Closeup/International Affairs

French Disconnection

What do these Bretons want, anyway?

Marci McDonald September 4 1978
Closeup/International Affairs

French Disconnection

What do these Bretons want, anyway?

Marci McDonald September 4 1978

French Disconnection

Closeup/International Affairs

What do these Bretons want, anyway?

Marci McDonald

Rain clouds hang thick and petulant over the summer dusk, as they have for weeks now. In Commana, a hamlet of 1,200 perched on the rolling green of a Brittany hillside, it is the quiet time before the storm. Outside the town hall, where he has set up speakers and microphones, the Breton bard who goes by the name Glenmor sweeps blue eyes over the silent village where, this year—scared off by bad weather and headlines about the 250 miles of coastline blackened by the world’s worst oil spill—the tourists have not come. Hotels stand empty, campgrounds deserted, the economy in ruins. “It’s sad, the land, this year, eh?” he says. “Sad, but angry too.”

It is the eve of Glenmor’s 20th anniv sary of singing for the liberation of Brittany—20 years of driving the countryside to set up in town halls like this one, the wallpaper behind the stage peeling in ribbons, the curtains lopsided and heavy with dust, his single accompanist gamely rushing between the piano, bass fiddle, mikes and lightbox while-his wife Katel mans the ticket and souvenir booths at the door. They have been two decades of scrambling and derision, of being laughed at as a Breton nationalist and barred from French radio and TV as a political subversive, but now at 47, grey mane and whiskers flowing over his shirtsleeves, Glenmor suddenly finds himself a minor legend—Pied Piper to a new flowering of Brittany’s offspring who are determined to reclaim their cultural heritage with fierce cries of, “Me, I am not French—I am Breton.”

They have followed him even to this obscure inland village—stolid dirt farmers and fishermen with infants in their arms, students home for the holidays, a schoolteacher who has driven two hours from the seaport of Brest to snare a front-row seat— not a mad bomber’s face among them. As they take their places, spilling over onto windowsills and the floor, they confide that they want no part of the explosions which have become the signature of the violent revolutionary vanguard of the Front for the Liberation of Brittany, climaxing in this summer’s million-dollar bombing which reduced the Napoleonic suite of the château of Versailles to the rubble of shattered gilt and crystal. “That’s not us,” says a dairy farmer stoutly. “The FLB, they’re only a handful. They’re giving the Bretons a bad name.”

But as the lights fall and the rangy giant in cowboy boots onstage breaks into “Open the Doors of the Night, ” his plea for Breton

autonomy, another mood takes hold. Applause swells as he sings of past heroes and rebellions. Cheers go up over old battles lost and others yet to be won. The tension of bitter solidarity mounts as he mourns sea birds whose songs have been stilled by deadly slicks of oil and talks of bombs detonated in the corridors of the Sun King.

“In Paris, they may have condemned it,” he thunders. “But when Versailles was blown up, I never saw a Breton sad. They say that we have damaged a precious part

of the French heritage. But they have destroyed all of Breton culture. They owe us hundreds of châteaux of Versailles.” In the darkness a hoarse, foot-stomping ovation sweeps the town hall of Commana like the advancing of the tide.

Beyond the harbor of Portsall, the red and white hull of the up-ended Amoco-

Cadiz rises distant and surreal, like some ghostly reef out of the Atlantic. All summer strangers have streamed into the tiny Breton fishing port to focus their binoculars on it, shake their heads and drive away. “Oh sure, we have lots of tourists,” snaps Marguerite Chapalain, a pretty university student waiting tables in the local creperie. “They come to see our bad luck.” One couple had driven all the way from Marseilles and left disappointed because the beaches are not still awash in the 220,000 tons of thick black crude which engulfed them in last March’s marée noire, as the largest oil spill in history has come to be dubbed— Brittany’s black tide.

Now, five months after the $ 100million catastrophe mobilized the French army to pump and bulldoze the poisonous muck into thousands of railroad tank cars which nobody knows what to do with yet, soldiers continue to labor with garden trowels trying to patch up the shore to a surface respectability. But if the coastline today bears scant traces of the disaster, the population still carries its scars.

“BRITTANY: FROM ONE SHIPWRECK TO ANOTHER,” headlines the Paris daily Le Matin, tallying up the season’s ruinous statistics for tourism, the source of the livelihood of onethird of the region. At Pont-Aven, Paul Gaugin’s home town just inland from the southwest coast of Finistère— hundreds of miles from the slightest sign of oil leaks—a girl in the local tourist office moans over the cancelled reservations which have swamped her till midsummer. “Even here, they think we’re polluted,” she says.

French President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing himself arrived to put his stamp on the cleanup—descending from his helicopter for an hour to walk the streets of Portsail, pump hands and have his photograph snapped on the beach examining a pristine branch of seaweed. But the visit ended badly. He had promised to come in May, but the French army still had not finished its mop-up, the fishermen were not yet back out to sea and after a wave of FLB bombings, intelligence sources had warned him of a bloody reception. So he waited till August, bringing too little, too late. His refusal to meet with the militant local fishermen’s committee—indignant that they still had not received the major part of their promised compensation—has further infuriated them. He emerged from a seaside lunch to find a swarm of Breton pork farmers blockading the presidential chopper with their tractors, a dead piglet strung from the chopper’s blades.

While it is true that the Bretons have been rebelling for centuries and that even now the Front for the Liberation of Brittany is estimated to number less then 100 hard-core separatists, it is also indisputable that the ranks of its sympathizers who want

more regional autonomy and a better economic deal have been steadily mounting, and never so rapidly as in these recent months when the bulk of the Amoco-Cadiz looms off the coast as a sinister reminder of this summer of Brittany’s discontent.

“The marée noire, it’s yet another example of how we Bretons have been victims,’’ says René l'Hostis, a 35-year-old oil tanker repairman who was the Portsall area candidate for the pro-autonomy Breton Democratic Union in last March’s legislative elections. “This is not our first oil spill, but our fourth. There wasn’t a fisherman in Brittany who didn't know after the wreck of the Torrey Canyon in 1967 that this could happen again and again, but the government did nothing.”

At Roscoff, east along the coast, two hotel owners, a fishing fleet boss, a ferry operator and an oyster farmer aren’t waiting anymore for the government to do anything. Spurred on by a New York lawyer visiting Roscoff, they have launched a class action in a Chicago circuit court against Standard Oil of Indiana, the owner of the Amoco-Cadiz, and Royal Dutch Shell, which chartered the vessel for its last voyage, for as yet unspecified damages—the first time French citizens have ever done so—and now other groups are following suit. “I have more faith in American justice than French,” says Jean-Paul Chapallain, 27-year-old owner of Le Brittany Hotel, a gleaming stone showpiece which he built three years ago on heavy borrowings. “Fifty per cent of my reservations were cancelled. I’ve lost more than $130,000 in business this season. I could go bankrupt waiting for the French government.”

In Portsall, where scientists have reassured the populace that the deep-water catches now brought in by fishermen are free from contamination, schoolteacher Prijent Lamour, the father of two, will not allow fish on his table. “I just don’t feel safe,” he says. “I let the kids go in swimming and they come out with a rash. Is that coincidental or from the oil? We have no way of knowing what we’re sitting on here.”

Like fresh driftwood, the grumbling washed up by the marée noire rolls onto the beachhead of Brittany’s accumulated grievances—some of them implicit in the very geography which once prompted French historian Jules Michelet to note, “Brittany is almost an island.” From Paris it is a 6'/2-hour train ride to Quimper—but only three to Brussels. Freight rates between Brittany’s breadbasket near Roscoff and its largest city, Rennes, are 37 per cent higher than between Marseilles and Paris, nearly double the distance.

Barely 18 per cent of the region’s population of almost three million have found jobs in industry, slightly more than half the national average, and a spate of cannery closings in the last two years has pushed unemployment to 50,000, the third highest in France. Nearly half the population still

depends on the land—hog butchers and potato diggers to the nation. But the invariably small farms have never been able to hold futures for the traditionally large families, and without local industry, the better part of Brittany’s youth has long been sent off to exile in the vast pools of unskilled urban labor, giving Paris the largest Breton population of any city in France.

Ever since their Celtic ancestors landed on the ancient shores of Armorica and rechristened it Little Britain, the populace has felt closer to the Irish, Scottish and Welsh whose language Breton resembles— a bond that has gone well beyond a shared

taste for the bagpipes. Eire’s struggle for independence still glows like a lodestar for Breton separatists and police believe that the Irish Republican Army is the major financier and arms suppliers behind FLB bombings.

The FLB s explosives were aimed with symbolic precision. In one blow at Napoleon’s suite in Louis XIV’s château, they efficiently dispensed vengeance on the two French rulers who had most savagely suppressed Breton uprisings and centralized the French state. A pre-war resurgence of nationalism careered to an ignominious end when two leaders of the powerful National Breton Party (PNB) secretly pil-

grimaged to Berlin for some ethnic dealmaking in 1938, then openly co-operated with the Nazis. The swift reprisals in 1944 not only saw the PNB outlawed, but a generation tarnished with accusations as collaborators. “To my generation,” says Breton folk-singer Youenn Gwernig, “Breton became the language of shame, of slavery. They spoke to their children in French, the language of social advancement. They didn’t want them to have this stain.” Today, less than half the population can still speak the language of its ancestors.

As of this fall, high-school students will be allowed to count a course in Breton as a credit toward a second foreign language, though not a first, meaning it still does not have the status of Spanish or Italian, and Breton programming on the governmentcontrolled TV monopoly has been permitted to double to 20 minutes a week.

“These are just crumbs,” protests 30year-old Tangi Louarn, who with a group of other parents has set up a chain of a dozen Breton kindergartens which they finance and man themselves. “France likes to think of itself as the country of liberty, equality and fraternity, but it's a lie. It’s the last country in Western Europe to recognize minority rights—even Spain has granted autonomy to the Catalans.” Snorts Glenmor with obvious pleasure: “Can you imagine what would happen if the Irish ambassador came here and cried ‘Vive la Bretagne Libre.’ France would never stand for it.”

Indeed, for a country which has exhibited such solidarity with Quebec’s aspirations for independence, France has shown itself remarkably reticent to yield to the

chafing minorities within its borders—not only Bretons and Corsicans, to whom Giscard has recently reiterated his refusal for special status—but the restive Basques, the Occitanians of the southwest, Alsatians and now the Nationalist Front of Savoy, a hitherto unknown group which announced its presence with a bomb in a Chamonix chairlift. Bretons who admit a kinship with Quebec are painfully aware, too, of the ironic comparisons with a French-speaking populace which has never faced cultural and linguistic extinction such as they do. “If we only had what Quebec has,” sighs Youenn Gwernig, “the revolution would be over.”

For Jacques le Goarnic, a building contractor from Moëlan-sur-mer, the revolution has lasted 25 years, ever since he got the notion of bestowing Breton names upon his 12 offspring. The local registrar declared them pagan names—unacceptable for his record—then after reluctantly acquiescing on the first six, suddenly dug in his heels and refused to accept the last half-dozen, banishing them to the oblivion of non-citizens. The ensuing suits have cost Le Goarnic more than $30,000 in lost family allowances, free university tuition for half his children and continuing lawyers’ fees in a fight which grew so bitter that at one point the two firstborn, then teen-agers, were carted off in handcuffs to spend 48 hours in a Quimper jail as potential witnesses against their parents. “The result has been to turn us all into nationalists,” says Garlonn, the eldest, a 32-yearold painter and poet.

In a time when young people around the world are answering the uncertainty of the future by turning inward to search out their roots, a new generation of Bretons who came to flower during the late ’60s are reviving the heritage their parents seemed

intent on burying, relearning their lost language and losing patience. A handful have chosen to march to the violent rhythms of the Front for the Liberation of Brittany—the separatist underground which was born in 1966 from a mixed assortment of leftover pre-war nationalists, radicalized intellectuals and disaffected poor.

Officially outlawed in 1974, it has laid claim to the rubble of 210 symbols of French presence in Britain—although not a single human injury. Attacks over the past year, however, have been co-signed by the extreme left-wing splinter Army for the Breton Revolution (ARB), which has reportedly organized itself into three-man cells scattered throughout the rolling countryside. Three weeks after the bombing of Versailles, French authorities announced they had broken the ARB-FLB with a sweep of arrests—a claim promptly punctuated by the sound of three smalltown police stations blowing up.

There is no doubt, though, that the FLB’s numbers are inifinitesimal—and, following a series of severe prison sentences meted out this summer, diminishing. It is also incontestable that, if one is to judge by the numbers of votes the Breton Democratic Union won in the last election, only 1.3 per cent of all Bretons want autonomy. But René PHostis argues that the party was forbidden any TV time during the election campaign and was caught up in the polarization between right and left which tore at all of France last March. “What makes me the most optimistic is that the young are refusing to leave Brittany. They want to stay and fight. And that’s a potential revolutionary force.”

Whether that new wave will be content with the quiet ways of the Breton Democratic Union, which recently had to publish an open plea to its members to stop supporting the FLB, is another question. “We’re against violence today,” he says, “because the Breton people aren’t ready for it. But if no action is won peacefully, the level of frustration will mount.” He takes up his newborn child from the cradle and looks out his cottage window to the place where the nose of the Amoco-Cadiz rears, sinister mock sentry, on the horizon. “Fm doing all in my legal means now to prevent my son from taking up a gun in the future,” he says. “But if it comes to that, I’ll think he will have good reason.”

Youenn Gwernig, poet, woodcarver, fireside philosopher who once befriended another exiled Breton named Jack Kerouac in New York many years ago, gazes out across the future and sees another shading. “Quebec had its FLQ,” he says. “We have our FLB. Any group of freedom fighters in history has been small. But the movement isn’t a minority anymore, and given an important issue, there’s hardly a Breton .who wouldn't vote for autonomy. If you look around at the world’s history, you have to conclude that it’s like the tide: it can’t be stopped.” 7;