From Popular Front to the Spanish Civil War and World War Two

Spanish Republic, International Brigade, Munich, Hitler-Stalin Pact, Phoney War – in progress

A Communist march in 1937 demands (unsuccessfully) that France supplies the Spanish Republic with guns and aircraft
Striking workers at the Samaritaine Department store in Paris at a meeting in June 1936

Rue Saint-Victor

Arrondissement 5

Numbers: 16, 24, 35

The now much shortened road was originally named after the nearby 11th century Saint Victor Abbey on the banks of the Seine whose walls it skirted. That was closed in 1790 during the French Revolution and then demolished and replaced by a huge wine market in 1811. the abbey site is now occupied by the Paris Global Natural Phenomena Institute (Institut de physique du globe de Paris) and by the Jussieu University campus.

Under Haussmann and the construction of the Boulevard Saint-Germain, the Rue Monge and the Rue des Ecoles the original road lost 75% of its length, and as a result of successive rebuilding, the pavement in places now has two levels

Paul Verlaine was put up by his mistress, Eugénie Krantz, at her flat at No. 16 in 1895.

The conference centre, the Maison de la Mutualité, was built at No. 24 in art-deco style in 1931. From then to the present it has witnessed many significant left meetings.

The Internatlonal Youth Congress against war and fascism took place at the Maison de la Mutualite on May 26 1933. Organised by Paul Langevin and others it aimed to build a common front against fascism.

On July 24 1934 Jacques Prévert held the festival of French anti-militarist songs at La Mutualite. On October 23 1934 under the chair of André Gide there was report-back meeting from the Moscow International Writers congress, with speakers including André Malraux and Fernand Léger. Malraux, Gide, Louis Aragon, Max Ernst, Bertolt Brecht, Aldous Huxley, André Breton and Ilya Ehrenbourg were among the 230 participants from 38 countries who attended the International Writers Congress in the Defence of Culture there on June 21 1935.

After the Second World War around 1,500 Algerians were arrested on April 1 1951 when they went to a banned meeting about Algerian independence at No. 24, the ‘Mutu‘.

Simone de Beauvoir chaired a meeting there on 26 January 1971 with speakers including Sartre, Jean-Luc Godard and Marguerite Duras in support of the banned Maoist newspaper, la Cause du Peuple.

In 1860 Émile Zola was thrown out of No. 35 for not paying his rent after staying in a room under the roof for a few weeks. During that time his friend from Aix-en-Provence, Paul Cézanne, visited him there.

A view Zola would have had of the St Nicolas du Chardonnet church before it got its1934 facade.

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Rue de la Santé

Arrondissement 14

Santé Prison

The Prison de la Santé seen from above

It’s only a short walk from my flat to the infamous Prison de la Santé, where Victor Serge was jailed in 1912 and three communist trade unionists, Pierre Monatte, Gaston Monmousseau and Boris Souvarine were jailed in 1920 for ‘conspiracy against the state’.

This prison is now the only prison within the city of Paris itself, although when it was built in 1867 there were 11.

Guillotine being checked by the executioners at the Prison de la Santé

In 1939 on the pavement corner with Boulevard Arago, the road was the site of the second-to-last public guillotining in France. It had been Paris’ public scaffold since 1899.

In 1940 Paul Langevin (1972-1946), who had launched the intellectuals’ campaign against fascism in 1934, was jailed there by the Gestapo for two months before being put under house arrest.

Remembering the 18 guillotined and shot resistance fighters

Between August 1941 and July 1942 nine communist resistance fighters were guillotined there.  In April 1944 another nine were shot. The plaque accuses the French authorities of their murder.

Conrad Miret was arrested by French police at the Champ de Mars in February 1942 and charged with 40 actions against the occupiers

Conrad Miret I Musté, the Catalan head of the CGT’s migrant workers’ organisation (Main d’œuvre Immigrée – MOI) made up largely of Spanish, Italian, Romanian communists that began attacking the Germans in August 1941, was arrested on February 21 1942.

Miret died at the Santé prison after a week of torture. A plaque on the prison wall now commemorates his death. Another 25 of his MOI comrades were executed in April.

Plaque remembering the Spanish Civil War veteran Conrad Miret

In September 1943 the 14-year-old Robert Barcia, known later under the pseudonym of Hardy (1928-2008), was arrested carrying Trotskyist  leaflets and spent five months in the prison before being released because he was too young to be charged.

The Santé also briefly housed Jacques Duclos in ‘the pigeon affair’ of 1952. The temporary head of the French Communist Party was arrested in 1952 after a huge demonstration against the American head of NATO visiting Paris ended with two workers dying from police gunshot wounds. In Duclos’ car the police found a revolver, a baton and two dead pigeons as well as a notebook. The Interior Minister then declared Duclos had been using carrier pigeons to send messages to Moscow, and Duclos was jailed. After police enquiries found that Duclos had been hunting and the two pigeons were intended for supper, he was quickly released.

Behind its walls several FLN (Front de libération nationale) militants were guillotined during the Algerian war – their numbers never released publicly. The guillotine’s final use at the prison was in 1972.

Ahmed Ben Bella (1916-2012), leader of the Algerian FLN, and a former Olympic de Marseilles player in the 1939-1940 season, was held prisoner here with five other Algerian leaders at the Santé from November 1956 until January 1959. After several hunger strikes demanding they be treated as political prisoners, and then threats to his life within the prison by supporters of Algérie Française, De Gaulle had him moved to the Isle d’Aix prison.

The Prison de la Santé is now being rebuilt and modernised. But what is extraordinary is that until 2000 its star-shape was used to racially and socially segregate prisoners. One of the five stars was designated for the educated prisoners. The four others were for Western Europeans (Block A), Black Africans (Block B), North Africans (from the Maghreb in Block C) and The rest of the World (Block D).

Places can be shameful too.