Chapter 1

May 1968: "La pègre, on en est"

(traduction en français)

 

By the time the first barricades appeared in the Latin Quarter on 3 May 1968, Renaud was a precociously militant fifteen year-old. Born Renaud Pierre Manuel Séchan on 11 May 1952, along with his twin brother, he grew up in a large family at the Porte d’Orléans, on the southern edge of central Paris. His mother belonged to a working-class family from the mining region of northern France and worked in a factory until she married. His father belonged to a cultivated, if financially modest, Protestant family from the Montpellier region and was a translator, teacher and successful author. Despite their different backgrounds, Renaud’s parents were both left-wing and shared a strong sense of social justice. He later recalled: "As far back as I can remember, my parents always discussed politics at home, were always left-wing and were constantly exasperated by the news of the world."

 

Renaud was particularly attached to his maternal grandfather, who had started work as a coal miner after leaving school at the age of thirteen. A self-educated, card-carrying communist, Renaud’s grandfather visited the Soviet Union during the 1930s, a disillusioning experience which led him to leave the party upon his return. He also worked in a Parisian factory and was active in the anarcho-syndicalist movement. Renaud fondly remembered his grandfather in the song Oscar (1981):

 

L’avait fait 36 le Front populaire
Pi deux ou trois guerres pi Mai 68
Il avait la haine pour les militaires
J’te raconte même pas c’qu’y pensait des flics
Il était marxiste tendance Pif le chien
Syndiqué à mort inscrit au parti
Nous traitait d’fainéants moi et mes frangins
Parc’qu’on était anars tendance patchouli
Il était balaise fort comme un grand frère
Les épaules plus larges que sa tête de lit
Moi qui suis musclé comme une serpillière
Ben de c’côté-là j’tiens pas beaucoup d’lui
L’avait sur l’bras gauche un super tatouage
Avec un croissant d’lune et une fleur coupée
La couleur s’était barrée avec l’âge
Il avait l’bleu pâle d’un jean délavé
Quand j’allais chez lui des fois d’temps en temps
J’lui roulais ses clopes avec son tabac gris
Pi j’restais des heures avec des yeux tout grands
A l’écouter m’baratiner sa vie
_____________________

He’d fought in 36, the Popular Front
Then two or three wars and May 68
He hated military types
Don’t even ask what he thought about the cops
He was a Marxist from the Groucho school
A die-hard unionist and a party member
He used to call me and my brothers lazybones
’Cause we were anarchists from the patchouli school
He was built like an ox, strong like a big brother
His shoulders were broader than his bedhead
I’m a puny runt
In that respect at least I don’t resemble him much
He had a great tattoo on his left arm
With a crescent moon and a cut flower
The colour had faded with age
It was pale blue, like a pair of stone-washed jeans
Now and then, when I went to his place
I’d roll his smokes for him with his shag
And I’d spend hours listening wide-eyed
To the stories he told me about his life

Renaud gained his first direct experience of political activism within the ranks of the anti-war and anti-nuclear movements of the mid-1960s. In 1965, he joined the Comités Vietnam de Base, organised in response to the first American bombings in Vietnam. In 1966, he took part in his first protest march with the Mouvement Contre l’Armement Atomique. In September 1967, he enrolled at the Lycée Michel Montaigne, where he helped to establish a Comité Vietnam and one of the many Comités d’Action Lycéen (CAL) which began to proliferate throughout Paris at the end of that year. He brawled with right-wing students from school and from the neighbouring Law Faculty of the Sorbonne. In the months leading up to May 1968, he acquainted himself with the authors of nineteenth-century revolutionary theory, including Bakunin, Stirner, Proudhon and Marx. Under the influence of charismatic Maoist friends, he read The Little Red Book and briefly joined the Parti Communiste Marxiste-Léniniste Français (PCMLF) as well as the Amitiés Franco-Chinoises. He participated in factory expeditions organised by these Maoist formations, whose attempts to provide workers with material and moral support were generally greeted with overt contempt. Jacques Erwan writes that Renaud himself soon became fed up with the Maoists’ "extreme intellectualism" and "demagogic promotion of worker power." In May 1968, Renaud realigned himself with the anarchists.

 

Renaud’s involvement in the May events stemmed initially from a simple desire to express his solidarity with the students who had been beaten up by CRS riot police. On 11 May 1968, he spent his sixteenth birthday fighting under the black flag on the barricades of the Latin Quarter. After students occupied the Sorbonne two days later, he made himself useful by sweeping up the university courtyard. He sold revolutionary newspapers such as Action and L’Enragé by day and camped inside the university grounds by night. He joined the Comité Révolutionnaire d’Agitation Culturelle (CRAC) before forming a splinter group with two friends which they baptised the Groupe Gavroche Révolutionnaire.

 

The diminutive hero of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables (1862) was an apt role model for the young soixante-huitards. Gavroche dies a martyr’s death while fighting on the barricades of a popular insurrection. As an independent street urchin with tenuous family ties, he personifies something of the soixante-huitards’ quest to liberate themselves from their parents’ generation. In his capacity as a homeless child who roams from the outskirts of Paris through the city’s inner districts, imposing his mark in a rowdy, humorous and festive manner, he asserts his "right to the city," to borrow the title of Henri Lefebvre’s influential book, in a way replicated by the soixante-huitards during their occupation of the Sorbonne and the Odéon Theatre, their protest marches down the Champs-Elysées and the carnivalesque euphoria which characterised their revolt. Most importantly, Gavroche sings throughout his adventures:

 

Who had written these verses which Gavroche sang as he walked along, and all the other songs which he happily chanted from time to time? Who knows? Himself, perhaps? Gavroche knew all the popular refrains around and combined them with his own warbling.

Like Gavroche, Renaud turned to popular song to shape his experience of the world. He had inherited from his father a passion for the anarchistic songs of Georges Brassens and set his first lyrics, which he wrote at the age of nine or ten, to music by "Tonton Georges." Brassens’s highly literary style belied his identification with, and celebration of, all manner of social outcasts. Although he adopted a somewhat detached position in relation to the May events, his influence on Renaud was greater than that of any other songwriter. Renaud was also a fan of Johnny Hallyday, the first singer to Frenchify rock and roll in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Hallyday’s music became a catalyst for the emergence of French youth as a distinct social class in the years leading up to the explosive events of May 1968. Renaud was further inspired by contemporary protest singers who revived the folk tradition of Depression-era America to attack the Vietnam War, racism, consumerism and the paternalistic, authoritarian aspects of post-war capitalist society. Hugues Aufray and Graeme Allwright introduced French audiences to le protest-song in the mid-1960s by translating or adapting Bob Dylan’s songs into French. The simplicity of American-style folk music meant that it could be reproduced by anyone who had learnt a handful of chords on an acoustic guitar. Although the genre was rapidly commercialised, it enabled an entire generation of teenagers like Renaud to express themselves directly through song. Finally, students in May 1968 resurrected a home-grown tradition of protest song. They adapted the lyrics of revolutionary classics like Ça ira and La Carmagnole to reflect contemporary events and defiantly chanted the hymn of the working-class movement, L’Internationale, on numerous occasions. Written by Eugène Pottier in June 1871 in response to the brutal repression of the Paris Commune and set to music by Pierre Degeyter seventeen years later, L’Internationale resonated deeply with the students’ aspirations. It announced in heroic, messianic tones the imminent collapse of the bourgeois social order and the birth of an international brotherhood of workers united by the core ideals of cooperation and self-determination:

 

Debout les damnés de la terre
Debout les forçats de la faim
La raison tonne en son cratère
C’est l’éruption de la fin
Du passé faisons table rase
Foules, esclaves, debout, debout
Le monde va changer de base
Nous ne sommes rien, soyons tout
C’est la lutte finale
Groupons-nous, et demain
L’Internationale
Sera le genre humain
_____________________

Arise, ye pris’ners of starvation
Arise, ye wretched of the earth
For Justice thunders condemnation
A better world’s in birth
No more tradition’s chains shall bind us
Arise ye slaves no more in thrall
The earth shall rise on new foundations
We have been naught, we shall be all
’Tis the final conflict
Let each stand in their place
The International Union
Shall be the human race

Renaud was inspired to write his first protest song, Crève salope! after meeting Evariste, a university lecturer turned songwriter and the first artist to record under the auspices of the CRAC. Accompanying himself on guitar, Renaud performed the song for an audience gathered in one of the Sorbonne’s lecture theatres. Crève salope! is a ferocious parable of the May events which follows the itinerary of a young rebel as he confronts a series of emblematic authority figures, starting with his father:

 

Je v’nais de manifester au Quartier.
J’arrive chez moi fatigué, épuisé,
mon père me dit: Bonsoir fiston, comment qu’ça va?
J’ui réponds: Ta gueule sale con, ça te regarde pas!
et j’ui ai dit: Crève salope!
et j’ui ai dit: Crève charogne!
et j’ui ai dit: Crève poubelle!
VLAN! une beigne!
_____________________

I’d just been demonstrating in the Latin Quarter.
I arrived home totally exhausted,
my father says, "Good evening junior, and how are we?"
I go, "Shut your face, jerk, and mind your own business!"
And I said, "Die, bastard!"
And I said, "Die, arsehole!"
And I said, "Die, shithead!"
WHAM! Biffed!

The terms "charogne," which literally means "carrion," and "poubelle," which literally translates as "rubbish bin," constitute a forceful attack on paternal authority with their associations of putrefaction and obsolescence. On a personal level, these lines could be read as a challenge to Renaud’s own father who, despite having instilled in his son a healthy dose of antiauthoritarianism, refused during this period to allow him to sit at the family table because of his long hair. On a broader level, they give credence to the theory that powerful Oedipal forces were at play during the May events. The sudden eruption of paternal violence in the last line can be associated with the punitive attitude of the CRS and of the Gaullist regime as a whole.

 

The narrator – and by extension French youth – appears initially to be simply spoiling for a fight, but the fourth verse suggests that his virulence stems in part from feelings of abandonment and despair. He explains that after being expelled from school:

 

Je m’suis r’trouvé dans la rue, abandonné,
j’étais complètement perdu, désespéré,
un flic me voit et me dit: Qu’est-c’tu fous ici?
à l’heure qu’il est tu devrais être au lycée,
et j’ui ai dit: Crève salope!
et j’ui ai dit: Crève charogne!
et j’ui ai dit: Crève fumier!
VLAN! bouclé!
_____________________

I ended up in the street, abandoned
Totally lost and in despair,
A cop saw me and said, "What the hell are you doing here?
You should be in school at this hour,"
And I said "Die, bastard!"
And I said "Die, arsehole!"
And I said "Die, shithead!"
BANG! locked up!

The crescendo leading up to the onomatopoetic "vlan!" in each verse is replicated in the song’s narrative structure, as the authorities take ever more desperate measures to contain the narrator’s insolence. The song ends with a hyperbolical flourish:

 

Je m’suis r’trouvé enfermé à la Santé,
puis j’ai été condamné à être guillotiné;
le jour d’mon exécution j’ai eu droit au cur’ton,
y m’dit: Repentez-vous mon frère dans une dernière prière,
et j’ui ai dit: Crève salope!
et j’ui ai dit: Crève charogne!
et j’ui ai dit: Crève fumier!
VLAN! y z’ont tranché!
_____________________

I ended up in the nick,
And was sentenced to death by guillotine;
On the day of my execution I had the right to a priestling,
He said, "Repent my son with a final prayer,"
And I said, "Die, bastard!"
And I said, "Die arsehole!"
And I said, "Die, shithead!"
"ZING!" headless!

One of the most striking features of Crève salope! is the narrator’s abusive tone. He cuts quite a different figure from the heroes of nineteenth-century revolutionary songs, who were frequently portrayed as noble, industrious and law-abiding citizens of the Republic. Working-class chansonniers like Pottier were anxious to counteract what Louis Chevalier has described as the persistent confusion between "the labouring classes and the dangerous classes" – that is, between workers and criminals – which existed in public consciousness during the first half of the nineteenth century and which was still being cynically exploited by the Versaillais forces at the time of the Commune. Renaud’s protagonist, on the contrary, has nothing to prove. He speaks and acts like a delinquent, even though he shares the fate of many a revolutionary hero. It could be argued that this merely reflected a juvenile desire on Renaud’s part to be provocative. However, Crève salope! also points to the significant struggle which the soixante-huitards faced in attempting to establish their own revolutionary identity. Their idolisation of the working class was rarely reciprocated. On the contrary, Renaud’s earlier experience with his Maoist friends announced the hostile attitude which students would encounter among certain sections of the working class during May 1968. The old guard of the more authoritarian working-class institutions such as the Parti Communiste Français (PCF) had supported De Gaulle during the Resistance and, despite their revolutionary heritage, were more inclined to legal negotiations with the government than to revolutionary acts. They tended to dismiss the student radicals as reckless thrill-seekers and bourgeois "fils à papa" ("daddy’s boys"). The signature of the Grenelle Agreements by government, employer and union representatives on 27 May 1968 highlighted the division between working-class leaders primarily interested in economic gains and students fighting against the consumerist values of the capitalist system.

 

The soixante-huitards found a more receptive audience among younger workers and in particular among the blousons noirs, delinquent youths with a propensity for violence who came from the grands ensembles (housing estates) of suburban Paris. While the blousons noirs did not possess the same level of education or political awareness as the predominantly middle-class soixante-huitards, they experienced even more acutely than their student allies a sense of having been relegated to the margins of society. The grands ensembles of the Parisian suburbs or banlieue – which literally translates as "a place of banishment" – were originally designed as a temporary solution to the city’s chronic housing shortage, exacerbated by the post-war baby boom. Although they provided a reasonable standard of physical comfort and hygiene, many were poorly linked to the workplace and to the city’s central districts. They were generally built in great haste and with cheap materials, and lacked basic community facilities. The absence of traditional social structures and of a unifying culture in the grands ensembles led many of their teenage inhabitants to seek refuge in delinquent gangs.

 

The soixante-huitards, for their part, strongly identified with the blousons noirs. The Nanterre campus where the May movement began was located in the city’s industrial west, near a housing estate of habitations à loyer modéré or HLM (low-rent apartment blocks) and a bidonville (shanty town). Henri Lefebvre’s book La Proclamation de la Commune (1965), which interpreted the Commune of 1871 as the re-appropriation of central Paris by those who had been pushed out to the city’s periphery, seems to have struck a chord among his students at Nanterre. The symbolic significance of urban space and the sociological consequences of town planning became important themes of discussion, particularly among architecture students from the Ecole des Beaux Arts. They argued that the construction of grands ensembles primarily served the class interests of professional architects and the bourgeoisie:

 

We believe that the architect’s objective function in capitalist society is to design the built environment of an oppressive structure. In our opinion, the expression "watchdog of the bourgeoisie" is not a hollow one. Those architects who have designed so-called "social" housing, who have given contracts to the cheapest developer, who reduce the surface area of housing developments to bring down the ceiling cost, those town planners who have reinforced social segregation through zoning know this. As do secondary school students in their school-barracks and patients in hospital-prisons.

 

The belief that educational institutions and suburban housing estates were symbols of the same oppressive system was reinforced when students and blousons noirs joined forces in some of the most spectacular riots of May 1968. This gave the French government and the PCF a welcome opportunity to discredit the May movement by claiming that it had been coopted by criminal elements. After a group of protesters set fire to the Paris Stock Exchange during the night of 24 May, the Minister of the Interior, Christian Fouchet, notoriously lashed out at what he described as "la pègre," an "underworld from the slummiest parts of Paris, whose rage is real and which is hiding behind the students." Fouchet further invited Paris to "throw up this underworld which dishonours the city." His outburst elicited counter-accusations that the government itself had hired agitators to infiltrate and compromise the May movement. The Coordination des Comités d’Action at the Sorbonne turned Fouchet’s accusation around by insisting that "the real underworld is that pack of plutocrats who are holding onto power against the will of the people." For the most part, however, Fouchet inadvertently reinforced the students’ identification with the low-life represented by the blousons noirs. One group of committees declared: "Workers, clerks, teachers, students, farmers, we all belong to what the government insultingly refers to as the underworld."

 

The criminal milieu offered the soixante-huitards an alternative model of revolt; however, their appropriation of a delinquent identity did not mean that they lost interest in the working-class cause and its revolutionary mythology. Instead, it put them in the position of supporting both "the labouring classes and the dangerous classes" which working-class activists had been at pains to differentiate since the second half of the nineteenth century. The soixante-huitards’ position nonetheless had a theoretical basis in the work of Mikhail Bakunin, the nineteenth-century Russian anarchist fascinated by the "poetry of destruction." According to Peter Marshall, Bakunin became "the most influential thinker during the resurgence of anarchism in the sixties and seventies." Unlike Marx, who despised the lumpenproletariat, Bakunin believed that social change must proceed "from the bottom up, from the circumference to the centre": "I have in mind . . . the ‘riffraff,’ that ‘rabble’ almost unpolluted by bourgeois civilisation, which carries in its inner being and in its aspirations, in all the necessities and miseries of its collective life, all the seeds of the socialism of the future."

 

Bakunin’s theories were echoed in the 1950s and 1960s by the Internationale Situationniste. The Situationists adhered to the Marxist belief in the revolutionary vocation of the proletariat; at the same time, they were interested in the subversive potential of social groups at the fringes of the working class. The blousons noirs, whose violent exploits during the period 1959-1963 fed a nascent anxiety in French society about its readiness to accommodate the first generation of "baby boomers" to reach maturity, attracted the attention of the Situationist Raoul Vaneigem:

 

Their puerile will to power has often managed to preserve almost intact their will to live . . . If the playful violence inherent in gangs of young delinquents were to stop being expended in often ridiculous and "spectacular" gestures, and were instead to turn into the poetry of rebellion, then this would no doubt cause a chain reaction, a substantial shock wave. Most people are, in fact, acutely aware of their own desire to live authentically and reject restrictions and specific social roles. All it needs is a spark and an appropriate strategy. If the blousons noirs ever manage to achieve a revolutionary consciousness, by simply discovering what they are, and demanding to be more than this, they will in all probability determine where the epicentre of the future revolution will be. To federate their gangs would be the one action which would both reveal this consciousness and also allow it to express itself.

 

The Situationists had a stronger influence on the cultural production of May 1968 than any other group. Renaud’s first song bears a striking resemblance to a tract published in Bordeaux in April 1968 by the Situationist-inspired Comité de Salut Public des Vandalistes:

 

La lutte contre l’aliénation se doit de donner aux mots leur sens réel ainsi que de leur rendre leur force initiale:

aussi ne dites plus:
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Monsieur le professeur
bonsoir, papa
pardon, m’sieur l’agent
merci, docteur
mais dites:
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
crève salope!
crève salope!
crève salope!
crève salope!

 

 

Crève salope! is also noteworthy for the way in which it was popularised. Its simple structure and repetitive elements made it easy to learn. A number of Renaud’s friends with rudimentary guitar skills copied down the words and presented the song to school audiences in different parts of Paris. By lending itself to this type of shared experience and by creating an impact outside the world of show business, Crève salope! exemplified the ideals of the Situationists, on the one hand, who denounced the alienating, mass-produced culture of what Guy Debord described as "la société du spectacle" ("the entertainment society"), and, on the other hand, of contemporary folk singers who, like their nineteenth-century working-class predecessors, believed that popular song was most likely to mobilise revolutionary sentiments if performed collectively and if it remained independent of the market forces of the entertainment industry.

 

Renaud wrote a second set of song lyrics in May 1968 entitled C.A.L en bourse, which bore witness to the violent methods used by the CRS riot police:

 

La grenade qu’un CRS m’a envoyée
L’autre soir au Quartier m’a beaucoup fait pleurer,
J’ai rejoint en courant la place Edmond-Rostand,
Y’avait des flics partout, et pourtant j’en rosse tant!
Dans la semaine ils mettent leurs petits PV,
Et le vendredi soir relancent nos pavés,
Ces bourreaux, ces SS, qui nous filent des mornifles
Et qu’on attaque sans peur à coups de canif!
Les flics ne cognent jamais de la même façon,
Tout dépend de la fille, tout dépend du garçon,
Moi je suis le polisson du centre Beaujon.
Là j’ai connu un flic que l’on appelle Eugène,
Car sa spécialité c’est la lacrymogène;
Je lui ai dit cent fois: Arrête les crimes, Eugène!
_____________________

The grenade which a riot policeman threw at me
The other day in the Latin Quarter made me cry a lot,
I ran to Edmond-Rostand Square,
There were cops everywhere, but I still beat up heaps of them!
During the week they hand out their little fines,
And on Friday nights they throw back our cobblestones,
Torturers, SS men who clip us over the ear
And who we fearlessly attack with our pocket knives!
Cops never bash the same way twice,
It all depends on the girl or the boy,
I’m the "little rascal" of the Beaujon Centre.
I met a cop there called Eugene
He specialty is tear-gas
I told him time and again, "Stop committing crimes, Eugene!"

Like Crève salope! C.A.L. en bourse owes something to Situationist theory. In particular, it illustrates the cultural tactic – frequently used in May 1968 – of what the Situationists called "détournement," which involved the "diversion" of artistic forms for other purposes than those originally intended. Here, Renaud uses the sonnet, a poetic genre usually reserved for refined expressions of love, as a vehicle for social protest. In addition, the lyrics derive a large part of their subversive impact from a series of semantically loaded puns. The song’s title plays on the French word for pun itself, calembour, by juxtaposing the acronym for the Comités d’Action Lycéens, CAL, with the French word for Stock Exchange, Bourse. The CAL were an active force in the May uprising, while the Bourse symbolised the capitalist system which the soixante-huitards sought to overthrow. In the first verse, the narrator’s triumphant boast about the number of policemen he has beaten up, "j’en rosse tant," simultaneously alludes to the name of Jean Rostand, the founder of the Mouvement Contre l’Armement Atomique which Renaud had frequented in the mid-1960s. Finally, "les crimes Eugène" is an approximate play on lacrymogène (tear-gas).

 

The narrator of C.A.L. en bourse possesses an endearing mixture of street wisdom, idealism and child-like ingenuousness. This makes him strongly reminiscent of Gavroche, who, in many respects, was the prototypal literary incarnation of the convergence between "the labouring classes and the dangerous classes." Gavroche moves effortlessly from the Parisian underworld to the revolutionary barricades. It is his child-like status which makes this possible; according to Hugo, the Parisian street kid

 

swears like a trooper, hangs out in pubs, knows thieves, is overfamiliar with girls, speaks in slang, sings obscene songs and has nothing bad in his heart. This is because his soul contains a pearl – innocence – and pearls don’t dissolve in mud. As long as man remains a child, it is God’s will that he be innocent.

May 1968 was a rite of passage which compelled Renaud to leave behind the external reality of his own childhood. Expelled from the Lycée Montaigne, he enrolled in September 1968 at the Lycée Claude Bernard, located in the conservative and exclusive sixteenth arrondissement (district) of Paris. According to Renaud, most of the students at his new school were either apolitical or had ultra right-wing tendencies. He managed nevertheless to find a like-minded spirit with whom he teamed up to form the Groupe Ravachol. Renaud’s last published text from 1968, Ravachol, is both a political manifesto and a eulogy for the notorious anarchist after whom the group was named. François-Claudius Ravachol was condemned to death in 1892 for having perpetrated a series of bomb attacks in protest against what he saw as the victimisation of workers by the beneficiaries of the capitalist system:

 

Il s’app’lait Ravachol, c’était un anarchiste
qu’avait des idées folles, des idées terroristes
Il fabriquait des bombes et les faisait sauter
pour emmerder le monde, les bourgeois, les curés.
A la porte des banques, dans les commissariats,
ça f’sait un double bang, j’aurais aimé voir ça.
Mais un jour il fut trahi par sa meilleure amie,
livré à la police, la prétendue justice.
Au cours de son procès, il déclara notamment
n’avoir tué aucun innocent,
vu qu’il n’avait frappé que la bourgeoisie,
que les flics, les curés, les fonctionnaires pourris.
Mais le juge dit: Ravachol, on a trop discuté,
tu n’as plus la parole, maint’nant on va trancher!
Devant la guillotine il cita, ben voyons,
le camarade Bakounine et l’camarade Proudhon:
Si tu veux être heureux pends ton propriétaire,
coupe les curés en deux, tue les p’tits fonctionnaires!
Son exemple fut suivi quelques années plus tard
par Emile Henry, autre ennemi du pouvoir.
Camarade qui veux lutter autour du drapeau noir,
drapeau d’la liberté, drapeau de l’espoir,
rejoins le combat du Groupe Ravachol
et n’oublie pas qu’la propriété, c’est l’vol!
Il s’appl’ait Ravachol, c’était un anarchiste
qu’avait des idées pas si folles, des idées terroristes.
_____________________

His name was Ravachol, he was an anarchist
who had crazy ideas, terrorist ideas
He made bombs and set them off
to bug people, the bourgeoisie and clerics.
In front of banks and at police stations,
There were simultaneous explosions which I’d love to have seen.
But one day he was betrayed by his best friend
who fingered him to the police, the so-called upholders of the law.
During his trial, he proclaimed
that he had never killed an innocent person,
given that his victims were only the bourgeoisie,
cops, clerics and corrupt bureaucrats.
"That’s enough discussion, Ravachol, you’ve had your say,"
said the judge, cutting him short.
Beneath the guillotine he quoted, let’s see...
comrade Bakunin and comrade Proudhon:
"If you want to be happy hang your landlord,
cut the clerics in half, kill petty bureaucrats!"
His example was followed a few years later
by Emile Henry, another enemy of the system.
Comrade, if you want to fight under the black flag,
the flag of freedom, the flag of hope,
join the struggle of the Groupe Ravachol,
and above all, don’t forget that property is theft!
His name was Ravachol, he was an anarchist
who had ideas that weren’t so crazy, terrorist ideas.

 

Ravachol exemplifies the soixante-huitards’ wish to see themselves as part of an historical revolutionary tradition and builds upon a series of anarchist songs from the early 1890s which commemorated the terrorist’s exploits. During this period, anarchist songwriters in general began to couch their revolt in gritty, colloquial language rather than in the lofty style favoured by Communards like Pottier, thereby creating a precedent for the kind of songs which Renaud would write three quarters of a century later. This was certainly true of Le Père Lapurge, a well-known song in revolutionary circles of the 1890s which Ravachol actually sang as he mounted the scaffold. He added a new verse which, according to legend, he had written himself:

 

Si tu veux être heureux,
Nom de dieu!
Pends ton propriétaire,
Coup’ les curés en deux,
Nom de dieu!
Fouts les églis’ par terre,
Sang-dieu!
Et l’bon dieu dans la merde,
Nom de dieu!
Et l’bon dieu dans la merde!
_____________________
If you want to be happy,
God dammit!
Hang your landlord,
Cut the clerics in half,
God dammit!
Pull down the churches,
For God’s sake!
And shove the Lord in shit,
God dammit!
Shove the Lord in shit!

One of the most famous slogans of May 1968 was a Situationist maxim which bore a striking resemblance to Ravachol’s verse: "Humanity will only be truly happy the day the last bureaucrat has been hanged with the guts of the last capitalist." However, most soixante-huitards, including Renaud, did not translate this type of verbal violence into real acts of terrorism. Those who did not belong to authoritarian Marxist groups were strongly influenced by anarchist principles, but few seriously contemplated promoting those principles by imitating Ravachol’s brand of "propaganda by the deed." The Fédération Anarchiste Française (FAF), in an effort to correct the popular preconception of anarchists as dangerous psychopaths, included the following statement in its manifesto of 25 May 1968: "Madmen, nihilists and die-hard extremists have no place among the anarchists." Perhaps Ravachol should be seen as a cathartic expression of the frustration and rage which Renaud must have felt after the collapse of the May movement and his subsequent "exile" to the sixteenth arrondissement. Nonetheless, the terrorism into which the most embittered revolutionaries channelled their revolt in the 1970s can make Ravachol appear in hindsight as a harbinger of a new, more cynical era.

 

Renaud’s first songs forcefully convey his youthful passion, even though they lack the linguistic mastery and finesse of his subsequent work. They also show that from an early age, he was able to draw creatively upon a range of cultural forms. Hugo’s half-romantic, half-realist epic about "the labouring classes and the dangerous classes" of the first half of the nineteenth century, anarchist songs of the early 1890s and Situationist rhetoric of the 1960s all presented a vision of class struggle in which criminal elements and illegal tactics assumed pride of place. Such a vision inevitably appealed to soixante-huitards at odds with the more respectable and authoritarian working-class institutions. May 1968 also provided Renaud with his first direct experience of how popular song could both articulate social problems and serve as a rallying point for the disenfranchised. However, this experience had not given him a strong sense of vocation, and he was far from imagining that his own songs would one day give voice to an entire generation.


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