Friday, January 29, 2010

2012 Olympics: Maybe these Calais burghers are not so silly after all

The idea that Calais becomes English for the Olympics could be a cunning plan, reveals Anne-Elisabeth Moutet.

By no yardstick could you call the spectacularly tin-eared president of the département of Pas-de-Calais a political star. When you Google Dominique Dupilet's name in the French version of the search engine, nothing more recent than 2009 crops up – and that's his own YouTube channel, not exactly a riot of activity with 185 views for his most-watched speech (on illegal immigration).

Yet M Dupilet has achieved by stealth what the force of English arms failed to do over those long centuries: he has handed over Calais. His region, he announced blithely, planned to "rebrand itself part of Britain" in order to catch part of the 2012 Olympics business. He'd always considered, he explained, "that we are the south of England". When Paris lost out to London in a bid to host the 2012 Games, this one Frenchman was busy, in his own words, "hoisting up the British flag". Soon, the département had quietly voted some 100 million euros (close to £90 million) of French taxpayers' money to upgrade hotels and sports installations. Teams from Uzbekistan, Senegal and Chad – to name but a few – have already signed up to train in "our weather conditions, so similar to London's".

Until recently, the whole initiative, code-named "Mission 2012", was being kept under the radar, M Dupilet told The Wall Street Journal, "because we didn't want to attract competition". Outrage in the rest of the country would be a more likely explanation. The English might be taught that Mary Tudor died with Calais engraved on her heart – but as early as the Neuvième (the class for 10-year-olds), French children are told of the 11-month siege by the army of Edward III in the Hundred Years' War, ending in 1347 with the surrender of the starved Calaisiens.

For the city to be spared, Edward commanded that six of its leading citizens surrender for execution. (They were finally reprieved, earning Edward the tag "The Merciful".) These Burghers of Calais – barefoot, in shifts, with nooses round their necks – were sculpted by Rodin on a commission from Calais City Hall in 1880 (one of the bronze casts, purchased in 1911, stands near the Houses of Parliament).

Once you add the iconic effect of a major work of art to the role of Calais in France's national narrative, you can see that of all French cities, this would be the worst in which to pull a stunt like Dupilet's. It's not that we haven't learnt to value the British over the years, but some things still rankle. Bordeaux can call itself British-spirited all it wants. Dordogne can train more cricketers than joueurs de pétanque, and we'll smile fondly. Calais, not so much.

Yet has M Dupilet really betrayed his country, or is this a cunning plan to put one over our old friends the English? Although the officials in Calais's city hall expressed outrage when I informed them of his comments ("Quoi? Non!" was the response from the mayor's office), Dupilet's team has its eye on the main chance. "The Argentines and the Quebecers have few affinities with the British," says the head of the local Office du Tourisme delicately. "They might be happier training here." Just in case you missed the point, listen to that famed Anglophile, Dominique Dupilet: "Who wants to go to Birmingham? In Pas-de-Calais, the French lifestyle is better. And as for the food over there, well, forget it."

Still, his voters might not have such a hospitable attitude. The most popular French film of 1935 was a star-studded comedy by Jacques Becker, called Carnival in Flanders, which told the story of a Flemish town threatened by Spanish occupation. The men decide to play dead and hide; the women receive the hidalgos in their homes (and sometimes in their beds). As the hordes prepare to descend, I wonder if M Dupilet's initiative shouldn't be renamed Carnival in Calais.

© Copyright Telegraph Media Group & Anne-Elisabeth Moutet 2010

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