In the late evening of Wednesday, 2nd December 1959, the Malpasset dam above the French Riviera town of Frejus burst.
A torrent of water and mud engulfed the area killing at least 412 people, probably more.
Today, on the edge of the town centre, stands a simple stainless steel memorial to the dead.
Each victim’s name is inscribed on a plaque, telling the story of a community built by the Romans, and one which prospered on migration.
The Accornero family perished side by side with the Addads; the Zimmermanns with Sefia and Smain Youras.
Down at the town’s port is a statue honouring the Senegalese Tirailleurs, African soldiers from the French colonies who fought – and died – in the first and second World Wars. Their base was Frejus.
There is also a mosque, inspired by the Great Mosque of Djenne in Mali, built in 1930 for, and by the African troops, a friendly gesture from a town grateful for the sacrifice of their African neighbours.
And there is a new mosque in Frejus, built in the La Gabelle housing estate, home to many of the town’s North African community, but the far-right National Front mayor, David Rachline, wants this one demolished.
He said recently: “In the absence of a building permit, it (the mosque) must be destroyed”.
He also scrapped a council grant to a local NGO that supports migrant workers, saying “I don’t give a cent to migrant workers or to migrants in general.”
And he was one of the mayors who tried, unsuccessfully, last year to ban the burkini from local beaches.
Frejus is in the National Front’s heartland. Its leader Marine Le Pen launched her Presidential campaign here last September.
It is entirely possible that, in a few week’s time, Le Pen could become France’s next President and her promise to put “native” French first would become government policy.
But who are “native” French people? Or Italian? or British?
As we wander round southern Europe it is glaringly obvious that our continent – and beyond – was built on the movement of people; sometimes because of conflict, sometimes for economic reasons, and sometimes, I am sure, for love.
Our history is the story of Muslims, Christians (Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant) and Jews; of monarchs, barons and popes; peasants, foot soldiers and factory workers; of Ancient Rome and Greece, the Ottoman Empire and the two terrible wars of the 20th century.
Our future is still to be decided.
We face many serious challenges, from the digital revolution to climate change, but surely it is better that we face them together, united in our common humanity, rather than divided by fear and hatred whipped up by ambitious politicians.
Surely the Accorneros, the Zimmermanns and the Youras family who died together in the terrible disaster of 1959 were all “natives” of Frejus.
Surely we are, to use a couthy Scottish phrase, all Jock Tamson’s bairns.
Or am I just being naïve…
- Frejus is between Cannes and St Tropez, and while it may not have the cachet of these two jewels of the French Riveria, it is certainly worth a visit. The official tourism site is here.