Source: Les enfants du Peuple. Paris, La Lanterne, 1879;
Translated: for marxists.org by Mitchell Abidor.
Translator’s note: December 2, 1851 was the date of Napoleon III’s coup d'état)
Whenever I see the Emperor pass before the regiments whose drums beat across the fields, followed by his generals or flanked by a king, surrounded by the sorrowful crowd that is France, I go a bit pale, but a smile also crosses my lips: I will soon explain why.
In a book that is selling like hotcakes you were recently told the tragic history of 1851, the maneuvers of the Élysée Palace, the tempests in the Chamber of Deputies, and at the end of all this, the events of December
That same year there was another plot which the book did not speak of and which, had it been carried out, would have saved the republic and nipped the Empire in the bud of presidency.
It was a student of seventeen who had the idea, a small, hirsute ugly, swarthy Auvergnat, who was a member of a determined group. The names of almost all of them are known today, names we can cite since the plot did not succeed.
That year the schools were in a state of agitation. People demonstrated in support of Michelet; they even went to the Chamber one day. The soldiers even thought they had to take up their arms.
The professed leader of the demonstration was Chassin, the same Chassin who was later to be consistently confused with Charassin.
He was taken to Mazas prison.
This Chassin knew a certain Vallès who, for his part, knew other men. Their names were R***, Arthur A***, C***, B***, L***, etc. When he left prison we met up again, and from then on we met often.
The group was republican. We preferred Jean-Jacques to Voltaire, the Mountain to the Gironde; we were for violent measures and daring blows.
In the meantime, the rumors of an imperial plot grew stronger. The president became threatening.
On of our men one day said, “But what if we got rid of him?”
And he recounted that Bonaparte often strolled on his own or accompanied by at most two or three men around the Élysée. He had even been encountered on horseback, in advance of his uncle Jerome, far from his domestics in an alley of the Bois de Boulogne.
Jumping him, tying him up, throwing him into a carriage was as easy as could be. Four of us could carry out the task; the others would take care of the domestics and the police, if they came.
Whip the horses and the carriage would take off for who knows where...
This was the plan. We discussed it until 4:00 a.m.
The next day one of the group wrote in the name of the comrades to Representative Charles Lagrange and requested an interview. The deputy responded with a sympathetic letter in which he defended himself – I don’t know why – against the charge of firing the pistol shot on the boulevard des Capucines and granted the student the meeting at the Chamber of Deputies.
The Auvergnat went there. He felt a bit troubled when he saw approach him in the waiting room that tall, thin, romantic man of the insurrection, with his long hair, pale face, arced nose, hollow cheeks, wearing an off-white waistcoat cinched at the waist, his legs squeezed into tight pants, with the voice of a chief of the barricades, exhausted from having shouted, “To Arms!”
Even so his courage returned to him. He explained his project.
“What did he say?” we shouted when he returned.
“To not even think about it.”
The gazes and the gestures asked why.
“Because it’s illegal. (Murmurs and laughter). And that it would have far reaching effects... That perhaps he has to be killed.”
The laughter ceased. Silence fell.
“Yes, the president will perhaps defend himself... People will come to his aid...”
The man who had seen Lagrange was the first to break the silence and asked each of is for our thoughts.
No one voted for death.
And yet the plan was a sure one. Contempt for danger made you imprudent; your very courage handed you over to us. At the very most we ran the risk of being killed, but we didn’t even think about it.
We offered our lives, but didn’t want to take yours.
“Rifles...here are some,” Arnould says arriving rue Racine before the store of Flobert the armorer.
“The rifles have been disassembled,” the boy answers.
“We'll reassemble them.”
But a battalion suddenly arrives at the other end of the street and fires. We barely have the time to flee Flobert.
The soldiers arrive and stand, arms in hand, before the armorer’s store. Crates carrying away the last rifles leave the store.
The battalion withdraws; the groups reform.
A short man in a blue cabriolet, with yellow hair, a timid air and a weak voice explains a map of the barricades showing the system for resistance.
I still see this man every day at the Bibliothèque Richelieu. He is decorated now. On that December morn I would have thought I'd find him among our wounded and dead, with a red boutonniere on his skin or a blue hole in his heart, cut up by saber blows or killed by a ball, this professor of the barricades.
Professor of the barricades...courses in insurrection...No!
There like elsewhere one had to be a rebel, as I well saw. Not await the command but improvise resistance, decree combat and direct fire as one could.
During those December days we wore ourselves out seeking leaders, committees, and watchwords.
“Wait,” people shouted; “Ledru-Rollin is coming; Newmayer is turning, the Mountain is meeting, the Marianne is on its way.”
The Marianne, Ledru-Rollin, and the Mountain will arrive when they can.
We began without leaders and we did what we could in that poor Latin Quarter.
At a certain moment we thought the battle had begun. The people were going to rebuild the barricade where Baudin had been killed in the faubourg Antoine.
I swear that all those I knew would have gotten themselves killed.
The previous day they had already sought out combat.
My friends, do you remember that sinister voyage through the dark and silent streets when we went for a rendezvous no one kept? Along the way we met de Lang and Perm who had just tried to set up a barricade. We returned to defend it. We couldn’t see clearly. The workers turned away.
We left, tired and desperate.
They have since admitted that more than one of them cried that night.
It was that it wasn’t only the flag that fell. It was our youth condemned, our hopes for the future smashed, our ambition dead, our lives lost.
“Let’s have ourselves executed,” one of us shouted, “for we are going to die of hunger.”
The dispatches of M. de Maupas to M. de Morny alluded to this group of young men when he wrote:
Thursday, December 4
Barricades rue Dauphine. I am surrounded. Warn General Sauboul.
Thursday, December 4
Assemblies on the Pont Neuf. Rifle shots on the Quai aux Fleurs. Compact masses around the prefecture of police. They are firing through a fence. What should we do?
M. de Morny’s Response
Respond by firing through the fence.
I don’t know if we fired through the fence. But I do know that on this side we saw soldiers execute men they lined up against the parapet of the bridge, who they then threw into the water. The bodies were warm and still living. They saw one of these corpses resurface and starting to swim. They fired at him and he dove. But his blood gave him away: the water was red where he passed.
The soldiers went to wait for the executed man on the bank. I don’t want to judge them; they were carried away by the fight.
This resistance on the Left Bank, which M. de Maupas occupied himself too much with, could only become dangerous if the resistance on the boulevards was crushed and the faubourgs defeated.
But isolated, as M. Ténot justly said, it simply had to hold General Renault’s division in suspense.
It would have had a greater chance of success if on December 4 as on other days the General had proceeded by the dispatching of isolated companies, which we were in sufficient numbers to disarm.
But we vainly waited for patrols, and we didn’t have the rifles we counted on taking from the soldiers. We had only to choose: either give up or attempt a final blow.
We attempted it. The groups were formed into one assembly. A few young men took the lead and we advanced via the rue de l'École de Médecine towards the Place Saint-Sulpice.
The plan was to capture town hall. We counted on turning the position or rushing it, finding rifles and establishing there the insurrection’s headquarters.
But after starting out as two hundred, fifteen people couldn’t capture the town hall upon arriving on the rue Saint-Sulpice. Among the fifteen were a frightfully hunchbacked man and another who was terribly crippled, cockeyed and had his legs in a strap.
The latter said, while tearing out his hair, that all would have been saved had we had a drum.
Profound words from that half a Cocles and Tyrtee.
All those men would have followed if the charge would have been beaten. The charge, that sound that makes nerves vibrate and resounds in the heart.
But no. It was raining, the sky was gray, the streets filthy. The sound of boots was muffled by the mud; the drum itself would have sounded sad.
It was in this silence, alongside the shops where no one entered, that the students marched calling out: “To arms!”
“To arms!” There were four or five of them who cried out, four or five whose voices were recognized.
But cries like these only pierce atmospheres of fire, and the shouting of these desperate men rolled and died on the empty streets, just as thunder rumbles and dies in a groan.
“To arms!” They gave rise to neither enthusiasm nor anger. They frightened some while other pitied them. The threat they posed called for death, and if a regiment would have passed, if only a corporal and four men had come, they would have had enough bullets to finish us all off.
Neither a patrol nor a regiment came by. They disdained killing us. They doubtless found it more cruel to let us live!
They went and slept off their despair and shame in a corner when suddenly it seemed to them that the rumble had started up again, and they thought it their duty to return to the task, to return again and again, as long as they had saliva in their throats and blood in their veins.
It was Alfred Delvau, who has since died, who spoke to the group of the rifles and ammunition they were going to have and who requested just one hour of patience from the young republicans, who he recognized.
They climbed back up to the room where they had gone for the past year to play, discuss, converse, and shout, and where they had so often spoken of the noble emotions of the battle and the proud joys of sacrifice; where they had so wholeheartedly laughed as well.
They awaited the signal, worn out, filthy, disgusted, aged.
There was one of them who smoked in front of a bag of powder, his elbows on the mantelpiece; another who played marbles with bullets. Someone had placed a ham on the table which was cut into saws and which they were to use to cross the soldiers’ cabbage-cutters.
It was foolish and gloomy.
Of course, no signal was given. I believe they had arrested Delvau.
And yet the agitation didn’t decrease. They had fought all day on the boulevards and men who had until then hesitated decided to come out.
A young lawyer whose brother at the same moment commanded the insurrectionary groups in the Basses-Alpes was the soul of an energetic and noisy group.
The last effort was made by this group.
A barricade was attempted at the rue Dauphine.
A worker and a student attacked the paving stones with pliers. They had dug up fifteen or twenty when the shout, “Here come the troops” was heard.
There was a panic.
I must tell you: nothing on that day united their souls.
They dispersed. The worker was seized, pliers in hand. The student was able to escape the clumsy – or generous – grasp of a policeman.
The worker was taken by the soldiers to the quays. What became of him?
He was the final combatant; I mean the final victim.
Silence returned, and all that was heard was the harsh voices of the soldiers shouting, “Who goes there?” to the patrols.
And the patrols answered, “France,” like the day before.
On December 5 people awoke late; it was all over.
People counted on their fingers how old they'd be in ten years. Seventeen plus ten equals twenty-seven.
We met up at noon, I don’t know how, behind a hearse carrying an insurgent killed alongside us on the 3rd on the rue Saint-Jacques.
We went to the cemetery, slipping on the paving stones, stupid, silent, wobbly as if hit with a mallet.
The mallet blow of December 2.
Yes, we were struck like oxen, square on the forehead. Many became mad from it. An entire race had its brains troubled, writers, artists, and poets. Did you count how many were admitted to Charenton? Do you know how many are in Père Lachaise?
The mallet blow cracked or flattened heads; within their skulls they felt their ideas weaken, reason flee.
Sell outs or rebels, all were miserable. Look at how they lived and how they died... Fauchery, Murger, Jules Viard, Charles Gille, Barbara, Baudelaire, Delvau, Amédée Rolland...
There are some who remain. There remains Charles Bataille, who looks and doesn’t see, who listens and doesn’t hear.
Others still see and hear, but poverty has worn them out, given them wrinkles, emptied them. How many tombs and shacks; how many of the starving and dying?
But it must be said they were less unhappy than we.
They at least still had a morsel of happy youth. They didn’t gather the seeds of the harvest, it is true; they fell half way through the field, but they plucked the flowers.
Those who in 1845 were around twenty knew what is meant to live; we only knew this for a year. We left high school in 1851, and in 1851 were already defeated.
And to think they are sometimes reproached for sounding somber and irritated.
It’s true: all of them have a melancholy look and black blood.
But they were the most mistreated generation in history.
I remember the years that followed. We rarely saw each other, didn’t seek each other out, for we had nothing to say to each other.
Sometimes we learned that a former comrade was dying of hunger in a corner. We learned this by chance, for their pride prevented them from complaining.
We would go dine at the house of the unfortunate friend; we brought along 100 sous and some bread. We spoke a bit about the past, never of the future. Rebel, your life had no horizon.
No one surrendered, not a one lowered his flag.
This lasted fifteen years, and for fifteen years no one, not one person dared to speak.
Except for one, who we didn’t know the day before and who had to go into exile the next day, Rogeard. Rogeard, whose republic à la Brutus I like no more than I do the murderous patriotism of Orsini. But he alone, let it be said to our shame, left the herd behind, and rebellion under the Empire has only his locked lips to inscribe on its coat of arms.
Rochefort followed him, showing through the dormer window of a new law his skull-like face, white and full of holes.
The ghost of a generation buried alive, he showed that teeth remain hard and nails continue to grow in the cemetery’s night.
The “Lanterne” is dead and Rochefort traverses the land of exile. Is there someone who will take up his legacy?
I was mad enough to think to do this. I wouldn’t have merited his glory, but I too would have had contempt for danger.
Contempt, for I hate the life December made for me, and my heart is full of disgust.
But – as you so justly said, old Lammenais – one needs gold, much gold to even have the right to have oneself killed on the public square.
They asked me for 30,000 francs before allowing me to cross the bridge while remaining free, when I took a step, to stop and frisk me again.
I didn’t find 30,000 francs.
Those I spoke to said, “Prison awaits you; ruin awaits us.”
They were wrong, I think. I've reflected since 1851, I've changed a lot.
One reflects when one has been defeated.
I would write on my banner: “Live working” without adding “Die Fighting.” I demand tools, not rifles. I shout, “Not blood: Bread!”
I'd issue a cry of justice and hold the scales on an even keel without ever weighing one of the plates down with a breath of anger or the weight of a sword.
But one must have gold, much gold. Gold? I don’t even know if I'll have bread to eat tomorrow.
As in December, I have neither rifles nor ammunition, not even a cheap pistol that would have blown up in my hand and smashed my wrist.
At least that would be a wound. But we can’t even wound ourselves.
I leave the battlefield.
This page I am finishing, where I allowed my memory to wander and opened my heart as we do on the eve of a departure from those we love, this page could be the preface to a combat journal.
It’s the farewell letter of a rebel, nothing but a farewell letter, and not a last will and testament, I think.
September 8, 1868