Several French presidents have departed by train from the Gare de l'Est station in Paris, pictured here with its striking clock and facade (photo © Romasph / dreamstime.com).
President Macron’s recent pledge of support for financially troubled Air France comes, we note, with a qualifier: namely, the French national airline must trim its domestic air services where journeys can reasonably be accomplished by rail. What a great boost for SNCF!
This welcome news set us thinking about which French president of the last 100 years has been the most ardent supporter of the train. President Mitterand famously travelled by train to meet the Queen of England in the mid-point of the Channel Tunnel. That celebrated subterranean encounter took place 26 years ago today (on 6 May 1994).
Georges Pompidou was of course a great believer in high-speed rail, and he evidently had a soft spot for slower trains too. On a visit to Cameroon in 1971, President Pompidou travelled by train from Yaoundé to Batchenga.
President Sarkozy definitely favoured the plane, and the French press loved to mock his affection for the presidential jet – dubbed Air Sarko One by the media. Though his successor François Hollande preferred the train.
But the real railway aficionado among French presidents of the last century was surely Gaston Doumergue, who from 1924 served for seven years as President of the Third Republic. He was, by and large, a fairly popular president. And there was evidently nothing that Gaston liked more than a good meal on a train.
Ninety year ago today, President Doumergue set off on a tour of Algeria. With the benefit of hindsight we can see those 1930 celebrations, marking the centenary of the French settlement in Algeria, as a turning point in France’s troubled colonial relations with Algeria.
But the visiting French president and his entourage, who all set off in a special train from Algiers on 6 May 1930, were surely not intent on taking the pulse of anti-French thinking in the North African territory. They were probably far more interested in what meals they could look forward to.
On the first day, the party travelled by train from Algiers to Constantine. There was a five-course lunch, which seems quite modest compared with what was on offer for dinner. The latter, also served on the train, included a consommé, turbot, oysters, calf sweetbreads, roast turkey with truffles, artichoke hearts and much more. We’ll spare you the details.
After a day in Constantine, Gaston Doumergue continued by special train to Bône (now known as Annaba), a six-and-a-half-hour-journey on a train especially prepared by the local operator on that route: Compagnie des chemins de fer algériens de l’État (CFAE).
Naturally there was luncheon on the train, with CFAE keen to show that they could serve a meal to remember. Not a hint of Algerian fare, of course, but a groaning table of French classics, although we can reveal that the green beans were sourced from Scotland.
Of course, President Doumergue’s train trips weren’t all just fun and feasting. There was work to do too. On the journey from Constantine to Bône, there was an eight-minute scheduled stop at Oued Zenati, and then a ten-minute pause at Guelma. At each of those brief stops the respective local authorities were invited to make a short presentation highlighting what wonderful places these lineside communities were.
There was music and feasting in Bône, the musical programme kicking off with La Marseillaise of course, moving on through Bizet and Saints-Saëns and then ending rather eccentrically with Menichetti’s Chants des Boys-Scouts Français.
After a splendid week eating his way around Algeria, President Doumergue returned by ship to Marseille, from where he took an overnight train to Paris. It was a tough life being a roving president.
A curious railway anecdote is sometimes told of Gaston Doumergue. It’s a tale which has real currency in Britain, and recounts the story of President Doumergue falling from a night train and being discovered by the track in his pyjamas. It is completely false, yet 100 years ago this month just such a mishap really did befall another French president.
Paul Deschanel served a brief and rather troubled seven-month term as President of France. On the evening of 23 May 1920, President Deschanel boarded an overnight train at the Gare de Lyon in Paris. The president was bound for Montbrison (in the Forez region) where he was due next day to unveil a war memorial. Not long into the journey, and little more than 100 km from Paris, Paul Deschanel found himself troubled by the heat in the presidential carriage. Keen to secure some ventilation, he opened a large window and leaned out. Somehow, he fell from the train, but fortunately the train was travelling very slowly at the time.
The defenestration of the president went at first unnoticed on the train, which trundled south through the night. It was only seven hours later, when the train stopped at Roanne, that the absence of the train’s principal guest was noted. Meanwhile the hapless Monsieur Deschanel had the good luck to chance upon a railwayman charged with looking after a level crossing near Montargis. The railway worker was surprised to encounter a Frenchman in pyjamas who claimed to be the French President.
Thereafter French officials were very mindful of the hazards that might befall their eccentric president. By September, Paul Deschanel had resigned due to mental health issues.