In Chile, in 1973, the French Embassy on the front line in the face of the coup


The seat of the Moneda Palace during the Pinochet military coup in Santiago, Chile, September 11, 1973.
The seat of the Moneda Palace during the Pinochet military coup in Santiago, Chile, September 11, 1973. HO / PRENSA LATINA / AFP


The dramatic events that took place in the streets of Santiago de Chile in September 1973 during the military takeover gave rise to numerous reports, fictions and documentaries. The Moneda Palace bombed, President Allende helmeted, ready to die, the last calls for help sizzling on the radio while the gunshots are fired and the fighter planes fly over the Chilean capital, all these elements form a dramaturgy conducive to imaging.

Guest of honor at the International Documentary Festival (Fipadoc), which was held in Biarritz from January 21 to 26, the filmmaker Carmen Castillo, who fled her native Chile when Augusto Pinochet took power, continues to deliver works noticed during this period. With this documentary focused on the action of French diplomats stationed in Santiago at the material time, Carmen Castillo chooses an exciting angle. Because, through the actions of French diplomatic personnel, led by Ambassador Pierre de Menthon and his wife Francoise, a fundamental question arises: can a diplomat come out of his reserve and disobey his hierarchy when he s to save human beings? The answer brought, between September 1973 and April 1974, by the couple of Menthon and their collaborators shows that yes.

Scary atmosphere

By welcoming hundreds of activists fleeing torture and death into the embassy and his own residence, transforming these official spaces into makeshift dormitories and canteens, Pierre and Francoise de Menthon took real risks: in relation to the Chilean junta, but also in relation to French political power. Because at the time, in France, while the Union of the left between PS, PC and Radicals takes shape, neither President Pompidou nor Pierre Messmer, his Prime Minister, hold in high esteem – it’s an understatement – Salvador Allende. In summary, France is not for the military coup but if it took place, it is the fault of this dangerous Allende leftist …

Between memories of refugees, period archives, testimonies of former diplomats and extracts from the Memoirs of the De Menthon couple, the documentary manages to capture the frightening atmosphere prevailing in Santiago. As soon as you get out of the protected diplomatic precincts, you can, in the early morning, see corpses floating in the murky waters of Mapocho. At night, shots are fired near the embassy and refugee activists are terrorized. Recording all the elements of a daily life suddenly out of the ordinary, Francoise de Menthon tells with talent and emotion the relationships that are formed, the fears, the hope of finally obtaining the safe conduct that will allow to get out from this makeshift refuge to fly to Paris.

Read also the review of the documentary “Santiago, Italia”: The exaltation of a tradition of hospitality and solidarity

About 600 militants opposed to military power will be saved by French diplomats. Staff, too, are forced to live between two space-times, juggling humanitarian aid on their premises and ordinary diplomatic efforts abroad. We must maintain good relations with the junta in order to obtain the precious safe-conducts, the first of which will only be delivered in December 1973. In the receptions, French diplomats rub shoulders with Chilean citizens delighted to have got rid of the danger Communist. “I can no longer bear these receptions! “, writes Francoise de Menthon. Until April 1974, the date of their departure from Chile, the couple took care of the last refugee activists at the embassy.

Chile 1973: an embassy in response to the coup, by Carmen Castillo (Fr., 2019, 60 min).

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