Why They Don’t Burn Guys in France

Of Christmas Lights and Flip Flops

An unseasonably warm late autumn weekend in small-town France – a brief stroll into town – café terraces are thronged with late diners and afternoon drinkers, basking in the warm sun with the nonchalance of a summer Sunday. There is a definite carefree holiday atmosphere, all the more strange, since this week; the local authorities finally finished stringing up the Christmas lights, ready for the December switch. Yes, the festive season is only a matter of weeks away, and as the commercial breaks on TV are crammed with snow-filled adverts or images of happy families standing round the Christmas tree and ripping open presents … a globally warmed juxtaposition. While Santa slides down chimneys on TV, all the world is wearing shorts and flip flops , 25°c in mid-November! We have been told that it won’t last, so enjoy it while it does.

What did not happen in France this week

Occasionally on this blog, I like to inform readers of events in France, in this post though, I will tell you of what has not happened this week.

The Gunpowder Plot (is not French)

In a damp and blustery Britain, the good folks of Blighty celebrated Bonfire Night, also known as Guy Fawkes Night or Fireworks Night – November 5th (or a weekend thereabouts) when all over the UK, the inhabitants indulge in the letting off of fireworks and the lighting of bonfires, all to celebrate the 1605 Gunpowder Plot.

We don’t celebrate this in France, as I have often tried to explain to many Brits, the Gunpowder plot is part of British and not French history. Do the good folks of Britain celebrate Bastille Day?

For readers unfamiliar with this curious event, here is a spot of history

Twas on the eve of the State Opening of Parliament on November 4th 1605, that guards, searching the vaults of the Palace of Westminster found 36 barrels of gunpowder under the very chamber, where the next day, King James 1st would open the new session of Parliament. There with the barrels, waiting to light the fuse and send the king and his entire parliament to sky-high was one, Guy Fawkes. He was arrested and in the coming days, his fellow conspirators were rounded up. Sent to the Tower of London and tortured, the conspirators were eventually tried and sentenced to death in January 1606. They all met a particularly horrible end – they were hung, drawn and quartered – which involved hanging the victim until nearly dead, then slitting open his lower body with a sword for the extraction of his entrails – which were duly presented to him, and presumably, the cheering crowd.

Obvious Question

Who were these early 17th century “terrorists” who wanted to blow up parliament and why?

They were a group of noteworthy provincial catholic gentry and nobility, dissatisfied at the King’s religious reforms. King James as a protestant King presiding over a largely puritan parliament. The king had basically promised that there would be an end to persecution of Catholics and it hadn’t happened, so this was cause enough to kill the king.

I suppose in Modern day terminology this would be a « terrorist plot » that was « foiled » by the authorities. Blowing people sky high for their religious beliefs. We don’t seem to have evolved much since 1605.

Anyway, the King was safe and, ever since 1605 (in various forms) the failed terrorist attack has been celebrated. In its modern guise, the Brits let off fireworks, normally at big public displays and then they burn an effigy of Guy Fawkes on a large bonfire.

Explaining Bonfire Night to the Neighbours.

« But don’t you celebrate Guy Fawkes Night with your family with English friends? » asked one of my mum’s neighbours many years back when I was visiting the UK.

Well. No, I (or we) don’t

First explain to the neighbours why exactly we are letting off fireworks, lighting a bonfire and burning an effigy of Guy Fawkes.

“It’s an English tradition!”

Next explain in this predominantly Catholic country, that, what is now looked on as a bit of traditional fun in the UK, has its roots in a bunch of protestants getting together to celebrate the very grizzly end of a bunch of Catholics

I think there is also another aspect to this – explaining this strange British tradition in a staunchly republican country; we are after all, celebrating the saving of King James 1st. If we’re talking in firework terms, the French light up the skies on Bastille Day – marking those events on July 14th 1789, which eventually led to the downfall of the French monarchy and King Louis XVI losing his head.

Of course, I suppose we have to remember that Charles 1st – son of James 1st – like Louis XVI, also lost his head – sent to the block in 1649, by Cromwell and his cronies. Some historians see this as the end of the English Civil War, whilst others call it part of the English Revolution – so the English had their revolution a full 140 years before the French!

Remembrance Sunday

Something else that hasn’t happened in France this week – Remembrance Sunday.

Yes; the French do honour all those who laid down their lives in all wars, they simply do it differently from the Brits.

On November 11th across France, from the smallest village to the tomb of the Unknown Soldier beneath Arc de Triomphe in Paris, the dead of the First World War will be remembered in sombre republican ceremonies of wreath laying and military parades. Every year the 11th of November is a public holiday, enabling the public to get along to the ceremonies.

Please note that – the ceremony is always on November 11th – unlike the British model of « Remembrance Sunday » – the British version is a faith-based ceremony and all faiths represented past and present in the British and Commonwealth armed forces take part in a wreath laying ceremony at the Cenotaph in London. In the French model, faith does not enter into the ceremonial equation – soldiers, politicians, dignitaries and those of this ilk will lay wreaths at the local war memorial for the First World War.

In many towns there is not just one, but also two or three war memorials. In my corner of small town France we have the memorial to the Great War on the Avenue 11 November. We have the WW2 memorial on the Place du 8 mai. Tucked away (so as to be as unobtrusive as possible) we have a memorial to those who were killed in colonial wars – Indochina and Algeria – and we have a memorial to those killed in the 1870-71 Franco Prussian war – Every war gets its own memorial

And that is what did not happen in France this week.