The Politics of Gender, Food, and Memory:
Microhistory of a Street Protest in Occupied Paris
‘There are no hard distinctions between what is real and what is unreal, nor between what is true and what is false. A thing is not necessarily either true or false; it can be both true and false.’ I believe that these assertions still make sense and do still apply to the exploration of reality through art. So as a writer I stand by them but as a citizen I cannot. As a citizen I must ask: What is true? What is false?
Harold Pinter, from his Nobel Prize speech, 2005.
This is a book about a minor event. An incident. An epiphenomenon.
On 31 May 1942, a group of women stormed a small grocery store at the intersection of the rue de Buci and the rue de Seine, a central Parisian marketplace. The streets were bustling with Sunday morning shoppers and it was Mother’s Day. Minutes before, voices from the crowd had incited shoppers to “serve [them] selves”; with the Marseillaise as their signal, several women took the lead by snatching cans of sardines that were stacked on a sidewalk display and throwing them to the crowd. A skirmish ensued when the grocer and his assistant intervened, grabbing one of the women who was trapped inside his shop. It was then that shots rang out from the crowd. Of the two neighborhood policemen who were hit, one lay dead and the other was to die a few days later. A wave of arrests, trials, imprisonments, and deaths were to follow over the coming weeks and months. Within days, the “women’s demonstration of the rue de Buci,” as it came to be known, acquired the status of a legend that would survive, in various forms, in French Communist memory. From the moment of assembly to the conclusion of the chase, the entire incident had lasted some twenty minutes.
The demonstration at the Buci marketplace had no lasting impact in Europe, in France, or even in Paris. It had neither the strategic impact of the battle of Stalingrad, nor the moral clout of DeGaulle’s call to arms, nor the popular exuberance of the insurrection of Paris. In fact, for those who deplored the unrest, the looting, and the violence, it had the opposite effect. Had it not been for the death of two policemen at the time of the incident, no one would have taken note of the event in the short term. Had it not been for the wave of repression that followed, it would have remained a minor fait divers and forever consigned to oblivion. Nor was this particular demonstration utterly unique; other market disturbances and similar demonstrations took place in occupiedParis, like the one on the rue Ledru-Rollin, for example, about which little is known, or the one on the rue Daguerre that followed six weeks later that same summer. Even the human toll of the incident was sadly banal at a time when imprisonment, executions, and deportations, if never ordinary, were not uncommon. “A brief scuffle of no importance”: that is how the demonstration was characterized by one witness, a cheese merchant who was tending his shop nearby on the rue deSeine when the violence erupted. And the cheese merchant had a point– although it must be noted that 40 years later, he remembered it all the same.
For all its apparent banality, the demonstration of the rue de Buci, turns out to be hugely important—if not necessarily in all the ways its organizers intended. As a protest action emblematic of its time and of its type, the Buci affair presents an extraordinary opportunity to apprehend some signal features of everyday life in Paris under German occupation. It also reveals the inner workings of the underground Communist movement, from the coordination of its political and paramilitary wings to the deft deployment of illusion and symbol, words and images, by party propagandists. We can see the roles of the Vichy government, the French police, and the German occupation authorities in the elaboration of a system of repression that had its own procedures and its own courts. Yet the Buci affair was as exceptional as it was emblematic. It marks a turning point in the escalation of public protest and repression of protest, the very moment when the authorities began to recognize the political potential of women. Throughout the story, gender emerges as the fundamental organizing principle: activists and planners considered gender in the formulation of political strategies and the division of political labor between men and women; French and German authorities practiced a gendered politics of repression. From the staging of the demonstration and the recuperation of its meaning to the prosecution of the offenders, gender was deployed by all parties in unusual and surprising ways. For all their emblematic quality then, the incident and its repercussions were nonetheless extraordinary. But perhaps the single most extraordinary thing about the Buci affair is the very fact that it is knowable in the first place.
The “women’s demonstration of the rue de Buci” had caught my attention early on; it is referenced in the oral and written testimony of resisters, in the underground and “legal” or state-censored press, and in postwar accounts of women and Resistance that I had been working on for years. Yet despite the frequent allusions to the story, it remained elusive in the official record. Because I was interested in learning how women and gender functioned in the underground, I was led inexorably to the clandestine organizations of the French Communist party, the only political group to mobilize women as women during the war years. Through the women’s popular committees, party activists sought to harness the political potential of mothers and other women by way of the (perennially empty) market basket. One method they employed was the staging of women’s demonstrations in markets and market streets like the rue de Buci in central Paris. My searches converged on this single event because it lay at the very heart of my research question.
By the time I was ensconced in the contemporary section of the National Archives in Paris, the demonstration of the rue de Buci had yet to surface in any of the documentary series I had consulted, there or elsewhere. It was the mid-1980s and access to the papers of the war years was still strictly controlled, limited to credentialed academics who could produce compelling reasons to justify their request for permission to access classified documents, and for whom established historians in the French community could vouch. Archives of the Vichy government and the German occupying authorities were by law closed to the public for fifty years; documents that revealed names or personal information – that is, most of them – were sealed for a century to allow for the easing of fratricidal tensions and the demise of principals and survivors whose lives could be affected by the release of sensitive information. The hundred-year-long black hole of history would also protect the perpetrators—moles, bureaucrats, policemen, individuals who had denounced their neighbors as “terrorists” or Jews. At the time, many archival series from 1940-1944 had not even been dusted off and mapped yet. Existing guides and registries, themselves also closed to researchers, were insufficiently detailed or incomplete. Yet special dispensations to view sensitive material from the war years, or dérogations, could be accorded on a case-by-case basis.
I presented my case in person to the chief archivist, the conservatrice en chef Madame de Bonazzi. In those years, it was the archivist and not the researcher who consulted the classified registries to locate the series or files that pertained to a researcher’s subject. Seated in her office in the Hôtel de Rohan, a former palace turned property of the Republic, I recounted as much as I knew about the demonstration, but it wasn’t enough. Madame de Bonazzi could not locate any relevant materials. In order to do so, she needed more. She needed names. It was a vicious circle, a catch-22. In order to unearth the documents, I needed to supply the names of participants who had been arrested in the demonstration, but in order to supply their names, I needed the documents… . The vicious circle had to be broken, which is how I landed at the Préfecture de Police.
Once again I found myself seated before the keeper of the archives, this time a high-ranking police official. He presided behind a big desk in an imposing office that was very different from Madame de Bonazzi’s modest sanctuary at the dilapidated but charming Hôtel de Rohan. Monsieur le Commissaire heard my case and then to my surprise, made his own. Why should such papers be released? What good would it do? Why were Americans exhuming long-buried cadavers in France? In any event, he said, it was unlikely that there were any police records of the event in question. If such papers existed, they were not for me to see. Who is to say how the police conducted themselves in such an instance? he continued. Who is to say that those same police were not also resisters themselves? It was then that my roaming eyes espied the tiny red lapel pin, the discreet but telling Legion d’Honneur. The Commissaire went on. It had been a painful period; like many of his countrymen, he explained in a fleeting moment of self-revelation, he had lost his brother during the war years.
The success of my mission appeared rather bleak. As I leaned forward to press a point, my hand grazed the edge of his desk. M. le Commissaire recoiled in horror; unknowingly I had transgressed the invisible barrier that separated the power of the State from a lowly history drone of another gender, another generation, another continent. I took my cue from his movement and drew back my hand. As for his musings about the role of the French police, I could only renew my initial plea: let the documents speak for themselves.
The hazing process left me thinking that I would have to take another tack. But to my surprise, permission to view the police file was granted. The report was slim, but it named names; a list of individuals who had been arrested in connection with the affair from 31 May to 4 June 1942 made it possible at long last to locate the complete and voluminous documentary record at the National Archives, of which the original police file is but a tiny part. Thanks to this extraordinary record, the Buci affair is knowable to an unprecedented extent for a case of its kind in this period. Knowable, but not transparent. Who were the ones who got away? What did the incident look like from the perspective of the grocer’s boy who intercepted one of the protesters inside the shop? What did the bystanders say and do? Who was the mysterious woman in a beret reported by an onlooker? Was there a woman in a beret? Elements of the story remain unknowable, or unknowable to me now.
Having such sources is an incomparable joy to the researcher. Yet it must be noted that every remaining trace of the underground movement exists, in fact, because something went terribly wrong. A clandestine movement, by its very definition and in the interests of its own survival, leaves no paper trail. For security reasons, membership rolls, instructions, messages, organigrammes, and position papers generated by underground activists were to be destroyed, if and when such documents ever existed in the first place. In some instances, papers have survived because they were seized by the police in raids, searches, and arrests. In this instance as in others, it was the authorities themselves who generated the written record, one comprised of police reports, interrogations, testimony, and official correspondence. Thus the existence of any documentary record at all stands as eloquent testimony to the risks, dangers, and fragility of the resistance enterprise. And when those records emanate from the authorities, in their words alone, under conditions that they alone controlled, postwar witness and survivor testimony is all the more critical.
When I met Madeleine Marzin, Mathé Houet, the Bertholet sisters, and Félix the cheese merchant, they made the Buci affair something truly palpable to someone who had been born after the war had come to a close. For me, it was history. For the participants, it was experience, their own, powerfully present because life-altering. They shed light on aspects of the case that the official record leaves obscure. This brings me to another, unique aspect of doing historical work on this period in our own. The version of the story you are about to read is shaped by the extant record at the moment of collection. It occupies the confluence of two eminently changeable repositories: the official archival record, once close, then restricted, and now accessible to researchers; and testimony of surviving participants and witnesses. It is—or was—a brief and fleeting moment when both the papers and the principals could speak to the past. That the papers and the people could finally converge suggested the possibility of a conversation… . It would be possible to confront the records of the case with the surviving participants, to tease out the unsaid or the understated, to corroborate or correct; in short, to foster a dialogue.
That dialogue, however, could only be indirect, mediated, as it were, by the researcher. I had taken an oath of confidentiality that barred me from sharing information from the files or revealing identities, so my questioning had to be careful. I also had a commitment to honor the confidence accorded me by the living, who might reveal a detail or an impression or a sentiment that I was asked not to share. The product of that convergence is this story, a representation borne of a particular moment in time when both the papers and the people could enter into dialogue, if only on the page.
In the future there will be more papers, rescued from attics and basements, delivered from the personal effects of passing witnesses, liberated from the imposed silence of the 50- or 100-year laws. At the same time there will be—there are– fewer and fewer witnesses. The most precious, most perishable sources, will diminish with time. No product can be isolated from the conditions of its production, and this version of the Buci story is no exception. That fleeting moment of intersection, like a one-time Haley’s comet, offered a unique opportunity to bring the written and oral fragments together, to craft a certain version of the story with its own unique, tentative, and mediated form.
The sheer volume and minute details of the written and oral record lend themselves handily to the genre of microhistory, the examination and interpretation of a single, emblematic event. A tiny nugget of experience, the event may contain in miniature all the features and functions of the larger story of which it is a tiny but integral part. Exploding the event produces a kaleidoscopic effect, enabling us to view it from the inside out and from many different angles. Once recombined, the resulting fragments produce a new narrative, one that can be every bit as instructive as the grand sweep of “history from above.” That microhistory has proven fruitful is evidenced by an impressive corpus of impeccably executed studies of the small. A case of mistaken identity and an abandoned wife in 16th-century France, a medieval cheese-maker’s idiosyncratic view of the cosmos, a mass movement to kill cats in an 18th-century Parisian community: eminent historians of Europe have adopted the microhistorical approach to tell us stories larger than the stories themselves. For many years, microhistory was the province of medievalists and historians of early modern Europe, for whom the history of everyday life proved most elusive. Ordinary people left few traces in the grand narrative of the archival record.
Ironically, the fragmentary documentary record of the war years has much in common with that of the fifteenth or seventeenth century. It is not so much that the French and German authorities took little interest in the population; on the contrary, police reports, court records, and prison registries abound. Departmental prefects monitored the disposition of their populations and filed monthly reports about it. But a generation of postwar researchers came and went before the archives fully opened their doors to them. Newspaper collections survived the war, but the legal press was censored. Moreover, resisters committed very little to paper for their own security. It stands to reason, of course, that a disciplined underground whose very modus operandi was invisibility, would leave no traces. That leaves people, the bearers of their own stories. Alas, many resisters paid for their activism with their lives; they did not survive the war to tell us what they could not or did not commit to paper.
That is the half-empty part of the glass. And it is what makes the other half all the more precious: when at long last two towering folders of reports, court records, and witness testimony were delivered to my desk at the National Archives, I was thunderstruck but ecstatic. It would take many weeks and months to make my way through the documents. Under rules that prevailed at the time, that meant reading the files in a special room with a monitor present at all times. Sensitive files required confidentiality and special handling. No pens, no notes, no bags. Photocopies were out of the question! Armed with only a pencil, I copied like a medieval scribe, day after day and week after week, under the watchful scrutiny of the archivist’s staff.
What I saw unsettled all my assumptions about the women’s demonstration of the rue de Buci. I gasped in amazement to discover that it had not been a women’s demonstration at all—in fact, men had played a critical role in the drama! The archival record revealed a spectacle that was in fact a careful orchestration of both male and female parts. Political tasks were divided along gender lines in a neatly synchronized, almost stylized interplay of masculine and feminine moves. Once exhumed from the archival coffers, the original trove of documents provided clues that led to the discovery of still more files, more court cases, more repression. And so the story expanded from a presumed footnote to a chapter, from a chapter to this book.
We begin with a narrative of the demonstration itself that is pieced together from oral and written witness testimony. How the demonstration was organized and prepared, and how it unfolded are the subject of the first chapter, “The Event.” As we will see in Chapter 2, “Hunger and Scarcity,” the Buci affair was part of a larger struggle for food in an era of dearth. Public support for the regime was beginning to ebb; empty bellies had made for a restive populace. The spring and summer of 1942 marked the return to power of Laval, the emergence of an underground paramilitary organization, and the escalation of conflict between occupiers and occupied. It was in this context of heightened tensions that the demonstration on the rue de Buci was planned and executed. The protagonists of the affair and the gendered division of political labor are the focus of Chapter 3, “Protesting Women, Partisan Men.” A network of families and friends, neighbors and co-workers, men and women, provided the cast for the drama. Who they were, how they were connected, and how the demonstration was orchestrated are the subject of this chapter. The consequences of the demonstration and its escalation to “affair” status are treated in Chapter 4, “A Crime Against the State.” Representations of the demonstration had everything to do with how it would be prosecuted. Gender infused policies of repression, which made for gender-specific fates of men and women. Finally, Chapter 5, “Gendered Memory,” traces the evolution of the Buci legend, its symbolic import, and its role as a model for a future generation of protesters.
 Natalie Zemon Davis, The Trial of Martin Guerre, Carlo Levi, The Cheese and the Worms, Robert Darnton, The Great Cat Massacre. Microhistorical studies of 20th-century subjects include Bonnie G. Smith, Confessions of a Concierge, Edward Berenson, The Trial of Madame Caillaux,