Once Upon A Time In France: Remember November, Goodbye Belmondo, and Mission Marseille

Dreaming of Dieppe

One of the thrills of travel in France is the constant discovery of historic events that seem obscure, and yet once you learn about them there is something shocking about the fact that you’re just now hearing about them. The tales are either so moving or so disturbing or so dramatic, it’s hard to believe that they had somehow flown under one’s radar.

That’s ridiculous, of course. History is infinite, and one can’t know everything about everything. Even a more narrow topic such as World War II is too vast to fully comprehend and learn about every turn of the screw. Yet on our recent trip to Dieppe, I first learned about an event that has now become somewhat of an obsession.

We arrived at Dieppe at the end of our 4-day catastrophically awful bike trip from Paris. This was my first time in this Normandy town, and as we pedaled to the beach to take the obligatory mock-triumphal photo on the beach, I noticed a steady gaggle of Canadian flags. Of course, there is a historic link between France and Canada, but the number of flags and various Canadian iconography suggested a deeper connection.

Arriving at the beach, we encountered a series of monuments that revealed that connection: The ill-named Operation Jubilee. On August 19, 1942, a motley assortment of infantry, compromised of primarily Canadians, attempted a misguided invasion of the Northern French coast centered on Dieppe that was a total failure. This was just 2 years after France fell to Germany, 9 months after Pearl Harbor, and 2 years before the more successful D-Day landings.

Without even knowing all the details and rationales behind the invasion, this would seem to be the most Quixotic of missions. Not only was Germany at the height of its power, but the Dieppe beach is a pile of pebbles, something the most basic intelligence should have gleaned. As tanks rolled ashore, many of them simply sank into the beach.

Despite air cover from the RAF, the invasion was almost immediately in full retreat. Of the 6,050 men who landed that day, 907 Canadians were killed, 2,460 were wounded, and 1,946 were taken prisoner. The only silver lining to this ugly military cloud: Military leaders used the lessons from this tragic episode to lay the groundwork for D-Day.

None of this has dimmed the gratitude of Dieppe residents, who continue to celebrate the sacrifices. Indeed, the monument pictured above was put in place just 4 years ago. Memories are long in France where the past is ever-present.

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Remember November

I can still remember returning home from a dinner party in November 2015 and turning on the news to first hear about the vicious attack at the Bataclan concert hall in Paris. We watched in horror into the early morning as details and videos emerged of the terrorists who had killed 130 people that evening. November 13th is a date that resonates across France.

This week, the country is bracing itself for the largest trial in recent French legal history as 20 defendants will face charges that they helped in some fashion to carry out the terrorist attack. Of those, 6 are being tried in absentia (and many are presumed dead). As for the remaining 14, only one defendant directly participated in the attacks: Salah Abdeslam. The other 9 men who took part were either killed by police or killed themselves.

To accommodate the simultaneous trial of 20 defendants, a special temporary courtroom has been built. According to Angelique Chrisafis of The Guardian:

“Deep inside Paris’s historic law courts on the bank of the River Seine, builders were putting the finishing touches to an extraordinary architectural structure described as a cross between a high-security bunker and modern church. Its sleek pale wood and white lighting were chosen by the French justice ministry to create ‘a sense of calm’ in contrast to the horrific events which will soon be examined there.”

The trial is expected to last at least 8 months, which means the French are going to be peppered constantly with daily grim reminders of the tragedy as the proceedings slog on. Hopefully, the nation will find some catharsis along the way.

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Goodbye, Belmondo

Early in the summer, I finally watched Jean-Luc Godard’s À Bout De Souffle (Breathless), the film that made Jean-Paul Belmondo a star of the New Wave cinema. Aside from being charmed by co-star Jean Seberg’s famously (notoriously?) American-accented French, I found myself mesmerized by Belmondo. I think about one-third of the movie is just him in Seberg’s apartment trying to convince her to sleep with him, but his mood swings and dialogue are engrossing.

This week, Belmondo died at the age of 88 after a long career in French cinema that made him a legend in this film-mad country. Nicknamed Bébel, he will be buried on Friday in a special ceremony, according to RFI:

On Tuesday, the Elysee Palace announced that a ceremony for actor Jean-Paul Belmondo would be held at Invalides, in Paris on Thursday. Originally reserved for military personnel, it has in recent years been opened to include services for civilians who have marked their country in a special way. The venue was chosen "in concertation with the family", according to a presidential aide, "where all French citizens will feel included."

As the AFP summarized, he was “the poster boy of the New Wave, France's James Dean and Humphrey Bogart rolled into one irresistible man. With his boxer’s physique and broken nose, his restless insouciance chimed with the mold-breaking French cinema of the 1960s.”

I’m going to be diving into more of his movies in the coming weeks. If you have a particular favorite, drop me a note with your recommendation!

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Mission Marseille

France’s 2nd largest city has its fierce partisans who love Marseille’s nightlife, its Mediterranean climate, and its passionate locals. But for much of the world, Marseille is known for its historic ties to the mafia, corrupt politicians, drugs, and its high poverty rate.

Following a string of gang-related violence and murders, President Emmanuel Macron visited the city recently with several of his cabinet members to announce a kind of Marshall Plan to resurrect the city. The three-day trip was unusually long by the standards of typical presidential visits.

Macron was naturally greeted by gaggles of protestors demanding he resign because France will be France. But in a speech, he pledged to help make Marseille great again.

To do that, the French government will spend €8 million on more police, €150 million on a new police HQ, €169 million on renovating hospitals, €50 million on programs for disadvantaged women and children, and €1 billion for public transportation to better connect its most troubled Northern neighborhoods to the rest of the city. The government is also launching a new education reform program that targets Marseille schools.

Macron said it’s time to start building the Marseille of 2030 during his visit. It’s a worthy goal but the odds — and the problems — remain daunting.


Dreaming of France

Let’s stay on the topic of Dieppe. Our bike ride brought us to this coastal Normandy town where we had less than 24 hours before catching a train back to Paris. We first dropped out gear at the lovely Villa des Capucins, a former convent where 100 euros got us a room for 3 and breakfast.

We then strolled around the inner harbor where we stopped at a random restaurant along the waterfront because we were starving. Alas, it was disappointing. Never stop at the first restaurant. We then strolled to the beach where we walked out to the end of the pier for a panoramic view of the town and then down the promenade. Villa’s owner had suggested the Les Bains de Dieppe at the far end of the beach which has large indoor heated pools, including a jacuzzi, and a spa with a hammam and steam room for just 15 euros per person. We deserved these small luxuries.

Our day ended with dinner at Le Turbot, a restaurant a short walk from Villa that our host had also recommended. After a miserable 4 days on bikes, we ate like kings and absolutely felt like we had earned every bite.


Great Reads

First up is not so much a read as a watch. Residents of Brittany recently looked at the night sky to see a blazing object hurtling overhead. Turns out it was a meteor. Hopefully, we’ll get more of a heads up should the next object be an extinction-sized asteroid. See the video of the meteor here.

RFI profiles the journey of Josephine Baker from her American roots to her burial in the Pantheon. An American writing for The Washington Post discovers the “local, unhurried charm of Brittany”, among other travel clichés. The Guardian reports that French wine production is expected to drop 29% this year due to disease, frost, and overall crappy weather. James Harrington in The Local explores the joy of learning the Occitan language. And Roger Cohen of The New York Times features Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo who is expected to run for president but must find a way to unite France’s squabbling left-leaning factions:

The daughter of poor Spanish immigrants, a product of the French model of integration now widely questioned, and an environmentalist mayor whose bike-friendly and car-hostile policies have earned her adulation and loathing in equal measure, Ms. Hidalgo has clout and international recognition. Michael Bloomberg is a friend. In the provinces, however, she is relatively unknown.

Reality check: Her chances of winning next year are zero.

Le Pecq

Chris O’Brien