Sometimes I’ll hear about a little piece of history that sticks with me, especially if there is some personal connection. I have no plans to do anything with it, but still it takes up space in my brain. I heard about this bit of history when I was visiting a friend in the French Alps town of Chambery.
There is a bronze statue in Chambery which is officially titled La Savoyarde, a symbol of regional pride in the Savoy region of France. It was installed in 1892 and was almost immediately nicknamed La Sasson, which apparently translates as “fat woman” or “chubby”. If only they had put her next to Chambery’s more famous Fountain of Elephants statue, it may have been slimming and maybe they wouldn’t have judged her so harshly.
La Sasson was created by sculptor Alexandre Falguiere and installed in 1892 to mark the centenary of the annexation of the duchy of Savoy by France in 1792, during the French Revolution. The statue depicts a peasant woman holding the tricolor French flag.
I’ll give you a little background for what happened next to La Sasson. Keep in mind that what I am telling you about World War II in a couple of paragraphs is much more complex and has filled countless books and articles. But this is just the little story of one statue.
In 1939 Hitler’s Germany invaded Poland, causing the French to declare war. The French were quickly defeated and in 1940 agreed to an armistice. The terms of that armistice meant that Germany occupied the northern part of France, leaving the southern area as a free zone governed by the Vichy France government. By 1942, all of France was occupied by Germany and the Vichy government was only nominally in control. Again, if you are interested in more detail about how the Vichy and the Germans worked together, a compelling bit of history and human psychology, there are countless resources available.
What I need you to know for now is that the Germans needed copper to manufacture armaments and they wanted to French to help them. So in 1941 the Vichy government decreed that they needed bronze statues from around the country to melt down for the copper content. I was a little amused to read that certain statues were exempt from this decree, among them Joan of Arc and Napoleon.
Local governments were tasked with forming committees to decide which statues to sacrifice. If you’ve ever attended a committee meeting, you can imagine these meetings were filled with politically and ideologically motivated discussions. The committees were also tasked to consider artistic value, regional symbolism, the amount of metal and the ease of destruction of the statues. The Fountain of Elephants statue got a pass because it was made mostly of iron.
But La Sasson didn’t make the cut. She was dismantled in 1942 by French workers, leaving behind an empty pedestal. As a form of protest against the idea of the Vichy government, people would place flowers on the empty pedestal and sing “La Marseillaise”, the French national anthem. There was talk of replacing La Sasson, possibly in stone, possibly with a new design, but the years immediately after the war were hard times. Finding food and rebuilding homes was more important than symbols and statues.
Then in 1950, La Sasson was discovered in Hamburg, Germany. She had been decapitated. She was returned to Chambery, but was stored in a municipal depot for a couple of decades. In the 1970s, a plan to restore and replace her on her pedestal was finally approved. La Sasson was refurbished, including a newly sculpted head, and was reinstalled on her pedestal in 1982.
This is only one of 1500-1700 statues that were removed from France to be “recycled”. If you’re interested in more statue stories, please check out “Bronzes to Bullets: Vichy and the Destruction of French Public Statuary, 1941-1944” by Kirrily Freeman, who seems to be the expert on this topic.