In 1941 the Vichy regime in France ordered the partition of the north-western Celtic nation of Brittany as part of administrative restructuring during its collaborationist rule with the Nazis. Nearly a fifth of the territory of the Bretons, including the historic capital city of Nantes, was incorporated into an artificial region called Pays de la Loire. Despite repeated promises that the changes imposed by the Vichy dictatorship would be undone the French state continues to uphold the divisions created during the mid-20th century and is now in the process of reinforcing them for the 21st century. The people of Brittany are fighting this policy of divide-and-rule from Paris with a major campaign of demonstrations across the country as highlighted in this recent post from the blog of the Wessex Regionalists. While we in Ireland have the Fearg le Dearg or “Red with Anger” movement fighting for the civil rights of those who identify with our indigenous language and culture in Brittany they have Bonnets Rouges or the “Red Caps”, a similar protesting force. The centuries of institutional discrimination by the French state towards the Breton people must be confronted head on and Brittany must be reunited.
Paddy Ashdown is a former British marine commando and intelligence officer with MI5, the ex-leader of the Liberal-Democrat party (which is now the minority partner in Britain’s coalition government), and a senior European and UN diplomat. So his view on the conflict in the British Occupied North of Ireland and how it relates to his studies of the resistance movements of German Occupied Europe during WWII is interesting, to say the least. From the Daily Telegraph:
“His latest book, The Cruel Victory, which is published today, chronicles the largely neglected story of the French Resistance fighters on the Vercors plateau near Grenoble. They attempted to help in their country’s liberation as Allied troops fought on the beaches of Normandy in the days following D-Day, but were badly let down by General de Gaulle.
He believes Francois Huet, who commanded the Maquis (as the Resistance was known, after a scrub that cover the hillsides) was a heroic figure. “The thing that drove him was decency,” he reflects.
Huet survived, but too many of his comrades did not. The Sten guns and patriotism of the 4,500 Maquis fighters could not match the might of 12,000 well-trained Germans, who set about a campaign of rape and execution.
Some 840 French men and women were killed, 500 houses burnt to the ground and 650 more severely damaged.
Farmhouses were looted and burnt and animals were tied up in their barns before they, too, were set alight.
Ashdown relates all of this with real empathy for the Maquis, informed by his own service in the Royal Marines and Special Boat Service before he entered Parliament. So, I wonder, does he identify with their spirit of resistance? His reply is not what I expect.
“If I had been a Catholic, discriminated against in the way they were in Northern Ireland, would I have been a member of Sinn Fein or the IRA? Given my hot nature and my slightly romantic view of life, it’s quite difficult to say that you can completely discount the fact.”
He does not, of course, condone the IRA or its “murderers of the first order”, but he believes “you are the child of your circumstances”.
“If you were brought up in a community that has been discriminated against and has had their human rights denied, what are you going to do?
“I imagine at the very least I would have been a political activist on behalf of Sinn Fein. Whether you tip that over into something else, I can’t tell you – but I ask myself the question.””
Since the 1940s when the fascist government based in southern France partitioned Brittany into two separate administrative regions with the objective of countering Breton resistance to the Vichy regime the Celtic nation has been fighting to reunite its two halves. Now the crisis-ridden French president, François Hollande, has announced new plans which will further cement that division spawned by the Nazi-collaborators of l’État français. From France 24:
“Many Bretons, who dream of a reunified “Great Brittany”, are furious that a planned redrawing of France’s regional borders does not include the restoration of the Loire Atlantique department.
In 1941, the Loire Atlantique department (administrative sub-region) was separated from Brittany and attached to the neighbouring Loire region.
The decision to sever the department, approved by wartime collaborationist leader Philippe Pétain in 1941, is still seen by many as grossly unfair.
And now that a redrawing of France’s regional map is back on the table, some Bretons are rolling up their sleeves in their enthusiasm to get the territory back.
On Monday, President François Hollande outlined his plan to reduce the number of French regions to save costs and streamline regional government.
This will include merging Champagne and Ardenne, as well as Alsace and Lorraine. But Brittany and Pays de la Loire will not change their borders.
Brittany has a strong regional identity and a number of powerful movements battling for its linguistic and territorial integrity. Mainstream politicians and social movements alike have called for the restoration of the Loire Atlantique department.
Former Socialist Prime Minister Marc Ayrault, who was also a popular mayor of Nantes, historically Brittany’s most important port, tweeted that it was “in the interest of the people” to merge the department back into Brittany.
His successor at Nantes city hall, Johanna Rolland, also took to the social networking site: “For the future of our territories and the people living in them, let’s fight for a merger of Pays de la Loire and Bretagne” she tweeted.
Marc le Fur, a member of parliament for the opposition conservative UMP party, accused Hollande of “upholding Vichy [the wartime French state]” on his personal blog.
“He hasn’t listened to his Breton ministers, or the Breton members of parliament, or to local businesses, or to cultural leaders. He is deaf. He won’t listen to anyone.”
The organisation 44=BZH, which fights for “reunification” of Brittany, accused the government of only listening to the Loire Atlantique’s political leaders, who are desperate not to lose their jobs, while ignoring the wishes of the Breton masses.
Another group, the “Red Bonnets” protest movement which forced the government to backtrack on a planned new road tax in 2013, said the decision to ignore Brittany’s wish to restore Loire Atlantique and Nantes was “revolting”.
Protests calling for the return of the lost territory are expected to go ahead on Tuesday evening in the four departments that make up Brittany, as well as in Nantes.”
This article on the resilience of the indigenous language of the historic Basque nation in north-eastern Spain and neighbouring France is filled with the sort of optimism that one rarely hears in relation to the Irish language. From The Blue Review, a publication of Boise State University in the United States:
“Steve Mendive is a history/government teacher who spends his summer breaks in the Basque Country (Euskadi) and enjoys the literary challenge of reading Voltaire’s Candide in Euskara. He has informally studied the Basque language for many years, first speaking with his family and progressing to advanced language coursework in the Basque Country. For Mendive, learning Basque is personal. “I am an Euskaldun (Basque speaker). Before, I was just Basque. There is a big difference.””
A point of view that many an Irish-speaker in Ireland, be they native or learner, would identify with. The full piece is quite long but full of fascinating parallels (the emergence of linguistic orthodoxy from various dialects at the start of the 20th century, the recent importance of new technologies like Twitter, etc.) and I’d recommend a read.
Il était une fois… or “Once Upon a Time…” is an ongoing animated series produced by the multi-talented French television-maker Albert Barillé and his Procidis studio in Paris. Since the late 1970s the franchise has devoted itself to charting the broad evolution of humankind for a children’s audience with each series devoted to one particular theme: “Once Upon a Time… Man” (1978), “… Space” (1982), “… Life (1987), “… The Americas (1991), “… The Discoverers” (1994), “… The Explorers” (1997) and finally “… Planet Earth” (2008). However for Irish men and women of a certain age it is probably the episodes of the 1982 “science-fiction” season that have the most resonance. Broadcast in an irregular early evening time-slot on RTÉ 2 “Once Upon a Time… Space” featured some fantastic-looking spacecraft, many designed by the legendary illustrator Philippe Bouchet (or Manchu) and very much reflecting French aesthetics – albeit through the filter of Eiken, the Japanese anime studio contracted to draw them.
Unlike the other more straightforwardly educational productions in the franchise this was very much a drama with a “space opera” feel, inspired somewhat by French comics like Valérian and Laureline. It featured some of the reoccurring characters from all seven seasons of the series including Professor Maestro, the white-bearded elder, Peter and Psi, the young officers, and their robotic companion Métro. Arrayed against them were the despotic General Pest and his loyal acolyte the Dwarf. Running to twenty-six episodes it was a slow-burn success in Europe though largely a failure in Japan. However it is fondly remembered in Ireland as a sort of early proto-anime for the teicógaigh, Irish fanboys and girls. I loved it as a child and it certainly converted me to both Japanese and European comics and graphic novels. Not sure I would purchase a DVD copy now but I’d definitely purchase an artbook if it included some of Philippe Bouchet’s fantastic designs.
Once again the political establishment in France has shown its opposition to any recognition of the cultural rights of the historic nations that currently lie within the administration of the French Republic. From a report in EurActiv:
“French centre-right MEPs voted against a resolution on endangered regional languages, passed by a large majority in the European Parliament this week, claiming that it violated the unity of the French Republic.
With 92%, EU lawmakers gave their overwhelming backing on Wednesday (11 September) to a report, prepared by the Green group, aimed at protecting endangered and minority languages across Europe.
Drafted by Corsican MEP François Alfonsi (Greens/EFA), the resolution called on EU member states to set up action plans to promote endangered languages and for countries such as France and Greece which had not ratified the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages to implement it immediately.
MEPs also demanded more financing and concrete policy measures to help preserve the EU’s linguistic diversity.
The majority of MEPs even from countries which had not or had no intention of the ratifying the Council of Europe’s Charter for Regional and Minority Languages backed the report, which is not legally binding.
But the strongest opponents were MEPs from the French centre-right UMP party, with 14 of them abstaining and 8 voting against the resolution. Among them were some prominent politicians such as former Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux, a close ally of former President Nicolas Sarkozy.
At the beginning of his mandate, President François Hollande announced he would ratify the charter, but backed down in the first half of 2013. In France, minority languages often belong to regions with a separatist history, such as Corsica or the Basque Country, making it a sensitive subject among the public.
However, MEPs in EU countries with separatist regions did not reject Mr Alfonsi’s report, as it is non-binding. In France, only those French Conservatives and far-right politicians like Marine Le Pen and far-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon said no to the report.
Out of 255 languages currently spoken across Europe, 128 are listed as endangered languages and 90 are “severely endangered” according to Unesco’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger.
In France, languages native to Burgundy, Picard and Lorrain are considered “severely endangered, while the Spanish dialect Gascon is “definitely endangered” and Dalmatian in Croatia is considered “extinct”. The UN predicts that half of the world’s 6,000 languages will become extinct by the end of the century.
The process, however, is neither inevitable nor irreversible, Unesco said, as policies can support the efforts of speaker communities to maintain or revitalise their native tongues.
Cultivating endangered languages requires financial backing and strategies to help and fund training, education, media and research programmes throughout Europe, say the supporters of the report.“
Of course, over a decade after the signing of the multi-party Belfast Agreement of 1998 which brought an end to the Irish-British conflict in the north-east of Ireland, we are still waiting for the regional Irish Language Act that was promised in the peace accords. In fact we are as far away from genuine equal rights for Irish-speaking citizens and communities with their English-speaking peers as we were at the height of the Northern War.
The artist Albert Robida is one of my favourite writer-illustrators from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, not least for his fantastical vision of a future Europe represented in a trilogy of “scientific romances” called Le Vingtième Siècle (1883), La Guerre au vingtième siècle (1887) and Le Vingtième siècle – La vie électrique (1890). He’s largely forgotten now but here are a couple of his wonderful illustrations.
More information here.
“Islamist insurgents retreating from Timbuktu set fire to a library containing thousands of priceless historic manuscripts, according to the Saharan town’s mayor, in an incident he described as a “devastating blow” to world heritage.
Hallé Ousmani Cissé told the Guardian that al-Qaida-allied fighters on Saturday torched two buildings that held the manuscripts, some of which dated back to the 13th century. They also burned down the town hall, the governor’s office and an MP’s residence, and shot dead a man who was celebrating the arrival of the French military.
French troops and the Malian army reached the gates of Timbuktu on Saturday and secured the town’s airport. But they appear to have got there too late to rescue the leather-bound manuscripts that were a unique record of sub-Saharan Africa’s rich medieval history. The rebels attacked the airport on Sunday, the mayor said.”
However before we get too righteous in our understandable indignation it is worth remembering that the desecration of priceless historical artefacts is not unique to Islam. They have it in Italy as the effects of an economy in freefall start to percolate upwards to people previously unaffected by poverty or financial hardship. They have it in Greece, the shameful socio-economic laboratory of the European Union. And they have it in Ireland too where no one has yet to face arrest or prosecution for the deliberate vandalism of the Lia Fáil or Stone of Destiny at Teamhair na Rí.
- Library Full of Precious Manuscripts Burned in Timbuktu (blogs.smithsonianmag.com)
- Mali: Timbuktu Locals Saved Some of Their City’s Ancient Manuscripts from Islamists (world.time.com)
- Ancient Manuscripts In Timbuktu Reduced To Ashes (wnyc.org)
- World heritage disaster: rebels torch Timbuktu’s priceless relics (theweek.co.uk)
- Mali rebels torch priceless library in Timbuktu (thetimes.co.uk)
The Agence Bretagne Presse carries the results of the first round of votes to the French parliament from Brittany (in French, of course). Nationalist politics in Brittany is incredibly fractious and has been since the 1970s. The Unvaniezh Demokratel Breizh (UDB) remains the largest party but it is a regionalist one (à la Plaid Cymru) and largely competes as part of shifting electoral alliances with other parties (most of which are “pro-French”). So far it has had mixed results electorally and this looks unlikely to change anytime soon. Their main rivals are the nominally Breton republican Strollad Breizh who have made relatively little impact at the ballot box. There are others such as the long-standing if all-but-defunct Emgann, not to mention the newer Breizhistance (which had a some modest success in this election as part of a wider Left coalition – spoiled by post-election disagreements in classic Breton style).
Of course France’s electoral system, which favours large establishment parties, doesn’t help but unfortunately some blame must attach to Breton nationalists themselves.
Just a quick post to note the strange events in the Basque Country, both Spanish- and French-ruled, where despite the declared cessation of operations by ETA (the Basque guerilla organisation) authorities in Spain and France have in fact intensified their counter-insurgency efforts. This has been coupled with a refusal to enter into any meanigful negotiations with the Basque nationalist movement, despite several separatist parties making significant electoral gains over the last year.
From the Irish Examiner:
“French police have arrested ETA’s military leader Oroitz Gurruchaga Gogorza and his deputy in a joint operation on the Basque separatist group with the Spanish police.
Gurruchaga and Xabier Aramburu were arrested in the southwestern French village of Cauna while travelling in a stolen vehicle with fake number plates, the Spanish interior ministry said, adding that both men were armed with guns.
Gurruchaga, 30, joined ETA in 2008 and rose through the organisation’s ranks to become its military and recruiting chief, according to the ministry.
The arrests come just over a year after those of then-ETA military boss Alejandro Zorbaran Arriola, known as “Xarla”, and three other suspected ETA militants at a rural house in northern France.
They bring to 15 the number of people arrested on suspicion of ETA ties since the group announced “the definitive cease of its armed activity” in October last year.”
And from the Hurriyet Daily News:
“Basque separatist group ETA’s outlawed political wing lashed out at France Monday for the arrest of a man authorities say is the ETA’s military commander, calling it a sign of ongoing repression.
The Batasuna party “condemns in the strongest terms” the arrests of Oroitz Gurruchaga Gogorza and his deputy Xabier Aramburu, spokesman Jean-Francois Lefort told AFP, after French and Spanish authorities announced the arrests Sunday following a joint operation in southwest France.
Lefort called on French President Francois Hollande’s new administration to “begin finding a solution to the issue of freeing Basque political prisoners” and to “immediately stop all forms of repression”.
“The Hollande government, rather than take a positive attitude on setting up a peace process, is managing the Basque issue by the old instruction manual, written by the Spanish government, whose objective is to continue solely down the path of repression, which is doomed to failure,” he said.
Batasuna is banned in Spain but legal in France.
ETA is pressing for direct talks with France and Spain, but both governments have rejected negotiations and called for the group to disband.
French Interior Minister Manuel Valls is due to visit Spain on Tuesday to meet with his counterpart Jorge Fernandez Diaz.
The French interior ministry said Monday the two would discuss joint police operations against ETA.
At a May 18 meeting of European interior ministers in Munich, Valls called ETA a “terrorist organisation” and said France’s crackdown on the group would not soften under Hollande’s administration.”
During the recent French general election Basque nationalists confronted the then French president Nicolas Sarkozy in Bayonne, forcing him to take refuge in a local café, surrounded by riot police. Since then the French state has been flexing its muscles throughout the French-occupied part of the Basque Country.
France prides itself on being a nation that embodies the principles of democracy and freedom with a republic born through bloody, revolutionary struggle (and not once but several times). It is part and parcel of its collective image of itself; and one that it tries to project to the world. In the minds of many French citizens the national motto says it all: liberté, égalité, fraternité.
But those fine words, and sentiments, only extend so far. And not to those the French share their national territory with. Or rather those they have unwillingly incorporated into their national territory. From a report by al Jazeera:
“When Tangi Louarn casts his vote in next month’s French presidential election he will be forced to do so in a language that he does not recognise as his own.
A resident of the rugged peninsula region of Brittany in northwestern France, Louarn is one of about 200,000 speakers of Breton, once the world’s most commonly spoken Celtic language but now recognised as severely endangered by UNESCO.
Despite its precarious situation, Breton has no formal status in France. It is not offered as a language of education in the public school system, the state makes no provision for regional language media, and it is not used in government or public services.
Once home to a vibrant multitude of tongues, the monolingualism of modern France is enshrined in article two of the country’s constitution, rooted in the revolutionary principles of 1789, which reads: “The language of the Republic shall be French.”
Yet Louarn, the president of Kevre Breizh, a Breton language activist group, says that regional language speakers are still waiting for their human rights to to be respected.
“Breton is my language. It is a part of my identity. Yet ‘Liberte, eternite, fraternite’ is only for people speaking French. When you speak another language you do not have equality.”
While estimates of exact numbers vary, campaigners say there are more than five million people in France with fluency in a regional language.
On March 31, regional language speakers in 10 cities across France will stage the country’s largest ever co-ordinated demonstrations to protest for their linguistic rights to be recognised.
Their demands include a change to the constitution to grant official status to regional languages, measures to make the languages “co-official” in the areas where they are spoken, and for France to ratify the European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages.
Davyth Hicks, the head of the European Language Equality Network (ELEN), a Brussels-based NGO, said that France was one of only a handful of states in Europe not to have ratified the charter, which is considered the key legislation protecting and promoting linguistic diversity across the continent.
While neighbours such as the UK and Spain grant co-official status to languages such as Welsh, Basque, Catalan and Galician, Hicks said France remained a “pariah”.
“France is a rogue state in terms of how it promotes its languages. It just has not kept up with European development. It says all these things about the promotion of human rights and equality elsewhere in the world, but meanwhile, on its doorstep, languages such as Breton have become seriously endangered,” Hicks said.
But while regional languages were once actively suppressed, with children as recently as the mid-20th century facing punishment for speaking them in the schoolyard or classroom, Marliere said there had been a relaxation of attitudes in recent decades.
Nowadays, for instance, language is promoted as part of Brittany’s culture, with bilingual street signs and private schools offering a Breton education for parents who want their children to learn the language, while many residents take pride in the Celtic heritage that sets their region apart from the rest of France.
With a majority of Breton speakers now in their 80s and with few young people learning the language, he said the state needed to take urgent measures, including full constitutional recognition and subsequent investment in public education, regional language media and public services, to reverse the decline.
“All regional languages in France are in danger. They could disappear as social languages. Perhaps they can stay in museums, but not in real life. In Brittany in the middle of the 20th century there were a million people who spoke Breton; now there are 200,000. So the number is going down because of the policy of the state,” Louarn said.”
For more on the demonstrations held across France on the 31st see here and here. You can read more about the Breton struggle to gain official recognition from the French for their language and culture (not to mention their nationhood) here. And there is also the cause of the partition of Brittany by France. Sound familiar?
- Brittany And Cornwall – The Return Of The Celtic Nations (ansionnachfionn.com)
- Nominet to launch .wales and .cymru (go.theregister.com)
The Irish-based French blog Couleurs irlandaises has another look at the Irish language in contemporary Ireland, including a mention of your’s truly, un blogueur militant Le renard blond (actually, I do believe I am more Le renard blanc. But then again, a fox by any other name…). Though I don’t agree with all of its conclusions it remains challenging stuff and is well worth reading for any militante irlandaise.
- A Year Of The French (ansionnachfionn.com)
- “An Hobad” – The First Publication In Irish Of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” (ansionnachfionn.com)
- Ireland – A Western Province Of The British Isles (ansionnachfionn.com)
- Lets Speak The Truth: Those Who Hate Irish Speakers Do So Because They Are Racists… (ansionnachfionn.com)
- More Irish Than The Irish? (ansionnachfionn.com)
- Ann Marie Hourihane – Carrying The Torch For The English Language In Ireland! (ansionnachfionn.com)
- Smells Like No-Irish Spirit (ansionnachfionn.com)
- Irish In America (ansionnachfionn.com)
- The State Of Irish – In The Irish State (ansionnachfionn.com)
- Meanwhile In Ireland, Another Form Of Censorship… (ansionnachfionn.com)
“The French Parliament has voted in favour of a change in the law that could herald the reunification of Brittany.
In the evening of Wednesday 21st December 2011 the French Parliament voted in favour of allowing residents of a department to hold a referendum without the agreement of other residents of the region.
The change in the law could potentially mean that residents of the Loire Atlantique department, which forms part of the historic nation of Brittany and includes the historic Breton capital city of Naoned (Nantes), will be able to vote in favour of unification without having to convince others in the region to do the same. In 1941 the Loire Atlantique department was merged with the French Pays de la Loire region by the Fascist Vichy Government, which it has remained a part of ever since.
It has been reported that there is widespread support among the people of the Loire Atlantique department for reunification with Brittany and similarly people in Brittany are in favour of this piece of their historic territory returning to them. Within the last decade in particular there has been a growing movement among activists to raise the profile of the campaign to reunify Brittany. In June this year a mass demonstration took place in Naoned (Nantes) that attracted 5000 people. The aim of the protesters was to apply pressure on the French presidential candidates, in time for elections in 2012, to come out in support of Breton unification. In June 2010 the Breton Regional Council voted in favour of a motion on the `territorial collective’ of Brittany, which recognized the Loire Atlantique department as part of the traditional territory of Brittany.
Currently the Pays de la Loire region has approximately 3.5 million residents, with 1.3 million of these people inhabiting the Loire Atlantique Department. The new law could potentially mean that the 1.3 million residents of the Loire Atlantique Department can vote on whether they want their department to return to Breton control, without the approval of the other 2.2 million residents of the Pays de la Loire region. For the Loire Atlantique electorate to be able to decide whether their department is reunited with Brittany, without having to convince the rest of the Pays de la Loire region is a significant development, because traditionally the inhabitants of the Pays de la Loire region outside of the Loire Atlantique Department have been against reunification.
Naoned (Nantes) is an economically strong region in its own right and currently the capital of the Pays de la Loire region. The president of the Pays de la Loire region, who is one of the biggest opponents of reunification, said he was “surprised” by the vote. A close advisor to French president Nicolas Sarkozy, Franck Louvrier, said he was pleased by the draft amendment, arguing that the idea of giving the Loire Atlantique Department back to Brittany was “decidedly favourable” and welcomed the development, which he said was a democratic move.
The draft text of the bill will now need to go before the French parliament’s upper house, the Senate, for approval.”
Given the French state’s general antipathy to Brittany and the Breton people one can only hope for the best. Meanwhile WalesOnline reports that:
“A campaign for devolution for Cornwall is being backed by Plaid Cymru.
Plaid MP Jonathan Edwards, who represents Carmarthen East and Dinefwr, launched an Early Day Motion in Parliament calling “for the formation of a democratically elected Cornish assembly to take decisions for the benefit of the people of Cornwall”.
The motion commemorates the 10th anniversary of the presentation of a petition to Downing Street signed by 50,000 people, equivalent to 10% of Cornwall’s population, demanding a referendum on devolution.
Mr Edwards said the campaign chimed with Plaid’s call for greater powers for the National Assembly.
“The Cornish people feel they have a distinct national identity and that needs to be reflected,” he said.”
- Plaid’s leadership election…time for a change? (sluggerotoole.com)
- You: Welsh constituency rejig proposals slammed as ‘diabolical’ (guardian.co.uk)
- Yann Fouéré: Breton militant and European federalist (independent.co.uk)
- Plaid Cymru – Time For Progressive Nationalism? (ansionnachfionn.com)
- Insider’s Guide: Pays de la Loire (independent.co.uk)
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!
- Celtic Nationalism: Six Nations, One Soul (ansionnachfionn.wordpress.com)
- The Sea-Sundered Gaels (ansionnachfionn.wordpress.com)
- An Bhreatain Bheag – Little Britain (ansionnachfionn.wordpress.com)
- A New Plaid Cymru For A New Wales? (ansionnachfionn.wordpress.com)
- Breton Reunification Now (politics.ie)