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FRENCH HISTORY

French resistance hero Hubert Germain to be honoured on Armistice day

The coffin of French resistance fighter Hubert Germain will be paraded along the Champs Elysées in a tank on Thursday in a special tribute to the World War II fighter, who died last month.

President Macron stands to attention next to the coffin of late French resistance leader, Hubert Germain
President Macron stands to attention next to the coffin of late French resistance leader, Hubert Germain (Photo by Ludovic MARIN / POOL / AFP)

Born in Paris in 1920, Hubert Germain travelled much of the world as a child, following his father who was stationed as a soldier in the Middle East and Hanoi. He returned to Paris as a teenager to study and had been preparing to join the French navy when war broke out in 1939. 

By the time Germain was sitting his final exam at naval college, France had capitulated to Germany. Rather than graduate and serve in a navy effectively taking orders from the Nazis, he handed in a blank exam paper – much to the bemusement of the college instructors. 

At around this time, Germain heard the call from Charles de Gaulle, broadcasting over the radio from London, for the French to fight on. He boarded a cargo ship to Britain with hundreds of Polish soldiers who had managed to escape westward. 

Germain was sent to Syria in 1941 to take part in the fight between French Vichy forces and the Free French Gaullists – the battle was personal as his father was a senior general in the Vichy regime. During the fighting, casualties from both sides were sent to the same field hospital in Damascus and often attempted to kill each other in the wards. 

After a successful campaign in Syria, Germain saw fighting in Cairo and Libya where he was among the French troops who held off a German offensive at the Battle of Bir Hakeim for two whole weeks despite being outnumbered 10 to one. The French forces were eventually forced to flee after running out of ammunition and water. 

With the tide of the war turning in favour of the allies, Germain was sent northwards to Italy where he was wounded at the Battle of Monte Cassino in a particularly bloody advance. “As the Italians said, the poppies were redder than usual,” he recounted in later years. His bravery during the fighting won Germain an Order of the Liberation medal. 

He was not out of action for long and soon landed with the Free French in the southern city of Toulon. The atmosphere as the city was reconquered was jubilant – although Germain was disappointed to see that many of his fellow countrymen refused to join the soldiers as they pressed further towards Paris. “I fought for France, not the French,” he said after the war. 

Germain eventually reconciled with his father after the war and went on to have three children with his wife, Simone Millon. He pursued a career in politics serving as the mayor of Saint-Chéron from 1953-1965, as an MP intermittently from the late 1950s to the 1970s, and as a government minister from 1972-74. During his time as Minister for Posts and Telecommunications, he was instrumental in equipping France with the most modern telephone system in Europe. 

Germain came out as a freemason after retiring from politics created the first Grand Lodge in France. He quickly rose to the rank of grand master. 

When Germain died last month, aged 101, France lost the of its last Compagnons de la Libération – those 1,138 men and  decorated for their role in resisting Nazism. President Macron will honour his legacy with a speech at the Arc de Triomphe tomorrow morning and again at a special burial in Mont-Valérien – a site where many members of the French resistance were cruelly executed by the Nazis. 

“With his brothers in arms, he defended our freedom,” said Emmanuel Macron at an even surely after Germain’s passing. “On this day, the thousand-year-old spirit of the French resistance goes with you.”

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FRENCH HISTORY

French history myths: There is buried treasure in Rennes-le-Château

Legend has it that a penniless priest once stumbled upon gold hidden in the French countryside - a story that still inspires treasure-hunters.

French history myths: There is buried treasure in Rennes-le-Château

Myth: A penniless priest in the small town of Rennes-le-Château, south west France, discovered treasure in the late 1800s. That treasure is still hidden somewhere in the countryside. 

The story begins 1885 when Father Bérenger Saunière took over the parish of a small town in the Aude département, not far from Carcassonne, called Rennes-le-Château.

But the church, l’église Saint Mary Magdalene, that Saunière inherited was practically in ruins, so he set upon refurbishing the building – which surprised those around him who knew of his strained financial situation. According to legend, Saunière implied that he had discovered treasure and was using that to pay for the renovations. When he died, the location of the treasure supposedly died with him.

Fast forward to the years following World War II – a restauranteur and entrepeneur by the name of Noël Corbu acquired an estate in Rennes-le-Château, and along with it supposed archives from Saunière about how he had discovered the treasure of a former queen of France – Blanche of Castille (though some say it was the Treasure of the Cathars or the Knights Templar).

Corbu made it his mission to spread the story near and far, with the regional press reporting about the “priest with billions.”

Visitors came from across France to learn about the legend and try to find the treasure hidden in Rennes-le-Château – and to eat in Corbu’s restaurant and stay in his newly-opened hotel. 

So how did the priest get the money for his expensive renovations? The answer, according to a 60 Minutes special by CBS News, was “good old fashioned fraud.” The priest likely stole from donations and asked for payments for hundreds of Masses that he never actually performed. 

The Da Vinci Code series is also responsible for bringing the small town back into public eye. One of Dan Brown’s main characters is named Jacques Saunière, inspired by the priest. Brown supposedly visited the village and drew inspiration, as it had also been made famous in the book “Holy Blood, Holy Grail” that expanded on Corbu’s claims of having found hidden, secret documents belonging to the priest.

The book asserts that those documents contained proof that Jesus married Mary Magdalene and that their child went on to become the Merovingian line (a dynasty of French kings).

Historians refute these claims too, and several excavations have been conducted at the church. Though they have never unearthed anything of substance, that has not stopped eager treasure hunters from digging holes and lugging their metal detectors to the small village, seeking the truth behind the legend.

This article is part of our August series on popular myths and misconceptions about French history.

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