21—Plundering Politics and Robbing Banks
“I’m a feminist and I’ll remain a feminist until I die, even though I don’t like women such as they are any more than I like people such as they are. The mentality of slaves disgusts me.”
Women’s suffrage seemed to be making progress in France when Ferdinand Buisson proposed to give the women the right to vote in municipal elections. As restrictive as this proposal was, at least it was step forward. 291 deputies agreed. But the Senate, the vigilant guardians of tradition, remained unanimously hostile.
Le Journal started a campaign for the “vote blanc”: Don’t vote for any particular candidate, just say “I want to vote”. To kick off this campaign Séverine is the first they ask because she is a matriarch (at 59 years old). Despite her past reservations because of her anti-parliamentary stand, she is not afraid to evolve. As long as women remain dependent on men and defenseless against all economic exploitation, nothing would ever change.
More than 500,000 women came out and said “yes” on May 5 1914 against 114 “no”. And now what? Wait patiently for the kind deputies to make it official for the next elections in 1918? Not enough. They must continue to press on.
On July 5 1914 6,000 women took to the streets of Paris for the first time in French history. Arm in arm, Marguerite Durand and Séverine led the march to the Institut de France and the statue of Condorcet about whom Séverine gives a speech. Unfortunately they did not count on the madness of men. Less than a month later World War I broke out and shattered their hopes in trenches and massacres. Women would face continual refusals by the Senate for 30 more years before getting the right to vote in 1944.
Along with women, labor was also continuing its struggle for rights, unsuccessfully for the most part. On May 1 1906 the CGT called for a general strike in demand for an eight-hour workday for all industrial workers. It would be the biggest strike, the first general strike in France but only 200,000 workers responded. The government under Prime Minister Clemenceau (and his so-called “Radical Party”) responded in force, declared a state of emergency, arrested the CGT leaders and put Paris under siege—60,000 troops were out patrolling the streets. The violent repression triumphed and the strikers returned to work. Despite the wealth being advanced, working conditions continued to decline and more and more workers were pushed in desperate or even criminal activities.
It seemed that for everyone but the working class this was an era of hope, as they sang on the sinking Titanic in 1912. And it was all being recorded on celluloid as some of the earliest cinema-vérité. Airplanes were flying across the English Channel; Jack Johnson became the first black Heavy Weight Champion of the World; the first neon light was introduced in Paris; and the first electric start was installed in an automobile. And then another automobile invention in France: the getaway car.
The Bonnot Gang threw France into terror and confusion for half a year, a whole period of heroic folly and violent crimes. It started on December 21 1911 when they robbed a bank in Chantilly and escaped in a stolen car, shooting a guard in the process. On January 2 1912 they broke into a house and killed the wealthy owner and his maid during the robbery. The gang continued their spree, their stolen cars outspeeding the police who were on horseback or bicycles. They seemed to be everywhere at once. Four different sightings in the country at the same hour on the same day.
By March a number of their supporters were arrested and their identities were known: Octave Garnier, the founder, Raymond Callemin, René Valet and Jules Bonnot, the driver who gave the name to the gang.
Soon their close accomplices were arrested: André Soudy, Edouard Carouy and then Callemin himself in April. By the end of the month almost 30 accomplices and supporters were in custody. On April 28 Bonnot was cornered in a building in the suburb Choisy-le-Roi. 500 policemen besieged the place before blowing it up with dynamite and shooting Bonnot—he died the next morning. On May 14 it was the turn of Garnier and Valet in the suburb Nogent-sur-Marne. Over 1,000 police and soldiers fought for hours while hundreds of onlookers picnicked during the siege. Again the authorities blew the place up. Garnier died in the explosion but Valet shot it out to death.
The trial started in February 1913. Despite all kinds of contradictory evidence and obvious lies, many of the actors were given harsh sentences: Eugène Dieudonné, Marius Metge and Carouy life sentences for example. Victor Serge five years in solitary confinement for conspiracy. Raymond Callemin, Antoine Monnier and André Soudy were guillotined on April 21 1913.
The real fear of this gang came from the fact that they called themselves anarchists and made no apologies for it. The newspapers would talk about their audacious bank robbery and shooting a guard but not about the banker who embezzled hundreds of times more money than they stole. These “Auto Bandits”, as they were called, were not your typical criminals. They wrote poetry, talked philosophy and science and sent mocking letters to the police. But they were anarchists and for decades anarchy alone was criminal to the public and the state. The Illegalists, however, were not mere criminals out to make money and they were not intellectual anarchists only spreading propaganda—they believed in direct action and the immediate need of revolution.
Toiling away for rich employers and completely losing their dignity before getting fired and ending up begging or stealing to avoid starvation—this is what the working class lived. Disenchanted with the defeats of labor strikes and rebelling against this system made the Bonnot Gang working class heroes and the best-known anarchists in France. But most anarchists were still relying on non-violent or syndicalist actions and turned against illegalism. Séverine also had a hard time swallowing their anarchist claims. She wondered whether their individualism was not just a cover for egoism and self-interest. Still she intervened to save some of the accused like Rirette Maitrejean and Antoine Gauzy, minor players in the drama.
Most importantly, perhaps, she refused to reveal the names of informants. Confidentiality was the “honor of the profession.” At a time when spies flooded the streets in hope of collecting the reward money, editors were receiving all kinds of letters and information (some of it planted by the police) about the whereabouts of the gang. Authorities were more than willing to do whatever it took to stamp out the least remnant of anarchism. Refusing to be a snitch was a rebellious act in itself.
In the final count, the bandits had killed 9 people and wounded 10. The police killed 9 of them (the tenth committed suicide before they could kill him) and imprisoned dozens more. Now everything was back to normal.
In hindsight the “outrages” of these bandits (probably more the threat to private property than to actual life) do not seem to deserve the panic that struck the bourgeoisie, especially in the countdown to the historic slaughter of World War I.
 Marquis de Condorcet (1743-94), leader in the French Revolution and advocate of women’s rights, the abolition of slavery, religious tolerance, etc.