The Embers of a Long-Smoldering Revolution Are Stoked in France

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PARIS — On a recent chilly morning, a hundred people flocked to a tiny square near the Sacré-Coeur Basilica, at the top of the hill in Montmartre. They were not the usual tourists drawn by the breathtaking panoramic views over Paris, but left-wing demonstrators celebrating the 150th anniversary of a revolution that started right where they stood.

“We’re here, we’re here!” a guitarist sang, playing a tune popularized by the Yellow Vest protesters who have in recent years faced off against the government of President Emmanuel Macron, as red flags and banners fluttered around him.

Mr. Macron, the guitarist sang, was equivalent to his 19th-century predecessor, Patrice de Mac Mahon, who crushed the revolution they had come to commemorate, the Paris Commune of 1871 — a cataclysm that still consumes many on the French far left.

“All the just causes of today were initiated by the Commune, by our forefathers,” said Frédéric Jamet, 61, who proudly described himself as a “Yellow Vest veteran.” Around him were other protesters wearing yellow vests, communist militants wrapped in red scarves and a handful of amused students and curious retirees.

For decades, the memory of the Paris Commune, a short-lived revolution that shook Paris from March to May 1871 before being suppressed by the French Army, had faded in the country’s national history, left out of school curriculums and kept alive mainly by communist militants.

But as France has been rocked by a series of social movements in recent years, the story of the Paris Commune has made a comeback, with protesters making connections between today’s struggles and those of a century and a half ago. “The Commune” has inspired calls for greater political representation for people across France, been used to highlight contemporary economic inequalities and even emerged as a reference for some feminist activists.

Dozens of commemorations of the revolution’s 150th anniversary have been organized since mid-March — they will continue until late May — revealing the old beating heart of revolutionary Paris, with debates raging in newspaper columns and at City Hall over the legacy of an event marked by violence.

“Over the past five years, this memory has totally warmed up,” said Quentin Deluermoz, a historian of the Commune. “It is a historical event that backs up new grass-roots demands in terms of reclaiming social, political and economic power.”

The Commune was born on March 18, 1871, when working-class Parisians rejected a humiliating peace treaty following France’s defeat by Germany in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and rebelled against the central government. They established their own socialist municipal government, or “commune,” in the capital and enacted progressive policies that would inspire much of the country’s legislation in the following decades.

The separation of church and state was enforced, while schooling became compulsory, free and secular. Day-care centers were placed near city factories, labor unions were created by the dozen and night work for bakers was banned. Participatory democracy and parity in pay were encouraged.

After only 72 days, the Commune was besieged and then suppressed by the French Army, with brutal acts of violence on both sides. At least 7,000 insurgents were killed by army soldiers during the “bloody week,” while Commune fighters executed dozens of hostages and set fire to several historic buildings.

But it is perhaps the tragic and ephemeral nature of the Commune that has most fueled the fascination with this revolution today, its existence too brief to have led to disillusionment.

Mr. Deluermoz said that because the Commune involved so many different elements of revolutionary movements, it had fueled a wide variety of analyses.

The Commune was long invoked as a model of class warfare — Marx and Lenin saw it as the harbinger of working-class revolutions — until its memory began to fade in the 1980s, along with communist ideology.

Demonstrators during the Nuit Debout protests in 2016, a French version of the Occupy movement, renamed the Place de la République in Paris as the Place de la Commune. Yellow Vest protesters in 2018 chanted slogans like “1871 reasons to believe.”

“The problem is that we are experiencing things, injustices again, that’s what’s awakening the spirit of the Commune,” said Sophie Cloarec, pointing to the new economic insecurity and exploitation engendered by the gig economy.

Ms. Cloarec, on a recent Saturday afternoon, was participating in a feminist march honoring women who played a major role in the 1871 revolution. Around her, groups of women were papering walls with posters of famous female Commune fighters, such as the teacher Louise Michel or Victorine Brocher, who kept a canteen during the siege of Paris.

It was the latest sign of the revolution’s enduring resonance, as feminist groups are emerging as a powerful force in France against the backdrop of a delayed #MeToo movement.

Mathilde Larrère, a historian of 19th-century French revolutions, said the Commune “was a feminist movement because women embraced it” to obtain new rights like better access to education and pensions for unmarried widows.

Jean-Pierre Theurier, a member of the Association of the Friends of the Commune, said he had been surprised by the renewed public interest in the revolution. He said more people were attending the walking tours he organizes in the Père Lachaise cemetery, where a bloody battle took place between the graves and where some 150 Commune fighters were executed; bullet holes are still visible on some walls.

“There’s a return of the repressed,” Ms. Theurier said, referring to the decades-long omission of the Commune from textbooks and official discourse.

But in a country where historical anniversaries are often more divisive than unifying, and where revolutions are often a point of national pride, the Commune’s “return” has also revived old ideological quarrels over its legacy.

The fighting began at Paris City Hall in February, when conservative city councilors accused the left-wing majority of exploiting the anniversary to political ends while ignoring the Commune’s own acts of violence and destruction. Historians and politicians then clashed over the need to commemorate the event, and the French press took sides.

But perhaps the fiercest attack came from the least expected side: the left.

On a chilly March morning, City Hall officials organized the first commemorative event, gathering about 50 Parisians at the foot of the Montmartre hill to carry life-size silhouettes of famous Commune fighters. Anger roared above them, in the tiny square near the Sacré-Coeur Basilica, where left-wing demonstrators had organized their own event, boycotting the official celebration.

“You Versaillais!” a man shouted to the crowd down the hill, using the name given to people living in Versailles, the city where the central government regrouped during the Commune, and the home to French kings until the French Revolution of 1789.

“Those down there, they’re the privileged few,” said Mr. Jamet, the Yellow Vest veteran.

Standing a few feet away, Catherine Krcmar, a 70-year-old seasoned leftist activist, smiled as she watched the protest around her. “Revolutionary Paris is not dead,” she said.

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