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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How to make the most of France’s ‘night of museums’ this weekend

More than 3,000 French museums will stay open long past their bedtimes on Saturday May 14th for the 18th Long Night of Museums.

How to make the most of France's 'night of museums' this weekend

The annual event takes place on the third Saturday in May each year in towns and cities across the whole of Europe. There are temporary exhibitions, themed guided visits, musical entertainment, lectures, concerts, food tasting, historical reconstructions and re-enactments, and film projections. Best news of all, almost everything is free. 

Here’s The Local’s guide to getting the most out of the night:

Plan, plan, then throwaway the plan

Consult the online programme and map out your route. A little preparation will make the night much easier – 3,000 museums will be open long into the night in France, and you don’t want to waste hours standing on a bridge arguing about where to go next. 

The site has suggestions for major cities, including Lyon, Dijon, Bourges, Strasbourg, Lille, Rouen, Bordeaux, Toulouse, and Marseilles. And four museums that have been closed to the public for years – Musée de Cluny in Paris, the Musée de Valenciennes, the Forum antique de Bavay in Nord and the Musée départemental Albert-Khan in Boulogne-Billancourt – are reopening on the night.

So, decide where you’re going beforehand – then feel free to dump your carefully plotted plan in a bin when you overhear someone else talking about this extraordinary thing they have discovered and go with the flow.

Be patient

When you are consulting the official website, try not to scream. You have to navigate a map rather than a traditional programme format – though, at least, this year it’s broken down in to French regions, which is marginally less frustrating.

It is actually much easier if you know the specific museums you are interested in visiting, as they have individual programmes of events. But half the fun of a night like this is visiting somewhere you’ve never been before.

Wear comfortable shoes and travel light

Wear shoes for the long haul rather than the first impression. There will be distances to cover and you might even find yourself dancing in the middle of a museum. 

And blisters are never a good partner with great art. Leave your skateboard and shopping trolley at home, they will just prove a nuisance when you are going through security checks.

Come early – or late – to avoid endless queues

Arriving at the Louvre at 8pm is always going to mean a giant queue. And nothing ruins a night quicker than spending most of it standing in an unmoving line. Try to escape peak times at the major museums – but check they’re not doing something interesting that you don’t want to miss – hip hop dance classes in the Department of Oriental Antiquities, in the Louvre’s Richelieu wing, for example…

Go somewhere you’ve never been to before

Do a lucky dip. Pick somewhere you’ve never heard of and know nothing about. What about the Musée de Valenciennes, which reopens after years of being closed to the public, for example. Its giving visitors the chance to see its fine art under ultraviolet light – which will reveal things you wouldn’t normally see.

Or you could delve deep into the Aude Departmental Archives, in Carcassonne, and discover the amazing life stories of some of the region’s historical figures

Make it social

Gather the troops, this is a night for multi-generations of family and friends. Art, history and culture, is very much a shared experience and you can usually find something that everyone loves – or hates.

Plan a pitstop

You will always need refreshing and wouldn’t a night of culture be wonderfully enhanced by a delicious picnic on the banks of the Seine, if you’re in Paris. 

Your mind will need a little pause from all the intellectual overload. Find a spot, listen to the music (there’s always music from somewhere) and watch the Bateaux Mouches go by as you eat a baguette with some good local cheese and some saucisson.