The early battles

Gaston Lestrat, Les beaux temps du Sillon, Bloud et Gay, Paris, 1926, p. 91-99

Chapitre II, The early battles

Meanwhile, Minister Combes was preparing the law on separation of Church and state. He had support in the National Assembly and around the country not only from the radicals and radical-socialists but also from the extreme left parties, among whom hatred of priests had replaced that of the bosses.

And many ridiculous things took place. La Petite République, the major socialist newspaper of the time, flirted with Le Temps while the fat bourgeois from the Mascuraud committee were laughed at by the libertarians.

Henry Bérenger and the defrocked priest, Father Charbonnel, respectively founded the overtly anti-clerical newspapers L’Action and La Raison. The columns of these papers were filled with tirades against “the crimes of the Church,” the Inquisition and the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. Priests were publicly attacked; faith and “science” were presented as being in contradiction while reason was contrasted with “clerical mindlessness.”

The papers backed strong measures against any secularised religious who still dared to speak out. And, since they regarded the government as being too weak on these issues, they called on free-thinkers to themselves ensure that the law was respected, i.e. by entering churches to prevent “suspect” preachers from speaking.

These appeals were successful. Bloody riots broke out in several churches. The parish priests of several parishes were forced to arrange security in which we assisted on each Sunday of Lent. The riots inside the churches stopped but afterwards there were often violent classes between Catholics and anti-clericals at the end of services.

The newspaper reports were pitiful, filling people’s hearts with hatred. “Our magazine will soon need to publish the Sermon on the Mount as its leading article,” Henry du Roure told me, including in partiular the passage:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I tell you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who mistreat you and persecute you. (Matthew 5, 43)

In mid-May, we decided to organise a major public meeting to appeal to the good sense of the people of Paris and to make our attitude known to all. This meeting, which was set for 23 May, was announced with the following poster:


A band of hate-filled sectarians have just declared war on Catholicism. They hope to terrorise the country and impose their Jacobin dictatorship on a timid and weakened government.

They are mistaken. No matter how many misunderstandings they foster or how many calumnies they promote, good sense will prevail against their odious plans. France is not ready for such pitiful servitude.

Churches everywhere now appear not only as sacred sanctuaries of divinity but as citadels of freedom for the human conscience, and not only to believers but even to non-believers themselves.

A few troops of rioters will never succeed in strangling the Church’s indestructible life. As long as these sectarians continue to spill the blood of martyrs, they will feed the roots of the everlasting tree, as has occurred in the past.

Doctrine cannot be destroyed either with cries or blows. Not even by laws. Let our adversaries not think they can intimidate us into exasperated rage. We are a people who know how to die.


We invite you all to our meeting on Saturday evening. We count on all to remain calm. Desiring only to speak freely to free thinkers, we request that we be heard with courtesy as we will also speak courteously.

The debate is serious enough and issues of great significance are at stake and no one should dishonour the ideas that he or she defends by shamefully appealing to people’s emotions.

The honour of Paris is at stake.

We have no illusions over the battles that are beginning. But we have confidence. We know that it is the Truth that will set man free.

The anguish of the present time is undoubtedly cruel but can Christianity not transform and invigorate this world of pain, which is looking for its path, unceasingly attracted by a desire for the ideal and the heavenly City?

We know our weaknesses better than anyone and we appreciate the hard labour that the present time has imposed on our youth but we also know that we are capable of everything with the aid of the one who strengthens us.

We are unremittingly committed to Love.

We are more powerful than hate.


Salle des mille Colonnes, 20, rue de la Gaieté, 

Saturday 23 mai 1903, at 8.30p.m.

Stronger than hate

Desecrators of churches — Indestructible life — Towards the light — A public lecture by Sillon president, Marc Sangnier. Chaired by Comrade Clevers with Comrades Rolland and Montagu as referees.

This caused great excitement among the revolutionary milieux. Party chiefs launched an appeal to all their militants to attend the meeting in mass and to inflict an exemplary punishment on the “calotins” (wearers of skull caps, i.e. clerical zucchettos).

They were careful to add that Le Sillon had recruited bands of fighters and that they had to be prepared to do the same in order to defend themselves.

At 7p.m. on Saturday May 23 in the Mille Colonnes hall at Rue de la Gaieté, the young guards quickly dined on a bit of bread and ham. Three quarters of an hour later, two hundred comrades joined them to protect to protect the lectern as well as guard the doors and stairs.

By 8.30p.m., three thousand people filled the hall. Groups of revolutionaries formed compact groups shouting, “A bas la calotte!” or “Down with the skullcaps!”

Without any doubt, it was the most emotional meeting of my whole militant career. There were around 40 butchers from La Villette in the middle of the hall. If I remember correctly, they belonged to the royalist group of the Count of Sabran Pontèves.

Armed with clubs, they announced their intention to knock out the ex-priest, Charbonnel, and his “acolytes”, if the latter presented themselves as opponents, as they had announced in their papers. I had them surrounded with stewards, who battled, not without difficulty, to calm them and keep them under control.

Marc Sangnier had just begun his speech amidst the noise when I saw Charbonnel make his entry to the hall accompanied by his colleague, Henry Bérenger. A voice cried out: “Charbonnel!”

Immediately, there was a stir and a disturbance from among the butchers, who called “Death to Charbonnel!” to which the revolutionaries responded “Long live Charbonnel! Down with the skullcaps!” all of which resulted in an indescribable tumult.

I went up to the two new arrivals and informed them: “We will lead you to the lectern.” Then, turning to the three young guards near me, I said: “You will take these gentlemen to the lectern. No one must touch them. Be prepared to die rather than to let that happen!”

I can still see those three young guards, strong as Turks, Bach, Filsinger and Nazet, forcing a passage through the crowd and leading the two stiff but pale journalists ahead amid the shouts and blows.

Once the latter were seated, Marc Sangnier came forward towards the edge of the stage, introduced Charbonnel and spoke in a voice that dominated the crowd:

Comrades, something great and terrible is happening here. This man is not an enemy like the others. He is marked on the forehead with a sacred sign, which dominates and overflows even despite his very treason. That God whom he denies, that Christ whom he combats, he previously appealed to on the altar as his consecrated hands held the host. How can violence be prevented, comrades, amid such pitiful moral distress? We are obliged to pity him with a sorrowful pity. Didn’t Christ on the cross pray for his executioners? Don’t even those who do not share our beliefs appreciate the mysterious and terrible spectacle before us? Are they not also struck with a religious fear?

The hall fell silent. All we could hear was the distant beat of the drums of the Republican Guard that was calling on the crowd gathered in neighbouring streets and the chanted refrain of the Carmagnole, which they sang endlessly amid the crowd of hundreds of demonstrators.

With the auditorium reconquered, Marc Sangner explained the evil of the action against democracy itself, which Catholicism alone could make fruitful:

Those who claim they are defenders of the Republic are nothing but jailers. They gave the signal for I don’t what kind of backward march and, with their infertile anti-Christianity, they sought to cause economic and social problems to be forgotten in order to strengthen their majority.

He then explained who we were and how we hoped to work for the establishment of a better system. Finally, he concluded by proclaiming his faith in the future:

We will triumph because love will be more powerful than hate. Undoubtedly, we will need to learn how to defend ourselves and prevent ourselves being attacked in churches but we ceaselessly recall that even before even converting people, the Church already changed them through the effects of its good deeds.

Almost the entire hall applauded enthusiastically. The floor was then given first to Charbonnel and then to Citizen Bérenger, who both sought to justify their conduct. The former opened his speech saying: “Well, yes, I am the defrocked former priest and I have become the head of the apaches.”

And although the shouting, whistling and singing of those who had been ordered to remain on the streets continued to reach us, at the instance of Marc Sangnier, they were heard in silence. Moreover, they insisted on their peaceful intentions.

“Our actions,” declared Charbonnel, “were not acts of violence but acts of protest.”

And they spoke with a tone whose courtesy contrasted strangely with that of the articles that they published daily in their papers and the reasons that motivated them to act against the Church.

Marc Sangnier answered them. I can still hear him. In that immense auditorium that he had won over by his bravado, sincerity, talent and the whole power that the truth has over spirits open to it, all his words had an effect.

His words dispelled prejudice, caused prejudgments to evaporate, broke the idols of the day, unmasked unstated aims, opposed right and healthy reason to miserably sophist reason based on emotion. Moreover, his words also showed how ridiculous were the acts in churches of which Charbonnel and Bérenger had boasted.

“What have they done,” our friend asked, “but seek to take over the role of the police commissioner?”

Now, the hall seemed to have become a single soul. Even the inveterates, those whose features were still contorted with hate, became quiet. One might have concluded that they were too ashamed to protest, and, when it happened to them to feel humbled by Marc Sangnier’s words, they responded in chorsu as if they needed to give each other support as they murmured or shouted.

The meeting program was enthusiastically adopted. It affirmed our desire to respect freedom of worship and proclaimed our conviction that a genuine democracy could not pass by Catholicism.

At the exit, an immense clamour rose from the neighbouring streets, where a hostile, threatening crowd, exasperated by the long wait, cried “Down with the skullcaps!” from behind a cordon of police and municipal guards who struggled to maintain control.

We finally succeeded in gathering around Marc Sangnier and we descended in a column from the Rue de la Gaieté. At Boulevard Edgard Quinet, armed groups tried to block our passage. We managed to force a path through.

Several of our group were struck down. Nazet, the young guard who was one of those who had protected the two debating opponents, was himself felled by a knife blow.

Attacked all along the street, we were forced to charge on several occasions. At the corner of the Rue du Cherche-Midi and the Rue de la Pin, violent hand to hand combat broke out causing several comrades to fall.

When we finally reached Boulevard Raspail, the apaches ripped the steel grills from around the trees, breaking them on the ground and using the pieces as projectiles to again attack us.

The battle spread, lasting until one o’clock in the morning following the arrival of several police brigades.

Blood had flowed. A new dawn was about to rise for Le Sillon


Gaston Lestrat, Les beaux temps du Sillon, Bloud et Gay, 1926, 203p.  à p. 91-99

Chapitre II, Les premières batailles