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France remembers murdered socialist hero Jean Jaurès

© Photo: AFP/Kenzo Tribouillard | French President François Hollande drinks a cup of coffee at the Cafe du Croissant in Paris following a ceremony to mark the anniversary of the assassination of Jean Jaurès, who was shot at the café on July 31, 1914.

Text by Sam BALL

Latest update : 2014-07-31

On a Friday evening on July 31, 1914, a 29-year-old French nationalist by the name of Raoul Villain arrived at a north Paris café, pulled a pistol from his pocket and fired two shots at a diner, striking his target twice in the head.

With those fatal shots, he brought an end to the life of one of France’s most celebrated politicians, social thinkers and anti-war campaigners.

On Thursday, 100 years on from the assassination, France paid tribute to Jean Jaurès, a man who has left an indelible imprint on French society, politics and history.

Wreaths were laid outside the Le Croissant café, still standing today at 146 Rue Montmartre, where Jaurès ate his last meal. French President François Hollande was among those in attendance. A memorial was also held in the southern city of Lyon, where Jaurès made his final public speech six days before his death. Meanwhile, politicians of every point on the political spectrum have paid homage to Jaurès in recent days.

Jaurès may be little known outside his homeland, but a glance at a map of any French town or city will reveal the extent of his impact on the country – thousands of streets, schools, metro stations and public squares are named after him. Perhaps only former president Charles de Gaulle has more French real estate dedicated to his memory.

Lasting legacy

But his legacy extends further than place names.

Jean Jaurès, date unknown. © Wikimedia Commons

Perhaps the biggest testament to Jaurès lasting impact on French society is the regularity that, even today, his memory is still invoked by politicians from the far-left to the far-right. It’s got to the extent that politicians of all persuasions are regularly accused of appropriating his legacy for their own means.

Former president Nicolas Sarkozy of the conservative UMP declared during his 2007 electoral campaign that he, rather than the French left, was Jaurès’s true heir.

“Jaurès said: ‘Courage is to choose a profession and do it well, whatever it is’,” Sarkozy remarked. “For Jaurès, work was valour. The left of today does not like work.”

Even France’s far-right National Front (FN) has gotten in on the act. Its leader, Marine Le Pen, quoted Jaurès in a 2011 speech, saying: “To him who has nothing, his country is his only possession.” A 2009 FN campaign poster even carried a picture of the former socialist leader with the caption: “Jaurès would have voted National Front.”

His legacy was perhaps best summed up by Hollande, who on a visit to southern France in April, declared that “Jaurès, the man of socialism, is today the man of all of France”.

Not all are happy with Jaurès’s apparently universal appeal, however. On the eve of the anniversary of Jaurès’s death, Pierre Laurent, head of France’s Communist Party, blasted politicians looking to “usurp” his legacy, both on the left and right.

“Shut up and let Jaurès talk,” said Laurent.

Inauspicious beginnings

Born in 1859 to a family of modest means in provincial France, he entered politics at an early age – in his mid-twenties – first as a moderate republican but then switching to socialism in the late 1880s after taking up the cause of striking mines in Carmaux in south-west France.

His eloquent speeches and passionate defence of workers’ rights made him a towering figure in the growing socialist movement.

The café where Jaurès was assassinated, as it looked in 1914

Leon Trotsky, writing in 1909, described him as one of socialism’s greatest orators.
“It is not his rich technique nor his enormous miraculous sounding voice nor the generous profuseness of his gestures but the genius’s naïveté of his enthusiasm which brings Jaurès close to the masses and makes him what he is,” said the Russian communist leader.

In 1902, Jaurès became one of the founding members and leader of the French Socialist Party, later the French Section of the Workers' International (SFIO) – the forerunner to today’s Socialist Party of current President François Hollande. He also founded the socialist paper L'Humanité, still going today, whose editors he was having dinner with at the time of his murder.


But he is perhaps best remembered, by socialists and non-socialists alike, for his anti-militarism and attempts to avert the outbreak of the First World War.

“Never, for forty years, has Europe been in a more threatening and more tragic situation," he warned in the spring of 1914.

Jaurès spent much of the final years of his life travelling across Europe, attempting to organise general strikes among the workers of the continent’s great powers in order to force their governments to back down from the brink of war.

His assassination at the Le Croissant café brought to an end what many saw as Europe’s last hope of avoiding all-out war. Just hours later, Germany had declared war on Russia and then, on August 2, on the French.

Villain, who spent the war in jail awaiting trial, was acquitted by a jury in 1919. He later fled to Spain where he was killed by Republican soldiers during the Spanish Civil War.

Date created : 2014-07-31