Historical Figures

Jean Jaures - Biography

Founder of the newspaper L'Humanité in 1904 and of the Socialist Party SFIO a year later, Jean Jaurès will embody peaceful socialism until his assassination on the eve of the First World War. Criticizing the Marxist conception of the seizure of power, he will oppose all his life the use of violence, whether in the social field or in foreign policy. A great moral figure of the left haloed by the ideal of humanist socialism, he will become, with Léon Blum and Pierre Mendès-France, a source of inspiration for several generations of politicians. Having become president, François Mitterrand will bow to his grave and inaugurate the Jean Jaurès museum in Castres.

The beginnings of Jean Jaurès in politics

Born in Castres in 1859 and from a bourgeois family, Jean Jaurès did brilliant schoolwork which led him to join the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris. Thereafter, he taught as a philosophy teacher at the Lycée d'Albi before being a lecturer at the Faculty of Letters in Toulouse (1883).

His political career began in the Tarn where he was elected deputy in 1885. First a republican, he converted to socialism around 1892 under the influence of Lucien Herr and the following the Carmaux miners' strike. An independent socialist deputy, he quickly established himself by the warmth of his verve and his exceptional erudition.

When the Dreyfus affair broke out, he was initially convinced of Alfred Dreyfus's guilt and denounced the leniency of the sentence. Shortly after the publication of Zola's "J'accuse" and the revelation of the forgeries produced by the captain's superior, Jaurès committed himself passionately to the defense of Alfred Dreyfus, in the name of humanism and against the arbitrariness of institutions such as the military. There he will gain prominent national stature.

The Rise of French Socialism

Following the bloody strikes during which the government intervened against the workers, the socialist movement split into two:the French socialist party of Jean Jaurès and the socialist party of France by Jules Guesde. Jaurès emerged victorious in the legislative elections of 1902 against the Guesdists.

Re-elected in 1906, 1910 and 1914, he dominated the left throughout this period. For the unification of the socialist party, imposed by the second international (1904), he must agree to condemn any collaboration with the bourgeoisie, which blocks any government participation.

In 1908, the new socialist party (French section of the workers' international SFIO) entrusted him with the effective leadership of the party. Founder of the newspaper l'Humanité, he seeks to establish a human and cosmopolitan truth of a rational order. Synthetic genius, seeks to reconcile idealism with materialism, individualism with collectivism, democracy with the class struggle, the fatherland with the International. Under his strong leadership, the Socialist Party progressed rapidly.

Jaurès, a figure of peace

Jaurès is deeply convinced that republican stability depends above all on maintaining peace. However, with regard to this pacifist ideal, the rise of the extreme right in France and international tensions incites it to an unusual intransigence; indeed he fears that the triumph of capital will lead to the collapse of democracy in war. So he opposes the very principle of war, a situation in contradiction with his universalist fraternalism.

The growing influence of capitalism, to which former political friends, such as Georges Clemenceau and Aristide Briand, rallied, led him to believe that only a well-organized Workers' International would be capable of resist the stranglehold of capital on the world economy and the dangers that capitalist competition poses to peace. His pacifism then encouraged him to - in vain - try to obtain from the congresses of the International the vote of a motion likely to prevent war (congress of Stuttgart in 1907, then of Copenhagen in 1910).

As early as 1910, Jaurès became concerned about the rise of nationalism in Europe and the growing risk of generalized war. While promoting the constitution of a defensive army involving the entire population, Jean Jaurès opposed the three-year law which extended active military service. He encourages the German socialists to organize a general strike in the armaments factories in the event of threat of war. His famous speech at the extraordinary congress of the Basel International (1912) provoked the indignation of the nationalists. Jaurès highlights the absurdity of an armed conflict wanted by the capitalists to the detriment of the poorest.

On July 25, 1914, as war threatened in Europe, Jean Jaurès once again launched a vibrant appeal for peace:"There is no longer any threatened with murder and savagery, that one chance for the maintenance of peace and the salvation of civilization is that the proletariat muster all its forces and that the French, English, Germans, Italians and Russians unite so that the unanimous beating of their hearts dismisses the horrible nightmare. " Wasted effort. On July 31, 1914, at the "Café du Croissant" in Paris, he was assassinated by a young fanatic, Raoul Villain. Shortly after, Germany declared war and on August 4, the Socialists rallied to the Sacred Union, a sort of truce between the parties established to deal with the conflict. War breaks out a few days later.

The posterity of Jean Jaurès

When the Cartel des gauches decided, in 1924, to pay homage to Jean Jaurès by transferring his ashes to the Panthéon during of a grandiose popular ceremony, it is to solemnly celebrate his own victory, after five years in the Bleu horizon room. Nevertheless, since then, the partisan coloring of the pantheonization of Jaurès has faded and the man has entered the collective memory of the Republic, becoming a mythical character of the 20th century.

Jean Jaurès was hailed by everyone, including his opponents, such as Maurice Barrès. He commanded the respect of his contemporaries and marked several generations of men of all persuasions, in France and abroad (as evidenced by the cold revenge of the Spanish republicans). His reputation is undoubtedly due to the fact that his whole character - a mixture of pragmatism and humanism, righteousness and inflexibility - can be considered a model of republican integrity.

The example of his irreducible attachment to democratic institutions crosses political divides because he embodies a non-passionate version of the brilliant republic of "teachers", the very one that allows - despite the dysfunctions of the Third Republic - the perpetuation of the republican regime. Georges Pompidou, right-wing man, former normalien and teacher, did he not declare that he had Jaurès as a political model?

Socialist intellectual, theorist of socialism (for example in Études sociales, 1901), man of action inhabited by what Léon Blum, one of his heirs, called a "genius symphony", Jean Jaurès is also and above all one of the fathers and martyrs of French socialism. The synthesis he achieved within the SFIO largely influenced the thinking of the French left. Beyond the brutal death which gives the man a greater aura, the Jauressian myth and its persistence are certainly due to the fact that he has always defended the marriage between the ideal of parliamentary democracy and the defense of the working class. Devoid of extremism, his project of transition, legal and respectful of individual freedom, towards the social and socialist republic inspired the action of men such as Léon Blum, Pierre Mendès France or François Mitterrand.


- Jean Jaurès, biography of Gilles Candar and Vincent Duclert. Fayard, 2014.

- Jean Jaurès, biography of Jean-Pierre Rioux. perrin, 2005.

- Jean Jaurès:Fighting for Humanity, by Rémy Cazals. Editions midi-pyrénéennes, 2017.