Léon Blum

1872-1950 • France


Radicalised by the Dreyfus Affair Léon Blum became the major Jewish figure of French socialism in the interwar years. He became Popular Front prime minister from 1936 to 1938. He was imprisoned in Buchenwald from 1943 to 1945 after having been handed to the Germans by the far right Vichy regime. He was briefly prime minister again in 1946-47.

During the first half of the 20th century, alongside his mentor Jean Jaurès, Blum personified the alternative to the insurrectionary road to socialism.

He was born on April 9 1872 at 151, Rue Saint-Denis, above the silk wholesale business run by his father in a street whose northern stretch is still today dominated by the textile trade. A really bright student, from 1882 to 1888 he attended the Lycée Charlemagne in the Marais, while boarding in the Rue des Francs-Bourgeois.

He then went on to the still more prestigious Lycée Henri-IV in Rue Clovis in the Latin Quarter on the Left Bank of the Seine., where he met Andre Gide. Blum’s final thesis there argued that criminals should be examined through the interplay of independent factors leading to their crime’.

Aged 18 he passed directly into the École Normale Supérieure (ENS) in the Rue d’Ulm in 1890. Failing his first year exams he then moved to studying literature and law, getting a law degree at Paris University in 1894.

Attracted by the strong anarchist current of the early 1890s, he was writing for the libertarian journal La Revue Blanche for nearly nine years from 1892. He became a regular visitor during these years to its offices in the Rue Laffitte, where he rubbed shoulders not only with Félix Fénéon, but also with Stéphane Mallarmé, André Gide, Félix Vallotton and Pierre Bonnard and other literary and artistic radicals. At the same time both he and Lucien Herr whom he met at the ENS, were moving away from individualism towards socialism.

The Rue Laffitte offices of La Revue Blanche went on to become one of the key organising centres of the campaign to pardon Dreyfus in the early 20th century.

Blum took and passed exams to become a top notch civil servant in the Conseil d’Etat in December 1895. He kept this post for the next 25 years and in 1896 married Lise Bloch and moved to the Rue du Luxembourg, on the west of the Luxembourg Garden. After the First World War this road became the Rue Guynemer in honour of a French pilot ace.

Herr’s friendship was a key factor in Blum’s involvement in the campaign to pardon Dreyfus. It was at Herr’s flat in 1898 that Blum first met Jean Jaurès, where both were persuaded of the Dreyfus’ innocence. Later, Blum wrote that this was where he became a socialist: ‘from the injustice inflicted on an individual, we tried, as Jaurès did from the start, to generalise it to social injustice’.

Blum’s death was the occasion of another of the huge left funeral processions that regularly punctuate French history. It left from the Rue Victor Massé offices of the evening socialist paper Le Populaire, founded in 1916, by Jean Longuet, Marx‘s grandson, and closely associated with the SFIO and Blum from 1921.

Tens of thousands followed Blum s coffin from the offices of Le Populaire to the Place de la Concorde on March 30 1950

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Aristide Briand

1862-1932 • France


Aristide Briand was one of several socialists who moved away from being close to revolutionary syndicalism into the centre and right of French politics between the 1880s and 1900s. He became head of government 11 times between 1906 and 1932.

A lawyer, he was initially close to revolutionary syndicalism and then supported Jaurès. He moved to the centre and was a government minster other than prime minister another 15 times between those years.

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Antoinette Fouque

1936 – 2014 • France

Feminism • Socialism

A key figure in the French Women’s Liberation movement (Mouvement de libération des femmes) and founder editor of the publishers, Éditions des femmes

Challenging the general mysogeny and machoism in Paris in 1968, she was one of the founders of the French Women’s Liberation movement. She was elected a left radical member of the European Parliament from 1994 to 1999.

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Lucien Herr

1864-1926 • France

Dreyfus Affair • Socialist

Socialist and philosopher who helped persuade many leading figures to support the Dreyfus campaign

One of the best read socialists in France this chief librarian (from 1888 to 1926) at the elite École Sormale Supérieure university at 45 rue d’Ulm persuaded many key figures, such as Jaurès and Blum to become socialists and then to defend Dreyfus.

He helped found L’Humanité in 1904 and joined the SFIO in 1905.

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Jean Jaurès

1859-1914 • France

2nd International • Dreyfus • SFIO • Socialist

Jean Jaurès, a socialist from a French Protestant family of doctors, might have saved hundreds of thousands of lives by getting the French government to pull back from entering the First World War. But he was assassinated on 31 July 1914, three days before war was declared. Without his determined internationalism the other Socialist and trade union leaders collapsed into the ‘Holy Union’ against Germany.

In 1902 Jaurès was one of the founders of the French Socialist Party. In 1904 he set up the socialist daily paper, L’Humanité, that he edited until two bullets were fired into his back while he was having supper in the café on the corner of the Rue du Croissant and the Rue Montmartre, just up the street from its editorial office.

His body was taken back to his wife that evening, at 96bis Villa de la Tour, where they had lived since 1899.

In 1905 had been the principal mover behind the formation of the French Section of Workers’ International (SFIO) – the common origins of today’s French Socialist and Communist Parties.

Jaurès was opposed to armies used for offensive wars and believed the best defence was a people’s militia.

Speech by Jean Jaurès on May 25, 1913, during the demonstration against the three-year law at the Pré-Saint-Gervais (to the right of Jaurès, seated, profile: Pierre Renaudel, one of the founders of the French Socialist Party. On the left, with the white beard: Arthur Groussier).

In 1914 the SFIO won 17% of the vote, and became France’s second biggest party.

Two weeks before he was murdered, the SFIO’s emergency congress called for a general strike to stop the war and preserve peace. He believed that war could be prevented if a general strike took place in France and was followed by similar action in Germany, Britain and Austria.

Five days before his murder Jaurès told a meeting in Lyon that ‘War is brought by capitalism, like the clouds bring storms’. Jaurès moved a motion of censure against the Radical government for provoking war by sending a minister to Russia.

Rosa Luxemburg and Jean Jaurès spoke at a mass anti-war meeting in Brussels on 19 July 1914

Right-wing papers like ‘L’Echo de Paris’ had already screamed:

On the verge of war, if a general put Jaurès against a wall and gave him the lead he’s missing in his brain, wouldn’t you say he was doing his basic duty?

This was not the first time Jaurès had been publicly vilified. He had attracted a barrelfull of vitriol in the Dreyfus Affair that split France for a decade from 1895. Alfred Dreyfus was a Jewish army officer who was falsely charged with giving intelligence to the Germans. He was court-martialed and sentenced to transportation for life to a prison island in 1894.

On one side was a massive coalition of the supporters of law and order, the French army (right or wrong), French nationalists and anti-semites (in a Catholic country where priests with considerable influence commonly preached that the Jewish people was partly responsible for Christ’s crucifixion). On the other were a handful of campaigners, mainly socialists and left republicans skeptical of the army and France’s imperial and militaristic ambitions.

In Sirat’s Daily Mail-type image, Jaurès has a bottle of Eau de (not vie, but) Courage in his pocket. His waistcoat buttons are made of skulls. The torch in his right hand has just set fire to Paris (Notre Dame and the National Assembly building are blazing). At his feet is a broken sabre of the National Guard. The cheese to attract the rat voters is marked ‘Bloc’ – short for the Bloc de Gauche where socialists and left republicans agreed not to contest each other in the second round of any election.

In 1898 postcards showing Jaurès as a wild-eyed red drunken revolutionary did the rounds.

He himself had taken a few years before he was convinced by Émile Zola and others of Dreyfus’ total innocence, but once persuaded, Jaurès played a big part in getting Dreyfus freed. In 1897 he was physically assaulted in the National Assembly for denouncing the travesty of justice.

In 1898 he became a leading contributor to the radical republican newspaper, La Petite République at 111 Rue Reaumur. He soon added the adjective Socialiste to its title. From then until he founded l’Humanité in 1904 it was the main socialist newspaper. It was in its pages that he detailed the proof of Dreyfus’ innocence.

Walking from where Jaurès lived near the Trocadero to the murder scene at the Café à la Chope du Croissant on the rue du Montmartre on a summer’s day takes 45 minutes. Jaurès himself will have usually gone by the new metro or by a horse-pulled bus.

On 31 July 1914, however, he had gone there direct from the National Assembly, where he had failed to persuade the Republican ministers to step back from war. He was going to work on an article for L’Humanité that would call on the French working class to stop it instead. So he decided to have a bite to eat before going to the paper’s office at 16 rue du Croissant.

Jaurès’ assassination is marked by one of the very few plaques for 20th century left-wingers displayed in 21st century Paris.

What happened to the appropriately-named Raoul Villain, the 29-year-old nationalist who murdered Jaurès and silenced the last person capable of resisting the descent into war?

Villain, a member of the Youth Friends of Alsace-Lorraine (under German control since 1871) ran away from the scene but was stopped and arrested. He immediately told the police he was proud of what he had done and was imprisoned awaiting trial. Throughout the war he repeatedly asked for his trial to be postponed. It finally opened on March 24 1919, four months after the war was ‘won’.

The judge told him: ‘Villain, you’re a patriot. You just didn’t think about the consequences of your act’.  Five days later, by 11 votes to 1 the patriotic jury acquitted him. One juror said: ‘If Jaurès, the opponent of the war, had been around, France would not have been able to win the war’.

The judge then ordered Jaurès’ widow to pay the costs of the trial. Three weeks later, on April 6 1919, a 100,000-strong socialist protest demonstration down the Avenue Henri Martin where Jaurès’ widow lived at no 72 , was attacked by the police, and two demonstrators killed.

Villain fled France, and finally experienced the ultimate, ironic fate. He was living in Ibiza when the Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936. Franco bombed the town and Villain was shot as a spy by Spanish anarchists without their knowing his real crime against humanity.


  • 15 rue Madame. Jaurès lived here when he first came to Paris, staying from 1893 to 1899.
  • 111 rue Réaumur. Offices of the La Petite république, socialist republican paper co-edited by Jaurès, who was only convinced to support Dreyfus in 1898.
  • 33 quai d’ Orsay. National Assembly. Jaurès was assaulted on 22 January 1898 when he defended Dreyfus in the Chamber of Deputies
  • 138- 142 Rue Montmartre. The first number of l’Humanité was printed at this address. Its first offices were at 110 Rue de Richelieu.
  • 8 Boulevard de Strasbourg. The Unification congress of the Socialist Party (SFIO) took place in the Globe Room of the Favre here on 23, 24 and 25 April 1905, when it claimed 35,000 members. Jaurès (PSF) brought together Jules Guesde (PS de France) and Jean Allemane (POSR)
  • 3 rue du Château d’Eau. Bourse du Travail where a physical fight broke out on August 3 1908 witnessed by Jaurès and Lafargue, giving their support to the failed General Strike call for that day called by the CGT. This call followed the police murders of four strikers and wounding of another ten at Villeneuve St Georges on May 28 and June 2 and then four new murders by the army in suppressing a solidarity demonstration on 30 July.
  • 34 Boulevard de Courcelles. Spanish Embassy. Jaurès was among the half a million demonstrators who surrounded the embassy on 17 October 1909 in protest against the execution of the libertarian Francisco Ferrer for allegedly being responsible for a General Strike in Spain.
  • 77 Boulevard Arago. The corner of the Santé prison was used for public guillotining from 1899. On 2 July 1910 Jaurès was one of the protestors there against an execution of a pimp there.
  • Place du Panthéon. The remains of Jean Jaurès were transferred to the Panthéon on 23 November 1924. 100,000 people followed the cortege.

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Paul Lafargue

1842-1911 • Cuba

Socialist • Parti ouvrier • Laura Marx

Lafargue first visited London and met Karl Marx in 1865. He married Laura Marx in 1868 and with Jules Guesde was one of the founders of the French Workers’ Party. Lenin came to see him on his first trip to Paris in 1895. Jaurès, Lenin and Keir Hardie all spoke at his and Laura’s joint funeral in 1911 after they committed suicide together.

  • 47 rue du Cherche-Midi: Paul Lafargue and Laura Marx, his wife, move in to a flat here on 1 December 1868. In July 1869 Marx made a secret 6-day trip to Paris to see them (using the pseudonyme Alan williams). The couple committed suicide together here in 1911.
  • 51 avenue de Flandre: In 1869-1870 Lafargue worked on Henri Rochefort‘s republican newspaper La Marseillaise with Victor Noir (before his assassination by Napoleon III’s cousin) and Prosper-Oliver Lissagaray.

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Pierre Leroux

1797 – 1871 • France

Cooperatism • Republican • Socialism

Leroux evolved from the elitist Saint-Simon movement to socialism, the term he was the first to coin in 1834. He saw fraternité as being central but being challenged by both liberté and égalité. He fought for mutualist and associationist socialism. Lived in exile from 1851 to 1860.

He died under the Paris Commune in April 1871 and was buried in the Montparnasse cemetery.

  • 35 Quai des Grands Augustines (at the time no 40): Pierre Leroux’s birthplace in a small bar run by his parents
  • 14 Rue Champagne. Leroux attended the Lycee Champagne.
  • 6 rue Monsigny: Third floor office of the liberal newspaper Le Globe set up by Leroux and Paul-François Dubois in September 1824 before Leroux became a Saint-Simonien around 1830, when the paper becomes the organ of the Saint-Simoniens.
  • 4 rue des Poitevins: Printshop where Leroux worked when he launched Le Globe, and were it was printed.
  • 10 rue Jacob: Pauline Roland‘s address. Leroux also lived there for some time in 1832.
  • 26 rue des Saints-Pères: Office of La Revue encyclopédique where Leroux first used the word ‘socialism’ in an article published in March 1824 called ‘From Individualism to Socialism‘.
  • 20 rue de Savoie: Leroux was involved in setting up an illegal skilled workers’ association of Parisian typesetters here in 1839. Typesetting became the most unionised sector of Paris workers by the end of the 19th century.
  • 87 boulevard du Montparnasse: Leroux and George Sand set up the journal called the Revue des Indépendants  in 1841 in the Hunting lodge at this address.
  • 14 rue des Moulins (at the time 32, rue des Moulins, on the corner with la rue Neuve des Petits Champs): The location of the offices of the Franco-German Annals, where Leroux met Marx, Proudhon, Bakunin, Cabet, Blanc and many other socialists in 1844.
  • Palais Royal garden: This was where in March 1848 Leroux, Barbès. Proudhon, Arago and others founded the Revolution Club.
  • 12 ter rue Coquillière: The office of The True Republic in whose March issue Leroux, Sand and Barbès argue that ‘Without social reform, there is absolutely no true Republic’.
  • Paris Town Hall, 10 place de l’ Hôtel de Ville: On 15 May 1848 Leroux is one of those who take over the Town Hall and proclaim a new government, before being thrown out and then arrested.
  • 3 rue Coq Héron: In 1848 the offices of two socialist papers set up by Leroux, ‘The Republic‘ and ‘The Organiser of Work‘ were both based at this address.

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Pierre Mendès-France

1907-1982 • France

Anti-fascist • Radical • Socialism • PSU

The only deputy who voted against French athletes competing in the 1936 Berlin Olympics was the youngest member of the national assembly, the son of an active Dreyfusard non-practising Sephardic Jew: Pierre Mendès-France.

In the 1950s and 1960s Mendès-France shifted to the political left and became a major influence on left reformist socialism.

There was only one vote in the National Assembly against sending French athletes to the August 1936 Berlin Olympic games: Pierre Mendès-France. The Communists abstained. The athletes won 7 gold medals and 6 each in silver and bronze.

As a young Paris-born lawyer, aged just 25 (the minimum age then permitted) Pierre Mendès-France was elected as a Radical Party deputy in 1932. At 17 he had joined the Ligue d’action universitaire républicaine et socialiste (Republican and socialist Action League) fighting for free speech in the universities and against the growing extreme right, and was elected its leader in 1927.

Along with Jean Zay, Mendès-France was a left ‘Young Turk’ within the Radical Party, arguing against its majority centre-right for the alliance with the Socialists and Communists that became the Popular Front. He became a junior minister in Blum‘s second short-lived government in 1938, and argued for greater material support to be given to the Spanish Republican government and against appeasing Hitler. The rejection of his anti-corruption and austerity economic plan by the Senate led to Blum resigning as Prime Minister after just one month.

Mobilised in 1939 he asked to be transferred from Syria to a potential combat zone. He was lightly wounded in the North of France in June 1940. He returned to Paris and then immediately followed the other National Assembly deputies to Bordeaux. He, Zay and others who wanted to continue the fight, heard De Gaulle’s London appeal for resistance and boarded Le Massilia steamboat that was heading for Morocco. Once there he was arrested by the Vichy authorities on August 31 1940, forcibly returned to France and imprisoned at Clermont-Ferrand.

On May 9 1941 he was tried for desertion before a military tribunal and sentenced to six years imprisonment. A month later he escaped and made his way to Switzerland and then Portugal before getting to London.

He joined the Free French Lorraine squadron of French bomber aircraft within the RAF, and flew several missions before he became Finance Commissioner in De Gaulle’s Algiers provisional government in November 1943.

The Lorraine (342) RAF Squadron was set up with Free French aircrew in 7 April 1943 at RAF West Raynham to carry out daylight bombing raids on France.

In July 1944 Mendès-France, a supporter of what became known as Keynesianism, led the French delegation at the Bretton Woods conference, where Keynes largely reshaped the global monetary system. In September PMF (as he became known) was made Economics Minister, but resigned from that in April 1945 in disagreement with De Gaulle’s economic policy.

PMF’s political conviction that capitalism had to be free but tightly constrained led him to create a left Republican current. However, although re-elected as Deputy for the Eure constituency to the North-West of Paris in 1946, initially PMF largely played only an international role, first in the World Bank and the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, and helping create the International Monetary Fund.

This changed with PMF’s growing criticism of the French war in Indochina. After the catastrophic defeat of the French army at Điện Biên Phủ on 7 May 1954, René Coty, the second president of the Fourth Republic, invited PMF to form a government. On June 18 he promised to bring peace in Indochina within a month, and his nomination was overwhelmingly approved by the National Assembly.

The French army was humiliated by Ho Chi Minh‘s Viet Minh troops under General Giap in the May 1954 Battle of Dien Bien Phu. Half of the French troops were killed leaving 11,721 prisoners, of whom only a third survived the 500 km forced march to prisoner of war camps.

By July 20 1954 the Geneva Peace Agreement had ensured France’s withdrawal from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, and as prime minister and minister of Foreign Affairs, PMF also granted self-government to Tunisia.

PMF’s government collapsed in February 1955, four months after the start of the Algerian war of independence, brought down by the votes of Communist, centre-right and extreme right (Poujadist) deputies.

In January 1956 PMF’s centre-left Republic Front secured 80 deputies (with Mitterrand’s group) in national elections but the Socialist leader, Guy Mollet, with 95 deputies became prime minister. PMF resigned from that government in May 1956 questioning its pursuit of the Algerian war.

In June 1958 PMF was one of the most outspoken French politicians opposed to De Gaulle coming to power on the basis of the military coup by the French Army in Algeria.

Leading the huge 28 May 1958 anti-fascist demonstration in defence of the Republic were Pierre Mendes France (2nd left), Edouard Daladier (in raincoat) and Francois Mitterrand (sixth to the left). Jacques Duclos of the PCF was also present. The same day the President Coty asked De Gaulle to form a government.

In the September referendum on the new Constitution putting all political power into the hands of a president elected by universal suffrage PMF campaigned against De Gaulle. He then lost his seat as a deputy in the October 1958 general election.

PMF resigned from the Radical Party, which supported the Fifth Republic constitution. For the first time he openly declared himself a socialist.

I’ve always defended, even at the heart of the Radical Party, ideas that made those who criticised me consider me a socialist. And it’s true in the sense of the socialism of Jaurès and Léon Blum, because I think I have learned from their experiences and have understood their message.

In October 1959 PMF joined the new Parti Socialiste Autonome (PSA), that stood for democratic, humanist and innovatory socialism. In May 1960 this group merged with other parts of the French New Left to become the Parti Socialiste Unifié (PSU).

He was elected a PSU deputy for the Isère constituency in March 1967, and on May 27 1968 he was the most significant mainstream politician to attend the Second Left’s 30,000-strong meeting at the Charléty football stadium. Called by the non-PCF and non-revolutionary left student and worker trade unions and supported by the PSU it provided an opportunity for PMF to speak that he did not take.

The huge Second Left meeting at the Charléty football stadium on 27 May 1968 called by student and worker trade unions

PMF’s presence, however, led to his losing some PCF support in the June 1968 elections when he narrowly lost his seat. He resigned from the PSU and embarked on a disastrous joint presidential ticket campaign with the SFIO’s Gaston Defferre in 1969. Ill health in the 1970s effectively ended his political career.

The statue of Pierre Mendes-France replaced that celebrating Louise Michel, August Blanqui and Elisee Reclus. Surely Mitterrand could have found some other location in the garden?

After his death in 1982, Mitterrand, who had been given a ministerial post by PMF in 1954, commissioned a statue to his mentor that was erected in the Luxembourg Gardens, sadly replacing Emile Derré ‘s ‘Column of kisses’ tribute to French anarchism and insurrectionism in the persons of Louise Michel, Auguste Blanqui and Elisée Reclus.

A postcard of the Cornice of Kisses in the Luxembourg Gardens around 1910

In 2002 the newly-elected Socialist Party majority on the Paris council voted to call the Western end of the avenue de France that leads to Mitterrand National Library of France, the avenue Pierre Mendes France.

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François Mitterrand

1916-1996 • France


I never imagined I’d ever think anything really positive about François Mitterrand, whose bending before the neo-liberals in the early 1980s helped reinforce Thatcher’s TINA argument (‘there is no alternative’).

Mitterrand’s relationship with socialism has been rightly described as ‘complex’. After escaping from a prisoner-of-war camp in 1941, he worked for the Vichy Government but in 1943 joined the resistance.

In 1946 he opposed the nationalisations of significant parts of French industry and supported the liberalisation of the economy. A government minister from 1947 he began to move to the centre-left, while remaining strongly anti-Communist.

In 1954 he became Interior Ministry in the Mendès France government that ended France’s colonial occupation of Indochina, but he did not resign from the Guy Mollet government in protest against its military response to the Algerian war.

Mitterrand played an important part in bringing the socialists together around his presidential candidature in the mid-1960s, and kept presenting a left alternative to Gaullism (often as a single individual).

Mitterrand secured 44.8% of the vote to De Gaulle’s 55.2% in the second round of the December 1965 presidential election. In 1958 Mitterand had marched against De Gaulle’s rise to power on the basis of an army Coup d’Etat in Algeria.

In 1971, as the Socialist party shifted to the left, Mitterrand stepped up his leftist rhetoric to become the acknowledged leader of the Socialists. He denounced monopolies and argued

Those who do accept the need for a rupture iwth capitalist society, I am telling you, cannot be Socialist Party members.

Mitterrand at the 1971 Épinay Socialist Party congress

Mitterrand’s 1981 election victory created a major shift to the left, but in 1983 Mitterrand performed a major U-turn, away from the wave of nationalisations and extensions of worker democracy back towards neo-liberalism.

In 1985 Mitterrand personally authorised the sinking of the Greenpeace ship, Rainbow Warrior, in Auckland harbour, in order to prevent it interfering with the extensive programme of nuclear tests he approved between 1981 and 1994 in the South Pacific atolls of Mururora and Fangataufa. One Greenpeace activist died as a result on 10 July 1985.

Lovers in Paris

But with the theme of left-wing lovers and Paris in my head I was surprised when I opened Le Monde on October 6 2016. It contained extracts from the journal Mitterrand kept during the first six years of his 32-year long relationship with Anne Pingeot.

When he was 47, Mitterrand fell in love with a 20-year-old art student and kept a diary of his relationship with her during the first six years of their 32-year-long companionship from 1964 to 1970.

Mitterrand used to paste cinema tickets and maps of where they had been together, and to scribble notes next to pictures cut from newspapers, as well as to write poems and letters and make little drawings, and plead for letters back.

I walked past 40, Rue Jacob, where Anne used to live with the couple’s daughter, in October 2016, looking for one of the schools that Simone de Beauvoir had attended fifty years before. 

Anne Pingeot, who became an art historian and worked at the Musée D’Orsay (that was funded extensively under Mitterrand’s presidency) published Mitterrand’s journal five years after the death of Mitterrand’s wife, Danielle, and 20 years after Mitterrand died – in 1996, the same year as my father, James.

I have copies of letters James wrote to my mother, in which he too sometimes drew little amusing sketches, like one in 1941 showing him sleeping uncomfortably on a sofa on his first night in Coventry before starting work there.

In a letter written to my mother, Margot Davies, after his first night in Coventry in 1940 where he was sent to work in an aircraft factory, my father sketched himself sleeping upright on a horse-fair sofa – the only accommodation he could find that night.

One tragedy of the advent of the email and mobile phone era is that relationships that began in the mid-1990s will never again provide records half as tangible.

Mitterrand’s complex mix of hope, fear of losing Anne, warmth and love that come through just a few pages of ‘For Anne’ sound more genuine than much of his political history.

Beginning his life as a conservative Catholic, despite his moving a considerable distance to the left, he never had the historical left instinct that saw the roots of French socialism as lying with the lives of people like Louise Michel, August Blanqui and Elisée Reclus.

A postcard of Emile Derré’s submission to the 1906 Salon, the Cornice of Kisses, intended for a House of the People. This side of the cornice shows Consolation, with Louise Michel kissing Blanqui. The other sides feature love and tenderness, with her kissing Reclus

So it meant little or nothing to him to order the erection of a statue to his mentor Pierre Mendes France in the Luxembourg Garden in the place of the Émile Derré sculpture, Le Chapiteau des Baisers, now relocated to Roubaix in the north of France.

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Marceau Pivert

1895 – 1958 • France

Socialism • Revolutionary Left • Workers and Peasants’ Socialist Party

An SFIO member from 1924 and a teachers’ trade union leader in the 1930s, Pivert was the leader of a faction within the SFIO known as the ‘Revolutionary Left‘.

In 1935 the group’s publication was based at 23 Rue Mouffetard. He wrote an article ‘Everything is Possible‘ in May 27 1936 urging, without success, the Popular Front’s Prime Minister Blum to break with capitalism.

Pivert broke with the SFIO in 1938 and formed the Workers and Peasants’ Socialist Party.

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Pierre-Joseph Proudhon

1809-1865 * France


Proudhon was the major influence on the core beliefs of French left in the 19th and early 20th centuries. His ideas can be seen to have shaped anarchists, socialists, utopian communists, cooperatists and revolutionary syndicalists and created a backcloth of sympathy and support for a democracy involving working people that kept attracting artists and writers to the left throughout the century following his first major work ‘What is Property’ in 1840.

When Marx was in Paris in 1843-1845 Proudhon discussed politics with him frequently in a bar in the Rue Coquillière and at their respective homes in the Rue Vaneau and 36 Rue Mazarine. Proudhon later moved to 70 rue Mazarine where he was living in 1847 and in the revolutionary year 1848.

In 1849 he was jailed in St Pélagie prison, where he was kept until 1852. He was out on parole at the moment of Louis-Napoleon’s 2 December 1851 coup d’etat. He had to inform Victor Hugo regretfully that as a result he was not in a position at that moment to defend the Republic.


  • 55 Quai des Grands Augustins 6 arr. Printshop where Proudhon is supposed to have worked briefly, meeting Fourier in 1828, before returning to Besançon ;
  • 31 Boulevard St Michel , 6 arr. Courbet’s first Parisian workshop (at the time the location of the demolished 89 rue de la Harpe) where he met Proudhon in 1842;
  • 4 Rue de Bourgogne, 7 arr. Proudhon often used to meet Bakunin at his lodgings in a Slave enclave between 1844 and 1847;
  • 14 Rue des Moulins, 1 arr. Proudhon attended the meetings of the editorial committee of the Franco-German Annals journal held here with Marx in 1844;
  • 154 Rue Montmartre, 2 arr. Proudhon’s first newspaper ‘The people’s representative‘ was produced here, appearing first on 27 February 1848 and running until August 1848;
  • 23 Rue du Faubourg St Denis, 10 arr. The site of the short-lived People’s Bank established by Proudhon to try and put his ideas into practice in 1849.
  • 46 Rue Boulard, 14 arr. Proudhon lived here first after his release from jail in 1852
  • 83 Avenue Denfert-Rochereau 14 arr. was where Proudhon moved to in the mid 1850s,
  • 14 Rue Jacob, 6 arr. in 1862 Proudhon lived in a house off the back of the yard behind the building here.
  • 12 Rue de Passy, 16 arr. Where Proudhon lived for the last few years of his life and died on 19 January 1865.

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Michel Rocard

1930 – 2016 • France

Socialism • PSU • Algeria

A product of the elite adminstrative education, ENA, established by De Gaulle, Rocard opposed the Algerian War. He joined the United Socialist Party (the new left PSU), and was its candidate in the 1969 presidential election.

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Pauline Roland

1805-1852 • France

FeminismSocialismTrade unionism

In 2016 I followed the Parisian footsteps today of an amazing early French socialist, trade unionist and feminist who was effectively judicially murdered at the age of 47 by the populist dictator Napoleon III.

Pauline Roland was a contemporary and friend of George Sand, Flora Tristan and of Pierre Leroux, a printworker and socialist. After Roland’s premature death Victor Hugo, in exile in Jersey in protest against the dictator Louis Bonaparte, wrote a poem called ‘Pauline Roland’.
Very few French people have heard of her today, although the oldest women and children’s refuge in Paris (dating form 1890) is named after her. Only one of the houses she actually lived in and organized from is still standing (near St Germain des Prés, at 10 rue Jacob in the same street where Simone de Beauvoir later attended secondary school). The others I walked to today had all been knocked down and rebuilt between the 1890s and 1960s.

Pauline Roland sketched in 1830 at Falaise aged 25 before she left for Paris in 1832

Roland supported herself from the age of 20 when she started working in a bookshop. From the age of 28 (in 1833) to 40 (in 1845) she had an open relationship with another Sainte-Simonian socialist man, Jean Aicard, in Paris, had two children with him, and another child with another father. She insisted all the children carry her name and must be financially raised by her.

‘I will never agree to marry a man in a society that cannot recognize my absolute equality with the person I am forming a union with,’ she argued.

She survived financially by also writing for feminist newspapers and writing histories of France, England, Scotland and Ireland. In 1847 she worked as a teacher at the socialist Saint-Simonian Community established by Pierre Leroux at Boussac (in the Limousin in central France) with funding from George Sand.

Roland was a Republican, a trade unionist and a leading feminist. During the 1848 Revolution she became the leader of the Women’s Republican Club (at 8 rue de Trevise).

A year later she founded and led the Fraternal Association of Socialist Male and Female Teachers and Professors (at 21 rue Henri Monnier). Its programme stressed gender equality, called for universal education until 18 and for women to remain in the labour force.

Her next crime in the eyes of the dominant political conservatives was to play a key part in organizing a Union of Workers’ Associations. In October 1849 delegates from 100 trades elected Roland to its central committee. Six months later she was one of 30 people arrested after a government clamp-down on organized dissent.
But an even bigger crime in the eyes of the judges was her feminism. She was charged with ’socialism, feminism and debauchery’. She spent the first seven months of 1851 in jail.

A sketch of Pauline Roland drawn in the late 1840s

On December 2 1851 Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte realized he would lose upcoming elections and organized a coup d’état to seize power and declare himself Emperor. Roland, despite coming out of prison in poor health, threw herself into the resistance movement. It failed, she was rearrested early in 1852 at her home at 106 rue du Bac, and sentenced to 10 years’ deportation to the recently invaded (1830) French colony of Algeria.

Unlike many other political prisoners Roland refused to ask for a pardon from the dictator-Emperor. She was transported and forced to do hard labour and cleaning work when she got to Algeria. Three months later, her friends George Sand and the biggest singer song-writer of the day (Beranger) persuaded Louis Bonaparte to release her. Too late. She died at Lyon in December 1852 on her way home to Paris.

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George Sand

1804-1876 • France

Feminist • Novelist • Socialist

George Sand was a feminist and republican who described herself as a communist in 1848, when she worked in the Workers’ Commission in the Luxembourg Palace. Many French feminists wanted George Sand to stand in the 1849 presidential elections when universal suffrage still excluded women.

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Louise Saumoneau

1875 – 1950 • France

Feminism, Socialism, Trade unionism

A working class seamstress, Louise Saumoneau moved from being a militant feminist to becoming a leading socialist.

She founded a trade union for seamstresses and led a strike in 1901. This convinced her of the need to involve male workers and she became a supporter of Klara Zetkin’s position calling for women to become socialists. Arrested for her opposition to World War 1, she joined the SFIO and edited La Femme Socialiste.

Louise Saumoneau moved from being a militant feminist to becoming a leading socialist

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Flora Tristan

1803-1844 • France

Feminism • Divorce rights • SocialismTrade unionism

In 1843, at the time the young Karl Marx was living in Paris, Flora Tristan published a small pamphlet called ‘The Workers’ Union’ (L’Union ouvrière). 

In it the 40-year-old Parisian woman made the case that workers were a single social class. Workers must organise themselves as such. She aimed to bring all men and women workers into a giant working class party, the Workers’ Union.
She was totally original at the time: she focused on the working class, all who worked without any property other than their labour power, and stressed the need for men and women workers as well as national and foreign workers to come together in a common project of social change. 

Flora Tristan drawn in the 1830s when she was shot by her husband as she campaigned for a woman’s right to demand a divorce

Tristan was also a determined feminist.

In the booklet’s section called ‘Why I mention women’, Tristan denounced the way women were either ignored or treated as persona non grata by the Church and all political parties. Only if male workers recognized the need for unity could they share their different experiences and create real common objectives.

‘Workers, without women, you are nothing!’, she explained.

And, just as subversively, Tristan stressed that only if workers organised work themselves could they ever win liberty.
After the Workers’ Union pamphlet was published she set off on a national tour to promote local committees of the Union. Between April and November 1844 Flora Tristan criss-crossed France selling her pamphlet and holding meetings. 

‘With my union project in my hand, from town to town, from one end of France to the other, to talk to the workers who do not know how to read and to those who do not have the time to read….I will go find them in their workshops; in their garrets and even, if needed, in their taverns.’

The campaign effectively killed her. She died in Bordeaux, probably of typhoid, just 41 years old. 

Tristan’s memorial stone in Bordeaux has a copy of her book the Workers’ Union at the top

Eight thousand people attended her funeral in Bordeaux. In the aftermath of the 1848 revolution, workers throughout France gave donations to erect a monument to Flora Tristan. It was inaugurated on 22 October 1848 in the Bordeaux Cimitière de la Chartreuse. The monument, a broken column, circled by a garland of oak and ivy, has a copy of her most important book, The Workers’ Union, at its top.

She was an extraordinary woman. Brought up by a mother widowed when Flora was four, the pair eventually had to live in one of the Restoration’s worst Paris slums in the Latin quarter’s Maubert area. Tristan lived in the Rue du Fouarre from 1815 to 1821.

She started work as an engraver and porcelaine painter. In 1821, aged 17, she married her employer, the painter and lithographer André François Chazal. Four years later, pregnant with Aline, and already mother of two children, she moved out of Paris back to her mother’s, near the Jardins du Roi (now the Jardins des Plantes), and began a life-long struggle for the right to divorce.
She lived working as a maid and lady’s companion, experiencing this as humiliation, but enabling her to visit England.

She visited London in 1826 and again in 1839, where she heard about the Grand National Consolidated Union and the Tolpuddle martyrs of 1834. In Paris, she became influenced by the Christian socialism of Saint Simone and others. She became a committed feminist socialist. and writer.

She criticised George Sand for hypocrisy. While applauding her use of ‘the novel as a medium to call attention to the harm done to women by our laws’, nonetheless Sand ‘has signed her works with the name of a man. How effective can accusations be when they are disguised as fiction?’ Tristan wanted to know. 

In 1838, after she published a denunciation of her abusive marriage and a call for the right to divorce her violent husband stalked, and then shot her. Only then did the wounded Tristan get a legal separation, while the ex-husband got a 20-year prison sentence.

Tristan’s early death during her campaign for working class unity meant she could play no part when radical feminists put up a woman candidate in the 1849 male-only suffrage presidential election under the Second French Republic. And we will never know what she would have thought about the first Socialist president of the Fifth French Republic creating a Flora Tristan stamp in 1984.

In 1984 under France’s first socialist president Mitterrand a memorial stamp was issued with Flora Tristan featured

But we can be pretty certain she would still be fighting for Socialism and Feminism. She would also be quite surprised and probably particularly upset that an 1892 painting titled ‘When will you marry?’ by her grandson, Aline’s son, Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), would fetch prices of over £200m in 2017.

The grandson Flora Tristan never knew painted ‘When will you marry?’ half a century after her early death

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Simone Weil

1909-1943 • France

SocialismAnarchism • Philosopher • Anti-fascist

A brilliant student of philosophy and committed revolutionary pacifist and anti-colonialist, she welcomed the workers’ occupations of 1936 but criticised the timidity of the Popular Front government.

The New Left Review introduced one of her essays it published with this brief (edited by me) biography:

Of the three most remarkable women thinkers born in the last century, Simone Weil (1909–43) was a year younger than Simone de Beauvoir, herself a little over a year younger than Hannah Arendt. From a secularized Jewish family in Paris, she declared herself a Bolshevik at the age of ten, and proved a brilliant student, first at the elite lyćee Henri IV and then at the École normale supérieure. ..

She wanted to teach in an industrial town but was dispatched instead to Le Puy, a rural backwater. There, nevertheless, she was soon active in solidarity work with the local trade unions and writing in La Révolution prolétarienne, a libertarian journal of the left edited by militants expelled from the Communist Party.

In 1932 she made a trip to Germany on the eve of the Nazi takeover, and on her return composed a ten-part report on the political situation in the country. In condemning the passivity of the spd and the sectarian blindness of the kpd in the face of the rise of fascism, her judgement of it corresponded closely to Trotsky’s warnings of the time, but was more clear-sighted in questioning the notion that Hitler was little more than a tool of big capital, and doubting whether the German working class was still in a position to resist his seizure of power, a fait accompli by the time her last installment appeared in late February 1933.

Six months later she published a pessimistic balance-sheet of the prospects for proletarian politics at large. Capital had reached the limits of its reproduction. But the Russian Revolution had given birth to a bureaucratic regime that had nothing to do with Socialism, Nazism was triumphant in Germany, and the New Deal in America offered no more than a technocratic variant of authoritarian capitalism. To a friend, she had written after returning from Berlin: ‘Insurrections on the order of the Commune are admirable, but they fail (true, the proletariat is much stronger than it was then; but so is the bourgeoisie). Insurrections of the October 1917 type succeed, but all they do is reinforce the bureaucratic, military and police apparatus. And at this moment nonviolence à la Gandhi seems simply a rather hypocritical species of reformism. And we do not yet know any fourth type of action.’

Now she concluded: ‘No workers’ state has ever yet existed on the earth’s surface, except for a few weeks in Paris in 1871, and perhaps for a few months in Russia in 1917 and 1918. On the other hand, for nearly fifteen years now, over one sixth of the globe, there has reigned a state as oppressive as any other, which is neither a capitalist nor a workers’ state. Certainly, Marx never foresaw anything of this kind. But not even Marx is more precious to us than the truth.’

Yet she continued to give classes in Marxism at the nearest Trade Union offices even as Trotsky denounced her for regression to an individualistic liberalism, attacking the ‘revolutionary melancholics’ among whom she had now to be numbered. Weil took no offence, arranging two months later for Trotsky to hold a secret meeting in a flat in Paris owned by her parents, at which the two continued to argue fiercely. Trotsky nevertheless told the Weils on his departure the next day: ‘You can say that the Fourth International was founded in your home.’

An admirer of Luxemburg, Weil had never shared her confidence in the spontaneity of the proletariat, and by 1934 had ceased to believe that the trade unions she had helped were sources of much hope. Deciding to withdraw from all political activity, she took leave from her teaching to become a factory worker, not only in order to experience the proletarian condition at first hand, but to see if there were other ways than those tried hitherto in which it could be transformed.

Before doing so, she composed the long essay she would ironically call her testament, ‘Reflections on the Causes of Liberty and Social Oppression’, conceived as a critical balance-sheet of Marx’s theory of history and the movements it had inspired, as well as a theory of struggles for power, not simply for property, which he had neglected, and of contemporary tyrannies of bureaucracy and technology that he could not have foreseen. She was just 25.

The turn to factory work left her disappointed, and the advent of a Popular Front government in 1936 politically cold. But when the great wave of factory occupations exploded a few months later, she was filled with joy, reporting from the Renault plant where she had been employed and kept a journal. In the summer, she joined the cnt militia in the Spanish Civil War, but after an accident was invalided out.

Back in France, she attacked her country’s colonial record in Indochina, Madagascar, North Africa as almost no one on the left cared to do at that time. In the last years before the Second World War, grappling with the growing threat of the Third Reich she first adopted and then relinquished a pacifism that, after Munich, could no longer be grounded in the lessons of 1914. When the Wehrmacht entered Paris in 1940, she escaped with her parents to the south, finding precarious refuge in Marseille.

While working as a farmhand, and later for the Resistance, her intellectual energies now turned to questions of religion—not only Christian, but Egyptian, Hindu, Buddhist texts—and philosophy, where as an accomplished Hellenist her range extended from the pre-Socratics to Plato, not to speak of Homer and Pythagoras; alongside an aversion to Judaism—did the Old Testament not celebrate the extermination of the Amalekites and others?—that would be a thorn to her posthumous admirers.

In the spring of 1942, she and her parents got visas to the us, arriving in New York via Casablanca in July. There she fretted till the autumn, impatient to join Free French operations in England, a wish she achieved in November with the help of Maurice Schumann, an old classmate from the Lcyee Henri IV, future Prime Minister and progenitor of European integration. In London she served in the exile equivalent of the Interior Ministry, under the Socialist André Philip, generating summaries of reports from France and drafting political proposals for its future after Liberation, constitutional schemes including a spirited critique of the ideology of human rights that was just coming into fashion. Working round the clock, at home and in the office, in four months Weil produced a prodigious volume of writing before expiring at the age of 34—from tuberculosis or anorexia?—in the summer of 1943. All but a handful of her texts lay unpublished when she died.

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Jean Zay


Radical • Education • Popular Front • Assassination

There are 126 schools in France named after Jean Zay. But few now know much about the 40-year-old Radical Party Jewish deputy who became Minister of Education and Fine Arts in Blum‘s Popular Front government of 1936, and kept that position until 1939.

First elected a deputy to the National Assembly for his home town of Orleans in 1931, from 1934 to 1937 Zay lived in the Rue de Verneuil, and then, in the Rue de Bourgogne until his resignation to join the Army on September 2 1939.

After four years a prisoner of the Petain government, he was murdered by revengeful score-settling anti-Semitic Petainist French uniformed Milice exactly two weeks after D-Day in June 1944.

His body was eventually found in 1946 in a ravine where the Milice had shot and hid him. From 1948 to 2015 he was buried in Orléans cemetery and then, under the Hollande presidency, his remains were placed in the Pantheon with three others who had opposed the Vichy Government.

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Le Maitron


Émile Zola

1840-1902 France

SocialismLiterature • Novelist • Dreyfus

In 1898 Émile Zola, the pre-eminent 19th century social realist novelist, helped change the course of French history when he took up the cause of Captain Dreyfus, the Jewish army officer framed for treason.

From that moment onwards the republicans divided between those on the left who were internationalist and opposed racism and sought to improve the conditions of the vast majority of French people, and those on the political right who sided with the monarchists and Bonapartists and unconditionally supported the army and ‘strong government’.

Unlike most significant left figures in French history, Zola’s magnificent literary output followed by his premature death meant he has three plaques to him around Paris as well as an avenue named after him.

One plaque confirms his place of birth on the fourth floor of 10 Rue St Joseph, even though the family moved away when he was three years old.

Most Parisians rented their homes throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. Like them, Zola moved around a great deal when he first arrived in Paris to study for a Bac diploma in science (following in his father’s footsteps), staying primarily in the cheap Latin Quarter.

In 1858 to 1859, Zola lived first at 63 Rue Monsieur le Prince and then moved a short distance to 241 Rue St Jacques. After failing to get a Bac in science he gets a job as a clerc on the docks for two months before moving again in 1860 to 35 Rue St Victor. Evicted from there for non-payment of his rent his next move was to 4 Rue Rollin and then to 11 Rue Soufflot – all within a short distance of each other.

On March 1 1862 Zola starts a job at the Hachette bookshop thanks to an offer by its owner, Louis, and on October 31 1862 is naturalised French.

He is then living at what is now 7 Impasse Royer-Collard. Still employed at the bookshop, after a short stay with his mother at 5 Rue des Feuillantines, he then moves back to Rue St Jacques, this time to No. 278. This is where he was living in 1864 when his first novel was published, Contes à Ninon (Stories from Ninon).

In late 1864 Zola started a relationship with Éléonore-Alexandrine Meley, a seamstress also called Gabrielle, whom he married in 1870. The couple first lived together in 1866 in a sixth floor room with a view of the Luxembourg Garden from the terrace of 10 Rue de Vaugirard.

On 12 January 1898 Zola wrote ‘j’acccuse‘, a letter to the French President, Felix Faure, at his marital home since 1889 at 21 Rue de Bruxelles. He then took it to the offices of the ‘Aurore’ newspaper edited by Georges Clemenceau at 144 Rue Montmartre, now remembered by a plaque. It was published the following day.

Zola’s letter to President Faure was published on January 13 1898. It led to him being put on trial and to the discloure of evidence proving the innocence of Alfred Dreyfus.

Zola died of carbon monoxide poisoning from an alleged faulty heater in September 1902.

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Places associated with Émile Zola