Commemoration begins of the bloody weeks of the Paris Commune of 1871

Paris has launched two months of events commemorating a radical experiment in people power, which continues to divide and inspire in equal measures 150 years later.

Commemoration begins of the bloody weeks of the Paris Commune of 1871
Models of the Communards in front of Sacre-Coeur. Photo: Anne-Christine Poujoulat/AFP

The 1871 Paris Commune, an uprising against a conservative government by working-class Parisians that was brutally crushed after 72 days, is one of the lesser-known chapters in French history.

But its memory still looms large in left-wing rebellions worldwide and in Paris with the towering Sacre-Coeur basilica in Montmartre, built by the victors on the ruins of the crushed Commune.

The revolt erupted after the Franco-Prussian war and ended in a bloodbath, with government troops massacring between 6,000 to 20,000 people during la semaine sanglante (bloody week) that ended the Parisians’ brief flirtation with self-rule.

Last week, Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo inaugurated a programme of 50 events commemorating the Commune, including exhibitions, plays, conferences and debates.

But with public sympathies still divided been the “Communards” and the “Versaillais” government, trying to rally Parisians around a shared reading of what Karl Marx described as “France’s civil war” is proving difficult.

READ ALSO Prostitutes, nuns and anarchists – the untold story of the women who helped shape Paris

Protesters in Berlin mark the memory of the Commune. Photo by John MACDOUGALL / AFP

An explanatory video about the Commune tweeted by Paris City Hall last week noted that both the government and the Communards, who killed about 100 hostages in the dying days of the standoff, had blood on their hands.

But the administration of Hidalgo, a Socialist, was nonetheless accused of bias for emphasising the egalitarian ideals of the Commune.

On Twitter user reacted by praising Adolphe Thiers, the leader who quashed the Commune, as a “national hero”.

But for another reader, he was “a traitor and a murderer” who if alive today would be hauled before the International Criminal Court.   

The subject also prompted an acrimonious debate last month at the City Hall, with the right accusing the left of glorifying what councillor Antoine Beauquier called “a sad time…in which Parisians killed other Parisians”.

For the historian Mathilde Larrere, the row showed how the memory of the Commune remains deeply divisive.

“It was as if we were back in 1871,” she said.

The Commune began on March 18, 1871, when Thiers, whose government had a strong royalist faction, sent troops to remove cannons on the hill of Montmartre that had been used to defend the city during a four-month Prussian siege.

Anti-monarchist Parisians rushed to repel the troops, sparking clashes that resulted in the deaths of two generals and prompting the government to flee to Versailles, the former seat of French kings.

Six days later the insurgents won municipal elections in Paris and set up a system of self-government that was hailed by Marx and Lenin as a model for a proletarian revolution.

Some elements of the Commune’s manifesto are seen as being extraordinarily progressive for the time.

“Many of the values that we hold dear today underpinned those of the Commune,” said Laurence Patrice, the Communist councillor in charge of the commemorations at the City of Paris, pointing to measures such as equal pay for men and women, free schooling and the naturalisation of foreigners.

READ ALSO The Paris Commune anarchist who has a Metro station named after her

But for many in 19th-century France, the Communards were outlaws who burnt down key monuments, including Paris City Hall, and were fiercely anti-clerical.

Religious teaching was banned and priests were killed, including the archbishop of Paris, who was taken hostage and murdered in the dying days of the Commune.

“Presenting the Commune as an idyllic period is a lie, it was an extremely bloody period, on both sides,” Beauquier, a conservative city councillor, told AFP.

“There are no goodies on one side and baddies on the other.”

He and other right-wing lawmakers accuse Hidalgo, who is mulling a run for the French presidency next year, of using the memory of the Commune to try to unite a fractured left.

For Larrere, an expert on 19th-century history, where the Commune was truly revolutionary was in the proportion of lawmakers that were drawn from the working classes.

“Never in French history were there so many workers in a representative assembly,” she told AFP.

Beyond the political arena, the much-mythologised Communards continue to inspire, as seen during the “Yellow Vest” protest movement of 2018 and 2019.

Among their demands were the right for citizens to propose laws or dismiss elected representatives — a form of participatory democracy that was in discussion during the Commune.

For Pierre Vesperini, a historian writing in Philosophie magazine, the yellow vests were the “direct descendants of the Parisians of 1871”.

“Then as now, we’re dealing with an uprising of misery — we want to live in dignity — and of political ethics — we want more democracy,” he wrote.

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Asterix: Five things to know about France’s favourite character

Asterix is hitting the box offices again, so to celebrate here's a look at France's most treasured hero.

Asterix: Five things to know about France's favourite character

If you have walked past a bus stop anywhere in France in recent weeks, then you have likely run into film posters advertising Asterix and Obelix: The Middle Kingdom.

Starring high-profile French actors Marion Cotillard and Vincent Cassel, France’s film industry is hoping that this film, capitalising on France’s nostalgic relationship with the comic series “Asterix” will bring box office success.

The Asterix comic book series was first published in 1959, and tells the story of a small Gallic village on the coast of France that is attempting to defend itself from invaders, namely the Romans. Asterix, the hero of the series, manages to always save the day, helping his fellow Gauls keep the conquerors at bay.

As the beloved Gaulish hero makes his way back onto the big screen, here are five things you should know about France’s cherished series:

Asterix is seen as the ‘every day’ Frenchman

“Asterix brings together all of the identity-based clichés that form the basis of French culture”, Nicolas Rouvière, researcher at the University of Grenoble-Alps and expert in French comics, told AFP in an interview in 2015.

READ MORE: Bande dessinée: Why do the French love comic books so much?

The expert wrote in his 2014 book “Obelix Complex” that “the French like to look at themselves in this mirror [of the Asterix series], which reflects their qualities and shortcomings in a caricatured and complacent way”.

Oftentimes, the French will invoke Asterix – the man who protected France from the Roman invaders – when expressing their resistance toward something, whether that is imported, American fast food or an unpopular government reform.

The front page of French leftwing newspaper Libération shows President Emmanuel Macron as a Roman while Asterix and his team are the French people protesting against pension reform.

The figure of ‘a Gaul’ is a popular mascot for French sports teams, and you’ll even see people dressed up as Asterix on demos. 

A man dressed as Asterix the Gaul with a placard reading “Gaul, Borne breaks our balls” during a protest over the government’s proposed pension reform, in Paris on January 31, 2023. (Photo by JULIEN DE ROSA / AFP)

Asterix is the second best-selling comic series

The series has had great success in France since it was first launched in 1959, originally as Astérix le Gaulois. It has also been popular across much of Europe, as the series often traffics in tongue-in-cheek stereotypes of other European nations – for example, caricaturing the English as fans of lukewarm beer and tasteless foods.

Over the years, Asterix has been translated into more than 100 languages, with at least 375 million copies sold worldwide.

It remains the second best-selling comic series in the world, after the popular manga “One Piece”.

There is an Asterix theme park 

The French love Asterix so much that they created a theme park, located just 22 miles north of Paris, in the comic series’ honour in 1989.

The park receives up to two million visitors a year, making it the second most visited theme park in France, after Disneyland Paris. With over 40 attractions and six themed sections, inspired by the comic books, the park brings both young and old visitors each year. 

READ MORE: Six French ‘bandes dessinées’ to start with

The first French satellite was named after Asterix

As Asterix comes from the Greek word for ‘little star’, the French though it would be apt to name their first satellite, launched in 1965 after the Gaulish warrior.

As of 2023, the satellite was still orbiting the earth and will likely continue to do so for centuries to come.

Asterix’ co-authors were from immigrant backgrounds

Here’s become the ‘ultimate Frenchman’, but both creators of the Asterix series were second-generation French nationals, born in France in the 1920s to immigrant parents.

René Goscinny created the Asterix comic series alongside illustrator Albert Uderzo. Goscinny’s parents were Jewish immigrants from Poland. Born in Paris, René’s family moved to Argentina when he was young and he was raised there for the majority of his childhood. As for Albert Uderzo, his parents were Italian immigrants who settled in the Paris region.

Goscinny unexpectedly died at the age of 51, while writing Asterix in Belgium. From then on, Uderzo took over both writing and illustrating the series on his own, marking Goscinny’s death in the comic by illustrating dark skies for the remainder of the book.

In 1985, Uderzo received one of the highest distinctions in France – the Legion of Honour. Uderzo retired in 2011, but briefly came out of retirement in 2015 to commemorate the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists who were murdered in a terror attack by drawing two Asterix pictures honouring their memories.