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Poaching and Regional Identity during the Third Republic: Maurice Genevoix's Raboliot

From: French Forum
Volume 37, Number 3, Fall 2012
pp. 65-80 | 10.1353/frf.2012.0036

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Place au braconnier, type vrai, fécond, national, dépouille de l'héritage de ses pères les anciens Gaulois, et dont chaque jour il essaye de ressaisir les glorieuses bribes d'indépendance et de liberté!

—Adolphe D'Houdetot 1862

Poaching has long held an important place in the French imagination. Well before Walter Scott's or Pierce Egan's novels about the infamous poacher Robin Hood, Robin and Marion appeared in a thirteenth-century French text by Adam de la Halle. Edicts from the court of Henri IV (similar to those published in the early sixteenth century by François I) made it a crime—punishable by flogging and banishment—to touch pheasant, quail, or partridge eggs found even on one's own property. And hunting deer or wild boar without appropriate authorization was punishable by flogging ("seront battus de verges sous la custode jusques à effusion de sang"), fines, life in the galleys, or even death (the "dernier supplice"). In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Diderot, Beaumarchais, Sade, Sue, Balzac, and Dumas along with many others, referenced poachers in their novels and essays. For some, poachers are outlaws on a par with murderers and rapists (as is the case for Sade's poacher in Justine); for others, poachers are heroic rebels fighting monarchic tyranny (see Dumas, who copied Egan's version of Robin Hood), for still others, poaching stands as a means to remain above the morass of a corrupt civilization (see Sue's Les Mystères de Paris, for example, where the character Martial would like nothing more than to leave the city and its troubles behind; "Il retournerait être braconnier dans les bois qu'il aime tant"). But during the Third Republic the image of the poacher would enjoy something of a renaissance. Novels and stories by Hugo, Zola, Maupassant, Allais, Aicard, Genevoix, and Pergaud featured poachers as central characters and point to the significance of poachers in the French imaginary of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This attention to poachers stemmed partly from nostalgia for a disappearing way of life—more stringent hunting laws and increased surveillance coupled with a growing middle class meant that poaching as a way of life was destined for extinction. But a simple longing for the past does not entirely explain the poacher's rise to prominence in fiction of this period. In literature, most prominently in Maurice Genevoix's 1925 Goncourt-winning novel Raboliot, the poacher becomes a conspicuous symbol in the debate over national and regional identity, a powerful signifier for resistance to the centralizing impulse of the Third Republic, and the heroic embodiment of resistance to republican dogma.

In 1848, in the early days of the Second Republic, the blacksmith and locksmith Claude Montcharmont brandished the red flag of revolution and popular power (the so-called "drapeau provisoire" of the new republic) in the village of Saint-Prix in the department of Saône-et-Loire. He optimistically believed in the new republic's democratic and popular ideals and in July of that year stood as a candidate (the third name on an electoral list) for a party that ran against the town's incumbent conservatives. The election ended in a tie and Montcharmont's name would not appear when elections were reorganized some time later.

As a small landowner, Montcharmont applied for a hunting license but the mayor, in order to punish this leftist troublemaker whom he called a radical socialist, refused to sign it. Montcharmont sent a petition to the department's political leaders, complaining of the mayor's politically motivated refusal. The mayor then leveled accusations against Montcharmont and had him followed by a ranger named Gauthey who eventually caught him hunting without a license. The mayor then issued fines and eventually had the smith condemned to a short prison sentence in absentia. To avoid arrest, Montcharmont went into hiding, ultimately killing a gendarme named Emery, who pursued him into the forest, and then Gauthey, whom Montcharmont killed in his home and in front of his children as he cut bread to eat with his evening soup.

For three months, Montcharmont, the braconnier du Morvan, eluded the authorities and received protection...

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