My Breton and International activities continued along parallel lines, and occupied most of the time I had left after my professional tasks. I continued as president of the Breton Student’s Circle, even after taking up my post with the Ministry. I had moved from the Cite Universitaire, but had settled nearby in the same district, rue des Artistes, on the corner of rue d’Alesia and avenue du Parc Montsouris. From the big window of my large room or studio, the whole district was revealed, endless rooftops under a large patch of sky beyond the Sceaux railway line. It was a return to the same district where I had lived when I attended the Lycee, and was in itself a piece of Brittany. The rue des Artistes is an extension of the rue Saint-Yves, which on crossing avenue Reille is actually an extension of the picturesque rue Nansouty, with the park on one side and little streets on the other. These were lined with small blocks of flats, private villas and small gardens lending them a provincial character. The painter Jean-Julien Lemordant, my neighbour, had the same view from his windows as I had. After passing by rue de l’Aude, was the rue du pere Corentin and then rue Beaunier, where Charles Le Goffic had lived. Going down towards Montparnasse was rue Froidevaux, where Paul Le Flem lived with his attractive daughter Jeanne, a member of our circle. Pellerin, Guinard, Creston, Mazuet, Le Louet, Trevedy, Goulet and a number of other Breton artists, painters and sculptures lived nearby. We often ran into each other in the districts first rate ‘creperies’, in the maze of little streets teeming with life around the station. Some have since disappeared.
Some of the Breton Students Circle’s sessions were memorable occasions, and echoes of them can be found in the press of the time. Many vocations came to light through the Circle, and adults have always been very sensitive to the changing moods of their young intellectuals. Auguste Dupuy had just a few years previously published a History of Brittany, and I asked him to give us a conference followed by a discussion on a subject of his choice. At the time, he wrote fairly regularly for ‘La Depeche de Brest’, and had undertaken to publish a series of articles, endeavouring to prove that the number of Bretons killed in the First World War was less than the 240.000 declared – a peculiar idea, but one that he insisted on. He was one of those that could only see Brittany as being French, and regularly protested against the excesses of ‘autonomists’. He therefore informed me that it was his intention to dedicate the conference to that subject. I tried to dissuade him from doing so, pointing out that it would certainly give rise to a very impassioned debate afterwards, owing to the emotional nature of the subject he had chosen. But he was determined to go ahead.
On the day, a large audience filled the hall, not only with my fellow students but also with personalities who were members of the Breton Societies Federation and representatives from the Ex-Serviceman’s Associations. Louis Beaufrere had arrived there with his goatee pointed aggressively. To make up for his lack of eloquence, he had warmed up beforehand and was ready to do battle with anyone who dared cast any doubt on the extent of the Breton’s sacrifice in the defence of France. The speakers address took place calmly enough. Auguste Dupuy spoke without feeling, putting forward the enquiries he had made in numerous communes of Brittany. But as soon as I had thanked him, a very heated and stormy discussion broke out, with a number of contributors becoming irrational. The voice of reason can have no arguments against passionate feelings. Where the Bretons are concerned, the voice of the heart will always take precedence over the voice of reason. Beaufrere even went as far as accusing Dupuy of ‘necrophagy’, and other similar terms. I had great difficulty in restoring calm, before cooling down the mood of the audience by concluding that this debate seemed quite pointless to me, as whatever the number of Bretons had been killed, it was still too many and in the end they had all died for nothing. Their country had not benefitted in any way, which was also the case with all the French killed in this European civil war, with the clash of rival imperialisms both as much to blame as the other. I concluded by referring to the new growth of perils already distinguishable on the European horizon.
Dupuy always held this incident against me, even though I had warned him beforehand. In one of his previous articles he had compared me to Moreau, who had been provost of the Rennes students in 1789. But after this incident there were no further compliments, neither of me nor our Circle that was now the haunt of ‘autonomists’ and firebrands. He also very nearly deprived us of a conference on Ireland that I had asked one of his friends and colleagues, Anatole Rivoallan, to give us. This Breton had become an expert on all things pertaining to Ireland, and he had just published a good book under that same title, in the Armand Collins series. Rivoallan had an excellent understanding of Irish problems, the struggle for ‘Home Rule’ in Ireland and national independence. He had stayed there on several occasions. In spite of being Breton, however, he was one of those French university types who refuses to believe in any analogy between these ‘foreign’ problems and anything happening in France. Like Auguste Dupuy, Charles Casse and some other Breton writers who regularly wrote for ‘La Depeche de Brest’, he also castigated Breton separatists and autonomists on occasions. That which he approved of in Dublin, he considered dreadful in Rennes – a mystery of the supreme art of brainwashing accomplished by the French educational system.
In any case, when I requested his support, he had to be persuaded. His excuse being of what he had heard regarding proceedings following on Auguste Dupuy’s conference. I was a member of Jean Zay’s cabinet at the time, and in order to reassure him, I replied on the thick, blue, headed writing paper of the Interior Ministry’s under-secretariat of State. This letter, with its heading, caused him to have second thoughts, and a few weeks later, he gave us an excellent conference on the history of Ireland.
In view of the status of the speaker and the nature of his subject, we had invited the Irish Ambassador to Paris and some other Irish personalities to attend the conference. The Ambassador, Art o’Brien, with his piercing blue eyes, shock of white hair and fine features, came in person. He wore a gold ‘fainne’ on the lapel of his jacket. We also wore this Celtic ring as the emblem of our Circle. Anatole Rivoallan had met him before. Near the end of his address, Rivoallan felt he should point out that no comparison could be made between the validity of the Irish National Movement and that of the Breton movement.
– ‘The Bretons’, he said, ‘are far from having been as badly treated by the French State, in the course of their history, as the Irish have by the English’.
I immediately felt a sullen mood descend on the assembly, in spite of the polite applause.
Having thanked the speaker, I asked Art O’Brien if he would do us the honour of saying a few words. He stood up, needing no persuasion, saying how much it had warmed his Irish heart to hear him. He began to recall the ravages of English imperialism in Ireland. He pointed out that above all else, what the Irish could not tolerate was that this imperialism had deliberately and hypocritically stifled Irish culture, language and traditions.
– ‘What they wanted to take from us’, he said, ’were the hearts and souls of our children. And that is a crime far more appalling even than the shooting of a few political leaders, as it is the deliberate, cold blooded murder of a whole nation’.
As he uttered these words, the whole assembly rose to its feet in a prolonged ovation. The sullen mood had vanished and all were elated. That day, Rivoallan must have realised what both our struggles had in common.
Around that time also, a small delegation from our circle met the militant Irish cultural author, Ernest Joynt, in Paris. He had just published a ‘History of Ireland’ through the Breizh-Atao printing house in Rennes. Our aim was to interview him, but in fact it was this short and rather frail man, burning with an inner fire, who interviewed us. Shortly after, he sent us an article he had published in a Gaelic newspaper, together with the English translation. In it, he explained that, when he met us, it had taken him back forty years, as he had found in us the same enthusiasm as that of the young militant founders of the Gaelic League. Thus, when Jeanne Le Flem was making plans to go to Ireland, I gave her Ernest Joynt’s address, as well as that of a few other Irish contacts who sometimes took part in our meetings and Inter Celtic congresses. I urged her to meet with as many influential personalities as possible, particularly journalists, to inform them of the struggle we were waging here for the teaching of Breton.
Jeanne, whom we called Janot as her parents did, was a beauty. She had been brought up to the sound of melodies and laments of Celtic inspired music, often present also the harmony of her father’s work. Senator Pierre Even, of Vieux Marché near Plouaret, was her mother’s brother. My father knew him well, and he had accompanied us several times in our approaches for the teaching of Breton. At the time, he was president of ‘Les Bleus de Bretagne’, at whose annual banquet our circle was usually represented. Janot accomplished her mission admirably well. She undoubtedly moved the press as much by her natural distinction, with lively expression and vivid features covered in freckles, together with her reddish-blonde hair and quick-wittedness, as by the fate of the Breton language. Helen Plunkett, the top Radio-Eireann announcer, had her speaking and singing on the radio. Rivoallan just happened to be in Dublin at the time, and managed to contact her.
– ‘How did you do it’? he asked her, ‘I have a written a book and numerous articles on Brittany, yet never have I succeeded in attracting the attention of Irish newspapers as much as you have these past few days’.
She was to have spent a week there, as her finances were no better than ours and could not have covered a longer stay. Yet she was away for over a month with all the Irish invitations she received. In fact, she told me on her return that she could have stayed there as long as she liked.
It was at the beginning of one of the meetings organised by our circle, where I was acting as chairman, that Maryvonne Le Ferrer introduced me to a beautiful young woman.
– ‘You must know her’, she said, ‘She is one of your cousins’.
The fine Madonna-like profile, with thick plaits wound like a halo around the beautiful regular features of this unknown cousin, immediately attracted me. I was intrigued, and throughout the session I stole glances at her. I racked my brains trying to remember who she could be, as I was not aware of any cousins as beautiful as this one.
Only when the meeting was over, and we were having the usual friendly get together for a drink Chez Roblein, the nearby cafe, did I finally ask her what her name was. Then I was able to place her, as Marie-Madeleine Mauger was the daughter of Georges Mauger and Anna Le Goffic. Anna was the niece of the writer Charles Le Goffic. Her father, Pierre Le Goffic, who died in 1885, was a printer in Guingamp, and was the eldest son of Jean-Francois Le Goffic, a printer-bookseller in Lannion. He had thirteen children, Pierre being the eldest, and Charles Le Goffic, the writer and member of the French Academy, the youngest. Therefore Charles was not much older than Pierre’s children, his nephews Hippolyte and Louis, and his niece, Anna. When we were youngsters we called Marie-Madeleine’s mother ‘Tante Anna’, just as she and her brothers and sisters called my grandmother ‘Tante Ambroisine’. We only met Tante Anna on the odd occasion, but knew her brothers better. Uncle Louis Le Goffic was mayor of Guingamp for a long time, and was a political friend of Yves Le Trocquer. Hippolyte, the cannon, was parish priest and Dean of Etable when he died, and was an excellent opera singer in his day. Their mother was Sophie Liegard, daughter of Amateur Liegard from Guingamp, a handsome man from the daguerreotype I have of him. He was a bailiff by profession, and my Uncle Liegard had told me about this great-great uncle who was rather eccentric, sometimes becoming involved in holding legal consultations for good people who sought him out, and adjusting the fee he charged, according to the thickness of the book he had to consult for a reply to their queries. Marie-Madeleine’s and my great-grandfathers were therefore first cousins!
The Mauger’s, on the other hand, were an old Lannion family, printers and mail-coach station masters, of distant Norman origin. The number of Maugers featuring in the Cotentin and Channel Islands’ telephone directories is a testimony to this. In Lannion, at the time, you had the Blue Maugers, who were republican and anti-clerical, and the White Maugers, who were practising Catholics and conservatives. Amongst the former were the printer and the veterinarian, whose son the lawyer Andre Mauger became a member of the Breton national party during the war. Marie-Madeleine’s father, Georges Mauger, on the contrary, was a White Mauger. He was a Lieutenant Commander in the French navy and a sympathiser of l’Action Francaise, a French nationalist and royalist group. Anna Le Goffic was prematurely widowed and had great difficulty bringing up her children, with Marie-Madeleine being the tenth and the youngest.
I met this lovely cousin again when she came to see me several times at the Ministry, solemnly addressing me as ‘mon cousin’. I was completely won over by her cheerfulness and childish temperament, together with her spontaneous character and radiant youth. We began to see each other more and more frequently.
That year, at the end of 1936, when I first met Marie-Madeleine, I was again in a state of mental and emotional confusion. My heart was an open wound in the process of healing, in a deep inner loneliness. I felt I carried my pain and despair around like they did in the time of the Romantics. Simone and I were finally deciding not to see each other again. My brief relationship with Janine first, and then Annie, were both already memories. I had thought of consolidating the former that I felt may have only been affected by the distance separating us. Towards the end of 1935, I therefore took the opportunity of a trip to Geneva to meet Janine again, on the shores of Lake Geneva, near the town where she lived with her parents and sister. We embraced like old friends – a thick fog covered the shores of the lake where swans silently appeared and disappeared. Sounds were muffled. We felt ourselves transported to another world, unreal, and conducive to reviewing ones past life in peace and oblivion.
– ‘You remember’, she said, laughing at the memory, ‘you took me to the ball at the Elysee Palace, where the parliamentarians and the president of the republic, Albert Lebrun, were in full-dress, sporting all their medals, and the double row of republican guards in dress uniform with helmets, boots and swords drawn to welcome the guests – and the buffet hidden behind a curtain at first, where a huge crowd had gathered, and the mad dash when the curtains opened – so that we were not even able to taste the champagne – and then the sensible rhythmic dances with a rather old-fashioned orchestra, and the small lounge that smelt of cold cigar, with its deep armchairs and dark curtains, where smokers had to take refuge!’
But mostly we recalled the visit we had made to Brittany together in the splendour of the summer, with an emerald green sea, warm sand and seaweed on the beach, the scent of ferns and heather from the moors, and the wonder of the vast stretches uncovered at low tide, an unknown experience for her.
– ‘Little Yann’, she said, ‘I have given much of myself to you. Already, because of you, i will not be received into the synagogue as a virgin, which I would very much have liked to be. I will always be grateful to you for introducing me to your country, where the sky is so vast it seems to swallow the earth. I was very much in love with you, and suffered greatly when I had to leave Paris to return home. In any case I will only marry one of my own people, just as you should marry one of yours.’
As for Annie, she probably had other plans in mind, as she became engaged shortly after she decided to stop seeing me.
Penetrating the greyness of those days, and the mental despair of my painful emotions, Marie-Madeleine quickly became the ray of sunshine I needed to make me feel light, warmth, affection and love. I began to feel lighter than air.
One of our first outings together was to a Saint-Patrick’s day ball, which is traditionally organised on the 17th March by Irish communities in practically every country in the world. Jeanne Le Flem, now with her new Irish contacts, had invited me. I had advised her that I would be bringing a partner. We called be her place, rue Froideveaux, to collect her. Janot contemplated Marie-Madeleine from top to toe with surprise and admiration. Although she looked radiant herself, my companion was no less so.
– ‘Hey! My goodness but she is magnificent, congratulations! But where on earth did you find this rare bird?’
She hardly believed me when I explained that she was my cousin. That Irish evening was the first Ceili I had ever attended. At that stage, neither Marie-Madeleine nor I had any idea of the role Ireland was to play in both our lives later on. Neither did we realise that this was the first of many other Saint-Patrick’s day celebrations we would celebrate in Dublin, Brussels, Caracas and elsewhere.
Marie-Madeleine was obliged to worry about earning her living at an early age. She went to Wales as an Au Pair for a short while, and was only able to find a similar position with a Parisian industrialist’s family, at first. Fortunately, she had the moral support of her brother Paul, who was her godfather, and was on the administrative staff of the house of Guerlain. She also had two brothers who lived in the Paris area. All three married, however. She finally found a position selling in a leather shop, near La Madeleine, before finding a better position as secretary-typist in the same district. The interior ministry was nearby, which made it easier for us to meet. Her purse was even flatter than mine, and she most probably did not eat her fill every day. Therefore, I frequently took her to one of the local restaurants at lunchtime.
One day when I had arranged to meet her, Olier Mordrel came to see me unexpectedly. I had to tell him I was meeting one of my cousins and to join us for lunch. After the introductions, he pulled me aside and said /
– ‘You amaze me! I had been thinking before we arrived, Fouéré is a man with a sense of duty – he is surely making me have lunch with a tall, graceless, badly dressed cousin – instead, you have introduced me to a beauty. Have you any other cousins like this around?’
Afterwards he always called my wife ‘le petit Canotier’, because of the hat she wore that day. I had been told he had an eye for women. At the time, there was plenty of gossip within the Breton movement, where practically everyone knew everyone else. In fact, Mordrel never behaved in any way to contradict this reputation.
Marie-Madeleine seemed so much younger than I then that to this day I still call her ‘ma fille’, although there is only seven years between us. She accompanied me to a Union Federale congress in Aix-les-Bains, and was absolutely surrounded by my admiring friends. One night, at the hotel where we were staying, we had left our shoes by our doors in the hallway to be cleaned and polished by the hotel staff, as was the custom in those days. The next morning we found them alongside each other, decorated with red roses that Roger Pormente had left there for us!
It was nearly two years later at the beginning of the war, however, that we decided to get married. The functions I had taken on for the Basque government in exile had made this decision easier from a material point of view. But I also foresaw the dangerous threatening, the upheavals my personal and family life might be involved in because of the Breton politics I pursued, and the material and financial difficulties as a result. I knew that the ground was beginning to slip from under my feet at the Interior Ministry. Although I had specialised in public law, I had nonetheless studied civil law. I shocked a starchy formal notary clerk when I told him I wished to opt for a marriage based on separate ownership of property.
– ‘But Sir,’ he said, ‘It is contrary to all the traditions of the best French families’.
I did not tell him that I could not care less, nor why I had chosen this arrangement.
At the time, Marie-Madeleine had a secretarial position at the 6th ‘Arrondissement’ Town Hall, and was staying at a small guest house in rue Honore Chevalier. It was, therefore, at the Town Hall where she worked that we got married, and then only had to cross the square to one of the chapels of Saint-Sulpice church. The dark grey days of December reflected the general situation that first winter of the War. My sister had decided to get married on the same day, and her husband was due to leave for the army two days later. The simple ceremonies took place in the presence of a small circle of family and friends. Most of my friends had been mobilized. Jean-Marie Gantois was already in hiding, as he was being closely watched by the state police, but surprised us by appearing at the church. Flanders was there, represented by him, and the Basque country by my exiled Basque friends. My friend Xavier de Landaburu was there, representing President Aguirre, and was accompanied by a small group of singers from his country. Already, I was surrounded by the Europe we were working towards. The songs of the Basque homeland accompanied us, for want of those of our Breton homeland, which in spite of itself had already gone to war.
Those few years preceding the Second World War had been a period of intense activity for me. The campaign for the teaching of Breton had been going from strength to strength, owing to the numerous municipal councils and other elected bodies now in favour. It was no longer possible to maintain that the Breton people were disinterested in the fate of their language! As early as 1936, at the beginning of the last parliamentary assembly convened by the 3rd Republic, the popular Democratic Party Deputy and Mayor of Plouescat, Tremintin, had tabled a bill in the Chamber of Deputies in favour of our claim. It now had to be pushed through the various necessary stages, before it could be discussed by the Chamber of Deputies. It had been passed on to the Parliamentary Educational Commission, and Canon Desgrange, another popular democratic deputy and member of that Commission, had asked to be its speaker.
I thus saw Father Desgrange on several occasions to finalize the work that had to be done. He was a sharp and generous minded man of great eloquence and simplicity. Though not of Breton origin, he had fully adjusted to his Vannes constituency. His expressive face, crowned by white hair, had a certain majesty and mobility that struck those he addressed. We took to each other right away. He asked me to prepare the text of the report he would submit to the Commission for approval. Pressed for time as I was, with many functions, I turned to Raymond Delaporte for help, as he was in a better position to do it. Because of his functions as president of Bleun-Brug and of Breuriez ar Brezoneg er Skoliou, we were quite frequently in contact with him. He quickly carried out the task with the help of his brother Yves, so that shortly after I was able to bring the report to Father Desgrange. He invited me to lunch at his place, so that we could discuss the text and his conclusions.
– ‘I have opened a good old bottle of Chateauneuf-du-Pape,’ he said, ‘to prompt you to an even greater devotion to our Holy Father, and the Holy Spirit who surely inspired you for this work. I find nothing that might need to be removed or anything further to add. The important thing now,’ he added, ‘is to have the Commission adopt it. I cannot see any major difficulty – however, I will do the rounds of some of my colleagues to ensure their support. It would be very useful if you could contact a few of them, particularly the other parliamentarians, as we must prepare for the next stage, which is far more difficult to overcome – the presentation of the text to parliamentarians for it to become law. Knowing what the Ministry of National Education is like,’ continued Father Desgrange, ‘there is no doubt that its senior civil servants will do all they can to prevent the text being presented for discussion. All they have to do is convince the government to oppose its being placed on the agenda, and believe me that will not be difficult.’
I visited most of the Breton Parliamentarians over the following months and years, in particular those who represented Breton speaking constituencies – the Interior Ministry was close to the Palais Bourbon. Generally speaking none of them were hostile to our claims, which were supported by a constantly increasing number of municipal counsellors. At the 1936 election, most of these had supported the program submitted to them by what we called ‘Le Front Breton’, whose claims went beyond the cultural problem. Old Inizan, with his black waistcoat and guide’s hat, was a faithful deputy from Leon, who with his colleague Tremintin, during the National Education budget discussion, had already addressed the house in favour of the teaching of Breton. There was a general consensus on this point in moderate and central circles. Ihuel and Montfort, who represented neighbouring constituencies, mainly took charge of speeding up the project. They had been the talk of the town for very publicly putting a stop to the showing of Noel Noel’s film, ‘Tout va bien Madame la Marquise’, which scoffed at the Bretons. This was loudly applauded by all Bretons, but Breton students in particular followed their lead, with the result that many of us were arrested and held at the police station for having systematically interrupted the program at the cinemas where it was showing. These demonstrations spilled over into the street on several occasions. So much so that the producers had to resign themselves to making considerable cuts, supervised by Ihuel, his colleague Nader, and a student delegation. Numerous Breton Town Councils followed suit, and banned it from their cinemas, putting an inglorious end to the career of that insulting flop. Around that time, a small Breton commando, comprised of Herve Mahe, Jean Jade and Yann Goulet went with hammers to destroy the effigy of Becassine at the Musee Grevin.
The left-wing parliamentarians were a little more discreet, some more cautious. L’Heveder, socialist deputy for Lorient, told me that he was not against the teaching of Breton, but he added –
– ‘As long as even a single Breton remains unemployed in Saint-Denis, I consider that problem more important.’
He cornered Le Pevedic, Christian Bonnet’s predecessor in the Auray seat, who was passing by and informed him of the reason for my visit. Le Pevedic turned to me, and staring dreamily into space, in his inimitable Vannes accent, he said-
– ‘You can’t have that, you see – the teachers are against it – no, they would never accept it, and the parents won’t go against them’. Then looking at me straight in the eye this time, he said approvingly, ‘But that’s good! You, at least, are not requesting anything for yourself!’
Senator Georges Le Bail confirmed this opinion of the teachers. He began by telling me how much he enjoyed speaking Breton, and eulogised the beauty of the language. He only succeeded in being elected radical deputy of ‘Bigouden’ country, thanks to massive support from the state’s teachers, after a fierce campaign against him by the local clergy. On the other hand his son Albert, a staunch radical socialist deputy, succeeded his father in the Chamber and became one of our most active supporters.
I also went to visit Marcel Cachin, a friend of Yann Sohier and well-known communist leader from Paimpol, at the ‘Humanité’ office, asking him to intervene on our behalf with his party’s parliamentarians – he promised his full support – he had frequently defended the Breton language and its teaching, and his party was the only one to have supported Alsatian autonomy until the advent of the Popular Front.
In fact, a number of these parliamentarians took part in our meetings and Annual General Meetings. The 1937 AGM in Perros-Guirec had an enthusiastic and triumphal air, as Desgranges’ report in favour of the teaching of Breton had just been adopted by the Chamber of Deputies’ Education commission. The Trestraou casino’s large hall was full to capacity. On the stand, a political galaxy of parliamentarians, from practically the whole political spectrum, surrounded M.Conan the Mayor of Perros who presided, Robert Audic and I. Father Desgrange, popular democrat, Pierre Even, Senator from the radical centre, Tanguy Prigent and Philippe Le Maux, socialists, represented most of their colleagues, whose messages of support were read out. Side by side in the assembly were M.Brien, sub-prefect of Lannion, R. L’Estourbeillon, Taldir Jaffrenou, Paul Brousmiche, Raymond Delaporte, F.Debauvais, Mordrel and Kerlann, who had succeeded Yann Sohier at the head of ‘Ar Falz’, plus of course Lannion’s police commissioner. At the end of the session I even introduced Mordrel to the Sub-Prefect, both were surprised to discover each other to be good company, and as pleasant, courteous and articulate as one could be.
This time there was no dissenter, whilst at our first congress in Guemene-sur-Scorff, we had to face the violent opposition of teacher Le Coutaller, who became Deputy for Morbihan after the Liberation. Jean-Marie Perrot, present at that session in Guemene, stepped in with a very apt reply, beginning by paying tribute to his former public education teachers.
Unfortunately, in spite of our efforts, we did not succeed in having the project placed on the agenda for discussion in the Chamber before the fall of the 3rd Republic, when the Chamber ingloriously ended its career in Vichy. Nonetheless, at the same time, on behalf of both Ar Brezoneg er Skol and the Breton Front, we had made numerous approaches to the National Education Ministry. Father Desgrange, Albert Le Bail, Paul Brousmiche and many others accompanied our delegation, repeated periodically once or twice a year, despite the mostly polite or disguised refusals we came up against. Even the High Council for Education had relaxed its traditional hostility to the teaching of local languages a little. We had the benefit of much appreciated help there from one of its members, and received a pleasant welcome from senior upper-bureaucrats of the ministry. But the ‘Offices’ remained fundamentally hostile.
– ‘Breton for the Baccalaureate!’ cried the astonished director of secondary education, ‘But how dreadful that would be!’
Here again, we came up against the monolithic State with its dogma of uniqueness and uniformity, which enabled it to have a centralised rule from a single point. The teaching of Breton would breach that dogma, introducing pluralism and diversity to the sacrosanct domain of a single educational system, with a single program and standardised exams and diplomas. But at least we succeeded all the same, through statutory channels, to obtain that teachers be allowed the freedom to hold Breton classes during periods devoted to organised leisure activities in the schools. An insufficient and deceptive concession in most cases, as few teachers were prepared to, or were in fact capable of doing so. It was psychologically an important step, however. In 1938, the teacher Abel Omnes and his wife opened the first public school Breton course. Our old friend, Genovefa de Saint-Pierre, one of our most ardent supporters, undertook each year to provide ‘Ar Brezoneg er Skol’ with the amount of money necessary to maintain the course. We actively proceeded to open others. At the same time, thanks to our militants on the spot, we succeeded in having short Breton articles published in most of the local weekly newspapers. We provided them with the text, thanks to our devoted team of Breton-speakers headed by Herve Maze, Albert Guillou and Andre Daniel. What is more, they had just founded the Breton journal SAV. Alongside them, I took part in the inauguration and foundation of Ker-Vreiz, the Breton centre, rue Saint-Placide, still in the same place up until a few years ago.
In view of the number of contacts I had made, militants of all nationalities I had met in the course of my international activities, as also my trips and research in the field of nationalities and national minorities in Europe, I agreed to take over from Yann Douguet, Yves Delaporte’s pseudonym, as chief editor of ‘Peuples et Frontieres’. This journal had evolved from ‘Bulletin des minorites nationales de France’, created in 1936 on the initiative of the Breton National Party, and Olier Mordrel in particular. It certainly added to my workload, but it gave me an opportunity to go into the theoretical and practical side of this interesting subject more thoroughly, and to take part in a concrete action that I considered increasingly necessary.
The Breton problem could not be isolated in time or space. Not only in France, but in the four corners of Europe other nations carried on the same struggle as ours. It was important to try and establish an effective solidarity between them, and to provide a theoretical and concrete practical basis to an action that, as far as possible, should be carried out jointly. Our concept of a pluralistic, federalist and decentralised State, of the necessary sharing of power amongst the various levels of administration and government, was the opposite to that of the standardized, authoritarian, centralised, autocratic and large historic States that ruled our various nations. At the time, none of the large States of Western Europe had decentralised structures; the declared aims of their governments were to strive towards a forced integration of national minorities with the population of various nationalities remaining on their territory. These nationalities that had succeeded in gaining their freedom owing to the First World War, in turn became oppressive, faced, as they thought, with the absolute necessity of creating a State of their own that would be a single, strong and centralised one, reflecting those of France, Germany and Italy. These last two had even sunk into Fascism and the deification of the State, with the cult of force and the glorification of its imperialism and greatness. Italian fascism had made this the ideological foundation of its politics. Francoism restored an authoritarian centralisation, modelled on those of France and Italy; a centralisation that the Spanish Republic had relaxed for a moment. Our problem was similar to that of all minority groups in the four corners of Europe that, on the contrary, were seeking to break the dictatorships they were being subjected to by the States, and to loosen their vice.
The task was an enormous one; we had to rise up against this totalitarian State controlled current, and try to restrain it. It was up to us to do it, in spite of our lack of strength and resources, and the immediate task of saving our own people, our own language, our own national identity, and our own interests. A current of thought, a trend, and a frame of mind had to be created and aroused throughout Europe, enabling everyone to oppose the growing imperialism of existing States that was only aggravated and intensified by the prospect of a new conflict. A difficult and enormous task! It is always dangerous to play at being a prophet. Most of my problems in life have come, in many cases, from being right about things too soon. Nonetheless, ‘Peuples et Frontieres’ made valiant efforts to devote itself to this difficult task, within the framework of Western Europe where it was easier for us to realise contacts with nations that were more than willing to strengthen them; nearly all had national movements by now, with whom we had to establish or strengthen our contacts. For a long time now, there had been contacts of a mostly cultural nature between Brittany and the other Celtic countries; Great Britain had a far more ‘democratic’ attitude towards Scotland and Wales than France had towards Brittany or Alsace. Breiz-Atao had already established contacts with the Flemish national movement, Alsatian autonomists, as well as some Corsican personalities; this circle had to be widened, existing links strengthened and new ones created, the necessary solidarity aroused, and the seed sown that would germinate.
Above all, this program was a political and practical one. It could certainly not be well regarded or accepted by a State whose role would be reduced, and part of its power and royal prerogatives stripped away. My civil-servant’s file at the ‘Surete Nationale’, the French criminal investigation department, continued to increase in volume. I always tried to maintain a non political stance in my struggle for the teaching of Breton. Taking into account the various factors, I did not think it possible to publicly take on this new task under my own name. The numerous pseudonyms that I have used during my life as a militant date back to that time. It was, for that matter, an old journalistic tradition. Was it not common practice amongst some of those writing for various newspapers, often of opposing tendencies, sometimes using different pseudonyms to create polemics? If there is one thing I can never exactly remember, it is all the pseudonyms I had to use. This was frequently the case in ‘Peuples et Frontieres’, through force of circumstances.
In addition to Jean Cam and Yann Kerberio, the two main pseudonyms I used for the editorials, there were a number of others that I was obliged to use to fill in the gaps or complete the columns from representatives of various countries, whose articles were sometimes submitted too late or never reached me. Today, looking through my collection of ‘Peuples et Frontieres’, I can still pick out my Basques, Corsican or Alsatian pseudonyms, but I cannot be sure whether the French, Welsh, Slovakian, Hungarian, Croatian, Ukrainian or Catalan names to be found there, are mine or those of other people. In any case, what is sure is that I did not write the journal all by myself, and that we had correspondents in all these nations. They also sent us the militant press of their respective countries on a regular basis, but apart from the French, I was hardly able to decipher much more than the English, Italian and Spanish.
I had to request the help of Marie-Louise Danielou, a calm young Breton from Pleyben, who was a secretary, and quite frequently came to Ker-Vreiz with her sisters Germaine and ‘Nono’. She came two or three times a week to the Ministry when she had finished work at her office, quite near mine, and I would devote an hour or two dictating the most important and urgent correspondence. From time to time, she also typed out articles or their translation. I had trouble convincing her to accept a modest payment for her time. All our militants in those days, gave of their time completely unselfishly, at least all those who took it seriously, as all minority or fringe movements tend to attract a certain number of eccentrics and zealots. Our militants spared not their time, trouble, nor money. They made up for their number by their quality and devotion.
Mordrel, who contributed to ‘Peuples et Frontieres’ from time to time, had organised a type of small editorial committee in Paris, providing me with an opportunity to meet with those mainly responsible for the regular columns of the journal. The triangle Brittany-Flanders-Alsace was in reality the cornerstone of the publication. Whilst I took on the main task and overall responsibility, Father Jean-Marie Gantois took on the responsibility for the Flemish column, and Hermann Bickler that of the Alsatian column. The other main ones, Basque, Welsh, Catalan, Scots and Corsican columns, had no specific person in charge, and here therefore I had to both innovate and improvise, and establish new contacts.
Jean-Marie Gantois was always the most faithful of all my correspondents. Being an ecclesiastic and historian, he had none of the worries associated with earning ones daily bread, nor any emotional or family problems, currently the fate of many who have to work and have a family, or sentimental and sexual attachments. Also, for him, it was a short trip from Lille to Paris, and thus after our first meeting, we were able to meet frequently, and rapidly became good friends. He was an open-minded man, respecting the opinions of others, but quite authoritarian apparently, when it came to running the ‘Vlaamsch Verbond van Frankrijk’, the Association of Flemish in France, of which he was in charge. But he was unanimously respected for the sincerity of his convictions and the considerable work he accomplished in their defence. He also wrote up, practically single-handed, the movement’s journal, ‘Lion de Flandre’. What’s more he was an extremely well-read and erudite person. He introduced me to the works of Guido Guezelle and Till Uilenspigel, as well as other traditions, legends and historical events which shaped this captivating European nation – a country where straightforwardness and the town’s and guilds’ self-governing powers were not empty words.
Nonetheless, Jean-Marie Gantois was given to certain inconsistencies. He was sensitive to this artificial Franco-Belgian boundary, isolating the Flemish in France from their true homeland, and worked towards its removal. He also dreamt, however, of a great Dutch empire extending from the Zuidersee to the Somme. This great country would thus cease to be a pawn or the victim of territorial exchanges between the great European powers, as had until now been the fate of various regions in Flanders. He even insisted that, from time to time in his column, we should include news of the South African Afrikaner’s struggle. These were descendants of the Dutch and Flemish Boers, faced with ‘Anglicisation’ by their British conquerors. He also took up the theme of the Belgian ‘Flamingant’ and their struggle for political and linguistic rights, Belgium being one of the most artificial States in Europe. Early this century, the Walloon socialist, Jules d-Estree, had already exclaimed, ‘Sire, there are no Belgians’. The Flemish column of ‘Peuples et Frontieres’, with Jean-Marie Gantois in charge, reflected his concerns along these lines. He was pragmatic and a realist, however, realising that it was necessary to go through certain stages, and that with the state of stifled public opinion that our respective nations were in, it was not possible to express, all at once, ones opinions and claims. Viewed in that light, the struggle of the Flemish in France for cultural autonomy, and that of the Flemish in Belgium for both political autonomy and federalisation of the Belgian State, could not be confused – which is why he also made use of pseudonyms.
Hermann Bickler, a lawyer in Strasbourg, was a very different person. I never knew him as well as I did Jean-Marie Gantois, for we only met two or three times. He was not a regular correspondent and, from time to time, he put one of his militants from the Jungsmanschaft, the Alsace/Lorraine autonomist youth movement, in charge of sending me a column. He seldom came to Paris, as he considered it a ‘foreign capital’. He only learnt French because he was forced to do so after the Armistice of 1918. As a student, he had taken part in the Breton autonomist Congress at Chateaulin in 1928 with the Alsatian autonomist deputies, Camille Dahlet and Paul Schall. At our first meeting in Paris, we talked at length, and I took him back to his hotel. As we left the Jardin des Tuileries, I pointed out the vista of Concorde and the Champs-Elysees. He thought for a moment and then said ,
– ‘Yes, of course these were great people! But the greatness of this city, like that of all imperial capitals, was built on the exploitation and ruin of our homelands and those of others even more distant’.
He spoke at length of his traumatic experience as a schoolboy, when French which he did not understand, overnight replaced German as the only medium of education – All because the flag flying from public buildings was of a different colour. But the realities of life for the Alsatian had not changed however, neither had the people nor the language they spoke. He spoke also of the bitterness and resentment when the French, without consultation, abolished the Alsatian assembly and the status of political autonomy. Autonomist militants and Alsatian politicians had succeeded, after years of unrest encouraged by the French, in snatching it from the German Reich. Meanwhile, at the same time as it was doing away with Alsace’s autonomy status, France was helping and encouraging an artificial autonomist and separatist movement of the Rhineland, within its occupied zone of Germany! That evening, I understood better than ever the tragedy of this nation, pawn of rival imperialisms, tossed about and divided by wars, whose inhabitants had been obliged to change their nationality and language four times within two generations! The Rhine, in fact, has never been a boundary between nations, but more of a link, and must remain so.
Shortly after that meeting, I had an opportunity to speak of Hermann Bickler with two or three Alsatian autonomist parliamentarians, as I sat beside them at an official banquet. I was then in Andre Liautey’s cabinet.
– ‘He’s the most extremist of our autonomists’, they replied.
Arrested by the French in 1940, and then called up by the German army, he became a senior civil-servant within the German military administration in occupied France, based in Paris, that ‘foreign capital’ – The revenge of the oppressed on the oppressor? – Of the colonised on the coloniser? He quickly realised however that neither the third Reich nor the third Republic had any intention of restoring political autonomy to Alsace, which the German empire had granted in 1911, in spite of the fact that for a time German was now once again the official language.
Petru Rocca, founder of the Corsican movement, ‘A Muvra’, was theoretically responsible for the Corsican column, but hardly ever wrote anything. The French police began subjecting him to petty annoyances, particularly after the Colmar trial, and instituted legal proceedings against some of the Alsatian autonomist leaders, including Father Hoeguy, Charles Rosse, Dr. Ricklin and others. Militants from every minority movement of the French hexagon and its colonies were accumulating searches and surveillance. My friend Eugene Goyhenetche was a great help in preparing the Basque column, and sometimes came along to our Breton students circle. Here again, as was the case in Flanders, the boundary dividing the Basque country’s territory between two States should be ignored by us and fought against. Thus, Basques from the peninsula were fighting an armed combat against Francoism, and for the survival of the Spanish Republic that had allowed the Basque country a status of political autonomy. It was important that the reason for their struggle be understood, and why this deeply Catholic nation should on the side of the ‘Reds, against those who claimed to lead their struggle in the name of Christ – meanwhile their only aim was to establish the dictatorship of a Unitarian, centralised Spain, over the diversity of different nations in the Peninsula.
My Central European contacts were also useful in respect to everything concerning important events in the struggle of that European region’s nationalities and minorities. Andre Tamas, the Hungarian Revisionist League’s representative in Geneva, who had organised my study tour in Budapest, sent me some invaluable documentation. Christo Dimoff Bogoeff, a Bulgarian student in Paris, in trouble with the authorities of his country, added to my information. The latter was a colourful character with blonde hair and a feline face and appearance. I was never quite able to work out the true reasons for his stay in Paris. He became interested in the Breton problem. Being a Balkan, straight away his thoughts were of conspiracies and terrorism. I told him there was a Breton secret society Gwen Ha Du that had blown up the Rennes monument celebrating the union of Brittany with France, and seemed orientated towards that form of action. He seemed interested, and decided to visit Brittany to find out more about it. I only had addresses of a few nationalist militants who might be able to help him make the contacts he needed. Several weeks later, I questioned him on the results of his enquiries –
– ‘There are no Breton terrorists’, he told me, ‘yet I saw those who are said to belong to Gwen Ha Du. Blowing up monuments, it’s a joke, a childish prank. None of it can be taken seriously.’
And as I pressed him further, he added,
– ‘For example, if one fine morning the five prefects of Brittany were found murdered in their beds, then that would be terrorism!’
I had great difficulty making him understand that what might be standard practice in the Balkans, where political terrorism was a long established tradition, could not take place in Brittany without incurring general disapproval, which would be counterproductive. At least the destruction of the Rennes monument had only incurred disapproval from official circles whilst contributing to a revival of the Breton’s national consciousness.
At the same time I extended my knowledge of the other Celtic countries: some Welsh, Scottish and Irish students, who occasionally attended our Breton students circle and had agreed to give talks on their countries, provided me with reports and information. I attended the Cardiff Inter Celtic Congrss in 1937, accompanied by Marius Le Toiser, both of us representing Ar Brezhoneg er Skol and the Breton students, by James Bouille representing the Bleun Brug, and by Mordrel and Debauvais representing the P.N.B. Aside from a brief visit to Glasgow in 1936 with Annie Riedberger, Charles Rousseau and Georges Palthey, for the Society of Nations’ University group’s meeting, it was my first physical contact with another Celtic country, in particular with Welsh militants. They nearly all belonged to the national party Plaid Cymru. I met most of them again about ten years later, when some other Breton militants and I had to seek refuge in Wales.
This congress also provided me with the opportunity of learning more about Debauvais and Mordrel. Until then, our meetings had mainly been rather brief, at various Breton Congresses. The former was mostly self-taught, with hardly any schooling, and impressed me with the depth of his convictions and his essentially pragmatic mind. He was completely selfless, totally devoted to the cause he personified, with Mordrel and a few others. There was nothing more foreign to Debauvais’ spirit than theoretical speeches and ideologies. Without ever losing sight of the goal for Breton independence that he pursued, he was convinced of the need to proceed step-by-step and endeavour to obtain concrete achievements, no matter how modest, drawing Brittany closer to effective political and cultural autonomy, followed by the Independence it needed to obtain. He knew it was important not to rush things, even if at times it was important to shock and create a scandal, but to make the most of every available opportunity that had to come along during the following years, and that he felt could only bring us closer to the goal he pursued.
Although the politics and end results of the struggle I had undertaken were different, in that political and institutional federalism seemed to me the only possible and desirable way, I found I was very close to him regarding the methods to be used. We had to obtain practical measures, the result of patient achievements and often unrecognised work. Taking refuge in purely theoretical points of view, or distant and inaccessible ideologies, frequently finding there a pretext for inaction, has always been foreign to my way of thinking acting. The struggle has to reflect reality, even if it means remaining down to earth and altering the methods and terminology used. Pragmatism was essential in this matter, as it is in many others. Debauvais’ was very close to mine. Although politics remains the art of the possible, that does not mean it cannot be organised according to far more distant outlooks than those of the present moment.
Mordrel possessed far more brilliance, and so he remained. With his lively intelligence, sparkling wit and great knowledge, he was able to assimilate the most diverse of problems, and the most disparate thoughts and ideologies with disconcerting ease. Also, he adjusted easily to the latest trends if he wished, or thought it could be useful. One day, after a political discussion where the arguments he put forward had won the enthusiastic and unanimous support of everyone, he shocked Raymond Delaporte by declaring he could have upheld totally opposing views to those he had just put forward, with the same pertinence and conviction! Mordrel’s thinking was completely foreign to Delaporte’s. The convictions of the former are certainly just as sincere as those of the latter. But Delaporte’s deep faith and Christian philosophy of life, make Mordrel’s agnosticism, intellectual adjustments and versatile wit, detestable and impossible to understand. In this manner, the ideological and doctrinal incompatibility between the two men came to light, on the eve of the war. Consequently Raymond Delaporte and his brothers distanced themselves from the official politics of the P.N.B. at the time, which was influenced by Mordrel and the prospect of the political game he foresaw as a possibility between Hitler’s Germany and France – A conflict of political tendencies that Debauvais’ pragmatism endeavoured to reduce. For Delaporte, all means to an end were not necessarily good. On the other hand, neither Mordrel nor Debauvais were unduly concerned about that.
These differences of opinion between the Mordrel ‘clan’ and Delaporte ‘clan’ did not improve with time. They both had the intelligence not to make it public, in order to safeguard the morale and cohesion of their small band of devoted nationalist militant followers. Raymond Delaporte always remained wary of Mordrel’s way of thinking and of his talent, so brilliant he said, ‘that he is capable of interpreting and rewriting a book, with more relevance and sparkle than the author himself’. These criticisms hardly affected Mordrel, who always maintained he was above all that. His unique writing talent, and high opinion of himself, made it possible for him to haughtily ignore the comments made about him.
However, over and above his versatile wit, Mordrel’s fundamental Breton beliefs cannot be questioned. He was accused, and still is, of dragging Breton nationalism along the path of ‘nazism’. I have never believed in the accuracy of this assessment, even though from his writings at the time, some texts could be said to indicate a basis for it! Or else that he was more a nazi by force of circumstances rather than by conviction, the reality and sincerity of which can be strongly contested. I believe what is probably correct, is that Mordrel once again wanted to adjust to the trends, which at the time served the political game he judged it was necessary to play between France and Germany in the approaching war. Dictatorships and strong States were the trend then, which many journalists and French politicians compared to the ‘deliquescence’, or gradual decay of the third Republic, offering a truly unedifying spectacle. Far more ‘nazism’ and admiration for ‘fascism’ could be found in their writings than could be found in Mordrel’s. In reality, he did not want to be outstripped by them along this path of friendship that had to be acquired with the new Germany. In his writings on this subject and the political philosophy he developed, one finds he is far more inspired by his French intellectual equals at the time, than be a defined wish to adapt ‘nazism’ to the Breton cause. And, as Delaporte pointed out, his writings were frequently more brilliant than those who inspired him.
In 1936 he had already written in ‘Stur’ that both capitalism and Marxism should be rejected, as both were much more ‘sins than systems’. This appeared to be new at the time, but has since become a current expression since it was realised that the practical application of the latter, was but the development of a basic State capitalism, a ‘sin’ as despicable as the former. To say that there can be none other than National Socialism adapted to the needs of a people has also become a common expression. Mordrel himself had misgivings as regards the deep contempt, inherent in Nazism, of the ‘other’ man; even though at that stage little did we know that it would lead to such despicable extremes and consequences. He dreaded the consequences of the possibility that the theories of the German race’s absolute superiority might be applied to Brittany and others. Although he probably never wrote this, he spoke of it to those willing to listen and that he confided in. Nonetheless, it seemed to him that the immediate advantages that could be drawn from a type of Britto-German alliance outweighed the more long-term dangers that might arise. In the art of politics and of life, is it not a case of overcoming difficulties one at a time as they arise, and in between to choose what appears to be the lesser evil? This is why the philosophical and political stands he may have taken that are held against him, sometimes rightfully so, seem to me to be stamped with the seal of opportunism, far more than that of support or sincerity. It is true that in Mordrel, even in his later and more recent writings, there is a fascination with exceptional destinies, the cult of the strong man, and an admiration for the superior being. Why should this surprise us? Did not Mordrel always consider himself as such? The fact that he never hesitated to make his own superiority felt, is probably what mostly works against him.
In the course of those two years immediately preceding the war, I saw Mordrel fairly often as he was still involved in ‘Peuples et Frontieres’. He even came to visit me a few times at the Ministry of the Interior. On one of these occasions he arrived in a French army lieutenant’s uniform that he wore during a period of military training. He was amused that the officer of the Republican guard on duty at the entrance of the building had saluted him, standing to attention before raising a hand to his ‘kepi’. There is no doubt that his visits were reported, as he was quite frequently followed. The Prefet, leader of the Ministry’s Cabinet, sent for me one day to warn me about the contacts I had ‘with people whose minds were somewhat distraught’, a polite euphemism coming from this senior civil-servant!
Mordrel’s conversations were always interesting, touching on a great variety of subjects as well as the most current and the most historical. But he always came back to the defence of the cause he had embraced. For him, the collapse of France was inevitable, thus giving Brittany its chance to recover its ranking as a state in the chorus of Nations. His fundamental Breton beliefs gave some form of cohesion to his way of thinking, and to his existence. They continued to remain so. He was not one of those to desert the side they have defended, or of those who abandon the struggle, even when events and circumstances force him to draw aside from it. Supple, brilliant and agile as was his mind and pen, he was one of those implacable people, looking down with unconcealed condescension on those disputing his analysis. Possibly his greatest fault was in relating everything to himself! Commenting on his recent book ‘Breiz Atao’, one of our young Breton priests ironically said to me,
– ‘In short, what comes out of it is that he was the one who did everything, although a few others did give him a little bit of a hand from time to time!’
This explains that of the numerous enemies he made both within and outside the Breton movement, why there are frequently men or militants, whose pride or beliefs were originally offended.
Such as they were, Debauvais and Mordrel complimented each other very well in the campaign they pursued at the controls of the Breton National Party and Breiz Atao. The steady as a rock quality of the former contributed towards fixing the greater versatility of the latter in their line of action and ultimate goal. In turn, the brilliance of the latter was reflected in the behaviour and analysis of the former. Which one of them was the true leader? No one asked themselves that question, as neither one of them was more of a leader than the other, although both thought they were. It was really of no importance – they themselves hardly worried about it at the time. Different as they were from each other, they were bound by their friendship. They helped each other on a personal level, in the way men often do when it comes to their private lives.
In fact, the practical, administrative, commercial and financial decisions that Mordrel thought were servile and secondary, but in reality were important, were made by Debauvais. He was wary of his partner’s spendthrift tendencies, and preferred to hold the purse strings, as funds were low and had to be spared. Mordrel on the other hand, always looking at life from a higher plane, preferred to concentrate on higher level politics, for which he felt he was better suited. Whilst as far as Debauvais was concerned, the only thing he wanted from politics was that it should bring him closer to Independence for his country. Any moves that he decided might achieve this end he considered good, the others were bad. Thus, he let Mordrell theorize at will, concentrating on filling in the gaps of a political and ideological nature that could arise amongst those forming the leading team of the party.
Once I became involved with ‘Peuples et Frontieres’, I also met Debauvais more frequently. In fact he was in charge of the printing and administration of the publication, and I never had any worries on that score. It was brought out regularly and I did not have to worry about the financing. I was in charge of compiling it, motivating the correspondents, assembling and preparing the copy. I had no instructions to worry about, except those I gave myself. I went to visit Debauvais a couple of times at his modest house in Saint Laurent, which was then a suburb of Rennes on the edge of the fields, since then overrun with the city’s large buildings. I was warmly welcomed by his wife and himself. They lived simply and modestly, bordering on poverty. But it was a poverty that was illuminated by their unselfish passion and devotion to a great cause. I also saw Debauvais in Paris from time to time when he was in hiding, before he made the decision to give himself up in 1938, to serve a prison sentence that had been imposed on him. We usually met at La Closerie des Lilas. He had grown a moustache and wore dark glasses, his only disguise, together with a hat that he would normally never wear. He never lost his courage and determination, in spite of suffering frequently from poor-health and the illness he died from several years later. He was unshakable in his beliefs and total devotion to the cause with which he identified.
In those days I did not frequently meet Raymond Delaporte. He was in Brittany and seldom came to Paris – our joint efforts in the cultural struggle had brought us closer. We rapidly established a rapport, in spite of his natural reserve. We saw each other mainly at the Breton congresses in the summer, particularly those of ‘Bleun Brug’, when I was able to attend. My family and I stopped off one day at Chateauneuf-du-Fao, where his aunt Mlle Dubuisson kindly welcomed us. She had taken over the running of her nephew’s house with quiet devotion. Her way of life, her respectability and upbringing, and even her prejudices hardly differed from those of my grandmother in Callac. As my mother would say, the Delaporte were ‘des gens bien’, of the Chateauneuf bourgeoisie, just as my mother was of the Callac bourgeoisie.
Raymond Delaporte did more than just theorise – he was also active in the practical field, dealing with the teaching of Breton in Catholic schools, and working patiently to establish this. Both of his brothers, Herve and Yves, followed him in his cultural and political commitment. It was several years later before I first met Herve, the doctor and eldest of the three brothers, when I found myself in prison with him at the Saint Charles prison camp in Quimper. I also only found out much later that he had been one of the Gwen ha Du, and had taken part in the ‘Ingrandes’ incident that brought to a halt President Heriot’s train at the Breton border in 1932, the same year that the Rennes monument was blown up. Generally, owing to their profession, doctors and priests know how to keep secrets!
On the other hand, I frequently met Yves, the youngest of the three brothers, who was often in Paris. I did not have the same relationship with him, as I had with Raymond, as he was much colder and more withdrawn. But he had a strong influence over Raymond who listened to his advice. Yves was in reality the driving force behind the founding of the short-lived publication, ‘War Du ar Pal’, that opposed the theories expressed in ‘Stur’, managed by Mordrel, and later behind ‘L’Heure Breonne’.
Raymond was much more the classic Breton militant than were Mordrel and Debauvais, and as such he related more to the ‘elders’ of the movement, such as Father Perrot and Father Madec, and their Catholic militant followers. This also included all those endeavouring to uphold the language, culture, traditions and faith of a Brittany whose very existence as a nation was threatened by levelling forces at the service of soul-destroying State centralism and a growing standardisation of society. He was always much more of a cultural militant than a political one, and later became President of Bleun Brug. He realised that it was only possible to keep alive the Breton language and culture under certain conditions. I also gradually became aware of this during the fruitless struggle for the teaching of Breton that I carried out at the Ministry of Education in Paris. Firstly, native speakers from the countryside and villages had to be rescued from the emigration that thinned out their ranks. Secondly, they should be provided with their own system of education adapted to their needs, instead of one drawn up and directed as a uniform prototype. Everything pertaining to the subject was inextricably linked; culture economy and social problems urgently demanded political solutions with overall answers, and not partial ones. The only political solutions capable of achieving this result would be for the Bretons to have the right, and the possibility, of looking after their own problems, the right to manage their own affairs and freely decide what is for their own good and what is not; in a word it would be the conquest or re-conquering of the right to decide their own destiny. This of course could be achieved within the French State by as new distribution of power and redistribution of it, and by the sharing of decisions, responsibilities and resources between the centre and the periphery, the summit and the base. And yet, regional reforms had led nowhere, although this matter was, after all, the fundamental goal of its doctrine and purpose.
It was, therefore, necessary to take an extra step forward, and move towards a political economy that would restore equal relations between Brittany and France, which should no longer be dependant – relations of equal partnership, and no longer of conqueror with conquered, nor master with servant. But was it necessary to go as far as extolling national independence as Breiz-Atao’s little team of nationalists were doing? Their aim being to ensure the economic and social development of Brittany and the Breton people, also to retain control of its land, the maintenance and fulfilment of its culture, and the re-establishment of its sovereignty. Whether pursuing autonomy or independence, both cases led to direct confrontation the imperialism and centralised structures of the French State. In the case of autonomy, however, this confrontation could be a peaceful one, which was the thinking of the federalists, but in those years directly before the war, the P.N.B. had left them behind. On the other hand, in the case of independence, anything other than a violent confrontation could not be perceived. No doubt, this is what the young people were thinking of as they prepared to resort to force with guerrilla training. This was a small group, so tightly knit by their oath of allegiance that I had no idea of their existence at the time. Few people knew of the existence of Celestin Laine then, apart from the incident of the Rennes monument his name was still virtually unknown. These young people were certainly within the nature of their commitment – but they were miles away from most of the troops. They were already lost soldiers.
Breton opinion at the time still made no distinction between autonomy and independence. It rejected them both equally. It was in the interest of the State to carefully foster this confusion with their propaganda. In any case, already resistant to regionalism, they considered autonomy as being on the fringe of independence and a crime in their eyes. Autonomy and separatism had become practically synonymous in public opinion, which was distorted and stultified by schools of thought of diverse shades that governed the State. If the latter were not always in agreement on other matters, they certainly were in agreement on the State being ‘one and indivisible’. But what new vocabulary could be used to overcome the half-heartedness and even to the conservatism that regionalism evoked?
And yet in spite of appearances, these fundamental analyses in fact agreed with the conclusions reached by an ever increasing number of Bretons, and what set them apart was that this small team of ‘autonomists’ had the courage and audacity to push these analyses to their ultimate conclusions. But this courage or lucidity was not shared by the vast majority of their compatriots, who were bogged down by conservatism, elitism and the loyalty of command. This can be found in all countries where the State and its ruling classes begin to accumulate all the powers of authority, distributing favours, concentrating all the wealth and monopolising the best minds. The Bretons, or at least those who reflected on it, were not against the premises on which these fundamental analyses rested. One only had to scratch a little to find them. They did not believe, however, that the solutions they called for could ever be resolved in the manner perceived by ‘Breiz Atao’. The great majority of them were in favour of a ‘regionalism’ respectful of the State. They were autonomists without really knowing it, or if they did they did not admit to it. That word could not be mentioned, as it made them curl up into folds of a self-respecting sentimental French patriotism. Self-respect and social respectability have always played an important role in Breton mentality. Admitting to being an autonomist was not respectable. Fingers were pointed at those who did, or they were looked on as being ‘Istrogell’.
On the eve of the war I was close to ‘Breiz Atao’s’ analyses, although I continued to feel the need to question them. I came up against the blank wall of the State, rendered even more immovable by the fact that it was clothed in hypocrisy. I despaired of ever seeing the reform of the French State, the loosening of the vice that persistently crushed people, nations and cultures into the shapeless indifferent magma of uniformity. Could we do so by trying to influence destiny, as Mordrel and Debauvais thought and were preparing for, on the eve of the Second World War?
I was not convinced of this, and Raymond Delaporte was probably not either, although he was aware of Laine’s activities. Greater political solutions and the surprises they bring about can only be successful if they are realised on well prepared ground, on a public opinion ready to accept them or consider them natural. The soundness of my first analyses came back to me – there was still too large a gap between the avant-gardes and the main body, between ‘Breiz Atao’ militants on one hand, and the Breton people with its local elite on the other. War or not, defeated France or not, it was this void that had to be filled, this gap reduced. Long, difficult and patient work on a path strewn with obstacles, pitfalls, disappointments, traps and underhanded opposition, which regionalism and the good well-meaning people it had drawn together had been helpless in bringing to a conclusion.
Yet it seemed to me to be a feasible undertaking – but it required plenty of time, perseverance, and patience, gathering together plenty of support and willingness. These were really just waiting to assert themselves. I have never met a Breton who was not a prospective ‘autonomist’. ‘Regionalism’ needed new blood and new inspiration. It was no longer a case of preserving, but of conquering, of giving the Breton people some good reasons for struggling harder to obtain the political, administrative, economical and cultural freedoms necessary for its completeness and the defence of its interests. Gathering together a third force seemed to me necessary – but one had to have the means to do so. There was no doubt in my mind that a powerful newspaper, devoted to giving a direction rather than following one, and reflecting public opinion, was capable of doing it. Every day, its role would be to go back over the harmfulness of the system imposed on the Breton people, with the negligence and contempt it showed towards their interests and traditional values, and to suggest solutions that could change it or break it up. It should also place more emphasis on what was happening in Brittany than in Paris, and should move away both from the centralism and parochialism that the press allowed, increasingly yielding to purely commercial constraints. I had already formulated my vision of the daily paper ‘La Bretagne’ that I succeeded in founding a few years later. The direct action of ‘Breiz Atao’ was certainly essential – one cannot do without a determined vanguard. Also, public opinion certainly needed shaking-up. There is always a danger, however, that some shocks can kill the patient. What would tomorrow bring with the war approaching?
It was after the foundation of Ar Brezhoneg er Skol that I also met Xavier de Langlais, who became one of my best friends. He was not a political militant. That was not his way of expressing himself in society. The depth of his being, beliefs and concepts were expressed through his pen and brush. Although not a Breton speaker by birth, he had learnt it and already published his first essays in Breton. Like Raymond Delaporte, he was from a traditional Christian family and was true to his faith. He was also drawn to Bleun Brug. He had helped us gain the support for our campaign of a number of municipal counsellors in the Sarzeau region, where he was from. He never wondered about the need for Brittany to be herself, to be able to enjoy again those freedoms that were forcibly snatched away a hundred and fifty years previously. He was a colourful militant, just like Delaporte, and was linked to the poet, writer, bard and farmer, Loeiz Herrieu. Like the rest of us, he regularly came up against the stupid and insincere argument presented by opponents to the teaching of Breton, and by senior-civil servants of National Education in Paris.
– ‘But which Breton are you going to teach? Are there not several Breton languages that are written and pronounced in different ways?’
Using the same preconceptions, we could certainly have easily replied that the existence of some six hundred French dialects did not prevent only one French language, and not six hundred, being taught in the State’s territories. But it seemed to us necessary to reply to this argument of a practical nature, although we were under no illusions as to its worth and the reasons why it was presented.
In fact, since the beginning of the century, when Francois Vallee, Meven Modiern, Ernault and some other Breton writers had worked on standardising the spelling of the ‘Cornouaille’, ‘Leon’ and ‘Tregor’ dialects, only those from the Vannes region still had their own. To our small group, and to all other propagandists for the teaching of the Breton language, as to all those like Yann Sohier and Raymond Delaporte, who were beginning to organise a sensible method of teaching it, the necessity of carrying out a new reform became apparent, in order to also incorporate the Vannes spelling. I therefore gave X. De Langlais and Delaporte my full support, right from the beginning, in their attempt to see this through. I had no claim to being a grammarian or philologist – what motivated me were considerations of an essentially down to earth nature. The writers from the Vannes region, with their undisputed leader, Loeiz Herrieu, were not opposed to this reform, and neither were the majority of those writers who adopted the unified spelling, with those of the Bardes and of Bleun Brug in the lead. Xavier de Langlais and Raymond Delaporte organised several meetings in Vannes that I did not attend, recognising my lack of competence in such a technical subject. Also, in spite of the fact that I had enrolled in the ‘Ober’ correspondence course, organised by Marharid Gourlaouenn, I was incapable of following this type of discussion in Breton, much less participate in it. The protagonists of the reform, however, came up against the uncompromising opposition of the biggest names in philology – Francois Vallee and Meven Mordiern, both elders, and Roparz Hemon. How could one go against the advice of the only authors and editors of the only Breton language dictionaries and grammar that really counted, and the one who as leader of Gwalarn was also regarded as being the leading Breton writer of his generation? I did not know Roparz Hemon at the time, and only met him a few years later at the beginning of the German occupation. He never sought contacts with people, for that matter. He always had a tendency to consider these a waste of time – he was shut away in the positions he had taken, in his convictions and in the heavy workload he had set himself. I confined myself to writing to him several times. His replies were as good as a dismissal of the whole matter.
I paid a visit to Francois Vallee at his house; rue Saint-Benoit in Saint-Brieuc. I found him practising archery in the garden.
– ‘It is very good for the chest muscles,’ he said, and then proceeded to enlighten me on the intricacies of the sport.
In the nearly fifteen years since I first saw him on the rostrum of Bleun Brug, he seemed to me to be just as old, just as frail and with the same poor eyesight as he had then. He congratulated me warmly on the success of Ar Brezoneg er Skol, and told me about the various attempts and steps he had taken in the past for the same cause. But he was not responsive to my arguments, when I put forward the reasons why I felt a complete standardisation of Breton spelling was necessary. He obviously wanted to dismiss this subject from his mind.
– ‘A standardisation has already been done. Those from the Vannes region will come around to it as the others have’, he repeated, ‘I think we must follow Roparz Hemon’s lead’, he added in conclusion. ‘He is still the soundest, most dependable and the best of all these newcomers’.
But although our efforts failed in 1938, four years later they would succeed, and this time thanks to Roparz Hemon who rallied to our cause. It had greatly contributed to drawing me even closer to Xavier de Langlais and Raymond Delaporte.
Ar Brezoneg er Skol, Peuples et Frontieres, Congres Mondiale de la Jeunesse, Jeunes de l’Union Federale, International Conferences, all these more than filled the spare time I had from my, albeit undemanding, professional occupation. I was beginning to feel the burden of all these activities. Thus, whenever I had a few days at my disposal, I escaped to Brittany to recharge my batteries. I usually headed for Callac, where my grandmother’s house, a haven of peace and solitude, was always open to me. Nothing had changed there – it was as always, the home base it felt good to come back to after the storms, work and tempest – the furniture still in place where one had left it, and the steady tic-toc of the clock in the hallway that instead of marking time seemed to stop it for me.
At the bottom of the secluded garden, which filled with flowers in summer and fruit in September, I would find the little room again where I used to take refuge as a student to write, read and dream. Sometimes I discovered scattered pages, partially yellowed with age, with sentences I had written, poems I had composed, rough drafts that I had forgotten. I remembered my adolescent enthusiasm on discovering the world of ideas revealed in books I had read, and the music flowing from the words of certain poems. An enthusiasm that had me reciting, speaking and gesticulating to myself as I strolled along the avenues. Once more I wandered through the valleys of La Boissiere and the woods of Keranlouan, along the upper slopes of Calanhel and the moors of Saint Michel. I climbed up Botmel’s solitary bell-tower, clambered over Corong’s granite blocks and Rocher de l’Ermite in the Duault forest, sometimes wandering towards Burtulet’s bleak crossroads, ‘where the devil died of cold’, and the elegantly ornate granite churches of Plourac’h and Bulat, or isolated chapels perched on hillsides. Golden fields of ripe wheat, or greyish-white of buckwheat, russet moors, pathways, solitude sown with gleaming gorse, rippling forests and secret paths, again I immersed myself in their smells, their life, colours and mysteries. I spoke to them all, forgetful of time already carrying my youth away, leaving me with the illusion that I was going back in time.
To live as a plant does, or as a man? – A difficult and sometimes heartbreaking choice. But one cannot call a halt to work that has been started, nor abandon the structure already initiated, and reject the call without feeling demeaned and loosing ones self-esteem! To give up is to begin dying.
In the evening after dark, when my grandmother had already retired for the night, I would walk over to my Aunt Caroline’s house. She still lived, as Dr.Quere’s widow, in her big house, rue de la Fontaine, and was together with my grandmother, her sister-in-law, the last of that generation. Whereas my grandmother retired and rose early, doing her shopping in Callac at eight in the morning, Aunt Caroline retired and rose late. As lively and active as was the former, the latter was not. They did not get on and seldom saw each other.
Aunt Caroline was as deaf as a post, with little grey curls framing her wobbly head, and usually spent her evenings with Catherine her elderly maid, sitting in her comfortable kitchen, although it did not have a stove to warm it. Marie Tilly, Catherine’s sister, had been my great grandmother’s maid, and sometimes joined them to exchange the latest gossip. Looking through the window from outside, I could see the two white ‘coiffes’ and the grey head so close together they were practically touching. One had to speak very loudly and be very close to ‘Tante’ Caroline for her to hear! And even then she still got everything wrong at times!
I would usually turn the conversation towards Callac in the old days, and to those deceased. – colourful characters like Tidou the poacher, or Francine the beggar woman, or also the drunken gravedigger who was found one fine morning by a funeral, fast asleep in the grave he had dug the day before – or the well-known regulars of the cafe Bourhis, now Montfort, such as Francis Prigent with his brick-red face, a part time wine merchant and inveterate hunter – the lawyers, Mahe who was a hunchback, and Le Bozec, father of my friend Roger, whose only exercise was pacing up and down in front of his office in rue de l’Eglise – old Tremel, said to be a skinflint and a betrayed husband, toothless ever since I can remember, and wearing the large waistband of the Landivsiau people – Maurice Hanes, confirmed bachelor, idly ageing in his big dark dusty house, with his dogs – Marie-Therese Patin, elegant daughter of the inventor of the Breton spaniel – the Morels, the Leherou, the Tregoats, the Coulouarns and the Kerherves! Also frequently evoked were the stories of the ‘fraisce’, that bird of doom whose cry warned of death, of ‘Ankou’, the angel pf death’s cart creaking along the roads at night, of the phantom priest with his altar boy, sometimes heard ringing his little bell along the country lanes at night, the traditional practice when bringing the last sacrament to a dying person – another warning of an approaching death. We also recalled the ‘lavandieres de nuit’, those washerwomen heard at night beating away at the public washhouse by the bottom of Botmel hill – then the lost souls begging for prayers, and the abandoned chapels with collapsed roofs that suddenly light up on certain festival nights, filled again with a vast number of the departed! Both Catherine and Marie were my equivalent of Marharid-Fulup, the old woman from Port-Blanc whose tales had enabled Anatole Le Braz to compile ‘La legende de la mort’, and who is depicted beside him in the granite monument that overlooks the ‘Vallee des Promenades’ in Saint-Brieuc.
Sometimes, on special horse fair days, I would wake up to the sound of a whole cavalry of horses as they were sent galloping down rue de l’Eglise. These were among amongst the wealth of resources from the hinterland of Callac. There were greys or duns, chestnuts, black or white, all one colour, dappled or speckled, with manes and short tails platted – enough horses in the Church Square to equip the cavalry corps of an army in the old days. All other noises and smells were obliterated and absorbed by loud neighing and pawing, shouts, exclamations and curses of men encouraging and pulling in different directions the distinctively heavy-looking work-horses and the famous Breton Bidets from the Cornouaille Mountains that had invaded the towns.
It was in the summer of 1939, during one of these trips to Callac and Dinard that the international situation once again deteriorated dangerously. In the summer of 1938, as we returned on the ‘Normandy’ from the Second World Youth Congress, I had anxiously followed events leading to the Sudetes crisis that ended with the Munich agreement. Since then, the German troops had entered Prague. The 3rd Reich had justified the ‘Anchluss’ by citing the people’s right to self-determination – then stated that the annexation of Sudetes was for ‘the greater German fatherland’, but this time, without the least pretence of justification, it could only be a manifestation of State-controlled imperialism, although Slovakian Independence was proclaimed at the same time. One could argue that the Breton’s had even less distinctive political rights than, theoretically, the Czech still had, in the Bohemia-Moravia ‘protectorate’ annexed to the Great Reich, but it was still a case of blatant violation of a people’s rights, an ominous warning of the fate that might be in store for all the nations of Western Europe if the Great Reich’s domination continued to expand.
Although like most other Europeans I had experienced ‘the cowardly relief’ that came with the ‘Munich accords’, these had not set aside the looming spectre of war. After a few months, this became increasingly evident. Had France and England been right to back down in 1938, and would they do so again, now that it was Poland’s turn to be threatened? Political observers of all parties and nations agreed it appeared to be ridiculous that they should have to fight to keep the ‘Danzig corridor’, one of the greatest absurdities of the Versailles Treaty. Now however, was it not a question of something else altogether? The situation was certainly a direct result of mistakes made by the syndicate comprising the victors of the First World War, who with France in the lead had refused to contemplate any peaceful revision of the treaties. Having allowed all the opportunities to pass by which could have made it possible, they locked themselves into their conservatism. By doing so, they had made things easier for the lightning expansion of German fascism. The latter had finally succeeded in involving Mussolini’s Italy, until the German-Soviet pact, a temporary alliance of two fundamentally similar imperialisms, in their contempt for the rights of men and nations made war inevitable!
But before the conclusion of the latter, and even in the midst of the Polish crisis, there were many who still thought France would not intervene.
– ‘Why should they do so now when they refused to do so in 1938?’, had said Jean Marie Gantois when I met him a few days before I left for Brittany.
– ‘In fact it would be suicidal to do so. If it does, it will be defeated and invaded. Poland will not be able to hold out for more than a week against the onslaught of the German army, and Russia will not intervene. They will only be too happy to see the European powers tearing each other apart in order to take advantage of their confrontation. Once they had conquered Poland, the full weight of the German army will fall back on France, who has neither the wish, motivation nor the means to hold out against them – it would be crushed!’
I was close to sharing that opinion which conformed to my own analysis of the situation.
None of us, amongst the leaders of the ‘World Youth Congress’ French section were bellicose. But should peace be bought at any cost? An increasing number thought that the form and manner in which the Munich accords were concluded was a mistake. In any case, it seemed to me highly problematical to hope that the impending war could bring with it Brittany’s national independence, in spite of the Slovakian precedent that could be cited. In any event, the Reich’s government would only support that which could serve its own interests and ambitions at present and no other. In fact, it was pointless to expect anything else from a world of sovereign States and rival imperialisms. I was also convinced that whether purely out of self-interest or sincerity, or both at once, the policy of Hitler’s Germany was to spare France as much as possible. For them it was far more important to have an alliance with France, or its neutrality, that would serve their purposes far more than giving Brittany, or other nations, their freedom. Also, even if by some unforeseen circumstances created by the great clashes of history, the independence of Brittany could be proclaimed, would Brittany be ready for it? I have never been a believer in success gained without a struggle, sacrifice, many hardships and a deep-seated willpower. This is also true of nations, even if history is made much faster in our day than it was before!
Right in the heart of that summer 1939, Francois Debauvais was released from prison. He went to St.Malo to recover from his ordeal and was probably staying with the generous and devoted Cateret. He had been on a hunger strike in prison in order to obtain the status of a political prisoner. At the time, it had been granted, without any difficulty, to communist militants and to those of ‘Action Francaise’ already sentenced, whilst he as a Breton militant had been refused. I was spending a few days in Dinard and we met at Le Mercier d’Erm’s place. The latter had opened a bottle of Champagne to celebrate the occasion, and we were able to have a long talk. Debauvais was doubtful that France would intervene in the Polish crisis – but if hostilities were declared, he was determined to go to Germany with Mordrel to try and make a bid for Breton independence in the event of a probable French defeat. Should this happen, he asked if I would consider joining them in Germany.
– ‘It is a gamble of course’, he said, ‘but it is not the first gamble in history. It brings glory, honours and power if it succeeds – disgrace, hardship, permanent exile and even worse if it fails.’
I told him frankly of my doubts, I could well understand that this strategy could be attempted and I did not seek to dissuade him. I knew that, frequently, in politics one can choose neither ones friends nor enemies. The Irish in their struggle for their country have always applied the clear and simple rule that the enemies of our enemies are our friends, which is in fact the modern adaptation of Machiavelli’s saying nearly five centuries ago already, ‘Whatever is of service to our enemy is harmful to us – whatever is harmful to him is of service to us’. I was convinced, however, that Hitler’s Germany considered neither France nor England to be really their enemies. Thus I believed on one hand in their ‘Francophile’ foreign policy, but on the other I also considered Breton public opinion was still a long way from being able to understand or even contemplate the political gamble that Debauvais and Moedrel intended to take. French nationalist propaganda and the still relatively recent memories of 1914 had convinced them that the enemy was Germany. They were still far from being able to conceive that France, despite the weight of its devastating centralisation, could also be considered an ‘enemy’ that had to be removed. Even if the gamble paid off, I dreaded the future consequences of the ‘post-operative shock’ that would surely follow.
Debauvais listened attentively-
– ‘This is probably all true’, he said, ‘I agree that it is happening far too soon and that Breton public opinion is not ready for it. I am the first to hope for a postponement of the War, and that this new crisis will not be the decisive one driving us into a further conflict, although a more or less inevitable one in the long term. Unfortunately however, there is no alternative at present to the policy Mordrel and I intend to follow other than to put up with the repression, of which I am one of the first victims since the Alsatians ten years ago. It may destroy us all, and in so doing any hope of national freedom for our country. But although today this is still only expressed by a minority, who else would keep their hopes alive if Breiz Atao could no longer make itself heard? Meanwhile, our voice must be heard on the international scene. At present, it is a question of carrying out a historical gesture which history will take into account, even though it may not succeed. You know as well as I do, as someone said, history does not give second chances. There may not be another opportunity like this one, this century!’
I knew he had reached a decision – his mind was made up. There were many reasons, however, why I was unable to consider accompanying him in this venture. This was not my way of political thinking. I was not prepared to abandon that which until then had been my universe on the level of political thought and action, both Breton and European, by suddenly and irretrievably breaking off all links with the past few years of my life, both public and private.
– ‘In any case’, I added to lessen his disappointment, ‘Brittany cannot afford to put all its eggs in one basket. The Breton movement must maintain several doors open!’
Indeed a few days later, the repression was launched – the sale and distribution of Breiz Atao and other autonomist newspapers in Alsace were forbidden. The publication of ‘Peuples et Frontieres’ was also banned. The order for a general mobilisation went out. Numerous searches were carried out throughout France, in offices and homes of militants from autonomist, pacifist and communist organisations. The concluding of the German-Soviet accord had just dealt a final blow to the peace. Mordrel and Debauvais went underground. The War was upon us!
In the meantime, I had returned to Paris. Eugene Goyenetche, a friend and Basque militant, came to see me in my office. He sometimes attended our Breton Students Circle’s sessions, and had given us several talks on the problems of Basque nationalism, in particular on their struggle the other side of the Pyrenees, in the face of Spain’s centralism and imperialism personified at the time by Francoism. He had also become very friendly with Yves Delaporte. When he came to see that day, he was accompanied by Xavier de Landaburu, the Basque nationalist deputy for Alava. He was also on the general staff surrounding Jose Antonio de Aguirre, the autonomous Basque government’s young president, who after a bitter struggle was forced by the pro-Franco invasion to take refuge in France. The civil war in Spain had just ended in a victory for Franco – thousands of Basques were forced to flee their country. Now they needed help with settling down in exile. The seriousness of the international situation, together with the state of emergency and the initial steps for mobilisation in France, multiplied the difficulties and controls in obtaining resident and work permits for the refugees and their families – some were still crammed in camps – others threatened with deportation – many living in precarious circumstances. Goyenetche asked if I would take on the task of Secretary for the ‘Ligue Internationale des Amis des Basques’, established specially to help resolve all these problems.
– ‘Your post with the Ministry,’ he told me, ‘will open many doors for you at Police headquarters and elsewhere, which would not be opened as easily to us.’
I had to accept in order to help those I already considered then, and still continue to consider, as my comrades in arms for the struggle we had undertaken against centralism and imperialism of the big States. Our struggle is the same, irrespective of borders, even though its particularity can vary as much as the ideological colours assumed by all its enemies. I told Goyenetche he had my support.
A few days later, I went with Landaburu to visit those personalities most active in defending the Basques exiles. The latter in fact had come up against a lack of understanding in many Catholic and moderate circles who reasoned by French standards, and consequently without any subtlety. They had trouble accepting that reality is neither all black nor all white, but more often shades of both. They could not understand, therefore, how these deeply Catholic people came to be ranked alongside the ‘Reds’. Nothing was said of the fact that the Basques were struggling for national freedom and defending the status of autonomy conceded to them by the Spanish Republic. Also, despite the fact that according to Franco’s propaganda they fought under the flag of the Christian faith, it was first and foremost the Spanish imperialist and unitarian cause that they served. On the other hand, those on the left in France had trouble understanding that the Basques’ struggle for ‘autonomy’ did not involve support for the ideological constraints and profound anti-clericalism of most of those fighting for the Spanish Republic. The latter therefore also eyed them with suspicion – they found little support amongst them, despite the fact that since coming to power in 1936, the Popular Front’s policy had been to help the Spanish Republic against Franco’s rebellion.
However, some French intellectuals and men of politics had understood the true nature of the problem and the struggle of the Basques people for political freedom. The ‘Ligue Internationale des Amis des Basques’ was under the patronage of Cardinal Verdier, Archbishop of Paris, and of Bishop Dax in whose diocese there were numerous Basques refugees, on the one hand, and under Edouard Herriot and Paul Boncour on the other – a learned eclectic and apparently well balanced group. But the two personalities most active in the defence of the Basques were Francois Mauriac and Ernest Pezet, both on the steering committee and both eminent Catholic personalities, one in the field of literature and the other in parliamentary circles. Landaburu and I therefore visited each of them several times in their respective apartments in Paris. They both appeared to me to have generous open minds; never refusing to intercede and negotiate for what we felt would be of help. Francois Mauriac, whose distinction was as great as his simplicity, was faithful to his image as ‘great man’ of letters. Ernest Pezet, short, red-faced and paunchy with a sharp mind, was vice-president and spokesman for the Foreign Affairs committee of the French Chamber of Deputies, and able to open many doors in the world of politics. Although he was one of the Popular Democratic Party’s deputies for Brittany, he was not Breton but was from Auvergne. He always spoke with great feeling of his native Rouergue. His Morbihan constituency was next to that of Father Desgranges, which made my relationship with him even easier, as I knew the latter very well.
In the meantime, the situation continued to deteriorate rapidly. The first group of reservists had been mobilised and the stations were overrun with military convoys. There was now hardly any hope left of avoiding war. Personally, I was not liable to be called up, as a few years previously, I had requested to be declared unfit for service on the grounds that I suffered from mild haemophilia. The military’s medical headquarters was in the hands of Breton’s at the time. I considered that the defence of France’s imperialist positions worldwide, and their centralised system, oppressive for Brittany, certainly did not justify that I should accept the sacrifices and risks involved with military service.
One morning towards the end of August around seven o’clock – I was still in bed – several urgent rings of the doorbell made me get up. It was Olier Mordrel, who appeared to be in a great hurry, somewhat breathless and overexcited. For the past few months he had been renting a small apartment in one of those dreadful sad huge blocks of Paris suburbia. He was staying there with his family. We had organised a meeting there one day, with those mainly responsible for ‘Peuples et Frontieres’.
– ‘I’m leaving,’ he flung at me, ‘I have a car downstairs with my wife and children and a few pieces of luggage. I’m joining up with Debauvais near the Belgian border, which we are hoping to cross before the checkpoints become impossible to get through. I only have a few minutes. The necessity for my departure has obliged me to abandon everything at my place in total disorder. I don’t think there is anything incriminating. But could you do me the favour of going there to check in my files if there is anything you feel should be put in a safe place, especially some of my manuscripts. You are the only one I know here with the necessary judgement to make those choices. Here are the keys – my mother will collect them in a couple of days. Until then, please, don’t waste time. At the moment, every minute counts!’
– ‘I’ll do that for you’, I told him, ‘Kenavo and …Good Luck.’
– ‘Thank you very much and good luck to you also’, he replied, before dashing down my stairs two at a time, and then down the long stone steps with iron handrail below my window, which linked la rue des Artistes with Avenue du Parc Montsouris. I watched him disappear with some apprehension, wondering what these exceptional events we were living through had in store for each one of us. Lost in these thoughts, I gazed for a long time at the vast Parisian horizon revealed from my window, peaceful and bathed in sunshine, with the familiar sounds reaching up; what would be left of it once the hostilities were launched?
Before leaving for the office, I phoned Roger Brandily, a U.R.B. and Ar Brezoneg er Skol militant, who owned a car, asking him to pick me up that same evening at the Ministry of the Interior. I was expecting Marie-Louise Danielou to take dictation of dome correspondence that evening. Between the three of us, we should be well able to carry out Mordrel’s request.
We did find the apartment in total disorder – remains of a meal were still on the table – a jacket lay on the back of a chair – the beds were unmade – everything pointed to a hurried departure. Lingering to tidy up was out of the question. While Brandily went through the rooms, removing a revolver from one of the drawers, Marie-Louise and I concentrated on examining the papers. I realised very quickly that it was impossible to sort them out. I put to one side files with the most recent correspondence and those that appeared to contain notes and manuscripts – we parcelled up the lot and took them down to the car. The job had not taken more than a couple of hours. Marie-Louise took charge of putting the parcels in a safe place. Thus a year later, Mordrel was able to recover them without any difficulty.
A few days after our ‘domiciliary’ visit to her son’s place, I welcomed Mme Mordrel and her daughter who came to collect the keys of the apartment, in order to organise a removal at some stage. I had never met them before, nor had I met General Mordrel. Neither one of them appeared to share their son’s and brother’s ideals, nor the choices he had made. I knew that Mme Mordrel was Corsican – she seemed very much ‘the general’s wife’, of the upper-middle class, authoritarian and rather curt, and very aware of her social status. The rather intolerant side of her son’s character and his peremptory judgements of people and things in general, must certainly come from that side!