When the curtain came down in the Theatre de la Porte Saint-Martin on the night of December 28th 1897, the Parisian audience had been so wowed by what they’d just seen that they applauded for a full hour after it had finished.
‘Cyrano de Bergerac’ became an overnight sensation, touring 15 Francophone countries within a year and hitting the West End and Broadway as soon as an English translation could be written. Critics were just as charmed, labelling its writer France’s answer to Shakespeare. Given that Edmond Rostand was the latest in a line of talented French playwrights to earn that title – Moliere, Voltaire and Dumas before him – it was a description as unoriginal as it was flattering.
A lack of originality was not a charge that could be directed at the play’s famous final word: “panache”. Uttered by a dying Cyrano, Rostand’s use of the term to describe his titular character remained in the translated version and ensured that it made its way into the English language for the first time. Why use flamboyance, swagger, charisma or flair when one word described it all?
Just three months before that night in Paris and 480 miles further south in Rostand’s home city of Marseille, another Frenchman was setting out his own blueprint of what “panache” should represent in public life. His stage would not be a theatre, but a patch of grass large enough to occupy 22 people for 90 minutes.
René Dufaure de Montmirail arrived in Marseille as an 18-year-old with a story to tell. Born in Verdun in 1876, he spent most of his childhood in Algeria where his father was stationed as an officer. Unable to pursue a military career owing to poor eyesight, he took an internship over the Channel with a view to a role in business.
His youth spent in sunny Algerian climes gave his skin a healthy complexion, while his bushy black eyebrows and elegantly-styled moustache granted him the look of a nobleman. His slender physique betrayed his passion for sport, following several years involved in athletics at college. His time in England, where rugby and association football were burgeoning, only affirmed his love for outdoor physical activity.
But by the time he returned to France’s second city, his life was in turmoil. With news of his father’s death and his mother making no effort to contact him, he headed for a boarding house and lived on just 80 Francs per month working for a local business. Sport was now his only solace.
Befriending the son of his boss allowed him the chance to join a junior sports club. Within two years, with the members convened in a local cafe, he proposed to transform the junior team into a fully-fledged rugby and soccer outfit. On August 14th 1897, Football Club de Marseille was born. At just 21 years old, Rene Dufaure de Montmirail had become the founder and first President of what is now Olympique de Marseille.
It would take two years for the club to be re-christened with the name OM are now known by worldwide (explaining why their formation is officially recognised as 1899), when they joined forces with a nearby fencing team and expanded to specialise in a multitude of sports including athletics, wrestling, rowing, cycling, boxing, swimming, tennis and even cricket.
By this point, the influence of the sports-obsessed Dufaure de Montmirail was all-encompassing. As well as suggesting the name (a nod to the city’s Greek settlers), his proposals included changing the club kit from black and purple to white and blue, and introducing the motto “Droit au But” (“Straight to the Goal”).
He even designed the badge by using his own coat of arms, where the initials of his surname, DM, could be subtly tweaked from his letter seal to resemble OM. All changes were agreed by the club’s General Assembly, and most (bar the 5 Francs entry fee…) remain in place to this day.
Fast forward 120 years and the club founded by a charismatic 21-year-old from Verdun now boasts one European Cup, 11 French titles, 10 Coupes de France and three Coupes de la Ligue. The team name, colours, badge and motto are all a result of his creative flair; the fans’ passion a by-product of his sporting devotion. The club remains a living, breathing embodiment of their founder’s “panache”.
Yet up until a few months ago, searching for him on the official website of OM would yield not a single result. There was little sign of his name anywhere in the streets of Marseille, and his influence on the club appeared to have been either deliberately airbrushed from history or simply forgotten.
In fact, the only place in the city one would find his name was outside the insurance firm he founded after quitting as club President in 1902: ‘Montmirail Assurances’ remains a thriving practice based in the city’s 16th arrondissement, over 100 years after it was founded. If history tells us anything about this savvy entrepreneur, it’s that while his vision may have prevented him entering the field of battle, there was certainly nothing wrong with his eye for business.
So why and how, for a club that has had its notable share of high-profile owners and presidents (including Bernard Tapie, Robert Louis-Dreyfus and now Frank McCourt), had its founding father managed to remain in a historical blind spot? Whether through sabotage or ignorance, the club – and the city – was betraying the man to whom it owed so much. And in September 2016, the fans decided to do something about it.
The supporters group “Vieille Garde” (“Old Guard”) are the club’s oldest Ultras group, formed in 1984. Keen to maintain the traditions and history of their club, they tracked down Dufaure de Montmirail’s remaining family in the city and sought permission to launch a petition to belatedly honour their ancestor in time for the centenary of his death in February of this year.
The group launched a Change.org page petitioning the Mayor of Marseille Jean-Claude Gaudin to “remedy this oversight, and honour the memory of the one who has allowed those who love OM to experience so many emotions for generations.” They suggested he do so by naming the square in front of the Stade Vélodrome after Dufaure de Montmirail.
It didn’t take long before the petition was causing a stir. Mohammed Ali, of the Marseille UK supporters club (@MarseilleUK) told me:
“Over the past 18 months there have been calls for OM to be closer to their past, to include the fans more in the daily operations of the club and continue to broadcast their heritage. As such, there was nothing concrete concerning Mr. Montmirail. Fans had actually campaigned last season to have a street close to the Velodrome named in his honour.”
Around 1,500 signatories were enough to get the ball rolling, but what proved just as revealing was the intensity of the messages being left alongside the signatures. One such comment said, “he founded the club that is our reason for living”.
Now a club that had proven bizarrely reluctant to acknowledge its beginnings was being forced to take note, as the movement began to spread to where they could no longer be ignored: the terraces. Before long Dufaure de Montmirail’s distinctive top-hatted silhouette appeared on banners, flags and even tattoos in the Stade Velodrome along with mock-ups of Dufaure De Montmirail street signs. Ali continues:
“The petition was fairly popular, being shared widely on social media, unofficial OM Twitter accounts as well as on Facebook and affiliated Marseille media sites such as Le Phocéen. When it started last year, the previous club's management were not receptive at all to it, barely acknowledging its existence. The new management, led by Jacques-Henri Eyraud on behalf of Frank McCourt, are making more of a commitment to honour OM's past.”
McCourt is the American billionaire, previously famed for owning the LA Dodgers, who bought Marseille from Margarita Louis-Dreyfus in October 2016. He appointed French businessman Jacques-Henri Eyraud as President and promised to invest €200m over the next four seasons. And while the high-profile signings of the likes of Dmitri Payet and Morgan Sanson proved one way to win over the fans, the new pair at the helm of OM appeared to be open to other avenues to earn their respect too.
While it was no surprise to see a politician kowtow to populism, the club joining the city’s mayor in greenlighting the petition’s request was seen by most fans as a positive step in the right direction. As Urbastaga of OMForum.com told me, without the change at the top, the petition would not have been heard:
“Until recently, the story was not at all known by the fans. It wasn’t until the @VGCU84 Twitter fan account took steps to get his story recognised, and then it was picked up by the local press. But even then it needed the owners to change before the process could succeed.”
And so it came to pass that on February 20th, 2017, the square in front of the Stade Vélodrome was renamed the “Parvis René Dufaure De Montmirail”, in a ceremony attended by the mayor, the Marseille president, ex-players and, crucially, the Dufaure de Montmirail family, including his great-grandson Valeilles. He told the assembled press just how proud he was that his great-grandfather had finally been recognised for the role he played in Marseille’s sporting history:
"He had a very important role in the organisation of the first sporting championships in the region. Before him, sport in Marseille was limited to horse racing and pétanque. He launched football, rugby, swimming, running, cycling, fencing and cricket. This is how the first professional sportsmen of Marseille appeared.”
"I have often wondered why his memory had never been honoured and it would be good if this forgetfulness was repaired. I think the people of Marseille would love to know who is at the origin of their club. Any player who has played for the club, even if just briefly, is still better known than the founder of OM.”
In previous interviews, Valeilles has speculated on whether it is the vagaries surrounding Olympique de Marseille’s founding date that has resulted in his great-grandfather’s role being downplayed. But with a resolution now found, the appetite to find out exactly why he was forgotten for so long is likely to dissipate. After all, the club’s current custodians are finally acknowledging their founder’s fundamental impact. President Jacques-Henri Eyraud said:
“In reading through the history of René Dufaure de Montmirail, I realised that he was an entrepreneur. At only 18 years old, he was committed to the values of sport. Naming the square in front of the Stade Vélodrome after the founder of OM is a major event.”
“It is very important to understand the history of football clubs, and all enterprises, to better appreciate their roots and traditions, and to honour the men and woman who played their part.”
Since February 20th, the club’s official website now includes a full page on René Dufaure de Montmirail, listing him as the club’s first President and confirming that he founded the club in 1897.
Not only does it now recognise its founding father, but its founding mother too. According to the newly written history page, the motto “Droit au But” was in fact the creation of René’s wife, Madeleine, whom he met through his sporting exploits and married in 1901 before they had six children together. Of the slogan, their great-grandson says: “It was their personal motto, a moral motto.”
It is also a motto that could have come from the mouth of the wise-cracking Cyrano de Bergerac. Rostand’s Cyrano is a passionate nobleman of many talents; a poet, a soldier and a swordsman who through no fault of his own is forced to live in the shadows, unable to take any credit despite benefitting others with his strength and wit.
In many ways, René Dufaure de Montmirail is Marseille’s very own Cyrano. A man who boldly formed a club and movement that has brought fervour, joy and spirit to millions, yet who for so long has not been given the recognition for his own sporting “panache”. Until now.