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For All Nails #44C: On Brittany's Shores

by Randy McDonald

La Presse, 27 September 1972
Section E "On Brittany's Shores"

When you cross from Austrasia to France, France's impoverishment is clear. In the European context, "impoverishment" is a loaded word, inaccurate by world standards, for despite the Republic's attempts to reject the European heritage France is still a European country; the Pyrenees have not been moved north and east to the line of the Meuse. Generations of Frenchmen past may have rejected all restraints imposed upon them -- constitutional monarchy, the Church, convention -- but they are still part of the European fabric. It is France's misfortune that it was never an insular country like Britain; if it were, the French may have had a happier history.

France is an exhausted country. It was once a vivacious land, full of energy, and when the German states were prostrated first by the divisions of the Reformation then by the horrendous mutual slaughter of the Thirty Years War France had a chance to emerge triumphant on Europe's western fringe. Instead, it failed -- perhaps because its eastern frontier was much too exposed, because France was not protected by the English Channel from the energies of a recovering Germany. Since the last decade of the 18th century, French energies have been spent in repeated destructive bursts, in the pursuit of a discredited republican radicalism after the Mexican model without Mexico's strong states and effective decentralization. FN1 (Franco-Mexican hatreds, indeed, can be explained as much be their eerily similar political systems as by their wars.)

Now, Yvette Fanchon, the great-granddaughter of Marshal Fanchon -- la Fanchonette, FN2 she has been called -- was appointed Premier by the National Assembly, two years ago. In her inaugural speech, she promised to "be a uniter, not a divider," in short to manage her country's energies, to aid France in the development of a new stability, a new regime that will control the limited energies of France and allow for some kind of prosperity. Perhaps Yvette Fanchon will do that. For the time being, there is little to suggest that her reign might end as quickly as that of her famous ancestor, that the energies France displays will not be dissipated yet again in a revolution -- against her, against Germany, against anyone that the mobs can find. France might be irretrievably lost; its energies displayed under la Fanchonette may only by the energies of crystallization, of the heat released by water molecules before they become crystals of ice trapped in a lattice.

Crossing from Normandy to Brittany, though, you find something different, for the energy of Brittany is different. It is not, as in France, the latent heat of crystallization. In Brittany, the energy is indigenous and self-generated; Brittany's energy is produced by a people united and determined to achieve some great project. The Bretons are a people who might have had the chance to find themselves part of France de jure, but they do not consider themselves French. Concrete proof of these lies in the fact that when I descended from my car at the Rennes station, the sign welcoming me to Rennes, and to Brittany, was written in several languages: Breton, first, then Gallo -- the east Breton French dialect -- , then German, and only then the French of Ile-de-France.

And, framing the text to left and right, seven feet in length, are Brittany's iconic spears: Celtic in design. Simple, modern, yet achingly ancient and traditional. They appear everywhere. There was an archeological excavation at a site outside of Vannes in the mid-1950's; an old Gallic chieftain's site of the Roman era, the current academic consensus is. The original pair of spears was found, buried alongside a man who was presumably the chieftain, buried alongside his immaculately preserved Roman trade goods, preserved wonderfully in the bare rock hermetically sealed from the outside. This pair of spears was seized by imaginative Bretons everywhere, as a symbol of the strength of the ancient Celts and their modern nation's own revival. A skeptical few wonder if the model spears were really so large, but Bretons are content with their size, for they are Brittany's, and Brittany deserves only the largest spears.

The Bretons are a Celtic people. As their name suggests, they are descended -- at least in part -- from the Britons, from Britain's Romanized Celts who had fled the Anglo-Saxon barbarians FN3 in the 5th century in the search for some refuge. Certain historians, by no means all pro-French, suggest that there was some melding with the remnant Gauls; certainly the Bretons as they have developed are a composite nation. The Bretons are a people created by motion: To this day, they are a people who have been defined by the decision of their forebears to flee for the one land which they could call their own. FN4 And thus, Roman Armorica became a "Little Britain" far truer to the original than its modern namesake.

Despite the modern rhetoric of "nos ancêtres les Gaulois" FN5, and despite the fact that Brittany is densely permeated by French culture -- indeed, the eastern half of Brittany has never been peopled by anyone but speakers of Gallo and French -- the French and Bretons have never gotten along. In the Carolingian Empire that was the first incarnation of Western civilization, the Bretons were a restive march only nominally subordinate. Their king Dommonnée held Brittany together, long enough for the Breton people to survive. During the Middle Ages, Brittany was a free duchy; to be sure, the Grand Duke and his parliament at Rennes paid a nominal sort of homage to the French Crown, but then the Bretons never limited themselves to France until they were forced to.

I was talking to André Le Glouannec at the Rennes gare. Le Glouannec is a journalist for the Courrier de Rennes, one of Brittany's leading daily newsjournals. Bilingual, in Breton and Gallo. He is a man in his forties, young enough yet to remember the endpoint of the Fanchonist regime and Brittany's second renaissance, knowledgeable enough about the fate of the Basques and Provençals to be happy with Brittany's position while wanting to enjoy the same freedoms as the Flemish or the Lithuanians.

The Bretons, as a people, have had an unfortunate tendency to illiteracy: While their mighty lords wrote in the French of Paris, the Breton peasants laboured in their lords' fields. The Gallo-speaking peasants, at least, could talk to their lords and understand and be understood; the Breton-speaking peasants always needed intermediaries, and were always oppressed. Brest -- the largest Breton-speaking city in the world by population and land area both -- was likened by one of the French navy captains whose ship was based in that city as a French colonial outpost in a hostile land.

"Brittany's problem is that we're not an island, like England. So, we had a navy; definitely, we had a navy under our Dukes, just like the English. But we couldn't use it to hold off the French." The Bretons tried to get allies; but then came a French invasion in response, and the battle of St-Aubin-du-Cormier in 1488 which forced Duc François to plan to give his daughter in marriage to the French king. This daughter, the Duchess Anne, was a brilliant queen much-loved by the Breton people; if Brittany's line of sovereign rulers had to end, Anne was as good an ending as any.

And them came torpor: The 16th and 17th centuries were peaceful in Brittany, and the trans-Atlantic trade from Brest and Nantes prospered, and Breton emigrants made their way to the rude settlements along the shores of the St. Lawrence. But nothing happened, politically or culturally. Brittany remained, despite its vestigial parliament, an appendage of France; Brittany's staunch Catholicism and conservatism remained inert, unactive, lacking the catalysts that were to transform Catholicism elsewhere. Only stagnation and decline. And then, as the 18th century drew to an end, Brittany was dragged into the wars of France, of which the most disruptive was the Trans-Oceanic War: Rare was the Anglo-French naval battle not fought off of one Breton coast or another. And so this barren state of affairs lasted well into the 19th century.

Nantes is Brittany's ancient capital; yet, in many ways, it is the least Breton area of Brittany. Before the Global War, Breton was a language of only a small minority of Nantais -- migrants from the west of Brittany and natively Gallo-speaking Breton patriots, for the most part. Even before the Trans-Oceanic War, Nantes' profited from its trade with the rest of France, conducted through the Loire that even now passes through the city in its seven separate channels. FN6 Nantes overseas trade was equally significant, though to the embarrassment of modern-day Nantais the slave trade was preeminent in this element. Nantes had its own ties which did not necessarily tie it to the rest of Brittany; not for nothing was Nantes known as a little Paris to visitors.

And now, Nantes has become a little Paris in truth, for it is once again the centre of Brittany. Nantes like all of the other cities of Brittany was damaged by British bombing raids during the Global War, but the Bretons take pride in their past and were able to rebuild their capital. The Château des Ducs looks just as it did in the days of the Duchess Anne, its low ramparts rising over the widespread town of a half-million souls. There are no more dukes, but the Parlement meets in the Château now, as it has ever since its restoration after the Fanchonist interregnum and the Global War in 1947.

"Brittany developed differently from all of the other regions of France before the Franco-German War," Le Glouannec told me over a light dinner of Breton seafood at a restaurant by the Place Royale. "We were never tied into France -- France is a geographical oddity, a centre stretching from the Austrasian border south to Limousin and only as far west as Lower Normandy. Brittany was a periphery, an outlier; nothing happened here, France's industry developed in the interior as Brittany's trade declined, or shifted to Gascony or Normandy ..."

"So, Brittany stood out," I state.

"Very much so." La Glouannec reaches over to his glass of wine -- a Rhineland vintage -- and takes a sip before continuing. "It was different from the rest of France in the same way that Québec was in British North America. We a Celtic enclave, you a Latin enclave; we strongly Catholic in an increasingly anti-clerical France, you strongly Catholic in an increasingly Protestant North America. And didn't you Québécois turn in on yourselves at the same time -- colonize your hinterland, resist incorporation into the Confederation as a colonial partner, try to find out who you were and what this meant for your relationship with your neighbours ..." Another sip of the wine, a white. "The only problem for Brittany, though, was that we didn't have the same freedoms that you Québécois enjoyed."

I wonder: "The Confederation was a democracy; imperfect, and hard on the Indians, but a democracy nonetheless. France -- what, Bretons had to exploit the gaps in the Bourbon monarchy? Old privileges, gaps in the monarchy's coverage, exile on the Channel Islands?"

"Exactly," and he smiles. "You've got it down exactly." And as he goes on to tell me, the Breton revival continued because of the French monarchy's weakness. The Act of Union of 1532, passed at Vannes, did subordinate Brittany to France, but it did give the former a certain autonomy. As the French monarchs in Paris, weakened by the Trans-Oceanic War and their own incapacity, declined, so did Breton ambitions and the scope of Breton abilities expand. The Catholic Church served, here, as the vanguard for a new innovative Breton culture; if the traditions of the rest of France lent themselves to unbelief, then, the Church determined with relative naivete, best to bolster the traditions of the pious Breton peasants and to solve their problems.

The Breton peasantry needed money and land? Fine, then let the Church arrange credit cooperatives like our caisses populaires from which peasants could borrow to improve the yield of their meagre lands, and investigate the new methods for reclaiming the lands of the Breton interior.

The culture of the Bretons resisted unbelief? Fine; best to support those Breton traditions which did not contravene the doctrine of the Church, since their pardons -- their grand religious gatherings, in honour of one saint or another FN7 -- were, after all, perfect expressions of Celtitude and piety alike.

The language of the Bretons lacked a standard written form? Fine, then scholars of the Breton revival, lay and clerical alike, sat down to draw out from the researches of Gonidec earlier in the century a written standard for Breton. (This innovation was delayed by the standards of other languages, since the earliest Breton texts date from the late 8th century long before the 842 Oaths of Strassburg that see the first appearance of French. Still, better late than never.)

The Bretons needed education? Then, let the Breton Parlement and the Church find the teachers and the funds necessary to school Breton children, in whatever language they might speak.

"This all changed, of course, with the Franco-German War," Le Glouannec continued. "Some Breton soldiers did fight in Lorraine against the Germans with their units, but those units were destroyed. Brittany was never occupied by the Germans, not like even Normandy or Burgundy FN8, but we'd been bled. Ten thousand Bretons killed in a war that was never our own, the battles in the Channel between French ships manned by Bretons and German ships ... And then, when the King and his family were exterminated by the Paris mob -- that's when we had to make our own constitutional arrangements."

Brittany and the Bretons might not have been strictly French, but the Bretons were hardly regicides. Naturally, then, and despite the seeming appeal of socialism to the Breton peasantry, Brittany -- led by the Church and its nobles and the conservative bourgeois of Nantes -- declared for the King. Not that Brittany hosted the King, or that Brittany's role in the incessant French civil wars over the next generation was anything but strictly defensive, aimed at keeping any number of republican, socialist, or even over-zealous monarchist armies from ravaging Brittany just as the Loire or Normandy had been ravaged.

"Perhaps Brittany should have declared independence. Certainly by the end of the 1880's we had all of the infrastructure of a state -- the Parlement was meeting again as a law-making body, we had our own army, we had our own public schools ... There was even talk, I can show you the papers later, of restoring the Duke. Perhaps even an alliance with Germany -- naval rights at Brest would certainly have been enough to have our independence guaranteed." And now, a weak smile. "But we were too busy, and we had our own problems."

"Later always seems like a good time," I commiserate.

"But then, the economy was doing poorly and we were trying to stem the emigration, the hemorrhage ..." A sigh.

Brittany may have been founded by immigration; since the 17th century, though, Brittany has been a land of emigration. We Québécois know this full well, as our nation is but one product of the first Breton diaspora, in the 17th century, which ensued when life become too hard on the rocky Breton shore and other, softer destinations -- the Loire, Poitou, even Canada -- appealed. But in the generation after the Franco-German War, this movement took on a new strength, for a half-million Bretons emigrated. FN9 Mainland France received few emigrants despite the ties of history and sovereignty. Rather, this new wave of Bretons went overseas.

We in Québec received our own large contingent, of course, in the Saguenay frontier in the 1890s; even now, the Breton language is still spoken by a minority of Saguenéens, and this Brittany-in-America thrives, as do the smaller Breton-founded settlers in the far west, and to the fishing villages of our east. Indeed, the blood of the ancient Breton seafarers may be the reason why sometimes the blood of the modern Quebecois will sometimes call him to the sea.

Less known is the movement across the Channel to Wales, as Welsh coal-mine owners looked for cheap labour as England's own emigrants preferred the Confederation or Australia. This migration, a reversal of the ancient migration of Britons to Little Brittany, has proved quite interesting in its own right, bolstering as it has the Welsh language and the ties between the two shards of the Briton peoples in the face of official hostility, while inspiring a new Welsh Catholicism that has become a national faith alongside Methodist Protestantism. These migrations and others -- of workers to England, of students to Austrasia, of missionaries to central Africa -- had the signal effect of strengthening Brittany's ties with the world outside France.

Breton independence might have come in time. But then, Henri Fanchon's coup intervened in 1909. The feuding French provinces rallied behind Fanchon's grandiose nationalism of course but Brittany resisted. And Brittany's reluctance to give up its independence cost it a brutal invasion, the first aggression of Fanchon as Bretons remind anyone who asks. Nantes fell quickly even as the Parlement and the nobles evacuated to Brest, from which desperate and futile efforts were made to enlist protection of Brittany by a foreign power -- perhaps the British, perhaps the Germans, perhaps even the Mexicans. These failed, though, and the Breton diaspora of intellectuals and politicians, merchants and nationalists from Brest to points overseas -- Québec, Brussel, Berlin, Strassburg, Cardiff, London -- robbed Brittany of its brightest.

Fanchon treated Brittany as a conquered country; the Breton language was outlawed, robbed of its past generation of official sponsorship, while Gallo was downgraded to a mere dialect. After all, those languages were the "languages of federalism and separatism" as Fanchon himself said, and the "unity of political France can be assured only by the unity of cultural France." FN10 Brittany's nascent industries were bought out by Parisien industrialists, Brittany's fragile agriculture overwhelmed by cheaper imports, efforts made to redirect the flow of Breton emigrants to help repeople a France experiencing low birth rates. In short, Brittany was made a colony.

It escapes Le Glouannec why the French are outraged that the Bretons rose up against French rule as soon as the first German troops crossed into Lorraine in the Global War: "Did they think that we wanted to be French, that we liked having our culture and languages spit upon, our society rebuilt for their ends? They talk about German imperialism while forgeting their own."

It took a while for the Germans to notice this; Brittany remained under military occupation for quite some time, though more because of its strategic situation opposite Britain than because of its population. It was only in 1944, when Paris rose against the Germans while the Bretons remained quite, that the Germans noticed the potential for Brittany. And after 1946, when Bruning fell to be replaced by von Richter, German plans for Brittany took on a coloration quite attractive to the Bretons. After all, their Parlement had, mostly, sought refuge in Austrasia and Germany, as had their Catholic nobles; resuming Parlement's sessions in Nantes, and bringing the nobles back to their homes, was but the first step in the restoration of a truly autonomous Brittany.

And now, the Breton flag flies across Brittany. It is an attractive banner: In the upper left-hand corner is the yellow star of the sea of St. Anne, while below and to the right of the star are five white and four black stripes representing the nine dioceses of Brittany. FN11 It was devised during the first period of independence, banned during the Fanchonist occupation, and revived on a massive scale during this second period of independence. The Bretons are proud to be Breton, quite proud. (The ermine is popular, too, but that belongs to an older Brittany.)

The French link remains, as always for the latest generation of Bretons, an irritant. It isn't as if Paris can interfere in Brittany, by any means; French powers in Brittany are largely limited to the need for all of the Breton ministries to prepare reports updating the French bureaucracy on local events, since the French bureaucracy lacks its own agents on the ground. But the Bretons have never been able to declare independence. Von Richter's rationale, supposedly, was that a France which lost Lorraine could never abide the loss of Brittany, and besides that the current situation was quite near to independence. And so, the Bretons have abided.

The Bretons have resumed their old links with the wider world, aided by German technological expertise and the Outer Empire's vast markets; Breton agriculture thrives, geared for export, while Brittany's stability has attracted manufacturers deterred by France's instability. The old hemorrhage of Bretons has ceased; if anything, Brittany's demographic problem is the possibility of a large French immigration. The Sleeveforce -- the German garrisons on the Channel -- is hated by Normans and isn't particularly welcomed by the Flemish on either side of the Austrasian border. In Brittany, though, the Sleeveforce base at Quimper is well-integrated into the local community. German soldiers supposedly queue for Breton language lessons so they can enjoy their leave in a friendly community; Breton women marry some of those same soldiers, either staying in Brittany once the German's term of duty is up or following their loved one across the Empire. Brittany, in short, prospers, no less than Slovenia does inside the Inner Empire.

"The Slovenes, though, can count on stability; the Empire's not going to have a revolution, or invade and cancel their autonomy. But France? Who knows what will it do?" This has particularly become a concern since the rise of la Fanchonette. The old laissez-faire relationship rested heavily upon German domination of France; Nantais worry about the possibilities of a German withdrawal leaving Brittany open to a second Fanchonist invasion. The Bretons don't want to be colonized again, they want to be free. And if they have to declare independence to do so, I don't doubt that they will. Perhaps even a German alliance and the maintenance of the Quimper base, for old time's sake?

I was going to travel beyond Nantes, in Brittany. I was going to visit the Breton countryside; I was going to see Brest; I was going to see a field or two of dolmens; I was going to see the old Acadien settlements on Belle-Isle-sur-Mer. But then, in the Norman town of Bayeux early in the afternoon on the 23rd, a German soldier by the name of Karl-Heinz Schuschnigg was assassinated, apparently by French-speaking foreigners. As a French-speaking foreigner of some note, I was brought in by the German military police.

I was not mistreated during my one-day detention. There was only one occasion, as I was being taken to the interrogation room, that I seriously feared for my safety, when the fat mustachioed man who was standing by the door punched me in the chin for not moving quickly enough.

"Hit me, you baby," I said fiercely to the stupid-looking German interrogator, "just one more time, and you'll see ..."

He never got the chance, for his superior had walked up behind him to monitor the interrogation. The last I heard, he was being reprimanded for his mistreatment of a prisoner, in particular, of a prisoner from a neutral country which enjoyed pleasant relations with Germany.

Nonetheless, upon my departure from the military police station in Nantes, I decided I wanted to go visit Ireland. A change of scene was what I required, rather urgently.

Forward to FAN #44D (Maeterlinck): Ireland's End.

Forward to October 1972: An Opposing Viewpoint.

Return to For All Nails.