The police between violence and literature

Around 1900, when the capital had absorbed its neighboring communes and the slums were home to a whole host of wildlife, the police oscillated between repression and social chronicle. Ramparts against crime, they also become painters of misery, without repugnant to poetry.

The most famous police officer in France is undoubtedly Jules Maigret, who began his career as a cycling officer at a Parisian police station and ended it as divisional commissioner of the judicial police. The fictional policeman, even if he largely refers to a real policeman, like the character of Georges Simenon who took Commissioner Marcel Guillaume as a model, always has an undeniable success.

History and fiction

For several years, filmed fiction has not hesitated to draw explicit inspiration from very real characters and facts, even if it means allowing itself a certain license by inserting improbable episodes. In the excellent November by Cdric Jimenez, a police officer, Ins, takes the initiative to tail a suspect.

It’s a bit like the instructions for a recent series, Paris Police 1900, which Jean-Marc Berlire gives us in this work. If he believes that the author of the serial nourished his knowledge of the period with the best sources (p. 5), he modestly fails to specify that the sources in question are his own works even though, since a pioneering thesis, he has never stopped studying the police institution.

He also warns us against the misdirection of the soap opera: no, MmeLépine, the prefect's wife, was not a heroin and cocaine user. Above all, he insists on the reality of this turn of the century: still-pervasive poverty, the brutality suffered by the weakest, the suffering of many women, political violence exacerbated by a succession of political-financial scandals.

Paris Police 1900Fabien Nury (2021)

Because the work is not limited to criticism of fiction; it allows us to take stock of the city and its police in 1900. For the three parts (a social history of Paris during the Belle Époque, a political history of the beginnings of the Third Republic punctuated by crises, an institutional and social history of the Parisian police), the author relies on the writings of police officers in order to put the place, the moment, the actors into perspective.

The shadows of the City of Light

The first part rushes us into the streets of the capital, in a social approach where it is about the most deprived and the fascination with crime. The description of lowlands of Paris does not refer to either the contemporary play (1902) by Maxime Gorky or the film by Jean Renoir (1936).

But the poverty described by the police, the unsanitary housing and the rentals evoke the East End of Jack London (The People of the Abyss1903) and even George Orwell's England (Down and Out in Paris and London1933; The Road to Wigan Pier, 1937). And reading certain passages from chapter 4, Women: the long road to emancipationit is rather Octave Mirbeau that we think of.

Dorset Street in London in the famous Whitechapel district
photographed in 1902 for The People of the AbyssJack London (1903) – Wikipedia

But the slums, the garrisons, which were even found, and for decades still, in the central districts, were not the only places of misery. The poor did not wait for the demolition of the fortifs to settle in the area and quickly frighten the Parisians, particularly the journalists, in a city which had absorbed the surrounding communes in 1861 (Belleville, Grenelle, Charonne, Vaugirard) and where rural areas remained. .

As for the extramural territory of the Seine department, it was almost a police desert, when the density of agents per inhabitant was six times lower than in the city.

The Republic threatens

The second part is a political history that covers three crises at the turn of the century: the nationalist crisis, the anti-Semitic crisis and the terrorist trend, highly criticized and condemned in libertarian circlesspecifies the author (p. 170), from which anarchism only escaped by engaging in revolutionary syndicalism, a particularity of the French workers' movement which, a century later, still has a profound impact on it.

A few pages are dedicated to Marguerite Steinheil, who accompanied in her last moments the President of the Republic Flix Faure, whose death in 1899 gave rise to all the rumors. The funeral of the president was the occasion of a crazy coup attempt by Droulde, arrested, acquitted in criminal court, retried, banished until his amnesty in 1905.

Anti-Semitic madness (title of a chapter), characterized in particular by the use of biologizing and olfactory metaphors which have become a mark of the extreme right, manifested itself in particular through the episode of Fort Chabrol. In 1899, activists protesting against the retrial of Alfred Dreyfus took refuge in the headquarters of the Anti-Semitic League of France for around forty days, in a building on a rue due borough. It was then the time of the Dreyfus affair, which the police officers followed with all the more interest because it disturbed consciences as much as public order. A problem that affected Commissioner Ernest Reynaud:

And I continued, like ordinary people, on the basis of official communiqués, to believe in Dreyfus's guilt, but what ended up shaking my conviction was the poverty of the arguments of the opponents of the revision. () These gentlemen still put forward the honor of the army, but was not the honor of the army more interested in repairing a judicial error than maintaining it?? (pp. 124-125)

The pages that Jean-Marc Berlire devotes to Sbastien Faure, a Dreyfusard anarchist (p. 171-179), allow us to take into account the complexity of the reactions to these crises from which the Third Republic emerged strengthened and for which its police officers had to get rid of an ambiguity which worried those in power.

Police and policemen

The third part plunges us into the heart of this administrative, but also human, machine. We first understand the situation in Paris, one of the rare municipalities with Lyon where the police depended solely on the state. This explains, despite the 1966 reform which was supposed to have made it a single entity, the rivalry which persisted at the beginning of the XXIe century between the Paris police headquarters and the national police.

He then details the different functions, from that of the peacekeeper, who replaced the unpopular town sergeant of the Second Empire in 1870, to those of the different directors. If certain agents formed the district brigades, others made up the reserve companies, peoples gloves (p. 216) and specialized in maintaining order which they reestablished without gentleness.

The Tiger BrigadesClaude Desailly and Victor Vicas (1974 – 1983)

Most of these police officers were former enlisted soldiers, often non-commissioned officers, which made Doctor Edmond Locard, the true inventor of scientific police, write:

A man who, for ten years of his life, had as his motto Do nothing, sen f and report must stay where he is and not encumber a career where, above all, initiative, daring and decision are required. (pg. 224)

Louis Lpine
Photographic portrait by Marmand, late XIXe century – Wikipedia

We will appreciate the biographies of the main police actors (and authors) of the work. The prefect Louis Lpine, monomaniac of order (p. 171), no longer has any secrets for us, thanks in particular to the work that Jean-Marc Berlire had devoted to it, and Alphonse Bertillon, head of the Judicial Identity service at the police headquarters and inventor of anthropometry, who tried it without much rigorous graphology, is not unknown to us.

Less known and all the more interesting are the other figures. Louis Puibaraud, author of chronicles devoted to the police headquarters in The weatherthen the reference daily, and general director of research, the political police of the police headquarters, promoter without much success of a reform of the latter, convinced and active republican, was for this the black beast of the monarchists, the anarchists, anti-Semites and some of his colleagues.

Another political policeman, special commissioner, Jean France, was also, as he wrote, concerned about ensure the preservation of the republic (p. 253). The peace officer Gaston Falaricq and the main inspector Gustave Rossignol, who did not hesitate to write that every job has its risks, the roofer falls from the roof, the mason falls from a scaffolding and my opinion is that the agent must be shot (p. 251), have this atypical profile of police writers.

But it is the commissioner of a deprived neighborhood, Ernest Raynaud who, through his precise and moving descriptions, contributed most surely to Jean-Marc Berlire's book.

Crime literature

If this police force found itself, the author shows us, a political and institutional turning point, it was also of its time, when misogyny and violence revealed themselves out of all proportion to what we can deplore today, an era which is also found in the headgear of the petty bourgeoisie of the 1890s and 1900s, this bowler hat worn by prefect Lpine as well as police officers Dupont and Dupond.

Because the perception we have of the police and the police is largely constructed by representations, which makes the texts that Jean-Marc Berlire gives us all the more captivating. These are not the only police writings from this period that are rediscovered a century later. The Archives of the Paris police headquarters had kept the notebooks of a peacekeeper from the Pré-Lachaise district, in the XXe district, unearthed by the historian Quentin Deluermoz. Here, we are talking about what we would call today executives, literate and enjoying writing, the most endearing of whom is the commissioner Ernest Reynaud, a Parnassian poet and familiar with Verlaine.

KindergartenLon Frapi (1933)

Let us be careful of these texts which may seem to support other approaches, even though they are obviously inspired by them. When a police officer, describing the La Chapelle district, wrote A whole lousy kid, shivering and moping, destined to perpetuate human pain, was heading towards school, with a slow and resigned step, as if crushed in advance under the weight of their future lamentable destiny. (p. 29), how can we not recognize the influence of Kindergarten by Lon Frapi?

Because if the description corresponds to the 1890s and if the plot of Lon Frapi's novel won the Goncourt prize in 1904 and is located in Belleville, a district not so different in those years from La Chapelle, the policeman's book was published in the 1920s. Even when they give in to the temptation to highlight the anecdote, these detective authors from the turn of the century show themselves more desperate and despairing than most of their contemporaries, when it comes to describing the misery and misfortunes they encountered daily. In this, their successors, who also wrote a lot, do not appear to be so different.