Sartre in the center of a new tribunal

JEAN PAUL SARTRE / In this article, Vladimir Dedijer describes how French society is becoming increasingly authoritarian. Basic freedoms are set aside, the National Assembly is powerless and the police have free rein to carry out the purest terror against people with opinions that deviate from the official ones. Torture and stinking prison cells are also part of the image of France in 1971.


By Vladimir Dedijer, ORIENTERING No. 32, 1971

COLMAT, ALSACE, JULY – During the Algerian war, there was not much of a march against Paris or similar mass protests. Even the French Communist Party did nothing, even though with its 25 percent of the French electorate it could stop the slaughter of the Algerian people by strikes in the south of France.

The honorable exception in France was a group of 121 intellectuals, who condemned the unjust war and the torture of French officers against Algerian patriots. At the top of the list of the 121 brave was the philosopher Jean Paul Sartre.

The then French Prime Minister Michel Debré asked General de Gaulle for permission to prosecute Jean Paul Sartre. It is alleged that the general rejected the zealous minister's request with the following remark: "For God's sake Debré, one does not put Voltaire in jail."

Assassination attempt on Sartre's home

Some time later, Sartre's home was destroyed by a plastic bomb. But he continued the fight for what he himself considers just causes both inside and outside France. Just these days, Le Monde has refreshed the anecdote about Voltaire, after the right-wing forces of French society have finally taken their revenge.

On June 19, Sartre sat on the dock in the Palais de Justice, flanked by policemen, listening to accusations from Interior Minister Raymond Marcellin and his colleague Justice Minister Rene Pieven: Sartre had "insulted the French police and prison system" in the two left-wing magazines La Cause du Peuple and Tout. It was not Sarte who wrote the articles, but as editor of the magazines he was legally and morally co-responsible.

As in the United States, a battle is currently taking place in France between the executive, the legislature and the judiciary. I kept recalling heated discussions with my students at the American University of Brandies on this issue, so I was deeply amazed to see how much the level of freedom had fallen in France during the past year.

Powerful Minister of the Interior

L'Assemble Nationale is as powerless as the American Congress, perhaps even more so. The strong Marcellin controls the voting machinery, and J. Edgar Hoover might well have envied him. On 25 June, the French Minister of the Interior, by a vote of 373 to 97, revived a law on the right of assembly from the time of King Charles X. When this law comes into force, the police will have the right to decide when an assembly of French people is legal and when it is not.

The French version of the Supreme Court has no guilty conscience. It is too sleepy and too slow in its defense of the fundamental freedoms of the French constitution. The autonomy of the French courts is slowly disintegrating. In the golden days of the Third Republic, judges were financially independent. Today they are poor civil servants, who are promoted only if the government regards them favorably.

In the United States, there is a strange love affair between the government and the bodies that administer justice, such as the police. It is not yet clear who is behind the French police's harsh behavior – the government or social forces outside the government. If one studies the history of the French police, one should not forget that they collaborated with the Nazi occupiers during World War II. Nor that the police during the Algerian war were heavily infected by right-wing forces, including from the secret OAS.

What the critics of the police particularly turn against are the methods of unleashing on all prisoners (political and non-political) a kind of racial war against the rebellious youth, the torture in the prisons and the way the prisons are run. The latter, say the critics, reminds in many ways of the Greek and Brazilian systems.

Brutal police methods

On 29 May this year, the young French scientist and journalist, Alain Jaubert, wanted to help the police ambulance crew to bring an injured man to the hospital. But as soon as he was inside the ambulance, the police officers started beating him with clubs. Several hundred French journalists have protested publicly against this brutality. A special commission was set up with Claude Mauriac as chairman to investigate Jaubert's case.

Another commission of intellectuals is trying to find out what really goes on in French prisons. In the last five years, Sartre has spent much of his time fighting what he considers similar injustices. He and his young leftist friends have formed "les tribunaux populaires", a kind of people's courts against the police. But the interior minister hastened to ban them.

His decision to attack Sartre is interpreted in liberal French circles as the government's desire to introduce stricter measures against any form of dissent.

Some of Sartre's friends believe that the Minister of the Interior has deliberately chosen to attack France's leading philosopher. On 25 May, Sartre had a slight cerebral haemorrhage, his hand and right side were paralysed.

Sartre is adamant

But the arch-rebel quickly recovers and puts up fierce resistance. I received his invitation for a leisurely walk through the province his mother came from – Alsace. Sartre does not give much credit to his friends' theory that the Minister of the Interior will surprise the old warrior while he is ill. Sartre is very proud to have just published two thick volumes on Flaubert, each of over 2000 pages. In Strasbourg we bought paper, because he wanted to continue the work of editing the next three volumes on Flaubert.

He graciously accepted my offer of my American ballpoint pen, purchased in Harvard's student store. He drove to Sainte Odine, and recalled how he for approx. 60 years ago drove with his mother in a horse-drawn carriage cab. He described the German officers' uniforms in great detail. At the time, Alsace was part of Germany. In Colmar he saw a picture of Dr. Albert Schweitzer, the great French humanist.

- It was my uncle, said Sartre, and he did not appreciate my superior performance any further. Later he tried to make peace with me, saying that we were both working for the same cause, albeit by different means, but I did not fall for that kind of nonsense now.

People's reaction to Sartre was quite enjoyable. Many young people rushed over to him, patted him on the shoulder and asked for his autograph. A middle-aged restaurant owner from Obernei proudly rattled off all the Sartre books his student daughter had read. In Strasbourg, an old lady looked at Sartre with contempt, as if he were the devil incarnate passing her by.

International Commission of Inquiry

I had a purpose for my visit to Sartre. I told him on the last day of the trip that an international commission (composed of intellectuals from the United States, Scandinavia, Italy, Germany and other countries) has been formed to investigate the conduct of the French police and the general decay of human rights in France.

I told him that my friends were aware that he needed no lawyer, and that his opponents would hear him thunder out at the trial, which would take place sometime in the fall. But there is evidence that many victims of political repression in France do not have Sartre's opportunity to defend their views publicly.

Sartre favored the idea and expressed his willingness to come to the commission's public meetings and present his views on the issue police brutality. At the same time, the commission is willing to carry out its work objectively. All accusations are thoroughly investigated, and the French authorities, especially the Minister of the Interior and his men, are given an opportunity to state their views.

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