It is nearly three years since the May, 1968, upheavals nearly brought down the French government and the Fifth Republic as well. With many of the same tensions still at play, the government has launched a series of political trials designed to suppress certain elements of the far left. Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and many others in the French intellectual community have spoken out in alarm. But in spite of their claims that freedom of expression and the very essence of free political life are seriously menaced, government measures against “extremists” and the “extremist press” have continued to multiply.

The principal target to date has been the Proletarian Left. Describing itself as “Maoist” in philosophy,* the Proletarian Left was a product of the soul searching by radicals after May, 1968. Its analysis of the lessons to be drawn from that defeat soon made the Proletarian Left one of the largest of the revolutionary groups; its leadership was assumed by Alain Geismar, one of the three principal figures of May, 1968, and the only one to remain active in French radicalism. (Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a German citizen, is barred from French territory, and Jacques Sauvageot is said by his friends to be “looking for work.”) For Geismar, May, 1968, proved the futility of cooperation with the French Communist Party. Geismar was a young physics instructor at the Paris Faculté des Sciences who worked closely with the Communists from time to time during his rise to leadership in the teachers’ union. He saw the Communist Party and its powerful union, the C.G.T., capitulate in 1968 (in return for large wage increases and similar concessions) just when installation of a socialist government seemed within reach.

Along with many others on the far left, Geismar concluded that the time had come to cut all ties with the essentially conservative Communists, to create a new and genuinely revolutionary organization capable of winning the allegiance of the millions of workers whose political power had been neutralized by their blind faith in the Communist Party. Development of personal rapport between intellectuals and workers was stressed; a considerable number of students took jobs in factories and shipyards. The Proletarian Left was active in publicizing workers’ grievances, calling attention to safety hazards in mines and factories, and providing assistance to some of the many thousands of foreign workers living in “shanty towns” on the outskirts of Paris.

The pursuit of these activities, however, did not always show respect for legal niceties. Publicity was often achieved by a well-placed Molotov cocktail. In one instance food supplies were obtained for foreign workers by a spectacular raid on one of Paris’s luxury grocery stores. The use of such tactics to develop revolutionary consciousness among workers was one of the principal tenets of the Proletarian Left.

Many of the leftists have been prosecuted for engaging in violent protests or illegal demonstrations. The circumstances of their arrest and trial, while controversial in France, reveal little that has not been seen time and again in the United States. What is striking is the effort to choke off the protests at their source, by moving against the radical press and the protest groups themselves.

When the Proletarian Left’s official organ, La Cause du Peuple, published articles urging the sabotage of factories, the sequestration of their owners, and the taking of power by force, its two editors, LeDantec and LeBris, were arrested and tried under the French law governing “the liberty of the press.” The law imposes penalties of up to five years in prison for inciting to violence or even for expressing approval of crimes committed, and its current interpretation was perhaps best summed up by the public prosecutor at the trial:

In the four issues of La Cause du Peuple prosecuted today, I have found no positive element, no constructive program. Only the violation of the liberty of others is praised…. The liberty of the press is designed to inform the public. When one engages in a refusal to discuss, in a blind approach, there is no longer any question of being able to claim the liberty of the press.

Apparently persuaded, the court found the two men guilty, sentencing LeBris to eight months and LeDantec to one year in jail.

The press law, in spite of its obvious potential, did not sweep broadly enough to accomplish the objectives of the government, which simultaneously invoked even stronger preventive measures. On May 27, 1970, the very day that the trial opened against the editors of La Cause du Peuple, the government published a decree “dissolving” the Proletarian Left. Under a 1936 law, passed in reaction to the Nazi success in Germany, an association may be dissolved if it provokes armed demonstrations in the street or has the character of a private militia. Once dissolution is decreed, penalties of up to two years in prison can be imposed upon anyone who “participates in the maintenance or reconstitution” of the dissolved group.


The Proletarian Left undoubtedly had proclaimed the desire to take power by armed battle and called for the start of guerrilla warfare; whether the group fell within the original meaning of the 1936 law was nevertheless debatable. Invocation of the 1936 law, moreover, exposed to prosecution any former member “participating” in the activities of the old leaders, and any former leader daring to engage in public activity or discourse without carefully differentiating his political position from that of the former group. The result would be either fragmentation or total impotence; effective political action could be rendered impossible.

At first it seemed that the stringent law would at least be sparingly applied. The treasurer of the Proletarian Left was arrested for allegedly continuing his activities on behalf of the organization, and Geismar was arrested on the basis of his speeches. But the number of arrests mounted rapidly. Dozens of people, mostly students or young workers, were arrested for distributing copies of La Cause du Peuple. Others were arrested simply because they were found in possession of the paper or similar tracts, in some cases only two or three copies. The government maintained that since the newspaper continued to promote the slogans and ideology of the Proletarian Left, all those involved in distributing or even possessing it were engaged in reconstituting the prohibited group.

Well, not exactly all. The new editor of the newspaper, who has taken over since the conviction of LeDantec and LeBris, is Jean-Paul Sartre. Presumably if anyone is engaged in disseminating the proscribed ideology, it is he. In fact, at the trial of his two predecessors he testified, “I think that the prosecution is incomplete, that it should be brought against me. Since I have been editor-in-chief of La Cause du Peuple, three issues out of four have been seized and the information each time was filed against X. What accounts for the difference?”

Sartre’s arrest has still not been ordered, though he has even joined with the beleaguered young leftists in the streets. On June 20 he and François Truffaut openly distributed copies of the newspaper under the eyes of the police; they were left untouched. In a similar incident on October 16, Jean-Luc Godard and several actresses were picked up by police but charged only with the minor offense of peddling without a license; Sartre was not arrested at all. As a result of these dispensations, the fate of La Cause du Peuple has gone virtually unnoticed outside France.

With these exceptions the arrests continued and were by no means confined to the young. A bookstore owner was arrested; copies of the newspaper had been sold in his store. Officers of two publishing companies were arrested; they had done nothing more than permit printing work for the paper to be done in their shops. Street-corner vendors, students who had purchased copies, publishing company executives, the bookstore owner—all were charged with participating in the reconstitution of a dissolved group.

If it seemed unnecessary to round up so many who bore only a faint trace of contact with La Cause du Peuple, the treatment accorded to those awaiting trial raised even more serious questions. At one point in September, Le Monde estimated that fifty-six persons had been charged with “reconstituting” the Proletarian Left; of these eighteen were being held in preventive detention pending trial. Although preventive detention is permitted under French law, its application in these cases was particularly hard to justify. For one thing, the charges were based solely upon advocacy and association (leftists held for acts of violence are not included in the figures). Moreover, the law permits detention primarily to establish facts and preserve evidence; since the relevant evidence—copies of La Cause du Peuple and tape recordings of speeches by the Proletarian Left leaders—was safely in the possession of the French police, the need for preventive detention could hardly be considered overwhelming. Only after a ten-day hunger strike, however, were the leftists able to win release pending their trials.

The scope and intensity of the campaign against the radical press have continued to mount rapidly. Students recently found in possession of another newspaper have been charged with reconstitution of a separate leftist organization dissolved in 1968. Charges of “defaming the police” have been lodged against the forty-four-year-old editor of a “Marxist-Leninist” weekly that has been a vigorous opponent of the Proletarian Left. Similar charges have been filed against the editor of the “Maoist” journal Vive La Révolution! and the editor of L’Idiot International, a monthly often given to vehement criticism and calls to violence, both by “Maoists” and by others on the radical left. Two contributors to L’Idiot International, one of them a fifty-year-old sociology professor, have been accused of complicity to incite murder on the basis of their articles.


Simone de Beauvoir (who has taken over editorship of L’Idiot International) meanwhile tried to form an association to defend La Cause du Peuple. The Paris Prefect of Police simply refused to issue the receipt showing that a declaration of organization had been filed with him. Since this receipt is necessary to complete all subsequent formalities, the refusal alone prevented the group from taking effective action as a legal entity. Immediate judicial relief was denied on procedural grounds even though the government’s lawyer conceded that the refusal seemed “manifestly illegal.” A court decision upholding the group’s position was finally announced on January 25, more than seven months after the initial refusal.

The government policy has been extended still further, in a recent move against Hebdo Hara-Kiri, a satirical leftist weekly with a substantial circulation, known for its sharp and often scatological criticism of the police and society in general. Invoking a law for the protection of children, the Interior Ministry has outlawed sales of the magazine to minors, and just to be absolutely certain that no children will risk contamination, has proclaimed that the magazine may in no way be advertised or displayed; a further ban against any distribution to newsstands and booksellers (likewise to protect minors) was rescinded in December but the administrative decree still effectively prevents sale of the magazine and its editors are no longer attempting to publish it.

Trials under the dissolved group law began in September and several dozen cases are still pending. Under French procedure, the cases go before the State Security Court, a jurisdiction created with special powers in 1963 to try the army generals who had plotted a full-scale coup d’état, complete with a planned paratroop invasion of Paris. Two military judges sit on the five-man court. The charge against the Proletarian Left defendants before this awesome tribunal, the source of their alleged threat to the French state, has in most cases been nothing more than distribution of copies of La Cause du Peuple.

During the first trial, Sartre sent a letter to the court calling attention to the fact that he had distributed the paper too and stating, “If they are guilty, I am more so than they. If they are innocent, they are more so than I.” The prosecutor responded that although Sartre had taken over the editorship of La Cause du Peuple, “this implies neither a change in his personal opinions, which do not coincide with those of the doctrine of La Cause du Peuple, nor a modification of the orientation of La Cause du Peuple.” Overt acts, in other words, are not the measure of guilt; it is the defendant’s personal philosophy that really matters.

The defendants, rejecting any conventional defense, have been openly belligerent. One young defendant stated to the court: “I have not maintained or reconstituted anything illegal. The misery in the shanty towns has certainly remained the same since May 27, 1970 [the date of the dissolution decree] and I will continue all my life to help relieve that misery and all others. Condemn us. We don’t expect anything else from you, but have the courage to say that you do it because we are close to the people.” A codefendant, a young girl, was even more emphatic: “All of the people are Maoist because they are fed up! But the people, you don’t even know they exist. I ask to be judged by the people, and you are not the people.” On which note, she and the other defendants raised their fists, began singing the Internationale, and filed out of the courtroom just as the prosecutor was rising to demand their expulsion.

To date all of the defendants have been convicted, and the penalties, substantial from the beginning, have become increasingly severe. Three, four, and six-month sentences have been common, and two defendants were each sentenced to a year in prison, a term double that demanded by the prosecutor. Many of the defendants have in addition been deprived permanently of their civil rights, a special penalty rarely imposed by the French courts and almost never without some time limit. The rights lost include not only the right to vote or hold public office, but also the right to hold any public employment, including that of teacher or professor, and this in a country where virtually all schools and universities are run by the government. The convictions have rested not upon acts of violence or even upon nonviolent demonstrations, but instead upon sale or possession of La Cause du Peuple and similar tracts.

Geismar himself, as the leader of the Proletarian Left, was tried first in the ordinary criminal courts on charges of inciting to riot. Geismar had given a short speech back in May during a rally to protest the upcoming LeDantec-LeBris trial. The crucial statements in the speech, singled out by the prosecutor, were that the day of the trial would be “a day of resistance for all revolutionaries” and that “it is in the street that the people’s anger against the horde of cops will be expressed.” To the prosecutor, such language contained “the specifications of place, of date and of objectives that indeed constitute a direct provocation.” The court agreed, noting that the provocative speech had lasted a full eight minutes and stressing that street demonstrators had indeed clashed with police “directly and immediately” (two days!) thereafter. The sentence—one and a half years in prison—was recently upheld on appeal.

A month later Geismar appeared before the State Security Court to face the charge of “reconstituting” the Proletarian Left. For the prosecution, his illegal activity was perhaps most clearly illustrated by a June speech in which he had called for a “hot summer” of action to disrupt the tranquillity and complacency of the vacationing rich. The court’s judgment was guilty, and to the one and a half year sentence previously imposed on Geismar it added the maximum penalty within its power—two years in prison, a 10,000 franc fine, and deprivation of civil rights for life.

There is no doubt that the government measures have succeeded in crippling the Proletarian Left, and contributing to further fragmentation of the already splintered leftist movement. With municipal elections now approaching and the ruling Gaullist party itself threatened by the possibility of a major schism, the more controversial restrictions on the radical press have been eased somewhat; in the past few weeks La Cause du Peuple has been sold widely without new arrests. This relaxation, however, seems likely to be short-lived. In spite of vigorous protests against the trials by prominent intellectuals, liberal newspapers, and a handful of traditional politicians (notably Pierre Mendès-France), no strong opposition to the policy has developed. The established left-of-center parties have tended to accept the steps taken, sometimes with a statement of concern for the record, often with ill-concealed satisfaction over the difficulties of their troublesome adversaries. The Communist Party has issued impressive verbal denunciations, but its opposition has never been more than perfunctory; its official organ, L’Humanité, has instead joined in the effort to discredit the radical press and recently published a study purporting to show that the leftist journals were being financed by Italian capitalists, the Catholic Church, and other archenemies of the working class. That the traditional left is capable of more wholehearted opposition was shown clearly during the Burgos trials, when serious protests were organized for a cause in which, of course, the influence of the French left was much less likely to be effective.

As for French public opinion generally, the dominant reaction to the measures taken seems one of approval or, perhaps more frequently, utter indifference. French laws, to a greater extent than those of the United States, have long been employed to choke off revolution at its source, by suppressing “provocative” speech. The result provides a clear warning against any relaxation of constitutional safeguards in America.

This Issue

March 25, 1971