War memorial defeats dirty tricks of the right

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The Independent Online

In a small wood, near a small road, on the edge of a small town in the Auvergne, a large, beautiful sculpture by a young British artist will be inaugurated today amid speeches, music and applause from several thousand people.

The sculpture, a soaring, winged figure, 24ft high, is an affirmation of the triumph of liberty over oppression; and of life over death. Who could object to that? Plenty of people, it seems.

Victoire, sculpted by Hal Wilson, 33, is a tribute to the men and women of the French Resistance, the biggest figurative monument to the Resistance to be erected in France. It has been the object of a vicious campaign of rumours, calumnies, threats and political dirty tricks, reopening 60-year-old wounds that have never truly healed.

In France politics is history and history is politics. And here, only 30 miles from Vichy, the capital of collaborationist France, to build such a monument is still a political statement, more than half a century after the war ended.

Small Resistance memorials, marking the spot where members were executed or killed in action are routinely defaced hereabouts by posters of the far-right National Front. Three previous attempts to create a large memorial to the members of the Resistance, or "Maquis", of Les Combrailles (the northern Auvergne) have failed.

A month ago, it seemed that Victoire would also be vanquished. The monument was due to be built a little further south, near the town of Bromont-Lamothe. The local conseil général - the equivalent of the county council of the Puy de Dÿme département - had enthusiastically approved the site. Mr Wilson, a British sculptor who moved to the area six years ago, submitted three designs, one of which was selected by popular vote.

At the last moment, the mayor of Bromont-Lamothe found a technical reason to refuse permission for the monument to be installed. Victoire - which took Mr Wilson 600 hours to complete over three months - appeared to behomeless.

The mayor, Dr Frederic Bales, a right-winger but not affiliated with the extreme right, told his town council that the monument was "Communist-inspired and built from rubbish". It would, he implied, be an artistic and political stain on his town.

Why? Jean Sanitas, 72, a former Resistance member, journalist, novelist and president of the association that commissioned the monument, said: "There are in this part of the world many people who keep secretly in their bedside table a picture of Marshall Pétain [the leader of the Vichy regime] and kiss it before they go to bed at night.

"I think the mayor of Bromont-Lamothe is one of those people. He believes that Pétain was right. He regards the Resistance as having been nothing but Communists and our association as left wing and Communist-inspired."

Is Mr Sanitas's association left wing? "Yes," he acknowledged. "But broad left and not just Communist."

I telephoned Dr Bales. Is he a Pétainist nostalgic? Or did he regard the choice of his town as a site for the monument as a deliberate provocation by the left? The conversation did not last very long. "I don't know who you are or why you are asking me these questions," Dr Bales said.

Victoire was snatched from defeat by André Neyrat, theleft-leaning mayor of Les Ancizes-Comps, 20 miles to the north. "I was delighted to take the monument, because Les Ancizes was a centre of Resistance activity and also because, as a work of art, I find the sculpture to be extremely impressive, even inspiring," the mayor said. Townspeople add that Mr Neyrat also deteststhe mayor of Bromont-Lamothe.

In any case, Mr Neyrat moved heaven and earth to find and prepare a site for the monument in time for today's official unveiling. Hal Wilson, visiting the site, said he had no idea his sculpture would provoke such a political-historical storm. "I was brought up to think of the last war as something terrible, but rather simple. Good versus evil, and in the end the good guys won.

"Around here, things are not that simple... Only the other day, someone said to me - maybe jokingly, I'm not sure - 'Don'texpect your sculpture to last very long. It would only take a couple of men with an oxy-acetylene torch a couple of minutes'."

Victoire, made with steel, depicts a muscular figure with arms, held up in a Victory "V". The arms are fitted, Icarus-like, with wings, one of which is battered and torn.

"This is by far the largest thing I've ever done," Mr Wilson said. "I wanted to do something which would look forward, as well as backwards, something which would represent the heroism and sacrifice, the toughness of the resistance fighters, but also the triumph of life over death and represent the universal and everlasting values of liberty for which they fought."

In the early part of the war, the scattered resistance to the Germans and the Pétain regime was dominated by Communists. Later, there were many political - and apolitical - strands, all of which came together, uneasily, under the loose control of General Charles de Gaulle's Free French movement.

Among the small group of people at the Victoire monument on the day I visited was Edmond Leclanché, 82, leader of the Resistance in the northern Auvergne in 1943 and 1944. Mr Leclanché, whose brother Camille was captured and tortured to death by the Gestapo, was dismissive of the political tribalism that still surrounds the war.

"Yes, there are people who still think that way," he said. "That the Resistance was the godless left, that Pétain was not entirely wrong. The truth is that we, most of us, were apolitical. We just knew that it was ourpatriotic duty to resist. But you must also remember, and this is very important, that we in the Resistance were never more than 3 per cent."

What did he think of the monument? "It is a fine thing. I like the fact that it is a monument which wants to look ahead, a monument to life, as well as those who died. Monuments to deaths we have by the score."