The Paris Commune, 150 years on – from the siege of the capital to ‘Bloody Week’

·8-min read

The Paris Commune began an insurrection on March 18, 1871, when the largely left-wing, radical National Guard refused to accept the authority of the French government, killed two generals and took control of Paris – initiating the Communards’ febrile two-month rule over the City of Light. FRANCE 24 looks back at this seminal moment in French history, 150 years on.

The catalyst for the Paris Commune was France’s crushing defeat in the 1870-71 Franco-Prussian War – “La Débâcle”, as Émile Zola christened it in his renowned 1892 novel. France’s Emperor Napoleon III was captured in September 1870, the same month the Prussians besieged Paris. The 1.7 million Parisians spent 135 days under siege, increasingly starved of resources. The City of Light surrendered in January 1871.

The same month, the French government signed the Armistice of Versailles with Otto von Bismarck, Prussian leader and soon-to-be chancellor of a united Germany. Bismarck agreed that Prussian troops would not occupy Paris. Instead, France’s National Guard would keep order in the capital, where socialist movements such as the First International had burgeoned over the preceding years.

France’s largely Catholic, conservative electorate voted in a right-wing majority in February’s parliamentary elections. The left-wing radicals in the National Guard controlling Paris did not accept this result – setting the stage for the Commune’s emergence the following month.

“The sight of ruins is nothing compared to the great Parisian insanity,” one giant of French literature, Gustave Flaubert, wrote to another, George Sand, after visiting Paris following the Commune’s bloody defeat in May 1871. “One half of the population longs to hang the other half, which returns the compliment,” Flaubert continued, having opposed the Commune from the start.

FRANCE 24 discussed the Paris Commune with British historian Jonathan Fenby, author of "The History of Modern France".

What caused the inception of the Paris Commune in March 1871?

One can trace the long-term causes behind the Commune to the Revolution of 1789. France had gone through a series of revolutions, 1789, 1830, 1848, and each one had emerged from a big push from the left and had ended up – with Napoleon, with King Louis-Philippe and then with Napoleon III. Revolutionary sentiment had gestated during that time in Paris.

When in 1870 France lost the Franco-Prussian War, that led to the siege of Paris and then the peace treaty at the beginning of 1871, which a lot of the radicals in Paris refused to accept. They thought the war could go on, should go on, and when national elections in France returned a right-wing majority in the National Assembly, the radicals of Paris wanted to go their own way.

The parliamentary majority was very conservative and had a strong monarchist group within it. So there was a definite division between France as a whole and Paris, where the radicals were much stronger.

How did the Communards take control of Paris?

Hostilities broke out between the National Guard, which was the military force within Paris itself, left over from the siege, and the national government of Adolphe Thiers over who should take control of several hundred old cannon guns in various parts of Paris. The National Guard refused to give way, and was supported by many sympathetic Parisians. Two generals were killed, and Thiers and the government left for Versailles – at which point what was to become the Commune took over in Paris.

The National Guard was the dominant force within Paris itself because the French army had largely been disarmed, either through being defeated by the Prussians during the war or through the subsequent peace treaty. The National Guard was left in Paris and was meant to keep control there, but it turned out to be a much more radical force than either Thiers or the Prussians had expected.

What was life like for Parisians under the Commune during its two-month reign over the City of Light?

As well as a divide between Paris and the rest of France, there was a divide within Paris itself – between the more radical parts of the city and the more bourgeois sections of Paris which had grown under Napoleon III, especially with Baron Haussmann’s rebuilding of Paris.

When there were elections for the 92-member council running the Commune at the end of March, there were very high abstention rates in the bourgeois areas of Paris. Quite a lot of their inhabitants left the city at some point or other during the Commune.

Life was very disjointed during the Commune period. Each district council ran itself; there was no single leader. Leadership decisions were often very confused.

There were a lot of differences between the different areas of the city, with a lot of the more radical revolutionaries trying out ideas of their own – such as workers’ control of businesses.

Church and state were separated, labour laws were brought in to reduce working hours, and there were initiatives like soup kitchens, free schools for children and so on in various parts of the city.

So there was a mixture of adrenalin and desire for change and, at the same time, an awareness that Thiers was waiting at Versailles and an army was regrouping outside the city.

The Vendôme Column was torn down on May 16 – as encouraged by the artist Gustave Courbet – as a symbol of the past, which the Commune wanted to get rid of. It had a statue of Napoleon on top to commemorate his victory in the 1805 Battle of Austerlitz, and was rebuilt after the Commune’s defeat.

From the start there was certainly a very strong anti-clerical feeling. As tension rose, particularly as the Versailles government prepared to send troops in, there was a general tightening of suspicion of anybody who might be against the Commune.

The Archbishop of Paris Georges Darboy [considered a hero for organising care for the wounded during the Franco-Prussian War] was arrested and killed, one of many executions.

How was the Commune defeated in La semaine sanglante (“The Bloody Week”), which ended when the national army destroyed the last pockets of Communard resistance on May 28?

The regular army found their way into Paris – an undefended path through the fortifications around Paris that crossed into the city and pushed through into the centre, where there was very widespread arson and destruction, notably with the burning of the Tuileries Palace and the Hôtel de Ville (city hall), mainly by the retreating Communards.

The army pressed forward into the Commune’s strongholds in Montmartre and elsewhere in the north of Paris and broke the Communards’ resistance bit-by-bit, if only through sheer weight of numbers. There were massacres on both sides – it was a very bloody week indeed.

There has been a considerable argument amongst historians about the number of people killed during the Commune, particularly during La semaine sanglante. The figure they tended to give for this week was 10,000-20,000. But Robert Tombs, now an emeritus professor of French history at Cambridge University, did some convincing work in 2012 pointing to a figure of around 6,000 to 7,000 Communards killed, based on municipal records. So it appears that the numbers were considerably smaller than the legend has it.

What were the Commune’s long-term consequences in French politics?

The Commune was of course immediately followed by the Third Republic, which was a pretty conservative government all-round, and the Commune was held up as a terrible example of what could happen if the government lost control.

The Communards wanted to run Paris as they wished regardless of what happened in the rest of France and that led to a kind of a division for decades: Paris did not have an overall mayor until 1977, partly out of fear of what the capital would do if it had too much power and went its own way as it did under the Commune.

Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Vladimir Lenin and other revolutionaries seized on the Commune as an example of proletarian power, with Lenin’s alleged conclusion that the Commune’s problem was that it wasn’t ruthless enough. It remains an absolute landmark for the left and for the revolutionary strain in French politics. But the Commune’s violence also remains a warning from the right as to what radicalism can lead to.

The minoritarian revolutionary impulse provoked a majoritarian conservative reaction. It’s just not just in the nineteenth-century; you also get this into the twentieth-century. We saw this in the upheaval of 1968.

That minority, that revolutionary tradition, is extremely important for France itself. It harks back to 1789. Again and again, you get the revolutionary outburst that leads to conservatism of one degree or another.

It is an awkward element for the French in dealing with their own history. The French left in particular cherishes these revolutionary moments; they cherish the progressive side of the Commune. But at the same time they find the violence – exercised by the Communards as well as by the government troops – difficult to cater for.