I spent quite a bit of time researching this from the 1980s, and it soon became apparent that nobody, including the French, knows for sure; most facts are at best an educated guesswork or from the spoken word of mouth. It’s clear there are regional variations and that people may choose to call their art Savate, even if they are in the South of France etc.
When I researched, the available records were in pictures and writings that suggested that the leading art was the Paris “Gentleman’s” style we often see in black and white photos. There were other versions, but the Paris style was the best recorded and may have been the primary branch. I actually think that there were a few homegrown versions, but they were lost, and many other researchers agree with me.
The other thing to factor in is the movement of people across France, and they may have brought their stylisation of Savate with them to another part of France, Spain or the Basque Country. I did have a few contacts in the Basque region in the late 1980s and early 1990s who have sadly since passed away, and it was fascinating chatting to them about the history and how underground some Savate was.
I have seen old black and white photographs that show people training in various areas of France, and in some cases, I was told that some clubs can trace their lineage back a hundred years.
We will probably never know for sure, but I think Savate is homegrown in France and has a unique flavour. It’s very possible that some sailors had a separate art in the South of France, just as it’s apparent the Basque people had their own stylised version.
To sum up, nobody really knows the origins of Savate and whilst it would be lovely to know for sure, the best we can do is enjoy what we have and appreciate other versions or formats. My personal Savate style has been described as rough, and I actually choose to call it by its nickname of Basque Boot as it’s my personal interpretation that my group has successful road-tested over thirty plus years. A comment I often get from my students is seeing is one thing, but feeling is believing.
I can fully appreciate other people’s Savate, and I really enjoy the sports side of things as well. Different facets look really interesting, like the La Canne that I have not studied in depth.
I personally now teach and share the Savate with a Basque flavour that I was introduced to, in the hope of keeping our branch alive for current and future generations.