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.