A Modern Instance

The Affair of Gabrielle Russier

with a Preface by Raymond Jean, an Introduction by Mavis Gallant
Knopf, 177 pp., $5.95

Gabrielle Russier had her hair cut very short. There were private reasons enough for that: to suit her sharp little face, to look more like the boys and girls she taught at the lycée, to define her own severely independent style as a femme divorcée who was an intellectual and—in a Latin land—kept herself. But when one looks back upon her fate, the cropped hair seems like a sort of blind preadaptation. In 1944, at the Liberation, they shaved the hair of girls who had slept with Germans and thrust them into the street to face the jeering crowds.

It was not with an occupation but with a threatened revolution that Gabrielle Russier had collaborated. She was a teacher at a Marseille lycée who fell into a love affair with one of her pupils in the “annus mirabilis” of 1968. She was charged with “leading a minor astray,” imprisoned without trial, and finally given a suspended sentence. The public prosecutor appealed, demanding a higher penalty. After a long nervous breakdown, Gabrielle Russier gassed herself in September, 1969, before the retrial could take place.

Many years had to pass before those who recoiled at the hideousness of what was done to young girls in 1944 found that the French public was prepared, uneasily enough, to listen to their reproaches. Not all are prepared yet, in the view of their masters: the terrifying film Le Chagrin et la Pitié, in which Ophuls dealt critically with myths of the Resistance and showed how it was often those who had done least in the struggle who behaved most spitefully to those defenseless women, was not permitted to be shown on French television.

But with Gabrielle Russier it was different. Her martyrdom, which developed before the public for over a year, became an issue on which everyone in France seemed willing to take sides, and over which there were found thousands of men and women to take her part—vainly—and to protest against what was being done to her. Every newspaper and magazine joined the controversy, radio stations broadcast her letters from prison, rows blazed at middle-class dinner tables, letters mad and sane poured into editorial offices, and on television the President of the Republic himself, Georges Pompidou, arranged to be asked (after her suicide) for his comments. He answered with a poem of Eluard’s, an elegy for one of those shaven women of 1944 who lay on the pavement

…découronnée, défigurée
Celle qui ressemble aux morts
Qui sont morts pour être aimés.

It was a gesture which made Gabrielle’s supporters choke with misery and rage. For them she was no sinner to be forgiven and pitied, but a martyr of a new Resistance.

Gabrielle Russier came to teach at the Lycée Saint-Exupéry in Marseille in 1967. She was thirty and had successfully mounted the marble stairways of the state’s academic meritocracy to become an agrégée. She was supposed to be a mandarin, but she behaved otherwise. She gave herself to her students as a friend, went out with them after classes, let them call her tu. In return, they loved her. For her pupils, she was “Gatito,” the little cat, a good nickname for this tiny, hungry-looking person with her glowing eyes and sharp touch. Sometime early in 1968, in circumstances which are neither clear nor important, a love affair began between Gatito and one of her pupils, the sixteen-year-old Christian Rossi.

The time was May. Gabrielle and her pupils, in those extraordinary weeks when invisible barriers between human beings seemed to be falling away, went on the streets with the other students and lycée pupils of France. Christian, militantly involved with the revolutionary left, seemed now the leader as the less political Gabrielle followed him to meetings and demonstrations. Afterward they went on holiday together to Italy, and later in the summer lived in her apartment in Marseille. It was only then that Christian’s parents found out what was going on.

But these were not conventionally “bourgeois” parents. More precisely, they did not consider themselves to be so. Both were communists and intellectuals, and Christian’s father, Professor Rossi, had taken part in the occupation of faculty buildings at the university of Aix-en-Provence. They were progressives. But even as progressives, even after May, it turned out, at a deeper level they lived by the laws of the system they were committed to destroy. The Rossis frantically objected when Gabrielle told them that she and Christian wanted to live together. That was their good right, as parents. Then, however, when Gabrielle and Christian continued to see each other, they went to law. A prosecution for détournement de mineur was brought against Gabrielle.

The politics of the Rossis was another source of public passion. In May, 1968, as it seemed to the students and their supporters, the communists had betrayed the nascent revolution by turning a spontaneous general strike into a mere round of wage claims. They had revealed themselves as a party of order, as a mere component of the system. The behavior of the Rossis was seen as an ugly confirmation of this analysis. Would they have brought the prosecution if Gabrielle had been one of the leisured “older women” who initiate young men to love in the pages of French literature, and not a paid servant of the state who had broken the regulations of her profession? The Rossis did not know that they were starting a process that would eventually crush Gabrielle Russier to death, and it was the state, not they, that appealed against her mild sentence. But they invoked the destructive machinery of the system and, with growing zeal, it proceeded to destroy.

The first part of this book is the long and excellent account of the case written for The New Yorker by Mavis Gallant. Its style is bleak and effective, and Miss Gallant, knowing France well, is able to make the complicated legal tragedy that followed comprehensible and to illustrate it with contrasts to other scandals and prosecutions. While she was in the Baumettes prison in Marseille, bullied by lesbians and striving to remain sane, some nuns told Gabrielle that she should regard herself as a political prisoner. This was correct. Frenchmen are rather fond of a masochistic pose toward the law, representing it with relish as a blind mechanism that grinds toward its goal regardless of human manipulation. One can understand why citizens of such an antinomian land would like to believe this, but it is nonsense. The law in France may be impervious to public opinion in the short run, but the state has every opportunity to employ it for political ends.

The state appealed against the suspended sentence in the Russier case for transparently political motives. The student revolt had simmered down, but violent unrest still possessed the lycées in 1969. Gabrielle Russier had been awarded a twelve-month suspended sentence, which qualified her for the amnesty customarily granted at the accession of a new president. This would have left her with no police mark on her record, and the right to return to a school and teach again. (She sent off pathetically happy telegrams to her supporters: “Long live the sun!” said one of them.) Thirty minutes after the judgment, the state gave notice of appeal, demanding a thirteen-month sentence that would have exceeded the amnesty limit of one year, stamped its record into her papers forever, and debarred her from teaching. This was evidently done on the instructions of the Ministry of Education, in the teeth of perhaps the biggest storm of protest on behalf of a single individual that France has experienced since the Dreyfus affair.

Gabrielle Russier was the victim of political justice, of the disgusting prisons which most industrialized societies seem quite content to have inherited from the nineteenth century, of a judicial procedure (France is not unique here either) which can imprison suspects without right of habeas corpus. She was brought to trial because of the tendency of middle-class Frenchmen to preach the rights of man and practice state-worship (one recalls from Ophuls’s film the ancient schoolmasters, quite radical and perfectly patriotic in their views, who were bewildered when asked why they had raised no protest when the Vichy regime purged their lycée of Jewish teachers). She encountered the sublimely anti-feminist prejudice of society: nobody supposes that a male teacher who had seduced a girl pupil would have been dealt with so severely or would have been soused in the cesspool of abuse which was provided by her critics.

Christian, for his part, was subjected to different but equally antique sanctions. It was assumed that a boy who fell in love with a thirty-year-old schoolmistress must be mentally disordered, and he was sent off to a series of “nerve clinics,” each more primitive than the last, in which he was put in solitary confinement, drugged, and apparently half-starved. Both he and Gabrielle were treated with the “sleep cure,” a popular French nostrum which is based on the belief that prolonged unconsciousness solves all problems. A society which recommends temporary suicide for those it renders unhappy invites some comments, and Mavis Gallant makes them. She also points out that the “sleep cure” is followed by intense depression and quite often by permanent suicide. This treatment played its part in bringing Gabrielle to her end.

Miss Gallant’s narrative is followed by some memories and reflections from one of Gabrielle’s colleagues, Raymond Jean. The last section is composed of a selection of her letters, mostly written from the Baumettes prison. They are very personal, sometimes cryptic, and they form no manifesto. They show instead the failing struggle of a clever, idiosyncratic, delicate woman to resist despair.

She was one of those people who, insecure, find reassurance in fragile disguises. She liked to be her pupils’ “Gatito.” She would sign letters “Dyana Rossa” (a pun on her red Citroën), or compare herself to Antigone (this puzzles Miss Gallant, but the Antigone whom Gabrielle and all her elegists mean is, I think, the character of Anouilh’s immensely successful play of 1944 who dies less for a cause than because she will not sell out for the family coziness and ration of bonheur which French authoritarian regimes guarantee to all those prepared to obey). After her death, her class wrote “Immortelle Gatito” on the locked door of her apartment. She will be remembered not only through the film which Cayatte has made of her story (and Miss Gallant’s bitter apprehensions about Mourir d’Aimer have not been justified: it is a fine film which does Gabrielle honor) but by those whom she taught and those who never saw her but heard how she taught. In a certain sense, Gabrielle Russier gave her life for her pupils, because she tried to give it to her pupils. She was one of a new and extraordinary breed of teacher that, to the good fortune of our children, is beginning to subvert the schools.