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1973 Chile coup was defining moment for French left

The bloody overthrow of Chile’s Socialist government in September 11, 1973 sparked the political awakening of an entire generation of left-wing activists in France.


Forty years ago, the brutal overthrow of Chile’s democratically elected president, Salvador Allende, shocked the world and marked the start of a repressive, 16-year-long dictatorship. The fateful date also became a defining moment for left-wing activists in France.

“An entire generation entered into politics because of the mobilization around Chile,” said Geneviève Jacques, the president of Cimade, one of the main refugee NGOs in France. “Young people discovered political organizing for the first time by going to meetings to help victims of the coup.”

Martine Billard, a former MP representing Paris and co-president of the Left Party, was a university student in 1973, and remembered Allende’s ouster and death as a “catastrophe”. Since then, she has followed events in Chile closely and travelled to the South American country on numerous occasions.

“The political activity after the coup was very intense,” Billard told FRANCE 24. “Besides the Vietnam War, it was probably the largest international cause adopted by French activists. Solidarity campaigns were organised at the national and local level, even in factories.”

Billard was among many left-wing politicians on Wednesday commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Chilean coup in Salvador Allende Square in Paris’ 7th district. It is an annual gathering that brings together Chilean expatriates and French people, and one Billard never misses.

The French capital’s Salvador Allende Square is just one of over 300 streets, parks and other public spaces that carry the late left-wing leader’s name.

A myth shattered

Asked why left-leaning French people were so galvanised by Chile, Billard points to the extreme violence of the coup and the dictatorship, but above all to parallel efforts at the time to build consensus among left-wing groups in both countries. That shared dream, she said, tragically died with Allende.

Before the 1973 coup, the left-wing Popular Unity coalition that brought Allende to power three years earlier had “earned a mythical status” in France, according to Franck Gaudichaud, an Ibero-American Studies professor at the University of Grenoble and author of the book ‘Chile 1970-1973: One-thousand days that shook the world’.

Allende was the first Marxist to become president of a Latin American country, and rose to power following peaceful elections.

“At the time, the [French] Communist Party’s Georges Marchais and François Mitterrand of the recently-formed Socialist Party were working together on the so-called ‘common programme’,” Gaudichaud explained. “Chile’s Popular Unity was seen as founding experience for that effort.”

“But after the coup, Chile was no longer the model to follow,” Gaudichard added. France’s left-wing leaders would eventually abandon the common programme.

“We had a lot of hope at that time,” admitted Billard. “We saw similar possibilities in France but Allende’s overthrow marked the end of that process.”

Open door policy

However, the left’s painful defeat in Chile led to an outpouring of support across the Atlantic. France welcomed around 15,000 Chilean exiles in the years following the coup –more than any other European country, except Sweden.

“There was a wave of support from the Socialist Party, the Communist Party, as well as among smaller left-wing parties. Hundreds of organisations in support of victims and refugees sprung up, and as many city governments offered lodging,” noted Gaudichard.

Cimade president Jacques remembered being on hand for the fist arrival of Chilean exiles at Paris’ Orly Airport on November 4, 1973. They were, for the most part, left-wing activists who had found shelter at the French embassy in Santiago immediately after the Chilean army overran the presidential palace.

“Our government opened its doors and worked actively with refugee organizations. But the warm reception was also made possible by individuals. Ordinary people came forward to donate clothes, beds, some even offered jobs,” Jacques recalled. “It was really a government, a state, and an entire population that welcomed Chileans in a way that has not been repeated since.”

Jacques said he regretted that the French government refused to take similar measures to help ease the Syrian refugee crisis today. “[The 1973 coup] was an exceptional problem, and France was able to offer an exceptional solution. Today, 40 years later, France says ‘nothing is possible’. It’s inexcusable.”

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