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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.

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)

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