Friday, June 18, 2010

The Flame of French Resistance

March 2010, Paris

David Cameron: “Fancy a day out, Sarko? Call me Dave, by the way. Look, I need to beef up my European credentials. You need a break from pension reform so lets celebrate the 70th anniversary of Charles de Gaulle’s radio broadcast on June 18th together here in London. Bring Carla.”

Nicolas Sarkozy: “ Dave. I can do better than that. I can cover a Eurostar with pictures of de Gaulle, fill it with 800 former servicemen AND bring Carla. The myth, oops, I mean the flame of French resistance must not be extinguished.  See you in June.”

While in Paris last week, No Crowds also took the chance to  ‘refresh’ the flame of French resistence by visiting the Memorial to Marshal Leclerc, dedicated to the Commander of the Free French Forces and the liberator of Paris, and the adjacent Museum of Jean Moulin, devoted to the leader of the French Resistance. Both of these museums can be found in the illusive Jardin Atlantique, located on top of the Montparnasse train station.

Now, you would think a roof garden on top of a train station would be easy to find. Not so. To begin with, there are two entrances with free-standing glass elevators that, in better days, would whisk visitors up to the garden in the sky but judging by the amount of rubbish in the empty and sinister relics, they haven’t worked in ages. Two other possibilities exist: a staircase in the far left corner of the Montparnasse train station and an entrance from Boulevard Pasteur.

Because it is hard to find, this 8.5 acre roof top garden in the middle of a densely populated part of the 15th Arrondisement is an uncrowded and rather magical place. Surrounded on all sides by modern high rise buildings, including the uniquely ugly Tour Montparnasse, the garden is filled with trees and plants from the Atlantic area of France. The space is a surprising urban oasis that is perfect for children who love the many hiding places and views down onto the train tracks and station through the ventilation shafts.

OK, the name is a mouthful, but this museum, which is actually two exhibitions in one building which tells the story of France’s experience in World War II through the eyes of two very different Frenchmen. Marshal Leclerc was the Commander who led the 2nd Armored division that liberated Paris from the Germans (‘aided’ by the Americans as they put it) while Jean Moulin was a French government official tortured and executed by the Germans who is considered the father of the Resistance. Both museums have large collections of photographs, documents and film from the period. Unlike most museums in France, many documents and explanations have been translated into several languages, including English. The museum is well-curated, empty and the permanent collection is free. During our visit, a French school group joined us briefly. Otherwise we had the building entirely to ourselves. Closed Mondays.

Now, at first I thought it was a weakness that this memorial/museum presents a view of the resistance and liberation not universally shared by all historians. But increasingly during my visit, I came to appreciate what Charles de Gaulle and his compatriots were able to pull off with little more than rousing oratory and good political instincts and after a visit to The Memorial of Marshal Leclerc Hautelocque and of the Liberation of Paris and the Museum Jean Moulin I know exactly why Dave and Sarko are so keen to share in the warm glow of de Gaulle’s inspiring London broadcast to the people of France.

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