10 Nov 2013
Remembrance Day ceremony in a small village
In France, as in the UK, there are local commemorations of those killed in wars, in most villages. November 11 is an official public holiday. French administration is organised at its lowest level in communes, which can be as large as a major city, or as small as a village: the smallest near where I live has just 74 people., and ours now has about 260. Each commune has an elected mayor and council, a budget, and some significant powers. The mayor is the first port of call about any issue, from planning to roads to neighbour disputes.
Today, Sunday 10 November 2013, I went to the wreath laying ceremony in the commune in which I live. The actual ceremonies start with a mass in the church in the nearest small town, organised for all the small villages around. Although every village has a church, there are no longer priests. Even thirty years ago most of them would have had their own, powerful, curé, but as the old priests died they were not replaced. Now, there are some priests – mostly from Francophone Africa, interestingly - who serve half a dozen or more parishes, much as vicars in the UK, and hold masses, conduct funerals, christenings, marriage ceremonies, wherever and whenever they can. I did not attend the church ceremony.
From the church, the next step takes place at the war memorials in the individual villages. There is a guard of honour, made up from anciens combatants (former soldiers) from the commune, with flags of their regiments, or in one case, that of the group of former prisoners of war, who stand to attention facing the memorial.
These guards of honour also attend the funerals of former soldiers. When our friend Robert died in 2003, there were fourteen flags carried at his funeral, but each year there are fewer old soldiers left, and fewer of them who can hold up a heavy flag. There were six at a funeral of a neighbour that I attended a few months ago, and only two today at the commemoration. There is no one left from the first world war, and as we get to the 70th anniversary of D-day and the battle for Normandy, all those who fought then are in their eighties and nineties. Even those from the Algerian war are now pensioners. Soon, there will be no flags.
The mayor said that we are there to honour those who died, and read out the names of all those from the commune who were killed in 1914-18. As he said each name he paused, and everyone murmured 'Mort pour la France', died for France. There are 29 names, including four from one family. At the time the commune had a population of about 600, most of whom were agricultural workers, and many of those were exempt from the military because of the need to keep producing food, so the deaths were a high proportion of those who went to war. He read out four names from the second world war the same way. One former soldier laid a wreath at the foot of the memorial, the mayor asked for a minute's silence, and then it was over.
There were 21 people at the ceremony, mostly elderly, a few children. We then went to the mairie, the town hall, across the road from the memorial, for the traditional vin d'honneur , a glass of champagne. A few minutes later, the people from the ceremony in the next commune arrived to share the wine; next year we will go to their mairie.
Tonight, as every November 10, there is a communal meal in the Salle des Fêtes, used for all sorts of official events like voting, for celebrations and private functions. Most of them have stages at one end, and are used for theatrical and musical events as well. Ours is the former school, and large enough for about 120 people to sit down to eat. The meal will be an aperitif, probably a kir, an entree, a main course of grilled ham in a chive sauce, a wedge of camembert, and a dessert. It costs 13 euros, under £11. You have to take your own plate, cutlery and glass. There will be live music, and dancing until very late.
There is no tradition of wearing poppies in France. There is therefore no absurd pressure on everyone in the public eye to start pinning them on themselves from mid October. But the commemorations are sincere, and matter even to those who do not go. This was occupied France, and that time, and the subsequent battles and destruction of many towns and lives, is still felt.