Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Anatole France

"The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread."
Anatole France

One of the most famous quotes of Anatole France (the pen-name of Jacques Anatole Francois Thibault, 1844-1924), winner of the 1921 Nobel Prize for Literature and supporter of the French Communist Party (he was French). It is from the tragic love story The Red Lily (Le Lys Rouge), 1894, chapter 7.
As one person has put it, allowing the stealing of bread is hardly fair for the baker - and it wouldn't be much of a society, with everyone running around sleeping under bridges, begging, and stealing. However, faced with the limited options available to the poor, hungry, and unemployed, breaking existing laws may be only way to survive.

It is the laws that need to be changed - laws that were written to protect the wealthy and the powerful, but defended by working class soldiers and police officers. While stealing bread doesn't make for a successful society, other currently illegal actions may be necessary in the formation of a just society. Strikes, for example, were once illegal. However, through the tireless work of generations of workers, strikes are now part of the legal framework - though limited in many situations (for example, governments can force striking workers back to work in certain instances, under the same conditions they were striking against).

If laws are supposed to provide for the greater good of the society, those laws, which when applied, work against it must be ignored and abolished. This is difficult, however, when the wealthy have a far greater influence on the politics of the country than everyone else.

The Red Lily is apparently in the public domain. Its full text can be found at the following places:

The context of the quote is below:

Nowadays it is a duty for a poor peasant to be a soldier. He is exiled from his house, the roof of which smokes in the silence of night; from the fat prairies where the oxen graze; from the fields and the paternal woods. He is taught how to kill men; he is threatened, insulted, put in prison and told that it is an honor; and, if he does not care for that sort of honor, he is fusilladed. He obeys because he is terrorized, and is of all domestic animals the gentlest and most docile. We are warlike in France, and we are citizens. Another reason to be proud, this being a citizen! For the poor it consists in sustaining and preserving the wealthy in their power and their laziness. The poor must work for this, in presence of the majestic quality of the law which prohibits the wealthy as well as the poor from sleeping under the bridges, from begging in the streets, and from stealing bread.

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