Tradition is enormously important in France, and nowhere is tradition more maintained than in the French military, with roots going back hundreds of years. Historically there is a French Army unit called the Spahi, which, like the Zouaves, was originally comprised of troops from colonial areas in North Africa. The Spahis were light cavalry troops who wore distinctive uniforms reflecting their North African culture and deployment. Over time those uniforms and the composition of the units has changed. Today there is only one Spahi unit in the French military, an armored unit comprised mainly of European French.
Almost every small town, village, and hamlet in France has some sort of memorial to that town’s war dead. Many of these monuments are four sided, with a side dedicated to the war of 1870 (what Americans refer to as the Franco-Prussian war); another side to WWI, The Great War; and one side for WWII. Often the fourth side is for Indochina…the French involvement in Viet Nam that ended in the legendary defeat at Dien Bien Phu and preceded US involvement in Viet Nam. Each side names the town’s dead of that war. Often the side dedicated to WWI has, by far, the longest list. Close examination of those names reveals the tragedy that these communities suffered, the devastation of the male population that is still felt in once-thriving hamlets and villages that have never recovered. You will see the same names repeated time after time–fathers and sons, sons and brothers.
At any time of the year you see fresh flowers on the monuments and flags flying. The French do not forget, and they make sure future generations remember, too. One day last week small flyers showed up in Manu’s boucherie and the boulangerie. News of upcoming activities and events is often spread by flyers left in these businesses. This particular flyer announced an event the following Thursday at the war memorial on the square near the cafe. The Saphis were coming to the village.
Shortly before 11 am on Thursday a small gathering of locals began to arrive at the monument. Many were elderly, a few veterans sporting military caps or medals. Shortly before the appointed hour a parade of small children began to arrive. Then a second. All the elementary school classes from the small school in the village marched to the monument, then settled on the grass in quiet anticipation of the arrival of the Spahis.
At the appointed hour a unit marched in–young, sharp, intense, and proud. These men were part of the only Spahi unit in France, an armored unit that has been most recently in Afghanistan, where several of the young soldiers earned citations and medals for their actions. On this Thursday they would receive those awards on the village square in Luche-Pringe. The officer in command of the unit read the citations and explained to the gathering exactly what those soldiers had done, and the children listened, enthralled at the story, in awe of the soldiers, and proud of their country and their flag.
As much as any experience we have had here in the village this was touching, intimate, and powerful for us. Feeling part of this village, yet watching as outsiders this elemental French experience infusing the next generation with a knowledge of the country’s history and a sense of pride in that past. All over this country similar scenes are played out countless times: a clutch of locals gather, a unit of the nation’s military arrives in a village, and the children are brought out to see, to hear the stories, the history, to see the soldiers, to honor the flag, and as they did here in the village at the conclusion, to join the soldiers when they begin to sing the national anthem, a capella, standing before the monument to the citizens of that village who died in service to their country.
As I stand among the crowd singing la Marseillaise, watching the children singing, flags flying around the monument, I’m struck by how good this all feels, how good it makes me feel to see children and old people together sharing the feeling of patriotism.
That hits home hard for both of us. Patriotism is still OK in France. In fact, it is better than OK, it is encouraged. Being American, knowing that expressions of grassroots patriotism like we saw in the village on Thursday morning are nearly extinct back in the US, we are both deeply moved. There was a soulful kind of comfort in this very small moment in this small village. We exchanged nods and hellos with friends, they wordlessly accepting us as part of this village community. There was a kind of warm familiarity, a feeling that this experience, like so many others we have had living in France, calls up–remembrance of our childhood in the US. We have a sense of our own past, from what feels like a simpler time, when parades and flags and pride in the country were part of life, when grandparents and parents taught their children, and children were proud of their country.
Here in France, patriotism is still in fashion and they teach their children. And that’s better than OK.