Tour de France (1) – Sharif Gemie

Tour de France: Blog Entry One

The Ship that Carried a Quarter of France

The Zenith : Photograph

The Zenith

I had meant to make several short trips to France this year. I wasn’t able to arrange these, so instead I’m making one fortnight-long journey to the four corners of France. I’m starting, of course, in Saint-Malo in Brittany, where most British tourists arrive. As I’m going to be giving two lectures in French, I need to remember how to speak French, and a couple of days wandering around what is still a very pleasant Breton port is as good a way of doing this as any.

I haven’t been here for a year. One thing that has changed is the re-construction of the Zenith. This little fishing boat played an important political role in June 1940. Following the German invasion and victory, Charles de Gaulle made a speech of the BBC, telling French people that the struggle was not over, and that they should re-group under his command to fight the German occupation. Most historians tend to argue that very few French people actually heard this speech: few people owned radios, and in the confusion of defeat, fewer were listening to the BBC. One little group who was listening were the people of the Breton island of Sein, out to the west of Brittany. Following his broadcast, 95 men crowded onto the Zenith. Another 33 from the island travelled on other boats.

When De Gaulle conducted his first review of his five hundred soldiers, he found that a many of them came from the Sein. Then, according to legend, he uttered the immortal words that ‘the Sein is a quarter of France’. Fifteen years ago, the Zenith was a wreck, but year by year it is being remade into the boat in was in 1940.

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