Rirette

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RIRETTE

Rirette[1]

A nice name, isn’t it? A name right out of another time when the coquettes still wore bonnets, when windmills still had blades and when it was, nonetheless, the bonnets that flew over the windmills. And is it a real name or a nickname given in a good mood during the spring because of that smile that brightens her face?

I thought that was enough because I do not know her. I have never had the chance to meet her, nor any of her friends. I only know her by her pictures, snapshots taken by chance. A sweet, mischievous face, lively eyes, like a little girl—but a girl who is a relative of Gavroche[2], a girl who, after playing well and laughing, loving the sun, drinking cheap wine under the arbor, sighing over slow waltzes, smelling violets at four sous with more enthusiasm than others do a rose at one gold louis, she would die carefree and beautiful… heroically!

Is she from Paris, my neck of the woods? Is she a runaway bourgeoisie or an adventurous worker from a distant province? I know nothing at all. Paris took her, that’s all I know. It fashioned her in its way, gave her its native girls’ zest, their alert grace, that lip turned rosy from Montmorency cherries or Robinson strawberries. There is also the taste for mystery, romance, the unexpected and for risk…

Too much, alas, poor Rirette! Did I tell you that Rirette was in prison? She laughed when they arrested her; laughed in the courts of justice, at the onlookers, the reporters, the photographers; laughed at the light, the free air, the broad daylight! I also did not tell you that Rirette was 22 years old—and with two little girls who were taken away from her.

This alone is serious because this girl loves her girls tenderly and passionately. And yet she condemned herself to never see them again. She accepted being deprived of their arms around her neck, their little mouths on her cheek, their affectionate words that are like hugs. This young mother has cut herself off from her children instead of giving to Justice the little service they demand of her: become an informant.

This was the price, given the levity of the charges weighing on her, whereby she could have doubtlessly obtained her provisional freedom, maybe even an acquittal. The law, for those who bow to it, has a lot of indulgence…

Being serious, this time, she said no. And she repeated it at every attempt, worsening her fate in perfect knowledge of the cause, accepting all charges that her irritating silence brought on.

I mentioned Gavroche… maybe we should speak of Bara[3].

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What did she do? She did not kill or steal or burn or explode. She was not one of those interesting society women whose guilt or non-guilt is the talk of the town, the subject of controversies and conversations. She is also not a heroine of love: she has harmed no man or woman out of passion.

Her case is less serious and more complex—and therefore more dangerous.

Since her friend has progressive opinions, they reproach her for some suspicious acquaintances. Isn’t that it? Whoever lives in a rather wide and busy circle, should they have to answer for everyone they meet, greet, shake hands with or with whom they happened to be a guest in the same place—which is the case?

Especially when we are talking about the office of a newspaper, a more crowded place than anywhere else in the world! Rirette (I remind you she is 22 years old) was working for a newspaper that was foolhardy enough to rent the space in her name.

“Now, during the search we found two little revolvers in the office of this newspaper and it was established that these guns had been stolen. Possession of stolen property.”

“I’m not a thief!” Rirette shouted indignation. “I didn’t even know that these weapons were stolen.”

“That’s possible,” the judge replied. “But you must have known who had put them there. You were the tenant, legally, and therefore responsible… There could very well be a way to mitigate your responsibility and reduce the charges against you. The thief had no fear of compromising you by dumping stolen goods in a place rented in your name. He had no scruples toward you… why would you have any toward him? Give us a name!”

Rirette looked at the judge, the bailiff, the green walls within which so many unfortunate, so many innocent and guilty had argued. She thought of her little girls, of freedom, of her comrades who remained faithful and whom it would be nice to see walking around the streets of Paris.

The judge waited, thought she was hesitating while she was, in fact, dreaming.

“Come on,” an encouraging voice said.

“No,” Rirette shook her head and her face that had turned pale after so many months in jail. “To denounce someone is a dirty trick! Keep me, condemn me, send me to prison or wherever you want! I won’t do it!”

She was put back in the paddy wagon and back behind bars in that great black house at the end of rue Faubourg Saint-Denis. And if, when the lights are turned out, Rirette is no longer Rirette, if she breaks down and cries, if she calls out to her children, stretches out her arms in the night, nobody will imagine, nobody will know. At dawn she is Rirette like she was the night before, brave and cheerful. If a sparrow alit behind the bars it could chirp, “How are you, little sister?”

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In these times when character is becoming rare, it is interesting to me to show this wisp of a woman rebelling against becoming an informant. So many men (and good ones at that!) turn themselves willingly into informants.

Oh, I forgot! The newspaper is called “L’Anarchie” and Rirette is officially Mme [Mrs] Maitrejean. But these details take nothing away, isn’t it true, from the reality of the facts or the self-sacrifice of the denial.

 

[1] Gil Blas, August 11 1912.

[2] A street urchin in Victor Hugo’s novel Les Miserables.

[3] Joseph Bara (1779-1793), young boy who died fighting for the French Revolution.

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21-Plundering Politics and Robbing Banks

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5-7-14, manifestation des suffragettes (1)

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.”

–Madeleine Pelletier

 

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[1] 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.

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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.

 

[1] Marquis de Condorcet (1743-94), leader in the French Revolution and advocate of women’s rights, the abolition of slavery, religious tolerance, etc.