Monday, December 14, 2009

Narbonne Footnote

It occurred to me a few days after posting that account of my day-trip to Narbonne that I'd mis-stated something. I said that Narbonne was all about its Roman history, but not so much about what came later. That was my personal disappointment at the lack of post-Roman stuff to see, but it's not quite true. On my way to the market, I saw several brown signs that said "1907 -- it's our history!" and, after reading a couple, which always had contemporary photos or drawings based on photos of the location of the sign in 1907, I realized that this was the city where the main wine riots happened; I'd just forgotten the dates.

What happened was fairly simple: growers who'd been ravaged by phylloxera, the tiny insect that wiped out most of European wine production at the end of the 19th century, were at last back on their feet, only to find that the market for wine had been undercut by crappy Algerian stuff and by absinthe, which was deemed to be addictive over and above its potential for causing alcoholism. This was bad news in the Languedoc-Roussillon area, because wine was, basically, all there was here. Huge quantities of wine were produced, because (pre-phylloxera) the railroads could get it to anywhere else in France. No great vintages, just honest red plonk.

But now that they were producing again, they had a major problem in cheap wine from other regions which had been treated with sugar, a substance which was getting cheaper as France's colonies produced more and more of it. The bottom fell out of the market, wine sat in warehouses unsold, and what did sell sold for so little that the farmers reasoned they were doomed.

On March 24, 1907, 300 people, mostly wine-producers, marched on Montpellier. On June 9, the crowd was so huge that it was estimated at between 600,000 and 800,000 people, or around ten times the population of Montpeller. The nominal head of the movement was a 56-year-old café proprietor and wine grower named Marcelin Albert, although it quickly outgrew him. 300 mayors and city councils in the area resigned, and to prevent anarchy, the central government in Paris dispatched the army to Languedoc. On June 19, the troops got to Narbonne, where the protestors had set the local government building on fire, and shot into a crowd, killing one person. The mayor was arrested and the next day, the policeman who'd arrested him was stripped naked and thrown into the canal. The mayor was then whisked away to an undisclosed location. The crowd was getting uglier, heading towards the town hall, and the soldiers, whose officers were eating lunch, panicked and shot into the crowd, killing five more people, most of whom weren't even demonstrating.

It got crazier: the town hall in Perpignan was burnt to the ground. An entire regiment in Agde mutinied, and 500 of them headed to Béziers to join the protesters. In the middle of all of this, Marcelin Albert, France's most wanted man, showed up in Paris demanding to talk to the prime minister, Georges Clémenceau. No verifiable record exists of their meeting, and Clémenceau, after loaning Albert 100 francs to take a train back home, announced that Albert had broken down in tears and begged for a solution. Albert denied this, but the 100 francs was harder to explain away.

Things more or less dissolved after this, but the good news was that the government became aware of the dimensions of the problem, raised the tax on sugar, and began a process which would end in the 1930s with the adoption of the AOC , appelation d'origine controllée, which applies strict standards to how you can label a wine. Too strict, some people think, but that's a different matter.

Today, there's a new radicalism in the winegrowing areas of France, particularly here in the Languedoc, as an organization calling itself CRAV has gone around bombing and terrorizing shops which sell non-French wines or which import foreign wines or, in one case, a vineyard which exported loads of decent wine to England, which makes no sense. They invoke the spirit of '07, but that's wishful thinking. Languedoc winemakers are, however, under orders from Brussels to pull up more vines, and that's contributing to the bad mood.

Anyway, there's a picture of one of the brown signs here (second article on the page), and I apologize to any Narbonnaises whom I may have angered by forgetting about their courageous stand against The Man (or L'Homme) in 1907.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the history notes. I'm a wine drinker but I'd all but forgotten about the phylloxera epidemic. I knew nothing about the subsequent riots, and the rise of absinthe makes a lot of sense in context.


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