Your cultural guide to the 2024 Tour de France: stage 8

In today's episode: a couple of important French figures, linked by today's start and finish towns.

De Gaulle delivering his “Appeal of June 18” address to the French people. (Image: BBC)

José Been
by José Been 05.07.2024 Photography by
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For every stage of the 2024 Tour de France – men’s and women’s – José Been is bringing you stories about the history, castles, geology, culture, food, and people around the race. A bit of couleur locale while you enjoy lush fields of sunflowers, beautiful mountains, and pretty little villages, oh, and some bike racing too.

Both today’s start town of Semur-en-Auxois and our finish town of Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises have a lot of history. The latter basically as the place where one of France’s great statesmen Charles De Gaulle died, and the former as the place where the mighty Gauls reigned, until they were beaten by Caesar that is. That’s why today’s entry is a bit longer. We have two great statesmen in one stage.

First our start town. The Gauls had one of their famous battles just outside of Semur-en-Auxois. It’s now called Museo-Parc d’Alésia and it’s where you find a gigantic statue of the great leader Vercingétorix. It literally means “Supreme King of Warriors”.

Vercingétorix was a Gallic chieftain who is best known for his role as the leader of the broad Gallic alliance against Roman forces during the last phase of Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars. His strategy included a scorched-earth policy to deprive the Roman forces of supplies, and rallying various Gallic tribes to join his cause in a confederation against Rome.

It all went pretty well until the Siege of Alésia in 52 BCE. Vercingétorix and his forces were besieged by the Romans in the fortress there. Despite his efforts to coordinate support from outside forces, the siege ended with his surrender after a prolonged and desperate resistance. This defeat effectively marked the end of major Gallic resistance to Roman control.

Following his surrender, Vercingétorix was taken prisoner and held captive for about five years. In 46 BCE, he was paraded in Caesar’s triumph in Rome and subsequently executed.

Vercingétorix is often celebrated as a national hero in France, symbolizing the struggle for freedom and resistance against oppression. His legacy has been commemorated in various ways, including statues and references in French culture and history.

A statue of Vercingétorix in Clermont-Ferrand. (Image: Fabien1309/Wikimedia Commons)

Another national hero is Charles De Gaulle. He was born in Lille, all the way in the north of France but moved to Paris as an infant. He served in the First World War where he was shot in the leg in 1914. He continued and became a prisoner of war in a German prisoner camp for two years from 1916. He once even tried to escape dressed as a nurse. 

De Gaulle continued his military career after WW1 and was known to be a great tactician. In the Second World War he was promoted to Minister of Defense in France. He refused to accept the French government’s armistice with Germany. He fled to London, where he declared himself the leader of the Free French Forces with the famous “Appeal of 18 June” radio broadcast. 

In this broadcast, he urged the French population to resist German occupation and continue fighting. “Has the last word been said?” he asked, “Must hope disappear? Is defeat final? No!” This act is often seen as the origin of the French Resistance against the Nazis. Despite the fact not many French people knew who he was, it all caught on. By that time, he had only been minister for 11 days, but his popularity throughout the war and after that grew. 

To explain his popularity in the span of a few hundred words is impossible. There will be a lot of nuances lost. In short, he led a government after the war but quickly resigned. He moved back to Colombey-les-Deux-Églises to write his memoirs. In a time of great political upheaval at the end of the 1950s he returned to power. He founded the so-called Fifth Republic (we are still in that state form today) and became president in 1959. 

The fact the Americans had never really accepted him as French leader in the war and immediately after defined his wish to make France a key player in global politics and diminish the influence of the USA. He left NATO, got his own nuclear weapons arsenal and blocked the British from entering the European market twice because they were under the influence of the Americans, according to him. He really didn’t like ‘ze Americans.

In France his own party won election after election, after some crafty manipulation of the voter districts. He made it happen that French presidents are now elected directly by the people. He was popular until 1968 when the big student protests that started in Paris spread to the rest of France. France was in a big battle in now-former colony Algeria. He called for elections. He lost that vote of confidence by a small margin. He retreated to his home in Colombey-les-Deux Églises where he died in 1970 of an aneurysm after playing a game of Solitaire.

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