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"The Pride of all Europe?"

Your correspondent is on the Cote d'Azur, happy to be hundreds of miles away from Murdoch's evil kingdoms, on my way to see Eric play beach football with Prince Albert. Yesterday I spent the day in a French village about 5 miles north, whose story of some 50 years ago - one that is typical of this country's communities - suddenly rammed home the modern parallels like the proverbial thunderbolt. If you recognize contemporaries in this, you're meant to.

When France and Germany fell into war in 1939, the village's inhabitants ran around like headless chickens, as if it were the most unexpected event since Napoleon escaped from Elba to march on Paris. No matter that the country had been on war alert for a year: somehow the nation had convinced itself that an invasion would never happen. "A takeover by the Boche? We'd been allies and partners for years. We ran businesses and corporations together. We didn't want to take them over, and we assumed they didn't want to take us over either." Yes, there'd been a bit of a scare the year before, but the men in charge had laid the threat to rest at Munich hadn't they? France carried on as before, oblivious to the threat, busying itself making money and paying scant attention to its defences. A few voices in the wilderness continued to cry "Attention!" but what did that fool Churchill know?

As the real war broke out, and a woefully underprepared France became over-run with invaders seemingly overnight, the true nature of the village and the country became evident. A people who'd always paid lip-service to the idea of being united - and perhaps even believing it - realised no such unity existed. Even the one basic tenet they thought they shared - that they were all supporters of France, true red-white-and-blues - proved to be baseless, for their response to the takeover of their home proved only that they all had wildly different ideas as to what the words 'France', 'patriot' and 'supporter' actually meant. As one villager put it, the worst experience was not the invasion itself, but the realisation that those you thought were your true comrades were often no such thing. The effects of that lasted long after the takeover was finally repelled.

When the blitzkreig was unleashed, France staggered hurriedly to the front, pulling up its pants on the way. Its opponents had been plotting for six months; France had to improvise on the spot. To be fair, the French rallied to the call that morning, the gut instinct that their home was being invaded overcoming all doubts and hesitations. Only about 1 in 20 of the villagers actually refused to fight from the beginning, and they were the kind of extremist collaborators who'd made no secret of looking forward to such a takeover. What the villagers didn't know then was that their Government was riddled with German sympathisers, would-be collaborators and capitalist tycoons who saw profitable opportunities in submitting to powerful foreign domination. In any event, collapse at the front lines would make the task of those politicians intent on selling out much easier. For of the 96% that responded to the invasion, a majority soon proved to have no real stomach for the fight. Whole regiments virtually gave up at the sight of the enemy's firepower. If it wasn't quite desertion, then it was certainly resigned defeatism. "What could we do? They were stronger than us. They were bound to win in the end. We'd fought for so many causes in the past and this was just one fight too far. Whatever you do to them, Germany just gets stronger and stronger: what is the point of fighting the inevitable?"

The Government settled the matter by surrendering and ordering the populace to cease resistance. Indeed, they encouraged co-operation and immediately began to talk of this new foreign presence as allies, friends, partners. Some in Paris had actually been looking forward to this day and exulted in their 'triumph'. Marshall Petain, a fixture at the head of France for 33 years, remained in power - under Nazi control, of course - and accepted a seat on the German Board of Control. He knew how France worked, and he could help the Germans make the most of it. He spoke to the supporters of France via the media and promised that he would look after French interests. He said he believed he'd done the right thing and that France would benefit from being under German parental control: "Germany wants for France what you want for France - stability, prosperity, an ever-increasing influence throughout the world." (Perhaps Goebbels would have made it snappier: "We and you want the same thing. We want to be Number One - you want to be Number One. We want to win an Empire - you want to win an Empire.")

In the village, as the troops returned, a fierce internal debate raged. The numbers of pro-Nazi collaborators and sympathisers swelled to about one in five. An equal number pledged outright opposition to the death and went off to form what became famous as The French Resistance. Nowadays, of course, every other old villager claims he was a Resistance fighter. But it is far more likely that he formed part of the silent majority, those who still claimed to be patriots and supporters of the colours but who weren't prepared to fight the takeover. Indeed, as time went on, many would enjoy the easy life, quietly grateful they weren't at a battlefront or running around on exhausting missions with the Resistance. They would continue to find pleasure in life as they always knew it, watching the Sunday afternoon boules tournaments, drinking too much Cotes de Rhone at lunchtime in the bar, going off to Italy, Spain or Germany with their sports clubs. Resistance appeals to their pride and soul went unheeded: yes, they had lost their independence; yes, France no longer stood for the values they were brought up on; but they had found they could live with it.

Indeed, far more seductive was the propaganda of the collaborators. They speculated grandly of the glorious future for the French under the Nazis, how this stronger power would lift France up and above their trading rivals, how the riches of the pan-European Nazi Empire would flow into France and make her more successful than she could ever have been on her own. "France will dominate the world once more with our German brothers at our side," ran one article in the village newspaper - meanwhile, stories about the ill-fated experiences of previous Nazi conquests in Europe were suppressed. Around the village, the acquiescent were everywhere, often outsiders who'd never been particularly welcome in the first place, or small businessmen and shareholder types, more alive to the quick franc and to the cheap thrill of easy superiority over the rest of the world than to the values of the village and the French Revolution. More painful was the sight of once-trusted comrades getting stuck in a mire of equivocation and fence-sitting, like the local dignitaries who were Socialists before the war but now had to choose between what they'd thought were their principles and their well-paid government jobs. Or the local paper editor who'd run editorials condemning the Nazis for years but who now counselled a "wait and see" approach. As someone once said, evil triumphs not so much because of what evil men do, but because fundamentally good men fail to do anything to stop them.

The Resistance was right, of course. Germany did not raise France to new heights but exploited her mercilessly, just as it had done with every other conquest. Germany cared only for Germany, as should have been obvious merely by looking at her record around the continent. Sure, for a couple of years, Frenchmen who signed up to the Nazi's Waffen SS won military triumphs all around the globe, as did Vichy Army French forces under Axis control. But these were increasingly recognized as triumphs for Naziism and Germany first and foremost, not for France, and then as actions of which they should be ashamed. 'Success'and 'victory' are easily achieved on someone else's back but they are only worth something when they are yours alone, won in the name of your own values and beliefs. And that essential loss of independence in 1940 came to be seen as the crux of the matter: as most Frenchmen now accept, France did not really exist between 1940 and 1944, except in the person of General de Gaulle in his London exile. Takeover almost ruined France forever; the white knights' rescue came just in the nick of time. However you dress it up, surrender and defeat mean obliteration. A country can exist as people and territory but without its independent soul it cannot be a nation. The same analogy applies to a football club. Because, of course, the name of this village should be Vieux Tra'fourd.

 


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