VOISINS-LE-BRETONNEUX, France — About a year ago, the French Fencing Federation (FFF) was facing an existential challenge: the number of young people interested in traditional fencing was declining, and French kids were more interested in staring at their screens than showing up to like parry a la 16th century dukes.
That’s why the FFF made a very controversial decision: to elevate lightsaber fencing — up to that point a cosplay-esque pursuit of Star Wars enthusiasts — to the same status as Olympic-level fencing.
“We already do artistic fencing,” FFF President Isabelle Lamour told VICE News. “It’s historic. So if we can have ancient fencing, why not have futuristic fencing?”
The rule change seemed innocent enough, but considering the three weapons used in traditional fencing haven’t changed in about 200 years, it’s no surprise that adding lightsabers to the mix really ruffled a lot of feathers.
“Disney is not really welcome, I’m sorry,” traditional fencer Alban Garrouste told VICE News, referring to Lucasfilms’ parent company. “Fencing is a huge part of the French identity, so I think we should stick to [its] values and historical origins.”
For now, France is going it alone, with no other countries inquiring if they can import the rules to their own national fencing organizations, according to Lamour. But she noted that youth participation in the sport has definitely gone up.
“We’ve got everything to gain,” she said. “It doesn’t take anything away from participants in traditional fencing. It puts our discipline in the spotlight.”
This segment originally aired May 3, 2019, on VICE News Tonight on HBO.