Always something to remind them: Unlike us, the French know that commemoration may prevent war, says Douglas Johnson

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The Independent Online
WE HAVE always known that France has an abundance of national heroes, from Charlemagne to Charles de Gaulle, including many warriors and some saints. England has only one candidate for its national hero, Shakespeare - though some argue in favour of Cromwell, Nelson or Churchill, but without conviction. France also celebrates an abundance of national dates. It is true that this year the English, and other nations, commemorated the Second World War landings in France on 6 June, and next year on 8 May we will celebrate victory. But these occasions have acquired the haloes of 50th anniversaries, whereas 6 June is always remembered in France, and 8 May, VE Day, is a national holiday.

Apart from the normal Christian festivals, two dates are shared between the two nations. One is 11 November, Armistice Day. In France, it is not a working day. In every town and commune, however small, a procession is made to the war memorial, which always exists, with its poignant list of the dead. And at 11 o'clock, a silence is observed. It used to be like this in England: those who were at school in the Thirties will remember how at 11am classes stood in silence, or filed into the assembly hall to stand together in silence. We all knew what had happened on the 11th hour of the 11th day in the 11th month.

But now the commemoration is held on the Sunday nearest to 11 November. The notion of commemorating a war through a meaningful date has been lost.

The same is true of May Day. For the British it is just a Bank Holiday, held on a convenient Monday. Though the processions of trade unionists are declining in numbers and importance, the fact that it is the festival of labour, Labour Day, is not forgotten in France.

But the bigger difference between the two countries is that France has a national day: today, 14 July. For more than a century the French have officially marked this date: it was originally to refer to 14 July 1790, when the unity of France was proclaimed, but it has always been seen as recalling the storming of the Bastille, 14 July 1789. We have no equivalent - apart from Stratford- upon-Avon noting the coincidence of St George's Day with Shakespeare's birthday, there is no national celebration in England. At school, in the Thirties, we were told when it was Trafalgar Day, but that was all.

This year, the traditional parade on the Champs-Elysees will be joined by German soldiers from the Euro-Corps, which has caused some controversy. It is not the first time that German soldiers have marched down the Champs- Elysees. It is remembered that they did so on 14 June 1940. But it is also remembered that on 14 June 1944 General de Gaulle returned to France and made his appearance at Bayeux, and this event is always commemorated.

Naturally, commemorative dates spring from the fact that in the last war France was defeated and occupied by the enemy. Thus 18 June 1940 is the date when General de Gaulle broadcast from London, proclaiming the continuation of French resistance to the Germans. This day, which is always celebrated, is of obvious importance to France. Yet no one in England remembers that, on the same day, Churchill made his 'This was their finest hour' speech.

The dates pile up in France: 16 July 1942 has been made into a day of national commemoration because it was then that French police rounded up thousands of Jews and crowded them into the Vel d'Hiv cycling stadium, before they were dispatched to the camps. On 23 June 1943 Jean Moulin, leader of the Resistance, was captured by the Germans; it is commemorated because the date of his death in German hands is uncertain. 10 June 1944 is the anniversary of the massacre of the inhabitants of the village of Oradour-sur-Glane by the Germans. On 20 June 1944 Jean Zay, a Jew who had been minister for education under the Popular Front, was assassinated, as was Georges Mandel, another Jewish ex-minister, on 7 July 1944. And 26 July 1944, the liberation of Paris, is a day of national celebration.

Naturally some dates mark the memory of militants rather than the nation. Joan of Arc (whose feast day is the second Sunday in May) has often been 'kidnapped' by political parties.

Napoleon III chose 2 December for his coup d'etat, because it was on a 2 December that Napoleon had won the battle of Austerlitz. Those who organised the rising in Paris in 1871, and were massacred, were remembered from 28 May 1880 in the place where they were shot. Few French people can remember the date when Franz Ferdinand was shot at Sarajevo in 1914, but on 31 July many Socialists and Communists make a pilgrimage to the cafe where the socialist leader, Jean Jaures, was shot in 1914.

But there are dates that count for everyone. 'I have lived through 1940, need I say more?' said President Francois Mitterrand. The terror of that year is always present, and the lesson is simple: France must never again find itself weak and isolated in a Europe where potential enemies lurk; it must be part of Europe, and a dominant part.

Commemoration is a part of culture. Everyone needs the past. It is typical of the French that they should mobilise culture by means of dates. Some say that German troops may parade down the Champs-Elysees whenever they wish, but not on the 14 July - that is an insult to the French past. Others argue that the achievements of the French Revolution should be shared by everyone, including the Germans.

Ambivalence is an essential part of commemoration. There is pride and shame for what has passed; there is expectancy and anxiety for the future. This 14 July is the occasion for exorcising the horror of German troops in France. 10 June (Oradour-sur-Glane) and 16 July (the Vel d'Hiv) will ensure that these massacres are not forgotten. When the past appears clearly in the form of a particular day, it can vaccinate against repetition.

(Photograph omitted)

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