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French Savoie Up In Arms

The Savoy as a whole has remained rather aloof from the French 'troubles' of recent times. Last year's ethnic riots around France didn't make it up the Tarentaise Valley, the winter bottle-neck where a number of the world's grandest and largest ski resorts are located (Tignes, Val d'Isere, Les Arcs, Courchevel, Meribel, La Plagne...) The local rag did make a point of mentioning that someone had set fire to a council dustbin in Albertville, but that was just about it.

Hardly surprising really. For in this mountainous French refuge, the biggest minority consists mainly of 'FOPs' (foreign owners of property), and they rarely include members of France's main ethnic minority group, the North Africans - of Algerian, Moroccan, Tunisian origin. Traditional employment of Portuguese immigrant labour, plus the way property prices have soared in recent times in the Savoy, means the North African 'beur' population is mainly transient. They take up just a small proportion of the seasonal jobs on offer in the resorts, and disappear again towards the end of April. The Brits are undoubtedly the most widespread FOP sub-species, and despite suggestions to the contrary, mainly in the tabloid press back in the UK, they are made to feel welcome by the vast majority of the Savoyard locals. Yes, there's an element of resentment at times, but mainly directed at those holiday business outfits that appear to take advantage of the system - imported "tax-free" labour from the UK, profits rarely reinvested locally, unfair competition with French-resident businesses who pay much higher employers' national insurance, little or no integration within the local community. Even so, most Savoyards - or to be more specific to the Tarentaise Valley here, "Tarins"... are very aware of the benefits brought by ski tourism to the region, and the wealth generated as a direct result of the influx of Brits and the power of the 'livre sterling'...

There's no doubt that property prices have rocketed thanks mainly to the Brits, and locals can occasionally be heard bemoaning the difficulites faced by young French people from the area when trying to find that increasingly rare commodity; affordable homes. But most of those same locals wouldn't hesitate for a second to sell to an 'étranger' if he offered more cash than a prospective local purchaser. Still, the Tarins are not hypocrites. Many will happily admit that they bear their share of responsibility for the inflated prices, but most are also aware of the slow but inexorable depopulation of the rural areas of France, with their shrinking, aging communities, and that the Savoy has been spared that fate. Not much use having cheap property available for your kids to buy, if they've all upped sticks to head for the cities, with agriculture increasingly in crisis, and fewer and fewer jobs to be found...

Even so, the Savoie does have its jingoistic, flag-waving moments! - and the latest was sparked by events up above the resort of La Rosière over the weekend of June 24th. No, the stereotypical raucous Brit, swilling excessive quantities of lager, or property seekers with wallets swollen by runaway inflation in the UK property market, were not the target. On this occasional the culprits were the dishonourable French themselves!

La Rosière rarely hits the headlines in May and June, during which time the resort is usually morgue-like - even if the Petit Saint Bernard pass and sole crossing point into Italy, traversing the village, has reopened. Then Saturday saw a high-powered visit by the French Culture Minister, Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres, along with the Regional Vice President, Hervé Gaymard. The reason for the visit? Monsieur de Vabres was on plaque unveiling duties up at the Petit Saint Bernard, - to the memory of Général Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, on the bi-centenary of his death...

Why should such a banal event spark moral outrage from the separatist sympathisers at the local Le Savoisien journal in its June 8th edition, and the Savoy independence movement, the Ligue Savoisienne? Quel scandale, the Marseillaise French national anthem was even booed and whistled! The Savoie flag was unfurled, and heated debate ensued...

Who the dickens is Général Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, and what do we care? Ok, the main concerns of winter sports enthusiasts probably focus on snowpack levels at La Ros and where you can get your skis serviced - but bear with us!... It's the off season, here's your opportunity to get to know something about the area other than which is the best value mountain restaurant . On your next trip to La Rosiere you'll be able to astound and impress the locals with your knowledge of regional Savoy history...

Dumas was France's first black general, also known as "le Diable Noir", the illegitimate Haiti-born son of Antoine-Alexandre Davy, Marquis de la Pailleterie, and his slave housekeeper, Marie-Césette Dumas. (It was one of Thomas-Alexandre's sons, Alexandre, who is still a household name today. A. Dumas penned "The Count of Monte Cristo" and "The Three Musketeers")... Transferred to the Alps to take over command of the ‘Armée des Alpes’ at the age of 31, one of the General's first acts was to "invite his staff officers to strip off their gold and silver rank badges, which in his view smacked of luxury and corruption, and replace them with items made of wool." (Johnson, David, “The French Cavalry 1792-1815”, London 1989). So what was his crime in the eyes of the Savoyards? After all, he had been responsible for defending the Savoy against the invasion plans of the Piedmontese, who wished to annex the region. On April 24th 1794 he had led the attack on the Piedmontese defences above La Rosière along the Col du Petit Saint Bernard pass into Italy. After two days march through heavy snow, capturing all outposts including the Saint Bernard chapel, victory was assured, and the Savoy would remain in French hands thereafter.

Yet more than two centuries later the Savoy nationalists are up in arms. For prior to his defeat of the Piedmontese, Dumas had masterminded the French victory over the forces of the Duchy of Savoy, at the Battle of Méribel, September 13th, 1793. As the French Revolution progressed, revolutionary forces had marched into independent Savoy to bring 'freedom' to its people, and it's future annexation to France was assured, eventually to become its 85th département. The Savoyards resisted strongly, and led by Royalist factions took some of the lands back, only to be crushed once and for all by "le Diable Noir" and his forces over the course of 1794. Hence the Le Savoisien editorial, and its angry outburst. "It's shameful, an outrage!", the journal screams. "Has Gaymard gone mad? Lost all dignity?..."

A plaque in the honour of a man who some see as the leader of an army of occupation, that was responsible for subduing the local population in brutal fashion? To today's proud Savoyards, some of whom still dream of autonomy for the region, that is just rubbing salt in the wound.

So next time you ski past the Col du Petit Saint Bernard, and spot a (possibly defaced) memorial to a certain Général Thomas-Alexandre Dumas... now you know!.

About the Author: © Peter Garwood MySnowSports

Peter Garwood's expat in France blog: Frog Blog - High On Snow

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