Vignettes in what used to be Vichy France

The more I've read around the subject and listened to lectures, the more I understand there's a Myth of the Resistance. Sure, millions did resist the Nazis, and there are many reasons French people can stand tall and celebrate this history of Resistance. But there's something about the June 18th anniversary which doesn't quite work when you read Charles de Gaulle was seen as rather an oddball himself.

Little fragments from one corner of France

My nephew visited from Paris. As we walked to Collioure, I asked him whether Parisians ever mimic people from the south of France, and if so, what accent they employ? He spoke incomprehensibly, which seemed a decent representation. He then asked me to imitate New Yorkers, but strangely, I ended up sounding like I was from the Punjab. This isn’t woke, but with ‘cancel culture’ prevailing, I’ve forgotten what is.

Incidentally, the French aren’t particularly ‘woke’. In Dijon last week there was communal conflict between local Chechen and North African ethnic communities. Marine Le Pen stormed in to inflame the situation and exploit it for political gain.. Le Figaro bemoaned the fact L’Etat – the State is being so seriously tested. When they read about their oik in L’Elysee Palace, I imagine many in this region quietly pat their newspapers on their terraced cafe tables.

A local older woman, Anne-Marie, sleeps with her border collie. She often reminds me that “in Britain, you’d refer to the breed as a sheep dog.” One evening, I asked her whether she was going to watch the televised Presidential broadcast. Referring to Emmanuel Macron, her wrinkly forehead tensed. “What, that ‘con‘?” she asked me. Yes, she dropped the c-word.

I walk around with my Magen David, the Jewish star that adorns the Israeli flag. It hangs fairly high on my chest. My sister asked whether I ever face any hostility. “Not obviously,” I replied, but falsely I then chided, “and if anyone is hostile, that’s their problem, isn’t it?”

My nephew and I went to a port-side restaurant with M and my sister. One thing that does separate the French from (most of) the English is how unnecessarily pompous they can be when it comes to cuisine. My sister – my middle sister who lives in the 20th arrondissement of Paris – is a pescatarian, or sometimes a plain old flexitarian. You might say that sounds pompous. Not to my mind, when we all need to be more ecologically-minded. The waitress bustled over and asked us what we wanted. “Vegetarian menu?’ she boomed, so the whole restaurant could hear. “Oh no, why would you come to this restaurant?” They’re into amateur dramatics, the French.

Few people in les Pyrenees-Orientales speak English, which is fine, because it forces me to speak French. Incidentally, my spoken French has rarely been weaker. Though, I do get by okay in bakeries.

Pillowy pain aux chocolats

For the most part, I find French people if not handsome, or pretty, then at least, attractive. Not here. They look like they’re descendants of one of the King’s Musketeers. But a Musketeer who instead of returning north, valiant following victory against the Spanish, got lost on the way home and was betrothed to a mountain goat. Most are small in stature and their faces don’t appear to have been washed. I exaggerate of course, but in an age where offence is rarely intended, but offence is felt all the same, it’s important to indulge in harmless free speech. My partner is French, my nephew is French. Call me a racist.

Anyone who knows me knows full well I’m a Francophile as many of my previous posts attest.

How could I not be? There’s the patisseries for a start. Last week, I sat on the dock, a tear drying in my eye after waving goodbye to my sister and  nephew. What consoled me? The pillowy pains aux chocolate with their feathery butter coats. I bought two, one for me and one for my partner. But he’s taking his diet seriously. I’m not.

There’s the charcuteries, with their countless cuts of saucisson and tubs of rilettes, pate of tuna, minced pork and other light meats;

There’s the vast skies of clingfilm silvers which ripple under the spotlight of a midsummer sky.

There’s the free degustations of sheep’s cheese, the nutty-tasting brebis. Or nougat and Templiers de Terre, a local wine.

There’s the Pyrenees which unlike the Atlas mountains, hardly ever show their face. When they do, it’s hard to tell their snowy peaks from the nimbus clouds.

There’s the welcome Tramontana winds, with their temperate evening chill. There’s the man who looks like Prince Philip, if only he was ten years older, three feet smaller and wore a beret and onions around his neck.

There’s the guy outside the Chateau de Royale who nods – occasionally – but strums away at a guitar that doesn’t make any sound.

There’s the blasé attitudes, probably more Catalan than anything else. Befitting when you see people retreat indoors for lunch. For three hours, damn it, between my key waking hours, 12 to 3pm.

There’s the news reports that carry updates on Covid in far-flung former colonies, and French administered territories (Overseas France as it’s sometimes called). Think the Islands of Guadeloupe, Martinique, Saint-Martin, Saint-Barthélemy, Saint Pierre and Miquelon (Atlantic Ocean). Reunion island, Mayotte, the French Southern and Antarctic Lands (Indian Ocean). French Polynesia, New Caledonia, Wallis and Futuna (Pacific Ocean).

The same news programmes that interminably discuss matters of state. High politics and low dresses. People who sit around a c-shaped panel – not at all distant from one another, by the way – scarcely concealing their erotic desires or rage. Few reality shows are broadcast here as far as I can make out, but B-listers and political pundits lock themselves in spaceship studios. All of them looking to evict one much in the same way as reality show contestants.

80 years later, and we won’t meet again

Ah, Dame Vera Lynn has passed. There was something symmetrical and fitting about her death being announced on June 18th: the same date, 80 years on from the very day in fact, when Charles de Gaulle gave his famous BBC speech. I’ve posted about that in more detail here. He didn’t channel Vera Lynn, not quite. But he called for resistance. And when he appealed to all reasonable French women and men to resist Nazism and the Third Reich, there was some Churchillian pluck.

Vera Lynn meanwhile sung to keep morale high when troops needed not just resilience but remarkable luck.

The more I’ve read around the subject and listened to lectures, the more I understand there’s a Myth of the Resistance. Especially in places like this.

Sure, millions did resist the Nazis, and there are many reasons French people can stand tall and celebrate this history of Resistance.

But there’s something about the June 18th anniversary which doesn’t quite work when you read Charles de Gaulle was seen as an oddball, at least at the time he made those June 1940 radio broadcasts.

The man who truly commanded attention and respect was Marechal Petain, (of course), since he struck a deal with Hitler and Goering. And Petain’s 1940 deal led to an extraordinary loss of French life – at the hands of the French. Just read about the Jews rounded up at Drancy, or at the Val d’Hiver. Or those butchered by Klaus Barbie in Lyon, who later served Bolivian Presidents. Or those sent to central and eastern European extermination camps by Maurice Papon in Bordeaux, who went on to serve as the prefect of the Paris police in the 1950s and oversaw operations that led to dozens of Algerians drowning in the Seine.

Dotted around Collioure and Port Vendres are symbols of the Resistance. The men who went to North Africa in 1940 to join the liberation forces to eventually free the French. Political prisoners joined them.

Political prisoners were also housed in the Royal Castle here in Collioure – and not just at the behest of the Nazis by all accounts. Under Vichy France, Communists, Republicans fleeing from Catalunya, Jews and many others faced the extraordinary excesses of nationalism.

Concentration camps were set up in Gars, Argeles and other coastal and mountain towns to the west and east of the Pyrenees. Not many in northern France batted an eyelid or even had the means or media to find any of this out. France is an oddball country with a painful recent past. Boules, perpendicular sticks of bread, 268 or more varieties of cheese.

And I love it, for all its palpable faults.