Riri and Fonfon

On 30th May 1943 two brothers boarded a train and set out on a long journey, which would prove to be the journey of their lives. They were understandably apprehensive but also excited; they were after all only 21 and 22 years old and this was their first adventure in the wide world, far removed from their lives in the remote and rural Ardèche. 

They were Riri and Fonfon, Brice’s great uncles.  Over the past winter Brice has been engaged in the massive job of cataloguing and transcribing the letters they sent to their family back home and has put together their story, which he has very kindly permitted me to write here.  It is a story which deserves to be heard for so many reasons: a story of resilience and courage, of love and respect.  To tell it not only honours those involved but also, for me and probably for my non-French readers, casts a moment of the Second World War in a very different light from how we generally think of it.

These young men had already had to endure multiple upheavals in their short lives.  Officially they were Frédéric and Alphonse, Riri and Fonfon were their pet names – everyone in the family had one, which is very endearing – and they lived with their parents in the outskirts of Lyon.  They had two surviving sisters Thérèse (Zézé) and Marie (Toutou); two more little girls, Marguerite and Françoise, had already died in infancy.  Then in the space of two years, when the oldest of the siblings was only 16 and the youngest 12, they were orphans, their mother dying of illness and their father one year later as a result of injuries he sustained during a violent burglary.

The boys went to live with their paternal uncle Emile in Villevocance and their sisters to Arlebosc, where they were cared for by their mother’s sister, Eugénie (Nini).  When she too died in 1942, they moved to their uncle Firmin, who lived in the “the White House” behind ours at les Sarziers (bonjour les voisins!)   The girls, in the Doux valley and their brothers, in the valley of the Cance were only about 30 miles apart but, separated by a range of hills and narrow twisty roads, they probably saw little of each other.

The siblings. Photo courtesy of Brice Banchet

For all of us who grew up in the after-shadow of the Second World War the reluctance of our parents to talk about their experiences was a common thread, whether in Britain, the USA or the occupied countries of Europe.  Their reasons varied no doubt, but for that generation, emerging from such a complex, frightening and frequently brutal period, the wish to put things behind them and to get on with their lives is surely understandable.  Only much later, when serious studies were made of the the war years and the Holocaust, when atrocities, resistance, heroism and betrayals were brought into the light and sometimes called to account, did a fuller picture begin to emerge.  But with the passage of time that picture has inevitably tended to polarise into uncompromising shades of black and white, the hunters and the hunted, the Good and the Bad.  This does not always do justice to the everyday experiences of ordinary people caught up in extraordinary times.  To read the letters of two young men, scarcely into adulthood, and to experience those times through their eyes is therefore a precious privilege.

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After the Fall of France, as it is termed in English, in June 1940, France signed an armistice with Germany, marking the end of military operations.  Parts of France were annexed and the rest of the country was divided two zones, one governed directly by Nazi Germany and the other under the Vichy Government, set up in that city and presided over by Maréchal Pétain.  An armistice can be defined as “a cessation of hostilities while an attempt is made to negotiate a lasting peace” and so there is clearly an argument that French people will have felt, have hoped, that the situation their country found itself in was temporary and as likely to be solved in the national favour as not. 

cartes-2-france.com

It is hard to imagine the sense of hopeless humiliation felt by a population which has been defeated in battle and occupied by a hostile power.  In this context Pétain’s government promoted an ideological programme called la Révolution Nationale which, despite its name was highly reactionary and ran counter to almost every principle of the 18th Century French Revolution.  The most visible manifestation of this ideology was the change in the national motto from the celebrated “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité” to “Travail, Famille, Patrie” and the supporting propaganda posters depicting a degenerate and corrupt pre-war state which needed to reform and pull its socks up – to become disciplined, virile, honest and hardworking for the good of the nation.

Propaganda poster by R. Vachet. ©Photo Josse/Leemage

And of course it was a very short step from here to the promotion of the deeply unsavoury measures of discrimination against minorities and ethnicities for which Vichy is chiefly remembered today.

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If you lived in France during the German Occupation of 1940 to 1944 your life choices were pretty limited, and only became more so as the war dragged on and the Nazi regime tightened its grip on its vassal country.  And anyway, at that time the state required more from its citizens in terms of duty and service than is the case today. 

At the cessation of hostilities military service was abolished, for obvious reasons, and was replaced by the compulsory enrolment of young men of military age in the newly formed Chantiers de la Jeunesse Française.  Announcing this Pétain declared: “Moral education is essentially linked to the cult of honour and an experience of communal life.  A virile education is indissociably linked with physical training, which encourages the development of true moral feeling”. Such theories were all the rage in the 1930s and 40s and his views were doubtless somewhat influenced by Germany’s Kraft Durch Freude movement and the parallel doctrine of Georges Hébert in France: that athletic skill must be combined with courage and altruism, with his motto “Être fort pour être utile.”

Service in the Chantiers only applied in the areas controlled by Vichy and, as Riri and Fonfon lived in the Free Zone, they were duly called up.  (In passing it must be said that many French people strongly dislike this term since, as they say, although the zone was not occupied it certainly was not free).  There are no letters telling us about their lives in the camp but the experience has been pretty well documented so we can picture them in a sort of scout like atmosphere, with the notable exception that they were not volunteers.  They were signed up for a period of eight months and failure to present themselves at the Chantier was punishable by a prison term of up to five years. 

Archives départementales de la Dordogne

Life in the camps was organised on militaristic lines with a strong emphasis on discipline, communal living, physical exertion, toughness and working for the good of the wider community. This was coupled with instruction in French folklore, music, traditions and culture.  Although some complained, for others this was not too different from what they could have expected in normal military service.  The camps were generally located in forested or mountainous regions and the principal occupation consisted of forestry work.  Absolutely no political activity or propaganda was allowed; radios, newspapers and political debate were banned and so the young men had no way to follow the course of the war nor make up their own minds about the Vichy regime.

Riri, Fonfon and their companions were each paid 1.50 francs per day. 

I still have a few of these coins left over from my family holidays in France when I was a very small child, note the motto!  They finally disappeared from circulation (very gradually) when France introduced the new franc, worth 100 of the old ones in January 1960.

For the moment we’ll leave the brothers in their camp in the foothills of the Vercors mountains and the life which, although rigorous, probably had its good sides for the energetic and sociable young men which they obviously were.  In any case the experience was a valuable preparation for what lay ahead of them.


Unless otherwise stated, all images from Wikipedia commons. Wherever possible I have traced and credited the image authors. Any omissions are unintentional.

7 thoughts on “Riri and Fonfon

  1. I am so excited to read the future installments of this fascinating story. As usual your research and presentation is impeccable. You are such an accomplished writer. We sure miss you guys so much. I so can’t wait to travel to les Sarziers again.

    1. Hi Sue. Thank you for your comment. Kate will publish the second chapter tomorrow. It is so nice to know that you are keeping up the link with us and Les Sarziers. Markus

  2. Merci Kate pour ce très beau travail de mise en récit, de contextualisation, qui permettent de lire ces lettres avec des épaisseurs différentes.

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