The Paris Heritage Strolls
The Paris Commune
From the Place du Tertre (18th district) to the Place de la Commune (13th)
On 18 March 1871, Paris rose up against the government of Thiers, who had been appointed by the Assembly elected on 8 February. The extremely patriotic Parisians did not accept what they considered to be capitulations to Germany. They were fervent Republicans and did not trust an Assembly which had chosen to sit in Versailles. The people of Paris did not accept the anti-social measures taken by Thiers, such as the payment of rent not paid during the siege and the suspension of the sale of unclaimed items at Mont-de-Piété.
A Parisian Assembly, the Commune, was elected on 26 March and sat until Bloody Week (21-28 May). The Commune was an original form of democracy with the active involvement of the people monitoring the elected officials to ensure they did not remove the sovereignty of the people. It took very modern measures, such as the separation of Church and State, free and compulsory secular education, citizenship for foreigners, equal wages for men and women, requisition of empty housing, destruction of the guillotine, minimum and maximum wages, requisition of abandoned workshops, etc.
But the civil war with the Versailles army increased tensions in the capital. The Communards responded to the Versaillais executions with the threat of executing hostages. On 21 May, the Versaillais entered Paris. The Communards started fires (Tuileries, Hôtel de Ville, etc.) to halt their progress. The shells of the Versaillais destroyed many houses. Some 20,000 Communards were summarily executed (compared with fewer than one hundred Versaillais). Several thousand were sentenced to forced labour or deportation and were not amnestied until 1880.
(18th) Place du Tertre and rue Gabrielle
The canons on the Champ Polonais
In 1871, construction on the Butte Montmartre was very irregular. On land which faced Paris was the Champ polonais, which extended from Rue Gabrielle to the site of Sacré Coeur church (which was only built after and against the Commune). It was here that the Paris National Guard (the people of Paris armed for national defence) placed a number of its canons in March. On 18 March, on the orders of Thiers, the troop climbed up the Butte to recover the canons. One National Guardsman was killed. But the operation took too long to implement. The laundresses and the Vigilance Committee of Montmartre, with Louise Michel, raised the alarm. The crowds came flocking. The troop refused to fire despite repeated orders and dispersed. Two Versaillais generals were shot by firing squad. During the day, barricades sprung up over Paris and in the evening the National Guard occupied the Hôtel de Ville. Not far from there, on the Rue des Rosiers, can be found the wall in front of which Eugène Varlin (an active member of the Commune) was shot.
(10th) Town Hall of the 10th district, 76 Rue du Faubourg Saint-Martin
The seat of the Women’s Union
The current town hall of the 10th district was opened in 1896. It was this former town hall, which no longer exists, that acted as the seat of the Women’s Union, created by the bookbinder Nathalie Le Mel and the young Russian student Elisabeth Dmitrieff during the Commune. The Union played an important role during the Commune. It defended women’s right to work and drafted a programme for taking back abandoned workshops to return them to the workers. It called on women to fight at the barricades. Opposite the town hall is the location of the former “Red Carpet” store, which was burned down during Bloody Week.
(3rd) 14 Rue de la Corderie
The seat of the Internationale
In 1864, the first Internationale was created in London on the initiative of Karl Marx. It grew quickly in France. The French section of the Internationale played a major role during the Commune, providing it with a social dimension. In Rue de la Corderie, in 1871, was the seat of the French section of the Federation of Syndical Chambers. Let us hand over to Jules Vallès to describe it in The Insurgent: “Do you know, between the Temple and the Water Tower, a humid place, hemmed in... The attics are full of the poor! Take a good look at this house... Climb the stairs! On the third floor is a door which will come off if you push it with your shoulder... Say hello! This is the new parliament! It is the Revolution seated on these benches: the Revolution in workers’ clothes!”
(11th) The Winter Circus - Boulevard des Filles du Calvaire or 110 rue Amelot
The bakery workers demonstrate their satisfaction
Built in 1852, the Napoleon Circus was renamed the National Circus in 1870 (then the Winter Circus in 1873). This attractive building, created by Jacques Hittorf, could hold 6,000 people (fewer than 2,000 these days). It is understood to have become a favourite meeting place. On 6 February 1871 the first general assembly of the National Guard took place there, which produced the Federation which led the insurrection. On 31 April an assembly of Freemasons was held there, which launched an “Appeal to their Brothers in France and around the world” to support the Commune. On 15 May, several thousand bakery workers “demonstrated their satisfaction” there with the ban on bakers working at night imposed by the Commune.
(11th) Place Léon Blum (then Place Voltaire)
The guillotine burned in front of the statue of Voltaire
The citizens of the 11th district decided to destroy the guillotines located in La Roquette prison. A battalion of the National Guard took on this task on 6 April 1871. There was a large crowd in front of the statue of Voltaire (destroyed in 1942), the man behind the acquittal of Calas. The Vigilance Committee of the 11th district declared that “it has had these slavish instruments of monarchical domination seized and has voted for their everlasting destruction”, which would be “the consecration of the new freedom”. By attacking the guillotine, the people of Paris were denouncing the death penalty. On 24 and 25 May, the town hall of the 11th district, built between 1862 and 1865 by the architect Bailly, hosted the Commune’s Public Health Committee. A plaque recalling this episode was installed in the town hall in 2011.
(20th) Père Lachaise cemetery
The Communards’ Wall
There was intense fighting at Père Lachaise during the night of 27 to 28 May. In the early hours of the morning, 147 Communards were shot inside the cemetery. Between 800 and 3,000 (depending on the source) were buried in the communal ditch of the cemetery. The “Wall” became the main memorial to the Commune. In 1908, the City of Paris agreed to a large plaque being put up there: “To those who died in the Paris Commune”. Each year, an ascent to the Wall pays tribute to the executed Communards. Preserving the cemetery allows visitors to see a notice presenting the tombs. Those of Jean-Baptiste Clément, Eugène Pottier (the author of the Internationale) and Blanqui, a magnificent recumbent statue of Dalou, are close to the Wall. The Communards’ Wall is too often confused with the monument on Square Gambetta, adjacent to the cemetery, “To the victims of Revolutions” which evokes all those who died in 1871 (whether Versaillais or Communards).
(4th) Place de l’Hôtel de Ville
The Hôtel de Ville
The Hôtel de Ville was occupied by the National Guard on the evening of 18 March. The Commune sat there from 28 March. There was a great deal of popular unrest in the Communal headquarters for two months. It was also there that the Commissions drafted the Communal decrees. The Hôtel de Ville was evacuated on 24 May by the Public Health Committee, which withdrew into the town hall of the 11th district. Pindy, the governor of the Hôtel de Ville, gave the order to set fire to it to slow the progress of the Versaillais. The current building, which was rebuilt between 1873 and 1883, has retained the general aspect of the previous one and the Renaissance style of the original 16th century building.
(1st) Place Vendôme
The Vendôme column demolished on 16 May 1871
Erected in 1810 to the glory of the Imperial army, the Vendôme column was demolished by the Commune on 16 May 1871 in front of an enthusiastic crowd, “considering that the Imperial column is a monument to barbarism, a symbol of brute force and false glory, an affirmation of militarism, a negation of international law, a permanent insult to the vanquished by the victors, a perpetual attack on fraternity...”.
Courbet was held responsible for the fall of the column. It is true that in the war with the Germans, he launched an appeal to German and French artists to erect a column of peace in the place of the Imperial column. It was an artistic project which in no way entailed the responsibility of Courbet!
(6th) 7 Rue Dupuytren
The Commune opens a professional girls’ school
There had been an “art school for young ladies” on Rue Dupuytren since 1803. On 12 May, the Commune decreed that it be reopened with a radically different curriculum. It became a “professional school of industrial art for young girls”. This education for girls revealed the Commune’s desire to offer them real job prospects. In the Commune’s spirit of “full education”, scientific and literary classes were added to the classes in art, modelling and wood sculpture.
(14th) Montparnasse Cemetery
The monument to the Communards
The monument in Montparnasse cemetery to those who died in the Commune is of great interest. Located in the small Montparnasse cemetery, at the end of a quiet alley, the obelisk is next to the communal ditch where some 2,000 Communards were buried. It is here that can be found the hundred or so injured or ill Communards who were finished off by the Versaillais in their beds in the sick bay of Saint-Sulpice seminary. The monument, inaugurated in 1910, was created by the sculptor Antonio Orso, who placed funerary and revolutionary symbols on it (palm, flame, Phrygian cap). It was renovated in 2008 and has regained all its glory.
Place de la Commune de Paris
The Place de la Commune is at the heart of the beautiful Butte aux Cailles area. It still has an air of popular 19th century Paris: modest little houses built on small plots. The area is extremely lively. Three bistros have taken their names from the words of the famous song by Jean-Baptiste Clément, Le temps des cerises (Cherry Season). On the Butte aux Cailles could be found the Communard defences of the 13th district. The Communard Army there was commanded by a Pole, Wroblewski, as the Commune gave major responsibilities to foreigners. Very close to the Place, at 46, Rue des Cinq Diamants, is the seat of the Friends of the Commune of Paris, an association created in 1882 by Communards returning from deportation or exile. The original plaque which was on the Communards Wall in 1908 can still be seen there.
|The bakery workers demonstrate their satisfaction
(11th) The Winter Circus - Boulevard des Filles du Calvaire or 110 rue Amelot
|The Communards’ Wall
(20th) Père Lachaise cemetery
|Place de la Commune de Paris
Everything you need to know about the walk :
A walk through the heritage of Communard Paris is complicated by two phenomena. Bloody Week (21 to 28 May 1871) saw the outbreak of huge fires, most of which were started by the Communards to defend the insurrection or out of despair. Considerable destruction was also wreaked by the Versaillais shells, which destroyed houses to get around the barricades. The usual image of the Commune is therefore one of a landscape in ruins, as presented by any number of photograph albums after 1871. On the contrary, the action of the Commune could hardly be seen in the landscape. But Jean-Baptiste Clément said of the Communal decrees that “they are monuments which the Versaillais cannot destroy with either pen or canon”. They are presented where they were applied. The memorials to the Commune are, ultimately, also profoundly marked by the mass executions of Bloody Week.
Mairie de Paris/Department of Cultural Affairs – Graphic design: how.montag-design.com – Author: Jean-Louis Robert – Photo credits: City of Paris/J.M. Moser and C. Pignol