Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Baudin – local revolutionary history

Where I live we [I say “we”, but who am I kidding, I’m not French] have a fine reputation to uphold regarding revolutions.  The Bastille was just around the corner, the last stand of the Communards was up the road in the 20e arrondissement and the biggest massacre by the government troops was just up the road at Père Lachaise Cemetery.

Some of these topics are too big to cover briefly and have been well covered elsewhere.  I am also not sure I could do justice the history of the Paris Commune and it is a topic that needs suitably respectful coverage.  Respectful to the Communards that is, not to the government.

This is a shorter story of revolutionary, republican behaviour.  Across the road from the bar called Le Chat Bossu [The Hunchbacked Cat and a very nice traditional bar for lunch], there is an off license and above the doorway is a sign that has seemingly been put up unofficially.

Sign describing the death of Alphonse Baudin

Sign describing the death of Alphonse Baudin

Translated it reads “Killed 2nd December 1851 on the barricade raised here by the insurrection against Napoleon III’s coup d’état.  The bronze statue erected here was given by Pétain to make cannons.”  What’s a bit strange is that all of the accounts that I’ve seen of Baudin’s death reckon he was killed on the 3rd December although the barricade was raised on the 2nd.

Seeing this sign piqued my interest. I hadn’t realised the number of revolts and uprisings that occurred in Paris.  I knew that we had revolts, riots and rebellions galore in the UK but my historical awareness is not so great here.  Since I wasn’t brought up here, I haven’t absorbed as much history through simply living amongst the stories.  If I’d bothered thinking then I would have guessed there would be have been the same kinds of riots and revolts, I just wouldn’t have been able to guess the facts.

Louis Napoleon was the nephew of the Emperor Napoleon.  He had been elected as President in 1848 by a huge majority.  At that time every male had the vote but the Assemblée Nationale introduced a rule that only male homeowners could vote in an effort to ensure that electoral support for Louis Napoleon was undermined. Napoleon was prevented from standing for re-election as president by the constitution since he was the incumbent.  His period as president was due to come to an end in December 1852.  He tried to force through constitutional change to allow him to stand again for election but this was blocked in the parliament and so he started plotting his coup.

On the night of the 1st and the morning of the 2nd December, troops loyal to Napoleon took up positions throughout the city and key opposition figures were arrested and Napoleon declared the Assemblée Nationale to be dissolved and that he was now in charge.

An insurrection against Napoleon was launched, led by, among others, Victor Hugo the famous author.  A bounty was put on Hugo’s head and he considered this an enormous compliment.  According to Eric Hazan, Hugo saw it as his duty to get killed in this insurrection which, had he succeeded, would have denied us his epic Les Miserables and, less worryingly, the spectacle of Russell Crowe singing.

On the members of the Assemblée Nationale who felt obliged to make a stand against Napoleon’s coup was Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Baudin, a doctor from Ain in the far east of France.

Across Paris barricades were erected.  Troops loyal to Napoleon began to murder people indiscriminately with people even being murdered in their homes.  Over 350 prisoners were shot at the École Militaire.

A particularly enormous barricade was erected on the Rue Faubourg St Antoine, next the junction with Rue de Cotte.  According to Hugo, this barricade was as high as the second storey of the surrounding buildings and was built in a similar location to that described Les Miserables by the barricade builder Frederic Constant Cournet during the 1848 revolution.  Cournet was one of the leaders of the 1851 revolution against Napoleon and he read out the proclamation of rebellion that was written by Hugo.  The revolution posters and declarations covered the barricade and many people gathered to discuss and read them.

It was at one point, whilst the crowd gathered to read the posters that, according a possibly apocryphal story, an old woman said that “The Twenty-Five Francs are crushed.  So much the better!”.  She was referring to the twenty-five francs per day that the members of the Assemblée Nationale received as remuneration, compared to the wage paid to the men and women who worked in the National Workshops of 2 and 1 franc per day respectively.  The troops of the 19th Leger formed into ranks on the street and Baudin attempted to motivate the workers to join the barricade.  Asked whether Baudin truly expected the workers to do die so that he could keep his twenty-five francs per day, Baudin made his grand comment, “I’ll show you how someone dies for twenty five francs” and climbed onto the barricade where he was shot and died.

Baudin's death

In order to recover Baudin’s body for burial, his family was obliged to make some commitments to the government about not making a fuss or political statements and Baudin was buried secretly in Montmartre, where is grave became a meeting point for Republicans.  A campaign was launched some years later to recognise Baudin’s sacrifice, for which Charles Delescluze, the journalist responsible,  was jailed for six months.  Delescluze was later killed by government forces during the Commune.  In 1879 a plaque was fixed to the house at the location of the barricade, which reads “Before this house fell gloriously Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Baudin, representative of the people for the department of Ain killed Dec. 3, 1851 Act defending the law and the Republic. ”

In 1901, a statue was erected, not at the site of the barricade but at the junction of Avenue Ledru-Rollin and Rue Traversière.

Baudin Statue

Statue of Baudin at the junction of Avenue Ledru Rollin and Rue Rue Traversière, from an old postcard.


In 1942 the statue was taken during the Nazi occupation and melted down.  This rationale hides another truth.  The government officials, acting on the wishes of Marshal Pétain, were happy to perform, in the words of the Minister of Education, “a just and salutary revision of our glories, so that there are no more intruders or unworthy people represented by statues.”  Victor Hugo, among others, had his statue taken down.

After the Liberation  many of the statues, including Hugo, are restored. But not that of Baudin.  In 1977, the base of his statue was even removed so as to permanently prevent any possibility of reconstruction.

So is there something unsavoury about Baudin to the French officials?  Is it the fact that he was a member of the government that turned against his own?  Is that enough?  Or is he really a person unworthy of a statue?  There is clearly some support for his recognition as can be seen by the recent plaque shown earlier but I don’t get any sense of widespread coverage or support.  He has a street [a rather insignificant street], a one star hotel and a school named after him.  Is that enough?


A Grand Meal During the Siege of Paris

In 1870, following an argument over Luxembourg [it’s tempting to be rude about Luxembourg again, but I won’t since they can cause wars and humiliating defeats] and the Spanish throne, the Prussians and the Germans declared war on France.

Germany wasn’t a unified country until 1871, just before the fall of Paris.

It was all rather embarrassing for France and they were defeated, distressingly easily, in a number of battles including the final humiliation at Sedan where Napoleon III and his army were captured.  Zola described the defeats and the chaos in his book La Débâcle, the penultimate of his mighty series of Rougon-Macquart novels.  The Prussians encircled Paris for four months from September 1870 until January 1871 when Paris fell and the Germans were granted a ceremonial entrance to the city as part of the surrender before returning home with Alsace and Lorraine tucked safely under their arms.

Things, as you might expect, were pretty grim under the siege and food was somewhat limited.  The animals in the zoo were slaughtered and it was possible to buy elephant, kangaroo, yak and buffalo meat on the Boulevard Haussmann.  Here’s a menu from a Christmas dinner from 1870 featuring camel, elephant, bear and wolf as well as cat, rat and antelope.  I like how camel is roasted in the English style.  We’re famed for roasting camel.

Christmas Menu Siege de Paris 1870


Once that had run out people were reduced to eating other animals as this menu, described by William Serman, shows:

Consommé of horse with millet

Dog liver brochettes au maître d’hôtel

Minced back of cat with mayonnaise

Filleted shoulder of dog with peas

Rat salami à la Robert

Dog gigot with baby rats

Begonia in juice

Plum pudding in juice with horse marrow

Dessert and wine


A tasty selection and, perhaps fortunately, I don’t have the recipes.  Although it’s pretty hard to find the ingredients even if I did.

Of course the people of Paris were starving and these things, as revolting as they may seem, were much in demand. As Donny Gluckstein points out they were priced way beyond the reach of the normal persons’ purse.  So despite the misery of the situation, the rich were still flaunting their wealth and ability to consume.  Some might call it hoarding. So it goes…

Following the French capitulation and the all to apparent sense of betrayal the Paris Commune sprang up and, for a short but thrilling time, Paris was run by the people for the people until the French government and its forces crushed the rebels in an astonishingly violent and brutal battle which saw over 30,000 people killed in a week.  A government declaring war on its own people?  So it goes…

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.

J’accuse – Émile Zola and Alfred Dreyfus

Today, January 13th, is the anniversary of the famous “J’accuse” open letter from the great author Emile Zola to Félix Faure, the President of the French Republic in the newspaper L’Aurore.

The translated text of the letter can be found here. It is essentially a letter that lays out the widespread concerns over the continued imprisonment of Alfred Dreyfus [on Devil’s Island, the future home of Papillon], a French Jewish artillery captain on faked charges of espionage when it became known subsequently that the real spy was Major Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy.

The accusations made in the letter are against Esterhazy, the investigating officer for his faked and corrupt investigation, various generals for religious discrimination and for continuing the cover-up, the handwriting experts who had knowingly made false statements against Dreyfus, the War Office and the press for misleading the public and the secret court martials for willfully acquitting a guilty man.  The handwriting experts even contrived an argument that the lack of similarity between the handwriting in the document that formed the basis of the case and Dreyfus’s own was proof of his guilt.

Given the fairly common anti-Jewish sentiment and the fact that the accused was spying on behalf of the Germans [remember that the Germans had recently invaded France and annexed Alsace], the case had caused great excitement and concern.  Zola’s letter served to pave the way for Dreyfus’s exoneration but caused widespread anger and rioting.  In Algeria, where there was a slightly different but still very strong anti-semitism, effigies of Zola and Dreyfus were burned and there was widespread rioting and looting of Jewish shops and businesses.  At least two Jews were killed during the riots, which the Police chose not to intervene in.

Zola was accused and sentenced for libel shortly after the article was published, as he had welcomed in the original article and fled to London, where he lived in Upper Norwood until 1899.

I’ve said it before but I’m going to say it again.  Britain was once a safe haven for those accused of political crimes and many of Europe’s anarchists and socialists sought sanctuary there.  Not any more. Shame on you Britain.

Dreyfus was pardoned in 1899 despite being having found guilty at the retrial and had to appeal again in 1906 to remove the guilty verdict from his records.

Zola died in 1902 from carbon monoxide poisoning in his apartment on the Rue de Bruxelles in Paris’s 9th arrondisment.  It has been suggested that the flue to his stove was blocked on purpose by a builder working on an an adjoining building angry at Zola and Dreyfus and a deathbed confession from 1927 for the crime was published in the 1950s.  Of course it is no longer possible to know what really happened.

In 1908 Zola’s remains were moved from the Cimetière de Montmartre in Paris to the Panthéon.  During the procession and ceremony there were protests from nationalists and Dreyfus, attending with his wife and mistress, was shot and slightly wounded.

Dreyfus went on to serve in the First World War and was on the front line at Verdun and Chemin des Dames. He eventually received the rank of Officier de la Légion d’honneur.  He died in 1935.

Prisons, the guillotine and executions

Here’s a gruesome bit of Parisian history from just around the corner on the rue de la Roquette in the 11th arrondissement.

There were two prisons on the Rue de la Roquette, pretty much opposite one another.  La Grande Roquette was for very those judged to be the most serious or dangerous offenders who were condemned to death, to life imprisonment or to deportation and La Petite Roquette was for less serious and youth offenders, and eventually became a women’s prison.  Public executions were banned in France in 1939, two women were executed here in the early 1940s.

It’s pretty uninspiring and dull but these three stones, and another two like them [which some cars were parked on top of] mark one of the sites of Paris’ guillotine.  The stones and the guillotine were locally known as the “abbaye de cinq pierres” or “Abbey of Five Stones”, which is a pun on “Abbey of Saint Pierre” [Abbey of Saint Peter].  Sixty-nine people were executed here between 1851 and 1899.  The guillotine was moved here from the Place de Greve in the 14th arrondissement in the south of the city.

If it’s any use, think of the arrondissements as laid out in the spiral pattern of a snail shell.  The 1st is the very centre of the city and the spiral then runs in clockwise spirals and end in the east of city with the 20th.

The guillotine was moved as an act of kindness [I guess these things are relative] since the prison governor didn’t want the condemned to have to travel too far from the prison to the place of execution.

During the Paris Commune, the prison was the site for some of the executions of the religious leaders, including the archbishop of Paris, Georges Darboy.  The picture below is a fabricated one of the executions of the five people shot during the commune, used to misrepresent the events and portray the commune executioners in a bad light, when compared to the obviously much more humane state run executions.

Two of the people executed by the state [rather than by the short-lived commune] were the anarchists Auguste Vaillant and Emile Henry.  Both were inspired by the idea of the “propaganda of the deed” [which has inspired many of the stereotypical images of the cloaked, black clad, bomb throwing anarchists and which I’ll write about later].  Vaillant threw a bomb into the French chamber of deputies but didn’t manage to kill anyone.  He was nonetheless sentenced to death, causing an outcry.  To avenge his death and to attack the bourgeoisie, Emile Henry, already an experienced bomb maker, threw a bomb in the Café Terminus, near Gare St Lazare, killing one person and injuring twenty.











The arrest of Emile Henry immediately after the bombing in the Cafe Terminus

La Grande Roquette was finally closed and demolished in 1900 and the stones were dug up.  The governor attempted to sell the five granite stones to the Musée Carnavalet but they were not interested so the stones were replaced, but incorrectly.  They now form a diagonal cross pattern but they were originally in the form of a traditional cross.  The incorrect pattern is shown in the main image.

La Petite Roquette was closed in 1974, and all that remains is the gateway, which now leads into a rather nice park.

Eugene Atget – documenting Paris

Eugene Atget is probably, along with Robert Doisneau, one of Paris’ most legendary photographers who have been instrumental in documenting a city that has long passed.  He was born in 1857 in Libourne in south west France and died in Paris in 1927.  He was orphaned at the age of five and then had a varied career as a sailor in the Merchant Navy, an actor, a painter before settling on photography.

Berenice Abbot took this picture of Atget in 1927.  When she returned to give him some copies, he had died.

It’s fair to say that he was somewhat obsessive about documenting the city in all its glory, its refined side, its poorer side and its seamier side.  Over his lifetime, he made around ten thousand negatives, using an old fashioned, even for that time, camera and tripod, that probably weighed between ten and fifteen kilos.  Despite his earlier careers as an actor and a painter, he didn’t consider himself to be an artist with the camera.  Maybe, photography had not yet developed its reputation for being an artistic medium.  He was a documenter of Paris and what his photographs were documents.

This idea of his role as a simple documenter of Paris is also, perhaps, reflected in his attitude to the world of photography.  Although he was paid for his work, it would be hard to describe him as a professional, certainly in the modern sense.  He didn’t change or develop his equipment, he didn’t seek new methods or approaches and he didn’t really mix with other photographers.

He obviously didn’t see a need and it’s easy to see why.  His photographs are crisp, clear and carry with them an assured control of his tools and medium.  The pictures are engrossing and fascinating and it’s interesting to see, at times, just how little Paris has changed.

His photographs of buildings and places are often unpopulated and this gives them a ghostly air.  Just where have all of the people gone?  It is as though the city is empty when, obviously, it was bustling, lively and very full of people.

Cour, 41 rue Broca, 1912

On the other hand, he was just an interested in the people of Paris, particularly the tradesmen, salesmen, ragpickers, prostitutes and vagabonds.  Although we like to think of Western Europe to be beyond these things now, there are huge numbers of people living and begging in the streets and there are little shanty town enclaves on the edges of the city.  The photographs are very honest and empathetic.  There is little voyeurism here.

Maison à Versailles, 1921.  This is a brothel.  Brothels were legal but they weren’t allowed a sign so they signified their purpose by making the building number really big.

Ragpickers, Porte d’Asnières, Cité Valmy 1913

Although Atget wasn’t much interested in the art of his trade, the famous artists of the 1920s became very interested in his work.  Man Ray used his photograph of an eclipse being viewed from the Place de la Bastille in issue 7 of the surrealist magazine La Révolution Surréaliste and titled it “The Latest Conversions”.  Although the surrealists liked Atget’s work, it’s not clear whether he was that bothered about anything than being paid for his photographs.  He wasn’t interested in being credited for his work either.  Why would he be?  These were mere documents.

It was at about this time that Atget’s wife died and a contemporary describes that his mind began to wander, he began to drink and then he died, aged 70 on August 4th, 1927.

The exhibition of Atget’s work is at the Musée Carnavalet until July 29th.

The election of François Hollande

Well done to François Hollande for his victory in yesterday’s French presidential elections.  I guess that now is when the difficult work starts.  There was a 20% abstention rate and, since Hollande beat Nicolas Sarkozy by 4%, it cannot be argued that he has an overwhelming mandate from the French people.  He will also be faced by a challenge of managing the expectations of the various supporters that the Socialist Party has relied on over the last few days and weeks and how he can accommodate them into his new government.  There is also the slight matter of the parliamentary elections in June.  Of course, I’m sure that he will consider that it is better to be in this position than not have the presidency at all.

Having said that, I am pleased to see that France has elected a socialist president and hopefully one who will be willing to tackle the economic crisis affecting France and Europe with something more positive and creative than the fantastically brutal and unfair “austerity” measures forced on the people elsewhere.  It will be interesting to see how this done, certainly as Hollande’s Corrèze constituency has a reputation for being mismanaged financially.

It is disappointingly predictable to see the reaction of the major financial markets to Hollande’s election as well as to the Greek election results.  Whilst I realise that we, rightly or wrongly, live in a world measured and judged entirely in monetary terms, I am unhappy with the weight given to short-term movements in the world’s economic markets and judgements from credit agencies as indicators of proper political decision making rather than the impacts on the wider public.


One impressive part of yesterday’s celebrations was the enthusiasm and genuine excitement from the French public, or at least half of them.  It is hard to imagine the same clamour and joy being expressed in the UK, as people to come together to cheer on their candidate.  I would normally expect to greet such news with a mumble or a moan over a few pints rather than to get out into the streets to dance or to beep my car horn*.  Such levels of political engagement can only be applauded.

 * Being British, I am generally caught out when I have to beep my horn, since I can never quickly remember where it is.