A short biography of French anarchist, pioneering tenants' organiser and conscientious objector Georges Cochon.
Grandfather of squatting
Georges Alexandre Cochon was born on the 26th March 1879 at Chartres. Earning a living as a worker in the upholstering trade, he gravitated towards the anarchist movement in Paris.
He was married with three children, two boys and a girl. He had served in the navy and taken part in the Crete campaign. He served three years in the dreaded punishment battalions of Africa for conscientious objection. He had founded a communist phalanstery at Vanves, which had only lasted a few months.
According to a journalist with the paper Le Temps, “he spoke very agreeably, with a voice at the same time male and tender which must convince women more than men”. At this time in his thirties, Cochon sported a large Asterix moustache and had a good carriage with clear, intelligent eyes. He dressed carefully and elegantly, with a white raised collar and a flowing lavalliere tie. He wore a big black hat with a red band, at a time when workers usually wore flat caps or panama hats, and the bourgeoisie and the police wore bowlers. He wore a long jacket with a somber waistcoat.
In February 1911 he became general secretary of the lodgers’ union, the Union syndicale des locataires ouvriers et employes after he had served as its treasurer .This was a continuation of a first union of tenants created by the anarchist Pennelier in 1903.
The tenants' union had been founded at Clichy in Paris in 1909 in response to the setting up of a landlords’ association, on the initiative of the local Bourse du Travail (workers' centre) and its dynamic secretary, Constant, alias Jean Breton. He had taken part in the Paris Commune, had been condemned to deportation and then pardoned in 1884. He was secretary of the coach workers union in the Seine department, affiliated to the CGT. He had been one of the activists of the League of the Rent and Farm Rent Strike between 1884-1888. Elected secretary of the Federation Nationale Des Ouvriers en Voiture in 1911, the same year he joined the newly created Federation Communiste Anarchiste (FCA). Constant’s aims were the initial lowering of rents and the repair and decoration of run-down lodging, militant opposition to evictions and in the long term a general rent strike of tenants.
Constant was soon replaced by Marcille, a militant of the Levallois-Perret district, as general secretary. The young anarchist Louis Ragon, secretary of the section of the 5th arrondissement, was his assistant. However, there were already tensions within the union, with the partisans of direct action opposing themselves to those who thought that socialist deputies should be approached for support. Constant accused Marcille of using the union’s money for his own profit. Less than a month after having become general secretary, Marcille had to resign. Cochon then replaced him as general secretary.
Cochon’s activity caused him to be targeted by the landlords and he himself faced eviction in 1911. He refused to leave and endured a siege of five days by the police. He nailed beams across the door and put a lamp in the window of his flat every night of the siege.
The union had its own song, La Marche des Locataires, written by the anarchist Charles d’Avray. The union had 20 sections in June 1911, of which 11 in Paris, and 3,500 members, of which 2,500 were paying members.
The union had concentrated on helping tenants remove all their belongings from their lodgings when they were unable to pay their rent, in operations known as “demenagements a la cloche de bois”. Failure to pay back rent often resulted in confiscation of tenants’ belongings by the landlords.
On the announcement of the eviction of a tenant, the union organised a band, Le Raffut de la Sainte Polycarpe, which alerted the neighbourhood and put fear into the concierges and bailiffs. This scratch band had its roots in the charivaris of the Paris of the French Revolution, when women beat on pans to rouse the populace.
When concierges attempted to stop the midnight flits, the union replied by putting bed bugs and cockroaches through their keyholes. Cochon was later to write his 39 Ways of Infuriating Your Concierge.
The moonlight flits were at first secretive and then became public. It was Cochon who pioneered the use of spectacular actions, involving the mass occupation of buildings.
The union had the help of several skilled workers who put together a prefabricated house and trained people to put it together in the quickest time possible. With this prefab they squatted several places like the garden of the Tuileries, the courtyard of the Chamber of Deputies, the Hotel de Ville, where several thousand homeless massed, the barracks of the Chateau d’Eau, where 50 families were moved in, the Madeleine church and even the Prefecture of Police!
The actions of the union were very popular among the working class of Paris. As well as the great anarchist singer-songwriter d’Avray, the union gained the support of another great chansonnier, Montehus, and of Steinlen, the gifted graphic artist and painter who created posters for the cause.
In 1912 he wrote for the Brussels anarchist paper Le Combat Social where he contributed to a regular anti-landlord column, along with Georges Schmickrath and Leon de Wreker.
In May 1912 there was a split in the union.
Cochon’s charismatic personality and the singing of his praises in song and on the streets turned him into a celebrity and separated him off from the other militants of the tenants’ union. The spectacular actions, whilst highlighting the housing problem, at the same time turned the media spotlight on Cochon and increased his celebrity.
Coupled with this was the entry of socialists into the union. These two developments meant that the union started moving away from the libertarian principles of its foundation and early development.
Cochon attempted to reconcile the opposing poles of the revolutionaries and the reformists whilst recognising that direct action was the only way to win tenants fights. But he himself was already moving away from his original positions.
A decision to send an open letter to Parliament was taken. It was strongly opposed by anarchists and revolutionary syndicalists who rightly saw this as a move towards pressurising parliament rather than relying on direct action.
In October 1911 Cochon became a full-time worker for the union. Constant resigned from the union in disgust and many sections protested.
Dazzled by his popularity, Cochon announced that he was putting forward his candidacy at the municipal elections of May 1912. He was denounced as a salaud (bastard) in the pages of the anarchist weekly Le Libertaire by other tenants’ activists. The anarchists and revolutionary syndicalists decided to move towards his expulsion from the union, and a month later they were successful.
However, this had a disastrous effect on the tenants union, with its internal divisions and with a rival organisation newly created by Cochon. The Union Syndicale des Locataires saw many of its branches collapse or weaken. Half of the 10,000 members had left within a month.
Nevertheless, the constant resort to direct action by the union, inspired by the anarchists and above all by Constant, and the attacks on the sanctity of property were refreshing and in contrast to the uselessness of parliamentarism and the routinism of the socialists.
At the beginning of the First World War Cochon was called up and went through the battle of the Marne. In January 1915, he was detached from military duties to work at the Renault factory at Billancourt.
Sent back to his barracks, he deserted on the 16th February 1917. Arrested in August, he was sentenced by court martial to 3 years public work. During the war he managed to publish a paper, Le Raffut, at Maintenon during 1917. In 1920 he again brought out Le Raffut which appeared from13th November 1920 to 30th December 1922.
He was still involved in the tenants’ movement in 1925- 26 and as a result of his activities, appeared before a Paris court in April 1926. But Cochon’s actions had estranged him drastically from the anarchist movement and he never undertook any further dramatic actions, preferring to remain in the shadows and eventually disappearing into obscurity.
He retired with his compagne Tounette to Pierres, a small town near Maintenon in the Eure–et-Loire department. He came to Paris in the 1950s to speak about the past for a radio programme, Les Reves Perdus (Lost Dreams). Here he was reunited with old anarchists like Louis Lecoin, May Picqueray, Rirette Maitrejean (co-editor with Victor Serge of l’anarchie) and Charles D’Avray.
He died on 25th April 1959 at Pierres.
His son became active in a tenants’ union in the 1970s.