The Death of Vaillant

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Auguste Vaillant

The Death of Vaillant[1]

Monsieur Dupuy or Monsieur Casimir Perier[2]—it little matters which, they’re the same!—speaking in the forum of the repressive laws, had said that it was necessary for the “good men” to have their New Year’s gifts. He had not spoken of the Carnaval gift. This gift is the power that was bestowed on them. The head of Vaillant, as pale as the face of Pierrot, with a red collar like Polichinelle’s boss[3], had been put by him on the platter of the Salome parliament!

And the Herodiases of the Senate thanked him, congratulated themselves and were glad to be living under a prince who was an enemy of fear, with such an iron fist for anyone thinking of attacking them. The only regret is that we could not “interrogate” the wretch a little: to pound his own nails into his eyes and fingers and make him suffer a lot. For, regicide is calculated by the number of kings—and we have a thousand! Therefore, Vaillant was a thousand times guiltier than any other perpetrator of a capital crime.

Furthermore, the principle of National Sovereignty, although it is not divine right, amounts to the principle of Divinity. Whoever attacks it is guilty of parricide. And they used to burn sacrilegious tongues! No, definitely, they were merciful to this scoundrel by just guillotining him!

But to pardon him… I believe a riot would have broken out under the dome of the Luxembourg Palace and inside the glass skull of the Palais Bourbon[4] if they had snatched the corpse, the hostage, the ransom from the representatives.

If they cared! But remember the words of an honorable father-conscript recorded in Le Gaulois on February 3 without a shadow of protest arising: “Well, if President Carnot pardons Vaillant, we won’t pardon Congress!”

That’s how far they went—to this bargaining, this blackmail, this shameful intimidation!

#

I don’t want to believe that such considerations could influence the head of State, to make the scales tilt toward severity… but what will the simple people think, with their naïve souls, whose judgment is formed by instinct alone, far from governmental circles, in the almost anonymous shadow of suffering and labor?

Many of them knew Vaillant, had met him in the workshops or in meetings, that tall, gaunt figure with sunken eyes sparkling feverishly, with his soft speech, frugal gestures and shy demeanor, his reserve and sadness: the looks of a luckless, tragic man.

In the Marxist party, ten years ago now, he had the reputation of a good man, fairly focused, somewhat fanatic. But no one at that time could have guessed what was sprouting in his soul.

He used to lecture to the young anarchists (because in the revolutionary world at that time we were going from anarchy to Marxism, whereas today it is the opposite); he used to preach to them about the dangers of disorder; he used to praise the benefits of “socializing the means of production”; he used to be an example for Guesde—his god!—who said of him: “He’s got a good mind.” And there was certainly no partisan more active, more enthusiastic, more blindly submissive than he.

Yes, at that time, and later still, with evolution on his mind, Vaillant was an uncompromising Guesdist. He struggled to establish a neighborhood periodical with him; he lost his job for supporting the others’ candidacies. And I remember that evening when Monsieurs Guesde, Massard and Deville were dismissed by me from Le Cri du Peuple (not that I demanded them to champion Duval[5], but because it seemed monstrous to me that socialists, the fringes, in order to further their system, would push a prisoner under the guillotine’s blade), either I am totally wrong or Vaillant was among them when they came that evening to try to intimidate and set their chief up on the new editorial board—collectivist as well, but collectivist-possibilist and therefore enemy!

Today, all his beloved chiefs have turned away and against him. Some have gone so far as to insinuate that he could be working for the police…

Ordinary people are not fooled. Their opinion about the crime and the criminal is already formed. And it is quite different from what it was at the time of Ravachol![6] The pharmacist’s baby who was in danger on rue de Clichy, even though it was not hit, had struck a very different emotional chord than the deputies who were scratched by nails from the bomb in the House on the Corner of the Quay. And Ravachol, especially as seen by sectarians, was brash and cocky. Like the erstwhile Rocambole[7] he appealed to the readers of serials, but he also scared them with his tale of the hermit of Chambles and his attempts at counterfeiting, etc.

Vaillant, on the other hand, they feel sorry for… look at how feelings develop! Everyone whose childhood was lonely, misguided and forsaken can relate to this policeman’s son who was abandoned, left on the street, scarcely out of short pants, by his father’s iron rule.

Everyone who had a rough adolescence see themselves in the odyssey of this poor man, wandering from town to town in search of bread, rejected by his relatives, more alone in the desert of noisy cities than a traveler lost on the sands of the Sahara!

Everyone who suffers, struggles, is out of work; everyone who earns, who used to earn, six sous an hour; everyone who has been disappointed by their elected officials—there are some, Monsieur President!—has identified with this outcast, this casualty who incarnates the countless evils that the plebs die of!

Everyone who has felt the temptation, at any given moment, harried by the obsession of crime, whose belly is too hungry, whose throat is too thirsty, has looked upon his five crimes with pity: For begging, for pinching from a barrel on a public street, for riding a train without a ticket, for eating sixteen sous worth of food when the hungry man found himself penniless. Even the worst, involved in the misappropriation of a pair of boots with and for a friend, only makes them think, “But it wasn’t even to share in the spoils.”

So, remember, in the funeral oration, this criminal record that is so full of lessons—which was used in court to blacken a life just as it was pleaded to dishonor a memory.

Think on this, philosophers!

#

From the cradle, without a family or rather without a home, tossed around from one place to the next, almost an orphan, Vaillant was passed on from relative to relative throughout his childhood until finally wearied of this merry-go-round an aunt, trusting to fate (without a full ticket, but with a piece of bread and a bit of sausage), sent him halfway to his native city.

Thus he committed his first crime by continuing without a ticket. He was fifteen. The Est company remanded him to court because he had cheated them out of twenty francs and twenty centimes. And the court inflicted on this boy a fine of sixteen francs on May 27 1876. The sentence was not heavy, but the criminal record had begun!

It continued on April 27 1878 before the judges in Charleville with the allocation of six days in jail for “swindling food.” Starving to death he had entered a cabaret and eaten sixteen sous worth of bread, soup and cheese. I don’t know but maybe he had even offered himself the luxury of a glass or a quarter liter of something to drink.

A few months later, after making a trip from Paris to Marseille on foot, after being treated in a hospital for his bloodied feet, after spending the three mandatory nights in the ward, Vaillant found himself on the street, barely healed, now hungry and cold… and holding out his hand. The Marseille court sentenced him on November 14 1878 to three days in jail for begging.

The fourth conviction is the worst. In a factory in Algeria he helped a comrade hide and then take a pair of boots. The judges in Alger sentenced him on April 24 1879 to three months in prison. In captivity he ran a fever; when he was freed he came back to France and dragged his shivering rags from one hospital to another. In the port in Marseille he saw some barrels of wine abandoned, almost as if offered to public indulgence. Furthermore, someone told him that “white wine is good for fevers”—while his burning throat was yearning for something fresh and healthful. At night he took a little pipe, stuck it in and drank… The Marseille court on March 25 1881 gave him a month in jail.

Such was the past of this repeat offender.

Now, if the working class, at least the majority, did not get much out of the defense that he presented (too abstract, too confused, full of technical terms, as uneducated people are wont to do), they did learn his history and talked about it in their “lairs.” More than one working-class woman had tears in her eyes when hearing about his childhood; more than one working-class man clenched his fists looking at his kids and thinking of the other father: the policeman!

You should be with them, grandson of the assembly, even if it means displeasing the others, those dead leaves that the wind will blow away!

#

What I would like to know, of course, is the opinion of Commandant Maréchal, the liberal of 1848, the brilliant retired officer, the friend of Hippolyte Carnot, the one who got into the Elysée with the quatrain signed by [Victor] Hugo begging Louis-Philippe to pardon [Armand] Barbès with a beautiful and touching supplication concluding, “You do not want them to say that in 1839 the King of the French showed mercy and in 1894 the President of the Republic was ruthless.”

Poor good man, old democrat who remained humanitarian, what disillusionment he must be feeling, what heartache he must be suffering! It is a denial inflicted on his dreams, a life’s worth of effort quashed. His heart bleeds but also his belief, his ideal—a worse sorrow among many sorrows. He was, however, prepared for it after asking the widow of his dead comrade, the mother of Sadi Carnot, to present his letter and press his request. An elderly lady, that should be good, carrying her clemency up the steps that separate her from heaven? A letter, a request, a step—the old bourgeois woman refused everything.

And a monarchist newspaper straightaway published these moving lines in response, written long ago by the Duchesse of Orléans to the Countess Lobau. Here they are:

“My good, dear Maréchale’s wife, I cannot tell you how happy I am. The king just commuted the death penalty of Barbès to hard labor for life. He performed an act of generosity and grandeur. He saved the life of this man, acting according to his constitutional right, taking over in his Council because the ministers were, for the most part, leaning to the death penalty. The king told them sternly, “No, gentlemen, the hand that shook Barbès’ sister’s hand yesterday, by vowing to save him, can never sign his death certificate.” They will yell a lot and be very afraid, but such an act will never suffer from petty attacks.” — Hélène

It is a hard lesson, but I am calm: it will not be understood any more than it has been—now that Deibler[8] has acted. It remains troublesome only to the republicans who spoke in favor of the thing; and a little mercy in the guts of this cruel mother Republic for the most destitute of her children.

Vaillant’s head has fallen, but this bloody exclamation point ends nothing, concludes nothing. I hope to Heaven that I am wrong, but I tremble for the ruthless!

 

[1] Written February 7 1894 included in En Marche 1896.

[2] Former and current President of the Council of Ministers. The latter would become president after Sadi Carnot’s assassination.

[3] Characters in Commedia Dell’Arte.

[4] Seats of the Senate and National Assembly.

[5] See 4-Propaganda By Deed.

[6] See 11-Ravachol.

[7] Fictional adventurer created by Ponson de Terrail who started out on the wrong side of the law, later turned to doing good, and became the first literary super-hero.

[8] The executioner.

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14-The Wicked Laws

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Séverine by Louis Lemercier de Neuville 1895

14 – The Wicked Laws

In 1892 the world was in the midst of an economic depression and as financial and industrial tycoons continued to wrest profits out of manipulated markets, events such as the failure of the La Banque General des Chemins de Fer et Industrie resulting in the manager’s suicide did nothing but aggravate people’s frustrations and resentment. Ravachol’s crimes were seen by many as just compensation. It was a busy year across the Atlantic as well. While Ravachol was being guillotined in France, America saw the bloody Homestead Steel Strike in Pittsburgh followed by the assassination attempt of Henry Clay Frick, chairman of the Carnegie Steel Company, by Alexander Berkman in retaliation for the murdered steelworkers. The coming years saw both an upsurge in anarchist attacks and an expansion of government repression.

The “companions”, as the anarchists called each other, were no longer satisfied with mere threats. Every sentence or execution by the authorities was answered with an explosion. The abuses and perils of the factory prisons were opposed with more and more force. Anarchist terror met bourgeois terror head-on. In November 1893 a young, broke and out-of-work shoemaker named Léon-Jules Léauthier wrote to Sébastien Faure that “I shall not strike an innocent person if I strike the first bourgeois I meet.” That first person whom he met and stabbed happened to be the Serbian diplomat Georgevitch. He was spared the death sentence but died in the “dry guillotine” of the penal colony. A month later another anarchist named Auguste Vaillant tossed a bomb into the Chamber of Deputies. The homemade device full of nails scratched a few political heads, but caused more fear than damage. There were no casualties except for him.

Auguste Vaillant was thirty-two years old, unemployed, desperate and bitter. Like so many other workers of his day he was uneducated and when no work was available he was left without any resources whatsoever. The desperate energy that he would rather have expended in work was then aimed at the callous social system that he blamed for his destitution, particularly at the politicians who were also some of the richest men on France.

Although his bomb killed no one and did very little damage, his act was given a swift reply: within forty-eight hours the Chamber voted in favor of a new set of laws known as the Lois Scélérates, the Wicked Laws, targeting anarchists and the anarchist press while beefing up the Paris police force. Prison for anyone participating in any form of propaganda by deed, for anyone inciting people to do so and for anyone approving of such deeds. At the same time the authorities, wanting to keep a close eye on all possible accomplices of the anarchists, revived Napoleon’s “Cabinet Noir”, whereby they could intercept, open and read people’s mail so that even private correspondence was susceptible to reprisals in court. As to be expected, the anarchists were not the only ones to suffer the brutal effects of these policies that prohibited all revolutionary propaganda, anarchist or not, at a time when the government was being discredited by so many sensational scandals.

Vaillant himself was defended in court by Fernand Labori, who had defended Clément Duval[1] and would become internationally famous for his defense of Dreyfus and Emile Zola[2]. Despite his lawyer’s eloquent pleas, the anarchist was given the death penalty. Most of the newspapers supported the disproportionate punishment; only a very few called for leniency. Of course, it was dangerous now to show sympathy for the anarchists under the Wicked Laws, so the press practiced self-censorship or preferred to stay silent. Would Séverine stay silent? Not likely. And she was not in the habit of mixing water with the vitriol of her words. “People of the Press, open your eyes! The peril is growing!” The peril, the true anarchists, she said, were those who slowly killed, every day, the exploited workers without a sound and without scandal and with the support of a repressive government. Anarchist violence was born out of this legal violence, which was consciously ignored by the politicians and public who were demanding the harshest reactions. The ferocity of the Wicked Laws stripped her of any doubts she had had after the attack in the Véry restaurant at the opening of Ravachol’s trial. She fought with all her energy to save Auguste Vaillant from the guillotine, but in vain.

Séverine had met Vaillant at Le Cri when he was a Marxist and friend of Jules Guesde, who said he had “a good mind.” Now that Guesde was an elected deputy of Roubaix, pursuing the hypocritical ambition that Séverine had always suspected in him, he treated him like an imbecile, denying his old comrade and Séverine along with him. When she called upon the hearts of her readers to help Vaillant’s wife and daughter, as she herself had sent money to them, Guesde pointed to this as proof that she subsidized anarchy. But Séverine was not defending Vaillant’s act per se. She sympathized naturally with all forms of insurrection against injustice but in this particular case she was ardently asking people not to let his daughter, Sidonie, starve to death. She was not alone. A fund was raised for little Sidonie’s support, but very quickly an ugly battle started over the girl’s future upbringing with the Duchess of Uzés coming forward with an offer of adoption. In the face of all the ridiculous wrangling, however, the prisoner himself finally put an end to the drama by appointing Sébastien Faure, the anarchist writer, as her guardian. In the meantime the ten-year girl wrote a personal plea to the wife of President Carnot, supported by dozens of deputies and senators asking for the poor man’s reprieve. President Carnot obstinately refused and Auguste Vaillant was beheaded on February 5 1894, the first person in the 19th century to be executed without actually killing anyone. From then on France slipped into that downward spiral where retaliation for blind repression became more and more violent.

 

[1] See 4-Propaganda by Deed.

[2] See 17-19.

Blood

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Bullfighting-in-France-1899

 

Blood[1]

 

Here is what a bullfight usually is:

Inside the arena walls is staked out with boards around two-meters high an even smaller circle so that a rather wide corridor runs between the normal arena and the edge of the new one, like two little jewel cases in a game of Japanese boxes.

In this corridor are the minor figures of the troupe, the valets of the torii or the toreros, characters who are meant to liven up the spectacle with their hoots and hollering. Here, also, is where the Escamillos[2] take refuge when the animal gets too close. They get a running start, jump first onto the narrow bench that encircles the interior and then take a dive, their feet waggling in the air, into the safe corridor. This somersault is very funny.

The arena is terribly vast, so vast that at the most dramatic moments—when the toreador’s pants are about to be torn to shreds, for example—there are always, on the other side, some of his colleagues sitting calmly, chatting away, like on the terrace of a café in Puerta del Sol[3].

First in the arena is the cuadrilla: toreros, prima spade, etc., a dozen men very black, very wiry and quite puny-looking. They are smooth-faced, clean-shaven, like actors, but actors who have powdered themselves with coal; their upper bodies are buried under all the accouterments like petticoat accessories; they wear white pants that go down below their knees in the manner of schoolboys. And they wear stockings that are really pink, like the young ladies in the Revues of tawdry cabarets. These men do not leave the arena from start to finish. They are the line of defense, the infantry.

#

The cavalry is represented by the caballeros en plaza, first of all: young men apparently from good families who have devoted their lives, their energy, their future, all the power of their hearts and minds to the destruction of bulls.

The spectacle begins with them. Two of them come in the parade in a gilded coach like Cinderella’s pumpkin; then on beautiful horses that they twirl around this way and that before breaking into a sprint. These are the gentlemen who have the honor and joy of spilling the first drops of blood by sinking their banderillas into the animal’s neck. The banderillas are very fragile staves decorated with paper, like kite tails, that are topped by an iron tip, about a finger long, very sharp, which are planted straight into the flesh like knife blades.

After them come the picadores, dressed like Mexican hacienderos, with their “Forts de la Halle” hats[4] and their iron greaves like King Francis I. They hold strong, very sharp pikes that stick well. When they come into the ring the Spanish public start to have fun. The animal’s neck is hacked up; the living flesh is in pain, twitching, swelling, bruised. Blood flows over the rough, quivering skin.

The picadors ride poor, bony nags with no defense except their skin on bones, quivering in fear behind their blindfolds. Their chests are protected from the thrusting horns by an iron plate hanging around their necks like a priest’s collar. But their flanks, bellies and crotches are bare.

#

Then there is the bull.

The bull is most often small, the size of a healthy calf. The tips of its horns are rounded off so that it cannot really defend itself and they can torture it at will without running too much risk. When it arrives, it is astonished or rather delighted to be out in the open air, and God knows how hard the whole cuadrilla has to strive to make it a little angry.

With the first wound comes surprise, a painful astonishment that they are hurting it for no reason at all. This is often translated into a melancholic bellowing, a call to some unknown stranger. And with many of them this astonishment lasts until the finale along with a persistent desire to flee, which constantly compels it back to the gate of the toril.

When the cows that are responsible for driving it into the arena survive, the unusual joy of deliverance fills its teary eyes—and it follows them as quickly as it can on its weary legs, swinging the banderillas that are stuck in its wounds and leaving behind it, on the sand, a trail of blood.

Behind the gate of the toril, the butchers await its passage with raised clubs…

#

Thus is the usual bullfight and a few sensitive souls, who are, of course, ridiculous!, see an inequality between this unarmed animal and all the armed men.

On Tuesday things went differently and here is what they saw:

A bull, all of a sudden, rushed at a horse and stuck a horn in its belly between its two hind legs. It stood there like that for almost five minutes—digging around… The picador got up quickly after rolling on the ground, but the horse, blindfolded, not knowing where the agonizing torture was coming from, stood motionless, trembling and fainting on its four legs.

Blood squirted a little, then a little more; then it came gushing out.

Suddenly the bull pulled back and the horse dropped in a heap. The horn—rounded off you understand!—had gored its belly, ripped out its guts, which lay next to it, green, blue, yellow, in the ever-flowing purple blood.

The Spaniards up above were laughing so hard there were tears in their eyes. M. de Morenheim, the German ambassador, and Prince Troubetzkoy, who were not exactly children or sissies, got up and left their box while the French audience ran off with cries of horror and a number of woman slumped over and fainted.

So the horse struggled up and got its legs tangled in its entrails, trampling them under its hooves so that half of them remained in its belly while the other half lay twitching in the sand, after which they led it out of the arena at a trot.

Well, for a good bullfight, wasn’t that a great fight?

#

Is it because people have no bread that they give them games?

I am scared of these games for their sakes—I am especially scared for the others.

The only time I went to the Bullring—assurance given that no blood would be spilled, that it would only be a show of skill and agility—was on a Sunday and the upper bleachers were overflowing. It wrenched my heart—being French and a woman who knew the people well, who lived among them, who knew how horribly drunk their frustrated minds could get on the sight and smell of blood.

Being French I think you have to “stay home”, protect the customs that were our fathers’, keep intact the patrimony of civilization that they bequeathed to us and that we must not diminish but increase every day for the heritage of our children.

France can carry its arts and industry abroad, all the beneficent rays that spring from its heart and brain. It is the warmth and the light. It abets the intelligent, protects the weak, defends the oppressed. As imperfect as its social organization is, it is still a maternal, tender nation whose fits of anger are reckless, bloodying only its own breast. It has not propagated cruelty throughout the world and though it knows suffering for its duty, it has never preached nor condoned suffering for pleasure.

If a syndicate of high and mighty French men were formed tomorrow to spread French influence beyond its borders, it would build a theater where they could put on our dramatic masterpieces or a palace where they could display our artistic ones; it would establish some charity of lofty assistance for those wounded in war or disinherited by poverty—only the blood of roses would flow, in wide petals, at the feet of beloved artists who would hold in their small hands the laurels of Art or the purse of Charity.

#

I have just written something that in hindsight makes me shiver:

Suffering for pleasure! This is the typical mark of all decadent empires. Rome and Byzantium had their games in the circus—and the Barbarians arrived, trampling the beautiful civilizations, burning the libraries, decapitating the gods, pushing the world back a century into the darkness of chaos.

Suffering for pleasure! This is the most immoral, the most dreadful thing in the universe. When it is condoned—whether it be to amuse the crowd or to distract a black king—man returns to his primitive state, a savage in the caves in the age of cannibals.

From animal pain to human pain is a short, swift leap and we are closer than we think to the King of Dahomey who, after being raised with us, considers his subjects as animals and forces them slowly to their knees just to relieve his boredom.

Suffering for pleasure is forbidden by all nations that have dignity, even among those that condone the cruelest of punishments.

Formerly, at the Barrière du Combat[5], there were battles between dogs and bears here. The bears were muzzled but the dogs were given free rein. It was pretty much a bloody free-for-all; sometimes they threw other animals to the pack: who hasn’t read L’Ane mort et La Femme guillotine by Jules Janin[6]?

King Louis Philippe banned this vile slaughter.

In England cock-fights, rat-fights and dog-fights have to take place in secret because the queen’s government has strictly forbidden them. This is the example the past has given us. This is the example that the country most famous for its brutal fisticuffs and its haughty cold-heartedness has given us.

It is because suffering, truly, cannot be condoned except as an inevitable fatality, a result of a disaster or from the old remnants of barbarism that are left in us. If a few mourn the battlefields over which the idea of patriotism floats, if others, even fewer, regard the hell where modern slaves agonize, the vast majority, more worried about living than thinking, accepts what it believes it cannot prevent.

But it is a long way from this resignation to the joy of seeing a creature suffer, to gather to watch this suffering, while wearing the latest fashions, and to like it the more the victim struggles against the unjust torture.

To say with delight that steel hurts flesh, to quiver with pleasure at quivering pain, to clap your hands because a crime has been committed under a dispassionate sky—but whose justice still sits behind its azure veil, you can be sure!—to yell “Bravo!” because blood has been spilled—is this French, is this feminine?!

Woe unto the people who have lost the divine sentiment of pity!

Above all, woe unto those who have made them lose it!

If in these foreign celebrations there were only spoiled rich boys and their consorts, artists and socialites, the thing would be none the better, but would be less fraught with danger.

But again, look up at those benches where your snobbish eyes are never trained! There is a huge audience of executions, their necks stretched out, with hungry lips, hoping that they will see “some red on the road.” There are also some good people there who have come for the first time out of curiosity, who will come back a second time for pleasure, a third time out of savagery—when they will have awakened the abominable human beast within!

You get used to the blood, you tell yourself rightly, and when a red pool is on the ground, who except for experts could say whether it came from a four-legged or two-legged animal.

Of all the men butchers are the ones who stab the quickest because they are accustomed to death and they cut their bread with the same knife that cuts throats.

The idea of putting animal killers in the same basket as those who might kill people is so obvious that in a newspaper on the eve of May 1st—unjustly?—they made the murder and maiming of a hundred and fifty helpless sheep a general cry of alarm in Pantin.

Blood will have blood, I say. The day when the people are used to seeing horses gutted “for entertainment” is the day when they will gut you in your houses “for fun”!

Think about it…

 

[1] Le Rappel, May 14 1890.

[2] From the name of the toreador in Bizet’s opera Carmen.

[3] In the heart of Madrid.

[4] Large, wide hats, very much like sombreros, ringed with lead that allowed the “packers” to carry heavy loads on their heads inside Les Halles, the wholesale marketplace in Paris.

[5] In the 19th arrondissment of Paris, one of the old gates where they would collect taxes. Here it allowed the bloody spectacles to take place outside the city.

[6] The Dead Donkey and the Guillotined Woman, a novel published in 1829.

The Sugar Crackers

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Sugar Crackers

 

The Sugar Crackers (Notes of a Striker)[1]

 

To be a striker without having been a worker might, at first sight, seem rather paradoxical. But if I did not work at the factory, even for one day, it’s the fault of the owners who did not hire me the day before yesterday.

I wanted to find out, technically, about the origin and goal of this strike; to know through experience rather than through hearsay the bitterness and dreariness of this job whose name has spiced up Paris; to realize, in the end, the vast amount of willpower, endurance and fatigue that a creature has to spend to earn just enough so as not to die—and then begin again the next day!

To go down there as a “lady”, even if a friend, with pencil and notebook in hand, a female reporter among male reporters, was to risk, perhaps, finding out less about it than them—in any case, not to be able to do any more than them about it, to sit cooped up in the same circle of evolution, in the same order of ideas.

The task of a journalist is, unfortunately, an official task in such circumstances, which often smacks of sterility, though taking nothing away from its interest. Whatever the rank of the informer in the professional hierarchy, he is known, has to make himself known—hence, inferior. The two opposing parties tell him only what they want to tell him, let him see only what they want him to see.

Whereas the ideal would be to go incognito, anonymous, so much like everyone else that no one would suspect you; so assimilated to the crowd, so close to its heart that you feel it really beating, just by putting your hand on your own chest… a wave blending in with ocean, a breath mingling with the great human respiration.

Regarding questions of work, this seems to me to be especially useful. To describe the life of a worker is not enough—you must live it to really appreciate all the injustice and all the horror. Then you know what you are talking about; you are truly the echo of what you have heard, the reflection of what you have seen; to the marrow of your bones you are infused with pity and revolt!

To be “chic”, with the best intentions, with the greatest talent in the world, will never give the impression of sincerity that an uncultured person sometimes can, crudely reproducing what they saw or did.

And there is no need to dedicate years, months or even weeks to this study, to these environs, to this ordeal, as long as it is not a matter of studying the intricacies of the job, of becoming good at earning one’s wages—or of indoctrinating, like in Russia, unschooled souls. Our workers know how to think without guides: and the iniquities they suffer are so obvious (and, alas, so dreary) that a few hours are enough for anyone who knows how to watch and listen and record them.

That is what I did. For almost a day, mingling with these poor girls, dressed like them, I wandered around under the eyes of the cops in front of the deserted factory amongst the grim camaraderie of the unusual idleness. I stood with them, I listened to their grievances given free rein, I entered the factories, saw the work of the girls who had submitted—having too many children or too hungry!—and that is why I can tell you today, with full knowledge, what this strike is about and how much it deserves your attention and sympathy.

#

First of all, the word is inappropriate: they should not be called “crackers” but “arrangers” because the job consists in stacking up the sugar in boxes or crates after being cut into different sizes depending on the number. Thus the sugar for coffee is number 50 while the second, squared off into cubes, is specially reserved for the Midi. Only the waste, in powder or slivers, is sold by weight and not lined up.

Except this term “cracker” is justified by the fact that the machine they work at is called a sugar-cutting machine, when the loaf comes in whole in order to be chopped up. First it passes through the “sawyer” which cuts it perpendicularly, exactly like a black radish, into more of less thick slices depending on the length of the piece meant for consumption. Then these slices are placed into the “bar cutter” at one end, at the head of the cutting machine, which, as the name indicates, separates each one into eight strips, into eight bars. The “bands”, meaning the blades of the bar cutter, are spaced equally at more or less distance depending on the sugar number.

Here the worker comes into action. The “puller” takes the bars out of the machine; the “pusher” arranges them on the part of the sugar cutter between the bar cutter and a kind of jaw or double guillotine, one knife above, another below, which divides the bars into pieces as it goes through. Past all this are the “arrangers.”

For, everything here is in motion. A chain rolling over a wheel, like a driving belt, continuously pushes the work from the machine to the women, leaving them not a minute of rest.

In order to understand what the sugar-cutting machine is, you have to imagine a very long table, around one meter [or three feet] wide with parallel grooves, like a music staff for the blind. The sugar passes between these rails—bars above the knives, pieces below—and the six arrangers, in constant motion, incessantly, mechanically as well, take a line, turn around, put it in the crate or box that is behind them on a kind of wooden bench, about-face and start all over again, always, eternally, from seven in the morning to six in the evening, without ever stopping, without ever resting, without ever sitting down, except for ten minutes for the snack and one hour for lunch.

Well, they do move. When their box is full, they have to carry it to the scales which is, at Monsieur Sommier’s for example, twenty or twenty five meters [or yards] away. They make an average of forty trips a day. Pregnant women and little girls carry up to a thousand kilos [2,200 pounds]. Many of them are hurt; the sturdiest of them lose around two or three days of work every two weeks because of dizzy spells, exhaustion, aching sides, suffering in their maternity or their puberty.

#

I am only speaking here about their exertion because you have to resort to medical books, like I just did, to find out what illnesses are inherent to this gruesome state. They have no more nails and they have no more teeth: the former are worn down to the skin from handling the sugar and the latter are chipped, lost or eroded by the dust that it gives off—this dust that burns their eyes and throats, makes their voices hoarse and causes gastritis and tuberculosis—constant suffering and early death!

What do they earn? They earn 60 centimes per 100 kilos, which means, no matter how strong they are, between 3 fr 25 and 4 francs a day. They came to tell them about two weeks ago: “You’ll only get 50 centimes per 100 kilos. Competition is too hard. Take it or leave it.”

They left it. They left, preferring to starve to death quickly rather than die slowly. Because this would brought them down to ten sous [50 centimes, half a franc] a day—and do you realize what ten sous a day is for a working household?

They tried a general strike. The workers at the factories of Lebaudy, Lucas and François first followed the movement started at the Sommier refinery. Then they dropped it… went back. On their own the workers at Lucas, both men and women, sacrificed 15 centimes a day to come to the aide of the strikers at Sommier. But there are less than twenty of them—and the strikers are more than a hundred and forty!

Some help came from the right and from the left, sent by the plebian solidarity or the compassion of good folk who were touched, beyond all politics, by so much distress and so much courage. They could hand out thirty sous a day. And families of five, six people, lived on bread and water from it—but didn’t give in!

#

I went to meet them, on Monday, at dawn, around 6 am, at the end of rue de Flandre. The day before three delegates had come to me to tell me what was happening. When I told them about my idea to spend a day there, to get hired if possible, they were very enthusiastic, a little skeptical, however, about how to pull it off. Nevertheless, the “secretary”, Hélène Milani, a tall blonde girl, like a crane, with a determined look in her eyes, said to me, “See you tomorrow!” But she added, “You’ll never be able to do it, Madame,” which really stung me. I’m no weakling either and when I have a will to do something my will is strong.

So there I was arriving at one of their houses at the appointed hour. In no time at all I took off my gloves, veil, hat and coat and now bare-headed, my hair pulled back—that devilish hair refusing to stay in place—in a canvas blouse and skirt, a scarf on my shoulders, an apron around my waist and a basket in hand, looking so much like all of them that they went crazy with laughter.

We went down to rue de Flandre and made our way through to the big building of the Sommier refinery to find out if they were hiring. I slipped into the pack of turncoats, at the risk of being “seized” by the strikers whom I came to defend.

The street is full of police, with and without uniforms. I am only afraid of Granger, the député of the arrondissement, who is here with Lhermite from the labor exchange and my colleague Degay from the Marseillaise.   All three of them came down here because the other day the police were really brutal and in case it happened again Granger’s colors would fly. If he recognized me, he might yell something out in surprise, which would be the end of my incognito to come and go at pleasure and talk with my companions.

Gatherings are forbidden. When there are more than three and you do not move, the police come over. And since I am standing in front of the factory gate, scrutinizing every inch of it, staring at the watchman in his pretty blue uniform with metal buttons like an old soldier from the Imperial Guard, with his dreadful white whiskers, who seems rather flattered by my examination, a cop pushes me along gently, “Let’s go, gorgeous! Move along! Can’t stay here.”

I obey and take refuge with many others in “our” office located almost right across from it at 122 in a wine shop that has a sign “Let’s go to Charles’ place.”

I go to Charles’ place. We file by the counter where a few workers and a bunch of snitches are drinking up and we gather in the back, in a kind of little hall, lit from above, half ballroom, half tennis court… like hundreds of others! Except, thank heavens, no one is ranting; they are simply discussing, matter-of-factly, what would be best to do in the common interest.

My status as a newcomer does not seem to bother them—one of the delegates, Madame Gasse, answers for me—and I notice again, with inexpressible emotion, that these scorned and exploited people have (especially the women) so much natural kindness, gentleness and resignation. No or few angry words, nothing but melancholy to see how difficult an agreement is and, in spite of everything, the hope that one will be found.

“We weren’t asking for anything; just that they give us what was ours… Monsieur Sommier is not mean, he’ll want to do it: he’s so rich! It’s a problem not to work when they don’t do it.”

In truth, these laborers are here like soulless bodies, even while in their barely healed fingers the hook of bone grabs the wool. On the little table are an inkwell, paper, a wooden box and a registry. From time to time a striker arrives, signs, gets her thirty sous—goes away clutching them in her hands like someone drowning and holding onto a branch. She does not stop, does not talk; she runs… they are waiting for her to eat!

Oh, the poor emaciated faces with anemic lips, almost no pink at all in their pale skin; the poor ringed eyes, the poor creatures!

One, in a corner, has opened her undershirt to breastfeed a little baby whose skin is so wrinkled and waxen that it looks like an old man. And the lean breast appears, a weapon speaking for the whole race that is hungry before it has teeth, that is hungry when it looses them—that is always hungry!

#

One of my guides comes to take me: “Break time! They’re going to hire at François, rue Ricquer. Are you coming?”
I get up and follow her.

At François, for the ten-minute rest, the personnel rush out. Most of them are young (the others being dead or retired), many dressed in petticoats and light-colored, floral camisoles, handkerchiefs tied up as headscarves, tips flying in the wind, over their sugar-frosted hair. At first sight it is almost pretty in this bright September sun, like a rising of grisettes[2] in Porcherons[3]. But the illusion vanishes quickly among the gapped smiles, the chapped lips, the narrow shoulders, the sunken throats and all the dry little coughs that echo pretty much everywhere. What looked like color in the cheeks is really just fever. Gradually as the little beads of sweat dry on their temples, the color disappears from their cheeks. Then they turn as pale as faded dolls…

We amble through the courtyard. “Look, there’s the Vésinet,” my companion tells me. It is a dark basement where machines, human shapes, vaguely stand out.

“What is that?”
“That’s where they work. But come upstairs, it’s better.”

In fact, at the top of a few stairs the room is bright, at least. But it is the same sweltering heat, the same steam, the same sugar dust that chokes and suffocates us. The sugar cutting machines are there and my companion gives me a lesson, showing me how the machine works and what I would have to do.

“Except,” she tells me, “in the evening your fingers will be pissing blood.” And she draws my attention to the women’s hands wrapped in rags and strips.

The foreman arrives. My companion talks to him timidly, tells him what we want. Not looking at us, but still very polite, he answers, “I have my people for today. Come back tomorrow at 6 am and we’ll hire you.”

I put in my pocket the booklet printed for the occasion by my adopted sister and we leave, crossing the courtyard as the workers return. At the entrance a striker who had come to watch the defections yells at me, “Lazy girl, get going!”
Well, that, no!

#

Now I only have to try to get inside Sommier’s to get a glimpse of the establishment.

“There’s only one way: bring a liter to Barthélemy!”

I would love to bring a liter to Barthélemy, but they still have to explain to me how to do it.

“Here you go. Barthélemy is a tub carrier at the refinery underneath the place where we usually work. The tub carriers never leave; whatever they need is brought from outside until three in the morning. My husband brought him his breakfast, but we can still bring him a liter.”

“How can I do it?”
“You go right past the watchman without saying a word. You go straight into the courtyard, go down some stairs and in the cellar are the tub carriers. Then you yell out, ‘Hey, Barthélemy!’ And you’ll see how hard their job is, too, and how hot it is down there.”

No sooner said than done. The plan was carried out to the letter. I strolled past the gateman and lickety split stumbled into the basement. At the entrance I got dizzy from the torrid heat. Men in canvas pants, no shirts, their chests and stomachs protected by a kind of leather-worker’s apron, file by carrying huge copper containers that they empty, one after another, into the machine with the bread tins. That’s molten sugar that they are carrying. You have to see their weary movements when they pour out their load and go back to get another from the metal vats! And those stupid painters who insist on portraying the Danaids when these creatures of flesh and blood right here are giving such a show of art. What a splendor! What a shame!

All around, like in a huge bombshell foundry, the tins are lined up against one another, point downward.

But I dare not yell out, “Hey, Barthélemy!” I ask for him.

“Don’t know him,” the first answers.

“Hold on,” says another. “That’s Andouille[4]!”

“Hey, Andouille!” The whole basement yells out together.

A tall, curly-haired young man who looks good-natured, comes out of the depths. “Who wants me?”
“It’s your girlfriend bringing you a liter.”

“That’s not my girlfriend, but I still want my liter.”

I hold it out to him, smiling. “It’s from Eulalie.”

“You tell her thanks a lot. And you, too, miss.”

As I leave, I wander a little. I watch the pretty flow of the factory. I calculate what source of wealth lies in these buildings, these machines, this powerful organization of Capital.

And all of a sudden I think of a visit I once made a long time ago to the castle of Vaux-Fouquet[5], that royal residence of a royal superintendent, which is owned today by Monsieur Sommier. I think of the statues in the arbors, the fresh, woodland air, the marvelous shade, all that well-being, all that luxury, those pleasures of Maecenas, and rebuilding such a residence from its ruins.

These poor girls are right. It should be impossible for them to remain hard and implacable when they enjoy such comfort and satisfaction here on earth.

Outside the delegates come up to me. “We just made our last offer to the owner. Even when we split the difference, the two sous, giving 55 centimes, he didn’t want to hear it.”

A sob.

“What’s wrong?”

“He was like ice… he talked to us so nastily!”

“And what was the reason for his refusal?”
“Monsieur Sommier just said that he couldn’t do it, that he didn’t have the means.”

#

Weep, oh nymphs of Vaux, over your master’s poverty. It makes many others weep, too, this poverty that gnaws away at wages to lodge it in his palaces and that can do nothing but make a bunch of young children and old mothers and weary women slowly perish in one of our working suburbs.

[1] Le Journal, September 28 1892.

[2] Young, flirtatious, working-class women, sometimes referring to prostitutes.

[3] In the 9th arrondissement in Paris.

[4] Numbskull or Goofy, for example.

[5] Vaux-le-Vicomte.