PARIS – On a recent frosty morning, around a hundred people flocked to a small square near the Sacré-Coeur Basilica, at the top of the Butte Montmartre. These weren’t the usual tourists drawn to the breathtaking panoramic views of Paris, but left-wing protesters celebrating the 150th anniversary of a revolution that began where they stood.
“We are here, we are here! A guitarist sang, playing a tune popularized by yellow vests protesters who have clashed with President Emmanuel Macron‘s government in recent years, as red flags and banners floated around him.
Mr. Macron, the guitarist was singing, was the equivalent of his 19th century predecessor, Patrice de Mac Mahon, who crushed the revolution they had come to commemorate, the Paris Commune of 1871 – a cataclysm that still consumes a lot of the French far left.
“All the just causes of today were initiated by the Municipality, by our ancestors,” said Frédéric Jamet, 61, who proudly described himself as a “veteran of the yellow vests”. Around him were other protesters dressed in yellow vests, Communist activists wrapped in red scarves and a handful of amused students and curious retirees.
For decades, the memory of the Paris Commune, an ephemeral revolution that shook Paris from March to May 1871 before being repressed by the French army, had faded in the country’s national history, excluded from school curricula and maintained mainly by the Communists. activists.
But as France has been rocked by a series of social movements in recent years, the history of the Paris Commune has made a comeback, with protesters making connections between today’s struggles and those of it. a century and a half ago. “La Commune” has inspired calls for greater political representation of people across France, has been used to highlight contemporary economic inequalities and has even become a benchmark for some feminist activists.
Dozens of commemorations of the 150th anniversary of the revolution have been organized since mid-March – they will continue until the end of May – revealing the old beating heart of revolutionary Paris, with debates rage in the newspaper columns and at the town hall on the legacy of an event marked by violence.
“Over the past five years, this memory has warmed up completely,” said Quentin Deluermoz, historian of the Commune. “It is a historic event that supports new popular demands in terms of regaining social, political and economic power.
The Commune was born on March 18, 1871, when working class Parisians rejected a humiliating peace treaty following France’s defeat against Germany in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and rebelled against the central government. They established their own socialist, or “commune,” municipal government in the capital and adopted progressive policies that would inspire much of the country’s legislation in the decades to come.
The separation of Church and State was imposed, while schooling became compulsory, free and secular. Day care centers have been set up near the city’s factories, dozens of unions have been created and night work by bakers has been banned. Participatory democracy and pay equity were encouraged.
After only 72 days, the Commune was besieged and then suppressed by the French army, with brutal acts of violence on both sides. At least 7,000 insurgents were killed by army soldiers during the “bloody week”, while Commune fighters executed dozens of hostages and set fire to several historic buildings.
But it is perhaps the tragic and ephemeral character of the Commune that has fueled the fascination for this revolution the most today, its existence too short to have led to disillusion.
Mr. Deluermoz said that because the Commune involved so many different elements of revolutionary movements, it had fueled a wide variety of analyzes.
The Commune was long invoked as a model of class struggle – Marx and Lenin saw it as the harbinger of working class revolutions – until its memory began to fade in the 1980s, with communist ideology.
Protesters during the Nuit Debout protests in 2016, a French version of the Occupy movement, renamed the Place de la République in Paris to Place de la Commune. The protesters of the yellow vests in 2018 chanted slogans like “1871 reasons to believe”.
“The problem is that we are experiencing things, injustices again, this is what awakens the spirit of the Municipality”, declared Sophie Cloarec, pointing the finger at the new economic insecurity and the resulting exploitation. by the gig economy.
Mrs. Cloarec, on a recent Saturday afternoon, took part in a feminist march in honor of the women who played a major role in the revolution of 1871. Around her, groups of women lined the walls with famous posters. combatants of the Municipality, like the teacher Louise Michel or Victorine Brocher, who ran a canteen during the siege of Paris.
It was the latest sign of the revolution’s lasting resonance, as feminist groups emerge as a powerful force in France against the backdrop of a delayed #MeToo movement.
Mathilde Larrère, historian of the French revolutions of the 19th century, said that the Commune “was a feminist movement because women adopted it” to obtain new rights such as better access to education and pensions for single widows .
Jean-Pierre Theurier, member of Association of Friends of the Municipality, said he was surprised by the renewed public interest in the revolution. He said more people are taking part in the walking tours he is organizing to the Père Lachaise cemetery, where a bloody battle took place between the graves and some 150 Commune fighters were executed; bullet holes are still visible on some walls.
“There is a return of the repressed,” said Theurier, referring to the omission of the Commune for decades in textbooks and official discourse.
But in a country where historical anniversaries are often more divisive than unifying, and where revolutions are often a point of national pride, the “return” of the Commune has also revived old ideological quarrels over its heritage.
The fighting began to Paris City Hall in February, when conservative city councilors accused the left-wing majority of exploiting the anniversary for political ends while ignoring the Commune’s own acts of violence and destruction. Historians and politicians then clashed over the need to commemorate the event, and the French press took sides.
But perhaps the fiercest attack came from the less expected side: the left.
On a cold March morning, city hall officials organized the first commemorative event, bringing together about fifty Parisians at the foot of the Butte Montmartre to wear life-size silhouettes of famous fighters from the Commune. Anger roared above them, in the tiny square near the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, where left-wing protesters had staged their own event, boycotting the official celebration.
“You Versaillais! a man shouted at the crowd at the bottom of the hill, using the name given to the inhabitants of Versailles, the city where the central government regrouped during the Commune and the residence of the kings of France until the French Revolution of 1789.
“Those there are a privileged few,” said Mr. Jamet, the veteran of the yellow vests.
Standing a few meters away, Catherine Krcmar, a veteran 70-year-old leftist activist, smiled as she looked at the protest around her. “Revolutionary Paris is not dead,” she said.