Saturday, 7 March 2009

Vive La France, Vivent Les Huguenots!

Exhibit Number One

Is it really March already? Our first cricket was on the western terrace a fortnight ago, but the snow is still visible on Mont Lozere. That’s a thousand three hundred metres higher up from where I am writing, but it normally melts by the end of the month.

Anyway, after that little contextual preface, I have some good and bad news to bring you from The Cevennes. “Give us the good news first!” I hear you imploring and, as any underpaid entertainer would, I sell out in the name of serving the greater public good.
The good news is that it would appear that the SNCF have been bullied into having a strategic re-think on the closure of the Cevenol railway. It’s not only won a reprieve, but it looks like they will do the much-needed and overdue 50-million- Euros-worth of structural works that have reduced the train’s speed to an embarrassing 6 miles an hour in some places.

Of course, I would like to take the credit for having influenced the decision via a series of articles written and distributed to websites worldwide on the subject of ‘state-sponsored crass stupidity.’ However, these rather erudite articles appeared on English language websites; so I would like to thank all of you for reading them and, being so outraged, for writing your own caustic prose to Mr Sarkozy, chez Carla at Sony Music, Paris. Well done to us all!

Now swiftly onto the bad news. I’m afraid it’s another case of reluctant taxpayers’ money being wilfully wasted on unwanted state projects by profligate politicians. No, I refer not to public works of the stature of saving GM (I’m in favour so long as we genetically modify them) or the building of The Messina Bridge (via funds saved from reducing David Beckham’s salary). No, no such grand vision was behind the recent construction and installation of two of the most unnecessary pieces of local signage The Region of Languedoc Roussillon has ever witnessed, let alone planned and paid for. The exhibits are depicted here for everyone’s delectation. Well, after all, if they are that good, they deserve as wide an audience as possible, don’t they?

Now let’s try to imagine the scenario for Number One. There you are driving from Nimes to Ales on a dual carriageway purpose built for the journey and opened only last year. Unless you are local traffic, and simply using the two-by-two to get more quickly to Victor’s boulangerie, then there’s only one place this road can take you to – Ales; and you are aware of it the moment you get onto it. In fact, for those locals that feared getting lost, or missing their stop and ending up in Spain, the Highways Commission decided to terminate the road in Ales itself. So there you have it: you get on it, you end up in Ales – voila!

Now what was going on in the minds of committee members one hot summer’s afternoon in 1999 (such major projects need plenty of gestation) that resulted in this barnstorming idea is anyone’s guess. But to think that the Private Sector is bankrolling them should make us all thankful that The Cevennes has been a refuge from crises for over three hundred years. It gives us all a fascinating insight into Rural France.

For record’s sake, the minutes from the meeting presumably read something like this…

“So where are we going to place this 15 by 5 foot brown sign?”

“ Just before you arrive in Ales.”

“ You mean, after you have passed the last exit opportunity prior to arrival in Ales?”


“When there’s no other place on earth that you can possibly go to between that sign and Ales?”

“That’s right, it’s kinda reassuring for newcomers, reducing any cognitive dissonance they may experience as they approach the town. ”

“Hmm., so this sign will simply say, ‘Ales’ on it?”

“Oh, no, there’ll also be a graphic representation of Ales to whet the appetite.”

“What, like you might expect to see when approaching Paris, with the Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomph, etc?”


“So what features do you propose to graphically represent for Ales, then, that might get outsiders salivating?”

I am unable to bring you the Committee’s deliberations on this matter as it was decided unanimously to continue such delicate discussions in camera; which is why I am delighted to have used mine in order to share with you the fruits of their discussions - marvel once more at Exhibit One above!

However, it gets worse. As if by way of a ‘thank you’ to all the Protestant Huguenots who descend on The Cevennes in their thousands from northern Europe every summer to remember their ancestors who gave up their lives for freedom of thought, Exhibit Two followed from a subsequent committee meeting. Presumably the feeling being that they should plough this rich furrow of ideas before their creativity (and funding) dried up.

For those of you who are not aware of what went on down here 300 years ago, and I wasn’t before I came to live here, Louis XIV decided to go to war with the Cevenol Huguenots because they had their own ideas and beliefs. These industrious Protestants, who had adopted the work ethic before it became official, were despised locally for their entrepreneurship by the minority Catholic population. The latter were more than happy to aid and abet the King in his objective of crushing the heretics. Protestant Huguenots men were driven out of their homes and replaced by a billeted officer, ‘Les Dragonnades’ who ensured that no Reformatory ways were carried on behind closed doors.

Small wonder, then, that some of the men, ‘Les Camisards,’ rose up to defend their rights. They even defeated the King’s armies in a number of local skirmishes before the Camisard leader, Jean Cavalier, signed what he believed to be an honourable compromise with Louis XIV’s representative. Some Huguenots hardliners felt Cavalier had sold them out, as they didn’t get everything they wanted. In his absence, they continued the struggle and paid for it with their lives. The mass exodus of Protestants continued (some men were even forced to stay, so damaging to the local economy was the brain drain), villages were raised to the ground, men imprisoned, sent to the galleys or broken on the wheel in chilling public executions. The town of Ales was upgraded to the status of a bishopric in order to give more weight to the Catholic faith in what was a massively Protestant area; part of a policy that today would be labeled ‘ethnic cleansing.’

So that’s the background to the hoisting of this sign, Exhibit Two, smack bang in the middle of ‘Camisard Country.’ But why do it? It would appear to be a cynical ploy to boost tourism in the area, since the Parisian turncoats decided drink-driving was dangerous. So the locals, struggling to make a living from winemaking, are ready to become ambassadors for The Cevennes and the Nimes Garrigue, and exploit 18th Century butchery in the name of Responsible Tourism. I wonder if local tourist board reps will be employed to walk around the local markets in period dress? If so, one wonders if the few remaining Protestants will be given any work and, if so, if they will be allowed to wear their dark shirts (camisas, thus the epithet ‘Camisards’) or forced to wear the white ones formerly adorned by their Catholic oppressors.

Exhibit Two

These stories and more will become ‘common knowledge’ come 2011, when a film on The Camisards becomes the inevitable box-office success, followed by the equally-predictable Hollywood remake starring…I’d love to hear your suggestions!

I had the pleasure of sitting in the traffic jam as the two-by-two was reduced to single file whilst the signs were being erected. Rather symbolically, it was the last time that the State Sector decided to strike to protect its privileges. As a non-practising Presbytarian married to a Ales-born Catholic, we raise our glasses and cry: Vive La France, Vivent Les Camisards!

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Were the Huguenots instrumental in the demise of Feudalism in the United States?

The occasion of the ninetieth anniversary of WWI found me immensely reflective about the justification for, and the horrors of, war.

I remember as a young man working in London for Age Concern and helping to enhance the quality of older citizens lives. They were so peaceful until the outbreak of The Falklands War/Guerra das Malvinas, whereupon they transformed overnight through my eyes into a bunch of geriatric jingoists ready to fight yet another unjustified war.

Just as I later came to value Margaret Thatcher’s political philosophy, once it had positively transformed my homeland from a culture of dependency into the driving force of European capitalism, so too did I recognise that these rocks lying off the southern tip of South America were worth fighting for simply because of something called ‘principles.’

This year was the first time France had commemorated WWI without a single surviving soldier from that era – Les Poilus or ‘unshaven ones’ are sadly no more.
France Two transmitted some moving footage on the horrors of trench warfare at Verdun and The Somme. The British government had made a commitment to support Belgium if its sovereign territory were invaded, as invaded it was – and a million British soldiers died supporting that principle.

My mother, now eighty years of age, informed me that my grandfather fought in those trenches. I felt strangely guilty that I hadn’t been aware of this and sadness at having been denied the opportunity to speak to my recently-departed father about the matter. So much for conscience…

Living in the rugged and isolated Cévennes hills in south-central France, a refuge for political escapees since time immemorial, it reminded me of those seventeenth and eighteenth century Huguenots who also died for their beliefs and principles during the French religious wars in general, and the War in Cevennes in particular.

What manifested itself as a religious war between French Calvinist Protestants and their Catholic persecutors, was really a fight for economic and political power between two opposing ethnic groups and their corresponding worldviews and lifestyles. In many ways, then, it can be seen as a precursor to the American Civil War, for in each case The new ‘Spirit of Capitalism’ came into conflict with reactionary forces seeking to maintain a feudal way of life. This new flame was partially extinguished in France and has never truly been allowed to burn - a 2007 survey demonstrated that only one third of the French believed in Capitalism. This was not the case in the US, of course, where slavery and feudalism were soundly defeated in a Civil War that featured some of the bloodiest battles ever fought between neighbours – Bull Run, Gettysburg and so on.

As a young boy I recall how this bitter conflict marked my childhood as cards depicting the bloody conflict fell inanely out of my AB&C chewing gum packets. I still pride myself in having kept the full set intact as if to pass on the horrors of another principled war to my children lest they forget.

Yet for the moment I am keen to explore a thought that came to mind as part of my reflections – how prominent were the French Huguenots in The American Civil War? I am aware that many of these industrious Calvinists fled from France and took up residence in the UK; and I understand that the success of the British clothing trade owed much to their arrival.

As part of my research into The Regordane trail, the route along which The Reformation arrived in Cevennes, I am acutely aware of just how many of these proselytised artisans emigrated to the United States. I am assuming that such libertine spirits could never have sided with the ‘Grey coats,’ but I would be fascinated to learn of the role the French Huguenots played in the successful prosecution of that principled War.

American Civil War, Huguenots in America, Huguenots, War, WW1, the First World War, The Camisards, The Cevennes, The French Religious Wars, The Reformation, French Cal

Tuesday, 21 October 2008

Saving the Cevennes Railway

Fears that part of the Cévenol railway is soon to be axed has led the local population and many stakeholders to hold an afternoon of action in La Bastide next Tuesday, 28 October 2008. For various reasons I don’t do politics. However, for what it’s worth, I feel I ought to attend to show support for one of France’s few remaining mountain railways that is a fundamental artery for the well-being of the whole of France's Central and Southern region.

If you might know anyone in the International Press, railways or both, who might be interested in covering this story. I would be happy to assist them in any way I can.

For more on the Cévenol railway, see: The Cevennes Railway