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
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.