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J’adore la France….et les Français. I truly do. My affection for the country and its people is age-old – well, my age anyway – buttressed by innumerable family holidays and a brother and sister who lived there (my brother still does). The splendour of the scenery, the distinctive and appetising cuisine, the variety of good wines, the bustling markets, the friendly inhabitants….what’s not to like? Being interested in history, I had read a lot about the Sun King, Louis XIV, the Revolution, Napoleon, the coup d’etat of his nephew Louis-Napoleon, who crowned himself as Emperor Napoleon III, The Franco-Prussian War, and trench warfare in the First World War but recent history of the country, namely its catastrophic defeat at the hands of Germany in the Second World War, was less well-known by me, probably because when I was growing up, the events were too recent to be classified as ‘history’. It was not until I went on an exchange with a French boy when I was 16, to live with his family, that I began to understand that the experience of war for the French was totally different to us English. More bitter, more acrimonious, more destructive and yes, more shameful.


I knew all about de Gaulle. Or I thought I did. At the time, he was acquiring the reputation in this country of a bete noire for his repeated and uncompromising ‘non’ to our attempts to join the Common Market. It swiftly became apparent that the very name of the French president was proscribed within this French family, strictly off-limits, unmentionable, verboten. When I did casually refer to him, a visible shudder ran round the dinner table. Clearly, the great man was persona non grataamong the Girauds. Later, Andre, my exchange, explained the history of his family. His grandfather, General Giraud, had fought the Germans in the First World War, been captured and imprisoned. He had escaped from his prisoner-of-war camp to resume fighting. During the inter-war years, he fought with distinction in North Africa and was awarded the Legion d’honneur. In the Second World War, he was once again captured by the Germans fighting in Holland but once again, he escaped and fought in secret for the Allies in Occupied France. When hostilities ceased, he was the leading and most senior French military commander in the field. But not according to General de Gaulle, who had, from the safety of his bolt hole in England, proclaimed himself as the de factoleader of the Free French. He had not fired a shot in anger in his homeland since the fall of France in 1940. Uneasily, he and Giraud formed the Committee of National Liberation, with both as co-presidents. But there can only be one alpha-male in the lion pride and ultimately Giraud was sidelined and ousted. He died in 1949, under suspicious circumstances. It was the family’s firm belief that de Gaulle had him bumped off. As I look now at photos of the general, I am struck by the uncanny similarity with my friend, his grandson, Andre. The grandmother, dressed in black, always sat at the head of the table, grim-looking and silent, a brooding and rather forbidding figure. One day, we were all whisked off to a military cemetery to pay our respects to the memory of Andre’s father, who had been killed fighting in the Algerian War of Independence. Hmm…. a very different family experience to my own, filled as it was by Test matches and FA Cup Finals with my brother in the back garden.


Lately, I have been engrossed in the biography of Andree Borrel, a young Frenchwoman who was parachuted into France to serve as a secret agent – one of only four females thus entrusted – for the Special Operatives Executive (SOE) during the war, tasked by Churchill “to set Europe ablaze” with their clandestine operations behind enemy lines. Like so many of her compatriots, her cover was blown, probably by an informer, and she was arrested by the Gestapo and executed at the Natzweiler concentration camp, the only one on French soil (though as it was in Alsace, the Germans regarded it as home territory). Two things struck me as an enthusiasm for the subject, fired by this story, led to further research and reading. First, the Germans were much cleverer at tracking down these networks of resistance fighters than they were ever given credit for. Their counter-espionage apparatus was far more sophisticated and advanced than the Allies believed. Often, radios captured in Gestapo raids were used by German operators to continue sending bogus messages back to England without the British having a clue that security had been compromised.


Secondly, it is not generally known – quite contrary to popular assumption in films and TV series – that far from outwitting the Germans at every step of the way, these secret networks were anything but secret. The enemy had them under constant surveillance and only swooped when the time was ripe. How can this have been? Apparently, the Germans relied heavily on informants and there were plenty of these who were only too happy to betray their countrymen. Friends ratted on friends, neighbours settled old scores by informing against neighbours, priests gave away members of their flock, children were even encouraged to finger their own parents. No, it was not a glorious chapter in France’s national story. Fear, suspicion, distrust, grievance and bitterness racked the public conscience.


Another murky episode of French behaviour during the war, for many years afterwards swept under the carpet or even vehemently denied, was that alone among the countries invaded by Germany, France not only aided and abetted in the wholesale deportation of French Jews to concentration camps in Germany and Poland, but actually did all the Nazis’ dirty work for them. In total, about 75,000 Jews were rounded up by local authorities, police forces and detachments of the Milice, a paramilitary force inspired by Nazi philosophy, bundled into boxcars and sent to the East. Few returned. The Germans did not have to lift a finger. They were content to put their feet up, light a cigar and watch the French get on with their nefarious work. For decades, successive governments in France refused to apologise, or even admit, to the part played by their country’s authorities in the deportations. It was only in 2017 that President Emmanuel Macron denounced his country’s Holocaust. “Not a single German took part,” he said, “I say it again here. It was indeed France that organised the roundup, the deportation and thus, for almost all, death.” It remains a dark stain on the reputation of France and its people.


So where does this knowledge leave me, a committed Francophile?  I guess it ill behoves any of us who have notsuffered occupation by an invading force, who have not had to live under the jackboot, to cast aspersions on the behaviour of those who have. Who knows how any of us would have acted under such grim circumstances. Furthermore, the atrocities that were committed in the war happened a long time ago. Very few who underwent those cataclysmic events still survive. There is a new generation of Frenchmen and women who now govern, who now raise their families, who now make baguettes and St Nectaire cheese and Sancerre wine and all the other gastronomic delights in which I delight. The sins of the father should not be visited upon the son. We have been the lucky generation. We have enjoyed unparalleled peace and prosperity and let us rejoice in that fact and seek to ensure that history does not repeat itself.


But it will. It always does.


Best not therefore to peer too far into the future. Who knows. Perhaps France will not win the Rugby World Cup.

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