The Worker’s Dreyfus Affair

I’m currently working my way through a French fictionalisation of the Bonnot Gang, if ever there was such a thing.

There’s little doubt that there was an anarchist gang of illegalists but the naming of the gang is an invention of the press, who then, as now, relished the creation of news as much as reporting it.

The book is called L’homme à la carabine and it’s by Patrick Pécherot if you’re interested.  It’s only available in French but it’s a wonderful book.

I don’t want to pretend I’m flying through the book.  My dictionary is taking a real hiding.

A recent chapter began in the street where I live and referred to the execution of the thief and killer Jean-Jacques Liabeuf.  I had never heard of him before but it was pretty clear that this was a major story of the time.  Time to broaden my knowledge of the rich and violent history here in Paris…

Jean Jacques Liabeuf was a cobbler working in the Les Halles area of Paris.  He was originally from St Etienne where he had served a couple of jail sentences for theft.  After serving some time in the army he moved to Paris where he fell in love with Alexandrine Pigeon, a prostitute whose pimp, called Gaston, was also a police informer.

Along with Pigeon, Liabeuf is arrested for “vagabondage spécial” or pimping.  He is sentenced to three months in prison, fined one hundred francs and banished from Paris for five years. He doesn’t leave the city though and he is sent back to prison.

He now considers himself to be the victim of injustice and police persecution.  He swears that he is not a pimp and decides to seek revenge.  He makes some fearsome metal cuffs studded with spikes and arms himself with a revolver and a knife and goes looking for the police.

liabeuf weapons

He spends some time drinking on the Rue Aubry-le-Boucher, the street just to the south west of what is now the Pompidou Centre and is again stopped by the police.  This time he fights, killing one of the policemen and slashing another’s throat.  He is wounded by a policeman armed with a sword, arrested and taken to Hospital Hôtel-Dieu de Paris, next to Notre Dame.

Petit Journal - Liabeuf

The Dadaist poet Robert Desnos was ten years old at the time of the arrest and was brought up in bar near Les Halles and witnessed he events.  Later, he wrote a slang poem about the arrest.  The French version is here but I don’t have an English translation to hand and my early 20th century French slang is really not up to the job of translating it.

Sorry.  If anyone has a translation then I’d love to read it.  Especially with an opening line of “Rue Aubry-le-Boucher fucks you up”…


Rue Aubry-le-Boucher on peut te foutre en l’air,
Bouziller tes tapins, tes tôles et tes crèches
Où se faisaient trancher des sœurs comaco blèches
Portant bavette en deuil sous des nichons riders.

On peut te maquiller de béton et de fer
On peut virer ton blaze et dégommer ta dèche
Ton casier judiciaire aura toujours en flèche
Liabeuf qui fit risette un matin à Deibler.

À Sorgue, aux Innocents, les esgourdes m’en tintent.
Son fantôme poursuit les flics. Il les esquinte.
Par vanne ils l’ont donné, sapé, guillotiné

Mais il décarre, malgré eux. Il court la belle,
Laissant en rade indics, roussins et hirondelles,
Que de sa lame Aubry tatoue au raisiné.

The socialist anti-militarist Gustave Hervé defended and applauded Liabeuf’s actions in the newspaper La Guerre Sociale or “The Social War” [could it perhaps be translated as Class War?].

Hervé was a strange character who embraced national socialism whilst denouncing its anti Jewish stance.  He praised Mussolini and was at times a supporter of Petain and Vichy France, although they later turned against him.

In an article titled “The Apache Example”, he wrote “”I think that in this age of the weak and the limp, [Liabeuf] gave a beautiful lesson of courage and energy to the crowd of honest people; to us revolutionaries, he has given a fine example.”

guerre social

The Apaches were violent muggers targeting the bourgeoisie in early 20th century Paris and were perhaps as much a press generated “boogeyman” as they were a reality.  

For his article, Hervé was sentenced to 4 years in prison and fined one thousand francs.

The article though stirred up huge support for Liabeuf and there was a huge protest of around ten thousand people outside the La Santé prison walls where he was being held and there were clashes and running battles with the police.

La Santé is still a prison, located in the 14th arrondisement and it has been home to such notables as Guillaume Apollinaire, Jean Genet, Jacques Mesrine, Manuel Noriega, Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, aka Carlos the Jackal and Bernard Tapie

There were pleas for clemency but these went unheard and Liabeuf was sent to the guillotine on July 10th 1910.  As he was led to guillotine and even with his head on the block, he was still proclaiming his innocence of the pimping charge.

“I am a murderer, it is true, but it is not my execution that will make me a pimp! … that’s abominable! … I’m not a pimp! …” he shouted as the blade came down.

Liabeuf goes to the guillotine

But Liabeuf wasn’t a politicised man.  He was a man who felt betrayed by the police, the agents of the state who had set him up, allowed him to be further criminalised on the humiliating charge of pimping and he took action.  And as public opinion began to turn against the police and the state and for the accused, who never denied the accusations of murder or theft and was therefore an honest man, the establishment and the police turned on the crowds who protested.  An act of self defence and an admission of guilt as much as protecting the critical[theoretical] function of the state – to serve the people.


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