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Belle-Île-en-Mer (Island, Morbihan, France)

Enez-ar-Gerveur

Last modified: 2008-02-03 by ivan sache
Keywords: morbihan | belle-ile-en-mer | enez-ar-gerveur | palais (le) | fleurs-de-lis: 3 (yellow) | chain (yellow) | navarre | emerald |
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[Flag of Belle-Ile]

Flag of Belle-Île-en-Mer - Image by Arnaud Leroy, Santiago Dotor & Ivan Sache, 12 August 2007


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Presentation of Belle-Île-en-Mer

The island of Belle-Île-en-Mer (in Breton, Enez-ar-Gerveur, "The Citadel Island"; 4,735 inhabitants in 1999; 8,376 ha) is the biggest (17 km x 5-10 km) of the Breton islands. Located in southern Brittany, 15 km south of the paeninsula of Quiberon, the island was already known in the XIth century under the Latin name of Bella insula, "The Beautiful Island". It should not be confused with the village of Belle-Isle-en-Terre, located in continental Brittany.
Administratively, the island is divided in the four municipalities of Le Palais (the administrative capital of the island, locally called simply Palais), Bangor, Locmaria and Sauzon.

The island was settled in the VIth century by Irish monks from the abbey of Bangor, who are recalled by the village of Bangor, located in the south of the island.
Belle-Île is the only island of the Atlantic coast of France with a significant supply of freshwater; accordingly, it was a strategic port of call for ships sailing between the Mediterranean Sea and the Channel. The citadel protecting the main port of the island, Palais, was built in 1549 by François de Rohan for King Henri II, on the remains of a medieval fort built by monks from Redon and Quimperlé; the fortress was increased by Duke Albert de Gondi in 1572 for King Charles IX. Ruined, Henri de Gondi transferred the fortress in 1658 to Superintendant Fouquet.
Everybody knows the disgrace of Fouquet, arrested in Nantes on 5 September 1761 by d'Artagnan on the order of King Louis XIV and jailed until his death in the fortress of Pignerol (today Pinerolo, in Piedmont, Italy). The cause of Louis XIV's wrath is known as the "Foolish Party" offerred to the Court by Fouquet in his castle of Vaux on 17 August 1661; the munificence of the food and the art performance was an insult to the young king, who got rid of his rival and transferred all his artists to Versailles, where they contributed to build the palace we know. Louis XIV was indeed touchy and deeply upset by the Vaux party, but he had more serious reasons to fear Fouquet. The Superintendant had set up his own army and navy and had started to buy fortresses on the coast of France, including the rock of Tomblaine in the bay of Mont-Saint-Michel and Belle-Île. Marquis of Belle-Île in 1658, Fouquet had there 50 cannons to protect the citadel and his flagship Le Grand Ecureuil (The Grand Squirrel, alluding to Fouquet's canting arms showing a squirrel, once known as foucquet, and to his motto Quo non ascendet, "Up to shall he not climb"). Therefore, Fouquet was an emerging threat for the absolute power of the king, who was not prepared to cope with another Richelieu. Anyway, Fouquet does not seem to have ever visited Belle-Île.
After the fall of Fouquet, Louis XIV sent Vauban to Belle-Île in 1683, 1687 and 1689; Vauban added a double wall and several bastions to the citadel. To celebrate the 300th anniversary of Vauban, France has required in 2007 the registration of 17 citadels designed or revamped by Vauban on the UNESCO World Heritage List. There were several attempts of Dutch and English landings on Belle-Île; during the Thirty Years' War, the English fleet landed on the sand beach of Port-An-Dro in 1761 and occupied the island, which was given back to France by the Treaty of Paris, signed in 1763. In 1766, 78 families expelled in 1755 from Acadia (Canada) by the English during the Grand Dérangement were allowed by King Louis XV to settle in Belle-Île, where they introduced the cultivation of potato.
The oldest known tourist guide on Belle-Île is Etapes d'un touriste en France - Belle-Isle-en-Mer, by Léon Trébuchet (1887), listing three hotels in Palais and a horsecar renting service. The real development of tourism on the island started only after the Second World War. In 1894, however, the actress Sarah Bernhardt purchased a decommissioned fort; it took her 12 hours by train and a few more by boat to reach her vacation house. Another famous visitor of the island was the painter Claude Monet, who painted the needle-shaped rocks known as aiguilles de Port-Coton.

Sardine fishing is an historical actvity in Belle-Île. Fouquet built a fleet of 200 small fishing boats and four coastal three-masters called chasse-marées. Salted and pressed in barrels, the sardines were shipped to continental France, Spain and the New World. In 1876, there were 233 small fishing boats registered in Belle-Île, manned by 1,209 seamen. The first canning factories, then called confiseries instead of conserveries, were created in 1850; in 1876, a dozen of factories employed 700-800 workers. In the beginning of the XXth century, ships from allover Brittany gathered in Sauzon and Palais for the sardine campaign.
Another specific product of Belle-Île is the pouce-pied (Mitella pollicipes, Pollicipes cornucopiae, Pollicipes pollicipes; lit., "thumb-foot"; English, goose barnacle), a Crustacean animal from the Class Cirripedia. The animal lives in groups forming crusts on rocks and cliffs; looking like a bird beak shaped finger, it was believed in the Middle Ages to be made of young birds emerging from a tree and living from salt water.
Barnacle fishing is allowed in Belle-Île only from 15 September to 15 January. This is a dangerous activity requiring skills and equipment in mountain-climbing; the animals are so firmly attached to the rock that a burin is needed to harvest them. Most harvested pouces-pieds are exported to Portugal and Spain where they are highly prized. The population of pouces-pieds are endangered in Brittany because of poaching.

In 1902, the Ministry of Justice purchased a farm on the island and set up an "agricultural and maritime colony", indeed a penal colony for "delinquent" children. In summer 1934, a few children escaped from the colony; a bounty of 20 francs per capita was offerred to the islanders and the tourists, who were invited to join the hunting. The poet Jacques Prévert immediatly wrote the poem Chasse à l'enfant (Pour chasser l'enfant pas besoin de permis / Tous les braves gens s'y sont mis - To hunt chidren, no need of a licence / All the good people joined), which was recorded on 20 October 1936 by Marianne Oswald on a music by Joseph Kosma. Following public pressure, the system was slightly improved and the warders were replaced by instructors. Prévert planned to make a film on the event, called L'Île des enfants perdus (1936; censored) then Les vacances de Pâques (1946). The film, starring Serge Reggiani, Anouk Aimée, Martine Carol, Arletty, Jean-Roger Caussimon and Julien Carette, was eventually started in 1947 by Marcel Carné in Belle-Île as La fleur de l'âge, but never finished because of the pressure of the penal administration. The colony, still a matter of international reprobation, was closed only in 1977.

Palais is the birth place of General Louis Jules Trochu (1815-1896), Chief of the Government of National Defense in 1870-1871. Trochu, appointed his aide de camp by General Bugeaud in 1843-1846, was opposed to Prince Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte and the Second Empire. Under the Empire, he obeyed the orders but refused the positions that would force him to serve actively the government. In 1854, during the Crimean War, he won the battle of Alma and was promoted to the rank of General of Brigade; he was injured during the siege of Sebastopol. During the Italian campaign, Trochu took part to the battles of Magenta and Solferino. Appointed General Inspector of the Army in 1866, he published the next year L'armée française en 1867, exposing the weakness of the French Army and anticipating the 1870 disaster. During the Franco-Prussian war, Trochu remained loyal to Napoléon III and advized him to withdraw to Paris. The Emperor agreed, appointed Trochu Military Governor of Paris, but the Empress convinced him to march against Metz and Sedan, where the Emperor was defeated and captured. On 18 August 1870, Trochu was appointed Commander-in-Chief of all the troops expected to defend Paris. After the proclamation of the Republic on 4 September, Trochu led the Government of National Defense. On 31 October, the people of Paris demonstrated and asked for his resignation because of his lack of action, to which he answered: Le Gouverneur de Paris ne capitulera pas (The Governor of Paris will not capitulate). He ordered the disastrous attack of Buzenval on 19 January 1871 and resigned on 22 January. Trochu was elected on 8 February 1871 at the National Assembly by 10 departments and chosed to represent Morbihan, but he retired the next year from public life. Victor Hugo gave a scathing definition of him: Trochu, participe passé du verbe Trop Choir, (Trochu, past participle of the verb "to fall too low).
[After Encyclopaedia Universalis]

Sources:

Ivan Sache, 14 April 2007


Municipal flag of Belle-Île-en-Mer

A flag of Belle-Île was reported from memory by Marin Montagnon as the banner of arms of the island - and also the banner of arms of Palais, per pale France and Navarre:
Parti : au premier d'azur aux trois fleurs de lis d'or, au second de gueules aux chaînes d'or posées en orle, en croix et en sautoir, chargées en cœur d'une émeraude au naturel.
Brian Timms confirms another report by Marin Montagnon on the erroneous use of the reverted arms (per pale Navarre and France) on a car sticker.

The flag was seen on 25 March 2007 during the start of the transatlantic yachting race Belle-Île-en-Mer - Marie-Galante, whose name alludes to a famous song by Laurent Voulzy; every ship has its own flag of Belle-Île-en-Mer, as can be seen in the photo gallery of the race (last row, middle photography).

Ivan Sache & Pascal Vagnat, 14 April 2007