France commune

Popular power or Parisian bloodbath? 1871 The Paris Commune continues to divide 150 years later

A radicalized popular power experiment amid the Prussian occupation of the French capital of Paris 150 years ago continues to divide the country’s fractured political scene and serve as a source of inspiration amid xenophobic and extreme tendencies. increasing right.

The city of Paris launched two months of events commemorating the Paris Commune of 1871, an uprising against a conservative government by working-class Parisians that was brutally crushed after 72 days in one of the lesser-known chapters of the history of France.

But his memory is still present in the left rebellions around the world and in Paris with the imposing Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Montmartre, built by the victors on the ruins of the crushed Commune.

The revolt erupted after the Franco-Prussian War and ended in a bloodbath, with government troops slaughtering between 6,000 and 20,000 people during the “bloody week” that ended Parisians’ brief flirtation with autonomy.

Last week, the mayor of Paris Anne Hidalgo inaugurated a program of 50 events commemorating the Commune, including exhibitions, plays, lectures and debates.

But with public sympathy still divided between the “Communard” and “Versailles” governments, trying to rally Parisians around a common reading of what Karl Marx called “France’s civil war” is proving difficult.

“The Parisians kill the Parisians”


A commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the Paris Commune, in front of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, in Montmartre, Paris, France, March 18, 2021. The poster reads: (French PM Adolphe) Thiers, (Prussian Chancellor Otto von) Bismarck, (outgoing president Emmanuel) Macron, (<a class=Paris police
chief Didier) Lallement, same fight. (Photo: Joao Luiz Bulcao / Hans Lucas via Reuters)” onerror=”this.style.display=’none’;” style=”max-width: 300px; height: 450px;;width: 100%;height: auto;object-fit: cover;”/>
A commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the Paris Commune, in front of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, in Montmartre, Paris, France, March 18, 2021. The poster reads: (French PM Adolphe) Thiers, (Prussian Chancellor Otto von) Bismarck, (outgoing president Emmanuel) Macron, (Paris police chief Didier) Lallement, same fight. (Photo: Joao Luiz Bulcao / Hans Lucas via Reuters)

An explanatory video on the Commune tweeted by Paris City Hall last week noted that the government and the Communards, who killed around 100 hostages in the final days of the standoff, had blood on their hands.

But the administration of Hidalgo, a socialist, has nonetheless been accused of bias for emphasizing the egalitarian ideals of the Commune.

A Twitter user reacted by praising Adolphe Thiers, the leader who canceled the Municipality, as a “national hero”.

But for another reader, he was “a traitor and a murderer” who if he were alive today would be brought before the International Criminal Court (ICC).

The subject also sparked a bitter debate last month at town hall, with the right accusing the left of glorifying what Councilor Antoine Beauquier called “a sad period … in which Parisians killed other Parisians”.

For historian Mathilde Larrere, the dispute has shown to what extent the memory of the Municipality remains deeply divisive.

“It was like we were back in 1871,” she said.

Progressive ideals

The Commune began on March 18, 1871, when Thiers, whose government had a strong royalist faction, sent troops to remove the cannons on the Butte de Montmartre which had served to defend the city during a four-month Prussian siege.

Anti-monarchist Parisians rushed to push back the troops, sparking clashes that resulted in the deaths of two generals and prompted the government to flee to Versailles, the former seat of the kings of France.


This undated file photo shows the destruction of rue de Rivoli in central Paris following devastating clashes between government forces and Parisian Communards.  (Photo Wikimedia)
This undated file photo shows the destruction of rue de Rivoli in central Paris following devastating clashes between government forces and Parisian Communards. (Photo Wikimedia)

Six days later, the insurgents win the municipal elections in Paris and set up a system of autonomy which is hailed by Marx and Russian Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin as a model of proletarian revolution.

Some elements of the Commune’s manifesto are seen as extraordinarily progressive for the time.

“Many values ​​which are dear to us today underlie those of the Municipality”, declared Laurence Patrice, Communist councilor in charge of commemorations at the City of Paris, evoking measures such as equal pay between men and women, free education and naturalization of foreigners.

But for many in 19th-century France, the Communards were outlaws who set fire to key monuments, including Paris City Hall, and were fiercely anticlerical.

Religious education is prohibited and priests are killed, including the Archbishop of Paris, taken hostage and assassinated in the last days of the Commune.

“To present the Commune as an idyllic period is a lie, it was an extremely bloody period, on both sides,” Beauquier, a conservative city councilor, told Agence France-Presse (AFP).

“There are no good guys on one side and bad guys on the other.”

He and other right-wing lawmakers accuse Hidalgo, who plans to run for the French presidency next year, of using the memory of the Commune to try to unite a fractured left.


For the first day of the cultural and memorial program of the 150th anniversary of the Paris Commune, 50 portraits of representative figures of the Commune, created by the artist Dugudus, were unveiled at Square Louise-Michel, in Montmartre, Paris, France, March 18, 2021. (Photo by Joao Luiz Bulcao / Hans Lucas via Reuters)
For the first day of the cultural and memorial program of the 150th anniversary of the Paris Commune, 50 portraits of representative figures of the Commune, created by the artist Dugudus, were unveiled at Square Louise-Michel, in Montmartre, Paris, France, March 18, 2021. (Photo by Joao Luiz Bulcao / Hans Lucas via Reuters)

Inspirational yellow vests

For Larrere, a specialist in the history of the 19th century, where the Commune was truly revolutionary, it was in the proportion of legislators from the working classes.

“Never in the history of France have there been so many workers in a representative assembly,” she told AFP.

Beyond the political arena, the very mythical Communards continue to inspire, as we saw during the protest movement of the yellow vests of 2018 and 2019.

Among their demands was the right for citizens to propose laws or dismiss elected officials – a form of participatory democracy that was under discussion during the Commune.

For Pierre Vesperini, historian writing in the journal Philosophie, the yellow vests were the “direct descendants of the Parisians of 1871”.

“Then as today, we are dealing with an uprising of misery – we want to live in dignity – and of political ethics – we want more democracy,” he wrote.


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