Soapbox Speakers

Speakers’ Corners in Paris

The French kings wielded autocratic central power that was not conducive to democracy. However, some regional lords were able to prevent the King’s police from trespassing on their domain. During the reign of Louis XVI (1754 –1793), the Duke d’Orleans developed his Paris property, the “Jardin du Palais Royal” as an amusement park. All sorts of political and religious deserters flocked to the  garden’s coffee houses. It was a hotbed of revolutionaries. Camille Desmoulin (1760-1794), Nicolas de Chamfort and many other revolutionaries, met in the Jardin du Palais Royal under the protection of Duc d’Orleans, who was a supporter of the revolution. During the Revolution, Camille Desmoulin went from street corner to street corner soapboxing his “Citizens to Arms”. Subsequent French leaders proved to be even more despotic than kings. Political freedom of speech was driven into the cafés of Paris.

In the 1850’s, Louis-Napoleon III (1808-1873) took power and headed a police state.
Louis-Napoleon III unwisely waged war on Prussia from 1870-71.  The Franco- Prussian war was a short and bloody war. The Prussian army routed the French army, captured Napoleon III and laid siege to Paris. Peace only came when France ceded the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine to Prussia as part of a huge indemnity levied upon the French.
During the siege of Paris, the radical population of Paris took control of the city and defiantly held out in the name of the “Commune.”  Once again the call for “Citizen to Arms” was proclaimed from the street corner soapboxes. The Commune was doomed. A new republic (Third Republic) was proclaimed and the French army ruthlessly restored order in Paris. Once again, freedom of speech was driven into the Café of Paris.
France quickly rebounded into a time of prosperity called the “La Belle Epoque”.  By the 1900’s, the flame of the ‘Commune’ was growing dim but not forgotten.

In the early 1900’s, an anarchist, Albert “Libertad” Joseph (1875-1908), founded a newspaper “The Libertad” (later renamed  “Anarchy”) and organised café talks. In October 1902, he started “Causeries popularizes” (popular talks) in a place that became a regular Speakers’ Corner.  The Speakers’ Corner stood on the Rue Muller in Montmartre, directly in front of the famous “Utrillo Street Stairs”.
Each talk dealt with a specific subject and his popular talks proved to be a great success. Known for his rough and tumble brawling, Albert “Libertad” Joseph is described as a one-legged street orator who used his crutches as a weapon. Libertad, as he liked to be called, placed a strong emphasis on individual morality, uniqueness, vegetarianism and health. His brand of anarchism, “Individualist anarchy”, influenced a generation of European anarchists.
He had the ability to attract attention. One eye witness recounted seeing “Libertad”  coming  from the police station wearing only a small bathing suit. He was accompanied by police agents. As he walked along the street, he attracted an ever increasing number of onlookers. By the time he reached Rue Muller, the crowd had grown into a considerable number. Once on the Rue Muller, he stopped and delivered a lecture on hygiene.
The lecturer maintained that, as a medical student, he believed that the ill-fitting tight bathing customs of the day created too much sweat, which turned into urine. The urine was then reabsorbed by the skin creating a poisoning effect upon the body. He also claimed that everyday clothing acted in much then same way, and advocated nudity.  This was at a time when modest bathing suits were neck to ankles pantaloons. Women and men had to wear equally modest beach clothing.
In 1905 he was implicated in the attack upon King Alfonso XIII of Spain and was jailed for many months.
In 1907 at a “Causeries Popularizes”, this time held at Chevalier de Café, police attacked the Bar and Libertad was badly injured during the attack. He escaped to Switzerland but was arrested by Swiss authorities.
On his return to Paris, he found a split had developed in his organization
between anarchists with differing views on what to do in the event of a world war. Ill health forced Albert Libertad into hospital. He died in Lariboisiere Hospital in Paris, aged 33, on the 12th November 1908.                               
“Causeries Populaires” seem to have faded away after the death of Albert Libertad. The limits upon free speech during the First World War probably finished them off.

Regular public street meetings never recovered. Even café meetings may have died out in Paris had it not been for a French philosopher, Marc Sautet. He founded the Café Philos movement. There are now hundreds of coffee/book shops and cafés across the globe that offer philosophical debates. In Paris, the Café de Flores, favourite haunt of Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, offers Philosophical debates in English.
Marc Sautet (1947-1998)  studied at the Sorbonne University, becoming a Doctor of  Philosophy specializing in Nietzsche. At first he offered individuals consultation on the subject of philosophy.  The project was a failure.
Undeterred, he conceptualized “Café Philosophique”, a free speech space unencumbered by academic interference and free to the public. His first venue was the Café des Phares in the Place de la Bastille, located near the site of the famous Bastille. Every Sunday, Marc Sautet would conduct his  philosophical debates. He published his experiment in a book named “A Coffee for Socrates”. In this book he articulated his theory that philosophical and political questions had to be democratized and taken out of the hands of the experts. By doing so, a society could save itself from dictatorship. His ideas were quickly taken up in the form of many other “cafés philo” in France and other countries.
Marc Sautet died tragically from a brain tumor on March 2, 1998, aged 51.

Steve Maxwell

Location: Montmartre. From Square Louise-Michel near Sacre-Coeur, walk down Rue Maurice Stairs to the corner of Rue Muller & Rue Paul Albert.
Albert “Libertad”  Wikipedia
“Libre  Examen” by Paraf-Javal (spirit of Revolt)
Other anarchists who frequented the“Causeries Popularizes”  were
Ernest Armand (1872-1962) and Maurice Vandamme (1886-1974).

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