A ‘fatherly punishment’: An example of police violence against women

In a recent seminar with my final year undergraduates, we discussed a chapter from Lynne Taylor’s excellent Between Resistance and Collaboration: Popular Protest in Northern France 1940-1945 (2000).  Taylor’s book examines the variety of ways in which French citizens in the Occupied North of wartime France could express dissatisfaction with, or even defy, the authorities.

The chapter under discussion concerned ‘food riots’ – demonstrations in which women, usually accompanied by their children, would march to the local town hall to demand improved rations.  More often than not, it seems, such demands were satisfied.  In class, we discussed whether the gender of the demonstrators had influenced this outcome.  The ‘rioters’ seem to have drawn some form of moral legitimacy from their status as mothers.  We should bear in mind, too, that their demands did not represent an overt challenge to the French or German authorities. But did the fact that the crowd was made up of women stay the hand of a police force that may have acted differently against men?

This question reminded me of the memoirs of Georges Ballyot (Un flic dans la tourmente.  Souvenirs (1937-1944) (Les Presses Bretonnes Saint-Brieuc, 1992). Ballyot became police superintendent of the 15th arrondissement of Paris in February 1937.  Ballyot’s souvenirs refer to a strike of cousettes in 1938.  Their union had organised a meeting at the Winter Velodrome in Paris, at which about 4,000 women were present.  Ballyot claimed that this was the first time the police had come face-to-face with a large group of women.  Officers therefore had no idea what to expect from such a crowd, which was allegedly in a state of agitation.

Following the close of the meeting, the first women to leave the venue were wives and mothers.  These strikers headed straight for the metro and home, doubtless (thought Ballyot) with a meal to prepare for their husbands and children.

Next to exit were the younger girls, excited by the incendiary speeches they had heard.  As the girls stopped to talk with each other, they apparently caused an obstruction at the exits and on the pavements outside the Velodrome.  Police attempted to move them along by raising their voice, but to no avail.  An officer took the arm of a ‘screaming Amazonian’, who shouted ‘He’s feeling me up…pig…’.  Ballyot’s recollection of what happened next is worth quoting:

‘…the officer, probably a father, without losing his cool, administered to the agitated woman a masterful couple of slaps…’

The girl looked ashamed for having insulted the officer.  She fled, sobbing.  Ballyot called this a ‘punishment of a pater familias’.

The story reminds us that when investigating violence we must take into account the prevailing cultural context.  Violence which might seem unjustified and abhorrent to the modern observer was perfectly rational (and ‘normal’) according to past understandings of ‘correct’ behaviour.  Such understandings both permitted and constrained violent action.  Extreme violence against the female strikers would have been condemned.  Instead, the violence of the policeman was considered a paternalistic punishment – a justifiable corrective – to a woman who had transgressed the boundaries of acceptable feminine behaviour.



Women and violence: The example of 6 February 1934

When investigating political violence in France between the wars, there is a notable absence from press and police report: women.  Yet women were not completely absent from French street politics.  Female members of the extreme right-wing ‘leagues’ were present at important ceremonies: Jeunesses Patriotes women joined male counterparts at parades, keeping “a resolute and energetic pace.” Similarly, women took part in left-wing ceremonies and events, as well as being present at antifascist demonstrations.

Whether women were actively involved in violence is a rather more difficult question to answer.  On rare occasions female leaguers could be armed at meetings.  Occasionally one comes across a woman who was punished for violence, usually for slapping a police officer, which seems to have been considered a ‘feminine’ form of attack

The overall participation of women in the riot of 6 February 1934 (when the leagues and war veterans attempted to storm parliament) is unknown.  Undoubtedly, the leagues would have discouraged the involvement of women, given the exclusion of French females from the ‘public sphere’ – women only received the right to vote, and thus became full citizens, in 1945.

What scant information that exists allows the formulation of only a partial picture.  Women helped to treat the injured.  Lucille Sumpt, a nurse during the Great War, had arranged to join the veterans’ march at 8.30pm.  Unable to reach the meeting point, Sumpt, dressed in her nurse’s uniform, tended the wounded at the restaurant Weber. Women were themselves injured on the night, and one, Corentine Gourland, was shot dead by a stray bullet as she stood on the balcony at the Hotel Crillon, which overlooked the square.

One of the processions on 6 February was notable for its inclusion of women: that of the Union nationale des combattants, a right-wing veterans’ association.  Unlike the leagues, women were not permitted to join the UNC.  Consequently, it is paradoxical that during the riot women were apparently most numerous in the ranks of the UNC.

While some of these women may have been simple bystanders, others accompanied their husbands and fathers.  L’intransigeant reported: ‘Mixed with the veterans to the order of ten to one, women, young girls, young people, veterans’ wives, who did not want to leave their husband, their father.’ According to ‘Rouxanne’, a journalist for Gringoire, these women wanted to associate themselves with the ‘honest people’ and be on hand to ‘help, to care and to relieve’.  They contrasted sharply with the wives of the ‘privileged’ who watched from the other side of the Seine, deriving a perverse pleasure from seeing unarmed men and war-disabled beaten.  Their perfume mixed with the smell of gunpowder and excited (sexually) the killers to higher levels of depravity.

Though we do not know the reasons for their participation, it is plausible that some women were accompanying their disabled spouse or parent.  This task carried risks.  A journalist at Le Journal saw a woman carried away, ‘…injured in the fight, where she was accompanying her husband [who had been] blinded in the war’.

Attacks against women were said to prove the brutality of the enemy, and the right regularly reported communist violence against its women and their children.  It is in this role of victim that women featured most commonly in post-riot press reports.