June 04, 2014

D–Day remembered

This Friday, 6th June 2014, marks seventy years since thousands of Allied servicemen landed on the shores of Normandy in the biggest amphibious assault ever conducted. D-Day marked the beginning of the Liberation of occupied Europe, as well as the start of a major period of upheaval in French history. Following the two-month Battle for Normandy, vast swathes of France were liberated in the build-up to the surrender of the German occupiers in Paris in August 1944. De Gaulle's triumphal entry into Paris on the 25th August, in which he claimed that the Republic had never ceased to exist, and effectively labelled the Vichy regime an illegal and illegitimate state, signalled an end to the Occupation years and the foundation of the 'Gaullist myth' of resistance. In his speech from the Hôtel de Ville, de Gaulle claimed that France had liberated 'herself.' He made no mention of the Allied soldiers who had fought for France's liberation.

De Gaulle's claim in August 1944, and the myth he inspired, has been widely discredited. Yet it appears that the selective French memory has returned to plague the commemorations of D-Day in June 2014. Where the landings on the morning of the 6th June 1944 were a joint venture between the British, Canadian and American forces, with some involvement from the Free French and soldiers and sailors from the Netherlands, Poland and the current Czech Republic, of all the major events this year, it is only the service of remembrance at Coleville-sur-Mer, the site of the Omaha Beach cemetery, which will be attended by President Hollande. The British service, at the peaceful Commonwealth War Graves site in Bayeux, and the Canadian service, at the beautfiul coastal village of Courseulles-sur-Mer, will be attended instead by prime minister Manuel Valls. Hollande will, though, attend the joint ceremony at Ouistreham. Hollande's attendance seems to be politically loaded: if he apparently has sufficient time to attend the later Polish event at Urville-Langannerie, then surely he also has the time to attend the British and Canadian events, if only briefly. While his absence from these two significant commemorations might also be explained by the complex timings of the day, it is not particularly clear why the events could not have been coordinated to ensure Hollande was present at all of the major commemorations. Given Hollande's recent rapprochement with the President Obama, especially over the Syrian crisis, it is perhaps a shrewd political move to give priority to the American event. The scale of the Nazi resistance at Colleville, Omaha Beach, can be witnessed by the sheer number of pristinely-kept graves in the American cemetery, and the bravery of the American troops should not be ignored. Nevertheless, the Canadians also faced significant resistance at Courseulles (Juno Beach), as did the British at Arromanches (Gold Beach). For Hollande to attend the American event above either the British or Canadian services does appear to be ranking the efforts of the American military on the 6th June above those of either the British or Canadians; an offence which could easily have been avoided.

Coleville cemetery 

The American cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer, site of the Omaha Beach landings, and the only individual Allied ceremony at which President Hollande will be present in June 2014 (Photo David Lees)

 Bayeux cemetery 

The tranquil Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery at Bayeux, where prime minister Manuel Valls will preside over the commemorative service (Photo: David Lees)


The village of Courseulles-sur-Mer, site of Juno Beach, and the Canadian ceremony in June 2014, at which Manuel Valls will also preside (Photo: David Lees)

Beyond Hollande's potential political manoeuvering, though, it is of course important to remember the events of the 6th June 1944 for the sheer scale of the planning and bravery of the Allied forces. Over several visits to the Normandy landing beaches, I have been consistently struck by the peacefulness of the small towns and villages that bore the brunt of the fighting that day. At Courseulles, for example, what was Juno beach in the summer months plays host to families playing volleyball and swimming in the sea. Arromanches is a bustling seaside resort packed with shops catering to every possible D-Day souvenir. Colleville is a quiet village, whose cliffs are dominated by the sweeping American cemetery. The vast number of graves at each main location, from Colleville to the commune of Graye-sur-Mer, the site of a British-Canadian cemetery, testifies to the violence that took once took place at these now peaceful locations, and to the sacrifice of the men, and some women, who paid the ultimate price in liberating France

My paternal grandfather, Dr HW Lees, spent the day of 6th June on the bridge of a warship in the Channel, observing proceedings, before eventually landing on Norman soil on D-Day plus ten. Despite taking part in every subsequent battle until the surrender of Nazi Germany on the 8th May 1945, and having operated on hundreds of men, taken the surrender of a German U-Boat and escaped from no fewer than two burning armoured personnel vehicles, he must nevertheless have considered himself to be lucky not to have taken part in the initial assault, which claimed the lives of so many. Later obliged to sit in judgement on panels which considered alleged cases of collaboration during the 'épuration' following the Liberation, he also witnessed firsthand the violent end to the Vichy regime and the bloody transition to democratic rule. Having been stationed in France before the Defeat, the attitudes of the French people were notably different. Where in June 1940 he noted that they had offered no help to the retreating British forces, in June and July 1940 they welcomed the liberators with open arms; unwittingly Captain Lees was documenting what Pierre Laborie has termed 'l'attentisme,' in which the majority of the French effectively spent the Occupation and Vichy rule waiting for the end to come. Many people across Britain, Canada and the USA have similar stories to tell: to rank the efforts of any one nation or army above another in the commemorations of D-Day is, then, to ultimately ignore, as de Gaulle, the efforts of the collective Allied forces in liberating France, and indeed the rest of occupied Europe.

January 15, 2014

2014 in France: Year of Commemoration, Celebration..and Consolidation?

History shapes modern French society in a way that affects few other nations. While Britain’s political system is well-established and memories of the last true civil war fought on British soil far from the stuff of everyday discussion, France is a very different case. The present Fifth Republic stretches back only as far as 1958; since the Revolution of 1789, there have been no fewer than ten separate political regimes in France. This year, 2014, is special even by French historical standards, marking the anniversaries of several events that have shaped France into the nation it is today. Some anniversaries, like those of the centenary of the outbreak of World War I and the seventieth anniversary of D-Day, will be marked by solemn commemorations; others might be more joyful occasions, with the festivities following the Liberation of Paris more likely to be celebrated happily than the bloodshed of the Battle of Normandy. The twentieth anniversary of the opening of the Channel Tunnel must surely also mark a cause for celebration of Franco-British engineering triumph.

There may also be some events that France collectively would rather forget: the sixtieth anniversary of the series of attacks on French civilians in Algeria, known as ‘Le Toussaint rouge,’ which heralded the start of the Algerian War, may well be commemorated, but with less pomp and circumstance than the events connected to the two world wars. The existence of a ‘war’ in Algeria was only admitted in the French National Assembly in 1999, and French involvement in torture and in mass executions of Algerian activists have only ever been implicitly acknowledged and only then in 2012 by the newly-elected François Hollande. For the Algerian people and perhaps even for Algerian immigrants in France, the event is both the subject of celebration, marking the start of the fight for independence, and for commemoration of the millions of Algerians killed on either side of the fighting. No apology has ever been issued by the French government for its systematic use of torture and for its treatment of Algerians from both sides: not only the members of the FLN and its supporters in France, but also the pro-French Harkis, many of whom were left behind to be slaughtered at Independence in 1962.

French commemorations of the event will surely be marked by the continued marginalisation of Algerian immigrants in French society. Many young French men and women of Algerian origin are still obliged to live in low-income housing in the banlieues, often in precarious economic situations, without much opportunity for jobs or to gain more skills. The mass dissatisfaction with Hollande’s government and the lack of meaningful opportunities amongst young men and women of North African origin has most recently manifested itself in the ‘performance’ of the quenelle gesture, pioneered by the controversial comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’bala, ostensibly an inverted Nazi salute. The gesture, with its anti-Semitic connotations, demonstrates the continued fractious nature of French society, while the support for Dieudonné from dissatisfied immigrants across France only emphasises France’s failure to integrate immigrants into French society, despite its long history of immigration, especially from Algeria. The quenelle furore has recently lost out in news coverage to Hollande’s alleged affair with the actress Julie Gayet, but the anger expressed by young French people with ties to North Africa will only intensify as France marks the sixtieth anniversary of la guerre sans nom, the war without name, and thus the collective commemoration of France’s fierce opposition to Algerian independence.

In all of these commemorations, though, the Republic will be all-important. A political system both revered and reviled in equal measure over the past two centuries, the Republic, and its tradition of liberty, is playing an important role both in the quenelle debate and in the so-called ‘Affaire Closer.’ Hollande has defended his right to a private life and supported the restrictions on the freedom of the French press to report such allegations, while Dieudonné has excused the quenelle as a challenge to the limits on freedom of expression in France. The three significant military events commemorated in 2014 each marked different stages in the history of the Republic:

At the outbreak of World War I in 1914, political, intellectual and public support for the Third Republic was cemented around the need to defend it against the perceived enemy of Germany. After years of uncertainty and violent beginnings with the bloody crushing of the Paris Commune in 1871, and the vitriolic division of French society between Dreyfusards and anti-Dreyfusards in the 1890s, the Republic had prevailed. Where in the 1890s counter-revolutionary and hard-right anti-Semities like Maurice Barrès, Paul Déroulède and Éduoard Drumont were household names in the 1890s, by the time of World War I, their influence had waned, replaced by a broad consensus around the Republic as political regime.

In 1944, at the Liberation of France following the Allied landings of D-Day, support for the Republic was also high. The difference, though, was that the Liberation followed four years of Nazi Occupation and Vichy rule, in which the Republic had effectively been demolished to be replaced by Pétain’s État français, or French State. The Vichy regime was widely unpopular by the time of the Liberation, yet four years earlier support for the reform of the Republic was high. The 1930s, with increased economic uncertainty, a high turnover of governments and the presence of organised, populist right-wing groups, or ligues, placed a significant strain on the institutions of the Republic. Political figures from left and right, from Léon Blum to Charles Maurras, demanded reform to the Republic. Vichy’s initial dissolution of the Republic thus met with little formal opposition. While this can be put down to the feeling of relief amongst most French people at the end of the fighting, it also reflected a long-held consensus in favour of reform. By the end of the Occupation, the French greeted the return of the previously obscure de Gaulle as their saviour, and welcomed the return of the Republic. De Gaulle in fact refused to reinstate the Republic, arguing that it had continued to exist in his presence, and thus founding the Gaullist myth that continued to dominate the French history of the Occupation until 1969.

Finally, the outbreak of the Algerian War marked a further consolidation of the ideals of the Republic around the importance of the French ‘civilising mission’ and defence of French interests abroad, if not support for the actual institutions of the then-Fourth Republic. When full powers were vested in the government’s representative in Algeria, Robert Soustelle, in 1956, they were agreed with a near-majority of the National Assembly, including the Communist Party, emphasising the widespread support for the defence of the Republic’s interests. Yet the Algerian War also marked an important turning point in the history of the Republic, prompting the creation of the Fifth Republic under de Gaulle, with its strong, patriarchal and even aloof executive in the form of the President.

Like the events themselves, the Republic looms large in French life today. While 2014 will be a year for commemoration and celebration for a whole series of events in France, it will also be a year in which these events, and other more contemporary incidents, like the ‘Affaire Closer’ and the quenelle controversy, both challenge and consolidate the Republic, its values and its traditions.

April 18, 2013

What is the value of the Year Abroad? Part 1

The Year Abroad. A term that conjures up a whole range of emotions for language students, and indeed for students from other disciplines whose course allows for a spell away from their home country. For some students about to depart on a period abroad, the whole concept of leaving the familiar environments and networks of home and university can seem daunting and for some perhaps even terrifying. For others, the opportunity to leave familiarity behind and explore a whole new country is an experience they eagerly await. For those students or graduates who have completed the process, or who are coming to the end of their time abroad, the memory of a year abroad can be equally divisive. While the vast majority look back on their experiences with nostalgic fondness, others might be just as willing to forget the entire episode.

As the current crop of third-year language undergraduates approach the end of their sojourn abroad, the question of the ‘value’ of the Year Abroad is as pertinent as ever. For the past two years, I have co-developed, designed and co-managed a Year Abroad Virtual Learning Environment for students of French (and various combinations) along with delivering a pre-departure talk for outgoing British Council Language Assistants. In both roles, I have seen the ‘value’ of the Year Abroad put under very close scrutiny.

Every year when I deliver the assistantship talk, I see the effect that my preparatory advice has on students, as they slowly realise the step that they are about to take. The fact that, in six months’ time, they will be delivering lessons to a group of students in a foreign country can induce a whole swathe of responses, from outright fear to an immediate sense of responsibility. Some question why they have to go to teach a bunch of recalcitrant teenagers in France or Germany or Austria or even Martinique. The story that I tend to wheel out at each of these talks, about my thirteen year-old arch-nemesis, Kévin, at one of the schools I taught at back on my own year abroad, probably doesn’t help. Yet no amount of reassurance from a tutor or from a previous ‘year abroader’ (I ask one or two previous assistants to come to talk to the outgoing students) can quite ease the burning question for some students: just why is the Year Abroad necessary?

Fast-forward an academic year and the same students will be transformed. They might not realise it, and indeed some simply do not, but the Year Abroad is an influential process in developing students academically and personally. In my capacity as a coordinator of the French Year Abroad pages, I have watched with a mixture of interest and pride as previously timid students have recorded on the VLE’s forum that they are now perfectly happy managing a class of 30 students, or that they are not phased at being asked to teach vocation-specific and technical vocabulary in English. Other students have noted an increased awareness of their own self, comprising both their limitations and their skills and abilities, while others have recorded a developed sense of cultural awareness through experiencing the niceties of daily life in France—how to greet a new colleague or friend, with whom to use the informal ‘tu’ form and how to deal with the casually misogynistic approach of French men have all occurred in student reflections.

What is the value of the Year Abroad? Part 2

Much of the current research into the Year Abroad, however, focuses above all on the linguistic. At a conference last week, organised by the national subject centre for Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies (LLAS) around the theme of ‘Residence Abroad, Social Networks and Second Language Learning’, much evidence was presented on the link between linguistic proficiency and time spent abroad. Indeed, the development of ‘hard’ language skills is something which students might reasonably expect to gain from their Year Abroad. Forum posts from our VLE testify, for the most part, to a sense of increased confidence in the target language, in line with the linguistic ‘CAF’ (‘Complexity, Accuracy, Fluency’) variables in language performance. This acronym is, in fact, somewhat ironic in the context of the Year Abroad in France or a French-speaking country, since it also represents Les Caisses d’allocations familiales, the state housing benefit provider and one of the foremost examples of French bureaucracy. Many current students have testified to spending hours speaking to representatives of the CAF or responding to urgent letters, thus developing their language proficiency.

To focus solely on the linguistic when researching study or work abroad is, though, to overlook the more personal, less quantifiable developments which take place during this experience. The value of the Year Abroad should be calculated as much in terms of skills development as in linguistic proficiency. As the current third-year students have noted, they have developed a whole range of abilities and competencies which go beyond those of the French language. They have also developed an acute sense of community, forging greater links not just in their host communities but with their peers through virtual social networks and social media. This interpersonal networking and exchange is, like the increased sense of mutual support for academic and for real-life issues, such as dealing with bureaucracy and students with behavioural difficulties, regularly recorded on our Year Abroad VLE. Learning to work in such a real-life team/network is a capacity which arguably outstrips hard linguistic skills in preparing students for their future lives, both professional and personal.

What is the value of the Year Abroad? Clearly it is multi-faceted. Professor Jim Coleman, Chair of the University Council of Modern Languages and a pioneer in the examination of the socio-cultural aspects to the Year Abroad, issued something of a rallying cry in the plenary discussion at the ‘Residence Abroad’ conference. Professor Coleman’s contribution argued that much more research is needed which examines Year Abroaders as more than just language learners and which makes the case for the value of the Year Abroad as a process which creates citizens who are flexible and adaptable individuals. Perhaps we might even expand this to take account of an adaptable community of Year Abroaders.

The transformation from the uncertain, apprehensive pre-departure Year Abroader to the confident, culturally-aware final-year undergraduate requires much closer academic attention. To speak personally, I consider my own life to have been transformed by the Year Abroad in much more than a narrow linguistic or academic sense. Not only did I develop greater inter-personal skills and increased my own self-confidence, along with a nascent interest in teaching, but as a fresh-faced, spiky-haired assistant, I met my long-term partner at a training day for assistants in a lycée classroom in Tours. I also retain as a constant reminder of my first teaching experiences, in which I learnt how to manage a class and to plan lessons, a carefully-crafted, if somewhat obscure, papier-mâché cow from one of my French students. Clearly, then, the value of the Year Abroad is more than linguistic; it can change the life of individuals forever.


Jim Coleman, ‘Researching whole people and whole lives,’ in Celeste Kinginger (Ed.), Social and Cultural Aspects of Language Learning in Study Abroad (Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company, forthcoming)

Jim Coleman, ‘Residence abroad.’ Effective learning & teaching in modern languages (2005): 126-132.

November 26, 2012

‘Play the Marseillaise’: the Republic and resistance in Casablanca

Seventy years ago today, Michael Curtiz released arguably the finest feature film of World War II. One of the defining features of Casablanca is its multiplicity of layers, weaving a series of propagandist messages around what is essentially a tale of a warped romance between Rick and Ilsa. The seedy and corrupt depiction of the North African port in the film is in steep contrast to the official cinematographic propaganda of the Vichy regime, which tended to portray the Empire as a whole as a place of honest hard work and earnest contribution to the motherland. Short documentaries and the official newsreel, France-Actualités Pathé-Gaumont were remarkably consistent in their treatment of the city–in one 1941 news item, local labourers are even shown constructing new quays for use by French ships, emphasising Vichy’s imperial might.

In Casablanca, though, Rick’s café functions as a hang-out for petty criminals, career opportunists and fugitive refugees. There is nothing hard-working or constructive about the city in the Hollywood film, which in itself undermines the carefully crafted image of Vichy’s newsreels. The spectre of resistance also looms large, not least through the presence of Victor Laszlow. The assassination of two German officers heralded at the start of the film provides a precedent for Rick’s later shooting of Major Strasser. Again, Vichy’s control over the city is challenged in the film, with the self-serving Captain Renault willing to turn a blind eye to the practise of gambling at Rick’s. Crucially, the French also appear to be subservient to Strasser and his men; Renault closes the bar down only on the instructions of Strasser.

The film does much to create an image of Pétain’s French State (‘État français’) lacking in autonomy in North Africa, quite the contrary to the message disseminated to the French–and indeed the North African–population. Vichy’s filmed propaganda was shown compulsorily in cinemas in both the Vichy (‘Unoccupied’) Zone and North Africa from mid-1941, obliging the audience to watch the newsreels and documentaries before they were able to enjoy the feature film. For many audience members in North Africa—especially the majority Muslim population amongst whom illiteracy rates were high (around 90%)–the moving images of the cinema were more powerful than the written word of the newspaper or a magazine. It was, therefore, all the more important for Vichy to impress upon North African audiences the regime’s economic and political autonomy in its cinematographic material. Yet the final scene of Casablanca, in which Renault instructs his subordinates to ‘round up the usual suspects’ rather than arrest Rick, after which a bottle of Vichy water is thrown into the waste bin, compounds the film’s message that the regime’s grip over its overseas territories is entirely fictitious.

The French Republican tradition is also harnessed in the film to undermine the perception of Vichy–and German–control in the Maghreb. In one memorable scene at the bar, while Rick (Humphrey Bogart) and Laszlow (Paul Henreid) discuss whether or not Rick possesses two exit visas which were stolen from the murdered German officers, a group of Germans, led by Strasser, are pictured in the main bar performing a rendition of Die Wacht am Rhein. Laszlow is evidently infuriated by this–deliberately–obvious German cultural invasion of Rick’s apparently neutral café, in Vichy-controlled Morocco, and demands the house band to ‘play the Marseillaise.’ That the Germans are shown to be drowning out all other conversation in the bar is, of course, significant–they thus appear to be in overall control in the city, once again debunking Vichy’s claims of autonomy and powerful international status.

The choice of the Marseillaise is also not without reason. Banned by the Nazis in the Occupied Zone of France (along with the tricolore), the Marseillaise was nonetheless permitted by Vichy. With its revolutionary heritage–dating back to the Battle of Valmy in 1792, in which the French revolutionary army under the Convention headed off the Prussians–the Marseillaise instantly conjures up images of revolution and resistance. It was also harnessed during the war by de Gaulle and the Free French, played on the radio programmes destined for clandestine French listeners of the BBC. While the Vichy authorities created their own quasi-anthem in Charles Courtioux and André Montagard’s ‘Maréchal, nous voilà!’ and even went so far as to re-write the lyrics of the national anthem, de Gaulle maintained the Marseillaise as the only anthem for France. The rendition of the song in Casablanca acts as a unifying symbol between all of the guests gathered at Rick’s, with the exception of the typical résistant of the 11th hour, Renault, the Germans and Rick. Not only does the Marseillaise provide an outlet in which the customers can voice their resistance to the gathered Germans, but it also undermines any of Vichy’s attempts to appropriate the symbol for its own purposes. Rather, by placing the anthem firmly in a revolutionary-resistance setting, Casablanca encourages audiences to side with the Free French, and to a lesser extent de Gaulle, who, crucially, is not mentioned in the film. At a time when Roosevelt was doubtful of the likely contribution to the Allied war effort, the film appears to give Curtiz’s backing to any resistance against the Nazis and their allies–notably Pétain’s regime. Rick’s curt nod of the head permitting the band to play the Marseillaise perhaps echoes Curtiz’s own views on European resistance.

The history of the Marseillaise during the Occupation is far from clear-cut. Nevertheless, its presence in a Hollywood movie from November 1942–shortly after the Allied invasion of North Africa in ‘Operation Torch’–serves to counter Vichy’s repeated claims of political autonomy in its own cinematographic propaganda. The Marseillaise scene is also one of the most moving of the entire film, and seventy years on has lost none of its capacity to stir the emotions of the viewer.


Michael Curtiz, Casablanca (1942)

Pathé-Gaumont archives

Centre National de la Cinématographie

Brett Bowles, ‘Newsreels, Ideology and Public Opinion under Vichy: The Case of La France en Marche’, French Historical Studies, 27.2 (2004)

Jean-Pierre Bertin-Maghit, Les documenteurs des années noires (Paris: Nouveau Monde Éditions, 2004)

October 28, 2012

Reflections on open–space teaching and learning part 1

Last week, I led two seminars on the second-year French module France and the World since 1945 in the University’s purpose-built open-space teaching and learning space, the ‘Teaching Grid.’ The Grid’s Experimental Teaching Space (ETS) is an open space with flexible furniture and Interactive White Boards which can be moved around to suit the needs of the teacher and the class.

I had intended to employ the ETS since I began teaching at university level in 2010, when I first began my PhD at Warwick. Tuesday’s session was thus the culmination of a long-held ambition and an important learning experience in the implementation of open-space teaching and learning techniques. The session was largely an evolution of a similar seminar which I ran on the same module last academic year. In the previous seminar, I had allocated small groups of students particular interest groups from the Algerian War of Independence (1954-62), which included General de Gaulle, who returned to power in 1958, the Harkis, Algerian soldiers who fought to defend French Algeria and the Front de Libération National (FLN), the principal Algerian nationalist movements. Employing the ‘student-as-researcher’ model, the small groups were responsible for researching their given interest group, with the main research aim to understand the motivations behind the actions of each interest group. In the original session, this research fed into a debate about the Algerian War, with each group taking the side of the interest group and arguing their case.

While the research process encouraged the students to take ownership of a particular interest group and ensured that they were equipped with a thorough knowledge of this group’s actions ahead of the formative and summative assessment for the module, there were limitations in the debate format, not least that with students arguing strongly for their own interest group’s case the debate became reasonably competitive. Although students consequently knew a lot about their own subject, the emphasis in the debate was not really on sharing the research of every group, which would have provided all students with a rounded picture of the different perspectives on the war. The subject matter is also especially sensitive, since the repercussions of the war are still being acted out today in France, not least with President François Hollande’s announcement that the state officially recognised the massacre of hundreds of Algerian protestors on the night of the 17th October 1961. I therefore felt that the format of a debate was perhaps inappropriate for such a polemical subject, and that an alternative teaching model might be more appropriate.

I already employ a lot of film in teaching on this module and on other historical-political models, notably The Left and the Trade Unions in France and the first-year introductory module Modern and Contemporary France. I find that film offers an accessible method of comprehending a subject, especially a historical topic from which we as British citizens are removed. In the introductory session on France and the World, for example, I show a clip of the 2008 film Indigènes, which introduces students to the involvement of colonial troops in fighting for ‘Free France’ before and after the Liberation in August 1944. Having researched films on the Algerian War during a research visit to Paris in August of this year, I decided to combine film with the ‘student-as-researcher’ model in an open-space environment.

Having discussed my plan for the session at length with the Teaching Grid advisors (both Anne and Andree were especially helpful), I decided to divide the space up into three separate ‘zones’ for three different interest groups from the Algerian War. The basis for the session was the same as that of the previous year—the whole group (i.e. both entire seminar groups) was divided into three, with each sub-group allocated an interest group to research, following the ‘student-as-researcher’ model. Rather than preparing for a debate, however, I asked students to prepare material which would feed into a small group presentation to the rest of the group, employing the ‘student-as-teacher’/ ‘student-as-producer’ model.

Each of the separate zones in the ETS was provided with film clips which acted as audio-visual stimuli for group discussion and to prepare the group presentation. Having read an excellent article by a colleague in my research field, Dr Brett Bowles of Indiana State University, on using film to teach the history of the Occupation years (1940-44), I was conscious of the need to provide context on the films before students embarked on their discussion and presentations. In his article, Bowles notes that: ‘whenever a film is included in the syllabus, it should be preceded by supporting written texts […] that contextualise the film’s action and stress that it is a selective representation of history, not history itself.’[1]

I therefore provided each group with a short context for their stimuli, with some guiding questions for discussion to feed into their group presentations. The de Gaulle group was provided with two extracts of the General’s speeches through the Institut National de l’Audiovisuel’s website, the Harkis group with the 2006 fiction film of the same name and the FLN group with Benjamin Stora and Gabriel Le Bomin’s 2012 documentary, La guerre d’Algérie: la déchirure. Each zone of the space was provided with an iPad for research purposes and for the ‘starter’ activity, which involved the group analysis of a 1959 propaganda poster from the Algerian War, and an Interactive White Board (IWB) for the purposes of screening the stimuli and for creating the group presentation. I had pre-loaded the Smart Notebook programme onto each IWB, which enabled students to map their ideas for the group presentation. The zones were divided up with movable curtain walls, which allowed some privacy and ensured that each group was not distracted by others’ films.

[1] (‘Screening les années noires: Using Film to Teach the Occupation,’ French Historical Studies, Vol. 25, Issue 1, Winter 2002, p.30

Reflections on open–space teaching and learning part 2

The small zones worked well for the purposes of screening the stimuli and for preparing the presentations; each group had its own dedicated work space (a single table and a number of movable chairs were also provided for each group) over which it took ownership. The space allowed me to move around between groups and to provide technical assistance with the IWBs and the iPads and to offer some additional questioning where appropriate to prompt further discussion. Students were allocated just 20 minutes to watch their film clips and prepare their presentations– a tight timeframe owing to the back-to-back seminars, which on reflection was too restrictive to allow really thorough discussion. Nevertheless, the open space offered students the opportunity to discuss their interest group in an environment beyond the traditional seminar room—they were very much freed from the confines of their desks. Theorists of open-space teaching and learning, such as the team at Warwick’s Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning, note that open-space learning is transitional–while it takes place between clearly defined spaces (in this case in each ‘zone’), it is nevertheless constantly forming and re-forming.[1] Certainly the group discussion zones allowed students to continually form and re-form their attitudes towards their interest group, with no pressure to conform to a ‘right’ answer imposed by the presence of a teacher. With no physical space for me as a teacher, I moved between the spaces ‘owned’ by the small groups, which I felt successfully broke down any teacher-student barrier.

Although the timeframe was very tight, students appeared to enjoy the opportunity to watch the visual stimuli and to discuss the topic together in their zones. It was also apparent that they took ownership over their given interest group. The movable chairs in the ETS allowed groups to move between one zone and another, with each group presenting their interest group in their zone, using Smart Notebook. It was clear from the enthusiasm with which students presented their interest group and noted important points from the other presentations, that the open-space and use of film as stimuli had proved an exciting combination. Through employing the ‘student-as-producer’/ ‘student-as-teacher’ model, my hope is that students will retain a thorough knowledge of their own interest group and indeed, thanks to the group presentations, the other important interest groups, which will be of use ahead of formative and summative assessment on the module. The flexible space and the technology available also allowed students to develop their transferrable skills, notably team working and communication skills, in an environment without the traditional pressures of a typical seminar room full of classroom tables and chairs.

I certainly found that the open-space environment broke down student-teacher barriers, enabling me to circulate freely between the spaces occupied by the small groups. If I was to employ the same seminar again, I would consider extending the time limit on group discussion and viewing of the stimuli and aim to develop my understanding of the capabilities of IWBs beyond data projection and Smart Notebook. I have since uploaded screen shots of the group presentations to the module blog, which will provide students with some concrete points for the purposes of revision, allowing them to retain more key information. The combination of teaching models–open-space learning, student-as-researcher and student-as-teacher appeared to work well with an especially controversial and difficult subject matter, bringing students closer to an event—the Algerian War—from which the majority of the module’s students are far removed.

[1] Nicholas Monk, Carol Chillington-Rutter, Jonathan Neelands and Jonathan Heron, Open-Space Learning: A Study in Transdisciplinary Pedagogy (London: Bloomsbury, 2011)

September 18, 2012

Lieux de mémoire or lieux d’habitation? Drancy and the ever–present past

In a collaborative work on France during the Second World War, the historian Henry Rousso noted of the Occupation period that it was ‘an ever-present past’– ‘un passé qui ne passe pas.’ The four years of Vichy government and German Occupation remain a preoccupation of French historians and indeed of the wider French public, and not without good reason. It was as late as 1995 when Jacques Chirac, the then-President, apologised for the role played by the État français–French State–in the deportation of 76,000 Jews to Nazi Death Camps. That Chirac chose the former location of the Vélodrome d’Hiver as the backdrop for his speech (an area heavily frequented by tourists on their way to the Eiffel Tower, as I recorded in a blog last year), and indeed did so on the first day of the infamous Rafle du Vel d’hiv, the 16th July, signalled an explicit break with the Gaullist vision of French history.

Where de Gaulle, in Rousso’s terms, created a period of ‘deuil inachévé’ (loosely translated as ‘suspended mourning’) through his narrative of the war, which emphasised the role of the Resistance and minimised the autonomy of the Vichy regime, Chirac’s admission of state complicity in the Holocaust marked a pivotal moment in the historiography of the ‘Dark Years.’ Although Chirac created a dichotomy in his speech between ‘Vichy’ on the one hand and ‘France’ on the other–suggesting, like de Gaulle, that Vichy was distinct from the French nation– his desire to publicly acknowledge that the French authorities were the driving force behind anti-Semitic legislation during the war increased French interest in the Shoah. The excellent Mémorial de la Shoah in the Marais quartier of Paris (from which thousands of Jews were deported during the rafles from 1942 onwards), was refurbished in 2005, and numerous films depicting the Holocaust in France have continued to drive up public awareness of anti-Semitism under Vichy. The big-budget productions La Rafle and Elle s’appelait Sarah (Sarah’s Key), both released in 2010, focussed heavily on French involvement in the Rafle du Vel d’hiv. Both films received both critical and popular acclaim, providing further proof that interest in the Vichy years is still notably high.

Newly-elected President Hollande went even further than Chirac in his speech of 22nd July 2012, in which he acknowledged that the Vel d’hiv round-up was ‘a crime committed in France by France.’ Hollande also emphasised that the French should remember the victims of French actions during the Holocaust. Through placing a greater emphasis on the role of France, as opposed to ‘Vichy’, in the implementation of the Final Solution, Hollande re-affirmed that the Shoah was integral to modern French history.

That the memory of Vichy’s anti-Semitism is still very much alive in the public consciousness today is, therefore, very well documented. The public and academic interest in the Occupation years has, though, spurned controversy in the case of the one-time transit camp at Drancy, in the northern suburbs of Paris. The Cité de la Muette at Drancy was originally built as social housing under the Third Republic, and since the Occupation has reverted back to its original use. During the war, though, the housing complex was used to accommodate Jewish men, women and children before their deportations to the Nazi Death Camps. Drancy, like other holding camps in the Loiret (Orléans) region, was managed directly by the French police. Conditions at the camp were notoriously poor, with little sanitation; suicides were common. During the Rafle du Vel d’hiv, the camp housed single men and women or childless couples, who were taken directly to Drancy and thence to Death Camps. Drancy also later housed some of the men and women who had been incarcerated in the Vélodrome d’hiver.

Lieux de mémoire or lieux d’habitation? Drancy and the ever–present past

Despite considerable cultural and academic attention to the importance of the Vel d’hiv as a place of national memory (a lieu de mémoire in Pierre Nora’s terms), Drancy features far less in cinematographic representations of the Vichy period. There is no reference to Drancy in either La Rafle or indeed in Sarah’s Key. By contrast, the camp does feature in the much earlier Sebastian Faulks novel Charlotte Gray, in which the father of a local résistant is incarcerated in Drancy, where he later dies. Such is the dominance of the Vel d’hiv in fictional recreations of the Shoah that Drancy appears to have been somewhat neglected, despite the fact that the social housing complex still exists, where the Vel d’hiv does not.

An exhibition this summer at the Mémorial de la Shoah did, however, focus closely on the role of Drancy as a lieu de mémoire. The temporary exhibition, in the museum’s solemn crypt (which, incidentally, does feature in Sarah’s Key), recorded some of the handwritten notes carved into the walls of the building by the Jewish detainees, many of which were moving, recording personal reflections on the plight of particular deportees.

The same museum made headlines this week in the build-up to the official opening of its new permanent exhibition in Drancy by President Hollande on Friday. While the mayor of Drancy has welcomed the new museum, which will complement the existing memorial in the cité–a replica of a single cattle truck of the sort employed to deport Jews from Drancy to the Death Camps, installed on the site in 1988, before Chirac’s pivotal speech–other public figures are less convinced. The cité still provides social housing for over 500 people, and the prominent historian of the French involvement in the Shoah, Serge Klarsfeld, was apparently originally opposed to the planned museum for fear of disrupting the lives of local residents. The cattle wagon has previously been vandalised and there are also, according to Le Monde, fears of further anti-Semitic protests. Drancy’s location in one of the most economically deprived French départements–the 93rd (Seine-Saint Denis)–may also prove problematic for the museum, since it is far from the typical Parisian tourist trail.

Drancy’s location and the extensive number of residents still living on the site may well pose problems for the directors of the museum. The cost of the mémorial, at 15 million euros, financed entirely through money which once belonged to the Jewish deportees but which was seized by the Nazis during the rafles, is not inconsiderable at a time of economic crisis. Yet the importance of Drancy during the Occupation cannot be understated; nearly all of the 76,000 Jewish men, women and children deported by Vichy passed through Drancy at some stage (the cité interned some 67,000 during its three years of service as a transit camp). The camp also represents a physical link to the Occupation years–one of the very few remaining. Just as Oradour-sur-Glâne, site of the most notorious massacre of civilians by the Nazis in France during the war, has remained a permanent reminder of the horrors of the Occupation, Drancy acts in much the same way, a physical place of memory. The emphasis in the new mémorial on educating local schools of the importance of the Shoah in France should help to build links between the inhabitants of the cité today and those of the Dark Years. With the same open approach that has proved so successful in the Marais, the Mémorial de la Shoah may help to break down modern-day anti-Semitism in the banlieue and beyond.


Eric Conan and Henry Rousso, Vichy: an ever-present past (Hanover: University Press of New England, 1998)

On the role of Drancy during the Rafle du Vel d’Hiv, see Claude Lévy and Paul Tillard, La Grande Rafle du Vel d’Hiv (Paris: Éditions Robert Laffont, 1992)

Films: La Rafle (Dir: Rosemary Bosch, 2010)

Sarah’s Key (Dir: Gilles Pacquet-Brenner, 2010)

I contributed a comment piece to the University's Knowledge Centre on the 70th anniversary of the Rafle du Vel d'hiv which can be found here. I also recorded a podcast on the same subject for the BBC History Magazine which can be consulted at this link.

April 23, 2012

The French Presidential Elections 2012: On the extremes. Part 1

On the extremes: Le Pen holds all the cards after disappointing night for Mélenchon and the extreme left

The big winner in last night’s first round of the French presidential elections was undoubtedly Marine Le Pen, leader of the extreme right Front National (FN). With the biggest proportion of the vote the FN has ever recorded in a national election (with around 18% of French voters backing the daughter of the founder of the FN, Jean-Marie Le Pen), there was reportedly much celebration at the Salle Equinox in Paris last night, where activists danced to 1980s pop classics. The level of support for Le Pen is staggering, demonstrating a deep disillusionment on the part of working-class voters with the established candidates of François Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy. One estimate today (23rd April) suggests that Le Pen beat the other candidates in the share of working-class votes, with up to 33% backing the FN leader, compared with 32% for Sarkozy.

With Sarkozy behind Hollande in most opinion polls ahead of the second round run-off on the 6th May, the outgoing President must now look to Le Pen’s supporters from the first round if he is to have any chance of a second term in office. Sarkozy appealed directly to Le Pen voters in a speech this lunchtime, saying that he understood their concerns. His speech last night also had nationalist overtones, emphasising the importance of France to the French.

It seems likely that up to 60% of Le Pen supporters will ultimately vote for Sarkozy (according to IPSOS), who may well re-adopt his tactics from the 2007 elections, in which he appealed to the working-classes through a hard stance on immigration and law and order. While Le Pen and her aides have refused to endorse either Hollande or Sarkozy, the FN knows that it is in a position to alter the course of the second round. An official endorsement could see Sarkozy erode Hollande’s lead, but even without the backing of Marine Le Pen, the present incumbent of the Élysée could attract more voters from the extreme right than Hollande can win from the extreme left. It will now be vital for Sarkozy and his team to adopt as many of Le Pen’s policies as possible, pushing issues like the Eurozone crisis to one side in favour of tackling immigration and unemployment in France’s poorest areas.

Le Pen’s success is, though, more than just a vote against either of the two mainstream candidates. Her campaign has been driven by an appeal to ordinary, working French people. While her manifesto was very similar to those of her father–calling for a tighter cap on immigration and a renegotiation of France’s commitments to the Schengen treaty and the European Court of Human Rights–Le Pen has engaged actively with social media, attracting only slightly less voters in the 18-24 bracket (23%) than Sarkozy (25%) and Hollande (24%). Her Facebook page (‘Marine Le Pen: la page officielle’), for instance, has some 60,569 ‘likes’, many of which are quite visibly young supporters. She has also been uncompromising in her stance over perceived anti-assimilationist religious practices since the Kosher/Halal meat affair earlier this year, and has retained her hard line on immigration after the Montauban shootings, where Sarkozy softened his rhetoric. It is clear after last night’s results that it is Marine Le Pen, not Sarkozy, who has won the battle for the floating working-class vote, especially amongst young people. If Sarkozy is to win over this section of the electorate, he must engage himself in social media–a forum in which he appears uncomfortable.

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