Lissagaray: History of the Paris Commune of 1871

Chapter VI
The mayors and the Assembly combine against Paris

The thought of witnessing a massacre filled me with anguish.
(Jules Favre, Inquiry into the 4th of September.)

On the 21st the situation stood out in bold relief.

At Paris — the Central Committee, with it all the workmen and all the generous and enlightened men of the lower middle-class. The Committee said, ‘We have but one object — the elections. Everybody is welcome to co-operate with us, but we shall not leave the Hôtel-de-Ville before they have been made.’

At Versailles — the Assembly: all the monarchists, all the great bourgeoisie, all the slaveholders. They yelled, ‘Paris is only a rebel, the Central Committee a band of brigands.’

Between Versailles and Paris — a few Radical deputies, all the mayors, many adjuncts. They comprised the Liberal bourgeois, that sacred herd that makes all revolutions and allows all the empires to be made. Despised by the Assembly, disdained by the people, they cried to the Central Committee, ‘Usurpers!’ and to the Assembly, ‘You will spoil all.’

The day of the 21st is memorable, for on it all these voices made themselves heard.

The Central Committee: ‘Paris has in nowise the intention of separating from France; far from it. For France she has borne with the Empire and the Government of the National Defence, with all their treachery and defections, certainly not to abandon her now, but only to say to her as an elder sister: Sustain thyself as I have sustained myself; oppose thyself to oppression as I have done.’

And the Journal Officiel, in the first of those articles where Moreau, Longuet, and Rogeard commented upon the new revolution, said:

‘The proletarians of the capital, amidst the failures and treasons of the ruling classes, have understood that the hour has struck for them to save the situation by taking into their own hands the direction of public affairs. Hardly possessed of the government, they have hastened to convoke the people of Paris to the ballot-boxes. There is no example in history of a provisional government so anxious to divest itself of its mandate. In the presence of conduct so disinterested, one may well ask how a press can be found unjust enough to pour out upon these citizens slander, contumely, and insult? The working men, those who produce everything and enjoy nothing, are they then for ever to be exposed to outrage? The bourgeoisie, which has accomplished its emancipation, does it not understand that now the time for the emancipation of the proletariat is come? Why, then, does it persist in refusing the proletariat its legitimate share?’

It was the first socialist note struck in the movement. Parisian revolutions never remain purely political. The approach of the foreigner, the abnegation of the workmen, had, on the 4th September, silenced all social demands. Peace once concluded, the workmen in power, their voice would naturally make itself heard. How just was this complaint of the Central Committee! What an act of accusation the French proletariat could draw up against its masters! And on the 18th March, 1871, could not the people, making greater their great words of 1848, say, ‘We had placed eighty years of patience at the service of our country’?

The same day the Central Committee suspended the sale of objects pledged in the pawnshops, prolonged the overdue bills for a month, and forbade landlords to dismiss their tenants till further notice. In three lines it did justice, beat Versailles, and gained Paris.

On the other hand, the representatives and mayors told the people, ‘No election; everything is for the best. We wanted the maintenance of the National Guard; we shall have it. We wanted Paris to recover her municipal liberty; we shall have it. Your requests have been brought before the Assembly. The Assembly has satisfied them by a unanimous vote, which guarantees the municipal elections. Awaiting these, the only legal elections, we declare that we shall abstain from the elections announced for to-morrow, and we protest against their illegality.’

Thrice-lying address! The Assembly had not said a word of the National Guard; it had promised no municipal liberty, and several of the signatures were suppositious.


The bourgeois press followed suit. Since the 19th the Figarist papers, supported by the police, the altar, and the alcove, the Liberal gazettes, by which Trochu had prepared the capitulation of Paris, had not ceased to fall foul of the federal battalions. They spoke of the public coffers and private property being pillaged, of Prussian gold streaming into the faubourgs, of documentary evidence hurtful to the members of the Central Committee destroyed by them. The Republican journals also discovered gold in the movement, but Bonapartist gold; and the best of them, naïvely convinced that the Republic belonged to their patrons, inveigled against the accession of the proletariat, saying, ‘These people dishonour us.’ Emboldened by the mayors and deputies, they all agreed to revolt; and on the 21st, in a collective declaration, asked the electors to consider as null and void the illegal convocation of the Hôtel-de-Ville.

Illegality! Thus the question was put by the Legitimists, twice imposed on us by foreign bayonets; by the Orléanists, raised to power through barricades; by the brigands of December; even by the exiles returned home, thanks to an insurrection. What! When the bourgeois, who make all laws, always act illegally, how are the workmen to proceed, against whom all the laws are made?

These attacks of the mayors and deputies and of the press screwed up the courage of the Hectors of the reaction. For two days this rabble of runaways, who during the siege had infested the cafés of Brussels and the Haymarket of London, gesticulated on the fashionable boulevards, asking for order and work. On the 21st, at about ten o’clock, at the Place de la Bourse, about a hundred of these strange working men marched round the Stock Exchange, banners flying, and advancing along the boulevards to the cries of ‘Vive l’Assemblée!’ came to the Place Vendôme, shouting before the general staff, ‘Down with the Committee!’ The commander of the Place, Bergeret, told them to send delegates. ‘No, no!’ cried they; ‘no delegates! You would assassinate them!’ The federals, losing patience, had the Place cleared. The riotous fops gave themselves a rendezvous for the next day before the new Opera-House.

At the same hour the Assembly made its demonstration. The draft of an address to the people and the army, a tissue of lies and insults to Paris, having just been read, and Millière having pointed out that it contained some unfortunate expressions, was hooted. The demand of the Left to at least conclude the address with the words ‘Vive la République!’ was frantically refused by an immense majority. Louis Blanc and his group, entreating the Assembly to immediately examine their project of municipal law and oppose a vote to the elections that the Committee announced for the next day, M. Thiers answered, ‘Give us time to study the question. “Time!’ exclaimed M. Clémenceau, ‘we have none to lose.’ Then M. Thiers gave those drones a lesson they richly deserved: ‘What would be the use of concessions?’ said he. ‘What authority have you at Paris? Who would listen to you at the Hôtel-de-Ville? Do you think that the adoption of a bill would disarm the party of brigands, the party of assassins?’ Then he charged Jules Favre to expatiate on this theme for the special benefit of the provinces. For an hour and a half that bitter follower of Guadet, spinning round Paris his elaborate periods, limed her with his venom. No doubt he again saw himself on the 3 1st October, when the people held him in their power and pardoned him, a cruel remembrance for his rankling spirit. He commenced by reading the declaration of the press, ‘courageously written,’ said he, ‘under the knife of the assassins.’ He spoke of Paris as in the power of ‘a handful of scoundrels, putting above the right of the Assembly I know now what bloody and rapacious ideal.’ Then, humbly supplicating monarchists and Catholics: ‘What they want,’ cried he, ‘what they have realized, is an attempt at that baleful doctrine which in philosophy may be called individualism and materialism, and which in politics means the Republic placed above universal suffrage.’ At this idiotic quibbling the Assembly burst into roars of applause. ‘These new doctors,’ continued he, ‘have the pretension of separating Paris from France. But let the insurgents know this: if we left Paris, it was with the intention of returning in order to combat them resolutely. (Bravo! bravo!) Then stirring the panic of those rurals who every moment expected to see the federal battalions coming down upon them: ‘If some of you fall into the hands of these men, who have only usurped power for the sake of violence, assassination and theft, the fate of the unfortunate victims of their ferocity would be yours.’ And finally, garbling, improving with ferocious skill the maladroitness of an article in the Journal Officiel on the execution of the generals: ‘No more temporizing. For three days I combated the exigencies of the victor Who wanted to disarm the National Guard. I ask pardon for it of God and of man.’ Each new insult, each banderillo thrust into the flesh of Paris, drew from the Assembly mad hurrahs. Admiral Saisset stamped, emphasising certain phrases of the speaker with his hoarse interjections. Goaded by these wild cheers, Jules Favre doubled his invective. Since the Gironde, since Isnard’s curse, Paris had not undergone such an imprecation. Even Langlois, unable to stand it any longer, exclaimed, ‘0h, it is outrageous, atrocious to speak thus!’ And when Jules Favre concluded, implacable, impassible, only foaming a little at the mouth: ‘France will not be lowered to the bloody level of the wretches who oppress the capital,’ the whole Assembly rose raving. ‘Let us appeal to the provinces,’ shrieked the rurals. And Saisset: ‘Yes, let us appeal to the provinces and march on Paris.’ In vain one of the deputies of the Seine adjured the Assembly not to let them return to Paris empty-handed. This great bourgeoisie, which had just surrendered the honour, the fortune, and the territory of France to the Prussians, trembled with rage at the mere thought of conceding anything to Paris.

After this horrible scene, the Radical deputies found nothing better to do than to issue a lachrymose address inviting Paris to be patient. The Central Committee was obliged to adjourn the elections till the 23rd, for several mairies belonged to the enemy; but on the 22nd it warned the papers that provocation to revolt would be severely repressed.

The matadors of reaction, reanimated by Jules Favre’s speech, took this warning for an idle boast. On the 22nd at mid-day they assembled at the Place du Nouvel Opera. At one o’clock they numbered a thousand dandies, petty squires, journalists, notorious familiars of the Empire, who marched down the Rue de la Paix to the cry of ‘Vive l’ordre!’ Their plan was, under the cloak of a pacific demonstration, to force the Place Vendôme and to expel the Federals from it; then, masters of the mairie of the first arrondissement, of half of the second and of Passy, they would have cut Paris in two and menaced the Hôtel-de-Ville. Admiral Saisset followed them.

Before the Rue Neuve St. Augustin these pacific demonstrationmen disarmed and ill-treated two detached sentries of the National Guard. Seeing this, the Federals of the Place Vendôme seized their muskets and hurried in marching order to the top of the Rue Neuve des Petits-Champs. They were but 200, the whole garrison of the place; the two cannon levelled at the Rue de la Paix had no cartridges. The reactionists soon encountered the first line with the cry, ‘Down with the Committee! Down with the assassins!’ waving a banner and their handkerchiefs, while some of them stretched out their hands to seize the muskets. Bergeret and Maljournal, members of the Committee, in the first ranks, summoned the rioters to retire. Furious cries of ‘Cowards! brigands!’ drowned their voices, and sword-canes were pointed at them. Bergeret made a sign to the drummers. A dozen times the sommations were made and repeated. For several minutes only the roll of the drums was heard, and between these savage cries. The ranks in the rear of the demonstration pushed on those in front and tried to break through the lines of the Federals. At last, despairing no doubt of succeeding by mere bravado, the insurgents fired their revolvers; [97] two guards were killed and seven wounded;[98] Maljournal was struck in the thigh.

The muskets of the guards went off, so to say, spontaneously. A volley and a terrible cry, followed by silence more dismal. In a few seconds the crowded Rue de la Paix was emptied. In the deserted road, strewn with revolvers, sword-canes, and hats, lay about a dozen corpses. If the Federals had only aimed at foes’ hearts, there would have been 200 killed, for in this compact mass no shot would have missed. The insurgents had killed one of their own, the Vicomte de Molinat, fallen in the front ranks, his face towards the square, a ball in the back of his head. On his body was found a dagger fixed by a small chain. An adroit ball struck in the rear the chief editor of the Paris Journal, the Bonapartist De Pène, one of the basest revilers of the movement.

The runaways traversed Paris shouting, ‘Murder!’ The shops of the boulevards were closed and the Place de la Bourse filled with rabid groups. At four o’clock some of the reactionary companies appeared, resolute, in good order, their muskets on their shoulders, and took possession of the quarters of the Bourse.

At three o’clock the event became known at Versailles. The Assembly had just rejected Louis Blanc’s bill on the municipal council, and Picard was reading another one refusing all justice to Paris, when the news arrived. The Assembly precipitately raised the sitting; the Ministers looked dumb-founded.

All their swaggering of the evening before had only been meant to frighten Paris, to encourage the men of order, and provoke a coup-de-main. The incident had occurred, but the Central Committee triumphed. For the first time M. Thiers began to believe that this Committee, able to repress a riot, might after all be a Government.

The news in the evening was more reassuring. The fusillade seemed to have roused the men of order. They were flocking to the Place de la Bourse. A great many officers just returned from Germany came to offer their help. The reactionary companies were establishing them selves solidly in the mairie of the ninth arrondissement and reoccupying that of the sixth, dislodging the Federals of the St. Lazare station, guarding all the approaches of the occupied quarters, and forcibly arresting the passers-by. They formed a town within the town. The mayors were constituting a permanent committee in the mairie of the second arrondissement. Their resistance was now provided with an army.