TO A couple of years ago, when railroad workers demonstrated in Paris against the reforms proposed by the government, a banner in the crowd offered an explosion of France’s revolutionary past: “We don’t care about May ’68,” read their slogan. “We want 1871.”
It was a message that the protesters were serious. These days, the student revolt of 1968, and its injunctions to “Be realistic … demand the impossible,” are remembered with fond nostalgia. But in the annals of the French revolutionary uprisings, the memory of the Paris Commune of 1871 and its bloody barricades has a darker, more avant-garde status. “Unlike 1789, the Commune never really became part of national history,” says Mathilde Larrère, a historian specializing in radical movements in 19th-century France. Wild, anarchic and dominated by the poor Parisians, the Commune was hated by both the liberal bourgeoisie and the right-wing conservatives and monarchists. His brutal repression by the French army and his own acts of brutal violence created wounds that never healed. “The Commune of 1871 did not become part of a consensual collective memory,” says Larrère. In a respectable society, it was seen as something out of the ordinary.
But exactly 150 years later, the “commoners” are returning, dividing Paris again. To mark the anniversary, the mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, will plant a memorial tree this month in Montmartre, the crucible of revolt. The Place Louise Michel, named after the most famous communist, will be occupied by Parisians carrying life-size silhouettes of the bakers, shoemakers and laundresses who took control of the capital in 1871. Entitled We the municipality (We the Commune), the event will kick off a series of exhibitions, lectures and concerts, plays and poetry readings, which will last until May. According to Laurence Patrice, the Paris councilor in charge of overseeing the anniversary, it is time for the revolutionaries of 1871 to be recognized as radical pioneers: “We are talking about a large group of citizens who came together to take their destiny into their own hands.” He said. saying. “There was a modernity in what the Commune represented and its aspirations were close to what some people want today.
“The community members fought to have legitimate and responsible political representatives. They wanted to give the vote to women, who played a very important role in the Commune. They defended equal pay and requisitioned empty houses to house the homeless. The Commune offered citizenship to foreigners and free access to the law. Today there are many echoes. “
This analysis, to put it mildly, has not garnered universal approval. The tributes have infuriated conservatives, including Rudolph Granier, a Montmartre councilor and a member of the Paris city council. Granier intends to boycott the Place Louise Michel event. “It is a provocation,” he told the Observer. “I’m fine with the commemoration, but not with a celebration. Listen, when the left defends the Commune, it’s the same as when the left defends communism. They say the ideas were beautiful, it’s just that they weren’t carried out correctly.
“But whether you talk about communism or the Commune, it ends with bloodshed, and if an ideology includes killing, then, in my opinion, it is not the place for politics to celebrate that ideology.”
Last month, during a fierce meeting at the Hôtel de Ville in Paris, Granier accused Hidalgo of taking advantage of the anniversary to bolster his left-wing position ahead of next year’s presidential elections. Parisian conservatives also oppose municipal grants for the Association of Friends of the Commune, an organization that, according to Granier, “glorifies its most violent events.” How spirits have flared The world he devoted a page to the row, titled “The Commune of 1871: An Extremely Tense Anniversary.” The latest edition of the weekly political magazine L’Express asks: “Should the 150th anniversary of the Commune be celebrated?”
There is no simple answer. The existence of the Commune was brief and extremely bloody. In January 1871, France surrendered to Otto von Bismarck’s Prussian army, after a three-month siege that brought Paris to its knees. When the Second Empire of France collapsed, a new pro-monarchical government was elected to negotiate with the Germans. But amid national chaos and humiliation, the poorer half of Paris refused to surrender their weapons. On March 18, the revolutionaries seized the government buildings. The newly elected president, Adolphe Thiers, fled to Versailles.
Besieged on all sides, the increasingly authoritarian Commune lasted for a tumultuous 72 days before being savagely suppressed. “Never has a more terrible crisis developed in a great city,” wrote novelist Emile Zola. At least 8,000 Parisian community members, including many women and children, died on the barricades or were shot by firing squads during the “bloody week” of May 21-28. As the violence raged out of control, the Archbishop of Paris and more than 50 other hostages, many of them priests, were assassinated by the comuneros.
The legacy of a revolutionary experiment that shook Europe was commanded by future generations of communists. Karl Marx described the Commune as the “glorious harbinger of a new society.” Lenin saw him as the forerunner of the Russian revolution. In 1936, in the days of the anti-fascist government of the Popular Front of France, 500,000 leftists made the pilgrimage to the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris to honor the martyrs of the Commune.
But at the end of the 20th century, when the French Communist Party was on the wrong side of history, there was less talk of the Commune. The current row testifies to a new relevance, says Larrère, as modern politics gives its ideals a new life. “The communist interpretation of 1871 was very biased,” he says. “The comuneros were not the working class of Marxist theory and the Commune was not a proto-Soviet of industrial workers and soldiers. These people were the successors of the sans culottes from 1789 – artisans, small businessmen and producers. They wanted a better democracy and a more social republic ”.
A century and a half later, says Larrère, in post-industrial France, a new low-paid precariat is making similar demands. Popular movements outside the political mainstream have begun to invoke the memory of 1871. In 2016, when protesters occupied central Paris and held evening assemblies on the Place de la République, the square was unofficially renamed Place de la Commune. Mottos of the sometimes violent yellow vests The movement (of the yellow vests) – “The people are sovereign”, “Elected officials, you are accountable” – was communal in spirit, although at times the understanding of the dates by the protesters was unstable. A graffiti painted on the side of the Sacré Coeur basilica in Montmartre, widely shared on social media, read: “The Paris Commune of 1781 [sic]/ Yellow vests 2018 ”.
“There are points of affinity with the yellow vests movement, ”says Granier. “The revolution and the battle against injustice is a French tradition. But the big difference from past centuries is that we now have a rule of law. I cannot understand why a political movement would want to celebrate an insurrectional movement like the Commune. It surprises me “.
“Conservatives are becoming so sensitive about the issue because now it is in front of them, in the streets and on the walls,” says Larrère. “The Commune asked questions about centralized power, about representative democracy and popular sovereignty. the yellow vests asked the same questions, albeit in a different context. Do our elected officials and our representative democracy really serve us? Are there other means by which popular sovereignty can be exercised? These issues have been revived and that is why, on the other side of the spectrum, there is a refusal to respect the memory of the Commune ”.
As temperatures rise, the Sacré Coeur, which looms over Place Louise Michel in Montmartre, has been caught up in the fray. One of the biggest tourist attractions in Paris, the vast white basilica was conceived as an act of national penance after the disastrous outcome of the Franco-Prussian War. When the construction works began, financed by private donations, they were inextricably associated with Catholic hostility towards the Commune.
To avoid sending awkward and conflicting messages, the city council has postponed a decision to this year to give the church list status, which would allow it to receive state subsidies. “There are people in the Hidalgo coalition who want the Sacré Coeur destroyed because they see it as a monument against the Commune,” says Granier. “After Notre Dame, this is the most visited church in Paris. Rewriting history to score political points is not a worthy way of doing politics ”.
Patrice is somewhat taken aback by the general furor and attributes the Commune’s culture wars to the desperation of her opponents to display their conservative credentials: “In Macron, France has a president who claims to be beyond the left and the right, but acts more and more like a right-winger. political. The political space for conservatives is compressing between the president and [National Rally party leader] Marine Le Pen on the far right. This controversy is about them reinforcing their profile. “
He hopes that once the events begin, the war of words will be forgotten: “These commemorations are not about celebrating violence. And we must remember that it was the community members who paid the highest price for the insurrection, in deaths and deportations ”.
On the Sacré Coeur controversy, Patrice has a conciliatory note and says: “I see no reason why, like other churches, it should not eventually be included on the list. The decision was just delayed, that’s all. People have been making very aggressive arguments but it is about remembering an episode that is constitutive of the collective memory of the city. If you love Paris and you live here, it is important to know its history. “
However, old enmities are hard to die for. In 1875, when the first stone of the Sacré Coeur was laid, one of its main financiers made clear his contempt for the defeated comuneros. “For all who love religion and their country,” said Hubert Rohault de Fleury, “the building of a church on the site where the cannons were snatched in the cause of the insurrection will be a source of joy.”
This spring the other side of the story will be told.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism