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Savate: The French Manly Art of SelfDefense

After years of troubles and decline, French savate is making something of a

comeback. This famous foot-fighting art, the only one of its kind ever
developed outside the Orient, almost passed out of existence after most of
its top masters were killed on the front lines during World War I. The number
of practitioners of the pure form of this elegant art has dwindled to only
several thousand in recent years. But todays devotees are a dedicated
band, and they are spearheading a new drive to spread the art, which is
rated by many as second only to karate in combat effectiveness.
The savate men and women are being aided by the fact that a new upsurge
of interest in this native French art is sweeping the country. National pride
has been awakened, and programs are now being undertaken to try to save
this unique art and make of it an officially recognized national self-defense
system in France. The government is doing its part. Plans are under way to
make savate instruction available in schools in all parts of the country. Even
the countrys Japanese martial arts groups are lending a helping hand. They
have welcomed savate followers into their ranks and set up a separate
savate department within the French Federation of Judo and Associated Arts,
the countrys official organization for all the martial arts.

Fascinating History-If it seems strange to others that savate should find

itself at this late date in its development as part of a Japanese martial arts
group, it doesnt seem so to its followers. For this art has had a strange and
fascinating history since it got started around the end of the Napoleonic era
a century and a half ago. The development of Savate stands in marked
contrast, for instance, to what was happening in England at about the same
time during the 19th century. To an Englishman and to anyone in the
English-speaking world the manly art of self-defense is automatically
considered to be the art of boxing. Thats because of a titled English
nobleman, the Marquis of Queensbury, who more than a century ago
formulated the famous set of rules that lifted boxing up from a brawling,
roughhouse pursuit and made of fisticuffs a system of unarmed self-defense
fit for a gentleman.
But in France, the emphasis on defense shifted from the hands to the feet. It
was around 1820 that the system that later developed into savate got
started in Marseilles among the dockhands of that port city. It wasnt long
afterward that the new foot-fighting system showed up in Paris, where it
quickly became the favorite combat form of the French underworld at that
time, one of the toughest in the world.
Unlikely Beginning-It was from this unlikely beginning that savate rose to
become the self-defense system of French aristocrats, who were its most
enthusiastic devotees. In so doing, the earlier, rougher system of savate
underwent a number of changes. No longer were clumsy kicks and thrusts
tolerated. The system became far more refined. In fact, it took on many
customs typically associated with the French.
It was an elegant form of self-defense that the aristocrats made of savate.
Aesthetics became as important as the effectiveness of the system itself.
And so great emphasis was placed on the beauty and rhythm of the
movements. Savate took on all the elegance of ballet and the grace of
fencing, while retaining the deadliness of an alley fight.
It was this aristocratic insistence on grace and beauty that gave savate a
reputation among the uninformed in other countries most noticeably in
the United States of being something of a sissified pastime. Yet nothing
could be further from the truth. Japanese karate experts who are familiar
with savate, and who have found a number of points of comparison between
the kicks of their own art and those of savate, have pronounced the French
art as being second only to karate as a fighting system.

Early Teachers-Some of the early teachers of savate were colorful

characters. One of the first was a man known to us now only as Michael, who
was nicknamed Le Pisseux. He studied the foot-fighting system of
Marseilles called la savate and codified the kicks into a new system he
called the art of savate. He opened a school in La Courtille, where such
famous aristocrats as the Duke of Orleans and Milord LArsouille came to
practice with him.
Another well-known teacher was Louis Vigneron, a man blessed with a huge
physical frame and muscles to match. He was called The Cannon Man
because he used to travel from fair to fair and strap a cannon to his back,
which he would fire in demonstrations. He miscalculated one day and
succeeded in getting himself killed during a performance.
Savate also was influenced by the Marquis of Queensberrys new English
style of boxing. A Savate man, Charles Lecour, first conceived the idea of
combining English fisticuffs with French foot-fighting techniques to come up
with a formidable new style. But the real founder of French boxing was J.
Charlemont, who brought together all the various styles of savate that were
springing up and, like the Marquess of Queensberry, codified them into one
formal system. In 1887 he founded the Academy of French Boxing and began
to drill a number of future instructors in savate.
Wild Growth-From J. Charlemonts time, French boxing enjoyed
extraordinary success. The art grew wildly, and from only a handful of
followers, their numbers jumped to more than 100,000 practitioners by the
turn of the century. During the first years of the 20th century, French boxing
continued to grow in importance, and its fame spread to other countries in
Europe and America.
But disaster lay ahead. The First World War was approaching, and the
catastrophe of war was also the catastrophe of savate. By the end of the war
in 1918, virtually all the leading masters of savate had been annihilated in
the trenches and on the blood-soaked battlefields of France and Belgium.
J. Charlemont still lived and continued to practice the art. But somehow,
savate never caught on like it had before. The French art also faced a new
competitor, the English system of boxing. English boxing, which is the same
as the American style, was destined to have a great period in France
between the two world wars. For the next 20 years, it was the new rage, and
great boxers like Georges Carpentier, who later challenged Jack Dempsey for
the world heavyweight crown, were the heroes of postwar France.

The lure of the boxing ring, with its professional fighters, splashy advertising
and big purses, almost spelled the end of savate. In 1941 the great J.
Charlemont died, and his passing went almost unnoticed by the general
public. During the long years of World War II, the French had little time to
think of savate or of anything else except survival.
After the War-Savate languished during the years after World War II and
then met another great competitor. It was karate, the Japanese boxing and
foot-fighting art that swept the world like wildfire. It seemed that with the
impact of this new art, savate would run its course and die out. But now,
Savates fortunes are beginning to turn not a great deal at first but enough
to give those who struggle to keep it alive new hope. The French public and
the government rediscovered the art and are taking steps to preserve it and
teach it in public schools. And the other martial arts are lending
There are several variations of savate at present. The old aristocratic system
has since been popularized and cannibalized and quite a few
Frenchmen know various techniques. Savate systems also have sprung up in
Belgium, Switzerland and Italy. The Italian system is a wide-open one in
which anything goes. Many of these styles abroad are looked on with distaste
by practitioners within France.
To pull together the various styles and make them authentic, the French
Federation of Judo and Associated Arts set up a savate section in April 1966.
The section is also seeking to extend the teachings of the art. At present,
there are only about 1,000 savate members affiliated with the group, but
they are ambitious and hope to broaden their base.

Savate: The French Manly Art of SelfDefense (Part 2)

In Part 2 of this classic Black Belt article from 1967, J. Delcourt, founder of
the French Federation of Karate and Associated Disciplines, describes the
techniques, training, power-generation methods, rank structure and
competition rules used in the French fighting art of Savate. French boxing is
a kind of fencing, but with the feet and fists, says one savate expert. It
aims to develop the beauty of the style and of the gesture, the aesthetics of
the movements, and the pleasure of practicing a manly sport. And like
karate, the avowed aims of the masters of the art are to also develop the

physical and spiritual qualities of man. There are several other similarities to
karate. For instance, outdoor training is very popular with savate enthusiasts.
They like to run through the woods, especially through bushes and thorns, to
practice lifting their legs high.
French boxing is practiced amid an atmosphere of aristocracy and good
manners, and with a chivalrous spirit as the aim. With those ideals, the
French savate practitioner, like his counterpart in the Japanese martial arts,
doesnt emphasize the physical at the expense of other aspects. The practice
of the art is the important thing, not just the pure physical perfection of it.
Techniques-Savate in recent years has continued to develop. Fist
techniques have been introduced more and more of late. The classical
posture used to be stiff and static, but now movements are becoming more
fluid thanks to the introduction of English boxing techniques.
The stance is interesting and contrasts with that used in both Japanese and
English styles of boxing. The upper body remains upright because French
boxers never move into a crouch position, believing that it doesnt make for
efficiency in their style of kicking. They practice with their supporting leg
stretched out, while the karate stylist will often bend this leg to get as low as
The French kicking position is a beautiful thing to see. The fundamental
principle is to have the supporting leg straight, the chest arched and the
head upright. The whole body is then flung at the opponent like a bullet.
Another important element is to use one arm as a counterweight and hold
the other ready to protect against an opponents attack. This is the reason
there are those marvelous postures of French boxing, with one arm flung to
the rear while the leg kicks forward.
The kicks are classified as high, medium or low. Like karate, there are front
kicks, side-kicks and even jumping kicks. But usually one foot is placed flat
on the ground and the kick delivered with the other. The kicking foot is shot
out like a piston and returned swiftly in preparation for another attack. The
body is arched far back to avoid a retaliatory kick from an opponent.
Power-Everything depends upon the legs, the stance and how you shift
your weight, says Bernard Plasait, a top teacher and two-time featherweight
savate champion of France. Hes the son of a well-to-do manufacturer and is
a versatile athlete, being skilled in skiing and the art of cane fighting, which

is usually taught along with savate. Hes also a flying enthusiast and pilots
his own plane.
Power, speed and impact are most important, Bernard Plasait says. French
boxing can be fought from either side, with the guard on the right or left. We
also employ all sorts of combinations and counterblows, feints and stopkicks.
One of Bernard Plasaits favorite techniques is the side kick. He explains:
First, the kick is thrown from the side. The balance is established by the
speed, with the forward arm protecting you, the chest outward, the head
erect, the leg tensed straight and the body on the same plane. To maintain
balance, the body must be in a circle around the vertical plane, with the
kicking leg still with the heel on the ground. In delivering the kick, the leg
shoots out and returns immediately. The power is due to the speed with
which the kick is delivered and is augmented by the balance of the whole
Training-French boxers go through vigorous workout sessions, in which they
exercise a great deal. Training to strengthen the abdominal muscles, so
necessary for executing the arched-back positions, is important. But power
training with weights is never engaged in. A typical session at the gym
begins with warm-up exercises, followed by individual workouts and training
(like kihon in karate). Then they engage in shadowboxing on four sides,
emphasizing quick position changes, rhythm and about-faces. Many of those
last exercises look similar to those of karate. This series of exercises is called
forme in French, which means the same as kata in Japanese.
There are several styles of fighting engaged in. Lassault is a courteous bout
judged according to touches scored. In tireurs, as in the style of fencing,
the boxers try to deliver subtle punches and kicks without any violence. But
in Ie combat, blows are struck with power and the bout is for real.
Competition-Tournaments are widely held in French boxing. There are four
great competitions each year: the French Championship, the Paris Match
Cup, the University Championships and the Teachers Cup. Bouts take place in
a ring similar to that used for English boxing. They last two, three or four
rounds, with each round two or three minutes in length. The officials are a
ring judge and two side judges.
Any combination of kicks can be used in competition, but only two punches
in a row can be thrown at any one time in an attack. After two successive

punches have been thrown, the boxer must switch to a kicking technique or
step back and start his attack over. The following are prohibited: wrestling;
holding the opponents head; delivering blows with the elbow, knee or head;
delivering blows with an open hand or the wrist; and hitting an opponent on
the ground.
Final decisions are of three types: victory by hors de combat (knockout),
victory by points and a draw. French boxers fight in eight weight categories
from flyweight to heavyweight, just like in English boxing. Eight-ounce
gloves are worn.
French boxers wear close-fitting uniforms. The top is like a T-shirt, but the
leggings are similar to the leotards used by ballet dancers, only of heavier
material. A soft leather boot with a buffalo sole completes the outfit. Usually,
the color of the shirt and trousers are the same as the clubs colors.
Rank-As with the Oriental martial arts, savate has a grading system. Its
similar to that of judo and karate, with the boxers classified into beginning
and advanced ranks. But in savate, the ranks are graded according to gloves:
blue, green, red, white and yellow for the lower ranks; and blue, green, red,
silver and gold for the higher ranks. The ranks are displayed on the gloves by
a stripe around the bottom. The lower ranks have a narrow stripe; the higher
ranks are shown with a broader stripe. Ranks are given out after grading
tests before a commission of judges.
As in judo and karate, a number of women also have taken up the sport. With
its emphasis on grace and beauty as well as self-defense, its easy to see
why Savate would appeal to women. However, female savate members are
never allowed to compete.
With the emphasis on grace and manners, and its appeal to a wealthier class
of people, it would seem that savate will never enjoy the popularity of the
more democratized system of Japanese karate. In todays environment, with
its mass entertainment and mass audiences, this old emphasis on the
aesthetic tastes and good manners of the aristocrat seem touchingly out of
date. Yet savate members insist its possible to retain its values and still seek
a wider audience. And they are setting out to prove it.
The Savate | What is Savate | Savate History | Savate and French
Weaponry | Savate Knife Fencing | Martial Art Sport of France |

Origins of Savate | The Street Shoes | Ranking and Rules | Defence

in Savate | Savate Disciplines | The French Connection | Savate In
Popular Culture | Thinking Mans Kickboxing | Batons of Western
Mediterranean | The Chair Combat
A savateur is developed systematically and is encouraged in the efficient and
expressive use of body mechanics.
As a hitting and grappling system of personal combat, footwork and distance play
an important role.
Distance is analysed as a physical range and a predicament distance. This varies
depending on the situation and the nature of the violence. There are six physical
ranges whilst the predicament distance covers four fields of engagement.
RANGE 1 WEAPONRY is structured into three categories:
Category 1. Truncheons and the Knife (restricted).
Category 2. Canne and two Cannes.
Category 3. Baton and the Chair.
RANGE 2 LOWER LIMBS. Covers the various aspects of Kicking.
RANGE 3 UPPER LIMBS. Covers the various aspects of hitting with the
RANGE 4 ENVELOPMENT. A upright situation at arms length that involves
hitting and grappling.
RANGE 5 TRAVERSING. A situation where one party is upright and the
other grounded.
RANGE 6 GROUNDWORK. A situation where both parties are on the
Savate as a martial art was devised in the last century, and its origins and
relationship to other Martial Arts is unclear. There are stories about French sailors
learning techniques in Eastern ports, bringing them back to France and integrating
them with local foot fighting and fencing techniques.
The growth of Boxing from the mid 18 century along with Wrestling and
Streetkicking was a direct result of social and economic changes brought on by the
Industrial Age. However the methodologies can be traced back to the earliest Greek
Olympics. In France kicking became the antithesis to English boxing.
The breeding grounds were about the Western Mediterranean where the warmer
climate and looser clothing allowed greater freedom of movement. In Paris and
some of the French provinces there was some streetkicking and others that were
influenced by local dance customs and games.
It appears that the first rational approach to streetkicking started around the
beginning of the French Revolution. It was the French Navy who developed
Chausson (pronounced Shoh-sohn) as a gymnastic game of fencing with the feet.

The term actually means slipper and referred to the sailors espadrilles. It became
a local street game about Marseille, Aubagne and Toulon.
In Paris the streetkicking became known as La Savate (pronounced Savaht) after the
time tested old shoe that so often delivered the final crippling blow. It was not until
the Napoleonic Wars did French prisoners of war detained on convict hulks and their
British captors came in direct contact with Chausson and Boxing.
After the war boxing began to appear with the Chausson, but with anti-British
sentiment it took nearly two decades before boxing gained acceptance in France.
Meanwhile Chausson enjoyed a growth period. As a game it had different rules but
generally the kicks and paume (palm) hits were to touch the targets without causing
injury. Paume was a prominent element of the early Chausson and Savate systems.
In self-defence, Chausson was usually used with a knife or an improvisation tool.

In Paris the streetkicking of La Savate was used

in the poorer quarters and the underworld. It was this fighting method used by the
ex convicts employed by Eugene Francois Vidocq (1775-1857) the chief of the
Surete Nationale. They were the first undercover detectives to work in the Parisian
underworld in obtaining information and evidence against felons and special
From about the 1820s the activities started to attract the imagination of the young
aristocrats. Dressed in their formal clothes they found entertainment about the
cities music and dance halls. It became the fashion to deal with disagreements of
honour with some simple streetkicking. This was considered more dignified and
expedient than wrestling. Used with the walking Cane, it was very effective in
dealing with muggers and troublemakers.
The most famous instructor of this period was Michel Cassaux (1794-1869)
commonly known as Michel Pissaux. Born in the Belleville district of Paris, he
systemised the streetkicking methods and named it the Art of Savate and taught it
alongside Canefencing and Paume. He attracted many personalities including the
Duke of Orleans, Count Labattut, Lord Henry Seymore and artist Paul Gavarni.

His most outstanding student was Charles Lecour (1808-1894). Born in Oissery he
opened a salle in 1832 in Montmartre. He was a competitive athlete and an expert
at the Canne and Grand Baton. In 1838 he combined English boxing with French
streetkicking and is acknowledged for founding La Boxe Francaise.
At first conservative Savateurs did not accept the introduction of boxing.
Nevertheless the majority accepted La Boxe Francaise. Charles and his younger
brother Hubert Lecour (1820-1871) were very successful. Hubert was instrumental
in refining the kicks, punches and integrating grappling.
Their demonstrations were often displayed to music, a concept that was later
developed into a minor non contact gymnastic kicking discipline of Adresse
Francaise. Their classes included nobility, aristocrats and personalities such as
Eugene Sue, Alphose Karr, Theophile Gautier and the author of The Three
Musketeers, Alexander Dumas.
There were many noted instructors and one Louis Laboucher (1807-1866)
developed many successful savateurs. One of his students was Giocchino Rossini,
the famous Italian Opera composer. In Italy, a small following of the Laboucher
method appears to have climaxed around 1870.
One of the most charismatic and competent fighters during the 1850s was Louis
Vigneron (1827-1871). Born in Paris he opened a small salle in 1848. He built a
reputation by teaching the military and beating challengers including wrestler Arpin
the Terrible 1850 and boxer Dickson 1854. He acquired the nickname Cannonman
by demonstrating the firing a cannonball from a heavy cannon held on his shoulders
to his partner. On the 22 August 1871 with a miscalculation of powder the fatigued
cannon exploded and he and his partner were killed.
In 1853 the military collage LEcole De Joinville was established and part of the
training included La Boxe Francaise and stickfencing. This commenced a long
association with the military although it is believed that Chausson was practised by
the French Foreign Legion some twenty years earlier. The disciplines became
cultural arts, and through adventurers, emigration and movements of the military
they found their way across Europe, Africa, England, Canada and America.
During the second half of the 19 century physical education and gymnastics
became compulsory with the military from 1853 and boy schools from 1872. It saw
the emergence of international wrestling, the development of French wrestling
(Parisian lutte), and Savate as a sport and personal combat.
One of the most important Savateurs to emerge in this period was Joseph Pierre
Charlemont (1830-1914). Born in LEsdain he received his training from Louis
Vigneron. He soon gained a formidable reputation by defeating numerous
exponents of various combat disciplines. He consolidated a defensive and
educational system, revising the military syllabus and instructing recruits from
1865-1870. In 1893 his son Charles succeeded him and Joseph wrote his famous
book La Boxe Francaise which was published in 1899.

Charles Charlemont (1862-1944) was an advocate of physical culture at an early

age. His most famous encounter and acclaimed by the French was in 1899 when he
defeated boxer Jerry Driscoll. Unfortunately the contest was held in unsatisfactory
conditions and ended in a degree of controversy. Charles became a driving force in
establishing the sport of La Boxe Francaise.
One of Josephs outstanding students was Victor Casteres (1866-1930) who opened
his own salle in 1893. In London 1898 he defeated a boxer in a contest that was
personally judged by the Marquis of Queensbury. He wrote a book on Savate and
from his English promotions the first book in English, The French Method was
written and published by Georges DArmoric in 1898.
Pierre Vigny (1869-?) founded the first school in Geneva, Switzerland in 1894 with
his brother Paul. He moved to London in 1900 where he operated a successful
school for about seven years. He became noted for his Anglo-French Canne
approach. A method that was adopted by William Barton-Wright (1860-1951) into
his Bartitsu and adapted by Henry Lang (1895-?) who taught it to the Indian
Police, Scouts and instructors.
In the 80 years since its ruthless street fighting origins, Savate has integrated a
wide range of disciplines and has evolved into a professional combat science. It
could be practised as a sport, self defence and for recreation and was practised in
the trenches during the Great War.
From the beginning of the 20-century it created a lot of interest throughout Western
Europe. For the general public it became necessary to construct a simple selfdefence to cater for the non-athletic civilian. During the first quarter many books
and self-defence courses appeared for non-combatants.
La Boxe Francaise became a demonstration sport at the 1924 Paris Olympics. Its
success prompted a promotional tour to London and in 1927 demonstrations were
held at the famous Southwark boxing stadium, The Ring. The team created a lot
of interest, but English boxers protecting their own sport labelled the kicking fit for
women and sissies. This circulated about English sportsmen and destroyed its
acceptance as a gentlemans sport. Further complicating its image was its vicious
reputation with the French apaches (hooligans), gangsters and the streetkicking
practises of the South and East Londoners. This adverse attitude towards kicking
was nurtured throughout English speaking countries for some three decades before
kicking as an athletic discipline started to gain acceptance.
Ironically it didnt stop elements being introduced into a number unarmed combat
courses. In America from the late 1920s and throughout the Second World War it
was included in the syllabus taught to the Marines, the F.B.I. and Department of
Justice. In France many of the Resistance were trained in Savate.
After the war a large majority of traditional folk arts disappeared from lack of
interest. Others continued as if unaffected by social and economic changes. In
southern France, Chausson persisted but was influenced by wartime unarmed

combat methods. This new synthesis became an underground sub-culture. It was

never organised or promoted and has only persisted through the practise of a
A product of this period was Alain Jebrayel (1898-1954) who commenced Chausson
at an early age under his father. He became a third generation exponent as passed
down from his grandfather. Athletically, he was a strong person with excellent
muscular control and a killer instinct. After the war he opened a small salle in Nice
named Chausson de la Riviera. He integrated some commando-unarmed combat
that he used as a resistance fighter. Two of his foremost students Philippe Dufour
and Marcel Villenaux continued teaching after he died in an accident in 1954.
In Paris, after the war, it was found that many prominent instructors had died and
others had simply lost interest. The Parisians believed that for the disciplines to be
more widely accepted it was necessary for it be developed as a sport.
Count Pierre Baruzy (1897-1994) was instrumental in reorganising La Boxe
Francaise-Savate (B.F.Savate) and promoting the sport. He commenced practising
under Charles Charlemont in 1910 and became one of the most enthusiastic and
productive savateurs of the 20-century. Between 1922-1935 he won 11
championships and held three titles in three weight divisions simultaneously and
won two championships at the 1924 Paris Olympic Games. It was Pierres
enthusiasm and perseverance that the Federation Francaise de Boxe FrancaiseSavate et Disciplines Assimilees was founded with ministerial support. He was
honoured as President and Founder. In 1985 he was made Honorary President of the
Federation International de Boxe Francaise-Savate that was created for the
international promotion of the sport.
Roger Lafond (1913- ) was another important Parisian instructor after the Second
World War. He is a third generation exponent whose grandfathers linkage can be
traced back to the Lecours. Where Baruzy was a traditionalist, Lafond introduced
some post war ideas into his syllabus. In 1955 he created La Panache that
included some Japanese hand to hand combat. At one stage he operated the
majority of the schools in Paris. Lafond Savate is now the only syllabus in Paris to
teach elements of traditional Savate.
During the mid 1970s the Chinese-American martial artist Bruce Lee (1940-1973)
created a Kung Fu craze through his movies. This resulted in a global following of
Asian martial arts by the 1980s. These arts varied from combat arts, to arts of
human movement. This variety has offered something in the martial art spectrum to
suit nearly every personality and need. Due to the variety of applications, there has
been an assessment and interaction of information seeking improved efficiency,
safety and knowledge. This will continue in the future as old and new ideas, Eastern
and Western methods are constantly being challenged and reassessed to achieve a
perceived reality.

Savate Sport is now an international kickboxing sport, and with its growth there is
an increase in interest in the traditional and self-defence aspects of the art. This has
placed pressure on the Federation, who with their concentration on the sport, realise
that there are only a few veteran instructors around the world able to teach Savate
and its associated weaponry, as a collective discipline.
In Australia a innovative syllabus has been developed with an emphasis on
recreation and personal combat. It comprises a collection of integrated skills from
the traditional and modern systems of Mediterranean Chausson and Parisian
Savate. The Bridgeman Savate syllabus provides an exclusive and efficient training
standard to meet todays demands.