Showing posts with label French history. Show all posts
Showing posts with label French history. Show all posts

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Work for a doctoral scholar in French history

Once upon a time, if you had asked me what the word "terrier" means, I would have said that it designates the kind of little dog you see in the celebrated painting of His Master's Voice. As a boy in South Grafton, I used regularly a spring-driven 78 rpm gramophone to play vinyl records, many of which carried the familiar image of the fox terrier.


Ignoring languages and etymology, I could not know that our own lovable smooth fox terrier on the farm at Waterview derived his name from the fact that he was an "earth dog" (Latin terra, "earth"), capable of burrowing into the ground in search of foxes.

Upon my arrival here in Choranche, a couple of decades ago, I heard of a second meaning of the word "terrier": a register of parcels of land whose owners owe allegiance (or taxes) to such-and-such a lord or superior body. That definition isn't meant to be rigorous.


In the space of a few years, by accident, I've stumbled upon two separate terriers concerning the Royans region in which I live. And, in both cases, I've obtained an authorization enabling me to publish, through a website, the original documents of the terrier in question. Each of my bulky Flash-based websites takes a while to load.

• 14th-century terrier
Established by the Sassenage family in 1351-1356. website
• 18th-century terrier
Established by the Order of Malta in 1780. website
In the context of French history, it's exceptional that two sets of precious documents of this kind, covering a time span of four centuries, have survived, and are available today for study. The investigation of these two quite different terriers would surely be a fascinating theme for a doctoral scholar, maybe attached to a university in the UK or America. I would be happy to handle requests for further information from interested researchers.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Pumping

The erotic operation that English-speaking people designate curiously as blowing is generally looked upon, in France, as sucking.


It's also referred to as pumping.


And that brings me to one of the most celebrated anecdotes in France... which I heard for the first time from a professor during a class at the Institute of Political Science in Paris, many years ago. Most French people are aware of the exceptional circumstances in which the life of the 58-year-old president Félix Faure was brought to a joyous end. He had a 30-year-old friend, Marguerite Steinheil, known as Meg, the wife of an artist. On 16 February 1899, the president phoned Meg and suggested that she might drop in at the Elysée Palace towards the end of the afternoon. Well, they were engaged in a hot pumping session on a sofa in the Blue Room of the presidential residence when Meg was alarmed to discover that her lover had suddenly gone limp. Not just his organ, but all over. Clearly, Félix Faure had suffered some kind of major attack, and Meg was convinced that her man was dying. So, she called for help, while scrambling to get her clothes back on and preparing to abandon the palace before all hell broke loose. The president's staff arrived on the scene immediately, as depicted in this stylized magazine illustration:


The anecdote that has gone down in history is a bit hard to translate into English. It concerns the arrival of a priest who asked timidly, before being ushered into the room where the president lay dying: "Has the president retained his consciousness?" A secretary, imagining that the priest was referring to the young lady who had spent the last hour pumping sublime consciousness into the president, replied: "No, Father, she took off immediately down a side staircase as soon as she realized what had happened."

In French, the words for "pump" and "pomp" (as in "pomp and circumstance") are identical. And the everyday expression for an undertaker's activity is "pompe funèbre", literally funeral pomp. So, it was inevitable that people, aware of Meg's active role in the passing of the president, would get around to giving the young Angel of Death a charming nickname: the "Funeral Pump".

Today, if I was reminded of this historical event, it was no doubt because of the news that Dominique Strauss-Kahn would be spending the night at Lille in a police station, where he is being questioned about libertine evenings in a local luxury hotel, the Carlton.


For the moment, he hasn't been charged with any offense whatsoever, but anything could emerge from the intense ongoing investigations. A perspicacious journalist made an interesting observation. Let's suppose that DSK had never become involved with Nafissatou Diallo in a Manhattan hotel, simply because he had decided to leave for France instead of staying in New York. In that case, there would never have been a DSK Affair, and it is highly likely that Strauss-Kahn would have become, as planned, the presidential candidate of the French Socialist Party. Carrying our "what if" scenario one step further, we might conclude that the Lille affair would have still blown up. So, France would have been totally shocked this morning to learn that the popular candidate DSK was being held officially for questioning in a police station in Lille. In these circumstances, it is likely that DSK would have been obliged to abandon his presidential candidacy this evening. So, from a retrospective viewpoint, it was thanks to Nafissatou Diallo in Manhattan that the French Left avoided a catastrophic waste of time, energy and enthusiasm. We lost our illusions in time, well before they caused us to lose ourselves.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Jeanne d'Arc

Jeanne d'Arc. In English, Joan of Arc. Her family surname was d'Arc. And her given name was Jeanne (pronounced jun in French, like fun, so much nicer than Joan). She was born six centuries ago, on 6 January 1412, in Domrémy (Lorraine). As a pious rural maiden, Jeanne d'Arc was horrified by the wounds inflicted upon the brethren of her village by the Anglo-Burgundian forces.


While minding her sheep and spinning wool, Jeanne heard the celestial voice of Saint Michael the Archangel exhorting her to create a rebellion aimed at kicking the English out of France.


It was a long combat, during which Jeanne behaved with the military force of a male. A successful combat. But Jeanne paid with her life.


And the tragedy of Jeanne d'Arc is expressed in a quiet noble style by Leonard Cohen and lovely Julie Christensen.


Saturday, October 29, 2011

Ancestral Gauls

Here's an amusing trivia question, to test your knowledge of history.

This tomb is located in an abbey in Farnborough (famous for its air show) on the southern coast of England, but the man in the tomb was a foreigner. In his native land, in the middle of the 19th century, this man had the exceptional honor of being, not only the first elected president of that nation, but also its last reigning monarch. Who was this illustrious foreigner? And what was the land in which this man had been both a president and a monarch?

The man in question was Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte [1808-1873], the nephew of France's first emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte [1769-1821]. In 1848, Louis-Napoléon took advantage of the family name to get himself elected as president of France's Second Republic. Then, in 1851, he initiated a coup d'état that enabled him to become the emperor of France, referred to as Napoleon III. Finally, in 1870, his armies were defeated by the Prussians, and France's Second Empire ceased to exist. Here's an etching of a dramatic encounter, after their final battle, of the defeated Frenchman and the victorious Prussian leader Otto von Bismarck.

The last emperor of France was forced to flee to England, and he died in Kent. Some 15 years later, the emperor's remains were transferred to the Catholic abbey in Hampshire… and it's not at all certain that the English are prepared to hand them over to France.

I've brought up the subject of this much-disparaged French ruler because I want to evoke the legendary ancestors of the French, referred to collectively as the Gauls. In 52 BCE, their celebrated leader Vercingétorix was forced to surrender to Julius Caesar after the defeat of the Gauls on the battlefield of Alesia, near Dijon in Burgundy.

Much of the enduring folklore concerning the Gauls was created during the reign of Napoleon III. In particular, the emperor arranged for a statue of Vercingétorix to be set up at Alesia.

It's quite funny to compare this statue with the various portraits of Napoleon III. There's little doubt that the facial features of the French emperor, with his imposing mustache, were used as a model for the chieftain of the ancient Gauls.

This image of Vercingétorix gave rise, in turn, to the appearance of our comic-book hero Astérix. At present, there's a major exhibition in Paris concerning the Gauls, and specialists concerning this ancestral people consider that they probably didn't look anything like what France's 19th-century artists have led us to believe.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Three decades ago in Paris

At 8 o'clock in the evening on 10 May 1981, this is the TV image that informed us that the new president of the Fifth Republic was a Socialist, François Mitterrand.

Revelers soon took over the Place de la Bastille in Paris. Here is one of the rare surviving photos of that wonderful evening:

I myself was lost in the middle of that huge throng. People flocked there spontaneously. Ever since the French Revolution in 1789, it has been a sacred spot for the People of the Left. It was an astonishing evening. People found it hard to realize that Mitterrand, who had been defeated in several presidential elections, was finally victorious. During those first few hours, nobody worried too much about possible political problems that might lie ahead. The citizens merely bathed in the euphoria of their momentous electoral victory.

The celebrations at the Bastille took the form of an impromptu evening of singing and dancing. There was a makeshift stage on which various singers and other celebrities appeared from time to time. In a way, I think that everybody was half-expecting that Mitterrand himself would soon be there in front of us, in the warm air of a May evening in Paris. Instead, we were greeted with thunder, lightning and a deluge of rain. God Himself had dropped in on us, to join in the victory celebrations.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

It was Mitterrand who gave the order

We learn today in a book by the French journalist Bruno Fay that, according to information from former French PM Michel Rocard, it was in fact the president François Mitterrand who ordered explicitly the destruction of the Rainbow Warrior in Auckland in 1985.

This revelation is likely to darken our memory of a great statesman whose heritage has already been somewhat stained by two or three items drawn from his past.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Railway of shame

People in France have known for decades that the French national railway system—called the SNCF—was implicated explicitly in the ignominious transportation of Jews from France to the Nazi death camps in Poland.

Today, the president of the SNCF, Guillaume Pepy, admitted publicly that his corporation had been "a cog in the Nazi extermination machine". He was speaking from the old station of Bobigny, on the outskirts of Paris, from which some 25,000 individuals were freighted away to the camps.

The SNCF has decided to donate its Bobigny real estate, including the old building, to the local municipality, to be transformed into some kind of Shoah memorial.

The Bobigny station lies just two kilometers away from the notorious transit camp of Drancy, where inmates tried desperately to lead an everyday existence while awaiting their deportation to places named Auschwitz, Treblinka, Sobibor, etc.




At the same that we recall the shameful behavior of SNCF authorities who once condoned the evil exploitation of their railroad resources, we must not forget that countless SNCF technical employees played a vital role in the Résistance through their sabotage operations.

French media have drawn attention to what might be construed as an insidious purpose behind this sudden SNCF apology. The company is making bids for gigantic railroad contracts in California and Florida, and US Jewish lobbies have expressed their opposition to hiring a company with Jewish blood on its hands. The SNCF president tackled such criticism by stating that the decision to transform the Bobigny station into a memorial was "not dictated by circumstances", but by his "convictions". We'll see how people in the USA react to all this.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Unexpected cultural links

I've mentioned already—in my articles entitled History of wine at Choranche [display] and Wine of a kind [display]—my interest in the almost-forgotten history of the vineyards of Choranche. My article on this subject (in French) is due to appear in the forthcoming issue of a Vercors historical journal. This activity as a local historian has led to my being invited, this afternoon, to the annual get-together of the Vercors cultural-heritage authorities. The assembly took place in the ancient convent of the Carmelite monks at Beauvoir-en-Royans, inside the domain of Humbert II [1312-1355], the last prince of the Dauphiné.

The proceedings started with a brilliant 20-minute exposé of the history of the Carmelites by my friend Michel Wullschleger, who's a professor of history and geography at the university of Lyon. Once we were all reminded of the historical background of the splendid building in which we were seated, it was time to tackle the true subject of the day: namely, the genesis and spirit of an entity such as the PNRV [Parc naturel et régional du Vercors: Vercors regional nature park], which is celebrating its 40th anniversary.

You could have knocked me over with the proverbial feather when I heard that the guest speaker—a young academic from the university of Saint-Etienne—was going to explain to us how the origins of the concept of our celebrated regional park were profoundly geared to the ideas of Henry David Thoreau [1817-1862]. For me, retrospectively, it's natural that my adolescent fascination for the magnificent story of Thoreau's Walden Pond—which I used to read, fascinated, in Sydney's Mitchell Library, when I would have been better off brushing up on my mathematics—should have led me to my present solitary existence in the mountainous wilderness of the Vercors.

I was elated that a bright young French historian might give a lecture on such links. He explained that, in former British conquests and colonies (USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, etc), the creation of nature parks usually meant that remnants of indigenous populations were chased away (like Red Indians), so that they wouldn't interfere with environmental issues and tourists (not necessarily in that order of priorities). When I dared suggest that maybe we Australians had created nature parks in which the Aborigines were welcome (to say the least), I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the French speaker mastered all the fine details of the Down Under dossier. He thanked me kindly for bringing up this interesting and pertinent question (about which he knew a lot, following research visits to Australia), then he summarized the Australian Aborigine affair in a brilliant five-minute résumé (typical of French-educated intellectuals, who've been taught to aim at essentials)… and we became instant soul friends. I wondered, for a moment, whether a young Australian academic might be able to summarize in the same style, say, the complex relationship between the French Republic and Corsican autonomists. Meanwhile, I must admit that my neighbors Tineke Bot and Serge Bellier are vastly more "Walden Pond" than me, for the simple reason that they've actually installed several artificial ponds (now vibrant with life, including frogs) on their splendid property, Rochemuse.

Towards the end of the afternoon assembly in the ancient convent, speakers turned to contemporary creative writing about the Vercors. This talk was so stupidly superficial, absurdly urban and artistically empty (from a literary viewpoint) that I got up and left. I had to return to my Vercors wilderness to feed Sophia and Fitzroy.

AFTERTHOUGHTS: Frankly, I'm not at all sure that Thoreau had anything whatsoever to do with the inspiration of nature parks in France. I hardly need to say that, when talking about a return to Nature and such matters, we cannot forget an all-important Geneva-born philosopher named Jean-Jacques Rousseau [1712-1778].

Friday, November 26, 2010

King's anus

It would be an exaggeration to suggest that many generations of French kids have been inspired by charming tales about the anus of Louis XIV [1638-1715]… but it's almost true.

All the monarch's bodily functions such as urination and defecation were analyzed assiduously at close range by a privileged group of male and female members of the royal court, invited into his bedchamber, because it was generally considered that these banal activities were an essential dimension of the king's overall existence and well-being. And who would deny that?

Last Wednesday evening, the excellent TV series on French history and heritage named Les racines et les ailes [Roots and wings] talked at length about the health problems that beset the great monarch. His most serious disorder was an anal fistula, in 1686, when surgery as we know it today did not yet exist. [I'll let you use Google to access descriptions and color images of this painful affliction.] A brilliant young physician, Charles-François Félix, invented an ingenious instrument that enabled him to perform a successful surgical operation upon the monarch's rear end. Since then, if this medical act has been revered in French history, it's because it marked the turning point at which the middle-aged monarch was truly transformed into the resplendent personage to be known, from then on, as the Sun King. Besides, it's not hard to imagine why it might have been difficult at times for the king, before this operation, to adopt majestic airs and strut around in a relaxed regal manner.

For a long time, I've been aware of the basic facts that I've just described. But the rest of Wednesday evening's story on French TV was totally new information. A curator of the museum at the faculty of medicine where the above-mentioned surgical instrument was housed informed us that a French Baroque composer—probably either Jean-Baptiste Lully or Marc-Antoine Charpentier—promptly wrote a Te Deum to thank God for the monarch's spectacular recovery from his anal fistula, and that the theme of this hymn of praise was Dieu Sauve le Roi, which translates into English as God Save the King. And here is a rendition of that French hymn dedicated to Louis XIV (it's lengthy and boring, so stop it after you've heard a few bars):



Apparently, when this hymn was first performed in front of the Sun King, sung by a choir of nuns, it was overheard by an English visitor, who copied down the music and the theme of the lyrics, took them back to his homeland on the other side of the English Channel, and offered them to his monarch: one of the early Hanoverian Georges. In other words, you can forget what we were told at school about the creation of God Save the King in the middle of the 18th century. Our dear English national anthem would appear to be nothing more than a remake of French vocal music composed in the 17th century to celebrate a surgical intervention on the asshole of Louis XIV! Now, this explanation relayed by national French TV may or may not be true. Some experts claim that it's a hoax story perpetrated by a French forger who published the fake memoirs of the Marquise de Créquy.

Be that as it may, while investigating this strange affair over the last 24 hours or so, I've unearthed an astonishing fact. But, in order to fully understand what I'm about to reveal, I urge you to do what I suggested a moment ago: use Google to display a few really ugly photos of anal fistulas. If you do this, you'll understand what I mean when I say that the infected backside of the king Louis XIV in 1686 presented a horrible vision that can be described in medical Latin as an anus horribilis. Now, let us jump forward to the great fire at Windsor Castle in 1992.

It goes without saying that our gracious queen Elizabeth II has a vast and profound grasp of all aspects of the history of European royalty. Aware of the French origins of God Save the Queen, she knows the gruesome details of the painful abscess on the butt of Louis XIV, and she has no doubt had an opportunity of examining photos of anal fistulas. So, when she looked back upon the terrible fire at Windsor, it was not unusual that her words should evoke the ugly image of the suffering French monarch: "1992 is not a year I shall look back on with undiluted pleasure. It has turned out to be an anus horribilis." She was simply using the royal metaphor of the Sun King's nasty affliction to say that 1992 had been an ugly asshole year. Unfortunately, a member of the queen's cabinet, considering that her language was a little too colorful, changed the official press dispatches (by inserting an extra 'n' in 'anus', transforming it into the Latin word for 'year') so that it looked as if the queen wasn't even referring to the horrible asshole of her royal forerunner in France. Apparently Elizabeth II was furious when she learned that she had been censored. I'll let you guess the expression she used to describe the chap who did the censoring.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Associative thinking

Most serious individuals concentrate upon one thing at a time. I'm not suggesting that they have what might be called "one-track minds". I'm merely saying that, when they decide to talk about X, they deliberately leave Y locked up in the wardrobe... which makes for nice easy-to-follow conversation. As for me, I'm not like that. Whenever I'm talking about X, I find myself searching constantly for associated pretexts that might enable me to liberate Y from the wardrobe. This makes me an impossible conversationalist, because my listeners find it hard to pin down what I'm talking about. In polite terms, one might say that I practice associative thinking.

Over the last few days (since the death of my uncle Ken Walker), I've been browsing through old family photos.

The bikes leaning against the fence of the Walker home in Waterview (South Grafton) are Malvern Star track machines, manufactured down in Melbourne. And, in the late '30s, one of the most famous members of the Malvern Star team in Australia was the French champion Charles Rampelberg.

This postcard was pasted in my childhood bible: "Cyclone" Johnny Walker's big brown-paper scrapbook of press cuttings. A native of northern France, Rampelberg was racing out in Australia when World War II erupted. His name appears in records of the six-day races at Sydney in 1938 and 1941. Seriously injured in a fall when his head struck a wing-nut of his front wheel, Rampelberg was obliged to end his cycling career. Unable to envisage a return to his war-stricken homeland, he decided to get into business in Australia as a delicatessen. Later, having made a fortune through this activity, Charles returned to Paris and worked as a marketing representative for his brother Emile Rampelberg, who was renowned as a graphic designer in the textile field, with family links to the great house of Boussac from northern France.

Prior to his career in Australia, Charles Rampelberg had won a bronze medal in the kilometer time trial at the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. Back in France, this celebrated track cyclist had surely raced at times (although I've found no records that substantiate this speculation) in an indoor cycling stadium in Paris known as the Vélodrome d'hiver (winter velodrome), located near the Eiffel Tower. I've attended fabulous six-day track-cycling events in both Paris Bercy and Grenoble. The following photo (unidentified) gives you an idea of the hallucinating atmosphere of such places.

Today, we have no authentic images of the Paris velodrome, known familiarly as the Vel d'Hiv.

It was located not far from the spot where Australia's embassy now stands. In fact, while the champion cyclist Rampelberg was recovering from head wounds out in the Antipodes, and setting up his delicatessen business, horrific events were taking place back in the cycling stadium in Paris. On 16-17 July 1942, this place was the focal point of a horrendous roundup of Parisian Jews, destined for extermination in the Nazi camps of Poland. And the most amazing aspect of this terrible affair was that it was carried out, not by German Nazis, but by Frenchmen!

On TV last Tuesday evening, there was much talk about this terrible site and this ignominious event, known now in French, for all Eternity, as the rafle du Vel' d'Hiv (roundup of the winter velodrome). This page of modern French history is darker, even, than the notorious Armistice signed by a fuddy-duddy Philippe Pétain. One of the frightening items of fallout concerning this disgusting affair is the fact that one of its prominent French instigators, René Bousquet, remained a personal friend of François Mitterrand.

These days, countless Francophiles such as myself have been striving to fathom these events. In a sense, we've succeeded, as demonstrated by the immense pride with which I shout out on the rooftops my unbounded admiration and love for the fabulous Fifth Republic of Charles de Gaulle. But don't think of us as dupes. We know that there were dark days... which will continue to take a lot of explaining. That's what I mean by associative thinking.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Dame République, expecting

Shortly after the French Revolution, a girl named Marianno was the heroine of a revolutionary song in the Occitanian language. The song became popular in October 1792, just after the creation of the French Republic, which adopted Marianne as its allegorical incarnation. She is always represented wearing a pointed bonnet, designated as Phrygian (a legendary people of Asia Minor). After the July Revolution of 1830, the painter Eugène Delacroix showed a bare-breasted Marianne on the barricades, with a tricolor held high, leading the people to liberty.

Since then, there have been countless pictorial and sculptural depictions of Marianne. Whereas the Church has been symbolized by the Virgin Mary, and French royalty by Joan of Arc, Marianne has become the official female symbol of the République. Busts of Marianne adorn town halls, administrative offices and schools from one end of France to the other.

Since the Libération of 1944, among the females who have been chosen as models for Marianne, we find Brigitte Bardot, Catherine Deneuve and Laetitia Casta.

Over the last few days, French people have been somewhat surprised to discover Marianne appearing in advertisements for Sarkozy's future state loan:

OK, it's nice to know that France is investing in her future. And we can understand that the République is expecting... massive financial investments. But who in fact got her pregnant? It's rather disturbing to learn that this should happen to a fine young woman whose moral behavior has always been beyond reproach. Most people weren't even aware that she was "frequenting" (as they say in rural France, meaning to go out frequently with a specific male friend). Many folk would be furious to learn that the future father is randy Sarko himself, for example. Maybe one of the old fellows: Giscard, or Chirac...

The most eloquent criticism came from an indignant feminist blogger named Emelire: "The hand of the State should stay away from my uterus, particularly if it's trying to grab some cash!"

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Death of a great author

The great French writer Maurice Druon, senior member of the Académie Française, died yesterday at the age of 90. With his uncle, the novelist Joseph Kessel, Druon wrote the words of the Chant of the Partisans, with music by Anna Marly, which was rapidly adopted as the hymn of the French Résistance. It contains the memorable stanza:

Comrade, if you're killed,
Another comrade will emerge from the shadows to take your place.

I first heard this chant in extraordinary circumstances, on 19 December 1964, when the ashes of the Résistance hero Jean Moulin were transferred to the Panthéon. On that day, while catching sight of the president Charles De Gaulle, I listened to a moving speech by the minister of Culture André Malraux that would go down in literary history as one of the most celebrated French orations of the 20th century. Mysteriously, towards the end of Malraux's speech, the strains of the great Résistance hymn emerged—softly at first, then louder and louder—from a massed choir in front of the Panthéon.



Much later, Druon wrote a vast series of historical novels entitled Les Rois Maudits [The Accursed Kings] describing the troubled lives of French monarchs from Philip the Fair to John II. These stories were adapted to form a fabulous TV series, a few years ago, which I've already watched enthusiastically on two separate occasions.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

It's a small spy world

In 1964 and 1965, I worked as an assistant English teacher at the prestigious Lycée Henri IV in the heart of the Latin Quarter in Paris. Then Christine and I were married in May 1965, and I had to think about earning my living. Through a friend of friends, I found myself working as a French/English translator for an electronics company named CSF, which stood for Compagnie générale de télégraphie Sans Fil, which can be translated literally as General Company for Telegraphy Without Wires. The company was founded in 1918, whence its old-fashioned name. For me, it was quite a boring job, because I had to translate highly technical stuff that I didn't necessarily understand.

The CSF had built the Cyrano radar system installed in the nose of Mirage jet fighters from Dassault, and most of my work consisted of translating the user manuals for this military stuff. Funnily enough, I learned that Australia happened to be a client for these early Mirage/Cyrano systems, but I never had any contacts with compatriots during the four dull months I spent at CSF. I remember meeting up with CSF engineers who were associated with a man named Henri de France [1911-1986] who had invented the Sécam TV standard. The CSF had also invented an early version of an audiovisual jukebox that displayed a video at the same time as the song, but it was a commercial flop. During my brief stay at CSF, maybe the most amusing job I had consisted of translating a speech to be made in England by the big boss, Maurice Ponte [1902-1983], who was a celebrated personage in French electronics history. His speech included words of apology for all the faults in his English. This seemed silly to me, because normally there wouldn't be any English errors at all in my translation.

Retrospectively, I'm not surprised by the idea that French companies such as CSF interested the Soviet Union back in 1965, because the Communists wanted to become independent in all the high-tech domains, and they imagined they could achieve this goal by stealing and copying Western inventions. Inversely, companies such as Thomson-Brandt and CSF—which would merge, a few years later, to form Thomson-CSF—looked upon the Soviet Union as a possible customer in the field of domestic electronics. So, it was normal that professional people on both sides of the Iron Curtain should become acquainted.

According to what I learned from a French TV documentary last night, I may well have been a colleague of this engineer, Jacques Prévost, back in 1965. But I have no recollection of ever running into him at CSF.

At that time, there was a sleazy Russian "diplomat" named Vladimir Vetrov stationed in Paris, and he became acquainted professionally with Prévost. Vetrov, an alcoholic, smashed up an embassy vehicle while driving in a drunken state. Normally, this accident would have put an end to Vetrov's diplomatic career. Well, in circumstances that remain fuzzy, Vetrov asked Prévost if he would be kind enough to get the automobile repaired, discreetly and rapidly. Prévost—who had never, at any moment, been an adept of any kind of espionage, neither industrial nor military—obliged, and thereby won a Russian friend for life.

To cut a long story short, years later, Vetrov—who had never forgotten the kindness of his engineer friend in Paris—started inundating spontaneously the Thomson-CSF representative in Moscow, Xavier Ameil, with tons of top-secret documents. Exceptionally, the Russian traitor asked for nothing in return. Vetrov had grown to hate his native land, and he had only one desire: to cripple the Soviet Union by giving away as many of their confidential documents as possible.

Not long after the documents started to arrive, the French secret service let the Thomson-CSF employee get back to his ordinary work, enabling French specialists to step in to take delivery of the huge quantity of documents that Vetrov was still supplying. They invented an English code-name for the Russian traitor: Farewell. Soon after, François Mitterrand kicked out 43 Soviet "diplomats", and Ronald Reagan was informed of all the precious stuff that had arrived in France. The rest—the crumbling of the Soviet Union and Communism—is world history...

Concerning the intelligence that played a fundamental role in the fall of the Soviet Union, the CIA has little to brag about today, since almost everything was handed to them on a brass plate.

Click their website banner to see a brief article on the Farewell affair.

The moral of this story is that, unlike the incredibly complex tales invented by espionage authors such as John Le Carré, a huge real-life affair resulting in the divulgation of top-secret files can be triggered by trivial events. Such an affair can start from almost nothing: a drunken driver, disgruntled about how his native land is behaving, who gets his automobile repaired by a foreign friend. And yet it can blow up into something big enough to overturn an empire and an ideology.

You remember the fable about the runaway slave Androcles who removed a thorn from a lion's paw. Later, he came face-to-face with that same lion in a Roman arena, whereupon the lion rewarded the kindness of Androcles by refusing to eat him. And they left the arena as liberated friends, to the applause of the Roman onlookers.

So, if ever, late at night, you come upon a drunken foreigner who has just rammed his vehicle into a lamp post, be kind to him. Call a pickup truck to tow the damaged automobile to a garage, and take the guy back home to your place to let him sleep off his drunkenness on your couch. You never know: your name could go down in history as the unwitting instigator of an earth-shaking revolution.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Exceptional individuals

A few days ago, in my article entitled Dark excursion [display], I referred to tragic events on the Vercors plateau in July 1944, culminating in a massacre at Vassieux. I might have pointed out that I went on that excursion for practical reasons: namely, that I've been working on a movie script concerning the martyrs of the Vercors, and that I needed to examine various aspects of the Vassieux environment.

Although my movie project will be essentially a fictional thing, there are constant allusions to real people from that terrible epoch. Consequently, I'm researching various local heroes of the Résistance. Among them, Pierre Dalloz was an architect and mountaineering enthusiast. He's the individual who first imagined that the vast Vercors mountain range might be transformed into a natural fortress and a haven for maquisards. The basic idea of his so-called Plan Montagnards was that armed French fighters stationed in concealed camps on the seemingly invulnerable Vercors plateau could be brought into action after an Allied invasion of Provence (likely to take place shortly after the Normandy landings) with a view to encircling all the Nazis in the south of France. The project of Dalloz was brought to the attention of "Max", which was pseudonym of Jean Moulin, the courageous French prefect who had been placed by Charles de Gaulle at the head of the Résistance movement inside France. And "Max" was in total agreement with the Plan Montagnards.

Yesterday afternoon, I had the privilege of meeting up with Guillaume Dalloz, Pierre's only son (about my age)... who authorized me to take photos in the house where the Plan Montagnards was conceived by his father. [It also goes without saying—but I'll say it nevertheless—that information and images in the present blog article are being presented with the explicit assent of Guillaume Dalloz... who even invited me spontaneously to carry out future filming, if need be, at their estate.]

After I told him about my movie project, Guillaume spoke to me at length about two exceptional individuals in his father's entourage.

The writer Jean Prévost, who visited Grenoble regularly because of his ongoing research concerning the great novelist Stendhal, had become one of the closest friends of Pierre Dalloz. When the resistance movements swung into action in the Vercors, Prévost set aside his literary research and became a combatant. On 1 August 1944, as Jean Prévost was strolling down from the Vercors towards the Dalloz estate in Sassenage, he was mortally wounded by a Nazi sniper.

No doubt the closest family friend of Pierre Dalloz was the great aviator and writer Antoine de Saint Exupéry.

On the eve of his mysterious disappearance in the Mediterranean on 31 July 1944, Saint-Exupéry sent his final letter to Pierre Dalloz. Here is my translation of the final paragraph of this moving document:

Here I'm far removed from the swamps of hatred [reference to the Allied headquarters in Algiers], but in spite of the kindness of the squadron, it remains somewhat a place of human misery. There's never anybody with whom I can talk. It's already quite something to have people with whom I can live. But what spiritual solitude!

If I'm shot down, I'll regret absolutely nothing. The future termites' mound horrifies me. And I hate their robot-like virtue. As for me, I was made to be a gardener.

Wow, what a promising gardener: the man who wrote The Little Prince. It's weird to observe that the two great friends of Pierre Dalloz—Saint Exupéry and Prévost—were killed within a span of 24 hours.

Apparently Saint-Exupéry was an admirer of the wife of Pierre Dalloz: the painter Henriette Gröll. Guillaume Dalloz—who has published a book describing his mother's works of art—showed me a painting of a Camargues bull that Saint-Exupéry bought in a market and offered to Henriette Gröll while they were visiting Aigues-Mortes.





Sipping whiskey with Guillaume Dalloz in his magnificent house, and enchanted by trivial anecdotes of this kind, I felt light years away from the horrors of the events of 1944 in the Vercors. In fact, the writers and artists of the generation of Pierre Dalloz had fought, alongside the rural folk of the Vercors, to preserve a splendid lifestyle of traditions, culture and adventure that the Nazis were intent upon destroying. It might be said that the barbarians actually succeeded in devastating this generation, to a large extent, through the elimination of exceptional individuals such as Jean Prévost, Antoine de Saint Exupéry and countless courageous maquisards of the Vercors. But their sacrifice has made this corner of the world a wiser, more profound and sacred place.