Lissagaray: History of the Paris Commune of 1871

Chaper VII
The Central Committee forces the mayors to capitulate

The Central Committee was equal to the occasion. Its proclamations, its Socialist articles in the Officiel, the truculence of the mayors and deputies, had at last rallied round it all the revolutionary groups. It had also added to its members some men better known to the masses.[99] By its order the Place Vendôme was provided with barricades; the battalions of the Hôtel-de-Ville were reinforced; strong patrols remounted the boulevards before the reactionary posts of the Rues Vivienne and Drouot. Thanks to it, the night passed tranquilly.

As the elections on the next day had become impossible, the Committee declared they could only take place on the 26th, and said to Paris: ‘The reaction, excited by your mayors and your deputies, has declared war on us. We must accept the struggle and break this resistance.’ It announced that it would summon before it all the journalists libelling the people. It sent a battalion of Belleville to reoccupy the mairie of the sixth, and replaced by its delegates the mayors and adjuncts of the third, tenth, eleventh, twelfth, and eighteenth arrondissements, in spite of their protestations. M. Clémenceau wrote that he yielded to force, but would not himself resort to force. This was all the more magnanimous that his whole force consisted of himself and his adjunct. The Federals installed themselves at the Battignolles on the railway lines, and stopped the trains, thus preventing the occupation of the St. Lazare station. Lastly. the Committee proceeded energetically against the Bourse.


The reaction counted upon famine to make the Committee capitulate. The million of the Monday was gone; a second one had been promised. On the Thursday morning, Varlin and Jourde, going to fetch an instalment, received only threats. They wrote to the governor: ‘To starve out the people, such is the aim of a party that styles itself honest. Famine disarms no one; it will only encourage devastation. We take up the gauntlet that has been flung down to us.’ And, without deigning to take any notice of the swash-bucklers of the Bourse, the Committee sent two battalions to the bank, which had to give in.

At the same time the Committee neglected nothing in order to reassure Paris. Numerous ticket-of-leave men had been let loose upon the town. The Committee denounced them to the vigilance of the National Guard, and posted upon the doors of the Hôtel-de-Ville, ‘Every individual taken in the act of stealing will be shot.’ Picard’s police had failed to put an end to the gamblers who every night since the siege had encumbered the streets; a single order of the Committee sufficed. The great scarecrow of the reactionaries was the Prussians, and Jules Favre had announced their early intervention. The Committee published the despatches that had passed between it and the commander of Compiegne, to this effect: ‘The German troops will remain passive so long as Paris does not take a hostile attitude.’ The Committee had answered with great dignity: ‘The Revolution accomplished at Paris is of an essentially municipal character. We are not qualified to discuss the preliminaries of peace voted by the Assembly.’ Paris was therefore without anxiety on that head.

The only disturbance proceeded from the mayors. Authorized by M. Thiers, they appointed as chief of the National Guards Saisset, the madman of the sitting of the 21st, giving him Langlois and Schoelcher as coadjutors, and made every effort to attract National Guards to the Place de la Bourse, where they distributed the pay due to the guards of the invaded mairies. Many came only to get the pay, not to fight. Even the chiefs began to be divided amongst themselves. The most rabid certainly spoke of sweeping away everything before them. Those were Vautrain, Dubail, Denormandie, Degouve-Denuncques, and Heligon, an ex-working man, an idle fellow, admitted into the bourgeois servants’ hall, and bumptious like other lackeys. But many others flagged and thought of conciliation, especially since some of the deputies and adjuncts — Millière, Malon, Dereure, and Jaclard had withdrawn from the union of the mayors, thus still further setting forth its frankly reactionary character. Finally, some soft-headed mayors, still believing that the Assembly needed only enlightenment, extemporized a melodramatic scene.

They arrived at Versailles on the 23rd, at the moment when the rurals, again plucking up their courage, made an appeal to the provinces to march on Paris. In most solemn attitude these mayors put in their appearance before the tribune of the president, girdled with their official scarfs. The Left applauded, crying ‘Vive la République!’ The Larnourettes returned the compliment. But the Right and the Centre cried ‘Vive la France! Order! Order!’ and with clenched hands they challenged the deputies of the Left, who naively answered, ‘You insult Paris!’ to which the others replied, ‘You insult France!’ and they left the House. In the evening a deputy, who was also a mayor, Arnaud De l'Ariege, read from the tribune the declaration that they had brought, and wound up by saying, ‘We are on the eve of an awful civil war. There is but one way to prevent it — that the election of the commander-in-chief of the National Guard be fixed for the 28th, and that of the municipal council for the 3rd of April.’ These propositions were referred to the Committee.

The mayors returned home indignant. A despatch of the evening before had already disquieted Paris. M. Thiers announced to the provinces that the Bonapartist Ministers, Rouher, Chevreau, and Boitelle, arrested by the people of Boulogne, had been protected, and that Marshal Canrobert, one of the accomplices of Bazaine, had offered his services to the Government. The insult inflicted upon the mayors irritated the whole middle-class, and called forth a sudden change in their Republican journals. The attacks against the Central Committee relaxed. Even the Moderates began to expect the worst from Versailles.

The Central Committee took advantage of this change of opinion. Having just been informed of the proclamation of the Commune at Lyons, it spoke out all the more clearly in its manifesto of the 24th. ‘Some battalions, misled by their reactionary chiefs, have thought it their duty to block our movements. Some mayors and deputies, forgetting their mandates, have encouraged this resistance. We rely upon your courage for the accomplishment of our mission. It is objected that the Assembly promises us at some indefinite period the election of the municipal council and that of our chiefs, and that consequently our resistance ought not to be prolonged. We have been deceived too often to be entrapped again; the left hand would take back what the right hand gives. See what the Government has already done. In the Chamber, through the voice of Jules Favre, it has challenged us to a terrible civil war, called on the provinces to destroy Paris, and covered us with the most odious calumnies.’

Having spoken, the Committee now acted, and named three generals — Brunei, Duval, and Eudes. It had to confine the drunkard Lullier, who, assisted by a staff of traitors, had the evening before allowed a whole regiment of the army encamped at the Luxembourg to leave Paris with arms and baggage. Now, too, it was known that Mont-Valerien was lost by his fault.

The generals made a profession not to be misunderstood: ‘This is no longer a time for parliamentarism. We must act. Paris wishes to be free. The great city will not permit public order to be disturbed with impunity.’

A direct caution this, addressed to the camp of the Bourse, which, moreover, was visibly growing less. The desertions from it multiplied at every sitting of the rurals. Women came to fetch their husbands. The Bonapartist officers, overshooting the mark, irritated moderate Republicans. The programme of the mayors — submission to Versailles — discouraged the middle class. The general staff of this helter-skelter army had been foolishly established at the Grand Hôtel. There sat the crazy trio — Saisset, Langlois, and Schoelcher — who, from extreme confidence, had fallen into a state of utter dejection. The most crack-brained of them, Saisset, took upon himself to announce by placards that the Assembly had granted the complete recognition of the municipal franchise, the election of all the officers of the National Guard, including the general-in-chief, modifications of the law on the overdue commercial bills, and a bill on rents favourable to the tenants. This gigantic hoax only mystified Versailles.

The Committee, pushing forward, [100] ordered Brunei to seize the mairies of the first and second arrondissements. Brunei, with 600 men of Belleville, two pieces of artillery, and accompanied by two delegates of the Committee, Lisbonne and Protot, presented himself at three o'clock at the mairie of the Louvre. The bourgeois companies assumed an air of resistance. Brunei had his cannon advanced, when the passage was at once opened to him. He declared to the adjuncts, Meline and Adam, that the Committee would proceed with the elections as soon as possible. The adjuncts, intimidated, sent to the mairie of the second arrondissement to ask for the authorization to treat. Dubail answered that they might promise the elections for the 3rd April. Brunei insisted on appointing the 30th March. The adjuncts acquiesced. The National Guards of the two camps saluted this agreement with enthusiastic acclamations, and mingling their ranks, marched to the mairie of the second arrondissement. In the Rue Montmartre a few companies of the Bourse army,. trying to stop the way, were told, ‘Peace is made,’ and they let them pass. At the mairie of the second arrondissement, Schoelcher, who presided at the meeting of the mayors, Dubail, and Vautrain resisted, refusing to ratify the convention, insisting on the date of the 3rd April. But the great majority of their colleagues accepted that of the 30th, and the election of the commander-in-chief of the National Guard for the 3rd April. Immense cheers hailed the good news, and the popular battalions, saluted by the bourgeois battalions, marched through the Rue Vivienne and the boulevards, dragging along their cannon, mounted by lads with green branches in their hands.

The Central Committee could not accept this transaction. Twice it had postponed the elections. A new adjournment would have given certain mayors five days for plotting and playing into the hands of Versailles. Besides, the Federal battalions, on foot since the 18th, were really tired out. Ranvier and Arnold the same evening went to the mairie of the second arrondissement to say that the Hôtel-de-Ville adhered to the date of the 26th for the elections. The mayors and adjuncts, many of whom had only the one purpose, as they have avowed since,[101] of gaining time, inveighed against a breach of faith. The delegates protested, for Brunel. had had no mandate but that of occupying the mairies. For several hours everything was tried to talk over the delegates, but they held their ground, and went away at two o'clock in the morning without any conclusion being arrived at. After their departure the more intractable discussed the chance of resistance. The irrepressible Dubail wrote a call to arms, sent it to the printing-office, and spent the whole night with his faithful Heligon in transmitting orders to the chiefs of battalions and providing the mairie with machine-guns.

While they were thus bent upon resistance the rurals thought themselves betrayed. Every day they became more nervous, being deprived of their creature-comforts, obliged to camp in the lobbies of the castle of Versailles, exposed to all winds and to all panics. They felt weary of the incessant interference of the mayors, and were thunderstruck by the proclamation of Saisset. They fancied that M. Thiers was coquetting with the mob, that the petit bourgeois, as he hypocritically called himself, wanted to cozen the monarchists, and, using Paris as his lever, overthrow them. They spoke of removing him, and appointing as commander-in-chief one of the D'Orleans, Joinville or D'Aumale. Their plot might have come to a head at the evening

sitting, when the proposition of the mayors was to be read. M. Thiers was beforehand with them, implored the Assembly to adjourn the discussion, adding that an ill-considered word might cost torrents of blood. Grevy shuffled through the sitting in ten minutes. But the rumour of a plot got abroad.

Saturday was the last day of the crisis. Either the Central Committee or. the mayors had to disappear. The Committee on that very morning placarded: ‘The transport of machine-guns to the mairie of the second arrondissement compels us to maintain our resolution. The election will take place on the 26th March’. Paris, which had believed peace concluded, and for the first time in five days had passed a quiet night, was very angry at seeing the mayors recommence the wrangle. The idea of the election had made its way in all ranks, and many papers declared for it, even among those that had signed the protestation of the 21st. No one could understand this quarrel about a date. One irresistible current of fraternization swayed the whole town. The ranks of the two or three hundred soldiers of order who had remained faithful to Dubail dwindled away from hour to hour, leaving Admiral Saisset alone to make his proclamation in the desert of the Grand Hôtel. The mayors had no longer an army when, at ten o'clock, Ranvier came to ask for their final decision. Their dispute grew hot when some deputies of Paris on their return from Versailles announced the news that the Duc d'Aumale was proclaimed lieutenant-general. Several mayors and adjuncts then at last understood that the Republic was at stake, and, convinced of their impotence, capitulated. The draft of a poster was drawn up to be signed by the mayors, deputies, and for the Central Committee by the two delegates Ranvier and Arnold. The Committee wanted to sign en masse, and slightly modified the text, saying, ‘The Central Committee, round which the deputies of Paris, the mayors, and adjuncts have rallied, convokes. . .’thereupon some of the mayors, on the look-out for a pretext, rose, crying, ‘This is not our convention; we said the deputies, the mayors, the adjuncts, and the members of the Committee ... ;’ and, at the risk of rekindling the embers, posted up the protest. Yet the Committee might well say, ‘Which have rallied?’ since it had yielded no point. However, Paris overruled the mischief-mongers. Admiral Saisset had to disband the four men who remained to him. Tirard in a poster advised the electors to vote; for M. Thiers that same morning had given him the hint, ‘Do not continue a useless resistance. I am reorganizing the army. I hope that in a fortnight or three weeks we shall have a sufficient force to relieve Paris.’[102]

Five deputies only signed the address for the election, MM. Lockroy, Floquet, Clémenceau, Tolain, and Greppo; the rest of Louis Blanc’s group had kept aloof from Paris for several days. These weaklings, having all their life sung the glories of the Revolution, when it rose up before them ran away appalled, like the Arab fisherman at the apparition of the genie.

With these mandarins of the tribune of history and of journalism, mute and lifeless, contrast strangely the sons of the multitude, obscure, but rich in will, faith, and eloquence. Their farewell address was worthy of their advent: ‘Do not forget that the men who will serve you best are those whom you will choose from amongst yourselves, living your life, suffering the same ills. Beware of the ambitious as much as the upstarts. Beware also of mere talkers. Shun those whom fortune has favoured, for only too rarely is he who possesses fortune prone to look upon the working man as a brother. Give your preference to those who do not solicit your suffrages. True merit is modest, and it is for the workingmen to know those who are worthy, not for these to present themselves.’

They could indeed ‘come down the steps of the Hôtel-de-Ville head erect,’ these obscure men who had safely anchored the revolution of the 18th March. Named only to organize the National Guard, thrown up at the head of a revolution without precedent and without guides, they had been able to resist the impatient, quell the riot, re-establish the public services, victual Paris, baffle intrigues, take advantage of all the blunders of Versailles and of the mayors, and, harassed on all sides, every moment in danger of civil war, known how to negotiate, to act at the right time and in the right place. They had embodied the tendency of the movement, limited their programme to communal revindications, and conducted the entire population to the ballot-box. They had inaugurated a precise, vigorous, and fraternal language unknown to all bourgeois powers.

And yet they were obscure men, all with an incomplete education, some of them fanatics. But the people thought with them. Paris was the brazier, the Hôtel-de-Ville the flame. In the Hôtel-de-Ville, where illustrious bourgeois have only accumulated folly upon defeat, these new-comers found victory because they listened to Paris.

May their services absolve them from two grave faults — allowing the escape of the army and of the functionaries, and the retaking of the Mont-Valérien by Versailles. It has been said that on the 19th or 20th they ought to have marched on Versailles. But on the first alarm these would have fled to Fontainebleau, with the Administration and the Left, everything that was wanted to govern and deceive the provinces. The occupation of Versailles would only have displaced the enemy, and it would not have been for long, as the popular battalions were too badly provided, too badly commanded, to hold at the same time this open town and Paris.

At all events, the Central Committee left its successor all the means necessary to disarm the enemy.