Friday, June 17, 2011

The Commune

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the Commune, a government that held power in Paris from March to May 1871.  It's a period of history that no one much likes to talk about, perhaps because it was marked by so much internecine violence.  Or perhaps because no one, left or right, is willing to talk about the failures on both sides.  Whatever the reason, mementos about the period pop up around town, from the grafitti scratched into a wall in the 19th to a mural in the 7th, or streets in the 18th dedicated to the Commune's standard bearers.

Here's the Cliff Notes version as I understand it: 

In early 1871, France was at a low point, having just lost the Franco-Prussian War.  Paris had particularly suffered in this conflict; during the months long siege by the Prussians, there were severe food shortages and people were reduced to slaughtering pets and vermin to stay alive.  When the Germans finally left, the city was in tatters, social and economic conditions at a low point.  Discontent among the working class, that had been simmering for a decades, came to a head.

The future of Paris, however, lay not in their hands but with the national government which, like the kings before them, feared what Parisians might do if given the right to control their own city.  And so the workers took matters into their own hands, forming a new government called the Commune and immediately issued various decrees issued to improve quality of life:  educational reforms, separation of church and state, relief of debt for working men, and the abolition of night work.  The national government and its army retreated to Versailles.

And then from what I can gather, chaos ensued.  The revolutionaries were not fully prepared for the task of governing and the military powers were hell bent on breaking the revolutionaries at any cost.  No one was willing to negotiate.  Blood ran in the streets and fires burned, destroying many parts of the city including the Tuileries. At the end, the national government was triumphant, the revolutionaries shot or exiled.  And nothing much changed.

And yet the fight continues.  A conversation with friends who live in the 7th and 8th criticized a recent exhibit on the Commune at the Hotel de Ville as being predictably skewed towards the revolutionaries, the mayor of Paris being after all a Socialist.  In the 20th, the mairie sanctioned creation of a mural celebrating the anniversary. (To fully appreciate this mural, click on the picture below and it will enlarge.)

And opposite this wall, a billboard calls upon local residents to join the spirit of the Commune in carrying out unfulfilled promises for social and economic improvement.

Vive la Commune?  It's not for me to say.  But as for keeping history alive and using it as a tool for social progress, I'm all for it.


Paulita said...

The ideas that the workers put forth seem just, so I could see what some people still support it. I guess the other side would have their own complaints about power corrupting or incompetent handling of the city. I love that anyone would say "Vive...." fill in the blank!

Peter (the other) said...

"Viva la Commune? It's not for me to say. "

I understand your reticence, as I have myself, toned down from a youthful socialistic and even sometimes communistic bent, having seen life for a while, all of the absolutes have worn thin. Still, the beauty and history of Paris, as can be seen so wonderfully examined in your blog as well as your fellow Paris bloggers, does nothing if not raising the eternal question of how we are to live together as a species.

People have died for our freedoms we enjoy today, most of whom have not been in the uniform of any particular country and their names are not listed on monuments. I feel their dying question still in the air, and perhaps for those who are still living as slaves (our personal definition of which will show how many that might be), I posit the idea that it is at least our business to think about it. Then, if someday confronted with a choice, we will know where we stand and be less apt to to be seduced by the easiest option.

All in all, I do not think the question of "the commune" is a national one, but a human one, and therefore it is "yours to say".

Starman said...

"And nothing much changed" That phrase pretty much sums up the total French experience!

Arlington BigFish said...

Apropos of nothing in this particular article, I see your short-timer's clock indicates you'll be leaving Paris around midnight. Tough time to start a trip with small kids ;-)

Related Posts with Thumbnails