Power to the people: Why ghosts of the Paris Commune still haunt and inspire
A revolt of the working class, the Paris Commune was the most radical subversion of France's social order since the Revolution of 1789. Passionate and divisive, just like their subject matter, this year’s commemorations marking the 150th anniversary of the Commune have highlighted the enduring power of an insurrection that was ferociously suppressed after just 72 days – but which continues to haunt and inspire.
Bathed in flat light, the picture shows a scooter darting past the lens, wary pedestrians crossing the street while others wait for a bus, and a cyclist gearing up to challenge one of the steepest slopes in Paris. It’s an everyday scene in bustling Ménilmontant, except the cyclist is aiming straight at a shadowy barrier, a wall of paving stones topped by men in dark uniforms, some smiling. They’re the ghosts of the Communards, the working-class protagonists of France’s last revolution, who stood in the very same spot 150 years ago.
Exactly a century and a half separate the two photographs merged in Fred Furgol’s “Barricade de Ménilmontant”, one of a series of works the local artist has dedicated to the Paris Commune of 1871. At once incongruous and eerily seamless, the juxtaposition underscores the enduring legacy of an extraordinary political experiment that was ruthlessly crushed, demonised and then erased from public consciousness.
“The Commune was a turning point in history – and the first major event to be photographed,” says Furgol in his studio perched high up on the hill of Ménilmontant, in eastern Paris. “It is also a deeply shocking event, both in terms of the scale of death and destruction, and how its memory was put under wraps.”
A largely leaderless revolution of the working class, the Paris Commune constituted the most radical subversion of social order since the great Revolution of 1789. It was put down after just 72 days amid apocalyptic scenes in the French capital. At least 7,000 men, women and children – the vast majority real or suspected Communards – were slaughtered in the streets of Paris during the Semaine sanglante (Bloody Week) of May 21-28, according to conservative estimates (some put the toll at three times as high). Thousands more were deported to the penal colony of New Caledonia, at the other end of the globe.
Furgol’s Communards have a phantomatic quality, haunting the quartiers populaires of eastern Paris, where the last barricades once stood. They are reminiscent of the “spectres of May” – the phrase coined by the Commune’s most celebrated figure, Louise Michel, to refer to the ghosts of the Semaine sanglante. Studying their photographs – and tracing the exact places where they were taken – was both a moving and troubling exercise, says the Parisian artist.
still one of my favourite paris commune photos because it feels like the ghosts of the communards are haunting it pic.twitter.com/NZ59lcql9K— Paris Marx (@parismarx) March 19, 2021
“We’re talking about the dawn of photography, and already we’re faced with many of the ethical questions that still dog the profession,” he explains. “Many of the pictures of the Commune we have today were actually taken by its opponents. They included posthumous montages designed to depict the Communards as savages, as well as pictures of dead insurgents that the photographers made money off.”
The Commune today
Alongside the traditional cartoonists and pamphleteers, photographers played a prominent role in the propaganda war pitting the Commune against the conservative government based in Versailles (a communication tussle that was brilliantly re-enacted in Peter Watkins’ 2000 film “La Commune”). Their stunning pictures of the charred ruins of Paris following the Semaine sanglante have become the defining images of a traumatic episode in the city’s history, which saw British tourists flock to the martyred French capital as though it were Herculaneum or Pompeii.
Long banished from school textbooks, the Commune holds a peculiar place in French history, that of a civil war within an interstate conflict, triggered by France’s crushing defeat at the hands of Prussia. It was also a radical revolutionary episode within a process of regime change, as the collapse of Napoleon III’s empire paved the way for a tentative transition to a republican regime – albeit one dominated by monarchists.
The fact that the Commune was crushed by a nascent republic – the Third Republic, still France’s longest lasting – makes it an awkward fit for the historical narrative established by France’s successive republican regimes, says historian Ludivine Bantigny. “In essence, there were two forms of Republic that faced each other,” she explains. “And one crushed or even exterminated the other.”
Bantigny’s latest book, La Commune au présent (The Commune Today), ranks among a flurry of recent publications timed to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the Paris uprising. Several such works have focused on the enduring relevance of a revolutionary experiment that remains an icon to contemporary communalist movements across the world, from North America’s “Occupy” protests to Kurdish autonomists in the Syrian Rojava.
“The Paris Commune offers a concrete experience of direct democracy, of true democracy, with a clear aspiration towards social justice and equality – what was then known as the social and democratic republic, or the universal republic,” Bantigny explains. “As such it has become a reference for all sorts of protest movements that seek alternatives to the capitalist way of life and the limitations of representative democracy.”
In recent years, the Commune has become the go-to reference for spontaneous, free-form movements that shun hierarchical structures, seeking to let power flow from the grass roots instead. When Paris students occupied the Tolbiac campus for several weeks in 2018, they instantly proclaimed the “Free Commune of Tolbiac”. Similarly, place de la République was symbolically renamed “Place de la Commune de Paris” during the Occupy-inspired “Up All Night” movement two years earlier.
While references to the Commune have long been commonplace in the French capital, tributes to the 1871 insurrection have found a more surprising outlet in the widely disparate Yellow Vest protest movement that swept France in late 2018 and the following year. In small towns and rural areas up and down the country, occupying roundabouts became the Yellow Vest equivalent of manning the barricades, while the Commune also inspired some protesters’ calls for more participatory democracy. Though knowledge of the history was often sketchy at best, the communal experience proved popular with a movement in which bonds of neighbourhood, experience and comradeship overrode traditional party loyalties.
>> A year of insurgency: How Yellow Vests left ‘indelible mark’ on French politics
Tributes and allusions to the Commune have become increasingly common at other protests too, appearing on walls, placards and social media posts. One slogan in particular, seen both at student and workers’ protests, underscores the episode’s growing relevance in the eyes of many political activists: “Mai 68 on s’en fout, on veut la Commune” (“We don’t care about May '68, we want the Commune”).
Back in Ménilmontant, references to the Commune are part of the very fabric of the neighbourhood, right down to the local football club, whose name and spectacular crest are heavily loaded with symbolism. The proudly antifascist Ménilmontant FC 1871 was founded by a group of local youths in 2014. Its crest features a boat, the emblem of Paris, with red and black sails, like the flags of the Communards and Anarchists. On either side of the vessel are the canons successfully defended by the people of Montmartre at the start of the uprising.
Referencing the Commune was an obvious choice, says Pascal, one of the club’s founders, for whom the revolution of 1871 remains highly relevant at a time of widespread political disaffection.
“The Commune is the only major experience of a large city in which power was shared horizontally, with the people exerting their authority over an elected – and revocable – assembly,” he explains. “It’s a lesson for us all; particularly now that more and more people are dissatisfied with the political system and scarcely bother to vote.”
Like the Commune, MFC 1871 shuns hierarchical structures; members take turns to perform administrative duties. The club was conceived as a forum for sports, socialising and activism. Each year it allocates a third of its meagre resources to charities, including a local association that helps migrant youths in need. Other local associations also draw inspiration from the cooperative spirit channelled by the Commune. They include the Marmoulins de Ménil’, whose volunteers battle food waste and insecurity by collecting and distributing organic produce to meet the neighbourhood’s needs.
“I can’t tell you whether the Commune is dead or alive, but its spirit certainly lives on in this part of town,” says 66-year-old Yves Leccia, a member of the Marmoulins. “You see it in the solidarity between people, which has only grown since the recent lockdowns, bringing together the old and young.”
The enduring pertinence of the Paris uprising is all the more apparent in times of crisis, says Leccia, citing the Commune’s swift moves to requisition homes and set up cooperatives for the hard up, and raise the wages of essential workers like teachers. He hints at another, more sinister reason for the Commune’s increasing relevance today, in a context of increasingly tense and violent confrontations between protesters and law enforcement.
“Of course, what the Communards endured is a whole different matter,” he says. “But there’s no doubt social movements have faced increasing levels of repression in recent years. It’s been the case with the Yellow Vests, and with other protest movements too.”
The parallel is glaringly obvious in some of the artwork that has flourished this year on the walls of this and other Paris neighbourhoods, to mark the anniversary. In one giant mural financed by residents of the 20th arrondissement of Paris – which includes Ménilmontant – and located at the foot of the Parc de Belleville, the Versaillais camp is clearly represented as modern-day riot police, the CRS. Indeed, it is not uncommon at rallies to hear protesters use the term “Versaillais” when hurling insults police.
The legend of the Pétroleuses
In Ménilmontant and beyond, street art has given pride of place to the women of the Commune, from the ubiquitous Louise Michel to her anonymous companions. Highlighting the uprising’s edgy character, some of the art pictured them on the barricades with rifles and cobblestones in hand. Other, more educational works paid tribute to the women who fought for equal pay, education and political rights under the Commune, only to be vilified by their victors.
“Revolutions are generally carried by popular movements, but what is particular about the Commune is the fact that those who stormed the Hotel de Ville [at the start of the insurrection] and radically transformed the structure of power were ordinary people, including artisans, seamstresses, shopkeepers and teachers,” says Bantigny. “Uncovering their stories, along with their names and faces, is crucial to a better understanding of the Commune.”
Of all the myths spawned by the Commune and its brutal suppression, the dark legend of the pétroleuses, the women incendiaries accused of torching Paris in the revolution’s dying throes, is perhaps the most preposterous – and the most lasting too. In a narrative shaped by the victorious Versaillais, the women of the Commune became the flipside of the revolution, a perverted version of the breastfeeding Marianne, whose milk turned to petrol.
France’s bourgeois establishment was horrified by the sight of women speaking out in political clubs, manning barricades and demanding equal pay or the right to divorce. Female emancipation was not the only “vice” attributed to the Commune: its alleged cosmopolitanism (a handful of Paris-based foreigners played prominent political and military roles in the uprising) was also decried by the Versaillais, with novelist Alphonse Daudet claiming that, “Paris was in the hands of negroes”.
The Paris Commune began with every ruler’s worst nightmare: soldiers disobeying orders to shoot and instead fraternising with the people. The horror it inspired among the elites is a measure of their fright. As Jules Favre, a prominent Versaillais leader, argued during the Semaine sanglante, the Communards were “beyond the limits of civilisation, beyond the right to refuge”.
In a review of John Merriman’s 2014 book “Massacre: The life and death of the Paris Commune”, The Economist credited the author with focusing “attention on the enormity of the moral outrage perpetrated by a modern state and a supposedly civilised society against its own citizens.” The British weekly added: “In Mr Merriman’s retelling, the Paris Commune is a reminder that the worst villainies are possible once you have dehumanised your opponent.”
As blood filled the streets of Paris in May 1871, another, even more savage butchery was underway more than a thousand kilometres away, with the brutal suppression of the great Kabyle Revolt in French-ruled Algeria. The twin massacres helped cement France’s fledgling republican regime, proving to the elites that it could be trusted to maintain order and privilege, with frightful force when necessary.
‘The history is still very much alive’
The Paris Commune’s rapid defeat, and the manner of its suppression, have largely shaped its legacy: that of a radical insurrection that was defeated by overwhelming force rather than through a failure of its own, leaving a trail of hopes and aspirations it could neither fulfil, nor betray. This has helped foster a romanticised reading of an event that inspired some of Arthur Rimbaud’s most celebrated verse, “a dawn as exalted as a flock of doves”.
While the springtime of Paris was felled before it could even wither, the Commune did fulfil one promise: proving that the social order can be overturned, if only briefly. It’s a promise that continues to inspire modern-day Communards and alarm their opponents.
The enduring divide resurfaced in spectacular fashion this year as Paris councillors publicly feuded over the merits of marking the Commune’s 150th anniversary. Mayor Anne Hidalgo’s left-wing administration chose to hold a series of events celebrating the Commune’s contribution to women’s rights, participatory democracy and the separation of Church and State. But for the right-wing opposition, glorifying the insurrection was merely an ode to violence – and a dangerous one too in the wake of Yellow Vest unrest.
The ideological confrontation came to a head in late May when thousands of people took part in the annual march to the Murs des fédérés at the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris, where many Communards were summarily executed during the Semaine sanglante. A short distance away, a handful of antifa members hurled insults and objects at a Catholic procession that was making its way up the slopes of Ménilmontant to honour the priests who were executed by Communards in the revolution’s dying throes.
As tensions flared, scores of police cordoned off a nearby bookshop where Bantigny and other historians were taking part in a public discussion about the Commune, surrounding the bemused audience for over an hour.
Photo éloquente d'une librairie nassée. Vous aviez déjà vu ça? On en est là.— Ludivine Bantigny (@Ludivine_Bantig) May 29, 2021
📷 Aurélie Garreau via @CazierJP et @campvolant pic.twitter.com/iy7EP3VUd1
“It just goes to show how this history is still very much alive in the neighbourhood,” says Pascal of the MFC 1871 football club, who was at the Monte-en-l’air bookshop when police suddenly appeared. In his mind, a consensual reading of the Commune is neither possible nor desirable. Instead, it is important to preserve the subversion and transgression that so enthralled the young Rimbaud a century and a half ago.
“The history of the Commune is incarnated here,” he adds. “There are still two sides of the barricade.”
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