A street in Paris in May 1871, by Maximilien Luce

18th March marked 150 years since the start of the Paris Commune, a revolutionary regime that for a brief 72 days wielded power amidst the climate of general disarray that followed the spectacular defeat of French armies in the Franco-Prussian War. In an ensuing post-armistice election, whilst most of France elected conservative deputies, Parisians bucked the trend and voted for the left. A series of missteps on the part of the national government swiftly provoked an insurrection of artisans, shopkeepers and industrial workers, leading to the creation of a Communard government of some ninety members. It would meet its demise in the most brutal fashion at the hands of national troops in late May. 

This was by no means the first major Parisian uprising to end in suppression by national troops. Yet it has retained a uniquely contentious place in the national imagination. Arguably unlike the storming of the Bastille, or indeed the revolutions of 1830 and 1848, in the 21st century, the Commune remains a deeply divisive subject in French politics, one that the anniversary has propelled to the forefront of the public conversation. Indeed, it is – and always has been – understood as an event of international significance, in the same totemic category as 1789 or 1917, particularly for the left, in virtually all its manifestations. 

From the outset, contemporaries, whether sympathetic or hostile to the Communards, launched into the business of interpreting what was happening in Paris. Karl Marx was immediately tied to the project by opponents and the press from the outset, explicitly labelled by some the ‘red terror doctor’. However, though he deemed the Commune ‘a new point of departure of world-historic significance’ and a crucial step to workers’ self-government, the events of 1871 have always resisted straightforward characterisation. His associate Friedrich Engels may have referred to the Commune as an expression of the dictatorship of the proletariat, but it was by no means a strictly Marxist project. In its short life, marked by internal strife and an increasingly dire military situation, it was led by a pluralistic group of leftists – anarchists, republicans, utopian socialists, radical émigrés and more. Arguably, it is this richness and diversity – if you like, the ambiguity – of its foundational ideas that has contributed to its enduring appeal. 

On a more practical level, many of the progressive policies that the Communards attempted to put in place, were truly pioneering and remain striking today. Vacant buildings were repurposed to provide housing for poor families, civil marriage was legalised, workers’ participation in private companies was instituted. A nascent feminist movement, L’union des Femmes, emerged to lobby for equal pay for women workers. For economic geographer David Harvey, the first two acts of the Commune reflect its identity as a synthesis project: the abolition of night-work in the bakeries (a labour issue) and the imposition of a moratorium on rents (an urban issue).

Illustration by Mia Clement

On the other hand, the anniversary has also produced a substantial counter-current of hostility. If national humiliation is no longer a primary mantra of those critical of the Commune, then the political violence that was part and parcel of the Commune’s existence has sufficed for many to place it firmly in the dustbin of history. For some, the vision cannot be detached from the methods – even the Archbishop of Paris was killed – that were employed in attempting to bring it to fruition. 

The recently-reelected socialist mayor of Paris Anne Hidalgo last week announced a programme of fifty multimedia events intended to promote discussion on the legacy of the Commune and bridge the divides of what has been increasingly invigorated as a new front in a broader, tense, state-sponsored debate on the national past in Emmanuel Macron’s France. Hidalgo may be eying a run for the presidency next year herself. Leading the way on an issue of such enduring national significance as the Commune may well be part of an attempt to unite a deeply fragmented left. 

This year possesses a double significance for France. As well as the anniversary of the Commune, it is also two hundred years since the death of Napoleon Bonaparte. Merely delineating the legacy of a man widely feted as the creator of modern France has proved a seemingly impossible task. In recent months and years, it is his record on questions of race that has come to the fore. Napoleon reinstated slavery on French territory in 1802 and dispatched forces to quash the Haitian Revolution.  His defenders commonly cite his achievements in domestic policy, from the internationally-influential Code Napoléon to the creation of the Bank of France. Intertwined with the foundations of France’s current political model are certainly legacies of Napoleonic rule, including the core of the administrative and educational systems. However, an unavoidable and uncomfortable question for those sympathetic to the Emperor is how to reconcile cherished republican principles with the dynasty-building of a man who has been heralded the republic’s “gravedigger”.  

Growing racial justice movements over the past year have applied further scrutiny to one particular pillar of the French political system; namely, the universalist, ‘colour-blind’ policy that has determined official and, to some degree, unofficial French attitudes to discrimination issues for decades. National statistics do not include data on race or ethnicity, and policies aimed at redressing systemic inequalities generally rely instead on geographic and median income criteria. The reason most commonly given for this aversion to the language of race is a historic republican commitment to equality of all citizens before the law, although the country’s painful fascist Vichy past also plays a role. However, the conversation has evolved considerably in recent months, and the future of France’s ‘colour-blind’ approach looks far from certain.

In this climate, the long-running debate on the memory of Napoleon has become even tenser. So far, Macron, improbably heralded by some commentators as his heir on account of his relative youthfulness or an ‘imperial’ governing style, has yet to truly show his hand in the debate. If, as it seems reasonable to expect based on his approach to colonial issues, he will attempt something of a balancing act, the path will be a narrow and difficult one. 

The two anniversaries are closely linked. The Paris Commune famously tore down the statue of Napoleon that stood atop a column in the centre of the Place Vendôme, which its leaders on the executive committee described as ‘a monument of barbarism’. For all the important contextual differences, the projects of the Communards can seem to lend themselves with ease to present debates. Architecture, for one thing, has never been politically-neutral. 

Paris is a city that wears its past on its sleeve, in its many contradictions. Metro stations recall Napoleonic victories (Iéna, Austerlitz…); the Eiffel Tower, the Belle Époque; the banlieue estates, the successes and failures of urban planning. In searching for architectural evidence of the Commune, there are two telling places to turn to. 

The first is the Basilica of Sacré-Coeur atop the hill of Montmartre, a hub of revolutionary activity over those 72 days. It was constructed after 1871 with the support of Catholic politicians and intended as a “reparation” for France’s military defeat, yet has come, rightly or wrongly, to symbolise a broader conservative reaction against the perceived immorality of the Commune. The second is a monument in a corner of the Père-Lachaise cemetery that commemorates the thousands of Communards executed in the final days of the revolution; it has long been a site of pilgrimage for the French left. 

To expect a single programme of commemoration to successfully craft a common interpretation of such a complex event as the Commune is beyond hopeful. However, as with France’s renewed reckoning with its colonial past, this enlivened discussion is surely to be welcomed. Keeping the past taboo, off-limits, is immeasurably worse. The challenge is to render these conversations truly meaningful – to take them beyond tabloid headlines and social media feeds – and reflective of the diversity of contemporary France.   

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Featured Image: A street in Paris in May 1871, by Maximilien Luce

Jacob Grech

Jacob is Events Director for Michaelmas 2021. He is a second-year History & Politics student at Hertford College, and when not in Oxford, lives in Siġġiewi, Malta.