The fight over control of Le Cri du Peuple had started even before Jules Vallès died. Guesde and his friends had tried to take over the paper during his sickness and impose their form of scientific socialism under the cult of Marx. They wanted a newspaper in their image: rigid, authoritarian and dogmatic. The little bourgeois upstart, the little anarchist in skirts (as they saw her) was tolerable while Vallès was alive because she provided the money, but after his death, it was time to put her in her place—in the bottom shelf of a desk in the basement, preferably. They did not know Séverine. She was not the kind to stand by idly and let them usurp the paper. And a couple of events shook up their plans.
Firstly, the Naquet Law was passed in France, authorizing divorce. Séverine took advantage right away and on December 2 1885 she married Dr. Adrien Guebhard. In spite of all the scandals that would follow and their separation soon afterward, they would never divorce. Their relationship always remained respectful and affectionate. Presently it meant that she continued to hold the coffers of the paper.
The other significant event took place the day after Vallès’ funeral. A journalist by the name of Georges de Labruyère from L’Echo de Paris came to interview Séverine. Labruyère was young, handsome and talented, although less famous for his journalism than for his duels. Still, the article that he wrote, “Vallès’ Friend”, was not just a praise of the disciple, but a flattering portrait of the woman, the only one to be accepted as an equal among the editors of the press. She immediately saw in him an ally, which she sorely needed at Le Cri. When she invited him to join the staff, he had no trouble accepting. The Guesde clan saw that she was not about to step down quietly, so the battle was on. But they were willing to sink lower than she would ever go.
Séverine was trying to keep Vallès’ dream alive: that Le Cri du Peuple be the voice of the people, the voice that was imprisoned in silence, a militant voice against economic and political exploitation. But she also wanted to modernize the paper that she saw becoming sad and boring. She wanted more than the traditional professors of revolution spouting propaganda from their high chairs. The workers deserved more. They wanted excitement and information and they wanted to identify with the stories being told to them. Georges de Labruyère had ideas. He, like Séverine, was part of the new “American” school of journalism popularized by the New York Herald—fewer commentaries, more facts. Who, what, why, where and when. Investigative reporting on the scene with eyewitness accounts. Séverine, however, never lost sight of the goal or sacrificed her role, which she saw as spreading the hatred of injustice and the love of truth among the people. But as Vallès used to say, you made no progress if you only preached to the converted, if you only reflected the opinion of your readers. So, Le Cri was anarchist, absolutely, but it was also collectivist, Blanquist, republican, independent or possibilist depending on who was writing.
She knew that this harmony was a façade and would last only as long as she yielded to the editorial staff. But with the source of money at her back they could not get rid of her and with Georges de Labruyère at her side they could not shut her up. Through Clément Duval they attacked. Theft, they claimed, was unacceptable and thieves, no matter where they came from, were no allies of theirs. Séverine did not yield. Their mutiny failed, bitterly. When they abandoned ship, they went to war.
They founded a new paper, La Voie du Peuple, and resuscitated an old scandal. Back in December 1885 a certain Lissagaray started a campaign to bring down the competing newspaper. It denounced Le Cri as a vain, contemptible rag full of hot air, lies and exaggeration that compromised the Cause for the sake of sales and publicity for its director, Dr. Guebhardt, a shameless profiteer disguising himself as a revolutionary. Not only was Adrien unconcerned by this, but he was not a fighter. And yet such slanders demanded satisfaction.
The duel was illegal, but it was inseparable from the life of the press, as absurd as it might sound—but absurdity is part of the French spirit. Although they rarely proved fatal—they usually stopped the fight at the first drop of blood for swords or a limited number of shots for pistols—they still risked life. Of course dueling was exclusively male, which was another difficulty for a woman journalist—the editor had to represent her. Without a champion to fight for her, it could be an excuse for censorship. Astie de Valsayre, the secretary of the League of Women’s Freedom, jumped in the fray, however, criticizing Séverine for needing a man to fight for her and demanding women’s right to duel. Since it was impractical to fight in long frilly skirts and a corset she petitioned the right to wear pants—it was refused (it was still technically illegal for women to wear pants until the law was revoked in 2013). Séverine loved her dresses and therefore hated Astié de Valsayre and all her hype.
So, it was Georges de Labruyère who took the field for Le Cri and its sponsor. But far from settling the issue, Lissagary felt it was halted too soon, without enough blood being spilled, hinting that his adversary was dodging out of danger. Labruyère sent witnesses for a second fight, but Lissagaray refused. He claimed that he had just learned how despicable the representative of Le Cri really was and he would never have accepted the first challenge if he had known: George de Labruyère, he claimed, was a hired pen and a snitch for the police. A year later, in December 1886, the polemic was resumed by Abel Peyrouton in L’Echo de Paris who dragged Séverine’s personal life into the battle, calling her a whore who squeezed money out of her john (Adrien, her husband) to pay her pimp (Labruyère, her lover). And there was worse: Séverine and Labruyère had been caught doing the dirty deed in the public restrooms of Tuileries by the police, but her connections had kept it quiet since Séverine’s father had been a policeman.
Bad as this was, it was worse a few months later, after the confrontation over anarchy, when her former staff resuscitated the accusations and slung all kinds of calumnies, insinuations, insults and obscenities with no other goal but to destroy her. Worst of all, they sent a collection of the articles to Madame Guebhard. With her poor sight, it was Séverine’s son Roland, now seven years old, who had to read all the slanders to her. After first refusing to answer such base recriminations, Séverine finally responded, point by point, to all the dirt. It was true that she was having an affair with Georges de Labruyère, but she had told Adrien all about it during the Duval polemic and he had accepted peaceably, leaving Paris to live with his mother and son in Provence. As for her father, she gives a long, sympathetic portrait of his career, describing the proletariat in ragged overcoats, the whole class of petty, pen-pushing bourgeoisie.
This would not be the last public confrontation for Séverine in her career, but for Le Cri it was the end. Not because of the scandal, but because of the spirit. Since the “revolutionaries” had been replaced by the “possibilists”, more moderate reformers, the energy and hope of the debut had been snuffed out. She wrote her farewell article on August 29 1888.
Henceforth Séverine had to write for various newspapers, meet headlines, earn a living. Becoming the first professional female journalist in France, she had to hire out her pen, but she would not hire out her soul. Not only because she had a keen sense of responsibility of the press, but also because she did not have to: by now Séverine was famous. Feared by some, notorious to others, respected by most and in demand—her name on the front page sold papers.