With a couple of weeks to go before the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in London, France has chosen fencing champion Laura Flessel-Colovic as their standard-bearer.
The French have high hopes for their swordsmen and women. They've notched up 115 bronze, silver and above all gold medals since the advent of the modern Olympics in 1896.
The cream of the French squad have been training in a superb new underground "arms room" (as they call it) in a wood near Paris. Among them, 26-year-old Astrid Guyard, who will be competing in her first Olympics this summer. She works designing space vehicles for EADS - the European Aeronautic Defense and Space company. But since the age of five, she's been a sword-fighter.
"There is a long tradition of fencing in history - especially in France. We still feel it through certain values like respect, self-control and fair play."
The competitors use French terminology: They say "en garde" before they start - harking back to the days of dueling.
'All for one, one for all'
Perhaps the most famous French fencers are the Three Musketeers, serialized in the 1844 novel by Alexandre Dumas. Set in the 17th century,. The story recounts the tale of a young man named d'Artagnan after he leaves home to travel to Paris to join the Musketeers - where he meets his friends, who live by the famous motto "all for one, one for all."
Back in the 17th Century, it was the duty of every French aristocrat to know how to use a sword, any time his honor was slighted. The result, says master fencer and fencing historian Gérard Six, was carnage:
"There is a long tradition of duels in France - we always prefer to fight with the sword instead of with pistols. There is a greater feeling of honor. At the beginning of the 17th Century, there were 20,000 duels in France in just 20 years."
End of an era
The last duel fought in France took place as recently as 1967. Fencing master Pascal Murullaz tells the story:
"The last duel was between the Socialist parliamentarian and Mayor of Marseilles, Gaston Defferre, and the conservative MP René Ribière after a clash in the National Assembly. Defferre insulted the Parisian and refused to apologize. The conservative challenged him, the Socialist accepted and they fought in a private garden with sharp epées and no protection. They risked death or very serious injury."
Ribière was to be married the following day. Defferre vowed to wound him in such a way as to spoil his wedding night very considerably. In the end, the referee stopped the fight after the Marseillais had wounded the Parisian twice on the arm.
Lessons from history
Dueling may have ended late in France, but fencing as a sport - even as a philosophy - started early. The father of modern philosophy René Descartes was a useful swordsman. He even wrote a treatise - lost sadly - on the subject. And, under the enthusiastic patronage of the Sun King, the builder of Versailles, fencing was turned from a means of killing into an art of living.
“Louis the Fourteenth considered fencing to be an art, academic art," explained Gérard Six. "He ennobled the practice. He was also a very good fencer."
The Chevalier de Saint George was another of France's fencing heroes. Son of a West Indian slave, he was an esteemed member of Louis the Fifteenth's court. And then there was his sparring partner, the Chevalier d'Eon, a transvestite spy who during missions for the King in Russia and England, out-fenced the best of them - wearing a gown.
For the French men and women preparing to cross swords with the world's best in London, we can only wish that they do so with some of the swagger and dash of their forebears.
Author: John Laurenson, Paris
Editor: Joanna Impey