“Paris Police 1900” – Yesterday and Today [TELEVISION REVIEW]

Corruption, murder, right wing fanatics, anarchists, sex, blackmail. As the French would say, “delicious”. 1900, considered the Belle Epoque, all fashion, society, wealth, art and music, was anything but beautiful. Members of High Society were also members of groups promoting ultra-rightist causes, the overthrow of the government, and price-fixing. President Félix Faure has just died, but before he died he went to “heaven” with his mistress, Marguerite Steinheil, on his knees.

Hubert Delattre in the role of Jules Guérin and his butchers in “Police de Paris 1900”. Photo courtesy of MHz Choice.

The streets are full of insurgent talk with the radical right plotting against their enemies and fomenting riots against supporters of Alfred Dreyfus who is about to get a new trial in the city. The air is crackling with anti-Semitism, rivaling the movement that will be born in Germany in a few decades. The Guerin family, mother, son Louis and son alpha Jules, lead the pack with their newspaper called The anti-Semite (no subtlety there), backed by the Butchers Syndicate, a group of hoodlums known for their carving skills on animals and humans.The police department is in shambles, and ministers of state, worried about upheaval in the ranks, potential riots in the streets, and mounting unsolved murders, return to the well. They ask former police chief Louis Lépine to come back from retirement and clean up the department.

Evelyne Brochu in the role of Marguerite Steinheil in “Police de Paris 1900”. Photo courtesy of MHz Choice.

The police, led by different factions undermining different political groups, are divided. At the head of the scoundrels is Superintendent Puybaraud, who has his hand in every pocket but whose loyalty, if you can call it that, goes to the extreme right and to the royalists. Nevertheless, he has hired a whole system of domestic spies so he can find out firsthand what these groups are up to and who opposes them. One of his recent recruits is the aforementioned Marguerite Steinheil, a notorious, cash-strapped beauty who runs in useful circles.

But it’s not just about politics. A suitcase floating in the Seine is opened and body parts, minus a head, are found and the Paris police must find out who the victim was. Another body cut from a suitcase is found, unrelated to the previous one, but the police know this victim and can quickly guess the murderer.

Attributing both cases to his subordinates, Lépine’s main objective is to introduce modern techniques, sniff out blackmailers, and eliminate the outside influence of various non-governmental political factors. It is Guérin’s movement that worries him the most. They brought the more moderate right-wing factions into his group and planned a coup to coincide with the retrial of Alfred Dreyfus. Lépine’s main enemy within the force was Puybaraud who was passed over as police chief, but if the right-wing coup succeeded he would be elevated above Lépine.

But Lépine is unfazed. Neither his wife’s drug addiction, nor Puybaraud’s shadow police, nor the putsch planned by the Guérin family and their many supporters changed his approach. His cold blood sends shivers down your spine. Upon learning the identity of the first body, a seamstress/servant named Josephine Berger, the solution will be tied to false testimony, multiple murders by a hitman, and a prominent aristocratic family. Superintendent Cochefert, realizing that Puybaraud is directing the cover-up, proceeds with caution even though the impetuous young Inspector Jouin wants to charge forward.

Eugénie Derouand in the role of Jeanne Chauvin in “Police de Paris 1900”. Photo courtesy of MHz Choice.

Add to this volatile mix a beautiful young paralegal, Jeanne Chauvin, a woman who passed the bar but is disqualified because of her gender, and you have a cauldron about to overflow. Jeanne is very interested in the case of Joséphine Berger, whose child is now a pupil of the State. Not the police’s favorite as most of her clients are anarchists, Jouin is more than intrigued.

While one might take this for the tense drama that it is, it’s all steeped in pertinent facts from that era known as the Belle Epoque, which was anything but Belle. It’s the backstory of French politics at the time, starting with the founding of the Third Republic (1870) after the fall of Napoleon III, that gives this series much more depth.

Napoleon III’s leadership had been disastrous for the country and ended when he lost a war he foolishly declared on Germany which resulted in the German annexation of Alsace and Lorraine. . The Republic was briefly co-opted in 1872 by what is called the “Commune”. Commune radicals who advocated separation of church and state, gender equality and free education only held power for two months before the army intervened and violently suppressed and without pity the movement. The reprisals were rapid with thousands of radicals killed in combat or executed by the army. In theory, the victory was the French Republic, but the royalists still existed and held most of the power. Because of the loss of Alsace Lorraine, scapegoats were needed, and who better to fill this role than the Jews, vilified for their supposed wealth and power. Soon they had a call to arms with the Dreyfus Affair.

Alfred Dreyfus was a French army captain convicted of treason for allegedly spying for Germany. The evidence against him was fabricated, the evidence against the true traitor was hidden. Dreyfus was convicted and sent to Devil’s Island in 1894. His real crime? He was Jewish. France was a veritable hotbed of anti-Semitism and Dreyfus was its flashpoint. When it became clear that Major Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy, a Christian with friends in very high places, was the real perpetrator, he was quickly tried and acquitted.

Emile Zola, the leading literary figure of the time, defended Dreyfus’s case with a now famous letter in the leftist newspaper Dawn and the wheels were set in motion to retry him in 1899. And that’s where the series starts as the rhetoric escalates, factions are set to sever the government and the police, tasked with maintaining the order, functioning as protectors of the right, intend to take over the government and prevent Dreyfuss’s exoneration. Their enemies are the Jews and anything to marginalize and terrorize them further is on the table.

Many of the characters portrayed in this show were real people. Louis Lépine was recalled from retirement to modernize the force. Marguerite Steinheil was a professional concubine with many famous lovers following her “adventure” with the President. Jules Guérin was the figurehead of the Anti-Semitic League, wielding chilling power with significant supporters. His diary, The anti-Semite rallied his supporters. Jeanne Chauvin, later in 1900, became the second woman to practice law in France after the rules changed. All the other characters have an air of authenticity that gives even more depth to the stories told in these 8 episodes. If it was a book, it would be a page-turner. As a TV series, it’s really bingeable. You’ll ask yourself, “What’s next and when can I see it?”

The first two episodes will air on September 20 on MHz Choice, with subsequent episodes being released weekly thereafter.