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Football to food: 9 of France’s fiercest local rivalries

From football to breakfast pastries, France contains some fierce local rivalries which are mostly fought through words and gastronomy, but occasionally spill over into physical battles. Here are some of the neighbours who love to hate each other.

Football to food: 9 of France's fiercest local rivalries
Lens supporters clash with riot police during their match with Lille. Photo: FRANCOIS LO PRESTI / AFP.

The French may have a love-hate relationship with many of their close neighbours, but the greatest ire is often directed at their fellow citizens. These are some of the conflicts you should only wade into with caution.

Lille and Lens over football

Six people were injured in confrontations between supporters during the Derby du Nord opposing the Racing Club de Lens and LOSC Lille over the weekend. Lens supporters unveiled an insulting sign which spelled out “Lillois merda” (Shit Lille), before invading the pitch to confront the Lille fans, some of whom had been throwing projectiles in the opposite direction, according to La Voix du Nord.

While situated in different départements, Lens (Pas-de-Calais) and Lille (Nord) are separated by fewer than 40 kilometres, but their fierce antagonism is often portrayed as a clash of cultures – the working class town of Lens was hard hit by the closure of the region’s mines, while Lille is seen as a more middle-class, cosmopolitan city – even if that’s certainly a generalisation.

The rivalry has been stoked by the two football clubs’ differing fortunes over the years, with Lille more recently gaining the ascendancy over their rivals after Lens dominated in the 1990s.

Lyon and Saint-Etienne also over football

Saint-Etienne’s fans hold up banners reading “Death to Lyon”. Photo: PHILIPPE DESMAZES / AFP.

There are 60 kilometres separating these two towns in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region. Their rivalry may be best known for the tension between their respective football clubs but, as with Lille and Lens, the acrimony has deeper, cultural routes.

After the French revolution, Saint-Etienne began to grow and to rival its larger neighbour. This created a certain amount of jealousy, “especially as there was a symbolic element of the dirty city beating the rich city,” sociologist and writer Jean-Noël Blanc told Le Progrès.

However, inequalities continued, particularly in Saint-Etienne’s textile industry, where “lots of purchasers were from Lyon, which wasn’t particularly well received,” he added.

There’s also a very long-standing football rivalry – according to Le Progrès, one match against Lyon Olympique Villeurbanne in 1936 ended in a brawl, with the referee having to be evacuated, and a director from Lyon running off with all the money from the game so Saint-Etienne wouldn’t earn a thing.

Normandy and Brittany over Mont-Saint-Michel (and cider)

Mont-Saint-Michel is officially in Normandy. Photo: Sameer Al-DOUMY / AFP.

Not all of France’s rivalries are quite as violent as football brawls, but it would be a mistake to take them lightly. That’s the case for Brittany and Normandy, which between them account for a significant portion of France’s northern coast. And it’s a stretch of this coastline that has provided one of the key areas of contention between them. More specifically, the Mont-Saint-Michel, which has at times been a literal battleground between the two sides.

The UNESCO World Heritage Site is officially in Normandy, but Bretons also like to stake a claim to the island. The conflict came to a head in 2018, when the town’s mayor tried to erect a Breton flag alongside those of Normandy and France, but was forced to remove it following complaints.

Of course, this being France, the rivalry also plays out at the dinner table. Not only do the two populations disagree over who makes the best cider, they can’t even agree on how to drink it. While in Normandy, cider is usually served in a glass, in Brittany it comes in a traditional bolée (bowl).

South-west and everywhere else over pastries

Speaking of food and drink, French pastries have long been fodder for perhaps the fiercest debate of all: pain au chocolat or chocolatine?

It can often feel like France is split down the middle over what to call the breakfast snack, but in reality it’s mostly only people from the south-west of France who prefer the term chocolatine.

Even so, for many the word has come to represent their regional identity, and people from either side of the debate will fiercely defend their camp. One thing everybody can agree on though is that they are delicious.

Toulouse, Carcassonne and Castelnaudary over cassoulet

What we have here is a rare, three-way rivalry between these towns in south-west France. Of course, it could only be a row over food. The reason? They all claim to be home to the best cassoulet: a hearty stew containing meat and beans.

Each area has its own traditional recipe: in Castelnaudary, goose or duck is used for the meat, in Toulouse it’s sausage or mutton, and when they’re in season, restaurants in Carcassonne will add partridge.

We’re not sure how the locals have the energy for all that arguing after eating a delicious, filling cassoulet, but some have tried to bring people together. French chef Prosper Montagné once attempted to reconcile the three towns into a holy trinity of cassoulet recipes: Castelnaudary the Father, Carcassonne the Son, and Toulouse the Holy Spirit.

Special mention here to the people of Burgundy and Bordeaux, and all those who have chosen a side, for carefully maintaining similar mutual resentment over who makes the best wine.

Alsace and Lorraine over history

You might think of Alsace-Lorraine as one entity, with memories of your history teacher telling you how the historical region was returned to France from Germany in 1918 as part of the Treaty of Versailles, but, like siblings who don’t get on, it’s often people with the most in common who hate each other the most.

The animosity between these two dates back hundreds of years, perhaps to 1525, historian Bernard Vogler told France 3, when the catholic Duke of Lorraine sent his army to crush a revolt of protestant peasants, killing 30,000 Alsatians. According to Vogler, the situation was reversed during the German annexation of the region between 1871 and 1918, when the Germans gave the best jobs to protestants, leaving those in Moselle in northern Lorraine “feeling like second class citizens”.

And nowhere was François Hollande’s 2015 regional reform more firmly opposed than in this part of the country, with Alsace, Lorraine and Champagne-Ardenne merging to become the new Grand Est region. In January 2021, the départements of Bas-Rhin and Haut-Rhin merged to create the European Collectivity of Alsace, this recovering in a sense their historical region – while this is still part of the Grand Est, the move does show the enduring importance of regional identity in eastern France.

The ill feeling can also be seen on the football pitch during the “Derby de l’Est” opposing FC Metz in Lorraine and RC Strasbourg in Alsace.

Brittany and Pays de la Loire over Nantes

People demonstrate to call for the unification of Loire-Atlantique and Brittany in 2016 in Nantes. Photo: JEAN-SEBASTIEN EVRARD / AFP.

Over on the west side of the country, one département is at the heart of a conflict between two regions. Historically a part of Brittany, the Loire-Atlantique département was separated from the region during World War II by the Vichy government, and instead attached to what would in 1955 become the Pays-de-la-Loire region.

In Nantes and surrounding areas, pro-Breton voices have become increasingly loud in recent years, and in February the town council of Nantes voted in favour of organising a referendum to give locals a say over whether to rejoin Brittany.

While referendums over leaving a larger entity have proved, erm, controversial in recent years, 66 percent of those who live in Pays-de-la-Loire believe it would be legitimate for the people of Loire-Atlantique to decide their fate via a referendum, according to a survey from earlier this year.

Paris and Marseille over everything (and football)

PSG supporters hold a banner reading “It’s war!” before a match with Marseille in 2018. Photo: GEOFFROY VAN DER HASSELT / AFP.

This is perhaps the most famous rivalry in France, with football-related battles being just the tip of the iceberg.

Paris Saint-Germain and Olympique de Marseille regularly dispute “Le Classique” derby, despite being based at opposite ends of the country. As two of France’s most successful clubs they also have fans all over the country (president Emmanuel Macron is a long-term Marseille fan, despite being born in Amiens in northern France).

But the cultural battle goes much deeper – between north and south; between France’s two largest cities; between the rich capital and working-class port town; between chic Parisians and feisty Mediterraneans.

This conflict has also played out during the Covid-19 pandemic, with Marseille becoming a symbol of revolt against health measures decided upon in Paris, and controversial local microbiologist Didier Raoult establishing himself as a cult hero in the southern city.

Paris and, well, everywhere…

The culture clash between Paris and Marseille could be considered an extreme version of the relationship most of France has with the capital.

“Mistrust towards Paris is not the exception, it’s the rule, but people pay more attention to it when it happens in Marseille because it fits into their world-view,” Nicolas Maisetti, a political researcher at the Gustave Eiffel University Paris-Est, told The Local last year.

In other parts of the country, Parisians are often portrayed as cold, unfriendly snobs. This resentment was exacerbated during the Covid pandemic as many people from the capital rushed to their second homes in south-west France.

And if the rest of France hates Paris, it can often seem like the feeling is mutual.

In the 2008 Coupe de la Ligue final between PSG and Lens, the Parisian fans unfurled a banner reading, “Pédophiles, chômeurs, consanguins: bienvenue chez les Ch’tis” (Pedophiles, unemployed, inbreds: welcome to the North), in reference to the hit film Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis (Welcome to the Sticks) which had just been released.

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‘Lost’ manuscript of pro-Nazi French author published 78 years later

A book by one of France's most celebrated and controversial literary figures arrives in bookstores this week, 78 years after the manuscript disappeared

'Lost' manuscript of pro-Nazi French author published 78 years later

It is a rare thing when the story of a book’s publication is even more mysterious than the plot of the novel itself.

But that might be said of Guerre (War) by one of France’s most celebrated and controversial literary figures, Louis-Ferdinand Celine, which arrives in bookstores on Thursday, some 78 years after its manuscript disappeared.

Celine’s reputation has somehow survived the fact that he was one of France’s most eager collaborators with the Nazis.

Already a superstar thanks to his debut novel Journey to the End of the Night (1932), Celine became one of the most ardent anti-Semitic propagandists even before France’s occupation.

In June 1944, with the Allies advancing on Paris, the writer abandoned a pile of his manuscripts in his Montmartre apartment.

Celine feared rough treatment from authorities in liberated France, having spent the war carousing with the Gestapo, and giving up Jews and foreigners to the Nazi regime and publishing racist pamphlets about Jewish world conspiracies.

For decades, no one knew what happened to his papers, and he accused resistance fighters of burning them. But at some point in the 2000s, they ended up with retired journalist Jean-Pierre Thibaudat, who passed them – completely out of the blue – to Celine’s heirs last summer.

‘A miracle’
Despite the author’s history, reviews of the 150-page novel, published by Gallimard, have been unanimous in their praise.

“The end of a mystery, the discovery of a great text,” writes Le Point; a “miracle,” says Le Monde; “breathtaking,” gushes Journal du Dimanche.

Gallimard has yet to say whether the novel will be translated.

Like much of Celine’s work, Guerre is deeply autobiographical, recounting his experiences during World War I.

It opens with 20-year-old Brigadier Ferdinand finding himself miraculously alive after waking up on a Belgian battlefield, follows his treatment and hasty departure for England – all based on Celine’s real experiences.

His time across the Channel is the subject of another newly discovered novel, Londres (London), to be published this autumn.

If French reviewers seem reluctant to focus on Celine’s rampant World War II anti-Semitism, it is partly because his early writings (Guerre is thought to date from 1934) show little sign of it.

Journey to the End of the Night was a hit among progressives for its anti-war message, as well as a raw, slang-filled style that stuck two fingers up at bourgeois sensibilities.

Celine’s attitude to the Jews only revealed itself in 1937 with the publication of a pamphlet, Trifles for a Massacre, which set him on a new path of racial hatred and conspiracy-mongering.

He never back-tracked. After the war, he launched a campaign of Holocaust-denial and sought to muddy the waters around his own war-time exploits – allowing him to worm his way back into France without repercussions.

‘Divine surprise’
Many in the French literary scene seem keen to separate early and late Celine.

“These manuscripts come at the right time – they are a divine surprise – for Celine to become a writer again: the one who matters, from 1932 to 1936,” literary historian Philippe Roussin told AFP.

Other critics say the early Celine was just hiding his true feelings.

They highlight a quote that may explain the gap between his progressive novels and reactionary feelings: “Knowing what the reader wants, following fashions like a shopgirl, is the job of any writer who is very financially constrained,” Celine wrote to a friend.

Despite his descent into Nazism, he was one of the great chroniclers of the trauma of World War I and the malaise of the inter-war years.

An exhibition about the discovery of the manuscripts opens on Thursday at the Gallimard Gallery and includes the original, hand-written sheets of Guerre.

They end with a line that is typical of Celine: “I caught the war in my head. It is locked in my head.”

In the final years before his death in 1961, Celine endlessly bemoaned the loss of his manuscripts.

The exhibition has a quote from him on the wall: “They burned them, almost three manuscripts, the pest-purging vigilantes!”

This was one occasion – not the only one – where he was proved wrong.