Travel to most cities in France and you and your travelling companions will eventually converge on a square named Place General de Gaulle. It’s no different here in the somnolent town of Port Vendres with its panoply of shuttered shops. There’s a square as you approach the dinghies and yachts. You might even stumble across a statue of Marianne, the sculptural embodiment of French liberty and reason: the personification of republicanism. In this town, she’s seen better days. Her right forearm has fallen off and birds crap on the parts that remain intact.
Nearly eighty years ago, on 18 June 1940, General De Gaulle delivered a then barely believable speech from BBC Broadcasting House. He was Brigadier General in the French armed forces and an Under Parliamentary Secretary (a figure of junior rank and unknown to most of the French). In it, he invoked the spirit of French resistance.
Four days later, again in a speech facilitated by Churchill, he talked about French honour, and appealed to his people’s common sense. Many hundreds of thousands more listened to this speech than the one delivered on 18 June but the two speeches are often confused with one another. On 22 June, he calls on all French soldiers evacuated to Britain and still on UK soil to join him as part of the Resistance. Only around seven hundred did, and many thousands returned to occupied France only to serve sentences as political prisoners for the next few years.
Opposite the Oblélisque – which if I knew better, I would pinpoint as Classical Greek in form, (it certainly looks it) – you don’t so much stumble across, but instead are invited to have an audience with Marianne in Port Vendres‘ miniature Place General de Gaulle. She’s prominently parading her flowing robes. Inspect her a little closer and you soon see her look isn’t one of pride. She looks forlornly, not at the harbour, but at a tarmac road and locked down shops.
I’ve walked there a few times. On the last occasion, I saw the famous Affiche – the public notice carrying General de Gaulle’s instructions to all free Frenchmen (and women) – dated 18 June 1940. It’s plastered below a handsome marble plaque with a gold lettered inscription. I saw a similar one in Périgeux on Bastille Day last year. It reminded me how much of western France was free of Marechal Pétain’s collaborationist influence, but how – by 1942, – nearly all of France had some degree of occupation. Even in this area close to the Spanish border, Nazis had their battlements. Rommel came down here to select military encampments and possibly walked close to our back-yard.
Admittedly, I was reluctant to stop. Despite the soft spread of buttery sunshine and a peach-coloured sky rising from above the port, stopping meant risking being stopped by the police. After they questioned me asking why I was walking with M a few weeks’ back, (they didn’t realise we were partners and members of the same household), I’m vigilant.
I didn’t fancy them questioning which one of the official listed exemptions on my attestation form permitted this late evening union with Marianne. I second-guess every movement I make these days. While I dislike authority, I nevertheless respect it. Yet, I did stop, for a few moments at least.
It’s a surprise to some of my friends that I consider myself a Francophile. The French bring out the worst and the best in me. My worst ever arguments in public have been with surly Parisians serving me in bars and train stations. One time, a ticket sales agent rolled her eyes very visibly when I asked in my best attempt at speaking French for a single to Charles de Gaulle (the airport, not a Place). Paris has to be one of the most enthralling and at the same time, enervating places on earth. Every single step for Parisians drains them of life as they complain about life itself.
Elsewhere, walking up the canals of Brantôme in the Périgord last year, and louching around sipping drinks the previous summer closer to Juan-les-Pins and Menton, France is a spring of bonheur. There’s the gooey cheese; the caramelised embrace of thinly sliced apples in a baked Tarte Tatin. The portentous first glass of Saint-Emillion, which can only end with another three, five or even seven glasses of wine. France is life at its most heart-skipping and heart-arresting best- and worst, full of arguments and aimless walks all in one hexagone.
Now it’s a shadow of itself, bound by respectable rules and limits on all the joys of ordinary outdoors life. Yes, I pass the odd person on the street and they nod their head or courteously smile, but life has been sucked out of the place. And so back to Place General de Gaulle. I surveyed the scene; I wondered which street corner I would turn to avoid being confronted by a gendarme. Marianne looked wistful. She was longing for freedom eighty years ago, and savoured it after five years of unimaginable pain. Victory was hard-won.
The difference in Port Vendres these days is that there’s no Nazis in the Nazi bunkers high on the hills. In the early 1940s they installed anti-aircraft positions and artillery batteries – the abandoned remains of these bunkers are still in place. In normal summers, tourists sometimes seek them out. But the path to the bunkers has now been blocked off. It’s where the local teenagers used to go to smoke a spliff in the first few weeks of the lockdown. Not anymore. An elderly neighbour complained to us that his walks up to the bunkers have been sacrificed because of ‘damn idiots in Paris’.
No, there’s no military action at all. Not in 21st century France. Instead, the ‘war’ the French are fighting is one conjured up by Macron as one requiring the same spirit of resistance De Gaulle invoked eighty summers ago. And so far, the French have lost the battle. But like De Gaulle, they intend to win the war.