Belfast Telegraph

C’est la guerre (or is it deja vu?) as the French surrender again

By Kevin Myers

You think that the subconscious does not influence our actions? You think we are immune to the strange rhythms of myth and memory?

On June 17, 1940, faced with a mutiny in his cabinet, and with his mistress, Helen de Portes, backing the mutineers, the French prime minister Paul Reynaud resigned.

Power passed to the decrepit old general, Henri Philippe Petain. On June 20, Petain accepted the irreversible logic of the mutiny, and of German military victories, and the next day France surrendered to the Third Reich.

Seventy years later, to the very day after the pro-Petainist mutiny in the French Government, a mutiny in the French soccer squad in South Africa spelled the end of the country's hopes in the World Cup.

France surrendered as abjectly this month as it did 70 years ago. Recrimination, bitterness |and division became the defining emotions of the departing French footballers — as they were of the French who conceded defeat in 1940.

You can declare that this is a mere coincidence and I cannot prove that you are wrong. But the evidence, such as it is, is there.

Surrender, and national disgrace, midsummer 1940 and surrender, and national disgrace, midsummer 2010. To be sure, one cannot compare the two events in any sense other than symbolic and psychological — but as such, they are unmistakably there. Now I am one of the few Irish people who wished France well in the World Cup. Firstly, I am a Francophile, and secondly because the ‘notorious' Henry handball was just one of those things that happen in sport.

I remember the derision in Ireland that greeted the English condemnations of Maradona's ‘hand-of-God' goal. Yet it was from comparable quarters that we heard the most complaints about Henry's manual trickery against us.

One cannot completely separate sport from history or from war, however much one would like to. It is a fact, which is probably why the French love triumphing in the English sports of rugby and soccer. The wounds of Agincourt lie deep in the French memory.

The memory of this time was to play its own part in 1940. When Mr Reynaud was contemplating British prime minister Winston Churchill's (admittedly absurd) offer to create a permanent union between Britain and France, his mistress, Helen de Portes scribbled him a note: “I hope you are not going to play at Isabella of Bavaria.” Isabella had been the Queen of France who had given her daughter Catherine to Henry V of England, thereby recognising Henry's claims to sovereignty over France.

Isabella's concession led to Henry's son Henry VI becoming king of France and so to Joan of Arc's insurrection. And though the last English possession in France, Calais, was retaken by the French in the 16th century, the English claim to the throne of France continued to be reiterated in the title of the monarch in London into the 18th century. It was only in 1800, with the Act of Union between Britain and Ireland, that the claim to France was finally dropped from the English coronation title.

This, and much else besides, made the decisions of 1940 unbearable for any French leader. To fight on, with perfidious England as an ally, and see the homeland once again destroyed, as it had been 25 years before? Or to come to terms with reality, and accept that the Third Reich of Germany had won? France has rebuilt itself beyond recognition since 1945. It is now the heart of both the EU's aerospace industry and of the project for political union.

The great French dream of |la gloire lives on in other clothes. But as always, the subconscious undermines the fantasy. Beneath the imperial silk cloth and gold lame rustles the coarse fustian of reality.

The World Cup mutiny — after humiliating defeats to Mexico and South Africa and an awful goalless draw with Uruguay — provided weirdly theatrical resonances to the events of 70 years before.

Of course, none of the players need have had much conscious knowledge of that time, for group psyche does not work like that.

It is just that sport and war invariably, and almost ineluctably, echo one another. This is their very nature. Which is no doubt why, 70 years ago this month, a newspaper vendor's sign appeared in London: ‘French sign peace treaty: we’re in the finals’.

Quite so. But, as it happens, a couple of decisive second-half substitutes for Britain — the USA and the USSR — scored the winning goals.

Belfast Telegraph


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