A short biography of the tragic life of French anarchist and coalheaver Jules Gustave Durand, who was framed for the killing of a scab.
The Dreyfus of the poor
“Yes, I am a revolutionary! What honest man would conserve a social system which drives workers to poverty and alcoholism? Yes, I am an anarchist! What honest man would not be an anarchist when he sees governments, real associations of profiteers….When have I hidden that I am a revolutionary anarchist, proud of my great hope in the future of the human race?” Durand at his trial in 1910.
Jules Gustave Durand was born on 6 September 1880 in the docks area of Le Havre into a working class family.
He started attending the Peoples University of the Bourses de Travail in the evening after work. Here he read texts by anarchists Proudhon, Louise Michel, Emile Pouget and others, and became conscious of the class struggle. His workplace activities soon led him to be fired by the shipping company where he worked as a docker. He then took up the same work as his father, as a casualised coal heaver. Because he was known as a subversive, he was only taken on when there was a lot of work. He used his time out of work to agitate and organise.
He became secretary of the local coal-heavers union and pushed for it to be affiliated to the Bourses de Travail and the CGT, and was active in the syndicates on a departmental level. Soon the coal-heavers union grew, and at the start of 1910, had 400 members. This was an important body of workers as the town’s industry was based principally on coal.
In August 1910 the union launched an unlimited strike against mechanisation and the high cost of living and for a wage rise and overtime pay. The strike was very well supported and Durand took a very active part in it.
The bosses responded by employing scabs at three times the wages of the strikers. One of them, Dongé, after working two days without a break, then got drunk. He menaced four strikers (not in the CGT union) who were also drunk, with a revolver. They defended themselves, and as a result of a beating, Dongé died in hospital later. The four were arrested. The local bosses, with the help of the local press, then launched a campaign to implicate Durand in this incident. They bribed some coal-heavers to testify that Dongé’s death had been incited by Durand and voted on at a union meeting. He was arrested along with the two Boyer brothers, also active in the strike.
The prosecutor used Durand’s teetotalism and membership of a teetotalers association to prejudice the views of the jury, who were mostly peasants who were home distillers and makers of Calvados.
The court acquitted the Boyer brothers, and sentenced one of the strikers involved in the brawl to 15 years prison, two others to 7 years prison, whilst Durand was sentenced to death, with no real evidence, of having incited them through “gifts, promises, menaces, abuse of authority, machinations and artifices” to murder. He was condemned to be guillotined in public at Rouen on 25th November 1910.
When the death sentence was pronounced, the astounded Durand went into a nervous breakdown. His state of mind was exacerbated by being tied in a straitjacket for 40 days in solitary.
In Le Havre there was a general strike on 28 November which paralysed the town. The working class elsewhere replied to the death sentence with strikes at the ports of Dunkirk, Bordeaux, Marseilles and Cherbourg. Workers in Spain came out on solidarity strike at the port of Bilbao and among the coal-heavers. The movement spread to Italy, and a strike broke out in Naples. This was echoed in Chicago and Liverpool, Cardiff, Newcastle, and Birmingham, in Sydney and Melbourne. The ports of Anvers, Cadiz and Hamburg struck too.
The Ligue des Droits de l’Homme (League of the Rights of Man) launched a national campaign. Memories of the anti-Semitic Dreyfus affair were still strong and Durand was referred to as the “Dreyfus of the Poor”. The strikes and campaigns resulted in a commuting of the death sentence, but Durand still faced 7 years in jail.
Commutation of the sentence still meant that Durand was regarded in the eyes of the law as being guilty. New protests started, and Durand was released prior to a new decision.
The process started in 1912 ended with a recognition that a grave miscarriage of justice had been carried out, on 15 June 1918.
His father Gustave, deeply affected by the sentencing of his son to death, attempted to kill himself the evening of the verdict, and later died prematurely at the age of 58 in 1913. Even in death the authorities showed their power, by insisting on having the words on his tombstone- “his innocent son”- changed to “his “innocent” son”!
The day after he was released from prison, and was met by a large crowd at the train station, he had a severe crisis and began throwing furniture through the window. His crises became more and more frequent - he smothered all his beloved pet turtle doves in one of these - and he was sent to the asylum at Sotteville lés Rouen.
His daughter was born on 14 March 1911 to his girlfriend Julia Carouge, and called Juliette in honour of her father. Her father saw his daughter on his release from prison but was already in a state of mental deterioration. Julia and Jules had wanted to marry, but the state did not allow the marriage of “lunatics”.
He died in the asylum on 20 February 1926.
In 1956 a Boulevard Durand was named after him in Le Havre, followed by a high school there, and later another boulevard in Paris.
Armand Salacrou wrote a passionate play Boulevard Durand in 1960. At one of the performances at Le Havre, attended by a predominantly working class audience, during a scene where the actor playing Durand began to sing the International, the whole audience rose as one and joined in the song.