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France: La Commune de Paris - History of the insurrection

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Chronological overview

The French historical period concerning Paris from March to May 1871 is called La Commune de Paris. Most people know it for the insurrection it was. The word commune without a capital C is used in French to designate a municipal territorial administration, and France has more than 36,000 such communes. Using that meaning, the first commune of Paris was set up by the sections of the city in 1789, and it was later replaced by a short-lived insurrectional commune on 10 August 1792. However, this page is dedicated to the 1871 historical period Commune de Paris, hereafter called Commune for the sake of simplicity.

Deep roots of the Commune insurrection

The deep roots of the Commune insurrection are to be found in the dramatic transformations which took place in France during the Second Empire. Industrial advances caused the emergence of an ever increasing working class population with ever declining work and living conditions. In Paris, Baron Haussmann, who had been asked by Napoléon III to transform Paris into a modern city, carried out an urbanism policy which forced the workers to move to its outskirts. This created a segregation between the so-called beaux quartiers (up-scale neighborhoods) and the surrounding suburbs, which were later refered to as the ceinture rouge, literally translated as the "red belt", the red refering to an association with communism and belt refering to the fact that those neighborhoods encircled Paris.

The Prussian siege of Paris during the harsh winter of 1870-1871 increased the grievances the working class held against the government. The final capitulation, signed by Thiers, was taken as an insult to all those who so heroically defended Paris. In fact, those defenders had been armed but had never been given the go ahead to break the siege.

Warning signs of the Commune insurrection

First of all, the executive government (the President of the Republic and the ministers) of the Third Republic had left Paris over the 1870-1871 winter due to the siege. The legislative branch (National Assembly) had initially taken shelter in Bordeaux, but decided to return, however to Versailles rather than Paris. This aborted return increased the reciprocal suspicion between the citizens of Paris and the national political powers. Such suspicion had always existed, especially under the Ancient Regime (before 1789). The local Parliament of Paris and the nobles who headed it has been in permanent conflict with the King of France and his ministers, and the mob of Paris often supported the Paris Parliament and its fight against the King's troops. Dauphin Charles in the XIVth century, King Henri III in the XVIth century, and even child Louis XIV had to leave Paris under the pressure of the masses.

Over that same winter in Paris, shortly after the proclamation of the Third Republic on 4 September 1870, so-called comités de vigilance (vigilance committees) came into being in all of the 20 districts of Paris, working as kinds of provisional, unorganized administrations. Then, delegates appointed by these district committees formed a comité central (central committee). This central committee had a dual agenda: to fight against Prussia until a military victory was accomplished and to set up a Commune appointed by the people.

Meanwhile, there existed a so-called Garde nationale (National Guard), made up of individual citizens of Paris who were to defend just the city. In peacetime, the National Guard was maintained mostly for providing a stable source of income to unemployed citizens of Paris. On 3 March 1871, the members of the National Guard constituted a federation which was directed by its own central commitee. The central committee of the National Guard rapidly merged with the other central commitee appointed by the district committees as explained above.

On 10 March 1871, the National Assembly adopted hurtful measures against Paris, the most severe of them being the suppression of the national guards' pay. Most of the Paris workers therefore lost their only source of income. After the capitulation of Paris, the national guards had not laid down their arms. They had kept their rifles and more than 500 cannons, hiding them in Montmartre and Belleville (northern districts of Paris). When the chief of the government, Adolphe Thiers, came back to Paris on 15 March 1871, he ordered them to give back the cannons, which were considered by the national guards as their personal property. That demand was the starting point of the insurrection.

The insurrection and the proclamation of the Commune

On 18 March, two divisions marched against Belleville and Montmartre, respectively, in order to recover the cannons. The soldiers rapidly fraternized with the national guards and refused to fire at the crowd. Generals Lecomte and Thomas were arrested and summarily executed by the national guards, in spite of the intercession of some leaders of the insurrection, including Georges Clémenceau, then mayor of the XVIIIth district (and later famous for his contribution to the 1918 victory). The insurrection rippled through Paris without real organization. Thiers and the government decided to flee and abandoned Paris to the insurgents, in order to better crush them later. On the evening of 18 March, the Central Committee gathered in the City Hall. Over the next days, the district mayors, led by Clémenceau, attempted a reconciliation with the Assembly of Versailles and asked for a municipal election in Paris. Thiers rejected the proposal. On 26 March, elections were however organized in Paris and 230,000 voters, representing less than the half of the population, elected the Commune.

The organization of the Commune

On 28 March, the Central Committee passed on its powers to the elected Commune. The ceremony took place on the esplanade of the City Hall. Battalions of the National Guard sung La Marseillaise and Le Chant du Départ (revolutionary songs) and waved red flags topped with the Phrygian cap. Because of internal political divisions, the Commune was not able to clearly define its political role. During its first meeting on 29th March, ten commissions were appointed as a kind of "counter-government" of France. Some important reforms were proposed, such as the separation of Church and State and mandatory, free and secular education. Those reforms were later carried out during the Third Republic. The red flag was adopted as the emblem of the Commune on the 29 March, and the Republican calender was reestablished. On 16 May, the Vendôme column topped with a statue of Napoléon was torn down, as well as Thiers' house and Louis XVI's expiatory chapel.

The Commune and the provinces

The Commune insurrection had little time to spread to the rest of France because it was rapidly put down by the Versailles Army. Insurrections in Lyon, Saint-Etienne and Le Creusot were equally suppressed. In Marseilles, the prefecture was seized on 23 March but the insurrection ended on 4 April in a bloodbath (more than 150 were killed). Similar insurrections in Toulouse, Narbonne, Bordeaux and Perpignan were also rapidly controlled.

The fighting between the Commune and the Versailles Army

Upon Thiers' request, 60,000 French war prisoners were released by Bismarck, and Mac-Mahon, appointed commander-in-chef of the so-called armée des Versaillais (Versailles army), gathered 130,000 soldiers in the Satory camp. The "legions" of the federated national guards should have included 200,000 men, but only 30,000 of them were able to fight. The insurgents lacked time and were not able to organize the defense of Paris. The Versailles army led siege to Paris, which was at that time surrounded by a fortified wall and a network of forts built on the hills around the city (Aubervilliers, Mont-Valérien, etc.). The northern and eastern forts were still occupied by the Prussian troops, who did not join the fight. Bismarck could have only been pleased to watch the defeated French starting a civil war.

On 2 April, the Versailles army attacked from the west and defeated the Commune in Courbevoie and Puteaux. The next day, three columns of national guards attempted to march againt Versailles via Meudon, Rueil and Châtillon, respectively. The insurgents were rapidly defeated and many killed. Two of their captured leaders, Flourens and Duval, were summarily executed. A solemn funeral was organized and more than 200,000 people followed three catafalques each bearing 35 coffins draped in black cloth and red flags. A battalion of 300 women bearing red flags marched along the Champs-Elysées and asked to be sent to fight.

On 5 April, the Commune released what is known by historians as the décret des otages (hostage decree), stating that every execution of a war prisoner or partisan would immediatly be followed by the execution of three hostages.

The Semaine sanglante (Bloody week)

The fightings carried on for one month in the west of Paris. In April and the beginning of May, the Versailles army shelled the forts occupied by the insurgents and seized them one by one. On 21 May, a man named Ducatel waved a white flag to indicate to the Versailles army a non-guarded postern, through which the soldiers could sneak into the city without fighting. The Versailles army marched rapidly to the center of Paris and the insurgents started to defend the eastern districts with barricades. The regular soldiers summarily executed all the captured insurgents, including women and children. On 24 May, the Versailles army seized the City Hall, Montmartre and the Panthéon. The insurgents decided to burn down the Palace of Tuileries, the Council of State, the City Hall and several other public buildings. The insurgents executed their hostages, including the archbishop of Paris, His Grace Darboy. By 25 May, the Versailles army controlled the left bank of the Seine. The next day, the army marched against the Bastille square and Belleville, the last pocket of resistance. The last fight took place near the Pére-Lachaise cemetery and the last 174 defenders were executed along the wall of the cemetery (the so-called Mur des Fédérés [Federals' Wall]). The last barricade in rue Ramponneau was taken over on 28 May.

The repression

Improvised martial courts summarily sentenced the prisoners and most were immediatly executed. The fighting and the repression altogether caused more than 20,000 victims, the exact number remains unknown. More than 38,000 people were arrested and sent to the Satory camp. 270 of them were sentenced to death and 7,500 were deported to New Caledonia, including the famous "Red Virgin" Louise Michel. Several insurgents managed to flee to England, Belgium or Switzerland and were able to return to France only years later (complete amnesty was voted in 1880).

By the end of the Commune, a quarter of the labour population of Paris was gone and any new revolutionary movement took more than 20 years to gather force.


Source: C. Salles. La IIIe Republique à ses débuts (1870-1893). Histoire de France Illustrée, Larousse, Paris (1988).

Ivan Sache & Suzette Tanis-Plant, 19 January 2003

The heritage of the Commune

The insurrection was a long-lasting traumatic experience for France. During the ordre moral (moral rule) period (1873-1875), when France was ruled by the ultra-conservative and ultra-religious government of Duke de Broglie, the deputies voted a law for the construction of the basilica of Sacré-Coeur (Holy Heart) on Montmartre Hill, "as an expiation of the Commune". The basilica, built by Paul Abadie in neo-Byzantine, eclectic style, is now a major tourist attraction in Paris.

The most famous of the insurgents was Louise Michel (1830-1905), an anarchist school teacher, who was deported to New Caledonia, where she was among the very fews prisoners who took the defence of the Kanaks, the native people of the islands, against the French colonial system. In 1946 the subway (métro) station Vallier was renamed Louise Michel. This station, on line #3, located in the municipality of Levallois-Perret (once part of the "red belt"), is still the only one to bear the name of a woman.

There are indeed very few first-hand sources concerning the insurrection. The journalist and writer Jules Vallès (1832-1885) was a member of the Commune and related the insurrection in his auto-biographical trilogy "L'Enfant" - "Le Bachelier" - "L'Insurgé" (The Child - The Graduate - The Insurgent).
Victor Hugo (1802-1885) published in 1872 in Luxembourg a poem anthology called
L'Année Terrible (The Dreadful Year). The great poet, who was not a Communard, met an insurgent column on 18 May while he was leading the funeral procession of his son Charles. The insurgents stepped aside and let the respected author of Les Misérables, who had came back from his anti-Napoléon III exile in 1870, pass by. When elected Senator (1875-1876), Hugo fought for the amnesty of the insurgents.

The Commune is also refered to in the Danish movie "Babette's Feast", directed by Gabriel Axel, after a short-story by Karen Blixen. The main character, played by S. Audran, found refuge in a small Danish village, after her husband, a great cook, was executed by the Versailles troops led by General Gallifet.

Outside France, the Commune, in spite of its short duration, became the international symbol of class struggle and workers' revolution. The insurgents were called Communards (the suffix -ard being pejorative in French), from which was derived the word Communist. Among the songs composed in Paris during the events, two became protest songs of international fame. L'Internationale by Eugène Pottier was a kind of semi-official anthem of Communist countries and Communist and Socialist parties all over the world. Le Temps des Cerises by Jean-Baptiste Clément, is still recognized as the song of oppressed peoples. The red flag used by the Commune was the source of inspiration for later Communist flags.
The 100th anniversary of the insurrection was widely celebrated in Communist countries and several postage stamps were released in association, whereas France prefered to remain silent about this page of history that it still does not want to deal with out in the open.

The history of the insurrection has received very little attention compared to the "glorious" periods of French history (the Napoleonic wars, the 1918 victory etc.) and therefore is still little-known. Another difficulty is that there exists an "official" French history and it is very difficult to rewrite it, so it does admit another version of the facts that says the Commune insurrection was indeed a civil war.

Ivan Sache & Suzette Tanis-Plant, 19 January 2003

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