Letter to Boulanger


General Boulanger:Tunis

Letter to Boulanger[1]

Dear General,

Three days ago now the word hatred was printed next to your name. In this newspaper everyone is free to feel what he wants and so interpret as he sees fit. I acknowledge no right to revise their writing, just like I do not acknowledge their right to modify mine. But seeing that they have expressed their opinions, I am going to say what I think, without beating around the bush, in all simplicity.

I do not hate you. I feel worried about your young popularity and I feel a little of that anxiety that mothers feel as they watch over their threatened brood. I love my poor like others love their children; they are my soul, the flesh of my flesh, and (keep this in mind) whoever might think of attacking them better watch out!

They are distrustful of the sword—however much it is tolerated! The people are like a faithful but proud dog. Because they have been beaten they stop, arch their backs, growl and snarl at the sight of the whip. There was no intention of whipping them? It does not matter! They were not threatening, they were remembering!

The people remember. Every time the pages of history are printed with the pommel of the sword, these pages are illuminated in red like the pages of a gothic missal.

It knows the legend of the gladiator’s sword by heart—the sword that was hard on the poor in antiquity just like it is today.

They told people in school about the words of Brennus[2] as he threw his heavy blade into the scales crying out, “Woe to the vanquished!” whereas he, the pariah, had respect and love for the vanquished—who were always his own people. And they taught them about the harsh words of the great knight in white armor who leaned on Charlemagne’s mighty sword, looked out over the Vosges at France and proclaimed, “Might makes right.”

They know by experience in our working suburbs (go on and see) that might makes right!


That is why, general, you have the population with you, the indecisive, fickle mass that shouts Long Live this one and Long Live that one; that goes everywhere a racket is being made; that is headed by a sorry cook in a chef’s hat, a grocer in a brown smock; that at tragic times, once in a while, out of its childishness turns ferocious and can both shoot Lecomte and stone Varlin on the Rue des Rosiers[3].

You, however—for, I do not wish to be unjust—you have all those who are tired of the present state of things: the small shopkeepers threatened with bankruptcy, the politicians threatened with elimination, the women who love the unexpected, and also the fanatics of patriotism who see in you, I would swear to it, with your blue eyes, red hair and white skin… a living French flag!

All of them follow you because you speak well, you look good, your gilding blazes in the sun—you incarnate, my general, the heroic follies of warrior France.

But this is the crowd, not the people! While the one is awed by your scabbard, the other thinks of the sharp, cutting sword that sleeps inside it—and that this blade was brandished against it in 1871…

Oh, I know what your people may say: that you were thirty years old, which is just a kid for a man of state; that whoever belongs to the army has to choose between obedience and death whereas because of his education and the barracks he has no choice—the brain, barely developed, received that dreadful helping hand of discipline.

I know all this and do not say that these arguments are insignificant. I come from a family of soldiers and only have to remember the words that enraged me as a child to know what, from the philosophical point of view, an officer’s baggage weighs.

There is more.

My teacher in literature and politics, Vallès the citizen who knew how to write and the gentleman who knew how to think, Vallès had more hatred for the vile bourgeoisie sweating fear and cowardice in the aisles of Versailles than for the soldiers launched against him who risked their lives in the streets of Paris. His only exception was for the one who was not content with waging a civil war like they wage a foreign war, an inroad here, some headway there, but who was the virtuoso of slaughter, the champion of massacre, applying his incomparable expertise in cutting the throats of women, children and old men.


However, the logic is simple and inescapable. They see the deed: the commander’s cross[4] received after 1871—go on and tell them that they only rewarded your service record abroad and that it was much more for blood spilled before the Prussians than for the two bullets caught in Paris.

Here I am slandering my people by treating them as implacable. No one is less so than they are; and the good people believe in all the conversions—that is what defines their glory and their saintly goodness. On reproaching you for your past, I forgot about Cluseret[5] who after having been decorated for his part in the repression of the rebels of June ’48 became one of the most ardent generals of the Commune. I forgot about that young orator of the socialist party, a former noncommissioned officer in the Versailles army who today is defending his adversaries of seventeen years ago.

That is the proof that they are certainly not implacable! And what you said during the strike in Decazeville[6] did more for your popularity than the song of Paulus[7] and the articles of your bootlickers! It was human, that idea of making the soldiers share their slop with the striking miners, of ameliorating the insurrection of hunger by putting them in the mess line.

They said more to me. Everyone knows that you are penniless; maybe that is what makes your glory good and cheerful.   They told me that the big stockholders down there [in Decazeville] would have liked to rinse the black throats with lead and they would have willingly shod a horse in gold for whoever gave them this pleasure. They missed their shot—and you your fortune! If this is true, it is good… you started paying the debt of 1871.

But I am dawdling and I want to tell you this:

If ever, my general, you get the crazy idea to tear down the Chamber, do not bother about the socialists—they will not bother you. I even think that the people will laugh hard and the League of Anti-Patriots will give you a hand… if you are really so inclined.

They will justify themselves afterward, that’s all.

For, I have a strange theory that you might not like at first, but on reflection is really quite nice. In the shooting galleries at the fairs I prefer the one, big, plaster rabbit—the pride and joy of the place—that is easier to shoot down because it is more “substantial”; more flattering, too, because the spectators get more excited. I prefer this big fat object to the hundreds of wretched little targets that are hard to get in your sights and less glorious to hit.

At the Palais-Bourbon[8] there are five hundred glairy heads that stick to your fingers and would be hell to unglue. Whereas only one man…

Be the rabbit, my general!

[1] Included in Notes d’une frondeuse, 1894.

[2] A 4th century Gaul who defeated the Romans. When they tried to ransom back occupied Rome with gold, they disputed about the weights.

[3] General Claude Lecomte (1817-1871), shot by the Communards. Eugène Varlin (1839-1871), lynched, blinded and finally shot by a mob during the Bloody Week.

[4] The Legion of Honor.

[5] Gustave Cluseret (1823-1900), ex-military officer who joined the Paris Commune but was arrested there and then freed by the Republican army which then sentenced him to death. He returned from exile in 1884 and was elected a deputy in 1888.

[6] “Don’t worry because maybe right now every soldier is sharing his soup and ration of bread with a miner.” And see 6—Martyrs of the Mines.

[7] Jean-Paul Habans (1845-1908) was famous for his song about Boulanger, “En revenant de la revue.”

[8] The seat of the French National Assembly.


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