Jean Jaurès – passionately believing in peace (Photo courtesy: Wikimedia)
Just as they do today, on that evening too the sidewalk cafés of Paris were humming with gossip, flowery cotton skirts and pretty hats of every shape and size.
The Le Croissant , a bustling café and patisserie at the corner of Rue Montmartre and Rue du Croissant had been in business since 1820 and had practically seen modern France created within its walls. It had leather banquettes, wooden tables and chairs and avant-garde art hanging on the walls that would be frequently changed to make room for new. All this created a relaxed, muted but warm ambiance. A chalkboard menu stood at the entrance and listed entrées and main courses, à la carte and table d’hote, all very reasonably priced, meant for the hoi-polloi.
The live music in the evenings at Le Croissant was avant-garde too in its own way. That night an all-black band was visiting from New Orleans. They had traveled steerage all the way, prohibited from leaving their cramped quarters in the bottom-most level of the liner and climbing to the deck to stretch their legs.
Paris had welcomed them with open arms and they were showing their appreciation by playing an entirely new kind of music no one there had heard before. It was called jazz, a name that had originated from a 19th century African-American slang term ‘jasm’, meaning spirit, energy, vigor. The socialist planned to stay on till he had heard their music. He was a liberal in every sense of the word.
The essence of jazz suited that sector of Paris, which was the center of newspaper publishing. The cafés and bistros which lined the boulevards, throbbed with the passion of journalists, politicians and activists who gathered there and exuberantly argued and drank the night away.
The Le Croissant was especially crowded that day. War was in the wind and everybody was out there, armchair philosophers all, eager to air his take on the growing rumble of impending conflict. The rightist nationalists were blood-thirsty and they wanted war, while the socialists and the liberals wanted to prevent it. One such socialist, a man fighting to bring France back from the brink, was at the café that evening.
It was a particularly warm night and the proprietor, Jacques Parisien, had opened all the windows wide. The socialist came to be sitting right next to one overlooking the Rue du Croissant, his left arm casually draped over the wooden window frame. He sat enjoying the respite that the mild summer breeze brought with it, as did the two loyal fund-raisers who were seated at the same table. They had traveled all the way from Marseilles to discuss party finances with him.
That week had been a hectic one and the socialist was fatigued. There had been anti-war rallies, meetings upon meetings with union leaders, parliamentary colleagues and visits to middle-class neighborhoods and speeches at town-halls. He was a very forceful and eloquent speaker.
All his adult life, the socialist had promoted the cause of international peace and this time he had been trying to get socialists, French as well as German, to band together. He had an idea, a novel means to bring the mobilization for war to a grinding halt – a general strike by factory workers that would paralyze the military machines on both sides.
But that evening was a Friday evening and he was looking forward to a quiet supper with his colleagues.
Everything happened all of a sudden. A gaunt and disheveled young man was seen crossing the street in long purposeful strides, his right hand jammed into his trouser pocket, appearing to head directly toward the window by which the socialist sat sipping his coffee.
As he approached, the young man brought out a .32 Mauser pistol and raised his arm, locking it at the elbow. In a simultaneous fluid motion, his left hand brushed back the hammer, cocking the gun as he kept on walking without breaking his stride.
The young assassin, who would later on be identified as one Raoul Villain, came to a stop in front of the open window at about the same time that the socialist’s head was turning toward him, his eyes widening in alarm.
Villain’s shoulder jerked twice with the recoil as he fired two rounds into the socialist’s face, the force toppling his chair and sending him sprawling to the café floor, while his two guests remained rooted in their seats, frozen and in shock.
Thus, the member of parliament, anti-war activist and founder of the French Socialist Party, 54-year old Auguste Marie Joseph Jean Léon Jaurès, passed into history.
Unlike Mahatma Gandhi, who died because he stood for similar ideals of peace and harmony, Jaurès was an atheist. But then, death is a great leveler. A man sitting at the next table claimed later that, as he lay there on the floor, Jaurès sighed, “Mon Dieu”, the same way as Gandhiji had whispered, “Hey Ram”, both expressions meaning the same thing – ‘oh Lord’.
The date was July 31st, yesterday exactly a hundred years back. The next day, posters began springing up all over France announcing general mobilization. War was declared three days after Jaurès’s assassination.
In time, that conflict came to be known as the First World War.