Gloire au 17ème: Revolt in Languedoc, 115th Anniversary

Gloire au 17ème: Revolt in Languedoc, 115th Anniversary

During emigration period, Lenin lived in various European countries. He spent five years in France. Contemporaries recalled: “… Vladimir Ilyich [Lenin] liked and often sang the song “Salut, Soldiers of the 17th Regiment”. It was a song in honor of the French soldiers who refused to shoot at the rebels…”

In 1907 the region of Languedoc, southern France, looked like a beehive. 115 years have passed since the beginning of the vineyard uprising. Devastating crisis, affecting hundreds of thousands of French peasants, “radical-socialist” government shooting peaceful demonstrations, the lies of Clemenceau and the story of that very song – in our material.

The turn of XIX-XX centuries was the beginning of the era of imperialism, characterized by the aggravation of the class struggle between proletariat and bourgeoisie in all major powers of that period. The Third French Republic was not an exception.

At that time France was one of the imperialist states: concentration of production rose, monopolies grew rapidly, in heavy industry in the first place. Active introduction of new technologies and military orders stimulated national construction, metallurgy and machine building. For example, a monopolistic syndicate ”Comité des forges” appeared at the beginning of the century, including 250 companies – 75% of cast iron and steel manufacturing. Industrial military concern “Schneider-Creusot” (modern Schneider Electric) was getting super profits thanks to the started arms race and local conflicts.

However, the concentration of capital influenced the financial sector the most. In 1908 there were 266 banks in France, but in fact, only three of them dominated: “Credit Lyonnais” (modern LCL), “Societé General”, “Comptoir National d’Escompte de Paris” (modern BNP Paribas), which had more than 1000 offices by the end of 1900s. Characteristics of the french imperialism were defined, firstly, by the massive capital outflow (in this case France was at the 2nd place in the world after the British empire), secondly, by its structure: in 1908 9.5 billion french francs were invested in industry and trading and 104,5 billion – in bonds and foreign values, thus the difference was more than one order of magnitude.


France was a creditor of Europe, on which most of the economics, including the Russian Empire, were dependent. “Finance capital is such a great, such a decisive, you might say, force in all economic and in all international relations, that it is capable of subjecting, and actually does subject, to itself even states enjoying the fullest political independence” – Lenin wrote in his famous book “Imperialism, The Highest Stage of Capitalism”.

An opportunity to obtain enormous amounts of money literally out of nowhere led to the formation of a big group of rentiers – people living from the dividends of the shares and loans. It made a mark on the social life of that period. The giant layer of parasites lived off workers and peasants, with an idle lifestyle and spending their fabulous profits for nothing.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir. “Dance at Le moulin de la Galette”. 1876. This is how the French rentiers spent their time at the turn of the century.

But these capitals, outflowing abroad or pointlessly spent inside the country, were passing by French agriculture, which grew slowly and fell behind the other countries of Europe (such as Germany, Great Britain and even Belgium). 84% of the homesteads owned only one-third of the farmlands, which led to growing stratification. At the same time, by the end of the 1910s, 56% of the population lived in the countryside and 40% of the population were occupied in agricultural pursuits. In comparison: only 36% worked in the industry.

The Southern part of France – the traditional center of agriculture – played a significant role in wine production. Back in the 1860s, under Napoleon III, the government encouraged the consumption of french wine. However, extensive crises and epidemics, which damaged the vineyards in the second half of the XIX century, led to an increase in wine and alcohol prices. Then the manufacturers started to use denatured alcohol, which led to a significant quality drop of the final product and price lowering.

Adopted in the 1880s, the new laws of the Third republic launched the widespread of drinking establishments, especially in working quarters of the cities. Workers drown most of their meager salaries in cheap alcohol. Bourgeoisie and rentiers gladly consumed more expensive wines. Alcoholism became a national tragedy: according to some reports, by the end of the XIX century, France took first place in alcohol consumption in the world with 26 liters per capita per year.

Victor Oliva: “Drinking Absinthe”, 1901. Absinthe was a strong and cheap drink (10 times cheaper than wine), which became a real disaster in France at the turn of the century. It was called “madness in a bottle”.

By the beginning of the XX century, four southern departments – Aude, Gard, Hérault and Pyrénées-Orientales – manufactured 40% of the consumed wine. However, enormous demand pushed the French state to import alcohol from other countries, first of all from its closest colony – Algeria. As a result, the economic situation of the small peasants, especially winegrowers from southern regions, worsened. They suffered from the quick price drop and difficulties of wine selling, were not able to sustain the competition and went bankrupt. As a result, the government allowed chaptalization of the imported products – sugaring of the wine in order to accelerate the fabrication process.

The abundance of low-quality and cheap products struck peasants, whose products were bought next to nothing; however, big landlords with large estates could rest easy.

Two years later the harvest got better and the list of importers expanded. The self-supply in France increased twice. Together with the continuing import of wine the overproduction crisis in wine production started. Rich harvests overfilled the reserves that couldn’t be sold, but the state continued to pump France with low-quality products from Algeria and the closest countries. Small farmers got bankrupt, rural workers lost their livelihood. As a consequence, the rest of the petit bourgeois got bankrupt too, local traders in the first place.

Vincent van Gogh, “Farmhouse in Provence”, 1888. Similar landscapes could be found to the west – in Languedoc.

All together it caused a wide peasant movement, opposed to the duty-free import of foreign “rubbish” and against big wine manufacturers, which widely exploited chaptalization.

Peasants created winegrowers unions for joint production and marketing of their products without mediators. On the 1st of May of 1905 well-known Jean Jaures gave his speech in one of the new buildings of the winery cooperative.

 “Peasants, do not remain isolated, unite your will and in the tank of the Republic prepare the wine of the social revolution!” – he said, explaining the need for unification. Of course, as many other social-democrats before the 1st World War, Jean Jaures believed in absolute power of cooperation and the possibility of a peaceful transition from capitalism to socialism. Nonetheless, consolidation under the rule of the proletarian party is necessary to persist with landlords, profiteers and capitalists. And the working class showed great examples of successful struggle.

The years before the disturbances were marked by the growth of the French labor movement. In 1902 a single trade-union organization was founded – General Confederation of Labor (Confédération générale du travail – CGT). In 1905 as a result of numerous debates and discussions, a unified socialist party appeared in France – SFIO (Section Française de l’Internationale (II-em) ouvrière). The Russian revolution of 1905 became an important stimulating factor for the French labor movement: the number of strikes, in particular with political demands, grew over France. The revolutionary movement of 1905-1906, and specifically the national strike prepared for the 1st of May, scared the ruling classes. This provoked a massive stampede of Parisians to the South and abroad, capitalists started to leave the country.

A hundred years ago, just as now, “democratic” and “republican” governments were willing to suppress the working protests by the military forces. On the eve of 1st of May 1905, Paris was encircled by military units and 45,000 soldiers were in the city. Georges Clemenceau – a future organizer of French intervention in the Soviet Republic was a minister of the Interior. He called CGT’s representatives and stated the following: “On the 1st of May Paris will be in a state of siege”. Some of the representatives were arrested. May Day strike successfully began in Paris, where 200,000 people took to the streets, as well as in other industrial cities. In 1906 wide mass movement for an 8-hour working day started.

Georges Clemenceau – one of the leaders of the Third Republic, a renegade of socialism, one of the organizers of the intervention in Soviet Russia. For his tough character and intransigence towards political opponents, he received the nickname “Le Tigre” (“Tiger”).

By 1907 the situation in Languedoc reached a critical point. Taking into account that more than two-thirds of the population were working in the wine industry, the whole region experienced the consequences of the crisis. But the government of Clemenceau continued to build the imports.

In the March of 1907, the demonstrations and tax boycott started. On the 11th of March in Minerve commune “The Committee of Viticulture defense” (Comité d’Argeliers) was founded and led by Marcelin Albert – petit-bourgeois, owning a small cafe and distillery. Albert vainly tried to take a position “out of politics” and limit the struggle by the fight for the better quality of the wine.

However, he was a talented orator and the crisis, impacting hundreds of thousands of people, engaged wide masses in the flow. Tens of thousands participated in the meetings and demonstrations during the spring. Protests were spreading in Southern France: Carcassonne, Nîmes, Montpelier, Narbonne.

Marceline Albert, surrounded by a cheering crowd. June 9, 1907, Montpellier.

On the 12th of May 1907 in Béziers, with only 50 000 citizens, 150 000 demonstrators gathered. They brought banners with slogans: “Bread or dead”, “Enough words – we demand actions”, “To live working or to die fighting”, “We have so much of good wine, but we can’t get bread!”. The protesters from more than 200 settlements passed to the main square, where Jaures gave a speech. “Committee of Viticulture Defense” served an ultimatum to the government: if by the 10th of June the crisis is not resolved, peasants will stop paying taxes. The same day the barricades were built on the railways. On the 16th of May, peasants found a mayor of Béziers and forced him to resign. The City Council, consisting of socialists, resigned as well.

Protesters in Perpignon, May 19, 1907.

On the 26th of May more than 200,000 people participated in a political meeting in Carcassonne. A banner “Salute to our brothers-beggars!” was welcoming the newcomers at the train station. The biggest demonstration in the history of the Third Republic was held in Montpelier on the 9th of June 1907 – more than 600,000 participants. It seemed that the whole of  Languedoc united against the Clemenceau. The same day 50,000 in Algeria decided to protest in support of the French comrades.

The bourgeois government mounted a counter-attack. After the end of the ultimatum, discussions began in parliament on a bill to tighten control over purchases, directed primarily against small producers. In response, local government representatives stepped down and encouraged the people to disobey Paris. Then the bourgeois government of Clemanseau – strangling equally workers and peasants in France as well as in other countries – sent the armed forces to suppress the protest. More than 30,000 troops and cavalrymen were sent to the rebelling regions. Police began to arrest the members of the “Committee”.

Escaping persecution, Marcelin Albert ran to Paris, where he tried to make a speech in Parliament but was rejected. Then Clemenceau invited him to his Ministry of the Interior and promised to stop the persecution and cancel the bill if Albert calmed the protesters. He signed him a pass and gave him 100 francs supposedly needed for the train ticket. Naive petit-bourgeois took it at face value and accepted money.

Marcelin in Clemenceau’s ministry. Illustration from “Le Petit Journal”, 7 July 1907.

The next day “Tiger” told the press about it and Albert became a traitor immediately. His committee comrades refused to deal with him and, forced by the total hatred, he left for Algeria where died in poverty.

Meanwhile, back in Languedoc, on 19-20th of June, the army started to shoot the protesters and killed 7 people, including a 14 years old kid. More than 50 people were injured. The funeral of the victims became the last large protest demonstration. All these actions were conducted by a “radical-socialist” government, which was violent as well as conservatives ruling in Germany, as mentioned by Lenin.

Dragoons at Narbonne.

However, some soldiers ignored the orders of the government. The troops of 17th Line Infantry Regiment, made up of reservists and conscripts from that region, refused to obey the officers. They captured the powder warehouse, ammunition and moved to Béziers.

In case of the crisis, the government felt the danger: this precedent could become a signal for other military units. The troops were sent to suppress the rebels, but could not reach the city because of the dismantled railway.

Rebels from the 17th Regiment at Béziers, June 21, 1907.

The rebel soldiers continued to fraternize with the protesters and quickly became people’s heroes. Standing on the barricades, they declared that they were ready to resist the government troops. The working-class singer Montagus (Gaston Brunswick) wrote the song Gloire au 17ème to praise the soldiers, who “refused to fire at the Republic”. The perky, combative tone of this anti-war song attracted the attention of Lenin, who lived in France in 1908. Lenin was personally acquainted with Montegus, appreciated his work and enjoyed this song.

Fragment with the song “Glory to the 17th Regiment” performed by Montegus from the Soviet film “Lenin in Paris”

Eventually, Clemanseau, deemed that the peasants from the South will “end with a banquet”,  had to retreat. Over the next six months, laws were passed to protect natural wine from counterfeiting and to severely restrict chaptalization. The government also agreed to exempt peasants from taxes on the crops of the previous three years. The “Committee” was dissolved, and its members became leaders of the “General Confederation of the Vine Growers of the South”.

After 7 years, the outbreak of the imperialist war allowed the government to deal with the overproduction crisis and literally drown the soldiers in wine. Their daily norm progressively increased up to 750ml in 1918. But it has just exacerbated alcoholism and after 1918 crises returned.


What happened to the rebels? The soldiers of the 17th Regiment agreed to return to duty on the condition that they would not be punished. Formally, they escaped the punishment, but later the regiment was relocated to Tunisia, and during the First World War it was sent to the meat grinder. The status of “deserters” was removed only after repeated “reformation” of the regiment, which was subjected to a bloodbath. Nevertheless, the regiment showed itself later: after the war, the soldiers of the 17th refused to shoot at the protesters again, this time Parisian workers, who went on demonstration of solidarity with Soviet Russia.

Despite the fact that the regiment was disbanded, thanks to the song, its memory survived both Montagus, who took up social-chauvinist positions after the start of the war, and Clemenceau, and the rotten bourgeois democracy of the Third Republic.

The events in Languedoc became one of the most acute crises in France before the WWI. But why did such a large-scale movement bypass the socialists? And this happened, though many peasants who participated in the cooperatives, adhered to socialist views and elected representatives of the “Red South” to local government bodies.

“Down with intermediaries!” – one of the posters of cooperation, released at the beginning of the 20th century.

The reason for this is that, in general, SFIO was not set up to work with the peasantry and did not particularly try to use the rebellion in Languedoc to strengthen social democracy. This sectarian position to the broad peasant masses, characteristic of the era of the Second International, had an effect. And it’s no surprise that such a person as Albert led the “Committee”, openly avoiding establishing contacts with the socialists, and ready to appeal to the ghosts of the Albigensian sectarians who fell under the walls of Carcassonne in the era of feudalism, rather than to growing worker movement of his era.

The main factor that determined the attitude of the Social Democrats was the characterization of the peasantry as primarily a reactionary force – the same characterization that was defended by the “orthodoxes” of the Second International, which was defended by Trotsky, and which was proved to be wrong by the Bolsheviks and Lenin in both theory and practice.