Posts Tagged ‘history of france’

“Procopius, the Byzantine historian of the sixth century AD churned out dubious information, known as Anecdota, which he kept secret until his death, in order to smear the reputation of the Emperor Justinian after lionizing the emperor in his official histories. Pietro Aretino tried to manipulate the pontifical election of 1522 by writing wicked sonnets about all the candidates (except the favorite of his Medici patrons) and pasting them for the public to admire on the bust of a figure known as Pasquino near the Piazza Navona in Rome. The “pasquinade” then developed into a common genre of diffusing nasty news, most of it fake, about public figures.

Although pasquinades never disappeared, they were succeeded in the seventeenth century by a more popular genre, the “canard,” a version of fake news that was hawked in the streets of Paris for the next two hundred years. Canards were printed broadsides, sometimes set off with an engraving designed to appeal to the credulous. A best-seller from the 1780s announced the capture of a monster in Chile that was supposedly being shipped to Spain. It had the head of a Fury, wings like a bat, a gigantic body covered in scales, and a dragon-like tail. During the French Revolution, the engravers inserted the face of Marie-Antoinette on the old copper plates, and the canard took on new life, this time as intentionally fake political propaganda. Although its impact cannot be measured, it certainly contributed to the pathological hatred of the queen, which led to her execution on October 16, 1793.

The Canard enchainé, a Parisian journal that specializes in political scoops, evokes this tradition in its title, which could be translated figuratively as “No Fake News.” Last week it broke a story about the wife of François Fillon, the candidate of the center-right who had been the favorite in the current presidential election campaign. Madame Fillon, “Penelope” in all the newspapers, reportedly received an enormous government salary over many years for serving as her husband’s “parliamentary assistant.” Although Fillon did not denounce the story as a canard—he admits hiring his wife and says there was nothing illegal about it—“Penelope Gate” has pushed Donald Trump off the front pages and may ruin Fillon’s shot at the presidency, possibly to the benefit of France’s own, Trump-like, far-right party, the National Front.

The production of fake, semi-false, and true but compromising snippets of news reached a peak in eighteenth-century London, when newspapers began to circulate among a broad public. In 1788, London had ten dailies, eight tri-weeklies, and nine weekly newspapers, and their stories usually consisted of only a paragraph. “Paragraph men” picked up gossip in coffee houses, scribbled a few sentences on a scrap of paper, and turned in the text to printer-publishers, who often set it in the next available space of a column of type on a composing stone. Some paragraph men received payment; some contented themselves with manipulating public opinion for or against a public figure, a play, or a book.

In 1772 the Reverend Henry Bate (he was chaplain to Lord Lyttleton) founded The Morning Post, a newspaper that piled paragraph upon paragraph, each one a separate snippet of news, much of it fake. On December 13, 1784, for example, The Morning Post ran a paragraph about a gigolo serving Marie-Antoinette:

The Gallic Queen is partial to the English. In fact, the majority of her favorites are of this country; but no one has been so notoriously supported by her as Mr. W—-. Though this gentleman’s purse was known to be dérangé when he went to Paris, yet he has ever since lived there in the first style of elegance, taste and fashion. His carriages, his liveries, his table have all been upheld with the utmost expense and splendor.

Bate, who came to be known as “Reverend Bruiser,” went on to found a rival scandal sheet, The Morning Herald, while The Morning Post hired a still nastier editor, also a chaplain, Reverend William Jackson, known as “Dr. Viper” for “the extreme and unexampled virulence of his invectives…in that species of writing known as paragraphs.” The two men of the cloth, Reverend Bruiser and Dr. Viper, slugged it out in their newspapers, setting a standard for scandal that makes the Murdoch press look mild.

News of this sort—indeed, of most sorts—could not be published in France before 1789, but it traveled by word of mouth and underground gazettes, thanks to nouvellistes who fulfilled the same function as paragraph men. They picked up “news” from places where gossips gathered, such as certain benches in the Tuileries Gardens and the “Tree of Cracow” in the garden of the Palais Royal. Then, sometimes for the sheer pleasure of transmitting information, they scribbled the latest items on bits of paper, which they traded among themselves in cafés or (lacking the Internet) left on benches for others to discover.

The police did their best to repress the nouvellistes, although the demand for inside information about the secret ways of les grands (the great) kept attracting new, self-appointed “reporters.” When hauled off to the Bastille, nouvellistes were always frisked, and notes were sometimes discovered in the pockets of their waistcoats. I have found some examples of this incriminating evidence in the Bastille archives—crumpled scraps of paper covered with scribbling, testimony to a primitive variety of journalism two centuries before smart phones.

The police especially hunted out the semi-professionals who combined items, usually no longer than a paragraph, into manuscript gazettes known as “nouvelles à la main.” Some of these underground newspapers made it into print. Thus a typical entry from La Chronique scandaleuse:

The duke of…surprised his wife in the arms of his son’s tutor. She said to him with the impudence of a courtier, ‘Why weren’t you there, Monsieur? When I don’t have my squire, I take the arm of my lackey.’

One of the best-sellers in this genre was Le Gazetier cuirassé (The Iron-Plated Gazeteer) which was produced in London and probably was inspired by the scandalous London press, although its news was all French. A typical item was a one-sentence paragraph: “It is reported that the curé of Saint Eustache was surprised in flagrante delicto with the deaconess of the Ladies of Charity of his parish—which would be greatly to their honor, since they are both in their eighties.””

– Robert Darnton, “The True History of Fake News.” New York Review of Books, February 13, 2017.


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“French Convicts ‘En

Chaîne.” (From a Drawing by Moanet.)” from Arthur Griffiths, Mysteries of police and crime. In Three Volumes. New York: Cassell & Company, Ltd., 1898.  p. 55

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“Galleys fell into disuse with the development of the French
navy under Colbert, and the substitution of larger ships of war dependent upon
sails. The galley-slaves’ occupation — that of supplying the motive power — was
gone. But other work was found for them on shore in the naval yards and
arsenals, created by the new demands on the navy. The staff, plant, and forçats
were transferred bodily from Marseilles to Toulon, which with Brest and
Rochefort date from this period. This was the origin of the French naval prisons,
or bagnes, which derive their name
from the bagnio, or bath of the Seraglio at Constantinople, which was the prototype
of establishments of this kind. These French
were also known as prisons mouillés,
from the fact that hulks or floating prisons for some time housed the
prisoners. The numbers collected together were now greatly increased, and when
buildings were at length erected on shore, they contained vast dormitories which
held 500 to 600 convicts apiece. By this time the grand total at each of the
naval arsenals amounted to several thou- sand men. The Ministry of Marine
continued to have control, as it does to this day, of transportation. The  work which the forçats, as the galley-slaves were now called, did consisted of
rough jobs about the wharves and the building-sheds, moving guns, shot and
shell, excavations, and so forth, very much as our English convicts worked at
the hulks or dockyards until the system of public works following the
introduction of penal servitude was established. The amount of labour performed
at the French bagnes, although often
severe in character, could never have been very large.

Certainly after many years of trial matters had changed, and
a report made in 1838, by Baron Tupinier, the Director of Naval Arsenals,
declared that the expression travaux forcés
was a farce. Instead of penal labour they were employed in out-of-the-way
corners at the lightest jobs.  “The bulk
of them do no more than doze ; they may be seen, eight or ten of them,
following a light cart not half laden, which they take it in turn to pull two
and two. The hospital is full of them as invalids or nurses; they are to be found
in private houses and hotels, engaged as private servants.”

Three years later the same inquirer calculated that 1650
free labourers would do as much as 6500 convicts, and while the first-named
must be self-supporting, the latter must be clothed, fed, lodged, and supervised.
Baron Tupinier seems to have overlooked that wages are paid to the free men. French
convicts were allowed much latitude, and varied their regular tasks with much
private business of their own, when the curious forgeries, coinings, and other
clever feats already described were performed. They were at liberty, and were
indeed encouraged, when working in numbers, to sing, as sailors do, to stimulate
effort. A gruesome catch, which was a favourite with the Bochefort convicts, is
still preserved. It was called the Chanson
de la Veuve
— the song of the ‘‘widow,” which in argot means the widow-maker or guillotine. The air was painfully
sad, the words quite ghastly. It was a sort of funeral hymn in memory of those
who have suffered on the scaffold.

“Oh ! oh ! Jean
Pierre oh !
Pais toilette
Y’la, v’la le bar bier, oh!
Oh, oh, oh, Jean Pierre oh!
V’la la charette.”

It tells the story of the execution; the grim preparation
when the hair is cut close, to make all clear for the descending knife, and the
song ends with the final stroke.

“Ah ! ah ! ah !
Faucher colas ” —

which means that the bolt has fallen, and decapitation completed.
The refrain was most popular in pile-driving operations, when the heavy weight
was slowly raised to the opening verses, and let fall like the couperet or knife at the last. Generally
while the song was sung, the garde chiourme,
or warder on duty, stood by, forgetting to scold while he beat time in unison
with his stick.

At one time contempt of the penalty inflicted was carried to
monstrous excess. Under the Directory,  and
during the early part of the first Empire, certain favoured forçats were permitted the most improper privileges.
Those who had command of funds could obtain not only immunity from labour, but
many concessions and mitigations of their lot. It was said that Napoleon I.
would forgive crimes for a price; that big robberies were sometimes condoned by
the gift of a frigate to the State. A certain old convict at Rochefort was
allowed to go at large in the town, was admitted into society, and much
appreciated for his society and good manners. He too sought to obtain liberty
by offering to build and equip a ship of war at his own cost, but in his case
the offer was declined. A convict of large private fortune, sentenced for
embezzlement of monies, Delage, was known as le joli forçat on account of
his good looks and affable exterior; he was brought to Rochefort by two gendarmes in a carriage and pair ; he
was given a separate room at the hospital, which he furnished comfortably, and
by and by his wife and children joined him in Rochefort. He used to leave the bagne at daybreak after the morning gun,
spend the day with his family, and return in the evening. His excuse was that
he was employed, and must sleep on board a ship in the port. For a long time
his wife was ignorant of his exact position. Other convicts of this class might
be seen parading the streets in fashionable clothes, the only mark of their real
condition left them being the basil or ankle-iron they were always obliged to
wear. Lesser criminals, with fewer resources in money, could still find
remunerative employment for their talents or trades. Every high official
employed a convict coachman, groom, or cook; at one time the music- or
dancing-master and tutor in private families came from the bagne.

When rules were drawn tighter life was less pleasant. The voiture celulaire, or travelling coach, might
replace the horrors of the chain-gangs, which till 1830 still marched through
France; but the condition of convicts at the bagnes became deplorably rough, and the treatment severe. On first
arrival three days’ rest was given, hut chained to the guard-bed or rama of one of the great chambers. On
the fourth day, at the Diane, which
sounded at six in winter and five in summer, the convicts were chained together
in couples, and sent out into the dockyard to work. This chain-companion, from
whom there was no escape, was often a stranger, and might be absolutely
antipathetic ; differing entirely in character, antecedents, taste, even in
language. The chains had eighteen links, and weighed with the anklet about
seven kilogrammes. These eighteen links were each six inches in length ; the
whole chain which joined two individuals measured nine feet, so that half this
length belonged of right to each. But if each had opposite ideas and
intentions, they naturally pulled in opposite directions, which reached their limit
at nine feet. Sometimes, as at the hour of midday rest, there was a difference
of opinion between the partners. One might wish to walk, the other to lie quiet;
but the movement of the first to and fro dragging at the chain would disturb
the second, and then the matter could only be settled by a fight or a
compromise. To quarrel was to risk punishment, so the usual course was for one
to take out a pack of cards and cry, “Je te joues tes maillons” or “I will play
you for your half of the chain.” The game would proceed calmly, while the
stake, the disputed chain, lay coiled between the players; and in the end,
according to the issue, both would walk, or both lie down to sleep. Often
enough one of a couple was quite indifferent as to the behaviour of his chain-companion.
A case was known where a fight was started between a chausette, or convict, permitted to go about singly, and one of a
chain-couple. In the course of the struggle the second and passive member of
the twins, who had watched it quite unconcernedly, was dragged nearer to the
edge of a deep ditch by his companion, into which both were nearly precipitated.
Had the fight not stopped both would probably have been drowned.

The day’s work ended, the convicts returned to feed in their
barrack-rooms, seated round the gamelle,
or great mess-tub, filled with bean-soup, the unvarying fare. Each fought for
his own hand ; the strongest and greediest got always the largest share. After the
evening meal came an hour or so of repose, seated on the guard-beds, in many
cases already chained to the Tama or
transversal bar at the bottom of the bed. Some idled, and others laboured at
the toys and trinkets which were to be sold for their profit. Then, with a
shrill note the whistle sounds “turn in”; every convict, without undressing,
rolled up in blanket of woven grass, lay down upon the hard planks and sought oblivion.
Silence reigned under the dim light of the oil-lamps, broken only by the distant
footsteps of the watchman and the occasional thud of his hammer upon the iron bars
of the prison.

In all this there was no thought of more than punishment—
the infliction of a rough penalty that might but did not always terrify, but
could not reform — accompanied with a vague feeling that offenders were being
kept out of the way and made to do some return in labour for their support. The
bagnes were never the sole
chastisement of the French penal code. The maisons
de force
existed always, even side by side with the galleys, and were used
for the imprisonment of women sentenced to travaux
, and of men whose slavery had been commuted. But these were not
prisons according to modern ideas, and France made no step towards the adoption
of the new principles until 1837, when MM. Beaumont and De Tocqueville were
despatched to America to inquire into the excellent and humane prison systems
said to have been already established in some of the United States.

At that time France possessed three classes of penitentiary
institutions: the departmental prisons, the central prisons, and the bagnes. The first were subject to local
control, and exhibited numerous varieties of system as regarded discipline,
diet, and clothing in each department, but agreeing all of them in negligence
and indifference; so much so that prisoners considered it a grievance not to be
passed on from them to the maison centrale.
Yet this was supposed to be a more severe punishment, inflicted for the graver
offences, and entailing longer terms of restraint. “Mais moi, j’ai droit a la centrale!”
was a complaint frequently heard in the Departmental prison. The food was far
better in the centrale;

there was work to be done in company with friends, and the
chance of earning wages — the pecule,
which might be spent at the canteen. These central prisons were merely criminal
barracks, containing from 1000 to 1500 inmates each. But the bagne was a still more agreeable sojourn
than the centrale, and most convicts
hankered after it, preferring — with all the inconveniences and discomforts
already set forth — the semi-freedom, the open-air life, and the many chances
it afforded of escape, to the unrelieved incarceration of the central prison.

The absurdity of this reversal of the gradation of punishment
could not escape a logical people like the French, and other manifest defects
in the bagnes led to their
prospective abolition. France would no doubt have adopted some general system
of cellular imprisonment on the principles that were recommending it to other
nations; but the contemplated legislation was interrupted by the Revolution of
1848, and public men were too busy to think of gaols. Only in 1854 the influence
of a small group committed the country to the system of transportation beyond
the seas, which became law in 1854, and which has since been inflicted for all
serious crimes. The immediate effect of the adopting, and presumable belief in,
this branch of secondary punishment was the neglect of others. Deportation,
although condemned by us after full trial, was no doubt popular with the men of
the Second Empire, because it shelved the whole question. Napoleon III was at
no pains to reorganize or reform his home prisons. The Republican Government
was more sensible of its importance, and although the country still reeled under
the effects of the German invasion, organized an inquiry into penal methods under
the presidency of an eminent publicist, the Vicomte d’Haussonville. The result
of their deliberations was the law of 1875, which prescribed cellular separation
for all trial prisoners, and those sentenced to short terms of less than a year
and a day; those for longer terms might volunteer for cellular imprisonment,
and if accepted were to be granted remission of a fourth of their time.
Financial difficulties, the superior claims of military expenditure, at once
interposed a veto, and has made this law almost a dead letter. To this day France
crowds her lesser criminals together in corrupting association, generally in
idleness, at home ; while the heaviest penalty she can inflict, that of exile
abroad, has no terrors, as is shown by the complacency with which habitual
offenders accept re-expatriation.

Many independent witnesses and authorities concur in
condemning the bulk of the French prisons of today. Those of Paris leave much
to be desired, as I know from personal observation. Mazas, for trial prisoners,
is cellular, and fairly answers requirements; La Sante is composite, with a
cellular side for first offenders, and an associated for the hardened recidivistes, who cannot, it is
presumed, do each other much harm; at St. Pelagic there is unrestricted
intercourse, with the usual evil consequences; so it is at La Eoquette, the
prison of passage for transports to the Antipodes. Worse, far, is the old
female prison of St. Lazare, which is characterized by thoughtful Frenchmen as
a detestable place, deserving only destruction. “Every young girl,” says Maxime
Du Camp, “who enters St. Lazare for correction leaves it rotten to the core.
She is lost unless a miracle intervenes.”

– Arthur Griffiths, Secrets of the Prison House. Volume 1. London: Chapman & Hall, 1894. pp. 165-176.

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“Au début du xxe siècle, les images noires et sinistres de Mettray ont un immense retentissement, au point que l’on peut parler de caricatures « enténébrées », pour reprendre le mot de Chateaubriand et de Michelet. Elles sont en effet très loin des images à la ligne claire et joyeuse proposées dès 1842 par Le Magasin Pittoresque ou « fabriquées » par les dirigeants de Mettray, par le biais de gravures et de cartes postales lénifiantes. Elles donnent une vision particulièrement sombre de la vie dans la colonie agricole et pénitentiaire, ainsi que dans la « Paternelle ».

Les caricaturistes livrent une véritable guerre des images. Ils transforment le dortoir en geôles exiguës et terribles, telles qu’on se les imagine au moment de l’Inquisition. Ils métamorphosent les gardiens en épouvantables brutes. Dans quelques vignettes de L’Assiette au Beurre, signées par Radiguet, la détresse la plus noire, le rire grinçant, les scènes cauchemar desques, l’horreur tranquille s’imposent. Et si en définitive, les représentations iconographiques condamnant Mettray ne sont pas très nombreuses et ont été produites au cours d’un temps relativement bref, quelques mois à peine au début de l’année 1909, elles ont pourtant hanté et hantent encore l’imaginaire collectif qui se nourrit du sinistre spectacle des images de l’enfance enfermée, maltraitée et torturée.

La colonie de Mettray devient synonyme de bagne pour enfants. De la sorte, les dessins satiriques, souvent macabres, symbolisent la révolte contre l’inadmissible et suscitent auprès des lecteurs, qui ne peuvent rester indifférents, frissons glacés et haut-le-cœur. Mais les images ne peuvent se comprendre sans les textes journalistiques qui les précédent, leur donnent naissance et les accompagnent. Le Matin optera pour une manchette sensationnelle et parlera de « Bagne Clérical»

Le scandale

Dès le 23 janvier 1909, La Dépêche, qui se présente comme le seul journal quotidien à grand tirage de Tours et de sa région, titre à la Une : « Le scandale de Mettray ». La formule va régulièrement cingler la première page du quotidien, les 24, 28, 29 et 31 janvier et, les 1er, 2, 3, 4 et 7 février. Après une période d’hésitation, le scandale devient « L’affaire de Mettray». Pour la comprendre, il convient de faire un bref détour. Les faits tout d’abord. Un jeune garçon, qui était tombé amoureux d’une danseuse appartenant à la troupe des «Gibsons Girls», en représentation dans un music-hall de Marseille, est emmené par son père à Mettray.Directeur d’un institut de mécanographie, ce dernier avait décidé de « corriger » son fils et pour cela de « le conduire et de l’enfermer à Mettray ».Pendant le trajet, le jeune garçon fait une première tentative de suicide et parvient quelque temps après son arrivée à se donner la mort. Le jeune Coutard/Gontard/Gontan – l’orthographe n’est guère fixée – est retrouvé pendu dans sa cellule.

Le Journal, l’un des quatre grands journaux de la Belle Époque, né en 1892 et dont le tirage quotidien était d’un million d’exemplaires, se veut pédagogique. Dans sa livraison datée du dimanche 24 janvier, la rédaction revient sur « ce sombre fait divers ». L’article qui occupe la première page est signé Lucien Descaves. Il s’adresse directement aux lecteurs : « Vous avez pu lire », écrit-il notamment. Il explique ensuite qu’il ne faut pas confondre la Paternelle et la Colonie. Il insiste sur le fait que ce sont


les jeunes détenus [qui] regardent comme un bagne la Paternelle ». Le ton estsobre. Il ne s’agit pas de régler des comptes, mais de comprendre. Pour cela, le journaliste fait appel à la culture de son lectorat. Il mentionne, comme si tout le monde partageait les mêmes références, le roman d’Édouard Quet, En correction. Ajoutant aussitôt que si Mettray n’en est pas le modèle, le livre donne néanmoins la description d’un établissement analogue. De la sorte, il permet de s’immerger dans l’univers de l’enfermement des jeunes. L’article tourne autour d’une question : la Paternelle est-elle une prison? La réponse se veut pondérée, mais elle est sans ambiguïté aucune : « Il est bien difficile, en effet, de ne pas assimiler à une prison un établissement dont les pensionnaires enfermés jour et nuit dans une cellule sous la surveillance d’un gardien. » Quelques jours plus tard, un article qui s’étend sur plusieurs colonnes est consacré aux « mystères de la maison paternelle ».

Le trépas du malheureux s’inscrit dans un contexte particulier. Les années 1870-1900, on le sait, sont marquées par de vives critiques à l’égard des établissements de correction. La période suivante se caractériserait plutôt par le temps de la réforme, des projets de refonte globale de l’éducation correctionnelle, de l’affirmation de la protection de l’enfance, de la volonté de prendre des dispositions tutélaires, du désir de promouvoir le patronage et d’établir enfin des tribunaux pour enfants. Dans cette perspective, la colonie agricole et pénitentiaire de Mettray occupe une place à part. La discipline n’aurait plus rien de paternelle et le régime militaire serait proche de celui de sinistres établissements au-delà des mers. 

Une enquête sur le système des punitions est rendue publique. L’absence de véritable directeur, l’inexistence d’une vision d’ensemble, l’incapacité à traiter la question de l’enfance coupable, sont quelques-unes des logiques avancées pour expliquer la situation que d’aucuns jugent délétère : la dégradation de Mettray et la faillite d’un système. Selon Henri Gaillac, en 1889, la population était de 325 jeunes délinquants, 99 enfants du peuple en correction paternelle et 26 fils de famille à la Maison Paternelle. Cette dernière, ajoute l’auteur de l’histoire des maisons de correction, « cessera de fonctionner à la suite d’incidents graves de discipline un peu avant la guerre de 1914 et de campagne de presse dont l’Assiette au Beurre donne un exemple ». La période 1889 est une séquence particulièrement difficile comme le mentionne J. Le lièvre dans sa thèse de doctorat en droit soutenue au début des années 1920. Pour lui, les lois de 1889 et de 1898 sont responsables de la détérioration de la colonie, car désormais les enfants ont changé. Ceux qui sont accueillis sont de « véritables petits bandits » et ont connu une enfance « pervertie, contaminée, viciée ». Ce point de vue est partagé en 1909 par Le Gaulois et quelques autres périodiques. 

Le suicide du jeune marseillais, à Mettray, devient une « histoire si affreusement mélancolique ». Le responsable, c’est le « régime moral », autrement dit, l’encouragement donné par la société à tout ce qui est « pervertissant », l’ « hérétisme exhalé » par les journaux, les livres, les images, les affiches. Mais, dans les comités de rédaction, une tout autre vision domine. Les enfants de la Paternelle sont bien, affirme-t-on, de pitoyables victimes. En effet, dans un siècle qui se montre de plus en plus sensible au statut de la jeunesse et qui découvre l’adolescence, le fait d’avoir bâillonné la bouche des enfants devient scandaleux. Les mots de la douleur n’ont pu être entendus puisque les lettres des enfants ont été escamotées : « Ces billets où les détenus criaient leurs souffrances, leur désespoir, leur révolte, suppliaient qu’on les arrachât à la prison, clamaient la plainte la plus émouvante que jamais prisonnier ait fait entendre dans une cellule, ces lettres ne parviennent pas à destination. » Dans ce type d’établissements, les règlements en usage voulaient que la correspondance soit lue par la direction qui filtrait et écartait la plupart des missives. Aussi ce courrier du désespoir ne recevait pas de réponse.

L’isolement forcé et la coupure avec la famille ne sont pas les seuls ingrédients du scandale qui se nourrit aussi d’une certaine proximité. En principe, il ne saurait y avoir de brassage social ou pénal. On ne mélange pas les colons avec les élèves de la Paternelle. Si le fait était avéré, le scandale gonflerait, prendrait de l’importance… Or les journaux, dont Le Siècle, exhument un discours parlementaire du député d’Indre-et-Loire René Besnard. À la chambre, dans la séance du 8 novembre 1907, l’ordre du jour comprenait la « discussion du chapitre 55 du budget de l’intérieur » (entretien des détenus). Son intervention, volontiers polémique, n’avait pas alors suscité beaucoup d’échos : « Messieurs, j’ai volontiers voté les crédits demandés par la commission du budget […]pour remplacer toutes les colonies pénitentiaires privées par des colonies publiques. » Il soulignait qu’il existe une colonie pénitentiaire qu’il connaît bien, celle de Mettray. Lors de la même séance, il prolonge son intervention en affirmant qu’ « on y mélange sans faire de distinction de catégorie ». Or, ajoute-t-il : « Il est très dangereux de réunir et de confondre des enfants qui, en somme n’ont commis aucun délit. » Au moment où le scandale éclate, une commission de surveillance a bien visité les cellules de la « Paternelle », mais les cellules étaient vides. Aucun des membres de la commission n’a rencontré de détenus. « Si un enfant avait été séquestré arbitrairement, serait-ce sa cellule qui aurait pu se plaindre et demander justice? », s’insurge le député. D’où une sorte de pouvoir exorbitant qui consiste à faire « disparaître » un enfant, à le soustraire à tout contrôle : « la police de tous les pays pourra le rechercher partout et ailleurs, il sera à la «Paternelle» et là personne ne pourra le découvrir ». Car, écrit-on dans plusieurs périodiques, un procureur ou un juge d’instruction ne sont pas autorisés à voir les enfants de la Paternelle ou alors pour y parvenir, il faut menacer le directeur de l’inculper. La troisième composante du scandale vient de « la détention illégale ». L’expression servira de sous-titre à plusieurs périodiques qui évoquent le délit de séquestration. Le Matin affirme dans une livraison dominicale que « l’administrateur de la Paternelle reconnaît que, sur dix enfants qu’il garde, huit sont enfermés sans ordonnance ».

Le scandale n’est jamais unique. Il se présente comme un acteur qui se serait affublé de masques plus hideux les uns que les autres. Dès que l’un est ôté on en découvre un autre en dessous. Le dernier représente l’autorité paternelle. Les drames minuscules ont toujours existé. Réduits à de simples tragédies personnelles ils ont été tenus à l’écart du monde. Or le scandale de Mettray, en plaçant sur la scène publique le suicide, ébranle l’ensemble de l’institution carcérale et le pouvoir démesuré des pères sur leurs propres fils. E. Saillard, rédacteur en chef du Petit Monceau, va plus loin et dénonce ceux qui parlent « au nom de la fameuse liberté des pères de famille, si souvent invoquée pour défendre les plus mauvaises causes ». René Besnard, député d’Indre-et-Loire, reprend la parole. Il parle de mœurs d’un autre âge qui témoignent d’une mentalité barbare et propose une sorte de manifeste : « Nous trouvons et nous proclamons antisocial qu’un père ou une mère de famille puissent avoir le pouvoir d’incarcérer un enfant auquel ils ont infligé la vie et l’éducation. »

Enfin, la dernière grande composante du scandale est signalée très tôt. Il s’agit de l’impunité presque certaine des administrateurs de Mettray, ou du moins de la Paternelle. La justice n’est pas suspecte, on ne la soupçonne pas de partialité et de sympathie. Ce qui pose problème c’est la qualification même de l’incrimination. Ne vont-ils pas être inculpés, se demande une partie de la presse, de séquestration arbitraire en vertu de l’article 341 du Code pénal? De la sorte, leur cas relève de la cour d’assises. Mais peut- on les condamner aux travaux forcés comme le stipule pourtant l’article 341? En effet, les jurés ne trouveront-ils pas « la peine un peu grosse? ». Faut-il envoyer au bagne «des gens qui n’ont pas martyrisé d’enfants?» se demande La Dépêche qui se prononce en faveur d’une peine de quelques mois de prison ou une forte amende. L’Assiette au Beurre souligne que la mort d’un enfant restera impuni. 

Mais il n’existe pas de demi-mesures. Les dirigeants de Mettray ne peuvent être condamnés aux travaux forcés à temps ; ils seront nécessairement acquittés et la Paternelle continuera à fonctionner dans des « conditions mystérieuses, inquiétantes et illégales ». Ce sera alors « l’illégalité consacrée légalitéce qui serait purement immoral ». L’acquittement ajouterait du scandale au scandale. Aussi la seule solution envisageable est la fermeture de la Paternelle. Et d’ajouter « dans cette douce et voluptueuse Touraine, où le rire de Rabelais sonne encore sur le souvenir d’amours royales, il y subsiste au xxieme siècle, une Bastille pour adolescents enfermés par leurs parents! ». Et de porter l’estocade : « Ce que nous voulons, ce n’est pas seulement qu’un enfant de 16 ans ne puisse être interné à Mettray ou ailleurs sans un référé préalable du tribunal, c’est qu’il ne puisse plus être interné du tout. »”


Frédéric Chauvaud, “Le scandale de Mettray (1909): le trait enténébré et la campagne de presse,” in ÉDUQUER ET PUNIR: La colonie agricole et pénitentiaire de Mettray (1839-1937). Edited by Sophie Chassat, Luc Forlivesi and Georges-François Pottier. Rennes: Presses universitaires de Rennes, 2005. pp. 175-180

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David Seymour, “[Refugees in train windows, police officer in foreground, Spain-France border, near Cerbère, France].” Photo-gelatin silver, 1937. David Seymour/Magnum Photos. Gift of Eileen and Ben Shneiderman, 1982

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