La Belle Epoch & Anarchy
French Anarchists

La Belle Epoque & Anarchy

Two doors down from my apartment is the site of the world’s first recorded grand theft auto bank robbery at the Société Générale (and I wonder why people are afraid to go north of the Sacre Coeur). 1911 may evoke opulent images of a whirlwind belle epoch and it was, for some. On Rue Ordener, as in much of Paris, it was a curious hybrid of poverty, belle epoch and anarchy.

This peaceful Montmartre neighbourhood welcomed in the new century with a side order of lawless resistance. It may seem an unlikely setting, but just over one hundred years ago, it was a veritable hot bead of anarchists, thieves and outlaws. It was here that a gang led by Jules Bonnot, went on an extended spree of gunfights, murder, bank robberies and petty theft evading and outsmarting the police at every turn.

La Belle Epoque – A Breeding ground For Anarchy

Pre World War II France witnessed the gap between the richest and poorest in society widen. In stark contrast to the glittering affluence and abundance of Paris were horrendous economic and social conditions for the working classes. Cultural and technological progression was forging ahead, benefiting many. At the same time others were left behind in a world of dismal poverty. Unemployment was at a record high. Workers rights were non existent. Pay and conditions, appalling. Small wonder then, that anarchy began to gain a foothold within sections of society who had simply had enough.

The Bonnot Gang

Known as the Bonnot Gang (or la Bande à Bonnot), the outlaws caused an unprecedented outcry in Paris. The city was gripped in a frenzy of fear as week after week, more robberies, murders and gunfights took place creating a climate of fear.

Armed with stolen weapons, the gang ran roughshod over the Parisian elite. Their lack of experience with the vehicles they stole led to numerous car accidents during their brazen getaways. An absence of competence in the top of the range weaponry they had stolen, similarly leaving them with self inflicted wounds. Despite their clownish ineptitude, so caught up in Bonnot gang hysteria was the city of light, that even the sinking of the Titanic was relegated to second page news.

Jules Bonnot

Jules Bonnot
Jules Bonnot

After his mother died when he was just 5 years old, Jules was cared for by his grandparents. A regular anti hero, trouble seems to have followed Bonnot for much of his life. By the age of 20 he had been in prison twice. Once for assaulting a police officer. A second time, for stealing copper shavings from the factory where he was employed.

A stint in the army left Bonnot with a notoriously mercurial temper. After hitting his manager over the head with an iron bar, he fled to Geneva. In Switzerland, he set about stealing luxury cars for a living. Regular association with anarchists throughout this time, ultimately led to Bonnot becoming black listed as an agitator. He eventually returned to Paris, emerging as de facto leader of the ‘auto bandits.’

Rebels with a Cause

Caricature of the Bonnot Gang
Caricature of the Bonnot Gang

Underpinning every action of the gang was their belief in anarchy. The roots of their philosophy lay in the French Illegalist movement. Instead of being seen as criminal activity, robbery was repackaged as ‘reclaiming.’ The movement believed that since the profits enjoyed by the social elite were made by exploiting the poor, taking that wealth back was merely a redistribution of sorts. Driven by anger, hopelessness and a desire for social change, the Bonnot Gang set about relieving the rich of their spoils. What was to follow became a bleeding of lines between political revolution and petty criminality.

Paradoxically, in between violent heists, the gang’s strange breed of scientific anarchism demanded an adherence to vegetarianism. Along with abstinence from coffee, salt, pepper and alcohol. There was frequent in house bickering regarding their ascetic diet. The highly contentious question of whether balsamic vinegar should be permitted was frequently mooted. Marriage was seen as conformist with polyamorous relationships encouraged amongst the gang. In practice, this only led to more squabbling.

Whilst they were debating the merits of an anarchist diet, the Bonnot Gang’s crime binge was rapidly galvanising the connection between the police and the state leading to the introduction of new legislation. Those laws would serve to further reduce to rights of French citizens.

Anarchy & The Scoundrel Laws

The rather quaintly named ‘Scoundrel Laws’ were introduced in response to the rising threat of terror from the anarchists. The laws provided police with new powers; stop and search without justifiable cause, the arrest of anyone suspected of knowing anarchists, extended periods of detention without charge. Police were given an unofficial carte blanche to do as they saw fit. The resulting beatings and harassment were commonplace.

The provision of these police powers in the early twentieth century have been juxtaposed with present day use of excessive force by French police. President Macron sanctioned measures have even seen the Wall Street Journal drawing such parallels.

The End Of An Anarchic Era?

The gang’s violence continued to escalate leaving little room for romanticism. By 1912 their collateral damage included members of the working class along with their bourgeoisie targets. The number of their homicidal robberies was increasing exponentially. They’d gone rogue, moving towards an individualist form of anarchism. The police were given increased funding to put an end to their rampage across France once and for all.

On April 24th, 1912, police burst into an apartment in Paris, in an attempt to capture Bonnot. After shooting two police officers he absconded over the rooftops of Paris. Four days later, 500 police, military officers and firefighters finally surrounded him in a south eastern suburb of Paris. A shoot out ensued and Bonnot was fatally wounded. He died the same day in a local hospital. By May that year the rest of the gang had been caught, shot, guillotined or imprisoned earning themselves notoriety as one of France’s most famous (and violent) gang of anarchists. The Scoundrel Laws remained in place.

Images from Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository

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