The French Panama Papers

Je Revois Paname‘ by Casimir Oberfeld & Albert Willemetz, Saint-Granier & Jean Le Seyeux, published by Salabert (Paris, 1928) and illustrated by Roger de Valerio.

Paname is French slang for Paris. The origin of the sobriquet is not clear but this one is the most credible: it was inspired by the Panama Affair, the largest corruption scandal of the 19th century. The affair broke out in 1892, discrediting the government and shaking the foundations of the Republic.

In 1879 Ferdinand de Lesseps had proposed the construction of a 75 km channel, similar to that of Suez, in the isthmus of Panama. The project was expected to last 12 years and cost 600 million francs. Work on the Panama canal began in 1882. But soon technical difficulties and the death toll from tropical diseases undermined the project. Moreover in 1884, the funds of the French Panama Canal Company had dried up while only one-tenth of the  excavations had been completed. To overcome this financial crisis Ferdinand de Lesseps himself proposed to float a lottery loan. This kind of loan was especially attractive to small savers who could always hope for an immediate premium when their numbers were drawn for payback.

La Gigolette du Panama‘ by P. Dumont, published by Repos (Paris, s.d.) and illustrated by Yves.

To obtain the approval of Parliament for the lottery loan, the instigators plotted a multi-million bribery campaign which would be managed by three men. One of them was the financier Baron Jacques de Reinach who would try to persuade the big fish. He distributed money between politicians, journalists and the haut monde so that they would embellish the company’s situation and support the lottery loan. The adventurer Emile Arton (Aaron by his real name) managed the smaller fry, minor politicians and provincial newspapers. Arton was a dubious entrepreneur, boasting a career of bankruptcies. The third man was Cornélius Herz, an American charlatan and the greatest rogue of the three. In the end he even managed to blackmail his associate de Reinach.

A lottery bond for the Compagnie Universelle du Canal Interoceanique, 1888.

In 1888 the lottery loan for 720.000 million francs was authorised. But by now the Panama Canal company had come in even more dire straits. Only a year later the company went bankrupt and some 800.000 French investors lost their savings. Many amongst them could ill afford to lose anything at all.

In 1892 the French anti-Semitic political daily, La Libre Parole, started the scandal with a series of articles. Its first source was a disgruntled banker who had quarrelled with de Lesseps. Almost daily the paper added bits and pieces to the story, accusing an ever-widening number of individuals. When other Paris papers followed suit, an official investigation was started. Baron de Reinach killed himself while Herz and Arton both made a run for it. In the song Les Aventures d’Arton it is hinted that the French government was not eager to arrest him, afraid of new revelations.

Arton ou Le retour de l’enfant prodigue‘ by G. Delatouche, melody from ‘Ton ton, ton ton, tontaine, ton ton’, published by Repos (Paris, 1895)

The owner of La Libre Parole was Edouard Drumont, a devout catholic and the principal propagator of anti-Semitism in France. His book La France Juive, with full-fledged diatribes against the Jews, may be regarded as the beginning of the anti-Semitic movement in France. Drumont used the fact that the three main fixers of the lottery loan were of Jewish descent as a battering ram. His continuous rabid articles fed the growing anti-Semitism in France which soon led to the Dreyfus affair (1894) in which Drumont was one of the most strident accusers.

In the light of this, it comes as no surprise that the eager money-grubbers on the sheet music cover ‘Les Aventures d’Arton’ are depicted with enlarged stereotypical Jewish traits.

Les aventures d’Arton‘ by Léo Lelièvre & Emile Spencer, published by Repos (Paris, s.d.) and illustrated by Yves. Source:

In the end, a large number of ministers were accused of taking bribes leading to a corruption trial against Ferdinand de Lesseps and his son amongst others. More than a hundred members of parliament were also charged.

With the Panama Affair politicians were no longer trusted in the public eye. And this brings us back to the start of the story: in ‘Les Aventures d’Arton’, he is called a ‘Panamiste’. Tripoteurs Panamistes imply persons who do shady business:

Il fit remettre des listes,
Et donna plusieurs millions
Aux tripoteurs panamistes,
Panamistes, panamistes,
Et bientôt les souscriptions
Firent monter les actions.

According to chronicler Claude Duneton, the first people to use the nickname ‘Paname’ were market gardeners who had to pay a daily tax on the produce in their carts when they entered Paris. At first, around 1903, only politicians and rich Parisians were called Panamistes. Later, it was Paris —the city itself where these sharks lived— which was tagged Paname.

Gradually, in the second decade of the twentieth century, Paname became a more gentle nickname. Around 1917 the French soldiers affectively designated Paname as the city of their dreams. ‘Revoir Paname’ was their intimate desire in the trenches.

Tu le r’verras, Paname‘ by Albert Chantrier, Robert Dieudonné & Roger Myra, published by Halet (Paris, 1917) and illustrated by Nergetris.

The word Paname spread further after the end of the war, especially in the cabarets and music halls of the twenties and thirties.

O! Paname‘ by Vincent Scotto, Géo Koger & E. Audiffred, published by Foucret (Paris, 1928) and illustrated by Jack Roberts.

Today, using the phrase “I’m going to see Paname” to express a longing for Paris is terribly old-fashioned.

Umm, old-fashioned?

Time to update the titles of our collection: ‘La meuf de Sept-cinq’.

La Femme de Paname‘ by St. Servan, A. Benoit & A. Danerty, published by Pêle-Mêle (Paris, s.d.) and illustrated by Germy.

The battle of the red pants

Ballade des Trois Petits Soldats‘ by C. Rougier and Général Bruneau, published by Costil (Paris, 1914) and illustrated by Clérice Frères.
On this cover from 1914 three French soldiers are ready to serve their country. Despite their young age they bravely march in bright-coloured uniforms. All three seem unaware of being flamboyant targets for enemy fire.
Before WWI, the French army had good reasons for choosing a flashy outfit. The stylish uniforms made the soldiers proud and heightened a sense of camaraderie, notably by the elite who made up a large percentage of the military. Also, commanders could easily oversee the battlefield and armies. Moreover, close-quarter fighting didn’t require camouflage: when the smoke of the black powder made recognition difficult, a soldier with a striking uniform was able to stand out from his enemy.
Défilé des Enfants de troupe‘ by Désiré Piérard, published by Andrieu (Paris, s.d.) and illustrated by Clérice Frères.
In 1914, the typical French uniform with its red pants and kepi and blue coat was almost a century old. It was in 1829 that king Charles X had ordered the use of the colour red for military uniforms, in order to revive the French culture of the garance des teinturiers or dyer’s madder. The dye was obtained from the roots of Rubia Tinctorum that, mixed with chemicals, resulted in a rich red colour. In France, garance was mainly cultivated in the Vaucluse.
From 1860 on, overexploited land and a decline in quality adversely affected the culture of garance. In the late 19th century the natural dye had to compete with the production of synthetic red colouring by the Badische Anilin und Soda Fabrik (BASF). This all led to the end of the French manufacturing of garance. From then on —quite ironically— German synthetic red was used for the French uniforms.
In the decades prior to the Great War most countries decided to abandon the bright uniforms. They reasoned that soldiers should blend into the landscape and therefore changed their outfits to shades of khaki or Feldgrau.
Pour la Patrie‘ by H. France, published by Etienne Rey (Lyon, s.d.) and illustrated by E. Buval.

But not the French. The General Staff had tested less showy outfits and came up with a greenish uniform in 1911. The press nor the politicians liked these drab uniforms in a ‘goose poop’ colour. They furiously attacked the proposal: “By trying to make our current uniforms less visible and less brilliant, we have gone beyond the goal. To remove all its colour and the cheerful aspect of the soldier, to seek dull nuances, is to go against the French taste and against the requirements of the military function (… ) The red pants have something national.” [translated from an article in L’Illustration, December 1911]

Even the minister of war exclaimed: Remove the red pants? No! The red pants are la France”.
Tous au drapeau‘ by L. Planel & Charles Morgat (1913)
It wasn’t until 1914 that the French agreed on more discreet outfits. But that was too late. The French soldiers had to start WWI in an obsolete and for that time ridiculous uniform. In 1915 the change in outfit became effective: the trousers became grey blue, and the bleu horizon uniforms were born. ‘Bleu horizon‘ refers to the indefinable colour that separates the sky from the earth.
Marche des Poilus‘ by Teddy Moon & A. Schaller, published by Mado (Brussels, 1919) and illustrated by V. Valéry.

It was General Jean-Paul Bruneau (1848-1922) who wrote the lyrics of the Ballade des Trois Petits Soldats which introduced our story. The general disliked the new uniform and preferred the pomp of the ancient one, which rightly emphasised the French fighting spirit. In his words: the Gallic Rooster does not need a helmet to roll over the enemy; he rather dons a kepi the colour of blood!

“Ah ! ne supprimez pas notre vieille capote,
Dont le drap, par l’azur de vingt cieux, fut bleui,
Laissez à l’étranger l’uniforme kaki,
Car il ne nous plaît pas d’être couleur de crotte.

Nous n’avons pas besoin de votre bourguignote,
Pour braver la mitraille et battre l’ennemi.
Le Coq gaulois préfère encore son vieux képi
Teint du sang de son cœur, à cette camelote !

L’épopée‘ by Paul Darthu & J. Guichot, published by Marcel Labbé (Paris, 1914) and illustrated by Henri Royet.

Garance is a colour, but it is also a movie icon. In the next trailer for the restored movie Les Enfants du Paradis (1945) we see Arletty playing Garance, an ethereal woman romantically pursued by four different suitors. The short extracts remind us of her particular voice. But we can also see a glimpse of what was once the lively Boulevard du Temple, subject of a previous post.