Documents of the First International 1867

The French Government and the
International Association of Working Men[367]

Source: Minutes of the General Council of the First International 1866-1868, 1964;
Written: by Peter Fox;
First Published: in The Commonwealth, January 12, 1867, and in The Working Man, February 1, 1867.

During the first two years of the existence of this Association, and until after the assembling of the Geneva Congress, the General Council had little or no complaint to make of the conduct of the French Government towards the International Working Men’s Association. The Council’s communications, with its correspondents in France, were not interrupted; the sale of tickets not seriously impeded. If, here and there, the local authorities threatened dire consequences to the Council’s agents, if they proceeded to enrol members, those threats were but brutum fulmen, and were not executed upon those who had the courage to act in defiance of them.

This much is quite consistent with the fact that the very existence of the French Empire and of the laws of public safety, which it declares are necessary for its maintenance, did greatly impede the progress of the Association. In the first place, the non-existence of the right of public meeting prevented the members of the Association from meeting together and organising their sections in an overt and formal manner. But the General Council neither expected nor desired that the laws of the Empire should be specially modified to suit their interests. The damage done to them in this manner had nothing in it “specially” invidious to themselves. It was an injury which was inflicted primarily on the whole French nation, and secondarily upon every advanced Liberal and Democrat in Europe, all of whom have an interest in the existence of the right of public meeting in France. Hence, they make no public complaint on this account.

In the second place, the general spirit of terrorism, upon which the French Government so much relies, could not but have deterred many Frenchmen, who agreed with the principles and design of the Association, from becoming members thereof and linking themselves to its fortunes in France. But this damage also is general and indirect. Moreover, it was known to the founders of the Association that this would be one of the obstacles to its success in France. The General Council were prepared for a certain amount of uphill work, in consequence of the prevailing terror in all that relates to independent political action in France, and therefore they do not come forward now to make a complaint on this score.

Had the French Government continued to preserve that attitude of (perhaps contemptuous) neutrality which it observed up to, and during, the Congress of Geneva, the General Council would not have been compelled to make the present statement to the members of the Association. But from and after the assembling of the Congress at Geneva the French Government saw fit to alter its attitude towards the Association. The motives for this change of policy cannot be found in any special act of antagonism committed either by the General Council or by the delegates to the Congress, French or non-French.

It would have been the height of folly on the part of the General Council, or the delegates of the Congress, to court and invite the hostility of the French Government. Some few Parisian members of the Association who attended the Congress in their individual capacities thought otherwise, but as they were not delegates, they were not allowed to speak at the Congress. The delegates went about the weighty business they had in hand, and did not diverge to the right hand or to the left, for the purpose of making an anti-Bonapartist demonstration.

One of the first signs of a. change for the worse on the part of the French Government was the case of Jules Gottraux. Jules Gottraux is a native of Switzerland , and a naturalised subject of the British State. He is domiciled in London, and in September last was on a visit to his relatives in or about Geneva. The Managing Committees of the German-Swiss and French-Swiss sections at Geneva entrusted to his care some letters, and a number of pamphlets and newspapers relating to the transactions of the Association, which were all, without exception, to be delivered to the General Council in London. On proceeding from Geneva to London, on Sept. 30, the valise of Gottraux was searched by French policemen at the Franco-Swiss frontier, and these letters and printed documents taken from him.

This was an outrage which the General Council, when put in possession of the facts, resolved not quietly to endure. That the French Government, which enacts the law, may make it legal to seize printed matter and correspondence coming from abroad and directed to a French citizen, or even a mere resident in France, the Council did not deny, but for the French Government to exercise the same right of paternal “surveillance” over the communications between Switzers and Britons, or even residents in Great Britain, was a stretch of authority that the General Council felt itself bound to oppose. The outrage was not aggravated by the fact that the literature seized in no way concerned the French Government, and did not belong to the category of the anti-Bonapartist philippics, because, whatever the character of the literature, the Council denies the right of the French Government, while at peace with Switzerland and Great Britain, to intercept the communications between the citizens of the two countries.

The first step taken by the Council in this matter was to write a respectful letter to the “Ministre de l'Interieur,” stating the facts, requesting an inquiry into their accuracy, and terminating with a petition for the surrender of the letters and printed matter seized upon Gottraux.

The Council waited five weeks for a reply to their memorial. None came, and this silence was a proof that the French Government assumed responsibility for the act of its subordinate agents. Only then did the Council resolve to appeal to Lord Stanley, the British Secretary for Foreign Affairs, for redress, grounding their appeal upon the facts that Gottraux was a British subject, and that the General Council was composed of subjects and denizens in Great Britain.

Lord Stanley, be it said to his credit, heard this appeal, and directed Lord Cowley, the British Ambassador at Paris, to ask for the restitution of the said letters and printed matter.

On the 21st ult., the Council received a letter from Mr. Hammond (of the Foreign Office), accompanying a parcel sealed with the seal of the British Embassy. The letter informed the Council that the parcel contained the papers which had been seized upon Gottraux.

It did contain the confiscated letters and printed matter, and also, strange to say, some newspapers not seized upon Gottraux, nor coming from Switzerland. These newspapers were two bundles of the Brussels Tribune du Peuple, a paper doubtless highly obnoxious to the French Government, and the principal organ of the Association in Belgium. These papers had been addressed to some French members, and the Council, far from having demanded their restitution, were unaware of their having., been seized. These two bundles had upon them the official seal of the Administration of Public Safety.

In order to conclude this case of Gottraux’s, the undersigned inserts here a resolution passed on the first instant by the General Council.

“Resolved, that the General Council of the International Working Men’s Association tenders its thanks to Lord Stanley for his just and efficacious intervention with the French Government with a view to obtain for the said General Council the papers and letters belonging to it, which were seized upon the person of Jules Gottraux, a British subject, on Sept. 30, 1866.” At the same time the undersigned was directed to communicate a copy of the same, without delay, to Lord Stanley.

In November last, Citizen Dupont, the Council’s Secretary for France, found that letters sent by him to the Association’s agents in France were seized, and also that letters directed to him from all parts of France did not come to hand. A fortiori, the French post-office was closed against the delivery of printed matter addressed by the Council to its agents in France and vice versa.

Of course Citizen Dupont can no longer confide in the French post-office.

The latest news under this head is that, whereas the blockade against printed matter directed to French citizens and members of the Association is still stringently enforced, letters from the French provinces directed to Dupont have of late, once more, come through, although letters so directed from Paris continue to be detained!

Another fact is reported in the last number of the Courrier Franšais. The interesting essay contributed by the Parisian delegates to the Geneva Congress,. parts of which have already been published in the Courrier Franšais without evil consequences, was sent to Brussels to be printed, only because no printer in Paris would undertake to execute the job. This memorial, be it said, is directed against the capitalist class, but is silent concerning the present Government of France. Nevertheless, the printed edition of this memorial has been seized by the postal authorities of France and confiscated.

Under these circumstances ii. is impossible to say how long the French Government will continue to allow the sale of tickets of membership in the Association, and abstain from persecuting the prominent members thereof, who live subject to its jurisdiction.

By order of the General Council,

Peter Fox
January 5,1867