Not very Christmassy

Since the Green party, Poitiers Collectif, won the elections in June, the municipal council in Poitiers has been rather quiet. This is fair enough, I suppose; the symbolic first hundred days will not have been completed for a couple of weeks yet. They are in power for the next six years, and it’s reasonable for a new council to take stock before launching on any major new strategies. Obviously, having Covid-19 to deal with will have made their job significantly more difficult.

Nevertheless, in presentational terms it seems a little unfortunate that in our local paper, Le Nouvelle République, the first significant story to feature the new mayor, Léonore Moncond’huy, is rather a negative one. It relates to the announcement that there will not be a traditional Christmas tree in the town’s main square this year. The reason given is that building work on the old theatre in the corner of the square is limiting the space available. As well as the tree, there is no room for the Ferris wheel which has been a major attraction in the last two years. Pierre-Marie Moreau, the president of the local chamber of commerce, has confirmed that technical reasons relating to the building work make it too difficult to install the wheel.

Both Madame Moncond’huy and Monsieur Moreau have promised that there will be a number of smaller trees around the city centre, along with food markets, designer markets, concerts, and street shows.

All of this seems fairly innocuous stuff, but a little cloud has appeared on the horizon for Madame Moncond’huy. Pierre Hurmic, the new mayor of Bordeaux and also a Green, has announced that they too will not be having a Christmas tree. However, Monsieur Hurmic has made it clear that this decision is based firmly on ecological grounds, saying that ‘a dead Christmas tree’ does not fit with his party’s green strategy, and that by the end of 2020 he wants to adopt a ‘charter of tree rights’ protecting trees in urban areas. His decision has been attacked by many, most noticeably by members of Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National (RN). Madame Le Pen herself has joined in, declaring that talk of a ‘dead tree’ shows that the Greens have ‘a visceral rejection of everything that makes up our country, our traditions, our culture’.

Now, in our own department, Vienne, Arnaud Fage, the only RN member of the departmental assembly, has accused Madame Moncond’huy of using the theatre building works as a pretext for carrying out a Green policy and demanded that a tree be placed in the main square to ensure that ‘our traditions are respected’.

All of this is good knockabout stuff. In many ways it reminds me of Gabriel Chevallier’s satirical novel Clochemerle. Set in a small town in pre-war France, the book describes the battle between Catholics and Republicans on the town council over the building of a public lavatory next to the church.

In all likelihood, the Christmas entertainments planned for Poitiers will be a great success and the row over the tree will be quickly forgotten. After all, the Poitiers Collectif are at the very beginning of their period of office, with the next elections not due until June 2026. But I can’t help wondering how much of an effect this little spat would have had if the elections were due to be held next January, rather than last June. Seemingly trivial things, the sort that Harold Macmillan described as ‘events, dear boy, events’, can often have a significant effect on public opinion.

The clearest example of this that I can think of is the UK general election of 1970, when Edward Heath’s Conservatives surprisingly defeated Harold Wilson’s Labour government. When Wilson called the election in May of that year, Labour was holding a 7.5 per cent lead in the Gallup poll after doing well in the local elections earlier that month. However on election day, June 18,Labour lost sixty seats and the Conservatives gained sixty-five, giving an overall Tory majority of thirty-one. Many members of the outgoing government were convinced that their defeat was strongly influenced by England’s sudden and unexpected quarter-final defeat by West Germany in the World Cup in Mexico, just four days before the poll.

Wilson was dismissive of any Mexican connection – ‘governance of a country has nothing to do with a study of its football fixtures’ – but years later, in his memoirs, Denis Healey revealed that as early as that April the prime minister had called a strategy meeting at Chequers ‘in which Harold asked us to consider whether the government would suffer if the England footballers were defeated on the eve of polling day’. Tony Crosland, then local government minister and later foreign secretary, blamed the defeat ‘on a mix of party complacency and the disgruntled Match of the Day millions’. Wilson’s minister of sport, Denis Howell, was in no doubt that ‘the moment goalkeeper Bonetti made his third and final hash of it on the Sunday, everything simultaneously began to go wrong for Labour for the following Thursday’. According to Howell, on the Monday morning before the election, he and home secretary Roy Jenkins were at a factory-gate meeting in Birmingham: ‘Roy was totally bemused that no question concerned either trade figures or immigration, but solely the football and whether manager Ramsey or Bonetti was the major culprit.’

Perhaps ominously for Poitiers Collectif, 2026 is a World Cup year. I imagine Madame Moncond’huy will be leading the singing of ‘Allez les Bleus!’ from the town hall steps.

***

Yesterday was the anniversary of the Battle of Poitiers (1346). In the Café des Arts on Friday evening, Madame S, in a whimsical mood after her third brandy and Baileys, suggested shinning up the statue of Joan of Arc in Rue des Cordeliers and draping a Union Jack on Joan’s head. I managed to persuade her out of this by explaining that any passing social media aficionado might take a snap, which, if made public, would be unlikely to help her French citizenship application. I also realised that the act would entail me giving her a piggy-back to get up high enough to reach the statue– a manoeuvre too awful to contemplate.

***

Quote of the week: ‘He’s enormously, enormously vigorous.’ – Matt Hancock on Boris Johnson during an interview with Times Radio on Friday.

Freewheeling

These are strange times. The coronavirus figures in France are steadily worsening. Last night 10,561 new cases were reported, the highest one-day count since the start of the outbreak. The figure was 6,544 last Monday.

On television on Friday night, Jean Castex, the prime minister, read out a statement on the current situation in France and the government’s response. There is to be a significant ramping-up of the screening and testing programme, and the number of departments classified as ‘red’ has now been increased from twenty-eight to forty-two. This classification allows the prefectures of those departments to trigger additional measures to reduce the risks of transmission. The prefects can specify where masks must be worn, decide whether major events can take place, and dictate the opening hours of certain businesses. They can also restrict travel – to a city, a department, or a limit of, say, a hundred kilometres.

The main trigger for a ‘red’ classification is an incidence rate greater than 50 per 100,000 inhabitants. At the moment, in our department, Vienne, the rate is 50.5, but other factors to be taken into account (including the percentage of positive tests and the number of infections observed from a positive case) mean that we are not ‘red’ yet. I suspect it is just a matter of time.

It is interesting to compare the current French figures with those in the UK. For a couple of weeks the UK saw a significantly lower number of cases, but there is now a noticeable steady increase. It is quite possible that the difference between the two countries is down to the fact that France came out of lockdown a month earlier (June 1st rather than July 4th) and that the UK is now in the process of ‘catching up’.

Somehow, in Poitiers, on a day-to-day basis, life goes on, seemingly oblivious to this depressing backdrop. We still haven’t met anyone here who has experienced the virus themselves. Obviously, we are slightly cocooned, as Madame S works from home and we do not have children at school. One of our neighbours was furloughed but is now back at work. A friend who works in a testing laboratory says she has been very busy for months. Other than that, when one walks around the city, things seem reassuringly normal. The only obvious evidence of the crisis is the now almost universal wearing of masks. (The M in my KPMG mnemonic for leaving the house – Keys, Phone, Money, Glasses – now has to do double-duty.) But after a while, even the fact that people are wearing them ceases to register.

A spell of fine weather contributes to the general sense of all being well here in France. The temperature is forecast to be in the thirties for the coming week and to drop only slightly after that. There are still tourists around, and there has been the usual September influx of students at the university. The café and bar terraces are crowded every evening (which is of course part of the problem) and, after their August holidays, the gilet jaunes are demonstrating and setting fire to cars again.

I wonder how long we can go on like this.

***

The Tour de France came to Poitiers on Wednesday, and Madame S and I went up to Les Couronneries to stand on Avenue John Kennedy just a couple of hundred metres from the finishing line. It was a scorching day, and we had to wait an hour and twenty minutes before the peloton arrived, but we could watch their progress on a giant TV screen nearby. In the meantime, we were entertained by a seemingly endless carnival procession of trucks and floats sponsored by various French commercial outfits, many of them throwing sweets and novelties into the crowd. We were surrounded by a large number of small children, but by the judicious use of some Boris Johnson-like rugby tactics, I managed to score four mini-bags of Haribo, a Monoprix baseball cap, and a large foam rubber hand with the Peugeot logo on it. My apologies again to the poor little boy who inadvertently got his wrist wedged under my foot. The riders themselves of course passed by in a flash, but it was all tremendous fun. And it’s great to see Irishman Sam Bennett continuing to wear the green jersey for leading the points classification.

Some pictures from the website of La Nouvelle République:

The peloton with Poitiers Cathedral in the background – just a few hundred metres from our house.

Some riders are suspected of excessive use of steroids.

A sign of the times

Scrum time!

***

There has been a big story in the French press this week about an as yet unclaimed prize of €157 million in the EuroMillions lottery, the third largest prize ever. The draw was made on 1st September, and the winner has sixty days from that date to claim it.

Yesterday I received an email from Française des Jeux, the lottery organisers:

Bonjour Michael,
 
Vous avez gagné 2.2EUR à LOTO N° 2185348278.

Ce gain est désormais disponible dans votre compte FDJ®.

Si vous souhaitez obtenir le détail et le récapitulatif des jeux auxquels vous avez participé, rendez-vous dans votre compte FDJ®.

A bientôt sur notre site,

L’équipe FDJ®

People who say ‘It’s not the winning, it’s the taking part’ deserve to be horsewhipped.

***

Out for a walk this morning. We passed the house of Monsieur Gouin, an elderly neighbour of ours. He has some scaffolding up at the front and is clearly having some renovation work done. Monsieur Gouin is quite doddery and, rather unkindly, I admit, I remarked that he could do with a bit of renovation work himself. After a moment’s pause, Madame S said, ‘There’s a TV programme in that … Hommes under the Hammer.’

I sometimes think that editing’s gain has been stand-up comedy’s loss.

On my back and on my bike

I was due to go to my Pilates class on Thursday, but on Wednesday evening I got a text message from Sandra, the instructor, saying that the other students had all cried off, either because of being on holiday or from fear of catching the virus. Instead of cancelling the class, Sandra offered me an individual introductory session on her new workout device – ominously named The Reformer – which I accepted.

When I got to the studio/gym, I saw that Sandra had actually bought two of these devices and had had a small outer extension added to accommodate them. As you can see from this catalogue photo, they are fairly complicated-looking, but once the rudiments are explained you quickly realise that they are a very effective way of doing a workout.

Sandra showed me how to do a warm-up routine and then started on some leg exercises. One of these involved my lying on my back and putting each foot into a stirrup, leaving me in a position more suited to a gynaecologist’s consulting room than a gym. At this point, the phone rang in the inner office. Sandra went to answer it, leaving me alone in the room, still stirrupped and stretching my legs in and out as fast as I could. Suddenly I heard the outer door open, and someone entered the gym. Lying on my back, I couldn’t see who it was and thought the best thing to do was to say nothing and continue my exercise. After a short pause, a female voice said, ‘Est-ce l’endroit pour le Pilates?’ (‘Is this the place for Pilates?’) Red-faced and panting, I slowly managed to raise my head just enough to see, between my outstretched legs, a plump, middle-aged woman staring back at me. ‘Oui,’ I managed to blurt out before my head fell back onto the workbench. There was silence for a few seconds, and then I heard the door quietly close again.

When Sandra returned I thought it better not to mention any of this.

***

Thee harbour at la Rochelle

We went to La Rochelle on Friday and stayed overnight. It’s one of my favourite places in France. The harbour area is lovely to wander around in, and the back streets are full of friendly bars and restaurants. There is always a jolly bustling atmosphere, and this was even more the case this weekend, as the French Rugby season was about to kick off and La Rochelle, one of the top French sides, were at home to Toulon.

Saturday lunchtime saw us having a glass of rosé outside Chez Marie, a little wine bar next to the market. A group of burly rugby fans were sitting next to us, tucking into plates of oysters, cheese and sausage washed down with several bottles of white wine.

By contrast, across the street, outside another café were two men, I would guess in their late thirties, with a small boy, aged about two, in a buggy. The child seemed very happy, and both men seemed very attentive to its needs. Madame S and I then got into a long discussion about surrogate parenthood, and its ethics and practicalities. We covered Elton John and his partner’s children, the plight of Eastern European orphans, and the different adoption regulations in Europe and the USA. While we didn’t necessarily share the same views on everything, we agreed that the two men opposite seemed to be exemplary parents, and we wished them and the child all the luck in the world. It was just after this that two women came along, pulled up two chairs and joined the men. One of them, obviously the boy’s mother, picked him up and perched him on her lap.

We watched them in silence for a few minutes, and then I quietly suggested a visit to the aquarium.

***

Despite the virus and its problems, my old friends the Ely Jolly Boys are continuing their monthly rambles. My good friend Pete Bunten has sent me the list of conversation topics covered on their last two outings, and I hereby pass them on as prospective agendas for any similarly-inclined groups of individuals.

Ely, 31st July

· Matrons · Drinking behaviour at Cambridge colleges · Polish drinking clubs · Kent · Hattie Jacques · St Martin · Miss Immigrant competitions · Corfu · One-legged rugby players · Marianne Faithfull · Hermann Goering as an unexpected object of veneration · Goring-by-Sea · 747s out of the sun · Peterborough · Stig of the Dump · Albatross guano

Cambridge, 28th August

Old people’s homes · York Races · Getting banned from pubs (unjustly) · Tractor festivals and associated dancing girls · Early Christmas cards · The virtues of Limerick (not Limericks) · Drinking in New Zealand · Kentish Men and Men of Kent · The man who was killed by a London tram · The concept of creating a beer called ‘Workshy’ for the jobless · The Wee Frees · The virtues of dank in pubs · Yellow hands and brown fingernails · Fictional bars (bars in literature) · Short measures · Drinks cabinets · The lack of meaningful violence in modern society · Station bars · Leonardo DiCaprio.

(I would only add that the use of “dank” as a noun is surely something to be encouraged.)

***

The Tour de France has started after a delay of two months due to the coronavirus, and after eight stages, Britain’s Adam Yates is currently wearing the maillot jaune. On Wednesday the riders reach Poitiers, at the end of stage eleven. There have been some small displays in shop windows and a Tour-related photographic exhibition in the mairie but, if I’m honest, I’m a little underwhelmed by the general level of enthusiasm so far. Perhaps this will change over the next few days. Or maybe they have seen it all before and have become a bit blasé. Madame S made the intriguing suggestion that the Tour might be looked on as something akin to the Eurovision Song Contest. After the novelty of the first experience, it becomes an expensive and inconvenient burden for the towns selected.

Be that as it may, your intrepid reporter (just out of shot in the photo below) will be waxed and lycra-ed on Wednesday, sitting astride his Raleigh Explorer and ready to give them all a run for their money. Ding ding!  

We’ll always have Paris

We had a few days in Paris this week, and next weekend we hope to go La Rochelle. These breaks may be the only holidays we get this year, as the Covid-19 situation here is steadily worsening. There were 7,379 new infections in mainland France on Friday, compared with 6,111 on Thursday and 5,429 on Wednesday. A report from France’s directorate general of health said that ‘the progression of the epidemic is exponential’. At the start of July, the Prime Minister, Jean Castex, had ruled out a second national lockdown because ‘the economic and human consequences of a total lockdown are disastrous’. On Thursday, the message had changed. ‘We want to do everything to avoid a new lockdown, but the lockdown plans, those detailing the strictest measures, lie ready in the health ministry.’

France is not alone in seeing a rise in the number of cases. Spain, Italy and Germany have also seen steady rises since they began lifting lockdowns at the start of summer. But why the situation here is (apparently) so much worse than in the UK is still unclear. The figure for the 14-day cumulative number of Covid-19 cases per 100,000, the key statistic that the UK government uses for assessing its quarantine rules, remains in the low 20s in the UK, while in France it has shot up from 51 to 81 in just over a week and is still rising. At the same time, the number of deaths per 100,000 over the same period remains low in both countries: 0.2 in the UK and 0.3 in France. Are people paying more attention to the warnings and guidelines in the UK than in France? Are the testing and reporting systems radically different? These are difficult questions to answer. France ended its full lockdown on 1st June, while the UK did not do so until 4th July, so it’s possible that there will eventually be a similar second spike in the UK figures. One hopes not, as we move into autumn and schools reopen.

***

On a more positive note, the trip to Paris was great fun. We spent three days walking the city; one day along the length of Canal Saint-Martin from Bastille to Jaurès in the north, another on the Promenade Plantée, the wonderful overhead garden walkway that runs for three miles from Bastille to the edge of the Bois de Vincennes in the east, and on our last day we walked along Île aux Cygnes, the artificial island that runs between Pont de Bir-Hakeim and Pont de Grenelle. Here you can find Paris’s own Statue of Liberty, a nine-metre-high scale model of the original. I have to admit it’s more impressive than the one in Poitiers.

While we were there, masks were compulsory everywhere in central Paris (since Friday, this has been extended to the whole city). One might occasionally see someone without one, but this was rare. You quickly get used to applying hygienic hand gel whenever you enter a building, and they now have gel dispensers at every bus stop.

Despite the significant drop in the number of overseas tourists, the city still seemed very lively in the evenings. Many central streets have been temporarily closed to traffic, allowing bars and restaurants to spread out onto the pavements. It all makes for a very festive atmosphere, and our days of walking left us feeling entitled to join in. One unexpected bonus from the shortfall in tourist numbers is that bars are having to compete more for custom. The prices of drinks, particularly beer, are noticeably down, and in many places now Happy Hours run from 16.00 to 22.00. I felt duty-bound to make as large a contribution to the Parisian economy as time and Madame permitted.

Paris -grim…

…and not so grim.

Brasserie Julienne in rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis. The food is only so-so but an amazing room.

La Cremerie, a really nice little wine bar in rue des Quatre Vents.

***

This week sees La rentrée in France. La rentrée scolaire is when the new academic year begins. However, La rentrée is about much more than just schools. Many shops and business close down for at least part of the month of August, and parliament stops sitting. The Covid crisis has obviously cast its shadow, but there is still a general sense of a country temporarily taking things easier for a few weeks. La rentrée, in theory at least, sees the end of all that, as the nation mentally girds its loins for the challenges ahead (well, till Christmas, at any rate).

There is a tradition that La rentrée scolaire can only happen in September, so although Monday is not a public holiday here in France, the schools will restart on Tuesday. Even if one doesn’t have school-age children, it is difficult to avoid noticing this. Shops are suddenly full of special offers on stationery, as parents seek to buy the vast number of items on the official lists of requirements that schools send out. Here is the basic government list, which may be added to by individual schools. To ensure every child can afford to have the necessary equipment, the government provides financial assistance to families on more modest incomes. The amount this year will range from €369.57 to €403.48, depending on the age of eligible children. Entitlement is based on household income not exceeding a certain ceiling (less than €24,453 for one child, €30,096 for two children, €35,739 for three). This year’s amount has been increased to allow for the cost of protective face masks for the children.

I will be doing my bit at La rentrée. I restart my Pilates class on Thursday, and in two weeks’ time I begin twice-weekly online French lessons. I am determined to master this putain language.

***

Covid watch. I caught the last few minutes of yesterday’s FA Community Shield match between Liverpool and Arsenal on the internet. Lots of group hugs from the victorious Arsenal players, and at the end they all walked past the Shield and kissed it. As the BBC online commentator said, ‘Might as well just lick each other’s faces, boys’.

Kicking off in quarantine

The possibility of a non-quarantined visit to the UK seems to be fairly remote for the foreseeable future. The key figure that the UK government use to decide from which countries travellers need to be quarantined is the 14-day cumulative number of coronavirus cases per 100,000 in that country, as recorded by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC). The UK’s current figure is 22.3. Transport Secretary Grant Shapps is quoted as saying that he expects a country’s figures to be moving in the right direction for at least two weeks before considering a change. When Portugal was recently removed from the quarantine list, its figure was 28.5. It is now 26. This would suggest that a figure in the 20s would be regarded as ‘safe’, as long as a country’s overall trend is downwards. Unfortunately, France’s current ECDC figure is 59.8 and rising.

The reasons for the current spike in France are not completely clear. According to the English-language paper The Local.fr, one reason is a significant increase in the number of tests carried out. France tested 580,000 people in the first week of August. This represented an increase from around 200,000–230,000 tests a week over the course of June, up from around 400,000 tests per week in July. More tests will obviously lead to more cases being found. The good news is that the majority of the new cases are asymptomatic – the individual presents no visible signs of the virus. Most of these asymptomatic cases are young, statistically more resilient people with a lower probability of falling severely ill from the virus. The risk, of course, is that these individuals might then pass it on to elderly people or to those in care homes.

The government have stressed their determination to avoid a second lockdown, but it is likely that new restrictions will be introduced in the coming weeks. More and more cities are already making the wearing of masks obligatory in all public places, including in the street. We are visiting Paris for a couple of days this week, and we expect to wear masks all the time. It is probably only a matter of time before the rule is introduced here in Poitiers.

***

The English football season starts in a few weeks’ time, and the fixtures list has just been announced. Fulham’s first game is against Arsenal. I’ve supported Fulham for about 55 years; I’ve suffered intermittently from gout for about 50. It’s difficult to say which has caused me more cumulative pain over that time. Medication has effectively controlled the latter for most of my life – I can’t remember when I last had an attack. I tell myself that age and gradually living further and further from Craven Cottage provide an equally effective remedy for the former, but deep down I know this isn’t true. Promotion, a new season, and I’m like a teenager again, scanning the sports pages for transfer gossip. ‘Fulham in for Messi?’, ‘Scott Parker to manage Real Madrid?’ It passes the time before the agony begins again.

Along with Fulham, wherever I’ve lived I’ve always ‘supported’ the local team. This has taken me to Parc des Princes to see Paris Saint-Germain, to Milady Horákové to see Sparta Prague, and to Elphinstone Road to see Hastings United. Somehow I never got around to visiting Ely City, but I did go to nearby Cambridge United a few times. Whilst I’m delighted to see that PSG are in the Champions League final this evening, I have to say that the meat and potato pies were significantly better at Hastings.

The local side here, Stade Poitevin FC, are, in world football terms, closer to Hastings than to PSG. They play in National League 3, which is a regionally grouped ‘fifth division’ in the overall French football structure. They play in black and white stripes, and their nickname is ‘The Dragons’.

The club was formed in 1921 as Sporting Club Poitevin, and they have been quietly pottering around in the lower leagues since then. For one glorious season, in 1995–96, they reached the second division, but this was followed by two quick relegations. Money seems to have been a perennial worry, which probably accounts for a few name changes along the way. Things seem to have stabilised in the past couple of years, and promotion to National 3 was gained in 2018. The club had a big windfall last year when Arsenal signed Nicolas Pépé from Lille for €80 million. He started his career at Poitiers when he was 14, and they got about €1 million as their share of his fee.

I’d intended to go and see them last season, but the coronavirus put an end to that. The new season starts here next week, and I may go to the first home match against Lège-Cap-Ferret – if it is on. At the moment, all gatherings of more than 5,000 people are banned because of the virus. The average gate at Poitiers is significantly less than this, but the stadium holds 15,000. It’s difficult to get any definite information as to whether the game will actually be held or not, and I think the club are still not sure themselves.

Whatever happens, this is a time for optimism. They … sorry, we have a new manager, Erwan Lannuzel, and it’s just possible this could be our year. ‘Come on, you Dragons!’

***

Last night we went for a very nice meal at Le Bistro du Boucher, washed down with a fine bottle of Côtes de Bourg. An apéritif beforehand at Café de la Paix, afterwards to the Cluricaume for a nightcap, a cognac. Relaxed, at peace with the world. Then …

‘Christ, my leg! I can’t feel it! I can’t move it!’

‘That’s my leg, you daft twat.’

We walked home in silence.

Stranded in Poitiers

We had planned to go to the UK for a quick two-day visit in a couple of weeks’ time. Now they have reintroduced a fourteen-day quarantine period, and France will almost certainly reciprocate. So we’ve cancelled our Eurostar tickets and now have a voucher for another trip, when, or if, this crazy situation ever ends.

It’s conceivable, I suppose, that things might not improve, might in fact get worse, and we are doomed never to leave Poitiers again. As if to plan for such an event, I have been beating the bounds this week. On Tuesday I walked from the end of Rue de Tranchée, the most southerly point in Poitiers, to La Tour du Cordier, the most northerly (the latter is currently decorated with bicycles to mark the imminent arrival of Le Tour de France.) According to my Fitbit, it was 1.6 miles, and it took me 30 minutes. On Wednesday I walked from the railway station in the west to the far side of Pont Joubert in the east (1.1 miles, 23 minutes). Finally, on Friday I cycled around the perimeter of Poitiers via Boulevard du Grand Cerf, Boulevard Jeanne d’Arc, Boulevard Chasseigne, and Boulevard sous Blossac. I would have walked this too, but these are typically dull, edge-of-town ring roads, with few distractions and a fair amount of traffic. My bicycle odometer tells me that the perimeter is 4.1 miles.

I know this doesn’t exactly put me in the Marco Polo/Christopher Columbus league, but nevertheless it marks a significant moment, because I have now finally defined my Poitiers. It has taken a long time. Some time ago I started looking at the administrative layers of France, starting with the highest of these, the regions. Since then I have looked at the departments and finally the communes. If you are interested, there are pages on each of these in the French Administration section of this blog.

Poitiers is most definitely a commune, as is Paris (population 2.15 million – the largest) and Castelmoron-d’Albret, near Bordeaux (population 55 – the smallest). The population of Poitiers is around 90,000.

On the municipal council website, the city of Poitiers is divide into nine quartiers, but the majority of these are suburban areas that have developed since the 1960s. I have a feeling I won’t be spending much time in any of them. The weekly market in Les Couronneries is good fun, but other than that it’s large expanses of bungalows and housing estates These are tree-lined and well-maintained, but really they are little different from the London suburbs. Poitiers’ major tourist attraction, the Futuroscope science park, is not far from us, but we haven’t got around to visiting that yet – it all sounds a little earnest for my liking.

The core of the city, my Poitiers, is basically a very large hill, or more accurately, rock promontory, in a valley between two rivers. Historically, this physical placement has made it easy to defend, and the strategic significance of this has contributed greatly to the city’s growth over the centuries. In guide books you will see this area referred to as the old town or centre-ville. Confusingly, the city council’s website divides it into two separate quartiers, Centre-ville, (the southernmost two-thirds) and Les Trois-Quartiers (the northernmost third). There is no doubt some historical significance in this, but I am still trying to find it. To most people who live here, the hill is Poitiers.

At the top of the hill is a narrow plateau, referred to locally as le plateau, some 140 metres above the rivers below. It’s just over half a mile long and a quarter of a mile wide. This is where the town hall, the main shopping area, and the market are. It is the heart of the city. Down the sides of the hill, away from the plateau, one will find a mazy network of narrow winding streets, where I still manage to get lost at least once a month.

On this relatively small hill, which can be crossed in any direction in half an hour, one can still find relics of a large Roman amphitheatre. There are medieval university buildings, monasteries, and convents that are still occupied today. There are wonderfully preserved Romanesque churches and handsome merchant houses dating from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century. Streets and squares tell stories of the French Revolution and the German occupation in the Second Word War. It has a museum, a gallery, two cinemas, and a fine médiatheque. You are rarely more than a couple of hundred yards from a bar, café, or restaurant. There are worse places to be marooned.

The Tour du Cordier, the northernmost point in Poitiers. Near the top, you can just see a couple of bikes put there to mark the Tour de France, which will be passing through on 9 September.

***

I collected my new glasses on Thursday, and they are rather handsome. The only problem is that I daren’t wear them. They were staggeringly expensive. We have recently taken out a mutuelle health insurance (you more or less have to have one here), and this covers about half of the cost of pair of glasses every couple of years. This being the case, I checked that my chosen optician accepted our mutuelle and went for the best sort of varifocals on offer. I cheerfully nodded when I was asked if wanted other optional extras; thinner glass, anti-reflective glare coating, and a couple of other things that I didn’t quite understand but which sounded nice. When I was told the total price, I was stunned but pointed out that I was mutuelle-covered. I could be wrong, but was there a hint of malicious pleasure in the assistant’s voice when she ever so politely pointed out that the mutuelle’s contribution had already been deducted?

I have a bad track record with glasses. I leave them in pubs, I sit on them, and I drop them (this caused the crack in my last pair). In Sicily once, I had a pair whipped off my head in a gale and land under the wheels of a passing taxi. I couldn’t bear to have any of this happen to my lovely new specs. Reluctantly, I have dug out my old cracked pair (it’s only a small crack, I’ll get used to it) and will now keep my new ones at home. I will take them out once a week and just look at them, rather than through them.

Where is Poitiers: The Commune

As with the blog on régions, this is a part of a work in progress and will be added to from time to time.

Below regions and departments, the next level of administrative division in France is the communes, and they are probably the most difficult to get one’s head around. The UK has no exact equivalent, as communes resemble metropolitan districts in urban areas but are closer to parishes in those rural areas, whereas UK districts are much larger. Communes vary hugely in size and area, from large sprawling cities with millions of inhabitants, such as Paris, to small hamlets with only a handful of inhabitants. Communes are typically based on pre-existing villages and facilitate local governance. Except for the municipal arrondissements of the largest cities, the communes are the lowest level of administrative division in France and are governed by elected officials (the mayor and a municipal council) with extensive autonomous powers to implement national policy.

As of January 2015, there were 36,681 communes in France, 36,552 of them in metropolitan France and 129 of them overseas. The whole territory of the French Republic is divided into communes; even uninhabited mountains or rainforests are dependent on a commune for their administration.

Despite enormous differences in population, each of the communes of the French Republic possess a mayor (maire) and a municipal council (conseil municipal), which jointly manage the commune from the municipal hall (mairie), with exactly the same powers no matter the size of the commune. This uniformity of status is a legacy of the French Revolution, which wanted to do away with the local idiosyncrasies and tremendous differences of status that existed in the kingdom of France.

French law makes allowances for the vast differences in commune size in a number of areas of administrative law. The size of the municipal council, the method of electing the municipal council, the maximum allowable pay of the mayor and deputy mayors, and municipal campaign finance limits (among other features) all depend on the population bracket into which a particular commune falls.

In 2015, 57 per cent of the 36,681 communes had fewer than 500 inhabitants and, with 4,638,000 inhabitants, these smaller communes constituted just 7.7 per cent of the total population. In other words, just 8 per cent of the French population live in 57 per cent of its communes, whilst 92 per cent are concentrated in the remaining 43 per cent.

There have long been calls in France for a massive merger of communes. Many rural communes with few residents struggle to maintain and manage basic services such as running water, garbage collection, or properly paved communal roads. The last attempt at change was in the general reorganisation proposed by President Hollande in 2014, but this got nowhere. In 1971, the Marcellin law offered support and money from the government to entice the communes to merge freely with each other, but the law had only a limited effect (only about 1,300 communes agreed to merge with others). Mergers are not easy to achieve. One problem is that they reduce the number of available elected positions, and thus are not popular with local politicians. Moreover, citizens from one village may be unwilling to have their local services run by an executive located in another village, whom they may consider unaware of or inattentive to their local needs.

My gut feeling, however, is that there will be continued pressure from central government to change things, and various structural changes that have taken place in recent year may facilitate this. Alongside the high-level reorganisation of departments into regions, there are now various types of intercommunal entities (ranging in size of population from the smallest, communauté de communes,via communauté d’agglomération,to the largest, communauté urbaine).Grand Poitiers is a communauté urbaine, made up of 40 communities, with its headquarters in the Mairie of Poitiers. Its population is around 191,0004, of whom around 90,000 are in the commune of Poitiers itself. The communauté urbaine assumes responsibility in a large number of areas that were once controlled by its member municipalities. These include certain responsibilities in economic planning and development, housing, service management of sanitation and water, and environmental planning.

There is nothing inherently sinister in this, but one can see how it is much easier for central government to liaise with 18 régions and a growing number of number of intercommunal administrations, rather than with 101 départements and over 36,000 communes.

Where is Poiters: The Department

As with the blog on régions, this is a part of a work in progress and will be added to from time to time.

The history of French départements is more interesting than that of the recently formed régions.

From Roman times, dozens of semi-independent fiefdoms and formerly independent countries were gradually, if somewhat haphazardly, incorporated into the French kingdom. Until the French Revolution, the kingdom was organised into provinces, which were roughly the equivalent of the counties of England, each having its own sets of feudal traditions, laws, and taxation systems. During the Revolution, in an attempt to centralise the administration of the whole country and to remove the influence of the French nobility, the entirety of the province system was abolished and replaced by the system of departments in use today. Almost all of the new departments were named after physical geographical features (rivers, mountains, or coasts) rather than after historical or cultural territories which could have their own loyalties; thus Paris was in the department of Seine, and Savoy became part of the department of Mont-Blanc. Boundaries were defined so as to erase cultural differences and build a more homogeneous nation. As a security measure, and to facilitate centralised control, they were also set so that every settlement in the country was within a day’s ride of the capital of a department.

Originally there were 83 departments, but the number rose and fell throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, particularly in line with France’s fluctuating fortunes in the Napoleonic and Franco-Prussian wars and the large-scale administrative reorganisations in Île-de-France (1968) and Corsica (1975).

Currently there are 96 departments in metropolitan France. Corsica was divided into two departments (Corse-du-Sud and Haute-Corse) in the 1975 reorganisation. However, as of 2019, these two no longer have the status of departmental ‘territorial collectivities’, as regional and departmental functions have been managed by a ‘single territorial collectivity’ since 2018. Despite this, they are still classed as administrative departments.

All of France’s overseas territories (French Guiana, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Mayotte, and Réunion) are administratively classed as being both departments and regions, which gives a grand total of 101 departments.

Metropolitan French departments are assigned a two-digit number, the ‘official geographical code’ allocated by the Institut national de la statistique et des études économiques. Overseas departments have a three-digit number. The number is used, for example, in the postal code, and was until recently used for all vehicle registration plates.

Each department is administered by an elected body called a departmental council (conseil départemental) overseen by a president. The council is responsible for all the main departmental services: welfare, health, administration, and departmental employment. It also has responsibility for local regulations, manages public and private property, and votes on the local budget. Local services of the state administration are traditionally organised at departmental level, where the prefect represents the government; however, regions have gained importance since the 2000s, with some department-level services merged into region-level services.

In 2014, President François Hollande proposed to abolish departmental councils by 2020, which would have maintained the departments as administrative divisions, and to transfer their powers to other levels of governance. This reform project has since been abandoned.

A map of the current French departments.

A map of the First French Empire in 1812.

Vienne

Poitiers is in the department of Vienne (departmental code 86). Established on March 4, 1790 during the French Revolution, Vienne is one of the original 83 departments. It was created from parts of the former provinces of Poitou, Touraine, and Berry, the latter being a part of the Duchy of Aquitaine until the fifteenth century. The department takes its name from the river Vienne. In terms of both population (about 437,000) and size (69,090 sq. kilometres) it is roughly middling in French departmental tables.

At present, I’ve not found not much of interest to say about Vienne as a department.

It is twinned with Berkshire in the UK, which somehow feels about right.

Édith Cresson, France’s first woman Prime Minister (1991–1992), was a deputy (MP) for the department.

One thing may be worth looking into further. During the Second World War, the demarcation line, dividing the occupied zone in the northern and western part of France and the ‘free zone’ under the Vichy government, went through the middle of Vienne, with the arrondissements of Poitiers and Châtellerault being in the former and Montmorillon in the latter.

Passport to Poitiers

One of my favourite films has always been Passport to Pimlico, in which a London borough briefly becomes part of the ancient dukedom of Burgundy. When I lived in Ely, I often thought that a remake could be made, centred on the old Isle of Ely. In my version, it would be discovered that local hero Hereward the Wake had done a deal with William the Conqueror whereby Ely was granted permanent independence in return for Hereward ending his guerrilla warfare. Hereward’s death is shrouded in mystery, and the document detailing the transaction is somehow lost and not discovered until the twentieth century. To their horror, the UK government are told that it is still legally binding and Ely is not actually part of the UK. My modern twist on the story would focus on the fact that Ely is under the flight path of the US airbases nearby. The hastily formed Ely Governing Council (working out of the Prince Albert public house in Silver Street) immediately announce that they will deny the Americans access to Ely airspace. The Russians and Chinese learn about this, and suddenly Ely is a hotbed of spies and counterspies. All of which leads to ‘hilarious results’.

My pathological lethargy meant that the idea never got beyond a couple of pages more than the above summary (I remember there was a subplot about the various spy agencies entering teams in the Albert pub quiz). I did get briefly excited when the Brexit referendum was announced, thinking that this presented new possibilities, but then Fenland voted to leave the EU by a big majority and I lost my appetite for the whole project. I offer the idea freely to anyone who wants to take it up.

What has brought all of this to mind is an interesting Poitiers story that I came across recently.

Following the German offensive of May 1940 – which violated the neutrality of the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg – the Belgian government sought asylum in France. In a sense, this was history repeating itself, because they had done the same in 1914, setting up a temporary headquarters in Sainte-Adresse, near Le Havre. This time, however, for reasons that I have yet to discover, they chose the city of Poitiers. They arrived on May 23 and set themselves up with impressive speed.

The history books record that the government headquarters were at the Hôtel de France, which is now the Best Western Poitiers Centre in rue Carnot. The Prime Minister’s office was Hôtel Gilbert, a handsome art deco building at 13 rue de Blossac, now the site of the city’s administrative tribunal. The Law Faculty at Poitiers University was the temporary home for the Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of the Interior, while the Ministry of Justice took up residence at 21 rue de la Cathédrale, now a rather shabby-looking apartment building. A group of Belgian police officers were accommodated at the police station in rue de la Marne to assist in the security work necessitated by the influx of refugees.

Now, this is all well and good, but we need to remember that France itself was at war. Doubtless, there would have been lots of official noises made about helping out friends and allies in difficult times. However, to those of us of a more sceptical frame of mind, it does beg the question as to how the new arrivals were greeted by the local residents, in particular those who, temporarily at least, were turfed out of their accommodation to make way for them.

I’m afraid you’ll have to leave. I will be needing these rooms now.

Oh yes, and who might you be, pray?

I am the Prime Minister of Belgium.

Yeah, right, and I’m Maurice Chevalier. Sling your hook, Tintin.

Be that as it may, the government was indeed set up, and for a brief period Poitiers became the capital of Belgium. The Belgian king and queen actually came and stayed one night at the Hôtel de France.

It did not last long. After the heavy losses experienced by its army, France asked for an armistice on June 17. The Belgian government left Poitiers the same day and sailed from Bordeaux to London on June 18. There they set up their government in exile for the duration of the war. Poitiers had been their capital city for just twenty-six days.

It’s a fascinating story, and I intend to find out a little bit more about it. Jean-Henri Calmon, the author of the book on the Renard network that I mentioned last week, has also written on this in his Occupation, Résistance et Libération dans la Vienne,but I have so far been unable to get hold of a copy.

There is one lasting memorial to the Belgian presence. In 1950, the Brussels police force presented a replica of the famous Manneken Pis statue to their Poitiers counterparts as a token of gratitude for their reception in 1940. The statue, one of only six authorised replicas in the world, is on display in the reception area of the police station. I went to see it yesterday, and it looks fine, although I was disappointed that the little chap wasn’t actually ‘in action’ – a victim perhaps of the recent hosepipe ban.

Louis Renard, résistant

It’s sometimes said that if one were to go by popular culture, one would assume that English history largely consisted of the Tudors and winning the Second World War. I confess that for a long time my understanding of French history was equally simplistic. There was the Roman invasion (Asterix the Gaul), Louis XIV (The Three Musketeers), the Revolution (A Tale of Two Cities), and the Resistance in the Second World War (the BBC’s Secret Army and Sebastian Faulks’ Charlotte Gray). Now that I live here, this clearly will not do.

Since we arrived, I have been in blotting-paper mode, trying to soak up as much as I can about French history in general and that of Poitiers in particular. It’s a demanding task, and I have barely scratched the surface, but in terms of local history at least, some sense of how the city has developed is beginning to emerge.

Most of the available literature on the history of Poitiers tends to focus on four key periods: its strategic significance as a colonised town under the Romans in the first century BC; its growth and prosperity under the powerful Counts of Poitou and Dukes of Aquitaine between the tenth and thirteenth centuries; the siege of Poitiers and the Wars of Religion that lasted throughout the sixteenth century, and the occupation of Poitiers during the Second World War.

In a haphazard way, I’m gradually finding out more about each of these four aspects of Poitiers, but I’m also trying to dig a little deeper into the city that existed and developed either side of the Second World War, i.e. twentieth-century Poitiers. What follows is a little bit of work in progress.

In the middle of Poitiers, just off rue Magenta, is a small side street, rue Louis Renard. On the street sign under the name are simply the words Résistant and the dates 1893–1943.

Louis Renard was born in Poitiers on 7 December 1893. The son of a fabric merchant, he had to interrupt his studies when his father died prematurely in 1908. His mother took him out of the Lycée and sent him to England to learn the language and study business methods.

In the 1920s, Louis worked in Paris, first for the department store Printemps and then for Michelin, where he dealt with the UK and Netherlands markets. In 1927, he returned to Poitiers and joined a law firm as an associate. He took ownership of the firm five years later and became a respected figure in the local community. He involved himself in many cultural activities and was a founding member of the local Youth Hostel Association and Rotary Club.

In 1939, when war broke out, Louis enlisted in the army. He was 46. Assigned first to Tours, then to Marseille, he worked as a liaison interpreter between the French and British armies. He was demobilised when France surrendered in June 1940. In August he returned to Poitiers and wrote to General de Gaulle, then leader of the Free French in England, declaring his support. From the end of 1940, he became the leader of the organised Resistance network in occupied Vienne. He was also involved in setting up one of the first Resistance newspapers in France, Le Libre Poitou.

Two years later, on 30 August1942, Louis and twenty-eight other members of the Renard network were arrested following a combined operation by Vichy police and the Gestapo. Imprisoned first in Poitiers, then in Paris, they were transferred to Germany, where Louis and nine others were tried and sentenced to death. They were guillotined on 3 December 1943, four days before Louis’ fiftieth birthday.

Of necessity, the above is an extremely brief summary of Louis’ life and work as a member of the Resistance. If you are interested, there is a very good French website https://www.vrid-memorial.com/ devoted to the history of the Vienne department during the Second World War, and this includes a great deal of fascinating information about the Renard network, including a copy of Louis’ letter to de Gaulle, a detailed account of his arrest (written by his wife), and a letter Louis sent to his wife while in prison. There is also a book, La chute du réseau Renard:1942 (The Fall of the Renard Network, 1942) by Jean-Henri Calmon, which details how some members of the Vichy police were only too eager to please their new masters by arresting Louis and his colleagues.

Louis’ story is clearly that of a man worthy of respect, but alert readers will have noticed a gap in the potted biography that I’ve provided, in that it jumps from 1908 to 1920. I have left this period till now because it highlights for me one of the most interesting aspects of his story.

I said above that Louis enlisted in 1939. In fact, he re-enlisted. Louis had originally been called up for national service in 1913, and he was a sergeant in the army when war broke out the following year. His war record is impressive, He was awarded the Légion d’honneur and the Croix de guerre in 1916. By the time he was invalided out in 1917, he had lost an eye, had a lung perforated, and suffered a hand injury. He had reached the position of lieutenant. In July 1918, the death of his brother Henri, who had been killed while leading his men into battle, affected him badly.

After the war, Louis married Marie Germaine Marsaudon, and they went on to have six children. His experiences had made him a committed peace activist, and one of his reasons for founding the Rotary Club in Poitiers was that he saw this as a way of building direct relations with like-minded individuals in other countries. One might think that by this time Louis had already lived ‘a full life’. Yet this was the man, the severely disabled family man, who had no hesitation in volunteering again for active service in 1939 and who was to die so cruelly four years later.

One sometimes hears jokes about the French capitulation in 1940. It is estimated that somewhere between 55,000 and 85,000 French serviceman lost their lives before the surrender, with another 120,000 wounded. Estimates for the number of active members of the Resistance vary widely. The French government puts it at 220,000; Douglas Porch, in his respected study The French Secret Services, puts it at 75,000.

Louis Renard (1893-1943)