So far I’ve carried little news on our Celtic cousins in Breizh (Brittany) and I’ve been taken to task for it by a number of you. The difficulties faced by the Breton people in the struggle to assert their national identity and culture in the face of a hostile French state means relatively little news of a Celtic Nationalist nature comes out the country. Of all the Celtic nations Brittany is perhaps the most oppressed in terms of its identity, to the point of an almost Stasi-like authoritarianism on behalf of France which has repeatedly suppressed Breton nationality. The most outrageous act of recent times was the administrative partition of the territory begun by the Vichy French collaborationist government in 1941 which moved the national capital of Naoned (Nantes) into a new artificial region dubbed Loire-Atlantique, thereby robbing Brittany of its cultural and economic heart.
Less than 70 years ago 1.3 million people spoke the Breton language but persecution by the French (especially in the decades after World War II, when many Bretonrefugees fled to Ireland) has reduced those numbers to the present figure of 200,000. Despite this a small but significant movement is attempting to reverse this process, mainly through Breton medium schools, which have grown in popularity over the last decade. Yet even here, France (which refuses to implement the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages), has actively impeded future progress, with these schools receiving no state-funding or recognition. Instead much of the work is left to local communities, voluntary groups, and some well-disposed politicians and civil servants in the regional authority for Brittany.
At a wider level Breton-speakers are generally treated as second class citizens under the so-called Fifth Republic, with no rights to language equality and are simply not recognised by the state as a separate or distinct people. Enforcing this position of institutional-discrimination leaves France in stark contrast with the British state where the limited legal rights enjoyed by the Celtic communities of Scotland and Wales creates at least the basis for future equality.
Another problem in reporting Brittany has been the failure of Breton nationalism to find a modern political voice, with a multiplicity of nationalist parties founding and failing in quick succession due to state-driven hostility and censorship in the local media, business and political establishments. At the moment the main Breton party is the conservative Union Démocratique Bretonne (Unvaniezh Demokratel Breizh or UDB), a sort of Breton regionalist rather than nationalist party, similar in some respects to the SDLP, including enjoying relatively small support. Two other smaller parties further divide the Breton vote, though at least they are more progressive and campaign on the need for a free Brittany. One is the Strollad Breizh (Parti Breton), a centrist group, and the other is the rather better known Emgann, a more active left-wing organisation. However both have gained little electoral success and Emgann in particular has been subject to continuous state harassment due to claims by French nationalist politicians and media that the party is linked to the Armée Révolutionnaire Bretonne or ARB (the Breton Revolutionary Army, a largely quiescent Breton guerrilla movement).
However here is some real Breton news for you with the thoughts of the Rhisiart Tal-e-bot, the General Secretary of the Celtic League (published by the fantastic APB), on Breton politics and the Gouelioù Etrekeltiek An Oriant or Festival Interceltique de Lorient, one of the greatest Pan-Celtic festivals which takes place annually in Brittany:
‘In recent years, the An Oriant / Lorient festival has regularly attracted upwards of a million people, but what does the festival actually mean to these hoards when they return home with a CD in their pocket and wearing a t-shirt with a Celtic flag design on the front?
I once heard the Welsh film director Kenneth Griffiths address a crowd of people at the Rali Cilmeri in Wales where he spoke enthusiastically about 100,000 Celts on the streets in An Oriant / Lorient celebrating their common culture. Mr Griffiths then asked why these people did not come together more often and work for the greater autonomy of the Celtic lands. This is an especially poignant question for Breizh where political autonomy and linguistic and cultural rights are weaker than in any of the other Celtic countries. The growth of Breton music and dance, it seems, is at the expense and in contrast to the lack of political and linguistic freedoms that most of the other Celtic countries now enjoy.
The situation in Breizh has not been helped by the continued existence of a number of different nationalist political parties – with broadly similar aims – who clamber and compete against each other for the vote of a relatively small minority. Unvaniezh Demokratel Breizh (Union Démocratique Bretonne – UDB), Parti Breton, Breizhistance and L’Alliance Fédéraliste Bretonne are just some of the political parties in Breizh that are openly hostile towards each other and pinch each other’s votes. These nationalist parties are in addition to the myriad of nationalist political pressure groups who do not stand for election, but whose members seem to tacitly agree to vote for one or other of the parties or none at all.
I am often asked by people from the other Celtic countries why there isn’t just one nationalist political party in Breizh that everyone who aims for greater autonomy can gather around so that their nationalist voice can be heard more clearly, but to this question I have never been able to give a simple answer. Breton nationalists, it seems, are content to work against each other in their frustrating attempt to gain greater recognition for their nation, language and culture. Consequently today the democratic rights of the people of Breizh are still being smothered by an unsympathetic centralised government in Paris that acts as one of the EU’s biggest hypocrites in terms of what it demands of other states in contrast to its own.
About ten years ago I stopped over at the An Oriant / Lorient festival on my way back from a demonstration in Nanoed / Nantes to protest about the continued incarceration of Breton activists who had been detained by the authorities without charge for several years. There were a couple of thousand people at the demonstration, but our numbers paled in comparison to the tens of thousands that were soaking up the sun in An Oriant / Lorient where Celtic music blasted from street corners through loud speakers. The group of Breton political activists I was with – most of whom were utterly disillusioned with the political process (with the exception of the Emgann members who were there because it was some of their activists who had been arrested) – were not so keen on stopping off at the festival, but I wanted me to see the event for myself after I told them I had never been.
After a couple of hours at the festival I had seen and heard enough and proceeded to make my way to Rosko / Roskoff to catch the ferry. On my way back I started chatting to a man who had also been to the festival. When he found out I was Welsh he presumed that I had come to Breizh to attend the festival, but when I said that I had come to take part in a demonstration, he frowned and said that I should have gone to the festival instead, because it was `French culture’ at its best.
I then began thinking that perhaps Breton culture, rather than it complementing Breton political activity, was actually acting as a substitute to it for many. Depressingly I began wondering on my way home if nationalist politics was not the main driving force for Breton nationalists, but rather the country’s music and dance scene was and this is a thought that I have returned to a number of times since. This `political’ position may be quite acceptable for some Breton nationalists, but the obvious difficulty with this situation – and this is one of the biggest challenges for Breton nationalism today – is convincing people that just because they are able to attend a fest-noz once a week and listen to a bagad on the radio, that Breton autonomy will one day come about.
The fact of the matter is that without a strong representation of Breton nationalist politicians from one political party working together to secure political and linguistic autonomy for their nation, then no amount of bombard-binou playing will give Breizh the freedoms that it so desperately needs to develop into a strong nation of its own in the future.’
I heartily agree with the sentiments above. The nationalist people of Brittany are crying out for their SNP, their Alex Salmond, and the onus is upon the political parties there to put aside their long-standing doctrinal and personal differences and work towards the common good and common goal of Breton freedom and independence.
Finally a side note, albeit a Breton-related one, with a link to a review of the Lyonesse Trilogy a series of high fantasy novels by Jack Vance, and some of my favourite examples of the genre.
As they say in Brezhoneg:
Kentoc’h mervel eget bezañ saotret!