French rugby in Nazi scrum
More than 55 years after WWII, a group of French sportsmen is still fighting to undo the legacy of France's wartime collaborationist regime. Hugh Schofield reports from Vichy, in central France.
In December 1941 — at his office in a hotel in the centre of this elegant central French spa town — Marshal Philippe Pétain signed an order abolishing a popular game played by tens of thousands of young men: Rugby League — or, as it is known in France, Rugby à 13.
The order was revoked after the war, but Rugby League never recovered and it is now a minority sport — completely overshadowed by its more powerful cousin, 15-man Rugby Union. Confined mainly to an arc of towns in the south of France, it is played by just 20,000 people — compared to the Union's 250,000.
But today a new generation of Rugby League enthusiasts is emerging, and they are furious at the injustice that was done, and impatient with the sport's official governing body which — in the classic post-war spirit of deliberate amnesia — has preferred not to rock the boat.
These activists have formed an organisation called Treize-Actif ("treize" meaning "thirteen" in French), and they adamantly want the truth to be told.
"Barely anyone in France is aware of the extraordinary fact that the Vichy régime actually stopped people from playing a sport," says Treize-Actif's chairman, Robert Fassolette, a sports administrator and an academic, who quite coincidentally is based in Vichy.
"The French Rugby League federation was simply abolished, and all its assets were seized. The grounds were taken over by Rugby Union, which became the official, 'pure' version of the game. League players were invited to repent — but if they didn't they were blacklisted," he says.
The surprising vigour with which Rugby League was suppressed is explained by what had taken place over the previous 10 years.
Rugby Union — the original 15-man game — had been introduced to France from Britain in 1872, but in the 1930s it entered a sudden decline. In 1931 the French team was banned from the annual five nations tournament (with England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland) because of violence on the pitch.
The number of Union clubs fell from 884 in 1924 to just 471 at the outbreak of the war, and in the meantime Rugby League — which arrived in France as late as 1934 — was surging ahead, reaching 225 clubs in just five years.
Sports newspapers of the time reveal the groundswell of enthusiasm, which peaked in February 1939 when the French Rugby League team became the first French side — in any sport — to beat England at home. The match, at Rugby League's spiritual home in St Helens, ended 12-9 for France.
Rugby League was seen as "modern" game, according to Fassolette — who has written a doctorate on the ban and now coaches a League side in Vichy.
It was professional — as opposed to Union which was proudly amateur — and the players had control over their own careers. The game was also closely associated with the left-wing Popular Front government that came to power in France in 1936.
This was undoubtedly enough to damn it in the eyes of the Vichy regime — with its Roman Catholic, nationalistic values. But it is now clearly established that the root cause of the 1941 ban was the lobbying against it by the Rugby Union camp. It saw Rugby League as a threat, and it used Vichy to stamp it out.
A French government inquiry into the ban, which issued its report in August, concluded: "When Vichy's department of sport was set up, influential officials of the French Rugby federation endeavoured to eliminate this competitor, which they claimed was a dangerous deviant form of Rugby Union."
After the war Rugby League briefly prospered - France was even world champion in the early 1950s - but the damage was done. General de Gaulle lifted the ban, but the game never again achieved full recognition. Until 1990 it could not even call itself rugby - it was allowed only to use the name game "Jeu", in its title "Jeu à 13".
Today the French team is no longer seen as a serious international competitor - an attempt to include a French club in a British-based Superleague collapsed. Supporters of Treize-Actif are in no doubt that the decline is directly attributable to the wartime ban.
"Even today league clubs have difficulties finding grounds to play on. There is discrimination against Rugby League in schools. You can become a state-paid sports instructor in France in practically any sport except Rugby League," said Cliff Spracklen, a British member.
Treize-Actif does not expect financial compensation, but it wants an apology. It also wants urgent steps to promote the sport — like its inclusion on the university sports curriculum and the creation of state-funded development officers. According to Fassolette, "we need to make up for lost time."