Paul Roussenq

The jailbird of Saint Gilles

Paul Roussenq was born in the rural Gard department, part of the southern French region of the Midi, in 1885. His mother had a long and painful delivery. His life was to continue as it had started: in suffering. His parents were day labourers working on the land, among the vines, the wheat fields and the meadows. Paul soon showed his independence, robustness and maturity. He began to read the anarchist papers Le Libertaire, Le Père Peinardand Les Temps Nouveaux.At the age of 14, he had already read the 19 volumes of the Universal Geography of the anarchist geographer Élisée Reclus. At the age of 16, he had an argument with his father and ran away. His stubbornness had made him fall out with his father over a minor disagreement, which he regretted all his life, as he never again saw his parents alive. He slept in barns, under trees, living from odd jobs and fruit found on the ground or picked. So, on 6 September 1901, he was sentenced for theft at the court of Aix in Provence, getting a six-month suspended sentence. Again in 1903 he was in court at Chambéry, receiving a three-month sentence for vagrancy which he appealed. At the appeal the prosecutor demanded prison for Paul. This was too much for him. Rising from his seat he cried out: ?What, going on the road, poor and penniless, is now criminal. But it?s precisely the rich who should go on trial, with all their crimes as exploiters!? The court demanded an apology. Paul refused, hurling a lump of hard bread in the prosecutor?s face. He was sentenced to five years in jail! He spent five years in Clairvaux prison and came out with his anarchist convictions reinforced. The police, the judiciary and the army appeared to him as resolute adversaries of free people and he developed a ferocious hatred of uniforms. He was immediately conscripted to serve in Africa. He wrote later: ?Barracks life is certainly the most brutalising under the skies... soldiers are just machines that obey?. But the battalions of Africa were worse than the barracks. These military camps were disciplinary institutions reserved for the stubborn, the rebellious and the recalcitrant. The stupidity and cruelty of the officers was celebrated and there had been campaigns of denunciations led against the torture carried out there. Paul had a violent argument with an officer. He was shut up in a cell. He had had a bellyful of prison, and set his bunk on fire. For this he received 20 years hard labour. He was sent to the dreaded penal colonies at Cayenne in French Guyana, the island prison hell made infamous in the book and film Papillon. By 1929, Roussenq had finished his 20 years hard labour. But an article of the law stipulated that a prisoner condemned to more than eight years must stay in Guyana for the rest of his life! The SRI led the campaign against this foul law. Demonstrations for his release were organised, and Roussenq?s letters began to be published in the French press. Finally, despite another short detention on trumped up charges, Paul returned to Paris in 1932, with an amnesty. He was welcomed at the station by a large crowd and said, ?My impressions are those of one of the damned leaving hell?. But in the meantime, both his parents and a sister had died. ... After the war he assisted in a strike of vineyard workers at Aimargues in 1948, helping the influential group of anarchists there. Twenty-five years of prison, constant hounding and persecution wherever he went in France, the impossibility of getting work because of his record, and the illnesses he had contracted in Guyana, which now caused him extreme pain, led him to take his life by drowning himself in the Adour river. He wrote to Élisée Perrier of the anarchist paper Le Libertaireon 3 August 1949; ?My dear Elisée, I am at the end. At Bayonne there is a great and beautiful river, and this evening, I will go in search of the great remedy for all suffering: Death?.


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