Paris Perspective #3: 'Parisian Exceptionalism' 150 years after the Commune
2021 marks the 150th anniversary of the Paris Commune. Some look upon the Commune as a great leap forward for democratic rights, to others it’s a failed anarchist experiment that proves that "mob rule can’t rule". And to others still, just an unfortunate oil-stain on the fabric of France’s recent history. In this edition of Paris Perspective, we try to better understand the events that took place in the French capital from March to June 1871 in a modern context.
From the declaration of war on Prussia in July 1870 up to the brutal repression of the Communards in June 1871, the events of what Victor Hugo called “The Terrible Year” resonate to this day in the French capital's on-going story, and are among the most tragic in the history of France in the nineteenth century.
So what was the Paris Commune and what were the cirsmustances that led to its short lived existance and brutal extinction?
After the collapse of the Second Empire following France's defeat by the Prussian army at the Battle of Sedan in 1870, a series of negotiations followed for a conditional surrender of French forces. The Chancellor of a newly united German Empire, Otto von Bismark, eventually secured the final terms of an armistice leading to the arrival of Prussian occupation forces in Paris on 1 March, 1871.
Following a winter of seige, privation and near famine, Parisians rose up against the Prussian occupiers on 18 March, causing the French government led by Adolphe Thiers to flee to safety in Versailles.
A Central Committee of the Parisian National Guard then organised elections for the formation of a Commune which on 28 March took up residence at the Hôtel de Ville, adorned with red flags.
RFI's David Coffey spoke to Trinity College Dublin Emeritus Fellow and pre-eminent scholar of Modern European History, Professor John Horne about the 72 days of insurrection that shaped the following decades in Paris, France and Europe.
A month after taking control of Paris, the Communards declared to the French people that they would deliver “the most modern of revolutions, the greatest and ripest of any that have shone in history." They promised “to wipe out the exploitation of man by man, the last form of slavery. Organise labour by united associations using stable, collective capital.” Why, in 2021, does it appear that these noble ideals that the Communards fought for have been collectively forgotten as “proto-Communist” propaganda by the political mainstream?
"Well, if you mean, what happened in terms of the memory of the Commune? I would say that you're absolutely right, that opening quotation suggests that the Commune was forward looking with the new themes of the of the 19th century. At the same time, it was also talking about political self government, the rule of the people in the context of Paris.
"But of course, that same declaration goes on to talk about how there should be similar communes across France, there's this idea of a kind of federation of communes. So it's both a democratic political vision, and it has this early kind of quasi socialist thought in it, and women's rights, the participation of somebody like Louise Michel, famous revolutionary and later anarchist woman who confronted the male communards and said 'you have to accept my participation as a woman'.
"These are very, very modern themes. So it is, in that sense, an extraordinary moment. But if we want to understand what comes with it subsequently, I think that emphasis on moment is really important."
Revolutions devour their children
But inevitably, perhaps, military disorganisation and dissension erupted among the leaders of the Paris Commune which quickly put an end to the generous utopia that was touted in the first days of the insurrection. So was the Commune doomed from the outset?
"I think there are two levels on which to answer that question, which really goes to the heart of the matter. One is to go back to what I referred to a moment ago, the 'moment' of the commune, let's call it that. So what are the circumstances which allows this to happen? And in fact, they are at war in defeat. So one can confidently say that if the Franco-Prussian war hadn't broken out, if the French Republic, which emerges through the Franco-Prussian war had not been defeated, the Commune would never have happened.
"Now, having said that, we're perhaps not saying very much, because all sorts [of things like] the Russian Revolution might not have happened without the First World War and the defeat of Russia, and all sorts of things in France wouldn't have happened, but for the defeat of 1940.
"So I'm not saying that defeats are real historical factors with real power, but it does help explain what I would call the power vacuum."
Time and again, Paris has proven to be a law unto itself
So how was the Paris Commune a turning point for Parisians? With the benefit of hindsight one could quite reasonably say there is a certain “revolutionary exceptionalism” among the citizens of the French capital with regard to the rest of the country. Leaders among the Commune refered to building on “Parisian revolutionary tradition.”
So was Paris ungovernable then, and could we say it's still ungovernable now?
"Well, this was when [France] was a centralised state. But in the vacuum, this idea of self government, this this local flowering, this expression of 'Paris as Paris' emerges, you're quite right.
"And it's interesting that when Thier's attempt to take the artillery is kicked out, and those [March] elections are held in Paris, about 70 percent of those who vote are in favor of some kind of a commune. Interestingly, the people who are against it tend to be from the western districts, then as now, the wealthier districts in Paris, and remember that this is a Paris 'intramuros'. That's to say that under Louis Phillipe in the in the 1830s, the 1840s, the fortifications have been built around Paris.
"That's what held the Prussians off during the siege. And in 1860, the arrondissements were added. So we already have by 1860, the Paris of the 20 arrondissements - it's very much the map of contemporary Paris. And the notion that within those walls that the 20 arrondissements can somehow govern themselves is a very Parisian notion. I think you're absolutely right about that Parisian exceptionalism.
"It goes back to the myth of Paris at the time of the French Revolution. This is extraordinary, especially [at the turn of the 19th Century] this extraordinary flowering of local clubs, the Sans Culottes and so on. We have exactly the same thing during the Commune - Red Clubs, "Les Clubs Rouges" - that sit in churches, provocatively, [discussing] political and social ideas.
"And I think we see something of the same thing again in August 1944. And absolutely the same thing again in May '68. So there is this notion that Paris can govern itself, which means that, for those who disapprove of what's happening, Paris is ungovernable. And of course, what that means is that after the Commune, when the Third Republic in the 1880s introduces its democratic municipal reforms, elected local government and so on . . . Paris is excluded."
Ultra-conservatives show no quarter to the Commune 'barbarians'
The Commune, a two-month insurrectionary period from 18 March to 28 May 1871, ended being brutally extinguished by troops sent by the Versailles government on 21 May - leading to a period known thereafter as the "bloody week". Within seven days the government's republican forces had reconquered the city by engaging in a ruthless repression and summary executions. So what was the reasoning behind showing Paris no mercy?
"There was the fear of red revolution. Remember they had always this fear of Paris as precisely ungovernable as a kind of wellspring of barbarism or revolution that goes back to the June days in 1848, when the barricades go up around a series of social protests.
"So absolutely, that fear appears again in 1870. But this is a curiously polarised France at the end of 1870, beginning of 1871, because the new assembly which has been elected in Versailles, is heavily royalist and very conservative, untypically conservative because of the impact, the trauma of defeat and is pitted against revolutionary Paris.
"I think that's one of the answers. It's especially conservative, and also strongly Catholic... and there's been the shock of the assassination by the Communards of the Archbishop of Paris, and the shooting of 23 priests. So that sense that you can't show any mercy towards these animals, towards these absolutely uncivilised barbarians in your midst, is there.
"And it's interesting, even to figures you might expect would have thought differently. Take Emile Zola as a journalist, he comes into the city immediately after the repression and he's appalled by the violence. Three months later, he's shifting, and he's beginning to see the Communards - as they were oppressed - as martyrs.
"But that initial feeling, I think, is quite widespread. And that's why the repression. But just one further point, how severe is the repression? The traditional figure was between 20 to 25 thousand people who were killed ... after court martials or summarily executed... and that figure has been heavily [revised] downwards. So the Cambridge historian Robert Tombs, has estimated that it was more like 6000 to 7500."
Collective amnesia due to Gilets Jaunes?
Fast forward to the 21st Century and how the Paris Commune has been interpreted. Ten years ago, for the 140th anniversary of the Commune, the Mairie de Paris (Paris Town Hall) held two months of exhibitions and theatrical productions under the porte-manteau of “1871 – Paris, a capital in insurrection”.
Yet 10 years later, on the 150th anniversary of the Commune, the city remains silent on what took place. Covid lockdowns notwithstanding, could it be that the popular, and often violent protests by Gilets Jaunes in 2018 and 2019 might have encouraged the incumbent centrist administration of Emmanuel Macron to “keep a lid" on the anniversary?
"I think you could well be right. I have no evidence one way or the other, but that sounds to me a plausible argument. I mean, in 2011, and Anne Hidalgo was already there, Socialist mayor of Paris, but of course Nicolas Sarkozy was still president. Francois Hollande, and the Socialists were preparing for their presidency.
"And in that way, the Commune fitted the traditional symbolism of the left of the Commune. And I think the [present day] disarray of the left, is perhaps one of the factors which explains the lack of emphasis on it at the moment. Although I'm a little surprised, if that is the case, that somebody like [Jean-Luc] Mélenchon with his ideas going back to the French Revolution and empowering the people and so on, wouldn't make something of the Paris Commune.
"But I think you could well be right that the Gilets Jaunes - a populism which became disconnected from left-right ideology and drew on both in a sense - but it didn't have the kind of utopian programme, the interesting ideas, which the Paris Commune had. It was very different.
Nonetheless, that fear, the fear once again of the mob - the masses taking to the street in Paris, breaking windows on the Champs Elysées - those are absolutely the fears of 1871 and the Commune. And so you might we'll be right on that being behind the current silence."
This edition was produced & presented by David Coffey
Recorded, edited & mixed by Vincent Pora
John Horne, FTCD, MRIA, is Emeritus Fellow, former Professor of Modern European History, Trinity College Dublin
Vice-President of the Comité international de recherche, Historial de la Grande Guerre, Péronne, France.
Member of the Royal Irish Academy
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