April was the cruelest month for François Hollande. The French president, battered by abysmal poll ratings, traveled to the southwestern town of Carmaux to commune with the spirit of its native son, Jean Jaurès, the founder of France’s Socialist Party, titanic tribune of the people and tireless defender of the values of 1789.
Desperate to save his own political hide, Mr. Hollande hoped he would somehow profit by identifying publicly with the man who ever since his assassination in 1914 — on the eve of the outbreak of the catastrophic war that he had fought so hard to prevent — has become a modern icon of French greatness, perhaps second only to Charles de Gaulle.
But if it were a miracle he sought, Mr. Hollande would have been better advised to visit nearby Lourdes. Though the police had cordoned off Carmaux’s center, Mr. Hollande (who has achieved the distinction of having the lowest ratings of any French president since de Gaulle formed the Fifth Republic) was not spared the wrath of its residents. Boos and hisses sizzled from the crowd. One resident raked him over the coals — once this depressed town’s principal industry — for his unfulfilled promises to revive the economy and battle unemployment. Mr. Hollande’s irresolution and indecisiveness, others shouted, would make le grand Jaurès turn over in his grave.
Would it, in fact, have been surprising if the angry citizens of Carmaux felt seismic rumbles coming from the depths of the Pantheon, where the earthly remains of Jaurès now lie? As France marks, on Thursday, the centennial of his assassination, we can measure not just the decline of the political party launched by this remarkable man, but also the decay of the republican ideals he embodied.
As a parliamentary deputy at the end of the 19th century, Jaurès won fame in wielding his fierce eloquence on behalf of the oppressed miners from his native region. But when the Dreyfus Affair enveloped France, Jaurès grasped that oppression was not the lot of workers alone. Fellow Socialists had dismissed the affair as immaterial to the all too material and political concerns of workers. Yet Jaurès corrected them, and corrected the course of history, by yoking the Jewish officer’s case to his nation’s revolutionary and universal values: liberty, equality and fraternity. The persecution of Dreyfus, Jaurès declared, stripped the man of his social and economic particularities: “He is nothing less than mankind itself in the deepest pit of despair.”
The generous humanism that spurred Jaurès to mobilize his followers on Dreyfus’s behalf also fueled his denunciations of European imperialism and nationalism. With great lucidity and logic, he saw these twinned ideologies leading to war; with great conviction and courage, he devoted the last years of his life to combating these evils. Following the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Jaurès shuttled between Germany, Belgium and Holland, working feverishly with other Socialist parties. Should war come, Jaurès argued, the workers must not. By brandishing the threat of a general strike, he believed Europe’s political leaders would refrain from plunging the Continent into war. Vilified as a traitor, Jaurès lived under shadow of dozens of death threats.
Ultimately, his hopes for worker solidarity were illusory, while the menaces of death were all too real. Months before he was shot and killed by a rabid nationalist, Jaurès spoke at the funeral of a friend and prominent human rights advocate, Francis de Pressensé. There are no recordings of his voice, but we can still see and hear Jaurès thanks to drawings and photographs. Imagine him with his arms stretching toward his listeners, then reaching toward the sky, his barrel chest jutted out and eyes bright with optimism: “Today you’re told: Act, always act! But what is action without thought? It is the barbarism born of inertia. You are told: brush aside the party of peace; it saps your courage! But I tell you that to stand for peace today is to wage the most heroic of battles.”
The last and greatest hope to prevent the war disappeared on July 31. At 9:40 that night, on the terrace of the Café du Croissant in Paris, a disheveled youth named Raoul Villain approached a group of men seated at a table, pulled a pistol from his pocket and fired two shots at Jaurès. The massive and bearded bull of a man slumped to the ground.
The headlines announcing his death stunned the nation: “They’ve killed Jaurès!” Suddenly, a war that seemed imminent was now ineluctable. No less important, a certain idea of politics, one committed to an optimistic and generous understanding of France, also seemed to die. Jaurès marked his era not just by his public oratory and intellect, but also by his personal integrity. Not only was he untainted by financial shenanigans and corruption, but his moral ideals and political actions almost always meshed, while his private life was no less exemplary than his public persona.
In a profound sense, Jaurès holds the same role in French history as de Gaulle does. (Not surprisingly, the general and the Socialist each have over 2,000 boulevards and streets named after them in France.) While de Gaulle renewed the French Right, and Jaurès reshaped the French Left, both collapse simple political or ideological categories. Both were physical giants, as they were in their capacity to embody their nation’s ideals.
Tellingly, French politicians across the ideological spectrum invoke the names of both Jaurès and de Gaulle — a measure of their greatness, of course, but also the smallness of their descendants. Not only have Mr. Hollande and former President Nicolas Sarkozy engaged in this form of hijacking, but so, too, has Marine Le Pen of the National Front (F.N.), who dismissed the Gaullist Union for a Popular Movement (U.M.P.) for “betraying” its founder’s vision for France, all the while comparing herself to the general who, like her, was distrusted by the Left and Right. At the same time, Steeve Briois, F.N. mayor of Hénin-Beaumont, cited Jaurès during his campaign, while for Ms. Le Pen’s second-in-command (and partner), Louis Aliot, Jaurès would now vote for the F.N.
These various appropriations are as lamentable as they are inevitable. Every politician wants to latch onto Jaurès’s massive presence, if only because they themselves are so weightless. In different, yet equally consequential ways, both Mr. Sarkozy and Mr. Hollande have shrunk the grandeur of their office. Overwhelmed by the charges of corruption brought against Mr. Sarkozy, underwhelmed by the romantic dalliances of Mr. Hollande, the French do not know where to turn, or perhaps they do: An increasing number of French people consider Marine Le Pen as a potential leader. France now faces the possibility of electing as its next president, to paraphrase Karl Kraus, the disease for which she pretends to be the cure.
At Carmaux, Mr. Hollande insisted that Jaurès had always understood the “resistance of reality” — namely, the need to acknowledge political and material facts. But he neglected to add that Jaurès always insisted that while such resistance existed, we must always hold fast to our ideals. One hundred years later, many French citizens, deprived of such ideals by their political leaders, may well wonder if the resistance of reality has carried the day.
Robert Zaretsky is a professor of history at the University of Houston, and the author of the forthcoming Boswell’s Enlightenment.