Lissagaray: History of the Paris Commune of 1871

Chapter VI
Reorganization of the Public Services

I thought the Paris insurgents would be unable to steer their own ship.
(Jules Favre, Inquiry into the 18th of March.)

Thus no agreement had been come to, only one of the four delegates having, from sheer weariness, given way to a certain extent. So on the morning of the 20th, when the mayor Bonvalet and two adjuncts sent by the mayors came to take possession of the Hôtel-de-Ville, the members of the Committee unanimously exclaimed, ‘We have not treated.’ But Bonvalet, feigning to believe in a regular agreement, continued, ‘The deputies are today going to ask for the municipal franchises. Their negotiations cannot succeed if the administration of Paris is not given up to the mayors. On pain of frustrating the efforts which will save you, you must fulfil the engagements of your delegates.’

One of the Committee: ‘Our delegates received no mandate to enter into such engagements for us. We do not ask to be saved.’

Another: ‘The weakness of the deputies and of the mayors is one of the causes of the revolution. If the Committee abandons its position and disarms, the Assembly will grant nothing.’

Another: ‘I have just come from the Corderie. The Committee of the second arrondissement is holding a sitting, and it adjures the Central Committee to remain at its post till the elections.’

Others were about to speak, when Bonvalet declared that he had come to take possession of the Hôtel-de-Ville, not to discuss, and walked off. His superciliousness confirmed the worst suspicions. Those who the evening before had been favourable to making terms said, ‘These men want to betray us.’ Behind the mayors the Committee beheld the implacable reaction. In any case, to ask them for the Hôtel-de-Ville was to ask their fives, for the National Guards would have believed them traitors, and punished them on the spot. In one word, compromise had become impossible. The Journal Officiel, for the first time in the hands of the people, and the news posters had spoken.

‘The election of the municipal council will take place on Wednesday next, 22nd March,’ decreed the Central Committee. And in a manifesto it said, ‘The offspring of a Republic whose device bears the great word Fraternity, the Central Committee pardons its traducers, but it would convince the honest people who have believed their calumnies through ignorance. It has not been secret, for its members have signed their names to all its proclamations. It has not been unknown, for it was a free expression of the suffrage of 215 battalions. It has not been the fomenter of disorder, for the National Guard has committed no excess. And yet provocations have not been wanting. The Government calumniated Paris and set on the provinces against her, wished to impose on us a general, attempted to disarm us, and said to Paris, “Thou hast shown thyself heroic, we are afraid of thee, hence we will tear from thee the crown of the capital of France.” What has the Central Committee done in answer to these attacks? It has founded the Federation, preached moderation, generosity. One of the greatest causes of anger against us is the obscurity of our names. Alas! many names were known, well known, and this notoriety has been fatal to us. Notoriety is cheaply gained; often hollow phrases or a little cowardice suffice; recent events have proved this. Now that our object is attained, we say to the people, who esteemed us enough to listen to the advice that has often clashed with their impatience, “Here is the mandate you entrusted to us.” There, where our personal interest commences, our duty ends. Do your will. You have freed yourselves. Obscure a few days ago, obscure we shall return to your ranks, and show our governors that it is possible to descend the steps of your Hôtel-de-Ville, head erect, with the certainty of receiving at the bottom the pressure of your loyal and hardy hands.’[93] By the side of the proclamation of an eloquence so vivid and so novel the deputies and the mayors posted up a few dry and colourless lines, where they promised to demand of the Assembly that same day the election of all the chiefs of the National Guard and the establishment of a municipal council.

At Versailles they found a wildly excited crowd. The terrified functionaries who arrived from Paris spread terror about them, and five or six insurrections were announced from the provinces. The coalition was dismayed. Paris victorious, the Government in flight this was not what had been promised. These conspirators, blown up by the mine which they had themselves sprung, raised the cry of conspiracy, spoke of taking refuge at Bourges. Picard had certainly telegraphed to all the provinces, ‘The, army, to the number of 40,000 men, is concentrated at Versailles;’ but the only army to be seen was straggling bands of soldiers wandering about the streets. All Vinoy had been able to do was to place a few posts along the routes of Châtillon and Sèvres, and protect the approaches to the Assembly with a few machine-guns.

The President, Grévy, who during the whole war had cowered in the provinces, sullenly hostile to the defence, opened the sitting by stigmatizing this criminal insurrection ‘which no pretext could extenuate.’ Then the deputies of the Seine commenced a procession towards the tribune. Instead of a collective manifesto, they laid before the Assembly a series of fragmentary propositions, without connection; without general views, and without a preamble to explain them. First a bill convoking with the least delay the elections of Paris, then another granting to the National Guard the election of its chiefs. Millière alone thought of the overdue commercial bills, and proposed to prolong them for six months.

Till then exclamations only and half-muttered insults had been levelled at Paris, but no formal act of accusation. In the evening sitting a deputy applied this requisite. Trochu made a sortie. In this monstrous scene, which a Shakespeare only could depict, the gloomy man who had softly slipped the great town into the hands of William, threw his own treason upon the revolutionaries, accusing them of having almost a dozen times brought the Prussians into Paris. And the Assembly, grateful for his services, his hatred, giving him the crown he merited, covered him with applause. Another came to fan this rage. The evening before the National Guards had arrested two generals in uniform in a train arriving from Orléans. One of them was Chanzy, unknown to the crowd, who took him for D’Aurelles. They could not have been released without endangering their lives, but a deputy, Turquet, who accompanied them, was immediately set free. He rushed off to the Chamber, told them a fairy tale, and affected to be much moved in speaking of his companions. ‘I hope,’ said the hypocrite, ‘that they will not be assassinated.’ This story was accompanied by the furious yelling of the Assembly. [94]


From the first sitting one could see what the struggle between Versailles and Paris was to be. The monarchical conspirators, abandoning their dream for a moment, hastened to do the most urgent work first: to save themselves from the Revolution. They surrounded M. Thiers and promised him their absolute support to crush Paris. Thus this Ministry, that a truly National Assembly would have impeached, became, even through its crime, all-powerful. Scarcely recovered from the fright of their stampede, M. Thiers and his Ministers dared to play the swaggerers. And indeed, would not the provinces hasten to their rescue, as in June, 1848? And proletarians without political education, without administration, without money, how could they be able ‘to steer their barque’?

In 1831 the proletarians, masters of Lyons, had failed in their attempt at self-government, and how much greater was the difficulty for those of Paris! All new powers had until then found the administrative machine in working order, in readiness for the victor. On the 20th March the Central Committee found it taken to pieces. At the signal from Versailles the majority of functionaries had abandoned their posts. Taxes, street inspection, lighting, markets, public charity, telegraphs, all the respiratory and digestive apparatus of the town of 1,600,000 souls, everything had to be extemporized. Certain mayors had carried off the seals, the registers, and the cash of their mairies. The military intendance left without a farthing six thousand sick in the hospitals and ambulances.[95] M. Thiers had tried to disorganize even the management of the cemeteries.

Poor man! who never knew anything of our Paris, of her inexhaustible strength, her marvellous elasticity. The Central Committee received support from all sides. The committees of arrondissements furnished a personnel to the mairies; some of the lower middle class lent their experience, and the most important services were set to rights in no time by men of common sense and energy, which soon proved superior to routine. The employees who had remained at their posts in order to hand over the funds to Versailles were soon discovered and obliged to flee.

The Central Committee overcame a more menacing difficulty. Three hundred thousand persons without work, without resources of any kind, were waiting for the thirty sous upon which they had lived for the last seven months. On the 19th, Varlin and Jourde, delegates to the finance department, took possession of that Ministry. The coffers, according to the statement of accounts handed over to them, contained 4,600,000 francs; but the keys were at Versailles, and, in view of the movement for conciliation then being carried on, the delegates did not dare to force the locks. The next day they went to ask Rothschild to open them a credit at the bank, and he sent word that the funds would be advanced. The same day the Central Committee broached the question more forcibly, and sent three delegates to the bank to request the necessary advances. They were answered that a million was placed at the disposition of Varlin and Jourde, who at six o’clock in the evening were received by the governor, M. Rouland. ‘I expected your visit,’ he said. ‘On the morning following a change of Government, the bank has always to find the money for the newcomers. It is not my business to judge events; the Bank of France has nothing to do with politics. You are a de facto Government, and the bank gives you for today a million. Only be so kind as to mention in your receipt that this sum has been requisitioned on account of the town of Paris. [96] The delegates took away a million francs in bank notes. All the employees of the Ministry of Finance had disappeared since the morning, but with the help of a few friends the sum was rapidly divided among the paying officers. At ten o’clock the delegates were able to tell the Central Committee that the pay was being distributed in all the arrondissements.

The bank acted prudently: the Central Committee firmly held Paris. The mayors and deputies had not been able to unite more than three or four hundred men, although they had charged Admiral Saisset with the organization of the resistance. The Committee was so sure of its strength that it had the barricades demolished. Everybody came to it, the garrison of Vincennes spontaneously surrendering themselves with the fort. Its victory was too complete, for it was perilous, obliging it to disperse its troops in order to take possession of the abandoned forts on the south. Lullier, entrusted with this mission, had the forts of Ivry, Bicêtre, Montrouge, Vanves, and Issy occupied on the 19th and 20th. The last to which he sent the National Guard, Mont-Valérien, was the key of Paris, and, at that time, of Versailles.

For thirty-six hours the impregnable fortress had remained empty. On the evening of the 18th, after the order of evacuation, it had to defend it only twenty muskets and some chasseurs of Vincennes, interned there for mutiny. The same evening they burst open the locks of the fortress and returned to Paris.

When the evacuation of Mont-Valérien became known at Versailles, generals and deputies begged M. Thiers to have it reoccupied. He obstinately refused, declaring this fort had no strategical value. During the whole day of the 19th they still failed. At last Vinoy, in his turn, urged by them, succeeded on the 20th, at one o’clock in the morning, in wresting an order from M. Thiers. A column was immediately despatched, and at mid-day a thousand soldiers occupied the fortress. Not until evening, at eight o’clock, did the battalions of Ternes present themselves; the governor easily got rid of their officers. Lullier, on making his report to the Central Committee, said he had occupied all the forts, and even named the battalion which, according to him, was then in possession of Mont-Valérien.