The idea that there is a divorce between sport and politics has always been a convenient fiction. Not only are there the state sponsored extravaganzas of the kind happening in China at the moment, but sport can also embody the drama of profound social conflicts. That is why good histories of sport deserve a place in our understanding of social history. And what I have been reading is a very good one indeed.
I threw Mike Rylance's superbly written, though sadly out-of-print, account of the early years of French Rugby League, The Forbidden Game, into my suitcase at the last minute and I am glad that I did. My action was prompted by a post by Norm, sparking a little debate between us, about an Australian journalist's proposal for the re-unification of Union with League. Rylance grippingly documents just such a move.
French Rugby League emerged later than it did in England, New Zealand and Australia. It was a response to the shambolic state of French Rugby Union in the 1930's. As a result of poor standards, negative and foul play, as well as the levels of violence both on and off the pitch, France was already vulnerable before the English Union decided to pick up on the obviously bogus nature of their amateurism and ban France from international rugby with the Home Nations. They were reduced to an annual match with the even weaker Germany.
The struggle between professional and amateur status embodied much more than sport, it was a class conflict, part of an attempt to protect the elite and to maintain a public school ethic. Those who needed payment to play to any standard were looked down on by those of independent means. It infected a huge range of sports; athletics, tennis, and the cricketing divide between 'gentlemen' and 'players' are just some examples. Unsurprisingly, the amateur establishment tended to be associated with the political right.
Of course, amateurism, especially in Rugby Union, was a farce, with covert payment widespread. This reality did not impinge on ideology and class hatred, especially when Rugby League was formed on the basis that compensation for lost working time could be openly paid to working class players. Although the sport evolved through radical rule changes into a different game, Rugby Union persisted in calling it the professional version of Rugby and launched what became its own 100 years war against League.
Ironically, Union opposition to professionalism only succeeded in founding French Rugby League. By forcing the French to take action against players deemed guilty of professionalism, some, led by the formidable Catalan Jean Galia, decided to turn to League. After a tour of England by the 'pioneers' and some successful exhibition games, League took off in France in 1934. Now Union really had something to worry about as League proved a huge success. Players willingly converted to the game, often being paid less in the process, in order to be able to display their skills in a faster, more open sport, to be paid honestly and to play internationals at the highest level. By 1939 a touring League team became the first French Rugby side of either code to defeat England on English soil at St Helens. Their skill and flair were rapturously applauded by the English crowd. The contrast with the dourness of Union was obvious and, at that moment of triumph, it seemed that League was about to replace Union in popular affections.
Union reacted with alarm and the English forgot their sensitivities about professionalism and offered to reinstate international fixtures on the condition that France abandoned its club championship. It was at this point that the War intervened with the defeat and occupation of France by the Nazis. The ultra-conservative collaborationist Vichy government was set up under Marshall Pètain and a department to oversee the development of sport was handed to the tennis player Jean Borotra, who blamed the defeat of France partly on the decline of the amateur spirit. The phasing out of professionalism was announced.
League responded simply by announcing that they would continue to play as amateurs. After all, of the around 200 Rugby League clubs in France only 14 were professional and they were all part-time. They had reckoned without the machinations of the Union elite amongst the collaborationists, notably by a former Union player, Colonel Pascot. Whereas Borotra moved later towards the resistance, Pascot remained loyal to Vichy and the Nazi occupation. He engineered an astonishing coup, the reunification of League and Union under the Rugby Union. On 19th December 1941, Pètain signed a decree dissolving the French Rugby League and confiscating their entire assets. Professional and amateur clubs were forced to revert to Union and then, in the words of its President, Dr Ginesty, players' "moral and technical re-education would take place". What of League's property? Their accounts and papers conveniently disappeared, however, according to René Verdier, "They (Union) took the lot. Even our kit". Playing Rugby League, even as an amateur, became an offence.
After the War, despite Rugby League's status as a sport-résistant, there was no restitution of the stolen property, not even an apology. Union persecution continued and League was prevented from using the name Rugby until 1993, being simply called jeu à treize. The disgraceful treatment of League and its players by Union under the guise of anti-professionalism is now over. A revival is taking place in France with Catalan Dragons doing well in Super League and there is an invitation for another French side to join the National Leagues next season. However, Union has never atoned for its behaviour and this sporting scandal remains widely unacknowledged.
It is all history now. Union's eventual move to open professionalism saw to that. However, Rylance concludes his book by a plea not to forget the past, "in the best democratic interests, we have a duty to remember". This incident is part of a history of class and regional conflict, of the elites against popular culture. It is a microcosm of the struggles of European societies to emancipate themselves from the grips of an old establishment. That emancipation is partial at best and so, when I read that article about reunification, I remembered that there is an historical precedent. And it wasn't an imperialist plot Norm, it was a fascist one.