Author Liza Perrat uncovers an historic and very eccentric brotherhood in France when a man in a pixie hat arrived at the doorstep of her home near Lyon in the south of France…
I blinked into the early sun, at the stranger standing on my doorstep. A pointed, green hat with a precarious feather flattened his thinning hair. Clutching a bag of French pastries, his nostrils quivered longingly at my brewing coffee. Defying the rule that says you don’t let strange men wearing elf hats into your home, I invited him in for a cup.
Fetes des Classes
“Would madam like to buy a brioche?” he asked? I set a steaming mug in front of him and asked why he was selling brioches. “Raising money for the fête des classes (class party),” he said. Wondering whatever a class party was, I raised my eyebrows, prompting him to recount the tale of this curious French tradition associated with conscription.
“It started around 1850, in Villefranche–Sur-Saône, I believe,” the man said, sipping his coffee. “Two friends decided to celebrate their 20th birthdays wearing tails and opera hats. They were returning from the drawing of lots, a system of chance used to select army recruits and were such a hit that, in following years other conscripts imitated their attire. Gradually they were joined by men of all the other decades and sometimes even the 100-year-olds wobbled along with the crowd.”
“Well, the custom spread faster than a battle cry,” continued the stranger, smiling at me as I refilled his coffee cup. “On whichever bleak January morning the drawing was held, drum rolls, whistles, bugles, songs of questionable harmony and – later, car horns tooting and vehicles backfiring – pierced the foggy air. Whether they were picked for service or not, the jubilant young men would return to the town centre, acting the goat and yelling out to girls. So, you see, that’s how the conscript’s celebration, or class party, was born.”
Mr. Pixie-hat told me that this event became so important in the lives of young Frenchmen, that the city of Villefranche–Sur–Saône, north of Lyon on the highway to Paris, established the Musée De La Conscription (conscription museum), opened in January, 2000.
Musee de la Conscription
My curiosity piqued by now, I drove the 20 kilometers from my rural village to Villefranche and plunged into the origins of conscription and class parties via photos, films, songs and slogans.
“Most of these documents and pictures were provided by families from around here,” the curator proudly informed me.
Since its origin, military service has been considered a citizen’s fundamental debt. In 1688 Louis XIV saw the majority of Europe united against France and the system of ‘voluntary’ recruitment began. Abuses and complaints led to a royal decree instituting a system of lot drawing in 1692: a white note exempted a man from service, a black one signified enlistment. This system would be abolished and reintroduced several times during the 18th century until it remained intact for a hundred years from 1805 to 1905.
But why celebrate an event so linked with doom? I wondered.
“Friendship, brotherhood, solidarity!” exclaimed the museum curator, leading me into the room specially reserved for the preservation of this tradition. To the casual observer this might seem rather a pompous motto for a group of fellows who simply want to celebrate together. However, these men are united not only by year of birth, but by extreme bonds of friendship and loyalty.
Luck of the draw
While some men rejoiced at the opportunity to serve La Belle France, others resorted to mysticism to avoid the bloodbath of war. His life dependent on a lottery, the conscript was obsessed with drawing a lucky number. So developed the practice of magic, incantations, pilgrimages and talismans.
In the Beaujolais region, the conscript had to attend Mass for three Fridays before the drawing of lots. This same day, between 11 p.m. and midnight, he visited the cemetery to plead his cause to the dead. Finally, on the day of lots drawing, he wore a snake skin under his jacket lining. The spirits appeased, he was sure of drawing a lucky number.
Failing sorcery, there was another option. In 1802, a conscript not wishing to place his life in the hands of the battlefield Gods could buy a replacement. Rich families would hire a substitute at the cost of four years’ salary. What a temptation for a poor farmer! Seedy, intermediary companies flourished and a veritable human traffic developed. In 1825, attempting to eradicate this trade, the law permitted exemption from service by payment of a sum to the army.
Further irony to the enlistment debate was the Conseil de Révision , or Review Council. If a man chose a lucky, or depending on personal opinion, unlucky number, this council was the next stage in army selection. It reviewed a recruit’s aptitude to carry arms. Socio-professional, anthropological and cultural features were scrupulously noted in a register. Conscription at twenty years became progressively synonymous with sexual relations and marriage, more so than the capacity to carry arms. ‘Good For The Service’ meant ‘Good For Marriage’.
After the drawing of lots, the ‘lucky’ ones would dash off to buy rosettes to frame their triumphant number on their hat, with coloured ribbons. Green, emblem of hope, and signature color of Villefranche–Sur-Saône, was the favoured hue. The rejects, humiliated and ostracized, bore black ribbons, colour of grief and sadness. J.M. Simon’s fate is recorded in the Villefranche–Sur-Saône museum in his own words:
“I was a conscript for the class of 1891. I drew number 27, an unlucky number. Twenty five of us lined up for the review council. One comrade who had limped from birth and another poor worker with tuberculosis were immediately exonerated. My chest cage measured 97cm (36 inches), and requirements stated 98 cm so I too, was rejected. We were scorned and despised by our peers, dishonoured and excluded from festivities.”
Villefranche–Sur–Saône classes, exclusively for men, celebrate on the last weekend in January. Conscripts visit the sick and handicapped on the Friday, deriving a small lesson in humility from this brief instant given to other humans. Concepts of companionship in life and impending death and promises of loyalty to their classe are fortified and renewed.
The festivities continue on Saturday, with the supreme celebration on Sunday. In lines of six, or fewer as the older classes join ancestors in the cemetery, arms linked, the cavalry zig-zags down the Rue Nationale, arms linked, in a wave sequence. Reminiscent of the equinoctial tide, the procession was named La Vague’ (The Wave).
All are slickly coifed, armoured in tails, pristine shirts, black bow ties and opera hats streaming different coloured ribbons for each year. Armed with bouquets of yellow mimosas they bellow out traditional lyrics, defying false notes, accompanied by an artillery of trumpets, trombones and flutes and ranks of cheering family and friends.
Shiny, vintage cars swathed in flowers wear gigantic opera hats resembling steamboat funnels. The elderly are resplendent in stately, horse-drawn carriages and laughter and shouting dispel the winter gloom as the squadron regroups at the end of the main street for the feast.
Villefranche–Sur-Saône is unique for its style, organization and duration but other regions – Rhône, Ain, Isère, Vendée and Alsace – claim their share of the gateau, with festivities varying from village to village.
A committee of about 10 people from the same classe, or birth year, is formed to prepare throughout the year. “We raise money selling brioches, holding bridge and tarot card competitions, bingo and pétanque games,” a member explained. Meetings are held to decide on the costume. “We spend the money on a trip, a meal in a restaurant or a visit somewhere”.
“Sunday is party day,” another devotee recounted enthusiastically. A parade through the village preludes the party, with novel hats sporting ribbons, a feather or whatever else won the vote. Then a morning mass and the alcohol starts its steady flow with an aperitif at the town hall.
The ‘conscript’ – any 20-year-old man, now, for France no longer practices involuntary recruitment, and his family, then troop off for a gastronomic lunch that defies all conservative boundaries of the midday meal.
Mr. Elf hat told me about his last class party in our village: “The entree was mousse de foie gras en brioche (goose liver in a pastry case) and crayfish. Oh, and of course, white wine – Monbazillac. You know? Très syrupy. ”
Then the mighty appetites attacked the plat de résistance – canard aux cèpes, perfectly accompanied by a smoky Bordeaux. Cheese varieties ranging from pungent, almost liquid St. Marcellin to crumbly goat’s Crottin de Chavignol, just to finish off the wine.
Twenty-year-olds danced on tables, brandishing bottles as microphones, 70-year-olds nodded off with contented sighs and small children dashed about, intoxicated on atmosphere.
For those sober or awake enough to remain on the battlefield, steaming coffee was served while the champagne cooled for the Bal des Conscrits, ball held by some villages around 11pm Sunday evening to counterattack the banality of Monday. Finally, as daybreak hesitated between night and dawn, the weary soldiers tottered off home.
These festivities no longer mark the final celebration before departing for the uncertainty of war, yet the bonds of brotherhood are reinforced annually, uniting classes that, for a brief moment, know no racial, class or social boundaries.
A need to fulfil a citizen’s primary obligation that has ceased to exist, or just a good excuse for French gastronomy? Who knows, but as the stranger with the funny hat thanked me for the coffee and conversation. I wished him a grand celebration and he departed, pocketing my Euros in exchange for two brioches.
Author Liza Perrat grew up in Wollongong, Australia. She lives in France with her French husband whom she met on a bus in Bangkok. www.lizaperrat.com