The Struggle in France Between a National and Local Memory

Jane Metter | 7 May 2019

European History | Modern History | Military History 

The Plateau des Glières, in the Haute-Savoie department of France was the site of a battle that took place on 26th March 1944 when the Resistance was defeated by the Germans in a stand that continues to dominate and divide local and national memory. Members of the Resistance killed on the Plateau and in the surrounding area are buried nearby in Morette cemetery.

In the official French ‘state’ narrative, the courage shown by the Resistance on this occasion exemplifies republican ideals. French politicians consider Glières, Morette and memory of those young men as belonging to the nation. But for many people in Haute-Savoie there is a mismatch between a local and a national memory.

The first commemoration on 9 September 1944 saw local civilians join members of the military. Fifteen days later, former resister François de Menthon, whose family lineage in the Haute-Savoie can be traced to the XIIth century, visited Morette in his capacity of Minister of Justice. His presence as a local and as a representative of General de Gaulle’s French Provisional Government was a brief and rare moment of unity between local and national memory.

On 4 November 1944, three months after the Haute-Savoie was liberated, and while other parts of France were still at war, François de Menthon accompanied General de Gaulle to Morette. De Gaulle paid his respects to the widows of resistance fighters, then ended his speech with the words, ‘Long live Glières! Long live France!’ De Gaulle’s visit was a seminal moment as it built on the foundations created by de Menthon and cemented the significance of the site as a symbol of national unity.

In 1947, President Vincent Auriol inaugurated Morette as a national military cemetery and claimed that Glières was more than a memory or a symbol, it was a model for the youth of France. When President Mitterrand attended the 50th anniversary in 1994, he lauded the local population, the allies and stressed that Glières was a symbol of French unity.

Such use of the Plateau by dignitaries and politicians has not been without controversy. Nicholas Sarkozy first visited on the eve of the 2007 French Presidential elections. His annual pilgrimage continued until 2011 when he lost the presidency to François Hollande. Hollande never went to Morette or Glières. Rising resentment in the department towards Sarkozy’s use of Glières for his electoral campaign, and work by new researchers, such as Claude Barbier, that cast doubt over events that took place on the Plateau in 1944, may have contributed to Hollande’s decision.

A key example of the local population’s disapproval of what they saw as Sarkozy’s misappropriation of the site was evident when 3000 people joined a demonstration on 13th May 2007. Fiercely protective of Glières as a local memory, they wanted to reclaim their Resistance narrative. 2010 saw ex-resisters form Citoyens Résistants d’Hier et d’Aujourd’hui, (Resisting Citizens of Yesterday and Today). This local association then published a book that condemned Sarkozy’s use of Glières for his own political purposes and attacked his implementation of policies that deviated from social and economic reforms set out in the 1944 National Council for the Resistance’s manifesto.

For the local population and the association, Glières could be used as a pedagogical tool, to teach good citizenship at both a local and national level. However, they were concerned that if Glières became part of an institutionalised national memory, local memory could be hijacked and abused. Commemoration of events on the Plateau needed to be contained within localised memory.

On 31st March 2019, ex-President Sarkozy, Jean-Michel Blanquer, Minister for National Education and Secretary of State, Geneviève Darrieussecq accompanied President Emmanuel Macron at the 75th annual commemoration.

The elaborate event provided President Macron the opportunity to present an image of national unity. Five hundred local primary schoolchildren, bands playing, uniformed members of the Chasseurs Alpins regiment and a strong press attendance, added to the spectacle. After inspecting the troops, the President watched children reflect on what resistance meant to them, the result of a school project. President Macron claimed that ‘without the men who resisted the Germans and Vichy, France would not be France.’ The chief rabbi of Lyon, Richard Wertenschlag and priest of nearby Thônes spoke, further reinforcing this notion of national unity.

The political and cultural climate in contemporary France is far from united. Although disbanded in 2012, the Savoyan League, founded in 1995, supported independence for the region from France. Many of the local population consider themselves to be Haute-Savoyards first and French second. Two explosives were detonated during Marcon’s speech, men and women formed a line to show their backs to the President. Three hundred Savoyards, some of whom belong to the Yellow Vest movement demonstrated against him.

Conflict between local and national memory continues. Although Macron and his predecessors have promoted a vision of a nation that they see as an extension of the Resistance, that narrative is constantly challenged. The politicians’ appropriation of this moment of national unity stems from the memory of the equality of men in the Resistance who, regardless of ethnic, religious or socio-economic backgrounds, fought together to defend their country. However, the local population and members of the association Citoyens Résistants d’Hier et d’Aujourd’hui are attached to the notion that what happened at Glières could only have happened in the Haute-Savoie.

‘Today the Yellow Vests are the Resistance, we want social equality, wealth distribution, social justice,’ a woman in a yellow vest declared. ‘I am here as a Savoyard and as a citizen, it is important to protect the memory of Glières and the Resistance,’ a man told a reporter live on television. Protestors decry Macron’s politics which include increasing pensioners’ taxes and cutting housing benefits, but more than anything they oppose the way politicians are diluting their own local memory.

Today, local groups in the Haute-Savoie are fighting on both a local and national level, for ownership of Glières, and for a certain vision of France. Ironically the Yellow Vest movement in the Haute-Savoie appears to be uniting people from different ages and backgrounds, but instead of the President successfully rallying the people behind him, it appears the locals are united against the President.

Jane Metter is a PhD history student at the University of Sheffield. Her research examines commemoration of the Second World War in the Haute-Savoie department 1944-2019.