Contemporary French Civilization

Settling their differences in the ring: French boxer Georges Carpentier's conquest of England, 1911-1919

Contemporary French Civilization (2013), 38, (2), 155–177.

Abstract

Boxing became a veritable mania in France in the years just before and just after the First World War thanks to the pugilistic achievements of one man: Georges Carpentier (1894-1975). The rapid rise of the sport tellingly called boxe anglaise in France is virtually synchronous with Carpentier's legendary career in the ring. "The Idol of France" became a folk-hero in England, the cradle of modern prize-fighting, as well as in his home country. There was indeed nothing less than a cult of personality surrounding Carpentier on both sides of the Channel in the years 1911-1919. This was due to his good looks, wit, self-effacing charm and deft handling of the press but mostly to his very dramatic victories in the ring against larger, seemingly tougher British opponents. In the three high-profile fights examined in this article, the French David soundly and improbably beat the English Goliath.

Long- and dearly-held "racial" stereotypes, characterizing Englishmen as pugnacious and tough, full of manly vigor and pugilistic prowess, and Frenchmen as cerebral and artistic but lacking in grit, were revisited and (literally) knocked down by Carpentier's victories. The fights became allegories, in which "Britishness" and "Frenchness" squared off in the ring, in which centuries-old animosity and mutual suspicion were incarnated and made literal through the medium of individual combat. Rather than exacerbate the hostility, a common love for sport and for Carpentier himself seemed to bring the two countries together and to put into question, however fleetingly and superficially, the essentialist binary oppositions that had long defined their relationship in the popular imagination.

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Rivers, Christopher