The Death of Vaillant


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!


Next:  15-Bombs, Assassinations and the Trial of the Thirty

[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.