Badge of dishonour: French rugby's shameful secret

Fast, furious and famously savage, French rugby is renowned for its unique blend of brawn and beauty. But the World Cup's arrival in Paris tomorrow will also stir up memories of the national side's collaboration with the Nazi-supporting Vichy regime. John Lichfield recalls one of sport's darkest episodes

Thursday 06 September 2007 00:00

To a triumphant roar from 80,000 throats, an oval ball will spin high into the air in the north-east suburbs of Paris tomorrow. All the passion, pride and extravagant artistry of France's 136-year history as a rugby nation will be voiced in that roar. The French game will finally have arrived at the centre of the sporting universe.

Over the next month, France will be the first non-English speaking country to host the Rugby World Cup. The nation's players proved long ago that they could match the Anglo-Saxons andAntipodeans on the pitch. Now, staging the tournament will mark a momentous rite of passage – and potential sporting and financial goldmine – for le rugby as a cultural institution.

The guardian of that institution, the Federation Française de Rugby (FFR), boasts a rich and often glorious past; a past of which the French people are rightly proud. Today, their team are second favourites for the coming World Cup.

Yet behind the razzmatazz that will accompany tomorrow's kick-off between France and Argentina at the Stade de France run undertones of which the FFR can feel decidedly less proud. For all the exuberance of its present, French rugby's reputation is dogged by an ingloruous past.

Across the Channel, le rugby is about panache, élan and insouciance; prodigious feats of running and handling; astounding sporting exploits followed by equally surprising collapses. It summons up images of rich red wine and cassoulet and deep, almost religious, passion in the sport's rural strongholds of the South-west (so religious, in fact, that a chapel is dedicated to the sport – Notre-Dame-du-Rugby – in a village near Bordeaux).

There is, however, a less wholesome story concealed beneath the scrums and mauls of French rugby history. It is a story that, in an indirect way, has led to the World Cup's arrival in Paris, and explains how, were it not for the Second World War (and an act of shameless conspiracy with the collaborationist Vichy regime), rugby union would today be just a minor sport in France.

In the run-up to the World Cup, former French players have been wheeled out to speak of the unique "values" inculcated by their sport: courage, self-abnegation, teamwork, local pride. They say that French rugby – even as a professional game since the 1990s – has never lost its attachment to family, fans, villages, towns and the soil – or mud – of southern France.

All of these things are true. But they are not the whole truth. From its beginning, French rugby has been known for a strange blend of exquisite skill and occasional thuggery. In the 1930s, the France national team was kicked out of the (then amateur) Five Nations competition for violent play and for allegedly making secret payments to players.

As that decade came to an end, le rugby union, or le rugby à quinze, sank further into dire straits thanks to the emergence of a more exciting, semi-professional form of the game. Rugby league or rugby à treize (13-a-side rugby), a sport born in industrial Lancashire and Yorkshire, was sweeping through the game's heartland in the rural South-west.

French rugby union was only saved by the German army's invasion of France in May 1940. Some of the sport's senior administrators took advantage of their close relationship with the pro-Nazi, collaborationist Vichy regime headed by Marshal Pétain to have the rival code outlawed as a "corrupter" of French youth.

Rugby league's funds, players, stadiums and even kit were handed over to rugby union. Rugby-a-treize never fully recovered. Compensation was never paid. It took until 2002 for the French government to recognise officially that league had been the victim, not so much of a loathsome political ideology, as of jealousy and prejudice and a massive dirty trick.

The history of the Vichy ban has never been fully told in France but it was the subject of an excellent book, The Forbidden Game, by a rugby writer, Mike Rylance, a few years ago. To try to understand how and why it happened, you have to grapple with two of the great conundrums of French rugby history.

Why is the French game such a mixture of startling beauty and occasional – or not so occasional – brutality? (In 1986, the All Black forward Wayne Shelford needed 20 stitches to his scrotum after an international against France in Nantes.)

Why too has the game become so deeply rooted in the affections of the South-west but largely unplayed at the highest level in the rest of the country? There are over 90 départements, or counties, in France, yet the French World Cup squad comes from 10 of them, mostly situated in the South and South-west.


Rugby, or a form of rugby, was first played in France by the English expatriates of the Le Havre Athletic Club in Normandy in 1872. True rugby was brought to Paris by the English Taylors Club the following year. By 1888, there were three clubs in the capital.

In the early years, the game was seized upon by the French aristocracy and haute-bourgeoisie as a way of stiffening the backs of the officer-class following the humiliation of defeat in the Franco-Prussian war.

The English game had developed from the public school tradition of interminable rucks and mauls in which the two teams tried to wrestle each other into submission or batter their way though to the opponents' line. From the start, it is said, French players developed a different sort of game, based on running with, and passing, the ball.

In the French magazine, L'Illustration, on 23 April 1892, Edmond Renoir (no relation to the painter) tried to draw a word picture of the first France-England game. The main difference between the English and French style, he suggested, was that the English players liked to put their "heads into the mud". The French players preferred not to.

One of the earliest French players was Henri Alain-Fournier. As Alain Fournier he wrote the classical French novel of adolescent love, Le Grand Meaulnes. His surviving correspondence includes letters to fellow players from Paris instructing them to bring their boots to riverside pitches at the parc de Bagatelle between the Bois de Boulogne and a large bend in the Seine.

According to Jean Lacouture, author of a history of French rugby, the beauty and fluidity of the Gallic game (at its best) was imprinted in the genes by those early, aristocratic games in the bois. "Feints, runs, dodges and sprints were born from an elitist aestheticism, descended from the knights and tournaments of the Middle Ages," he said.

But why, from its start as a game for the officer-class in Paris, did rugby become a peasant game in the South-west? This is a "triple paradox" says Lacouture.

In the UK, rugby flourished amid the middle and upper classes in England or among miners and farmers in the Celtic countries. But in Celtic Brittany it never prospered. The sport was eventually introduced by J J Shearer, a Bordeaux-based Scottish businessman who was followed by several other British merchant, all of them in the wine trade.

Lacouture says: "Rugby in the South did not exactly appear from the wine cellars but it had, especially before the First World War, a distinct smell of wine corks." He traces the game's growth in the South-west to the victory of Stade Bordelais over a Paris club in the national championship of 1899. Afterwards, the game spread like wildfire through the small towns and villages of the South and South-west.

Some rugby historians offer ethnic or racial explanations. They suggest that the Basque and Catalan races – tough, muscular, mountain men – were better suited to rugby than the other populations of France. But if the Celtic people of Scotland, Wales and Ireland took to rugby, why not the Bretons?

What is certainly true is that the game became hugely popular in the South-west as a form of regional nationalism and pride: an expression of resistance to Paris, which was trying to stamp out local culture. The Abbé Michel Devert, 83, from the Landes, south of Bordeaux, is a retired Catholic priest, whose memories go back to pre-war rugby in France and who created, 40 years ago, the chapel Notre-Dame-du-Rugby at Larrivière in the Landes.

Devert blames the Catholic Church for rugby's regional divide in France. "There was a time when playing rugby was seen by the church as a sin. They thought the game was too violent and preferred soccer and basketball. There was a strong Republican, secular tradition in the South-west. Many town dignitaries encouraged rugby precisely because the church detested it. It became an expression of local pride."

Devert points out that, even within the South-west, rugby has mostly been the passion of villages and towns rather than cities. From the start, it was played by muscular young farmers and vineyard workers.

The driving force was not just regional pride but "local, village pride". Rugby became a way of channelling feuds between hilltop and valley, village and village, that had existed for centuries. For whatever reason, or combination of reasons, by the 1920s and 1930s, French rugby had become a game administered at national level by toffs in Paris but played by peasants in the South-west. The toffs soon lost control.

The lofty English conception of rugby – broadly shared by the French, aristocratic administrators – was trampled in the earth by rural players. They enthusiastically adopted the flamboyant, running-passing style developed in Paris, but not the notion of sport for sport's sake.

According to the rural aficionados, the proper object of rugby was to rub the nose of the next village, literally, in the dirt. Financial inducements, even transfer fees, became widespread. So did violence. Referees were beaten up. There were several deaths. One international player was given a suspended prison sentence for high tackle that killed an 18-year-old opponent in a national championship semi-final.

This explains, some say, why brutality still lurks within the French game to this day. By the early 1930s, violence was carried over to internationals against England and Wales. Reports of rampant professionalism angered the international board of the Rugby Football Union.

In 1931, France was ejected from the Five Nations. Rugby union, as an organised sport, seemed in danger of disintegrating. Then along came rugby league. The rival sport, known briefly as "neo-rugby" and then rugby-a-treize, stormed through the South-west like the word of Martin Luther through the corrupt 16th-century Catholic Church. It was to take a war and one of the shabbiest tricks in sporting history to save French rugby union.


Rugby league was brought to France by a man called Jean Galia (inset right), second-row forward, boxing champion and alleged secret professional. The French federation banned him in 1932, on relatively slight evidence, to try to prove to the Anglo-Saxons that it was cleaning up its "shamateur" act.

In 1934, Galia took a French team that had never played rugby league to Yorkshire and Lancashire. By the 1934-35 season, there were 14 teams in the French semi-professional 13-a-side league. By 1939 there were 200 amateur rugby league clubs. The same year three leading union clubs – Narbonne, Carcassonne and Brive – switched codes.

The French 13-a-side game was openly semi-professional, but not yet fully professional. Rugby union in South-west France was also semi-professional, but not openly so. French players and fans took with enormous enthusiasm to rugby league, whose more open running pat

tern of play – without messy rucks or interminable scrums – was ideally suited to the swashbuckling French style.

Before war broke out, it seemed inevitable that league would become the dominant form of rugby in France (as it did in Australia). Afterwards, its fortunes went into reverse. In August 1940, only six weeks after the Vichy regime had been installed in central and southern France, its Sports minister, Jean Ybarnégaray, announced: "The fate of rugby league is clear. Its life is over and it will be quite simply deleted from French sport."

Four months later, in December 1940, Marshal Philippe Pétain, head of the Vichy government, signed a decree ordering rugby league to "merge" with union. Vichy promised that league could continue at amateur level. Both merger and promise were false. The assets of league clubs were seized, and in some cases given to union clubs.

Officially, this was all part of a drive by the Vichy regime to reinvigorate French moral values and end professionalism in sport. However, more powerful, and fully professional, sports such as football, boxing and cycling, were given a three-year reprieve and never made to toe the line. Badminton, bizarrely, was also banned for being somehow un-French.

Research conducted by Mike Rylance for The Forbidden Game showed that the real drive to kill off "professional" rugby league did not come from Vichy ideologues. The pressure came – almost as soon as France surrendered – from the most senior officials in the Federation Française de Rugby, who were closely associated with Vichy. They operated through Colonel Joseph (Jep) Pascot, who was director of sports in the Vichy Sports Ministry, and who had played in the French rugby union

team in the 1920s. A report was written for Vichy on the "state of rugby in France" within weeks of the German victory over the French. It said that rugby league, because it was "professional" and therefore contrary to proper sporting values, had contributed to the lack of "moral education" that allowed the German armies to sweep French troops aside.

The report was written by Dr Paul Voivenel, honorary president of the FFR, the ruler of French rugby union, who was a close associate of senior figures in the Vichy regime. Rylance concludes that rugby union cynically used the cover of military defeat, and alleged national "renewal" to assassinate league.

Exactly the same conclusion was reached in 2002 by a French government inquiry into sport during the Vichy period. The report concluded: "The action against rugby league was the result of steps taken by the French rugby union federation which saw an opportunity to get rid of a dangerous rival."


To this day, the FFR has never apologised for its behaviour the Vichy regime. The French rugby league clubs were never compensated. It remains one of sport's dirty secrets.

Yet rugby league is far from dead in France. It did have some good times after the war, and the only big professional French club, Catalans Dragons, reached the final of the Rugby League Challenge Cup at Wembley last month.

However, union has become overwhelmingly the dominant code – and is now also, of course, a professional and extremely wealthy game. The union hegemony will be further strengthened by the staging of the World Cup in France. Officials hope that the blitz of publicity will finally help to spread high-level rugby to the rest of the country

So what do French rugby league officials and fans – known as treizistes – make of the coming month-long union jamboree? Louis Bonnery is one of the bestknown figures in French rugby league, a former player and coach who is now a TV commentator and president of the Languedoc-Roussillon treiziste league.

"What happened under Vichy should never be forgotten, if only to prevent such a thing happening again," he said. "It was a traumatism from which rugby league never recovered morally or in terms of public recognition in France. Partly that might be our own fault. We had opportunities after the war that we did not grasp – such as full professionalism and television. But the stigma continued for a long time. We were not allowed even to call ourselves "rugby" but only the "jeu a treize" [the 13 game] until the 1990s.

"That said, I believe most treizistes will follow this World Cup with enthusiasm. France is a very patriotic country. Once a national team is playing for nation and the flag, everyone will become a fan."

Abbé Devert in the Landes is equally generous. Is his chapel open to treizistes?

"Of course," he said. "It is open to all people of good will, whether Catholics or Protestants, believers or unbelievers, and even followers of rugby league."

When politics and rugby collide

By Ed Caesar

1895 Union/League Schism

On 29 August 1895, 20 clubs from the north of England met at the George Hotel in Huddersfield, and decided to resign from the Rugby Football Union. They formed the Northern Rugby Football Union – which, from 1922, became known as the Rugby Football League – and so rugby league was born. At issue were the "broken time" payments made to Northern players – compensation for time off work due to injury – which contravened the RFU's strict code of amateurism. Players in the North tended to be from working-class backgrounds so, the argument went, could not afford time off without pay. The middle- and upper-class players of the South, meanwhile, were wealthy enough to remain amateurs. As a result, two distinct games, and cultures, developed. Union, with 15 players and a greater reliance on the set-piece, remains middle-class. League, with 13 players, continues to be a working-class game.

The GAA's Ban on 'Foreign Games'

In a divided Ireland, sport and politics are never far apart. So when the Gaelic Athletic Association formed in Co Tipperary in 1884, to prevent traditional Irish games from disappearing in the wake of popular new sports from Britain, it had the same force as a political act. Until 1971, the GAA's hundreds of thousands of members were banned from playing football and rugby union. The GAA has only relaxed its stance on "foreign games" being played at its stadiums in the last two years. Earlier this year, despite threats from Republican forces, both France and England played Ireland at Croke Park – Dublin's huge GAA stadium – without mishap.

1948-1992 the whites-only South African team

Apartheid was instigated in 1948, but it was years before the international rugby community realised that playing the whites-only Springboks was a token of support for a repressive regime. In 1960, there was pressure for New Zealand to cancel its tour, but it went ahead anyway. In 1977, the Commonwealth signed the Gleneagles Agreement, discouraging "sporting contact" with South Africa, and in 1979 the French government banned tours to South Africa. Despite the agreement, and in the face of protests back home, New Zealand toured South Africa in 1981, before their hosts were banned by the International Rugby Board. Rebel tours, including the 1986 New Zealand "Cavaliers", continued, but it was not until 1992 that South Africa was re-admitted to the rugby community. The sight of Nelson Mandela wearing a Springbok jersey at the 1995 World Cup final became a potent symbol of the new, unified South Africa.

Romania's Left Wingers

Rugby union had been played in Romania since the early 20th century, but it was not until Ceausescu came to power in 1965 that it received top billing as a way to promote the glory of the socialist republic. Over the next two decades, there was considerable investment in the sport, leading to notable international results in the Eighties, such as wins over Wales, France, Scotland and a narrow loss to the All Blacks. In the 1989 revolution, many of the national side lost their lives as a result of their day jobs – including their inspirational captain, Florica Murariu, who was shot dead at an army roadblock.

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