Remembering the Paris Commune and its unsung anarchist heroine, Louise Michel: an interview with historian, Naomi Clifford

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As 2021 commemorates the 150th anniversary of the Paris Commune, historian Naomi Clifford turns her investigative eye to the life of an unsung anarchist heroine from France’s Haute-Marne: Louise Michel. Following her recent lecture on Michel (in collaboration with Tate South Lambeth Library) Naomi managed to pluck time out of her crammed schedule to talk to Politika News about this understudied figure from one of the most tumultuous periods of France’s history. For 10 weeks, the people of Paris came together to create the seemingly impossible: a socialist commune governed for and by the people. It was not to last. But before, during, and long after the Commune, Louise Michel led a life true to her anarchist principles. Who was she? What was she fighting for? What were the experiences of the poor and working class around her? Clifford tells all.

In your South Lambeth Library talk, you mention that Louise Michel applied her revolutionary worldview to her teaching. She was fired from several jobs as a primary school teacher for her teaching methods. Do we know what Michel’s revolutionary teaching methods looked like?

All her life, Louise Michel was consumed with intellectual curiosity. Before she moved to Paris, she opened a private school in Audeloncourt, 5km from her home Vroncourt-la-Côte in the Haute-Marne, where she encouraged children to learn through play and discovery rather than to memorise learning by rote. She was denounced for teaching the Marseillaise, which was considered a seditious song, and for telling her students it was sacrilege to pray for Napoleon III; she was also reprimanded for writing a short story set in Ancient Rome that was seen as a comment on the Emperor.

In Paris, where she opened her own school in Montmartre, her pupils loved her and there are descriptions of them scampering around her and hanging on her clothes, which says something about the relaxed learning environment she created. She kept pets at the school – a tortoise, white mice and a grass snake – and she was unusual in allowing  children with special needs to attend the school.

Her friend Georges Clemenceau, who became Mayor of Montmartre said: “It was something of a free-for-all, with some highly unusual teaching methods, but, taking everything into account, you had to agree that instruction was being offered.”

When Michel reached adulthood, Napoleon III was in charge of the Second French Empire. Under his reign, Haussmann restructured Paris to wipe out working-class areas and make narrow roads into wide, indefensible boulevards (the ones we know Paris for today) in case of working-class insurrection. How did these wide boulevards make life difficult for the Communards during their defence of the Paris Commune of 1871?

In previous revolutions (1830, 1848) barricades were built across very tight alleyways and streets in the places where they lived in numbers – these were, in effect, the higgledy-piggledy medieval areas of Paris.

Haussmann replaced these neighbourhoods with wide and airy boulevards. He also cleared away the settlements that grew up around the great monuments of Paris, Notre Dame, the Madeleine and so on. These were much more difficult to defend against advancing cavalry and infantry. Although they were constructed of paving cobbles (earlier barricades were made of anything and everything to hand – furniture, planks, old machinery), being wider they were also weaker.

At the end of the Commune, in some cases, the government troops merely entered buildings at either side of the barricade, ran up the stairs and fired down on the National Guard below.  

When these working-class areas were destroyed (though Montmartre was kept intact), do we have any evidence of how working-class culture and communities kept going? Did communities and networks disappear, or did working-class Parisians find ways to adapt? 

The project to modernise Paris was extremely expensive. Haussmann eventually ran out of money and fell out of favour. However, large numbers of working-class people had already been pushed to the physical margins of Paris, and had to squeeze themselves into the remaining quartiers, where they were more or less left to their own devices. Montmartre and the northern suburbs had been brought within the administration of Paris in 1860 and retained a character of outlaw independence.

Working-class lives in these districts were generally lived at neighbourhood and street level. There was little privacy. People tended to live collectively and locally, which was simultaneously confining and sustaining. Aberrant behaviour attracted censure but people also supported and helped each other. 

In these quartiers political clubs became increasingly popular. These were places, often schools or civic buildings, where workers could gather after their shifts to drink, sing, debate and listen to speeches. I think it is fair to say that news and gossip – political as well as personal – would have spread informally through working-class neighbourhoods and from one quartier to the next. 

Louise Michel was notably active in the clubs. She joined a Women’s Rights group and became secretary of the Democratic Society for Moralisation, who wanted to make it possible for female workers to make a living wage. 

Naomi Clifford dedicates much of her research to the lives of forgotten women in history. She is a contributing editor to and is currently working on the diaries of June Spencer, an auxiliary ambulance driver during World War 2 in Chelsea, London.

During the siege of Paris by the Prussians, you talk about how the rich and super rich were able to access food relatively easily. Meanwhile, the working class had to find ways to bring in rations. Michel was working on vigilance committees to requisition food and give it to those in need. Do we know what methods Michel and the committees would have used to make sure the hungry received the food? 

The assumption at the beginning was that the siege would last only a couple of months – Paris had 80 days worth of supplies, and few milk cows, which were important for feeding children. In fact, Paris was cut off for nearly five months, from 19 September 1870 to 28 January 1871. There were about two million mouths to feed.

Official rationing of meat began in October and continued throughout the entire siege, each portion becoming smaller and smaller. Eventually, nothing was left and Parisians resorted to other types of meat, horse, dogs, cats, sparrows and rats. The animals of the zoo, including the much-loved elephants Castor and Pollux, were slaughtered and served up in expensive restaurants.

Men, almost all of whom were in the National Guard, were fed as part of their payment but women and children had nothing until rationing was brought in for meat, bread and other foodstuffs. The poor suffered most, as nearly all economic activity had ceased. 

The government (Commune) offered rewards for newly discovered stores of grain, and the names of hoarders and profiteers were published in the newspapers.

During the siege Michel was the president of the Montmartre Women’s Vigilance Committee in the 18th Arrondissement (she also attended the men’s committee meetings). She wrote that “The Montmartre Vigilance Committees left no one without shelter and no one without food.” They fed people at the meeting halls although that provision reduced significantly as the siege progressed. 

In her memoirs Louise Michel wrote that “The Eighteenth Arrondissement was the terror of profiteers,” implying that the vigilance committees used forceful persuasion to requisition supplies. “When the reactionaries heard the phrase, ‘Montmartre is going to come down on you,’ they hid in their holes; we chased them down anyway, and like hunted beasts they fled, leaving behind the hiding places where provisions were rotting while Paris starved.”

In the 10 weeks of the Paris Commune, you explain that all strands of leftist thinking collaborated to form a socialist society. Workers’ conditions were bettered, the death penalty was abolished, child labour was terminated, plans were put into place to abolish the police, to name but a few measures. It is striking that this 10-week revolution was a far cry from the infighting associated with the aftermath of 1789. Why do you think it was possible for a socialist system to be put into place peacefully this time?

The changes the government of the Commune made were certainly radical but they were not backed up by solid administration and bureaucracy. Few members of the ruling council had the appropriate experience. It is likely that if the Commune had lasted longer this weakness would have become more apparent.

There were certainly disagreements among the ruling council of the Commune, as well as among its supporters, and it is important as well to remember that not every ordinary person living in Paris supported the Commune. However, for Parisians the Commune was an opportunity, never previously offered, to define the shape of their political future and the system of representation in the Commune was the most democratic – for men at least – in French history. 

I think the privations of the Siege of 1870-71, and the resulting feeling of community and mutual aid, must have contributed to the general way people pulled together during the Commune. I am not really qualified to say more than that – I think this question may be more for those with detailed knowledge of the politics of the Commune.

For all its revolution, the Paris Commune did not give women the vote nor the right to be elected. What did feminists like Louise Michel think of this? Were there attempts by the likes of Michel to change this during those 10 weeks?

It must have been a disappointment to Louise Michel and other feminists that women’s equality was not included in the stated aspirations of the Commune, but it would hardly have been a surprise. In the French socialist movement there were two opposing traditions relating to women. One held that women would gain equality through class emancipation; the other that women were physically weak and incapable of abstract thought.

On a practical level, women aspired to practical reforms – the right to work and be paid a living wage, and the right to organise collectively. There was in addition a strong class loyalty, and a feeling that women’s equality would only come once class justice had been achieved. Considering the situation, it is remarkable how much was done, by women like Elisabeth Dimitrieff, for example, who was a driving force behind the Union of Women for the Defence of Paris. Not only did it mobilise women to defend the Commune, it issued an address calling for the abolition of all forms of gender inequality. 

Perhaps the push for women’s civil rights, including voting rights, would have become more prominent had the Commune lived longer.

I recommend Gay L. Gullickson’s Unruly Women of Paris: Images of the Commune (Cornell University Press, 1996) for more on the ‘Femmes Fortes’ of Paris.

During the fight to defend the Commune, Michel led a battalion of armed women. How important was the role women played in defending the Commune? What methods do we know of that they used?

Women were assigned roles as ambulancières (non-uniformed first aiders and nurses) and cantinières (uniformed, providing food to the combatants) – so, in most cases they were taking care of the needs of men. Sometimes the ambulancières and cantinières marched with the National Guard and accompanied them into battle. But there were certainly women fighters. 

It is difficult to say how many Communard women joined the fight alongside the men – probably not many, although it was not uncommon to see women armed with rifles in the streets. Probably numbers increased during the Bloody Week in the desperate last stand. Reports put 120 women at La Place Blanche, where Louise Michel’s friend Blanche Lefebvre died on the barricade, but I don’t know how accurate that was or who they were exactly.

Louise Michel was unusual in that she was both an ambulancière and a member of the National Guard. She had used a firearm even before the confrontation at Montmartre on 18 March which led to the formation of the Commune. On 22 January she had been part of a group who marched on the Hôtel de Ville demanding the installation of a Communard government. The guards had fired on them, and she had fired back. 

She was a member of the 61st Battalion of Montmartre and fought in major battles against the Versaillais, patrolled the perimeters, and defended the barricades. Often her male comrades opposed her involvement, and that of other women, but in the final throes of the Commune, at the barricade at Clignancourt, her leadership was accepted by the male National Guards she was with.

Michel was one of many Communards who were marched from Paris to Versailles by the victorious government troops. You mention the fact that she and her fellow prisoners were spat on, stoned and whipped along the way by the bourgeoisie. In your view, what factors made it possible for these prisoners to be dehumanised enough to be treated in this way? 

The Versailles troops were indoctrinated to see the Communards as common criminals, not as political prisoners, so effectively they were viewed as dregs of society, barely human. Some of those troops were recently-released prisoners of war who had been captured by the Prussians; others were soldiers who had returned from service in the French colonies, where they were encouraged to see the enemy as little more than animals; still others were from the French provinces and had been raised to be God-fearing, Church-loving and politically and socially right wing. All of this contributed to the level of brutality meted out.

Behind all this was France’s tumultuous revolutionary history and the fears of the bourgeoisie, and, as with any civil war, emotions were even more heightened than in an ‘ordinary’ war. It was much more personal and therefore more violent.

Finally, on a somewhat lighter note, from the research you have done on Louise Michel’s life and legacy, what is your favourite quote by her?

« Notre place dans l’humanité [en tant que femme] ne doit pas être mendiée, mais prise. »

“Our place in humanity [as a woman] is not to be begged for, but taken.”

Politika News would like to thank Noami for her time. Readers can access Clifford’s talk on Louise Michel here, and her other publications here. The classic biography of Louise Michel by French historian, Edith Thomas (1971), can be accessed here.

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Article Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

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