9-General Boulanger

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Séverine3

Séverine was not one to mince words and was always ready to give her opinion on the most controversial subjects of her time, but there was one matter in which she remained undecided and ambiguous, largely avoiding taking sides: General Boulanger.

A decorated military man, General Ernest Boulanger started to rock the national boat when he was appointed War Minister in 1886 under the aegis of the radicals who considered him the only republican among the monarchists and bonapartists of the army. He was fifty-years old, seductive, elegant, and the press loved him. He also had a loud voice that served him well when he shouted out for revenge against the Germans and introduced measures that provoked the Empire. He was so vociferous, in fact, that he earned the nickname General Revenge as he defied Bismark to a point just short of war.

Men and women, rich and poor alike fell victim to his charms when he rode his gleaming black horse, Tunis, down the Champs Elysées. Still hurting after the defeat of 1870 and the Paris Siege, not to mention the loss of Alsace and Lorraine, the French people were easily impressed and attracted to a swashbuckling figure defending their national honor. Of course he had fought against the Communards, but he was wounded early, which kept him from participating in the Bloody Week. And although he had no real political convictions he was extremely ambitious and was able to lure support from both sides of the political spectrum by criticizing the slow progress made for workers’ rights, the insolence of wealthy owners, the corruption of politicians and businessmen, the neglect of social reform and even the colonial misadventures paid for in soldiers’ blood. In fact, he was trying to straddle all sides of the political fence, but it was not seen like that at the time. Some royalists thought he might be used to restore the king. Republicans saw him as the best guarantee of democracy. Nationalists listened to his anti-German rhetoric. Everyone fabricated a Boulanger to fit their needs. And Boulanger flattered them all.

The men in power started getting worried and when just over a year after he took office a new government was elected in May 1887 and it saw the general as a real threat to its stability. He was so powerful, indeed, that he could organize its fall—so they fired him. Huge crowds stormed the train to bid him farewell as he left for Clermont-Ferrand as the new Commandant of 13th army corps. Exit Boulanger. Yesterday’s idol, today’s demon. But it was not so easy to get rid of him.

Suspected of being in league with the royalists the army expelled him in May 1888. But his political career continued to gain momentum. Henri de Rochefort, ex-Communard, future anti-Semite and nationalist, enemy of Séverine, with the help of bonapartists, nationalists, radical republicans and all those dissatisfied and frustrated with the parliament, beat the general’s drum during next parliamentary elections. Along with a number of his supporters in seven different departments he was elected into office. With his electoral triumph in Paris in January 1889, rumors of a coup d’état were being bandied about, but under the influence of his mistress Madame de Bonnemains he missed the boat. In the end he proved an abler horseman than politician.

Where was Séverine in all this? She was still at Le Cri du Peuple for one. Georges de Labruyère, her lover, was a boulangist at the start in 1887. He quit Le Cri to found his own paper, La Cocarde, a thoroughly pro-boulangist paper—the general, too, needed publicity. Georges would later abandon it all for a new anti-boulangist paper, La Jeune République, which was rumored to be financed by the minister of the Interior. Well, Georges was never the bulwark of honest consistency. But in the meetings of La Cocarde Séverine made the acquaintance of George Laguerre and his ravishing new wife, the ex-actress Marguerite Durand. With her feminist and socialist ideas, she and Séverine hit it off right away. Their lifelong friendship and collaboration began in her salon where Séverine met General Boulanger in person with all kinds of his supporters. She could not appreciate his nationalism or his military bearing in all things, but she was attracted to his anti-parlementarism, his hostility to the hypocritical republic that was rife with corruption and was slowly strangling the poor to death.

At Le Cri, however, the socialists attacked Boulanger. Not only could they never forgive him for fighting against the Commune, but they saw in him the menace of dictatorship. Séverine answered them with her “Letter to Boulanger” in the name of freedom of thought and expression. Her “rabbit” made all Paris laugh, including Boulanger, but her stance was unclear. Was Boulanger any better or worse than other politicians? At least he spoke in support of the workers. And the people were behind him, if only for one simple reason: they were all fed up with the Republic. She supported the people.

Séverine was fully aware that her relationship with de Labruyère along with her ambiguous attitude toward Boulanger would cause problems, but she could not be dishonest and bridle her thoughts. Although suspected of boulangism, she kept her distance and her independence of thought. She remained skeptical, but like the people she had a weakness for the underdog, for the victims of power, whoever they might be, and Boulanger was being beaten down.

The government had decided it was time to end the threat once and for all and accused Boulanger of conspiracy to overthrow the government with the royalists. He fled into exile first to Brussels, then to London, later to Jersey and then back to Brussels while being sentenced to death in absentia in Paris. In the face of this and the general’s sluggish reactions, Boulangism was dying out in France. In the general elections later in 1889 most of the boulangist candidates were defeated. By this time Séverine had left her editorial position at Le Cri and was publishing her habitually libertarian opinions in other papers. With Boulanger hiding in England the movement seemed dead and buried. But in 1890 a series of anonymously written articles entitled “Behind the Scenes of Boulangism”[1] was published in Le Figaro, which revealed the intrigues and secret negotiations that Boulanger had with the royalists on one side and the bonapartists on the other, right under the nose of his republican staff. Financed by the bankers as well, Boulanger was manipulating everyone for his personal ambition. Séverine wrote a slanderous jeremiad against the author, revealing Mermeix[2] as Boulanger’s Judas. Georges de Labruyère backed her up and since he and Mermeix had fought an undecided duel once before after the Lissagary affair[3], now again witnesses were sent to demand satisfaction. The outcome of the duel was disputed and Labruyère accused his adversary of perfidy resulting in Mermeix being blasted by the press and losing his credibility. Séverine came out the winner in this round, but she would be haunted by boulangism for years to come.

The Boulanger romance finally ended in tragedy. Marguerite de Bonnemains, his mistress, died of tuberculosis on July 15 1891 in Brussels. Two and a half months later, on September 30, abandoned by his faithful partisans and now forsaken by his beloved, George Boulanger stood over her grave in the Ixelles cemetery and shot himself in the head. A picture of her and a lock of hair were plastered to his bloody shirt. He was buried in the same grave.

[1] Les Coulisses du Boulangisme.

[2] Nom de plume of Gabriel Terrail.

[3] See 5—The End of Le Cri.

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