The canons of the Paris Commune. Where when the people come to power by default …
A text by Jean-Paul Mahoux, historian, novelist (L’Harmattan editions and Académia editions).
Paris, Montmartre, March 18, 1871, three hours after midnight in the cold night. Columns of soldiers rise in silence to the top of the mound. They invest the median which overhangs sleeping Paris: the Field of the Polish (today it is the street Gabrielle until the esplanade of the Sacré Coeur). This is where the National Guard, the people’s army, stored most of its artillery: 171 guns on their lookout, guarded by a few men surprised in their sleep by the 88th infantry regiment that came to seize them. . These guns, paid for by popular subscription, are a military but above all symbolic stake. They symbolize the popular autonomy of Paris in an explosive social and political context.
When the Prussians marched
In this dawn of March 1871, starved and bombarded Paris, emerged from six months of German encirclement. To defend itself, the city armed 200,000 civilians recruited from the popular classes. It is the National Guard, organized in battalions which elect their officers. Faced with a failing power, unable to wage war and supply the city, a parallel power emerged: the Republican Federation of the National Guard with its Central Committee and its neighborhood committees, increasingly politicized. After six months of resistance, these defenders of Paris are angry with the government Adolphe Thiers who signed a peace treaty with Germany, a peace at the price of Alsace-Lorraine, at the price of 5 billion war debt . On March 1, the Prussians were even allowed to enter Paris and symbolically parade on the Champs Elysées.
Paris, the most indebted city in the world
Paris was then a working-class city. 500,000 working-class households are crowded in the working-class districts, especially those in the east, in Belleville, Charonne, Ménilmontant, Montmartre. This world of work and the unemployed lives in an unhealthy Paris: housing without water, sublet beds, two-room apartments where six people live. In ten years, rents have doubled, wages have fallen. Since the 1850s, the working population has been driven from the heart of the city by the works of the great Haussmann boulevards. The gentrification of the city’s center and west has plunged municipal finances into the red. Paris is the most indebted city in the world, a debt that Parisians expelled from their own city will have to repay for half a century.
Paris the red
Paris is also a republican city. In the elections of February 8, the capital and the department of the Seine voted Republican, often radical and sometimes radically red: 37 deputies out of 43. These results go against those of the rest of France where the Catholic right has won the ballot: out of 638 elected deputies, 400 are conservatives. The new majority led by the liberal Adolphe Thiers, frightened by the Parisian people, chose to sit in Versailles, symbol of the Ancien Régime. Hence the name that the Communards will give to the government army: the Versaillais. The new government pawns with impatience; he wants banking business to resume. He ordered the thaw of wartime trade debts. Small independents, shop owners and war-ruined artisans understand that the bank will take them by the throat. Thiers also voted to end the moratorium on rents that were no longer paid since the German encirclement. This decision will unite the popular layers, stricken by unemployment, without the resources to pay the bills of their slums. Finally, the government abolished the pay of the National Guard, one franc fifty a day, depriving tens of thousands of unemployed people of a tiny insured income.
March 18, 1871: Adolphe Thiers now wants to disarm Paris the worker, Paris the republican, Paris the red, Paris and its 200,000 armed proletarians, Paris and its 227 cannons. This artillery had been withdrawn from the Parisian fortifications to prevent the Germans from seizing it after the capitulation. On the 17th, the government ordered the army to carry out a discreet, nocturnal operation to remove the cannons from the Buttes Chaumont, Ménilmontant and especially Montmartre. It is not impossible that the authorities expect some disturbance to arrest the main Republican and worker leaders. They have already banned far-left newspapers and put Auguste Blanqui in prison.
March 18, three o’clock in the morning, the 88th infantry regiment climbs to the top of the Butte Montmartre where 171 guns are lined up, barely guarded. A national guard yells at who’s going? He was shot on sight. His name was Germain Turpin, a mason worker. But the operation is stalling. It’s not easy to shoot so many cannons from a hill. And the teams of horses driven in the middle of the night, on the pavement shining under the sleet, do not arrive. Like four thousand soldiers, it makes noise, Montmartre is waking up. The laundresses and the women of the neighborhood vigilance committee, including Louise Michel, are sounding the alarm. The crowd flocks in the frozen morning, it fills the alleys; battalions of national guards arrive armed. Rue des Abbesses, the Montmartroises stop the military teams; they block the access to the Polish Field, shout at the soldiers: “you wanted to give our guns to the Germans?” General Lecomte yells at the troops to shoot in the heap. And there … surprise: the soldiers of the 88th put their butt in the air. The army rallies the crowd. In Belleville where the National Guard has erected barricades, the same scenario: the regular soldiers lay down their arms and fraternize with the National Guards or are taken aim and then disarmed. The city remains calm but in Montmartre, things degenerate. General Lecomte, emptied of his stirrups, went through arms. With him, General Clément-Thomas, a spy captured in civilian clothes, was executed. He was one of the massacres of workers during the revolution of June 1848 and Paris has memories. The two men are executed quite badly: without trial, by the crowd, shot in the back, in the neck, in total disorder. The heads of the National Guard, future leaders of the Commune, have never decided or wanted this; in fact, they do not proclaim insurrection or secession.
Yet the failure of the cannon shot will have incalculable consequences. Panicked by the turn of events, the Head of State ordered the army and the constituted bodies to evacuate the capital. He gave this order long before he learned of the mob lynching of his two generals. It is panic at the Quai d’Orsay where the ministers met. At the end of the afternoon, the government, the prefect, the governor of the National Bank, the mayors of the beautiful arrondissements, senior officials, generals, all fled to Versailles. And with them, 150,000 people, inhabitants of the rich districts of the West, who flee to provincial hotels and second homes. Institutions are crumbling. The palace of discredited power is emptying. From then on, the Central Committee of the National Guard meeting at the Town Hall assumed the government of the city, by will no doubt but surely by default. This popular committee assumes the most elementary missions of the State. He makes the post office and the omnibuses work again in 48 hours, ensures the removal of garbage cans, increases the low salaries of the public service, organizes the supply of old people’s homes, reopens schools, scrupulously keeps the public accounts, decrees a moratorium of rents for the evicted, orders the Monts-de-piété to return to indebted property of less than 25 francs… These activists also intend to organize municipal elections to guarantee the legitimacy of power. They will take place on March 28, appointing an assembly of 79 elected officials including foreign workers.
This assembly, political UFO out of chaos, will take the name of “Commune” in reference to that which had put an end to the royalty in 1792. Pending the elections, the spontaneous authorities of Paris want to negotiate with the French government. As the government army is not yet assembled (which will not be long), the Parisians could march on Versailles as in 1789, take the government of France. They were criticized for not having done so, Karl Marx the first (1). But no, no civil war, Jules Vallès, editor of People’s Cry, summarizes the purely defensive state of mind of the Communards: “two hours of conversation with cannon shots and it is the ruin of our hopes”. And Eugène Varlin, worker-bookbinder, one of the Parisian leaders, is totally opposed to taking hostages among the notables, in particular the clergymen. In fact, Paris considers itself a free city and intends to recognize its autonomous place in the Nation. It wants to legally implement its republican, secular and socialist political program. Clémenceau, the young mayor of Montmartre, made the Paris-Versailles round trip to negotiate a compromise between Paris and France. Wasted effort. On March 19, Favre, Minister of Foreign Affairs, summed up the government’s state of mind by declaring: “we must chastise Paris”. The Governor of the National Bank adds: “these people know only one defeat, that which will be inflicted on them by force …”.
The government wants the conversation with cannon fire. In fact, from March 18, the twenty-five thousand Parisians who will be killed in action or shot next May, are already dead. In fact, the 40,000 prisoners, men, women and children who will be sentenced in June, are already on their way to the New Caledonian prisons and reformatories. In fact, the 400,000 letters of denunciation have already been written. In April, the government will start bombing the city. On Sunday May 21, the Versaillese will enter Paris at daybreak, for a bloody week of fighting and mass executions (2). This will be the end of the 72 days of the Commune which began on March 18.
“As long as a man can die of hunger at the door of a palace where everything abounds, there will be nothing stable in human institutions …”
What remains today in Paris from that day? At the top of the Butte Montmartre, not far from the old mill of the Galette painted by Van Gogh, we built the Sacré Coeur which dominates the capital. The Third Republic, as secular as it was, built this basilica to “expiate” the sins of France and in particular the “sin” of the Commune. During the laying of the first stone in 1875, Hubert de Fleury declared: “This is where the Commune began, that the Sacré-Cœur will rise, on this mound once crisscrossed by drunken fanatics, inhabited by a population. hostile to any religious idea and which hatred of the Church seemed to animate “. Hatred… Really? Like that which animated the notables and the soldiers, on May 28, when they beat to death Eugène Varlin, on the way of Golgotha which goes up to the red mound, before shooting his bloodied body at the same place where the Commune had started and where it ended? Montmartre is the Mont de Mars or the Mont des Martyrs, we don’t know. In both cases, the etymology bears a symbol. Varlin, the Christ of the Commune, once declared: “as long as a man can die of hunger at the door of a palace where everything is overflowing, there will be nothing stable in human institutions …”. It is there where he was massacred that the palace of the Sacred Heart of Jesus was built.
>>> (1) This is all the same forgetting a detail: between Paris and Versailles, there was always the German army, clearly a tacit ally of the Thiers government.
>>> (2) We could never count them. Between fifteen and thirty-five thousand people were killed during the bloody week. In fact, we stopped shooting with machine guns because of the risk of epidemic given the multiplication of mass graves where thousands and thousands of corpses piled up.
>>> Photo caption: 1. Paris March 18, 1871. Barricade of the National Guard at Menimontant; 2. Paris March 1871. The guns of the National Guard on the Butte Montmartre.
>>> The headings are from the editorial staff.