Paris Commune (March 18 - May 28, 1871)

Paris Commune (March 18 - May 28, 1871)

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The Municipality of Paris is the name given to the insurrectional movement and government set up by the Parisians at the end of the Franco-German war (1870-1871), from March 18 to May 28, 1871. After the siege of Paris and the signing of the The Franco-German armistice, the Parisians, whom Adolphe Thiers wanted to disarm, rose up and set up a revolutionary government dominated by the Blanquists and the anarchists. For three months, from March to the end of May 1871, the Paris Commune resisted attacks from Versailles troops, before being suppressed during the Bloody Week. The Paris Commune appears both as the last revolution of the nineteenth century and as the first attempt to seize power of the working class, non-existent on the political level until then. It will end in failure.

Origins and causes of the Paris Commune

At the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century, two major facts definitively changed the face of France. On the one hand, the Revolution of 1789 marked the beginning of a revolutionary tradition which, in 1871, appeared to be almost secular. On the other hand, the industrial revolution brings about the creation of the proletariat, a new social class which includes the workers subjected to the industrial organization of labor. In the course of the 19th century, the development of numerous enterprises considerably swells the proletariat, which, on the political level, remains non-existent. The proletarians work on behalf of the big liberal bourgeoisie. Their working and living conditions are deplorable. Yet the ruling class completely ignores their demands. This is why the discontent is growing from decade to decade. In Paris, around 1870, the working class dreamed of having a voice, even of imposing its dictatorship through a revolutionary movement. It represents about a quarter of the population of the capital.

From 1860, workers demonstrated more and more often, so that they were granted the right to strike in 1864. In addition, the same year, the First International was born in London. Strikes increased until 1870. In 1868, the government passed a law favorable to the right of assembly. Socialists take the opportunity to disseminate their political ideas. They want to state the private companies in the fields of banking, public transport and mining.

The winter of 1870-1871 of the Franco-German war seemed decisive. On September 18, 1870, the Prussians besieged the capital. The lack of supplies began to be felt and the Prussians bombed the city from January 1871. As no large-scale military operation was carried out, the inhabitants demanded the election of a Commune to defend the capital, by relying on the National Guard. The people of Paris number approximately 1,850,000 inhabitants. Almost 450,000 of them belong to the working class. The armistice signed on January 28 provokes the indignation and anger of a hungry and exhausted people. On February 8, bourgeois republicans, including Thiers, were sent to the National Assembly to represent the city.

March 1871: Paris rebels

After the humiliation of defeat, the Parisians endured the procession of the Prussians on March 1. The anger that this military parade provokes precipitates events. From the first days of March, Parisians opposed the National Assembly still located in Bordeaux. They protested against the measures taken, such as the transfer of the Assembly to Versailles or the disarmament of the National Guard. On March 18, they prevent the application of this last decision by blocking the access of the troops of Thiers to the guns, gathered in Montmartre and Belleville. After having fraternized with the soldiers, they launched a general insurrection and took control of the city, not without having massacred Generals Lecomte and Clément Thomas. Mayor Jules Ferry then freed the town hall, the future heart of the Municipality. Once free, the Parisians considered the election of a Council as Organized by the National Guard Central Committee, it took place on the 22nd and the Council took office six later under the name of Comme: Paris. The names of the deputies are cheered by the crowd.

If the workers members of the 1st International, including Eugène Varlin, the secretary of the French section, are numerous to participate in the Paris Commune, independent personalities are also fully committed to the sides of the insurgents. Among them, we can cite the writers Jules Vallès and Félix Pyat (who was one of the founders of the Société des gens de lettres), the painter Gustave Courbet, the poet Jean-Baptiste Clément, the professor Gustave Flourens and the journalist Charles Delescluze, both killed in action. Louise Michel (1830-1905), teacher and anarchist activist, was deported to New Caledonia, before returning to France.

A divided movement

Many Communards form the design to administer France with the necessary firmness to prevent any foreign invasion. They hope that the inhabitants of each commune openly reject the power of Thiers considered as a traitor, to adhere to their project of a fraternal and egalitarian Republic. They create ten commissions for this purpose. But Thiers is working to isolate the capital from the rest of France. In addition, he holds the leader Auguste Blanqui prisoner. Shortly after his election, the council was already going through a serious political crisis. It has 90 deputies, but is quickly reduced to 70 members following the resignation of the moderates. The other MPs come from a variety of backgrounds. a third comes from the proletariat, the others are craftsmen, traders or employees. A third large group is made up of men from the lower middle class (journalists, doctors, engineers, painters, etc.).

In addition to these social disparities, deputies have political ideals that are difficult to reconcile. Some refer to Blanqui, who advocates direct action. Others want to be Jacobins and ignore the changes of their time. The workers adopt an ideology inspired by the ideas of Marx and Proudhon. As for the remaining deputies, they proclaim themselves “independent revolutionaries”. They are also called “radicals”. Unable to come to an agreement, they do not pursue any centralizing policies. The vast majority of Parisians do not follow their movement. In the provinces, their movement is causing concern, except in a few working-class towns like Saint-Étienne or Lyon. On the other hand, they obtain successes at the level of the unions, of the clubs within which one carries out instructive debates and within the press.

Repression and the fall of the Paris Commune

Thiers responded quickly. From April 2, the first shells of the regular year rained down on the city. The Communards appointed Cluseret, a former inexperienced officer, delegate for war. On April 5, they voted for the “hostages decree”: any man suspected of sympathy with the Versailles regime was arrested. With each execution of a sympathizer of the Commune, three hostages are executed. Concretely, this decree does not come into effect. It mainly benefits Thiers, who uses it as an argument to scandalize public opinion. Communard deputies, however, ordered the arrest of lawyers and clerics. Busy defending their new regime, they voted few reforms. They decree the separation of Church and State, the secularization of religious schools, and free education and justice. They are also taking action for the empowerment of women.

The Versailles troops entered Paris on May 21. Then began a week of struggle called the “bloody week” during which 20,000 Communards were killed. On May 24, trained troops seized the town hall. The Communards retaliated by massacring hostages and setting fire to the Tuileries, the Court of Auditors, the State Council, etc. The fighting ended on May 28 at Père-Lachaise. After order was restored, 38,000 Parisians were arrested and around 100 death sentences were handed down. Other sympathizers of the Commune were forced into exile until 1880.


- Insurgent Paris: La Commune de 1871, by Jacques Rougerie. Gallimard, 1995.

- La Commune de Paris (1871), by William Serman. Fayard, 1986.

- The commune of Paris by those who lived it, by Laure Godineau. Parigramme, 2010.

Video: 2. The Paris Commune and Its Legacy