The Paris Commune began its uprising on March 18, 1871, when the largely radical National Guard refused to accept the authority of the French government, killed two generals and took control of Paris – and initiated the municipalities’ feverish two-month rule over the city of Ljus. Jowharlooks back on this groundbreaking moment in French history, 150 years later.
The catalyst for the Paris Commune was France’s crushing defeat during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 – “La Débâcle”, as Émile Zola named it in his famous novel from 1892. French Emperor Napoleon III was captured in September 1870, the same month the Prussians besieged Paris. The 1.7 million Parisians spent 135 days under siege and starved more and more of resources. Ljusstaden gave up in January 1871.
That same month, the French government signed the armistice in Versailles with Otto von Bismarck, Prussian leader and soon-to-be Chancellor of a united Germany. Bismarck agreed that Prussian troops would not occupy Paris. Instead, the French National Guard would keep order in the capital.
France’s largely Catholic, conservative voters voted by a right-wing majority in the February parliamentary elections. Radicals in the National Guard who control Paris did not accept this result – they set the stage for the municipality’s growth next month.
“The sight of ruins is nothing compared to the great Parisian madness,” wrote a giant of French literature, Gustave Flaubert, to another, George Sand, after visiting Paris after the bloody defeat of the commune in May 1871. “Half the population longs for to hang the other half, which gives back the compliment, “continued Flaubert, after being against the municipality from the beginning.
JowharThe Paris Commune discussed with the British historian Jonathan Fenby, author of “The History of Modern France”.
The artillery stationed on top of the hill at Montmartre in northern Paris on March 18, 1871. © AFP
What caused the start of the Paris Commune in March 1871?
One can trace the long-term reasons behind the municipality to the revolution of 1789. France had gone through a series of revolutions, 1789, 1830, 1848, and each had come out of a great pressure from the left and had ended up – with Napoleon, with King Louis- Philippe and then with Napoleon III. Revolutionary sentiments had been brewing during that time in Paris.
When France lost the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, it led to the siege of Paris and then the peace treaty in early 1871, which many radicals in Paris refused to accept. They believed that the war could continue, should continue, and when national elections in France returned a right-wing majority in the National Assembly, the radicals in Paris wanted to go their own way.
The parliamentary majority was very conservative and had a strong monarchist group within it. So there was a definite division between France as a whole and Paris, where the radicals were much stronger.
How did the Communists take control of Paris?
Hostilities broke out between the National Guard, which was the military force in Paris itself, left from the siege, and the national government in Adolphe Thiers over who would take control of several hundred old cannon weapons in different parts of Paris. The National Guard refused to give in and was supported by many sympathetic Parisians. Two generals were killed and Thiers and the government went to Versailles – at which time what would become the municipality took over in Paris.
The National Guard was the dominant force in Paris itself because the French army had been largely disarmed, either by being defeated by Prussia during the war or by the subsequent peace treaty. The National Guard was left in Paris and was intended to retain control there, but it proved to be a much more radical force than either Thiers or Prussia had expected.
What was life like for Parisians during the municipality during its two-month period over Ljusstaden?
In addition to a gap between Paris and the rest of France, there was a gap in Paris itself – between the more radical parts of the city and the more bourgeois parts of Paris that had grown under Napoleon III, especially with Baron Haussmann’s reconstruction of Paris.
When there were elections for 92 members governing the municipality at the end of March, there were very high closures in the bourgeois areas of Paris. A lot of their residents left the city at some point during the municipality.
Life was very uneven during the municipal period. Each district council drove itself; there was no single leader. Leadership decisions were often very confusing.
There were a lot of differences between the different parts of the city, with many of the more radical revolutionaries testing their own ideas – such as workers’ control over companies.
Church and state were separated, labor laws were introduced to reduce working hours and there were initiatives such as soup kitchens, free schools for children and so on in different parts of the city.
So there was a mixture of adrenaline and the desire for change and at the same time an awareness that Thiers was waiting at Versailles and an army was regrouping outside the city.
The Vendôme column was demolished on May 16 – as encouraged by the artist Gustave Courbet – as a symbol of the past, which the municipality wanted to get rid of. It had a statue of Napoleon on top to celebrate his victory at the Battle of Austerlitz in 1805 and was rebuilt after the defeat of the municipality.
From the beginning, it was really a very strong anti-clerical feeling. As tensions escalated, especially as the Versailles government was ready to send troops in, there was a general escalation of suspicions for anyone opposed to the municipality.
Archbishop of Paris Georges Darboy [considered a hero for organising care for the wounded during the Franco-Prussian War] was arrested and killed, one of many executions.
How was the municipality defeated in La semaine sanglante (“The Bloody Week”), which ended when the national army destroyed the last pockets of Communard resistance on 28 May?
The regular army found its way into Paris – an undefended road through the fortresses around Paris that crossed the city and drove through to the center, where there was widespread fire and destruction, especially with the burning of the Tuileries Palace and the Hôtel de Ville (city hall), of the recurring municipalities.
The army pushed forward in the strongholds of the municipality in Montmartre and elsewhere in northern Paris, breaking the resistance of the municipalities piece by piece, if not only by great weight. There were massacres on both sides – it was really a very bloody week.
There has been a great argument among historians about the number of people killed during the commune, especially during La semaine sanglante. The figure they tended to give for this week was 10,000-20,000. But Robert Tombs, now an emeritus professor of French history at Cambridge University, did some convincing work in 2012, pointing to a figure of about 6,000 to 7,000 killed municipalities, based on municipal registers. So it seems that the numbers were significantly smaller than what the legend says.
What were the municipality’s long-term consequences in French politics?
The municipality was, of course, immediately followed by the Third Republic, which was a fairly conservative all-round government, and the municipality was held up as a terrible example of what could happen if the government lost control.
The municipalities wanted to run Paris as they wished, regardless of what happened in the rest of France and which led to a kind of division into decades: Paris did not have an overall mayor until 1977, partly for fear of what the capital would do if it had too much power and went its own way as it did under the municipality.
Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Vladimir Lenin and other revolutionaries seized the municipality as an example of proletarian power, with Lenin’s alleged conclusion that the municipality’s problem was that it was not ruthless enough. It is still an absolute landmark for the left and for the revolutionary strain on French politics. But the municipality’s violence also remains a warning from the right about what radicalism can lead to.
The minority revolutionary impulse provoked a majority conservative reaction. It’s not just in the 19th century; you also get this into the 20th century. We saw this during the 1968 upheaval.
That minority, the revolutionary tradition, is extremely important to France itself. It dates back to 1789. Over and over again, you get the revolutionary outbreak that leads to conservatism to one degree or another.
It is a difficult element for the French in their own history. The French left in particular cherishes these revolutionary moments; they protect the progressive side of the municipality. But at the same time, they think that the violence – which is perpetrated by the municipalities as well as by the government forces – is difficult to satisfy.