A future president of the republic in a den of atheistic socialists

Valéry René Marie Georges Giscard d’Estaing, Montréal, Québec. Pierre Gascon, “Montréal – Actualités : Croquis et instantanés.” Photo-Journal, 16 December 1948, 7.

I salute you, my reading friend. If you do not mind, I would like to offer you a relatively brief topic this week. We are indeed busy at this time of the year. Our subject for this week touches upon a field of activity which concerns the august institution for which I have the honour and the privilege of working. This being said (typed?), yours truly did not use the immeasurable resources of the library of the Canada Aviation and Space Museum in Ottawa, Ontario. Anxious to broaden the horizons of our blog / bulletin / thingee, I found the picture that illustrates my point in the 16 December 1948 issue of a now gone Montréal, Québec, weekly, Photo-Journal.

Our story began in 1948 when a young man aged 22 who had just completed his studies at the École polytechnique, in Paris, arrived in North America. Before embarking on further studies at the brand new École nationale d’administration, in Paris, this Frenchman wanted to visit a region of the world that particularly interested him. Having spent some time in the United States, he came to Canada. Our young friend found a temporary job in Outremont, a suburb of Montréal: he taught French and / or history for a trimester (?) at the Collège Stanislas. This well-known Catholic private educational institution offering primary and secondary education was a subsidiary of the Collège Stanislas, a renowned private Catholic educational institution in Paris. These two establishments still existed as of 2018.

For one reason or other, the premier of Québec between 1944 and 1959, the very (overly?) conservative Maurice Le Noblet Duplessis, did not like Montréal’s Collège Stanislas. According to him, it was a den of atheistic socialists – a simplistic commentary, but all in all typical of this character. Our young French friend, for example, did not have the shadow of a socialist red blood cell in his veins or arteries.

Passionate about aviation as you are, my reading friend, yes, yes, you are, assume your passion. Passionate about aviation as you are, say I, your humble servant is pleased to inform you that a group of scouts came into being at the Collège Stanislas in April 1939. This Groupe Stanislas, today’s 55ème Guynemer d’Outremont, borrowed both the colors and model of its scarf from the group of scouts of the Collège Stanislas of Paris. These 2 groups still existed as of 2018. You know just like me that Georges Marie Ludovic Jules Guynemer was one of the most famous fighter pilots of the First World War.

At one time, the 55ème Guynemer d’Outremont had among its members a future economist, senior civil servant, professor, politician and premier of Québec. Jacques Parizeau was for a long time one of the most influential members of the political party led at one time by René Lévesque, a character mentioned in September and November 2018 issues of our blog / bulletin / thingee.

Do you remember the name of the young visitor from sweet France who is at the heart of this article? Have not you read and memorized the caption of the photo above? Sigh. Our young visitor was none other than Valéry René Marie Georges “VGE” Giscard d’Estaing, and ... What is it? You do not know who this person is? Seriously?! Know that Giscard d’Estaing was president of France between 1974 and 1981. Defender of an advanced liberal society project, he passed various measures in this direction: lowering the age of electoral and civil majority, decriminalizing of abortion, ending the guardianship of public television, etc. Aware of the importance of high technology for the French economy, Giscard d’Estaing developed a high-speed train project, the famous Train à grande vitesse, or TGV, which was very good, and revived the nuclear industry, which was not necessarily as good.

As interesting as a visit to North America might be for this veteran of the Second World War, you will understand that yours truly does not want to talk tourism today. Sorry. Our blog / bulletin / thingee being an indispensable source of multidisciplinary and holistic knowledge for its multitude of readers, a good dozen according to the latest news, I wish to bring to your attention the half-dozen lectures on astronomy pronounced by Giscard d’Estaing in Montréal in December 1948. These were jointly offered by the Association canadienne-française pour l’avancement des sciences (ACFAS), today’s Association francophone pour le savoir, and the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada.

What was ACFAS, you ask, my eager for knowledge reading friend? Well, it was / is a non-profit organization whose mission was / is to promote scientific activity, stimulate research and disseminate knowledge in French. Despite its name, ACFAS was / is interested in all areas of research, from sociology to physics. It came into being in 1923 in Montréal. And yes, my insightful reading friend, it was professors from the Université de Montréal who launched this organization that played a crucial role in the history of the French Canadian / Québec scientific community. And yes again, this university was mentioned in July and November 2018 issues of our blog / bulletin / thingee. Dare we say “and yes” a third time? And yes, a character mentioned in a July 2018 issue of our blog / bulletin / thingee, Brother Hormisdas-Marie Gamelin, took part in at least one annual conference of ACFAS. Your very natural curiosity concerning this organisation being satisfied, let us return to the subject which concerns us.

A review of the daily and weekly newspapers of the time unfortunately revealed little about the content of the lectures given by Giscard d’Estaing. A comment reported by the author of the article from which the photo of the latter comes from, however, nonetheless deserves to be noted. According to Giscard d’Estaing, and I quote, “we must not put too much faith in the popular belief that the ancients were well versed in the branch of science” that is astronomy. In fact, various research projects carried out all over the world over the last decades revealed that some ancient peoples were very well versed in the branch of science that is astronomy. One only has to think about the Mayan calendar, the Chinese chronicles or the Antikithera mechanism to be so convinced.

What was / is the Antikithera mechanism, you ask, my reading friend? Nothing less than the first human-made analog calculator whose existence can be confirmed. Completed at least 2 100 years ago, by Greek craftsmen, this bronze device of great complexity made it possible to predict the positions of the bodies of the solar system (Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn) and the dates of solar and lunar eclipses, and this decades in advance. The remains of the Antikithera mechanism were discovered in 1901, in the wreckage of a Roman galley that sank near the island of Antikithera, near the island of Crete, an autonomous state within the Empire Ottoman, but I digress, carried away by the enthusiasm I feel for this absolutely unique technical gem.

If I may be permitted to make a suggestion, the Canada Science and Technology Museum, a sister / brother institution of the Canada Aviation and Space Museum, could / should consider the possibility of creating a temporary or traveling exhibition on the astronomy of ancient and indigenous peoples around the world. Just sayin’. A section of said exhibition could / should examine the claims, unfounded according to yours truly, that the accuracy of calendars and alignments of buildings, as well as the existence of certain enigmatic objects, such as the Antikithera mechanism and the Saqqara bird / glider, made long ago, prove that extraterrestrial intelligences have visited / visit the Earth. In fact, I wonder if a temporary or traveling exhibition on the non-presence of these extraterrestrial intelligences on our planet would not be a better idea.

Wait a minute, now that I think about it, it is the Canada Aviation and Space Museum that should be doing such exhibitions which are fully relevant to its fields of activity, but I’m again moving away from the subject of this week. My apologies and ... You seem yet again perplexed, my reading friend. What are you saying? You have never heard of the Fortean object that is the Saqqara bird? Oh joy, you offer me another new opportunity to pontificate! Sorry. Enthusiasm overwhelms me, which gives me the opportunity to remind you that the term fortean was mentioned in an October 2018 issue of our blog / bulletin / thingee.

Discovered in 1898, in Saqqara, Egypt, during the excavation (desecration?) of a tomb, the Saqqara bird is a 2 200 year old wooden statuette that reproduced the shape of a falcon in flight. An Egyptian aviation enthusiast described in various ways (archaeologist, architect, egyptologist, model maker, parapsychologist, physician, university professor and radiesthesist) accidentally came across it in 1969 while examining models of birds in a box. Fascinated by the aerodynamic shape of the statuette, he came to believe that the Saqqara bird proved that the basic principles of the flight were known in Egypt, about 2 000 years before the work of Sir George Cayley, the British gentleman that many consider to be the father of aeronautics. A commission of inquiry set up by the Egyptian government came to a similar conclusion around 1971. The Saqqara bird was placed on display for several years. Over the years, many articles, books and websites talked about this fascinating object.

As one might expect, all of these claims raised controversy. In fact, the Saqqara bird remained very controversial as of 2018. Flight tests with replicas of varied size of the statuette did not break the deadlock. Academic circles put forward various hypotheses to explain the function of the Saqqara bird. It might be a ritual object, a wind vane or a toy. There being no text mentioning this statuette, we can only speculate, but back to our story.

The first of the lectures given by Giscard d’Estaing was entitled Univers 1948. It was held on Thursday, 2 December, in the large amphitheatre of the École polytechnique de Montréal, an institution associated with the Université de Montréal with no direct link to its Parisian namesake. The other 5 conferences were presented in Université de Montréal spaces:

on Tuesday, 7 December        La mécanique du monde solaire,

on Friday, 10 December         La physique du monde solaire,

on Tuesday, 14 December      Connaissance des étoiles,

on Wednesday, 15 December Les étoiles variables et les sources d’énergie stellaire, et

on Friday, 17 December         L’évolution de l’univers

If I may paraphrase an article published at the time, the public, students and graduates of the École Polytechnique de Montréal were cordially invited. And yes, you are right, my reading friend, many people celebrated, on 17 December 1948, the 45th anniversary of the first controlled and sustained flight of a powered airplane, made by Orville and Wilbur Wright, two Americans repeatedly mentioned in our blog / bulletin / thingee.

Uh, in fact, I must admit I do not have much to add about the stay in Québec of a future president of the French republic, except that Giscard d’Estaing apparently wanted to participate in radio programs of the Société Radio-Canada, a state broadcaster mentioned in a November 2018 issue of our blog / bulletin / thingee. He may even have submitted a project that went nowhere.

Giscard d’Estaing left the Collège Stanislas, Montréal, Québec, Canada, and North America at the end of December 1948. He began his studies at the École nationale d’administration in January 1949, after a 4-month absence. Giscard d’Estaing’s stay in Quebec left few traces. He did not mention it in his memoirs, for example.

This being said (typed?), Giscard d’Estaing was / is one of the characters in a novel by the famous Quebec novelist, playwright and screenwriter Michel Tremblay that took place around 1948. Published in 1982, La duchesse et le roturier, third volume of the Chroniques du Plateau Mont-Royal, also mentioned the French singer Tino Rossi, born Constantin Rossi. If the latter was described as being a sympathetic Frenchman beloved by the small Quebec people, Giscard d’Estaing represented an intimidating and much less appreciated Frenchman. The future president of the republic described by Tremblay nonetheless seemed yet to like comedy shows. He went to the Théâtre National, for example. Giscard d’Estaing was so impressed by the talent of the female owner of the establishment that he went behind the scenes to congratulate her. Unable to believe that this Frenchman from a good family was really named Valery, the queen of Québec burlesque thought he wanted to mock her and told him to get lost.

If I may be permitted a clarification, Québec burlesque was composed of songs, improvised sketches and humorous monologues. There was no stripping. The comedians often spoke “joual,” the popular French spoken in the Montréal area. The Catholic clergy and the secular elite of Québec did not like burlesque, which they considered too vulgar. More or less consciously, they may have realised that this form of entertainment had a social, even subversive side. Indeed, some female performers, including the aforementioned queen of burlesque, embodied spouses who did not hesitate to challenge male authority and / or get even with their unfaithful husband.

In fact, and what follows is no joke, the meeting between Giscard d’Estaing and Marie Rose Alma Nélida Ouellette, a comedian and humorist better known as “La Poune,” ended rather well. Better yet, they seemingly exchanged letters for a while. Would you believe that, in a meeting with the Québec premier, Robert Bourassa, in Paris, in December 1974, Giscard d’Estaing, then president of the republic, left his visitor speechless when he asked him how “La Poune” was?

And that’s it for today. Yes, yes, that’s really it. A good week to you, and a happy new year.

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Rénald Fortier