Poor rats! How one radical woman protested Paris’s war on rats
As the third pandemic of bubonic plague spread from Hong Kong around the world between 1894 and WWI, an international network of doctors, engineers, intellectuals, journalists, politicians, and scientists declared a world-wide “war on rats” to combat the global pandemic. Historian Myron Echenberg called this third bubonic pandemic, which ultimately killed 15 million people, a “global medical disaster.” For the first time in centuries, bubonic plague reached Paris in 1920, and it inspired widespread classist, racist, and xenophobic scapegoating, which likened humans to rats in dehumanizing ways. As the city council declared a “war on rats” to fight these carriers of plague, radical activist and writer Fanny Clar spoke out to protest the dehumanizing media coverage of the plague response. But more surprisingly, she defended the rats against human cruelty, which she argued wouldn’t stop the plague.
Born Clara Fanny Olivier in Paris in 1875, Clar was a journalist, novelist, poet, and playwright. She was also a leftist intellectual, the granddaughter of a veteran of the Paris Commune, and a signing member of the Section française de l’Internationale ouvrière (SFIO, French section of the Worker’s International), known for advocating socialism, feminism, and pacifism. Nationalist writer Louis Marchand once famously attacked her as a traitor for criticizing and opposing WWI. From 1918 to 1925, she wrote for leftist paper Le Populaire. She defended women’s role and rights within the labor movement against sometimes fierce, organized male opposition, arguing that socialism and feminism were intersecting struggles that should not be separated. Concerned for worker health at work and at home, she reported on workplace issues including regulation, pollution, and hygiene. She also covered problems outside of the workplace including alcoholism, malnutrition, tuberculosis, overcrowding, and poor sanitation.
Clar’s home city of Paris played a unique role in the pandemic response. It was the leading host city for the International Sanitary Conferences from 1894 to 1938, which set world standards for plague response and pioneered the first global public health institutions that became the World Health Organization in 1948. Paris also housed the Pasteur Institute, a leading institution in plague science, which sent medical missions to outbreak sites. These missions often bore scientific fruit: Dr. Alexandre Yersin isolated the plague bacterium in Hong Kong in 1894, and in 1898, Dr. Paul-Louis Simond showed that rats and their fleas carry plague to humans in Mumbai.
Europe had been relatively plague-free for over a century, but when researchers carried plague germs from Mumbai to Vienna for research, a doctor, a nurse, and a lab assistant died in a hospital there. Although the disease remained contained, popular outcry and fear didn’t, and the Vienna public turned to antisemitic and racist scapegoating. As far back as the Black Death of the 1300s, Europeans had seen plague as an “Oriental” or “Asian” disease.
In 1899, when plague infected around 300 and killed around 100 in Oporto, Portugal, French fears of plague rose, and in response, the Pasteur Institute sent a mission to Oporto, led by Dr. Albert Calmette. The proximity of Oporto and of Paris’s upcoming 1900 World’s Fair made the plague threat even more worrisome. But even as the city welcomed 50,000,000 guests in 1900, and the plague raged around the world, no cases of plague struck France. Plague didn’t reach Paris until after WWI, when an estimated 8-16 million rats followed troops from the trenches, refugees from further east, and supply convoys arriving for reconstruction. Trench warfare on the western front had pitted not only soldier against soldier but also soldiers against the thousands of rats that swarmed the trenches, a scourge still fresh in collective memory. Paris’s city government declared war on rats in 1920–21, placing a 25-30 centime bounty for each rat brought to designated drop sites by zealous volunteers and netting over 650,000 rodents.
Local Parisian newspapers and magazines followed the rat war closely, keeping a body count and offering commentary, which often turned to scapegoating three vulnerable groups in particular: an underclass of urban recyclers known as ragpickers, Jewish refugees from eastern Europe, and Africans from French colonies. French writers compared these people to rats, a dehumanizing rhetoric that played on longstanding cultural associations of rats with criminals, violence, disease, and ruin. Crime stories commonly depicted manhunts as rat hunts, and Parisian slang referred to subway pickpockets “Metro rats” and transient people who loitered or slept in hotel lobbies “Hotel rats.” Somewhat less insultingly, opera stagehands were known as “Opera rats.” One writer noted that rats were as difficult to defeat as the Germans were in WWI.
In the autumn of 1920, as Parisians caught plague and went to war with rats and when public discussions turned to criminalizing, stigmatizing, and dehumanizing vulnerable groups in the city, Fanny Clar’s writings rang out in protest. While Paris writers were filling their pages with vitriol for rats, immigrants, people of color, criminals, and the poor, Clar punctured the hate by frankly rooting for the rats.
In a September 1920 Le Populaire article titled “Poor Rats!”, Clar wrote that the rodents inspired “a profound pity” with their “allure of an innocent.” Five sous per animal was enough to “launch” many boys and dogs into rat hunting—“all the beings who man has made in his cruel image,” tying together a critique of masculinity with concern for children and animals. Where was the social justice in putting vulnerable groups like sewer workers, ragpickers, children, and poor people on the front lines of pest control?
Such combat could never kill all the rats and was misguided given the authorities’ ongoing neglect of more general hygienic conditions in Paris’s “red belt” of working-class suburbs. Clar echoed the classic Parisian comparison of rats and ragpickers, but with an honorific twist, praising the “social function” of the “ragpicker rat,” arguing that rats help humans clean the city by eating trash. She ended by mourning the rats that were dissected in municipal labs in order to track plague. In a later column, she added that plague declined in mid-September, even while the hordes of rats grew larger. Was the plague ever really a danger, she asked, and therefore implied, was the war on rats even needed or useful?
Other socialist writers also cheered for social underdogs. The editors of socialist paper L’Attaque memorialized a brave rat-hunter asphyxiated by sewer gas while hunting rats. But Clar went further, condemning manhunts and rat hunts alike, and portraying rats as victims and allies to humans. She challenged the science that linked rats and plague—and though it wasn’t yet known among scientists, rats were biological scapegoats. Many other rodents and mammals can carry plague, yet there was no zealous worldwide campaign against them. Clar placed animal rights alongside human rights, and, preceding Rachel Carson, she called out the violence of pest control.
Conservatives responded by connecting her views on socialism and animal rights. In the magazine L’Opinion, which published short editorials by readers, one letter told of a woman walking her dog who dropped the leash. The dog proved its loyalty and domestication by grabbing the end of the leash in its mouth and returning it to the woman’s hand. The letter commented: “What a good thing that Fanny Clar of Le Populaire did not see it. She who so loves to talk to us about animals would have found there, I imagine, the subject of a vindicating comparison to address to proletarians whose soul is still domesticated.” The antisocialism of this comment was wrapped in not-so-subtle mockery of Clar, who “so loves to talk to us about animals.” The implication, of course, was that the notion of animal rights was as batty as revolutionary socialism, and that destabilizing the human-animal hierarchy could be as dangerous to the social order as upsetting capitalism’s class hierarchy.
But Clar’s premonition that the rat war wouldn’t stop plague was absolutely right. The disease struck several times between 1920 and 1926 around the city limits, haunting Paris’s red belt. Within about a decade, French public health experts would also question the effectiveness of the rat war, concerned like Clar about the reverberating violence that could come from encouraging such human-animal combat. Experts worried that germ agents like salmonella that were bred to destroy rats could also harm other species, or worse, open the door to human germ warfare, which by WWII included Japanese attempts to weaponize plague-infected rats and fleas.
Clar was among the first to suggest that human violence against rats mirrored violence among humans, whether in the form of scapegoating, manhunts, patriarchal “cruelty,” or trench warfare. Her rare perspective, linking feminism, pacifism, and animal rights through anti-violence, anticipated more famous criticisms of germ warfare and pest control as unjust and inhumane. Clar’s radical outlook remains prescient in today’s discussions of ecosocialism and environmental justice.