One of the most important results of the European elections has been the collapse of the two traditionally strongest political forces in the Fifth Republic: the conservative party, now called Les Républicains; and the Socialist Party on the Left. The Socialists fell apart in the …
Month: June 2019
Review of La Pirogue (Senegal/France, 2012), directed by Moussa Touré.
Review of Anna Badkhen, Fisherman’s Blues: A West African Community at Sea (New York: Riverhead Books, 2018).
France was in Senegal beginning in 1677, when they seized the island of Gorée in Dakar’s harbor as a trading post. They retained control of the coastal area after the Napoleonic wars, and in the late nineteenth century they extended their control inland, as part of their west and central African empire. Gorée is now a World Heritage site, as a memorial to the slave trade; the bigger slave station was Saint-Louis, to the north. But slavery and the slave trade, a foundation of capitalist wealth, scarred the landscape here as elsewhere; imperialism and the exploitation of local resources continued post-slavery. The Senegalese Tirailleurs were an important fighting force for France in both World Wars.
The colonial period ended with Senegal’s independence in 1961 but, as with every country subjected to European rule, the empire did not really end but merely transformed into something else formed of economic bonds and corporate development. Just as Europeans headed south (and east and west), Africans now head north.
The Pirogue, a 2012 Senegal/French production directed by Moussa Touré, was filmed well before the 2015 migrant crisis, when the world became familiar with the images of overcrowded small boats adrift on the waters. But those boats were on the Mediterranean; Senegalese migrants often went, and continue to go, by way of the Atlantic, with the Canaries as their first destination. They look for fishing boats with captains who are willing to try for Europe, despite the dangers of braving the stormy Atlantic in small boats that will be forced to go well beyond the coastal waters they are built for.
This film shows us the assembling of a boatload of men who want to leave. Lansana is the organizer and self-proclaimed “cop” of the boat, though Samba, the distinguished natural leader of a Muslim group from Guinea, exercises his influence more effectively. Nafy is the only woman and a stowaway, because otherwise they would not have taken her; there are some perfunctory mutterings about “bad luck,” but nothing serious. YaYa is the man with the chicken; when the chicken is killed on the high seas, as it finally must be, it is done reverently and with kindness. Kaba is young, has some experience with the boat but not enough; he is swept overboard in a storm, taking the GPS with him. Baye Laye, a fisherman who knows the Atlantic, is the captain and the owner of the boat, who does not wish to leave but feels that he must; his catches are declining and his livelihood is going away. Abou is his younger brother, who believes he will be scouted by a soccer (football) team in France. He isn’t worried about becoming an illegal immigrant; the team who hires him will take care of his papers. And then he will take care of his brother, who knows only fishing. The boat itself is sturdy and bravely painted; it has a backup engine, in case the first is defeated by the rough waters of the Atlantic.
The people who make the choice to migrate are not in immediate danger. They are not in flight from political tyranny or civil war, as were the Syrians who swelled the ranks of the migrants to a crescendo in 2015. Rather they are, like many migrants, facing an accelerating deterioration of their livelihoods. Baye Laye, the captain and owner of the small boat that gives the film its name, is a fisherman who is finding it increasingly difficult to catch enough fish to support his family. His wife does not wish him to go, but he has no economic options except the ocean, and it is no longer as generous as it used to be.
Others have different reasons. Abou has his soccer dream. Another man lost a leg when his fishing boat got too close to another, and he is going in hopes of a decent prosthetic. Nafy has “a job waiting for [her] in Paris”; she lost her husband when he made a similar desperate attempt. Samba has the address of someone who can get him agricultural work in Andalusia, but is under no illusions that it will be a better life, and he is already homesick for the beauty of the land he left behind. There are those who go because of the one person they know or have heard of who struck it rich and came back to build the biggest house in town. Still others have anxious hopes riding on them. “My entire village is depending on me,” says one of the passengers in anguish; remittances from Europe are what keep many families going (Reuters, April 24, 2015.). All of those on the pirogue are aware of the risks, and know that one boat in ten doesn’t make it; but staying in Senegal means “ten chances out of ten that you fail your life.” As one of the characters declares, “I’m an African man who decided to enter history by his own means!”
When the film is on land, it is Beyond Thunderdome: a heat-blasted landscape, naturally arid land now too often turning to drought, and the detritus of multinationals–an iPhone, a Gap t-shirt, a football jersey for Real Madrid. As Senegal expatriate Salie muses in The Belly of the Atlantic, “I’m all in favor of globalization, because it turns out things with no identity, no soul, too diluted to stir the least emotion in us.” (Diome, pp. 20). Above all, there is a constant scrabbling together of resources for the next month, the expenses of family, the cost of fuel for the pirogue balanced against increasingly poor catches.
The Atlantic route has for the past few years been policed by the Spanish coast guard, working in cooperation with Senegal’s government. Those who are picked up on the high seas are sent home.
The Senegalese, then, have actually had two routes: the 1,000 mile ocean voyage to the Canary Islands; or the increasingly dangerous trek across Central Africa to Libya and then across the Mediterranean. The news of the inhumane conditions of detention in Libya and crowded, unseaworthy vessels provided by traffickers have reached Senegal; in addition, the enforcement by the EU generally and Italy in particular resulted, by late 2018, in an increasing number of those who again choose the ocean (Reuters, December 3, 2018 ; see also European Commission Report, pp. 11-15, for an overview of Senegal’s total numbers).
Why go at all?
There are two major structural problems facing Senegal, both of them human-made. One is overfishing. In 2012, when La Pirogue was released, the newly elected government canceled the licenses given to giant trawlers, registered to Russia and China as well as other smaller nations, which were using satellite technology and overfishing the waters. Not only were the catches down, but the fish were taken elsewhere to be sold, rather than Senegal itself. The 52,000 artisanal fishermen in the country had threatened to take direct action themselves (The Guardian, May 4, 2012; see also Greenpeace.org, May 4, 2012). So the licenses were pulled, but the pirate trawlers are still there, having managed to get new licenses or just fishing illegally. And who will keep them out?
The other problem is climate change. The sea levels are rising, making low-lying coastal areas, further battered by rough and unpredictable storms, uninhabitable. Greater acidity in the oceans has damaged certain kinds of sea life, thus transforming entire ecosystems. The migration of fish toward the poles, as water has gotten warmer, has made them scarce in the waters they have traditionally populated. The ocean is able to absorb less carbon dioxide and thus plays a diminishing role in regulating temperature on land (edf.org; conservation.org). Another result of climate change, and the most visible one, is migration, along with the tendency to blame those who are taking this direct action to save themselves.
It’s only after finishing Anna Badkhen’s Fisherman’s Blues that one fully realizes the catastrophic climate change that is undermining the way of life she describes, so subtle and relentless are her observations. The lack of fish where there used to be fish. A certain kind of fish they used to catch, now gone. Chasing rumors that lots of fish have suddenly appeared off Gambia, where they no longer are, if they ever were. The traditional culture of leaving a fishing ground if another boat is already there, now a matter of bitter disputes about who arrived first. The constant worries about money, overshadowing the birth of a new daughter. The news that oil rigs will soon be sixty miles off the coast, to exploit rich fields (no one seems to see this as any benefit to the Senegalese, because it won’t be). A recently and carefully rebuilt nineteenth century Christian chapel that will inevitably, and probably soon, be washed out to sea. The discovery of a body on the shore–not a murder, but rather a gravesite desecrated by a heavy wave.
Badkhen, a journalist and award winning nonfiction writer, based herself in Joal, Senegal, at the southern end of the Petite Côte. She talks her way onto a number of different local fishing boats, but writes most about the Sakhari Souaré, the pirogue owned by Ndongo Souaré, and about his extended family.
On one occasion she is aboard when the Sakhari Souari spots a school near a decades-old wreck:
The crew bend as one and start ladling the net out to sea. Yard by nylon yard, arms straight, palms facing out, they push the mesh overboard in synchronous rapid motion. Coaxing it out. Offering it to the ocean as an oblation . . .
Faster, faster. Work like men, work like men.
The last of the net plashes into the water. The instant its four-fluke grapnel anchor slips out of the pirogue after it and sinks, the crew grab a hammer–a knife–an awl–a loose wooden burden board–and begin to whack the pirogue. They pummel the gunwales and the ceiling hard, and they stomp on the thwarts with bare feet in a ferocious and ancient abandon . . . Amid this unholy sacrament the skinny boy Maguette swiftly strips down to cotton boxers and a red gris-gris belt weighed down with leather amulet pouches and somersaults into the spiral heart of the gill net right by the shipwreck and there begins to splash madly in the green boil of the sea to scare the disoriented and deafened fish into his father’s net. . . . In the bow, the Sakhari Souaré’s first mate, one of Ndongo’s half brothers, drops a board into the hold, reaches inside the waterproof pouch around his net, pulls out a cellphone, turns his back to the wreck, and snaps a selfie (p. 14).
In the end Ndongo and his crew get only about two dozen fish that are worth selling. Still, even in recent memory, some speak of extraordinary catches so rich that they have to call extra boats to help them get the fish to shore, one such event just the previous year (p. 48).
“What kind of knowledge,” she wonders, “does it take to depend on a resource so seemingly bottomless yet so palpably expended, to exacerbate its decimation each day you honor family tradition? And what is the protection against the crushing void of the ever encroaching tide? Or against mostly illegal foreign ships that come in so close that on a clear night you can see from the beach their searchlights: eerie winks of a modern, mechanized organism that employs half a million people worldwide, vacuums the ocean empty, drowns out the ancient shanties of men who stubbornly chase fish in wooden boats? (p. 44).
It is a question that all of us will be facing. In different ways. In different places. At different times.
Header image from Shutterstock.com.
Fat Diome, The Belly of the Atlantic trans. by Lulu Norman and Ros Schwartz (London, 2006; originally published as Le Ventre de l’Atlantique, Paris, 2003).
I was recently reading Dominique Manotti’s The Lorraine Connection for possible use in one of my classes. (Can’t assign it; too much sex.) It’s a good example of the contemporary French polar–noir, political, cynical, a mystery novel that grafts fictional characters onto well known events …
The coverage of the Gilets Jaunes protests on June 8 from the major newspapers and television stations was sharply down, as were their numbers. The Ministry of the Interior calculated the turn-out at 10,300 throughout the country, up by nearly 1,000 from the previous Saturday; …
The story behind Le Chant des partisans is a simple one. In 1943 singer Anna Marly adapted a Russian marching song that had inspired her, Joseph Kessel and Maurice Drouon wrote the lyrics, it was broadcast on the BBC, and was then adopted by the French Resistance. There is a more detailed account of how all those things happened to come together, but the matters of most importance are the glorious song and the many who sang it.
The following version provides the words in English, and is sung by Mireille Mathieu:
Here is a version by the great Johnny Hallyday, who died in December 2017. (See the recent column by Pamela Druckerman, The New York Times.)
In late August 1939, Germany and the USSR signed a pact negotiated in haste. The blitzkrieg in Poland began in September, 1939, and France and Britain declared war. Nothing much happened for months during the period of the phony war, or the drôle de guerre. The German invasion of Norway in April, 1940, led to the resignation of Neville Chamberlain and his replacement by Winston Churchill. On May 10, the battle in the west began in earnest. The German air force flattened Rotterdam; after a five day battle, the German army took Sedan and was on French soil, bypassing the costly folly, the Maginot Line. At Dunkirk, approximately 140,000 French and Belgian troops were among those evacuated from May 26 to June 4, 1940.
The “exodus” of refugees from Belgium and Holland that began pouring into northern France, and of the French also fleeing south (International Herald Tribune, June 11, 1940), encompassed several millions of people. They walked, rode bicycles, looked for nonexistent public transport, and abandoned their cars along the roads as they ran out of gas. The government of France moved to Bordeaux, declaring Paris an open city; the German army occupied the capital on June 14. Marshal Henri Philippe Pétain, the deputy premier, was appointed as premier.
For Pétain, born in 1856, fame as the leader of the defense of Verdun (“They shall not pass,” 1917) came late in life. He was lionized, virtually the only general in World War I who was regarded as a hero. He remained on the scene throughout the interwar years and when he became premier, in the emergency circumstances of the time, he was already well into his eighties.
On June 16 he gave a brief radio address to the French people (English subtitles are available by clicking on cc.).
One can understand why people heard Pétain’s message with relief. He was the new head of government, but he was also an admired hero from the previous war. He said it was over, that the best they could do was to cease fighting; he explicitly referenced the terrible plight of the refugees; he stepped up once again to serve. The chaos of the exodus, military defeat, fear, the meaning of a blitzkrieg against French soil–all of that must have made Pétain’s message seem more sensible at the time than the message of Resistance. No one yet realized that the terrible costs of collaboration would be too high.
Charles de Gaulle: born in 1890, education at the military academy Saint-Cyr, distinguished service (in part under Général Pétain) during World War I, author of, among other works, The Army of the Future (1934) that proposed a new vision of fast, mobile warfare in opposition to the defensive mentality that seemed to grip the high command, and promotion to brigadier general only in early 1940, when he commanded a tank brigade. Though his reputation was to come mostly in the realm of politics and diplomacy, he was also skilled in his profession, becoming one of the few generals to win against a German force during the short Battle of France. In June 1940, the Premier Paul Reynaud (soon to be replaced by Pétain), made de Gaulle deputy minister of war, which meant that he was a part of some of the last desperate talks with Churchill and the British government.
Still, no one knew who he was. His historic “flame of resistance” speech of June 18 on the BBC was not recorded and was heard by very few–hardly surprising, given the circumstances at the time. His next speech, on June 22, after the terms of the armistice were known, outlined his essential message, which never changed. Honor. Empire. Strategic global vision.
It should be noted, as well, that De Gaulle did not merely give speeches: he organized his forces, fiercely bargained with his fellow Allied leaders (Churchill and Roosevelt, who both disliked him) on behalf of French interests, won over the colonies, whose colonial recruits fought as part of the Free France forces, imposed a provisional French government as the nation was liberated after D-Day, and dragged France, with sheer force of will and personality, into the winners’ circle; France, with the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union, was one of the four occupying powers of Germany. Here is the moment when he disobeyed orders and stepped into history:
In August, de Gaulle was sentenced to death in absentia.
De Gaulle accomplishes much in this speech. France had lost the battle of France, but not the war. If Poland, Holland, the the others could continue the fight in exile, then so could France. The losses stemmed not from French inherent weakness but from the mistakes, both strategic and tactical, of the high command. Those who surrendered were taking a short view. The United States would enter the war, and Germany might well lose some or all of her allies (as she later lost the USSR). The victory of free countries was inevitable, and France would need to be on the winning side. Above all, perhaps, it was dishonorable to make a separate peace when France had promised not to do so.
It is also clear that de Gaulle envisioned a resistance in the form of a Free France army rather than partisan fighters. He had both. The Free France, or Fighting France, forces eventually numbered 300,000 regular troops, including colonial indigènes, especially from Algeria and Morocco, using British equipment and then American Lend-Lease. They fought in North Africa and the Middle East, were decisive at Monte Cassino, and helped to liberate France; in the spring they took part in the invasion of Germany.
De Gaulle did not quite expect an underground civilian resistance movement, but nevertheless worked with it through the Conseil National de la Résistance (CNR), set up by Jean Moulin. Moulin, who had been sent by Charles de Gaulle to unify the various groups in France, was arrested in June 1943 and tortured under the orders of Klaus Barbie. He was sent east, and apparently died on the train.
De Gaulle had to walk a difficult line, both keeping the FFI (French Forces of the Interior) motivated, and restraining them from isolated acts of resistance that brought fearful reprisals. The massacre and burning of 642 inhabitants of Oradour-sur-Glane on June 10, 1944–note the date–was in return for an attack on a German officer. The destroyed village has been left as a memorial.
At de Gaulle’s insistence, it was a French armored division under General Philippe Leclerc [de Hauteclocque] that became the first allied force into Paris in August, 1944; De Gaulle walked through the streets on August 26. This American newsreel, narrated by Lowell Thomas, captures the joy of the moment.
In the aftermath of World War II, the people of France did not care to dwell on the Occupation. The pains of war were masked by pride in the Resistance, and accompanied by a good deal of forgetting. (See March post, “The Sorrow and the Pity, Part I.”) There were calls for Le Chant des partisans to become the new anthem, though the Marseillaise is too intertwined in the Great Revolution ever to be replaced; but they continued to sing it.
In the late twentieth century, this heroic story became seriously complicated by historical revelations, by the “discovery” of collaborators who had lived prosperous lives in plain sight (Maurice Papon, de Gaulle’s Prefect of Police, René Bousquet, who supervised the Vel d’hiv mass arrest of Jews in Paris in 1942), and by a questioning even of the effectiveness of the Resistance in helping to liberate France. (This post in commemoration of D-Day, as one will have noted, is not about any of the complications, but rather about the simple heroic story; which is also true.)
In 2007, newly elected President Nicolas Sarkozy decided that France had been trapped in the guilt-ridden “politics of memory” for too long, and believed that school children needed to be taught about the heroics and martyrdom of the resisters (see Nathan Bracher, below.) He deliberately staged a performance of Le Chant de Partisans:
The day after his election in 2017, new President-elect Macron, along with President François Hollande, listened to the song at the Arc de Triomphe:
In memory of those who were present at D-Day, June 6, 1944.
Work cited: Bracher, Nathan. “Bruckner and the Politics of Memory: Repentance and Resistance in Contemporary France.” South Central Review 24, no. 2 (2007): 54-70. http://www.jstor.org.exlibris.colgate.edu:2048/stable/40039981.
Header Image of Normandy Beach and discarded makeshift port, from the landing. From Dreamstime.com