Like the café and the Church, it is an essential part of the French village - the war mémorial, bearing the names of all the local « sons » who laid down their lives for « la patrie ».
« Mort pour La France » - the standard inscription, followed by a long list of names of those killed in France’s numerous 20th century wars – World War one or la Grande Guerre – World War Two, Indochina and North Africa.
Today is the day that we remember those who gave their lives, principally in the First World war, though moves are afoot for the 11th November Armistice Day to be a day to remember those killed in all wars.
The solemn cérémonies that merk November 11th are played out again on May 8th as the French mark the end of the Second World War in Europe – though we are not marking the end of war, neither are we marking an Allied victory over Germany, we are marking a victory over the Nazis. (or the Hitlerian enemy as some politicians like to call it)
Well, in our modern European context, we have to get the wording right. Today therefore, as soldiers, civilians and politicians across the land round their local war memorials, it was to remember the fallen and not to mark a victory
In Britain, rememberance is engrained into our national popular culture. It is both individual and collective. Members of the public buy and wear plastic poppies as a sign of personal respect for those « who gave their lives ». Over the past few years with the Afghan dimension, the armed forces have gained in popularity with the général public. Though wearing a poppy might not be considered as a fashion statement, it has become a simple and universal way to show support for the armed forces. And, if you don’t want to stop at a simple poppy in your button hole, you can get everything from poppy wreaths to car bumper or window stickers.
Rememberance also has a collective and public aspect – those numerous ceremonies held across Britiain on Rememberance Sunday – the Sunday before Armistice Day – though by the religious dimension of the ceremony it does not quite have the same universality and appeal of the national two minute silence on Armisitice days itself. This is a récent addition to the duty of rememberance. Our duty to remember those who did their duty .
In France, the commemerative process is a collective and republican affair. Since the 1920’s though, the French have had their own Poppy – the Bleuet – a blue cornflower – to be worn by individuals as a mark of respect, very much in the poppy ethos. However, whereas Brits can buy poppies almost everywhere in the weeks preceding Armisitce Day and Rememberance Sunday, in France it is almost impossible to buy the emblematic blue cornflower unless you buy one on the day itself. Visitors to Britain in the run up to the rememberance cérémonies will see almsot everyone wearin a poppy, right down to newsreaders and TV celebrities during prime time. In France though – well first and foremost we don’t want to offend anyone and secondly the French have a very uneasy co-existance with their twentieth century history. The waering of any emblem as a a souvenir for those sons of France who have fallen in the country’s numerous wars … well this might be misconstrued. Wearing a flower for those who gave their lives in WW1. That’s perhaps okay. Wearing some kind of emblem for the 250,000 soldiers and résistants who died in WW2, why not. BUT we also have to remember those who died in North Africa and Indochina – and that we cannot do, because thses were the final bloody chapters of French colonialism.
The French are a patriotic lot, but they on’t do patriotism in what they consider to be a very overblown British or American way. You won’t find French people flying the flag as the Americans do. Run the old red white and blue on a flagpole in your garden and likely as not you’ll get complaints from the neighbours. It might be okay to wrap yourself in the Tricoleur for a football match, but beyond that, flying the flag will at best get you labelled as being slightly eccentric and at worst get you miscast as a supporter of the far right, and as such a racist. Displaying the flag for its own saké on your car is a pretty good way to get your tryres slashed or your windows smashed (depending on where ou par kit).
French rememberance cérémonies are firmly cast in the republican mode. No religious représentatives and the ceclbartion of those who died for Liberty, Equalty and Fraternity, when for most it was probably not a question of principle but more a question of territorial integrity or quite simply survival.
The current rememberance cérémonies occur at a time when their is a great debate in France about nationality, citizenship and multiculturalism.
French nationality is attributde to all those born on French soil, be it Mainland France or a French overseas territory such as Mayotte, Guyanne or Reunion Island. Any refugee, immigrant, asylum seeker etc who has his or her kids born in France gets French nationality for their offspring. Acquiring French nationality is different, you must prove that you can speak the language and have acquired the republican baggage that makes us French. There is also the question of intégration. Are ou integated and can you prove it. Do you speak French ? Do you have job ? Are you French culturally aware ?
As for multiculturalism ? Well that doesn’t square with the French integrist republican idéal. We all have to be the same, but « vive la différence » - it is (as some argue) a weatlth for the nation to dispense French nationality the greatest and most diverese number – out strenghth are in our différences and all the strenght that cultural diversity might bring – but then the French government ban the Burqa and the niqab in the name of secularism and then if you speak out against the rising tide of Islam, you are accused of Islamophobia. Today was also the day tta we remembered the thousands of soldiers of Moslem confession who died to keep France as a free and republicab country.
In simple terms, we are at présent screwed up on national identity, immigration and political correctness ? Racism is on the rise as are the far right National Front party. There are forcasts that come the 2017 Presidential élection , the final willl be a run off against the far right and the socialists. What does that say for our political system.
A duty of memory to those of all faiths and races who died with or without the choice, to keep us living in a stable, republican democratic state and here we are about to screw it all up. What must they think ?