In France, historical anniversaries tend to divide rather than unite. This year, which marks the 150th anniversary of the Paris Commune and the bicentennial of Napoléon Bonaparte’s death, certainly proves the rule. Pundits and politicians are already building their barricades. But while the disputes over Napoleon are largely historical in nature, not so with the Commune. Explaining this particular event, as the historian Martin Johnson remarked, “has always been more than a historical exercise.” In this of all years, those on both sides of the barricade believe this exercise has especially important political, ideological, and perhaps even existential consequences.

POETRY TO PROSE

The birth of the revolutionary Paris Commune on March 18, 1871, took everyone by surprise—most of all the revolutionaries. In the preceding months, traumatic events had convulsed the French capital. Prussian invaders had laid violent siege to Paris, leading the Bonapartist regime to fall and France’s provisional republican government to sign a humiliating peace treaty. Outraged Parisians, particularly those from working-class neighborhoods, rejected the treaty, rebelled against the central government, and recognized the legitimacy only of the municipal government—or commune—they had hastily heaved into existence.

Battered by the Prussians and now besieged by its fellow French, the Commune first addressed urgent military and material concerns. Yet during the 72 days of its existence, the Commune also managed to enact policies anchored in the promise of past revolutions and anticipatory of the progressive and transnational movements of today. Inevitably, some of the proposed reforms were quixotic—such as banning night baking and thus condemning Parisians to stale bread in the mornings—but others were both practical and forward-looking.

The Commune addressed itself, for example, to the better education of children and the inclusion of women in both schooling and the workforce. “In a good republic,” declared one paper, “perhaps more attention should be paid to the education of girls than that of boys.” Schooling thus became compulsory, secular, and coed—moreover, it was designed to be intellectual as well as vocational. The skilled worker, affirmed the education committee, “must be able to relax from daily work by enjoyment of the arts, letters and sciences.” A women’s committee, the Union des Femmes, formed by the Russian-born Elizabeth Dmitrieff, organized crèches, or daycare centers, often placing them near city factories whose workers were predominately women. Because its members were also working members of the Commune, the women’s committee demanded a seat at the executive table.

That seat was never offered—though “never” lasted little more than two months—but the Communards nevertheless addressed social and economic inequalities that, already manifest before the war, had now metastasized. The Commune imposed a moratorium on debt payments and rent for those Parisians left without work since the German invasion and requisitioned empty apartments for others whom Prussian and French cannon fire had left homeless. At the same time, it acknowledged the right to pay parity for men and women and the need to separate state and church.

This experiment in radical democracy collapsed in late May, when the French national army breached the city walls and retook Paris. Those Communards who survived the street battles and summary executions were deported to the French prison colony on New Caledonia. With panache but also prescience, the German political theorist Karl Marx wrote not its death notice but its birth announcement. The fact it had existed at all, he insisted, meant that its impact would make “the tour de monde.” In the case of France, though, the consequences were evolutionary, not revolutionary. From one republic to the next, the feverish poetry of the Communards has turned into the boring prose of legislation. Over the course of the next 150 years, from the establishment of obligatory and free public education in the early 1880s to the legislation of parity in pay (1982) and political representation (2014) between men and women, many of the revolutionary ideals of the Paris Commune have become the common laws of the land.

COMMUNE RIGHT AND LEFT

As a lieu de mémoire, or site of memory, the Paris Commune has become a battlefield for French politicians contesting next year’s presidential and legislative elections. In the run-up to the anniversary, France’s fragmented left has succeeded in finding common ground in celebrating the event. Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the leader of La France Insoumise (Defiant France), boasted that “ideologically, I am a child of the Commune.” Mélenchon has consistently called for the creation of a Sixth Republic whose institutions will be more horizontal and representative. The official newspaper of the French Communist Party, l’Humanité, is publishing a day-by-day account of the Commune that will continue into early June, as well as a special issue on the event with the telling title “Un espoir mis en chantier” (A Hope in Progress).

For Anne Hidalgo, the socialist mayor of Paris, the hope in progress is to enter next year’s presidential election as the left’s standard-bearer. To this end, the city has mobilized its resources to transform the event into a spectacle, scripting a celebration of the Commune that will extend from March 18 to May 28. As Hidalgo’s spokesperson declared, the mayor has adopted the words of Louise Michel—the fiery feminist who, having fought in the Commune, was deported to New Caledonia—as her own: “We believe that, come the day when liberty and equality reign, humankind will be happy.”

The Paris Commune has become a battlefield for French politicians contesting next year’s elections.

The anniversary has likewise united the country’s equally fragmented right, whose denizens come not to praise but to bury the Commune. Rudolph Granier, a conservative member of the Paris City Council, lambasted Hidalgo for “babbling a series of historical untruths” that ignore the Commune’s acts of violence and destruction, such as the fires that destroyed several historic buildings, including synagogues. (This claim was also partly untrue—as historians quickly noted, the Communards did not destroy any synagogues.) A fellow conservative, Antoine Beauquier, allowed that while this “sad episode of civil war” should be commemorated, it must not be celebrated. After all, was the Paris Commune not responsible for the massacre of several Catholic priests? For yet another conservative council member, David Alphand, the Communards’ crime was its “confiscation of the means of production.”

By contrast, the normally garrulous Marine Le Pen, leader of the hard-right Rassemblement National, has kept mum on the Commune. In late 2019 and early 2020, when the gilets jaunes (“yellow vests”) movement was at its height, Le Pen expressed her sympathy and sought to ride the wave of public discontent. Yet the gilets jaunes, resistant to co-optation by any political party, kept Le Pen at arm’s length. Now Le Pen has presidential ambitions and is keeping at arm’s length any movement, even one from 1871, that committed or condoned acts of violence or could be portrayed as a danger to the French Republic.

THE FUTURE OF THE PAST

There is inevitably an element of political theater to the local and national debate over the legacy of the Paris Commune. But behind the postures lie ideas that the Commune crystallized and that remain alive in France. How much should citizens of a republic participate in designing and deciding national policy? How far should a republican state reach over the lives of its citizens? And just how much has 1871 influenced subsequent revolts and protests in France?

This last question is a compelling one for a country that has hatched more than 10,000 revolts and revolutions since the sixteenth century. Radical thinkers since Marx have highlighted the Paris Commune as an especially important episode, heralding a new era of class consciousness and conflict. As the historian (and former member of the French Communist Party) Roger Martelli observed, the Commune was the first instance of an authentically “popular and even working-class government” in French history. Not only had this been jamais vu before 1871 but it was also never seen since.

Over the past century, however, many popular movements have claimed the Commune as a source of inspiration and instruction. In 1935, socialists, radicals, and communists formed the Popular Front, and its leaders marched together to the mur des fédérés—the wall at Père-Lachaise Cemetery against which dozens of Communards were executed—to celebrate their newfound unity and commemorate the Paris Commune’s anniversary. Three decades later, in 1968, striking students and workers invoked the Commune as their predecessor. Dozens of pamphlets and posters quoted the writings of such well-known Communards as the novelist Jules Vallès and poet Eugène Pottier, and graffiti on walls and statues announced the birth of the “Commune of May 10.”

More recently and controversially, the gilets jaunes movement has embraced the Paris Commune as part of its heritage. Writing in Révolution Permanente, the official organ of the far-left New Anticapitalist Party, Jean-Baptiste Thomas declared that when, as with the gilets jaunes, the “rule of the powerful is repudiated, the governmental caste is rejected, and the conditions of life, to the extent that they constrain us, are denounced, the Paris Commune finds itself invested with a new power.” The banners the group carried and the graffiti it left in its wake reinforced this message with slogans ranging from “1871 raisons de niquer Macron” (“1871 reasons to screw Macron”) through “On ne veut pas mai 68, mais 1871” (“We want 1871, not 1968”).

The gilets jaunes protests, a largely peri-urban phenomenon, inverted the roles played by Parisians and provincials in 1871. But economic anxieties of today’s protesters—the scarcity of affordable housing, the persistence of unemployment, the weight of taxation and perceived indifference of the state—resemble those of nineteenth-century Parisian workers. The violence that increasingly accompanied the marches—culminating in early December 2019 with the vandalizing of expensive shops, restaurants, and, to the greater horror of many, the Arc de Triomphe—has encouraged critics, such as the conservative Granier, to compare the gilets jaunes with the pétroleuses, or female arsonists, who supposedly set fire to parts of Paris in 1871 in their rage to destroy.

Since the 1950s, however, historians have documented that la pétroleuse existed exclusively in the imagination of the Commune’s opponents. The fires were real—but they resulted from either gunfire or efforts by desperate Communards to cover their retreats. For that matter, the destruction wrought during the gilets jaunes marches has been largely the work of extremists often identified with the so-called Black Bloc—a movement no more structured or substantive than les pétroleuses.

But Granier did get one thing right. History, he declared, “teaches us humility.” Humility, in turn, compels one to acknowledge both that yawning inequities exist in 2021 no less than in 1871 and that sobering difficulties confront popular movements seeking to convert their rage into lasting solutions.

And so, Vive la Commune? As a French historian might reply, “Oui, mais…”

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now