Some signs are unmistakable. Within the Olympic movement, only a handful of international federations have retained a French-speaking name. The International Fencing Federation (FIE) is one of them. It is one of the last federations to remain faithful to a culture and tradition that dates back to the beginning of the last century.
The creation of the Alliance francophone d’escrime (AFE), whose launch is planned on the occasion of a seminar organised over the next three days in Paris (10 to 12 March), is therefore a matter of course. Fencing and the French-speaking world have long been moving forward at the same pace. The FIE was created in Paris, in November 1913, in the premises of the Automobile Club de France. A century later, the French capital hosted the celebrations of its 100th anniversary. The first edition of the world championships was also held in Paris in 1921.
Historians are certain that the first fencing tournament was held in France on 15 January 1893. Three centuries earlier, France had already seen the birth of the Academy of Masters of Arms, on a day in 1567, and then in the wake of this, the French school of fencing.
Another peculiarity of fencing is that fencing engagements in international competitions are conducted in French. “En garde! Prêts ? Allez.” A matter of tradition. A form of evidence, never contested, extended over time as a tribute to the past. The explanation lies in two names: Chasseloup-Laubat and Camille Prévost. The first was a marquis, the second a commoner. Together, the two Frenchmen wrote the first official fencing regulations.
For a long time, this was followed by the same path. Of the first six presidents of the FIE, five were from French-speaking countries. The Belgian Albert Feyerick was the first (1913-1921). He was succeeded by the Frenchman André Maginot (1921-1924). The only French-speaking intruder at the head of the body for four decades, until the mid-1950s, was the Dutchman Georges van Rossem (1925-1928).
In more than a century of existence, the FIE has had only three presidents who served for at least 15 years. They were all from French-speaking countries: one Belgian, Paul Anspach (1933-1948); two French, Pierre Ferri (1957-1960, then 1965-1980), and René Roch (1993-2008).
The French influence did not only weigh in the meetings of the international body. A handful of masters of arms with a golden record have also made their contribution. Two of the most illustrious examples: Christian Bauer and Daniel Levavasseur. The former has taken his kit all over the world: to Italy for the 2004 Athens Games, to China before the 2008 Beijing Games, then to Russia to train sabreurs. Daniel Levavasseur, known for having accompanied Laura Flessel’s career for a time, took charge of Chinese women’s fencing, leading it to the podium at the Rio 2016 Games.
So fencing has always been French-speaking. But times are changing. The arrival of the Russian Alisher Usmanov as president of the FIE, elected for the first time in 2008 and re-elected three times, has helped to reverse the course of history. Of course, the international body has kept its name in French. But its initials are now added to the name of the International Fencing Federation. A sign.
The website of the body is available in three versions, English, French and Spanish. But some press releases are only available in English, in defiance of the rule that French is the official language.
Above all, the French-speaking community is still struggling to make its presence felt in the decision-making bodies. Only two French speakers currently sit on the FIE’s executive committee, the Frenchman Bruno Garès, president of the French federation (FFE), and the Senegalese Mbagnick Ndiaye, president of the African confederation.
The creation of the Alliance Francophone d’Escrime comes at a crucial time. A little more than two years before the Paris 2024 Games. It is the best time to carry the values, the vision and the influence of the Francophonie.