After years of troubles and decline, French savate is making something of a comeback. This famous foot-fighting art, the only one of its kind ever developed outside the Orient, almost passed out of existence after most of its top masters were killed on the front lines during World War I.
The number of practitioners of the pure form of this elegant art has dwindled to only several thousand in recent years. But today’s devotees are a dedicated band, and they are spearheading a new drive to spread the art, which is rated by many as second only to karate in combat effectiveness.
The savate men and women are being aided by the fact that a new upsurge of interest in this native French art is sweeping the country. National pride has been awakened, and programs are now being undertaken to try to save this unique art and make of it an officially recognized national self-defense system in France. The government is doing its part. Plans are under way to make savate instruction available in schools in all parts of the country. Even the country’s Japanese martial arts groups are lending a helping hand. They have welcomed savate followers into their ranks and set up a separate savate department within the French Federation of Judo and Associated Arts, the country’s official organization for all the martial arts.
If it seems strange to others that savate should find itself at this late date in its development as part of a Japanese martial arts group, it doesn’t seem so to its followers. For this art has had a strange and fascinating history since it got started around the end of the Napoleonic era a century and a half ago.
The development of savate stands in marked contrast, for instance, to what was happening in England at about the same time during the 19th century. To an Englishman — and to anyone in the English-speaking world — the “manly art of self-defense” is automatically considered to be the art of boxing. That’s because of a titled English nobleman, the Marquess of Queensbury, who more than a century ago formulated the famous set of rules that lifted boxing up from a brawling, roughhouse pursuit and made of fisticuffs a system of unarmed self-defense “fit for a gentleman.”
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But in France, the emphasis on defense shifted from the hands to the feet. It was around 1820 that the system that later developed into savate got started in Marseilles among the dockhands of that port city. It wasn’t long afterward that the new foot-fighting system showed up in Paris, where it quickly became the favorite combat form of the French underworld — at that time, one of the toughest in the world.
It was from this unlikely beginning that savate rose to become the self-defense system of French aristocrats, who were its most enthusiastic devotees. In so doing, the earlier, rougher system of savate underwent a number of changes. No longer were clumsy kicks and thrusts tolerated. The system became far more refined. In fact, it took on many customs typically associated with the French.
It was an elegant form of self-defense that the aristocrats made of savate. Aesthetics became as important as the effectiveness of the system itself. And so great emphasis was placed on the beauty and rhythm of the movements. Savate took on all the elegance of ballet and the grace of fencing, while retaining the deadliness of an alley fight.
It was this aristocratic insistence on grace and beauty that gave savate a reputation among the uninformed in other countries — most noticeably in the United States — of being something of a “sissified” pastime. Yet nothing could be further from the truth. Japanese karate experts who are familiar with savate, and who have found a number of points of comparison between the kicks of their own art and those of savate, have pronounced the French art as being second only to karate as a fighting system.
Some of the early teachers of savate were colorful characters. One of the first was a man known to us now only as Michael, who was nicknamed “Le Pisseux.” He studied the foot-fighting system of Marseilles called “la savate” and codified the kicks into a new system he called the “art of savate.” He opened a school in La Courtille, where such famous aristocrats as the Duke of Orleans and Milord L’Arsouille came to practice with him.
Another well-known teacher was Louis Vigneron, a man blessed with a huge physical frame and muscles to match. He was called “The Cannon Man” because he used to travel from fair to fair and strap a cannon to his back, which he would fire in demonstrations. He miscalculated one day and succeeded in getting himself killed during a performance.
Savate also was influenced by the Marquess of Queensberry’s new English style of boxing. A savate man, Charles Lecour, first conceived the idea of combining English fisticuffs with French foot-fighting techniques to come up with a formidable new style.
But the real founder of French boxing was J. Charlemont, who brought together all the various styles of savate that were springing up and, like the Marquess of Queensberry, codified them into one formal system. In 1887 he founded the Academy of French Boxing and began to drill a number of future instructors in savate.
From J. Charlemont’s time, French boxing enjoyed extraordinary success. The art grew wildly, and from only a handful of followers, their numbers jumped to more than 100,000 practitioners by the turn of the century. During the first years of the 20th century, French boxing continued to grow in importance, and its fame spread to other countries in Europe and America.
But disaster lay ahead. The First World War was approaching, and the catastrophe of war was also the catastrophe of savate. By the end of the war in 1918, virtually all the leading masters of savate had been annihilated in the trenches and on the blood-soaked battlefields of France and Belgium.
J. Charlemont still lived and continued to practice the art. But somehow, savate never caught on like it had before. The French art also faced a new competitor, the English system of boxing. English boxing, which is the same as the American style, was destined to have a great period in France between the two world wars. For the next 20 years, it was the new rage, and great boxers like Georges Carpentier, who later challenged Jack Dempsey for the world heavyweight crown, were the heroes of postwar France.
The lure of the boxing ring, with its professional fighters, splashy advertising and big purses, almost spelled the end of savate. In 1941 the great J. Charlemont died, and his passing went almost unnoticed by the general public. During the long years of World War II, the French had little time to think of savate — or of anything else except survival.
After the War
Savate languished during the years after World War II and then met another great competitor. It was karate, the Japanese boxing and foot-fighting art that swept the world like wildfire. It seemed that with the impact of this new art, savate would run its course and die out.
But now, savate’s fortunes are beginning to turn — not a great deal at first but enough to give those who struggle to keep it alive new hope. The French public and the government rediscovered the art and are taking steps to preserve it and teach it in public schools. And the other martial arts are lending encouragement.
There are several variations of savate at present. The old aristocratic system has since been popularized — and cannibalized — and quite a few Frenchmen know various techniques. Savate systems also have sprung up in Belgium, Switzerland and Italy. The Italian system is a wide-open one in which anything goes. Many of these styles abroad are looked on with distaste by practitioners within France.
To pull together the various styles and make them authentic, the French Federation of Judo and Associated Arts set up a savate section in April 1966. The section is also seeking to extend the teachings of the art. At present, there are only about 1,000 savate members affiliated with the group, but they are ambitious and hope to broaden their base.
(To be continued.)