France Never Forgets

Today is VE Day in France, marking the May 8, 1945 unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany to Allied Forces.  It did not end WW II, but it did return France to the French, so this is the statutory holiday when every town and village in France remembers those who died in WW II,  and in WW I.  We just arrived yesterday in SW France, and it is sobering to realize that nothing here is taken for granted.

Villerouge-Termenes is a tiny centuries-old village where cars park around its perimeter because streets were made for carts and horses, where the bar is the heart of village life, and where the villagers must buy their bread and croissants from the 8 AM truck that arrives daily from the next village. (You know a French village is really tiny when it has no bakery, or grocery store!)

There are about 60 permanent residents here – young and old – and another 75 or so who come here to their tiny country homes in summer to escape life in the bigger cities. We join about 50 of them at their war memorial as our hosts introduce us to everyone, kisses to each cheek all round as we are greeted in the French fashion.

A large  tricolour flag stands tall, its vibrant red, white and blue striking against the clear blue sky.  Smaller French flags adorn each corner of the monument, and a beautiful tricolor floral arrangement sits front and center.

The monument is not large. Perhaps 12’ tall. Every town, village and city across France has its sacred war memorial, its size and complexity a reflection of the wealth or size of the town. And each one will host a VE day ceremony today. This monument in Villerouge seems impressive for a village this size, with enough room for a plaque with 10 names.

The ceremony is short. The mayor reads the Ministry of Defence statement, remembering what was won with these lives lost, and what’s still at stake in today’s precarious world. He reads aloud, slowly and deliberately, each name inscribed on the monument’s plaque.  Then after a moment of silence, he speaks from his notes.  He takes issue, this day after France elected a moderate president, with the unnamed 25% in his village who voted for the far-right candidate. His passion warns that in this village there’s no room for racism or homophobia or anything else that might divide.

And then it is over.  And everyone strolls to the village bar for aperitifs and snacks and friendly conversation.  Another year’s respect has been paid.

The camaraderie here is genuine, even when politics and arguments ensue.  Because this place has known occupation and war, and in those moments, all are one.

France knows.

And we are humbled.