flushing these banlieussards away, but trying to address the underpinning reasons for their marginalisation.

London Burning: the French reaction (Part 1)

On the train route north out of Paris–in the direction of the sleepy château town of Chantilly and just out of sight of the omnipresent Basilique du Sacré Coeur–lie two rarely-visited suburbs of the capital. The brand-new train noticeably doesn't stop at either Sarcelles or Viliers-le-Bel on its way to Chantilly. The stations themselves reveal nothing of the nature of the two banlieues: instead, you're left to work out from the countless closely-knit, high-rise buildings what lies beyond the empty platforms. While it's hard to imagine the affluent inhabitants of Chantilly rising up against very much–except perhaps moves to create a rival cream–riots broke out in both Sarcelles and Viliers-le-Bel in 2007 in response to a road accident in which two teenagers of North African origin died whilst being followed by police.

The international reaction to the riots of 2007, and those of 2005 in nearby Clichy-sous-Bois, was very similar to the reaction to the current London riots. Let's face it, suburban violence does not posess the capacity to shock intra muros Parisians in the same way non-participants are affected in London. The riots in both 2005 and 2007 was, not surprisingly, limited to the ghettos that are the banlieues. Baron Haussmann, whose architectural project so changed the face of central Paris, successfully ensured that the working-classes–in a time before the 'underclass' of today–could no longer afford to live within the capital's walls. Some working-class, ethnically-mixed areas do remain, with the likes of Belleville and Ménilmontant in the East end. Even the heartlands of the 1871 Commune, though, are being eroded by the influx of middle-class professionals on the hunt for cheaper accommodation.

August 2011

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