Marshal Philippe Pétain, head of state of the collaborationist French government in Vichy, issued a decree on the morning of 19 December 1941 that was unique in the history of world sport.
With a stroke of his pen, he announced that the sport of rugby league, or le rugby à treize as it is known in France, was banned. Its playing was to cease, its offices closed and its assets confiscated by the government. Overnight, a sport with thousands of players and hundreds of clubs was wiped out.
Why did Vichy France ban rugby league?
The cause of this extraordinary decree lay in the sporting and social upheavals that gripped France in the 1930s, but its origins can be traced back to the origins of French rugby in the late 19th century. Rugby had deep roots in France. Taken up by Anglophile middle-class young men in the 1880s, it rapidly became popular among the French elite. The first French club, Racing Club de France, was formed in Paris in 1882. Baron de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympics, was a strong supporter of the game and its amateur ethos. He refereed the first French rugby championship final in 1892. By the early 1900s, the game had begun to spread around the small towns and villages of southern France, attracting working-class players and spectators.
After the First World War, rugby’s popularity meant that it became the focus for intense local rivalries. The French championship became dominated by small town clubs, such as Quillan in the foothills of the Pyrenees. Bankrolled by local “notables”, these clubs ignored the game’s amateur rules in the rush to sign the best players. As the competition between clubs grew fiercer, so did the way the game was played. In southern France, the sport became known as “rugby de muerte”, because of the violence that was commonplace in championship matches.
The French Rugby Federation (FFR) appeared powerless to stop either payments to players off the field or the violence on it. Across the channel, British rugby unions felt that the French had become such a problem that in 1931, following a brutal match with Wales in Swansea, France was expelled from the Five Nations international championship. To make matters worse, in early 1934 French international forward Jean Galia announced that he was going to lead a breakaway from the FFR and start the rival sport of rugby league in France.
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Rugby league had begun in England in 1895 when the majority of the northern clubs broke away from the Rugby Football Union because of its refusal to allow working men compensation for taking time off work to play the game. The rules were also changed to make the game faster, such as by reducing the number of players to 13, and the sport became an emblematic part of northern working class culture.
France in 1934 was in the midst of a social upheaval that would result in the 1936 election of a “Popular Front” government supported by communists, socialists and liberals. Traditional France seemed to be under threat and “neo-rugby” became identified with the progressive spirit of the times. Popular Front minister Leo Lagrange attended the first international rugby league match between England and France, and teams with names like Treize Populaire Parisien were formed. Rugby league grew rapidly from nothing to 225 clubs in little more than four years.
But the collapse of France in June 1940 following the Nazi invasion changed everything. The Vichy Government under Marshal Pétain pursued a policy of “Travail, Famille, Patrie” (work, family and fatherland) that reasserted right-wing France’s traditional values. One of those values was a belief in amateur sport. Consequently, the new regime declared its intention to ban all professional sport.
French rugby league was no more than semi-professional even at the highest level but this fact, coupled with the game’s progressive reputation, was enough to damn it in the eyes of Vichy. In theory, the ban extended to soccer, but the round-ball game continued while league was outlawed.
The minister for family and youth, Jean Ybarnégaray, was unequivocal. “The fate of rugby league is clear. Its life is over and it will quite simply be deleted from French sport,” he declared in August 1940.
In October, following a report into the state of rugby by the president of the FFR, who called on the “Treizistes” to repent and rejoin the union, Vichy declared its intention to ban the league game. Its “deletion” was directed by commander Joseph Pascot, Vichy’s director of sport and a French international rugby union player in the 1920s. Pétain’s decree of December 1941 was simply the announcement of an accomplished fact.
But the ultimate responsibility for the ban lay in more famous hands. Jean Borotra, the “Bounding Basque” who won five grand slam tennis titles in the 1920s, including two Wimbledon championships, became Pétain’s Commissioner for General Education and Sports in July 1940. He oversaw its sports policies until he fled Vichy in 1942. Interviewed in the 1990s, Borotra admitted his guilt about the ban. “Pascot couldn’t have done that without my authority,” he told English writer Mike Rylance.
Although it revived after the war, French rugby league never recovered from the blows it received under Vichy. Its assets were never restored and until the 1980s it was forbidden to use the word “rugby” in its name.
A 2002 French government report into sport under Vichy described the campaign against league as “merciless” in which rugby union officials “endeavoured to eliminate the rival code”.
This article was first published in the September 2007 issue of BBC History Magazine