Sunday, 23 September 2012

Our glorious colours: launching a Frenchman

It’s one thing to make a Frenchman, and only a few days ago I described some of the obstacles that give the process its charm. But just making one is only the first step. Another challenge arises when the time comes to launch your Frenchman on the great stream of life.

My son Michael was my first contribution to the land of liberty, equality and fraternity. I’m glad to say that he has a great many sterling qualities, but have to admit that getting organised isn’t always one of them. In fact, getting up isn’t always one of them.

Some years ago, the French government decided to listen to its military leaders who argued, as they argue in most places, that a bunch of frustrated and unwilling young men is not the stuff with which to build an effective army. So it abolished conscription.

But governments don’t like simply giving things away, even when making concessions to the people, so they kept a symbolic memento of military service, the ‘day of the citizen’: young people have to spend a day at a military centre being taught and tested about the rights and duties of citizens of our great Republic.

Demanding, and deserving, honour.
And Michael and I did all in our power to serve her well
The family was living in Strasbourg at the time but Michael was studying in Paris. As a result he missed the first session to which he was summoned.

A friend of ours was a sergeant-major in the army. We spoke to him when Michael was back in Strasbourg.

‘No problem,’ he said, ‘I’ll get him enrolled for another session.’

On this second occasion, Michael failed to set his alarm and missed the day by oversleeping.

Back I went to the sergeant-major. ‘I’ll do this one last time,’ he said, ‘but he’d turn up because he won
’t get a third chance.’

Our friend cruelly arranged the session not in Strasbourg but in another town an hour and a half away by train. This may have been punishment aimed at Michael, but I shared the pain with him: I was up at the crack of dawn to ensure that he was at the station on time.

Neither of us was in particularly good mood when we turned up on the platform, at 6:00 int the morning, unrested and with insufficient coffee inside us. Once there, however, our mood changed. The great glass vault above our heads was filling with bright dawn sunshine. The deserted platforms alongside the glistening rails conjured up all the romantic dreams that seem to follow those tracks into the unknown.
Haunting images of difficult farewells

And simultaneously we both felt the sense of being in a scene we had each watched countless times in films in time of war, which the father accompanies his son on the fraught journey to the train taking him away to serve his nation.

I turned to Michael and solemnly shook his hand. ‘Son,’ I said, ‘remember that what you do today you do for France. Do nothing that will bring shame to our glorious colours.’

He shook my hand back with equal seriousness. ‘Dad,’ he said, ‘don’t worry. I’m sure it’ll all be over by Christmas.’

In the event it was all over by that evening.


Awoogamuffin said...

Yes, but I still have harrowing flashbacks to that day... war changes you.

David Beeson said...

A stern duty, but an ennobling one. You rose to the challenge. Tu as mérité de la patrie.