What would Jaurès do?” The message printed on the mugs at the French Socialist Party’s summer university in 2010 echoed the slogan of Evangelical Christians, “What would Jesus do?”. In the chaotic and controversial recent history of the French Centre Left, the question resonates as an ironic prompt to politicians. Are political leaders on the Left up to the moral stature of the great socialist leader of the early twentieth century? Do they remember his broader humanist mission? Jean Jaurès (1859–1914) remains a totem – though a poorly appreciated one – precisely because his physical personality remains such a strong part of his political presence. What would he do; not what would he think, or say: the formulation is apposite for Jaurès. Even in his most subtle political statements, Jaurès was a man of action. His was the socialism of a brilliant philosopher; but one who sweated profusely at the tribune of the Chamber of Deputies, caught up in the emotion of his own political activity.
After brilliant studies at the École Normale Supérieure, Jean Jaurès pursued a career as a schoolmaster and passed his doctorate in philosophy; but he was rapidly successful in politics, winning a seat in the 1885 election in his mid-twenties. He lost his seat, but re-entered parliament in 1893 with the label of republican socialist, the representative of the Tarn, a department in south-west France with important mining and glass-working concerns that would help to define his political engagement. He was rapidly seen as the outstanding political leader of the far Left; his powerful oratory and dogged persistence in attacking injustice gave him national and international status – most importantly, during the Dreyfus Affair.