Lissagaray: History of the Paris Commune of 1871

Chapter IX
The Commune at Lyons, St. Etienne and Creuzot

All parts of France have united and rallied around the Assembly and the government. (Circular from Thiers to the Provinces, evening of the 23rd.)

What was the state of the provinces?

For some days, without any of the Parisian journals, they lived upon lying despatches of M. Thiers, 103 then looked at the signatures to the proclamations of the Central Committee, and finding there neither the Left nor the democratic paragons, said, ‘Who are these unknown men?’ The Republican bourgeois, misinformed on the events occurring during the siege of Paris — very cleverly hoodwinked, too, by the Conservative press — cried, like their fathers who in their time had said, ‘Pitt and Coburg’, when unable to comprehend popular movements, ‘These unknown men can be nothing but Bonapartists.’ The people alone showed true instinct.

The Paris Commune found its first echo at Lyons. This was a necessary reverberation. Since the advent of the Assembly the workmen found themselves watched. The municipal councillors, weak men, some of them, almost to reaction, had lowered the red flag under the pretext that ‘the proud flag of resistance a outrance should not survive the humiliation of France’. The clumsy trick had not deceived the people, who, at the Guillotière, mounted guard round their flag. The new prefect, Valentin, an ex-officer as brutal as vulgar, a kind of Clément-Thomas, sufficiently forewarned the people what sort of Republic was in store for them.

On the 19th, at the first news, Republicans were on the alert, nor did they hide their sympathy for Paris. The next day Valentin issued a provocative proclamation, seized the Parisian journals, and refused to communicate any despatches. On the 21st, in the municipal council, some of the members grew indignant, and one said, ‘Let us at least have the courage to be the Commune of Lyons.’ On the 22nd, at mid-day, eight hundred delegates of the National Guard assembled at the Palais de St. Pierre. A motion was put proposing to choose between Paris and Versailles. A citizen just arrived from Paris explained the movement there, and many wanted the meeting to declare itself immediately for Paris. The Assembly finally sent delegates to the Hôtel-de-Ville to ask for the extension of the municipal liberties, the appointment of the mayor as chief of the National Guard, and his investiture with the functions of prefect.

The municipal council was just sitting. The mayor, Hénon, a wooden-headed relic of 1848, opposed all resistance to Versailles. The mayor of the Guillotière, Crestin, a known Republican, demanded that they should at least protest. Others wanted the council to extend its prerogatives. Hénon threatened to tender his resignation if they went on like that, and proposed they should repair to the prefect, who was then convoking the reactionary battalions.

The delegates of the Palais de St. Pierre arrived, and were roughly received by Hénon. One deputation succeeded another, always meeting with the same rebuffs. However, during this time the battalions of Brotteaux and La Guillotière were preparing, and at eight o'clock a dense mass filled the Place des Terreaux in front of the Hôtel-de-Ville, crying, ‘Vive la Commune! Down with Versailles!’ The reactionary battalions did not respond to the prefect’s appeal.

Part of the council had met again at nine o'clock, while the others, together with Hénon, were still wrangling with the delegates. After an answer from the mayor, which left them no hope of coming to an understanding, the delegates invaded the council-chamber, and the crowd, apprised of this, rushed into the Hôtel-de-Ville. The delegates, sitting down round the council table, named Crestin mayor of Lyons. He refused, and, summoned to give his reasons, declared that the direction of the movement belonged to those who had initiated it. After a great uproar, the National Guards acclaimed a Communal Commission, at the head of which they placed five municipal councillors — Crestin, Durand, Bouvatier, Perret and Velay. The delegates sent for Valentin, and asked him if he were for Versailles. He answered that his proclamation could leave no doubt on that head whereupon he was put under arrest. Then they decided on the proclamation of the Commune, the dissolution of the municipal council, the dismissal of the prefect and of the general of the National Guard, who was to be replaced by Ricciotti Garibaldi, noted alike by — his name and his services in the army of the Vosges. These resolutions were announced to the people and hailed with cheers. The red flag was again unfurled from the balcony.

The next day, the 23rd March, early in the morning, the five councillors named the evening before backed out, thus obliging the insurgents to present themselves single-handed to Lyons and the neighbouring towns. ‘The Commune’, they said, ‘must demand for Lyons the right to impose and administer her own taxes, to have her own police, and to dispose of her National Guard, which is to occupy all posts and forts.’ This rather meagre programme was a little further expanded by the committees of the National Guard and the Republican Alliance: ‘With the Commune, the taxes will be lightened, the public money will no longer be squandered, social institutions demanded by the working-class will be founded. Much misery and suffering will be alleviated pending the final disappearance of that hideous social evil, pauperism.’ Insufficient proclamations these, inconclusive, mute as to the danger of the Republic and the clerical conspiracy, the only levers by which the lower middle-class might have been roused.

So the Commission found itself isolated. It had taken the fort of Charpennes, accumulated cartridges, set the cannons and machine guns round the Hôtel-de-Ville; but the popular battalions, except two or three, had withdrawn without leaving a picket, and the resistance was being organized. General Crouzat at the station picked up all the soldiers, marines, and mobiles dispersed about Lyons. Hénon named Bouras a general of the National Guard. The officers of the battalions of order protested against the Commune, and placed themselves at the disposition of the municipal council, which sat in the, cabinet of the mayor, close to the Commission.

Forgetting it had dissolved the Council the evening before it invited the Council to hold their sitting in the ordinary council-room. They arrived at four o'clock. The Commission gave up the place to them, National Guards occupying that part of the room reserved to the public. Had there been some vigour in this middle class, some foreboding of the Conservative atrocities, the Republican councillors would have taken the lead of this popular movement; but they were still, some of them, the same mercantile aristocrats, chary of their gold and their persons during the war of national defence; the others, the same overweening Radicals who had always striven for the subordination instead of the emancipation of the working-class. While they were deliberating without coming to any resolution, the assistants, growing impatient, uttered a few exclamations shocking to their lordliness, and they brusquely raised the sitting in order to go and draw up an address with Hénon.

In the evening two delegates of the Central Committee of Paris arrived at the club of the Rue Duguesclin. They were taken to the Hôtel-de-Ville, where from the large balcony they harangue the mass, who answered with cries of ‘Vive Paris! Vive la Commune! and Ricciotti’s name was again acclaimed.

But this was only a demonstration. The delegates were themselves too inexperienced to keep alive and direct this movement. On the 24th there remained on the Place de Terreaux but a few groups of idlers. The rappel sounded in vain. The four important journals of Lyons, Radical, Liberal and Clerical, ‘energetically repudiated all connivance with the Parisian, Lyonese, and other insurrections'; and General Crouzat spread the rumour that the Prussians, camping at Dijon, threatened to occupy Lyons within twenty-four hours if order were not re-established. The Commission, more and more deserted, again turned to the Council, which now held its sitting at the Bourse, proposing to hand over the administration to them. The Council refused to treat. ‘No,’ said the mayor, ‘We will never accept the Commune.’ And as the mobiles from Belfort were announced, the Council decided to give them a solemn reception. This was a declaration of war.

The parley had been going on the whole afternoon until late into the evening. Little by little the Hôtel-de-Ville grew empty, and the members of the Commission disappeared. At four o'clock in the morning the only two who remained cancelled their powers, [104] dismissed the sentries who guarded the prefect, and left the Hotel-de-Ville. The next day Lyons found her Commune gone.

On the same evening, when dying out at Lyons, the revolutionary movement burst forth at St. Etienne Since the 31st October, when they had almost succeeded in officially proclaiming the Commune, the Socialists had not ceased calling for it, despite the resistance, and even the threats, of the municipal council.

There were two Republican centres — the Committee of the National Guard, spurred on by the revolutionary club of the Rue de la Vierge, and the Republican Alliance at the head of the advanced Republicans. The municipal council was, with one or two exceptions, composed of those Radicals who knew not how to resist the people without being crushed by the reaction. The Committee and the Alliance agreed to ask for its renewal.

The 18th March was enthusiastically welcomed by the workmen. The Radical organ, L'Eclaireur, said, without drawing any conclusion: ‘If the Assembly prevails, the Republic is done for; if, on the other hand, the deputies of Paris separate from the Central Committee, they must have a good reason for it.’ The people went straight on. On the 23rd the Club de la Vierge sent delegates to the Hôtel-de-Ville to ask for the Commune. The mayor promised to submit the question to his colleagues. The Alliance also came to demand the adjunction to the council of a certain number of delegates.

The next day, the 24th, the delegations returned. The Council tendered their resignation, and declared they would only officiate till their replacement by the electors, to be convoked with the briefest delay. This was a defeat, for the same day the prefect ad interim, Morellet, urged the population not to proclaim the Commune. but to respect the authority of the Assembly. At seven o'clock in the evening a company of the National Guard took over sentry duty to the cries of ‘Vive la Commune!’ The Central Committee invited the Alliance to join them in taking possession of the Hôtel-de-Ville. The Radicals refused, saying that the promise of the Council sufficed; that the movements of Paris and Lyons were of a vague character, and that it was necessary to affirm order and public tranquillity.

During these negotiations the people had assembled at the Club de la Vierge, accusing the first delegates of weakness, resolved to send others, and to accompany them, so that they could not give way. At ten o'clock two columns of 400 men each drew up before the railings at the Hôtel-de-Ville. These had been closed by order of the new prefect, M. De l'Espée, manager of an iron works, who had just then arrived, eager to subdue the disturbers. But the people began pulling down the railings, and it was necessary to let in their delegates. They found the mayor and Morellet, asked for the Commune, and provisionally the convening of a popular commission. The mayor refused, the former prefect obstinately tried to demonstrate that the Commune was a Prussian invention. Hopeless of convincing the delegates, he went to warn M. De l'Espée — the prefecture being contiguous to the mairie — and both then making off by the garden, succeeded in rejoining General Lavoye, the commander of the garrison.

At midnight the delegates, unable to obtain anything, declared that nobody would be allowed to leave the Hôtel-de-Ville, and proceeding to the rails, told the demonstrators to reflect. Some ran off in quest of arms, others penetrated into the Salles des Prudhommes, where they held a meeting. The night passed tumultuously. The delegates, who had just learned the miscarriage of the movement at Lyons wavered. The people threatened and were for beating the rappel. The mayor refused. At last, at seven o'clock, he found an expedient, and promised to propose a plebiscite on the establishment of the Commune. A delegate read this declaration to the people, who at once withdrew from the Hôtel-de-Ville.

At the same moment M. De l'Espée conceived the brilliant idea of beating the rappel, which the people had in vain asked for since midnight. He picked up some National Guards on the side of order, re-entered the now empty Hôtel-de-Ville, and promulgated his victory. The municipal council informing him of the morning’s agreement, De l'Espée refused to fix the date of the elections. Besides, said he, the general had promised him the aid of the garrison.

At eleven o'clock the prefect’s call to arms had reassembled all the popular battalions. Groups formed before the Hôtel-de-Ville, crying ‘Vive la Commune!’ De l'Espée sent for his troops, consisting of 250 foot-soldiers and two squadrons of hussars, who came up sluggishly. The multitude surrounded them; the Council protested; and the prefect had to discharge his warriors, there remaining to face the crowd only a line of firemen, and in the Hôtel-de-Ville two companies, of which but one was favourable to the party of order.

Towards mid-day a delegation summoned the Council to keep their promise. The councillors present — only few in number — were not averse to accepting as coadjutors two delegates from each company, but De l'Espée formally declared against any concession. At four o'clock a very numerous delegation from the Committee presented itself. The prefect spoke of retrenching and of strengthening the gates for defence; but the firemen raised the butt end of their muskets, opened the passage, and De l'Espée had to receive some of the delegates.

The crowd outside waxed unruly, impatient at these useless parleys. At half-past four the workmen from the manufactory of arms arrived, when a shot was fired from one of the houses of the square, killing Lyonnet, a working man. A hundred shots answered; the drums beat, the trumpets sounded the charge, and the battalions rushed into the Hôtel-de-Ville, while others searched the house whence the attack was supposed to have come.

At the noise of the firing the prefect broke off the conference and tried to escape as on the night before, mistook his way, was recognised and seized, together with the deputy of the procureur de la République, brought back with the latter into the large hall, and shown from the balcony. The crowd hooted him, convinced that he had given the order to fire upon the people. One of the reactionary guards, M. De Ventavon, on his flight from the mairie, was taken for the murderer of Lyonnet, and carried about on the litter on which the corpse had just been transported to the hospital.

The prefect and the procureur’s deputy were left in the large hall in the midst of exasperated men. Many accused De l'Espée of having provoked the shooting down of the miners of Aubin under the Empire. He protested, stating that he had been director of the mines of Archambault, not those of Aubin. Little by little, the crowd, tired out, dispersed, and at eight o'clock about forty guards only remained in the hall. The prisoners took some food, when the president of the Commune, which was constituting itself in a neighbouring room, seeing everything calm, also withdrew. At nine o'clock the crowd returned, crying ‘La Commune! La Commune! Sign!’ De l'Espée offered to sign his resignation, but added that he did so under compulsion. The prisoners were in the charge of two men, Victoire and Fillon, the latter an old exile, quite distracted, who turned now st the crowd, now against the prisoners. At ten o'clock, being d pressed by the throng of people, Fillon, as in a dream, faced about, fired two shots from his revolver, killing his friend Victoire and wounding a drummer. Instantaneously the muskets were levelled at him, and Fillon and De l'Espée fell dead. The deputy, covered by the corpse of Fillon, escaped the discharge. The next day he and M. De Ventavon were set free.

During the evening a Commission constituted itself, chosen from amongst the officers of the National Guards and the habitual orators of the Club de la Vierge. It had the station occupied, took possession of the telegraph, seized the cartridges of the powder-magazine, and convoked the electors for the 29th. ‘The Commune,’ it said, ‘does not mean incendiarism, nor theft, nor pillage, as so many are pleased to give out, but the conquest of the franchises and the independence ravished from us by imperial and monarchical legislation; it is the true basis of the Republic.’ This was the whole preamble. In this hive of industry, surrounded by the thousands of miners of la Ricamarie and Firminy, they found not a word to say on the social question. The Commission only knew how to beat the rappel, which as at Lyons, was not responded to.

The next day, Sunday, the town, calm and curious, read the proclamation of the Commune, posted up side by side with the appeals of the general and of the procureur. While this latter, as became a good Radical, spoke of a Bonapartist plot, the general invited the Council to withdraw its resignation. He went to the councillors, who had taken refuge in the barracks, and said to them, ‘My soldiers won’t fight, but I have a thousand chassepots. If you will make use of them, forward!’ The councillors protested their unfitness for military exploits; but at the same time, as at Lyons, refused to communicate with the Hôtel-de-Ville, considering ‘that one can only treat with honest men’.

On the 27th the Alliance and L'Eclaireur altogether withdrew, and the Commission gradually dwindled down. In the evening, the few faithful still holding out received two young men, whom the delegates from the Central Committee at Lyons had sent. They urged resistance; but the Hôtel-de-Ville was being deserted, and on the morning of the 28th there were only about a hundred left. At six o'clock General Lavoye presented himself with the francs-tireurs of the Vosges and some’ troops come from Montbrison. The National Guards, on his appeal to lay down their arms in order to avoid blood-shed, consented to evacuate the mairie.

Numerous arrests were made. The Conservatives overwhelmed the Commune with the customary insults, and recounted that cannibals had been seen amongst the murderers of the prefect. [105] L'Eclaireur did not fail to demonstrate that the movement was purely Bonapartist. The working men felt themselves vanquished, and at the solemn funeral of M. De L'Espée not loud but deep curses were uttered.


At Creuzot, also the proletarians were defeated. Yet the Socialists administered the town from the 4th September, the mayor, Durnay, being a former workman at the iron works. On the 25th, at the news from Lyons, they spoke of proclaiming the Commune. At their review on the 26th the National Guards cried ‘Vive la Commune!’ and the crowd accompanied them to the Place de la Mairie, held by the colonel of cuirassiers, Gerhardt, He ordered the foot-soldiers to fire. They refused. He then ordered the cavalry to charge; but the guards levelled their bayonets and invaded the mairie. Dumay pronounced the abolition of the Versailles Government, proclaimed the Commune, and the red flag was hoisted.

But there, as everywhere else, the people did not move. The commander of Creuzot came back the next day with a reinforcement, dispersed the crowd, which was standing curious and passive in the square, and took possession of the mairie.

In four days all the revolutionary centres of the east, Lyons, St. Etienne, and Creuzot, were lost to the Commune.