A Solemn and Colorful Ceremony in Grasse

Getting to know the inner streets of Grasse is a wintry diversion that includes leisurely strolls along quiet pedestrian walkways that are normally bustling with tourists and locals when the weather is warm. The relaxed pace allows time to appreciate the contrasts between the colorfully renovated buildings housing shops and apartment dwellers, on the one hand, and the crumbling and dilapidated vacant structures along narrow cobblestone pathways, on the other. An empty storefront has posted declarations from a group calling itself “l ’Alternative”, lamenting the high vacancy rate (40 per cent) and neglect for a healthy environment in the town, especially where there is also a housing shortage. But then, turning the corner, one sees other posters announcing sporting events in the coming months, along with the thematic promotion for this year’s traditional Grasse rose festival in May – all oriented to a thriving, revitalized Grasse!
It seems that the current Mayor of Grasse, Jerome Viaud, is trying diligently to elevate the image of this ancient perfume capital of the world. On a chilly grey morning, we came across yet another display of this revitalized pageantry in the square in front of the cathedral and hotel de ville (i.e. city hall).

There he was, this youthful Mayor Viaud, standing with a largish crowd to participate in the formalities of laying large wreaths with red, white and blue flowers in front of the war memorial in that square. His duties were shared by several other dignitaries, while the square was further populated by uniformed rows of the gendarmerie standing at attention, a small band and a few curious onlookers. It was quite a spectacle!

At first, it appeared to be a ceremony to honor the lives of the military lost in wartime, but that seemed rather strange for a Friday in February. We had seen a similar ceremony nearby in Peymeinade in August, just as colorful as this one but with the purpose of honoring the American, British and Canadian lives lost in the Dragoon invasion to free the French Riviera from the Germans in August 1945. This date, which fits in with our knowledge of World War II, was our first encounter with Mayor Viaud – as well as the Gérard Delhomez, Mayor of Peymeinade and other dignitaries that we are starting to learn about. (There is a photo display of this event at www.villandio.net but also an earlier Musing here.) The small World War II memorial on the traffic circle there was festooned with large flags from all three – US, UK and Canada – plus a generous proportion of French ones, including large ceremonial ones carried by elderly men in World War II uniforms – as various officials pontificated on the history of the liberation back in 1945.

So what wartime event happened in February? Well, it turns out that the ceremony in Grasse was not exactly in honor of sacrifices from any particular wartime event. Rather, it was honoring the members who had lost their lives in their service to the National Gendarmerie. As we found out later in an Internet search, the name itself of the Gendarmerie derives from the “Law of 16 February 1791” when the “Maréchausée”, the previously named military and policing forces of the king were renamed the “gendarmerie nationale”. Remember the French Revolution? Suffice it to say here that this National Gendarmerie continues to have a combination of military and policing functions, primarily in the rural areas of France. We’ll try to learn more about this when we get around to reviewing how the French are handling security matters. Meanwhile, though, we are assuming that the “Law of 16 February 1791” is the origin of the date for the Grasse ceremony that we witnessed on Friday.

It was indeed a colorful ceremony – mostly the French tricolor flags in abundance (no US, UK or Canadian ones this time), but also the flags of Grasse and the same set of large ceremonial flags as we had seen in the Peymeinade ceremony. In addition to the laying of several wreaths, the ceremony involved a few speeches but mostly a reading of the names of those lost in public service and the dates of their demise. We heard mention of both historical and recent dates. It was a solemn occasion, and the small band played the Marseillaise and other patriotic numbers to reinforce the solemnity.

But also, we detected, it was an occasion for the political mingling that keeps a democracy alive. We were happy to be there and to learn more from this experience about the cultural traditions of this community. We conclude this musing with the observation that the main photo of this ceremony (see above) also contains (in the immediate background) one of the most dilapidated buildings that symbolize the challenging mix of progress and decay that this community is facing.

Meanwhile, cheering up the wintry streets in February and looking forward to springtime in Grasse, here are posters for the Duathlon in April (downloaded from the website of the Triathlon du Pays Grassois club here) and the “Flower Power” ExpoRose in May (downloaded from the ExpoRose Facebook page here).

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