‘panier de crabes’: meaning and origin

Borrowed from French, the phrase panier de crabes (literally basket of crabs) denotes an arena of fierce or ruthless rivalry.

This phrase occurs, for example, in the following two texts:

1-: In Champagne and BMWs to lure staff, by Margareta Pagano, published in The Guardian (London and Manchester, England) of Wednesday 22nd October 1986:

Stories of incentives to persuade and devices to delight abound […]. In a matter of years the average salaries of City folk have at least doubled to catch up their peer levels in Tokyo and New York. London is still way behind Wall Street’s millionaire numbers but there must now be a couple of dozen top international bankers who are pulling in the £1 million package for the pleasure of leading firms into the post Big Bang era.
So far the recruitment shows no signs of abating. Much of this has of course been fuelled by what the French would politely call the “panier des crabes” syndrome: bankers, brokers and dealers scrambling over each other in the mad dash to double salaries overnight by offering themselves—or teams—to rival firms.

2-: In Working on a mystery without any clues, by Jim Hoagland, published in The Commercial Appeal (Memphis, Tennessee, USA) of Wednesday 20th July 2005:

The French naturally enough have a term for a mass of nasty people doing endlessly nasty things to one another in a no-exit environment. And un panier de crabes—a basket of crabs—is what the politico-journalistic village of Washington resembles in this unhinged summer.

In the phrase panier de crabes, the image is of crabs fighting, if not devouring one another, when kept in a basket. The French author André Suarès (born Isaac Félix Suarès – 1868-1948) evoked this image in Temples grecs, Maisons des Dieux (i.e., Greek Temples, Gods’ Houses), published in La Nouvelle Revue Française (Paris: Éditions Gallimard) of Wednesday 1st June 1938:
—In the following passage, the Greek philosopher Empedocles (c.493-c.433 BC) addresses Sicilian fishermen who are returning to the port of Agrigento with basketfuls of crabs:

« Si vous ne jetez pas, ce soir même, dans la marmite tous ces crabes à bouillir pour la soupe, demain à l’aube vous n’en trouverez plus la moitié : ils se seront dévorés dans les paniers, les uns les autres. »
“If you don’t, this very evening, throw those crabs into the pot and boil them for soup, tomorrow at dawn you won’t even find half of them: they will have devoured one another in the baskets.”

Two early uses of the French phrase panier de crabes occur in the following texts:

1-: In the column Le Meg-alomane, by the French author and journalist Léon Daudet (1867-1942), published in the reactionary, nationalist and royalist newspaper L’Action Française : Organe du Nationalisme Intégral (Paris, France) of Friday 21st May 1909:

Les dissensions entre respubliquains [sic] constituent notre meilleur espoir d’être renseignés sur les crimes de la République. J’ai toujours pensé que le dernier mot de l’affaire Syveton serait divulgué à la faveur d’une de ces batailles au fond du panier de crabes parlementaires.
The dissensions between Republicans constitute our best hope to get information about the Republic’s crimes. I have always thought that the last word on the Syveton affair 1 would be divulged thanks to one of those battles at the bottom of the basket of parliamentarian crabs.

1 This refers to the French Member of Parliament Gabriel Syveton (1864-1904), who exposed the existence of a file compiled from Freemason reports on public officials; this file listed practising Catholics, who should be passed over for promotion. Syveton died, possibly from suicide, the day before he was to appear in court for having physically attacked the Minister of War in the Parliament.

2– : In Les Lundis du Père Toine, published in Le Populaire du Midi : Journal Socialiste Quotidien (Nîmes, France) of Monday 22nd January 1922:

– Tu ne pourras plus dire, tout de même, insista Ferrol, que la République manque d’hommes de valeur. Pour un grand ministère, c’est un grand ministère !
– Je te crois ! un véritable panier de crabes. Ces gens-là se mangeront avant qu’il soit huit jours. On est certain, dans tous les cas, qu’ils mangeront la France…
– You will no longer be able to say, nevertheless, Ferrol insisted, that the Republic lacks men of merit. That’s what I call a great government!
– You bet! a real basket of crabs. Those people will eat one another within a week. What is certain, in any case, is that they will eat France…

The first two English uses of panier de crabes that I have found are as follows:

1-: From Mastering the Military Machines, by Max Werner, published in Strategy for Democracy (New York and Toronto: Longmans, Green & Co., 1942), by John Donald Kingsley and David Wallace Petegorsky:

Wilson’s plan never reached the action stage, for it was based on broad participation by the United States in the organization of the world and American isolationism left the European continent to its fate. Twenty-seven European states with their national sovereignties, their armies and their rivalries formed a panier de crabes (to use the French term). America’s participation in the reconstruction of Europe was limited in volume and private-capitalist in method.

2-: From The Road to Swinstead Abbey: A Study of the Sense and Structure of King John, by Adrien Bonjour, published in ELH: A Journal of English Literary History (Baltimore (Maryland): Johns Hopkins University Press) of December 1951:

If we now try to sum up the main reasons which, according to the critics, account for the defective structure of King John, we must single out in the first place the lack of a truly central character. This raises the crucial problem of the hero which needs must be at the very core of any serious discussion of the artistic aspect of the play. […]
One shudders a little at reopening the question of the hero, that panier de crabes of Shakespearean criticism.

The phrases basket of crabs and basketful of crabs have occasionally occurred. These are two examples:

1-: From an article published in The Civil & Military Gazette (Lahore, Pakistan) of Sunday 4th January 1931, titled A Basket of Crabs, and containing the following:

On the whole it is probably fortunate for the peace of the world that Stalin for his part cannot tolerate men of real ability near him and has reduced the inner councils of Sovietism to the likeness of crabs fighting in a basket.

2-: From one of the unconnected paragraphs making up the column News and Views, published in The Cornishman and Cornish Telegraph (Penzance, Cornwall, England) of Thursday 27th August 1936—reprinted from the Daily Express (London, England) of Wednesday 19th August 1936:

When the League of Nations meet the question of Spain 2 is sure to come up. The League may be asked to take action. What could the League do to restrain the Spaniards from their feud? If the whole strength of the nations could be exercised to bring the horror to an end it would be a different proposition. But the fact is that the nations are divided in their interests and sympathies. They cannot act as one, except by agreeing to remain out. Britain should take that line now. Spain is a basketful of crabs.—“Daily Express”

2 This refers to the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), which began with a military uprising against the leftist Republican Popular Front government in July 1936.

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