History of the Paris Commune of 1871

23. The ‘Lefts’ betray Paris

We took Paris with cannons and politics. (Thiers, Inquiry into the 18th of March.)

Who was the great conspirator against Paris? The Extreme Left.

On the 19th March, what remained to M. Thiers wherewith to govern France? He had neither an army, nor cannon, nor the large towns. These possessed arms, and their workmen were on the alert. If that lower middle-class which makes the provinces endorse the revolutions of the metropolis had followed the movement, imitated their kindred of Paris, M. Thiers could not have opposed to them a single regiment. In order to subsist, retain the provinces, and induce them to provide the soldiers and the cannon that were to reduce Paris, what were the resources of the leader of the bourgeoisie? A word and a handful of men. The word was Republic; the men, the recognized leaders of the Republican party.

Though the dull rurals barked at the mere name of the Republic, and refused to insert it in their proclamations, M. Thiers, more cunning, mouthed it lustily, and distorting the votes of the Assembly,[164] gave it out as the watchword to his underlings.[165] Since the first risings all the provincial officials had the same refrain: ‘We defend the Republic against the factions.’[166]

This was certainly something; but the rural votes, the past of M. Thiers, clashed with these Republican protestations. The former heroes of the National Defence were no longer acceptable as securities even for the provinces. M. Thiers was well aware of it, and invoked the purest of the pure, the experienced men returned from exile. Their prestige was still intact in the eyes of the provincial democrats. M. Thiers met them in the lobbies, told them they held the fate of the Republic in their hands, flattered their senile vanity, and inveigled them so successfully, that, from the 23rd,[167] they served him as bottle-holders. When the middle-class republicans of the provinces beheld the profound Louis Blanc, the intelligent Schoelcher, and the most famous grumblers of the radical vanguard fly to Versailles, and insult the Central Committee, and, on the other hand, received neither programme nor able emissaries from Paris, they turned away, and let the flame enkindled by the workmen die out.

The shelling of the 3rd April roused them a little. On the 5th, the municipal council of Lille, composed of Republican notabilities, spoke of conciliation, and called upon M. Thiers to affirm the Republic. That of Lyons drew up a like address; St. Omer sent delegates to Versailles; Troyes declared that it was ‘heart and soul with the heroic citizens who fought for their republican convictions.’ Mâcon summoned the Government and the Assembly to put an end to this struggle by the recognition of republican institutions. The Drôme, the Var, Vaucluse, the Ardeche, the Loire, Savoy, the Hérault, the Gers, and the Eastern Pyrénées, twenty departments, issued similar addresses. The workmen of Rouen declared their adhesion to the Commune; the workmen of Havre, rebuffed by the bourgeois Republicans. constituted an independent group. On the 16th April, at Grenoble, 600 men, women, and children went to the station to prevent the departure of the troops and munitions for Versailles. On the 18th, at Nimes, the people, headed by a red flag, marched through the town to the cry of ‘Vive la Commune! Vive Paris! Down with Versailles!’ On the 16th, 17th, 18th, there were disturbances at Bordeaux. Some police agents were imprisoned, some officers ill-treated, the infantry barracks pelted with stones, the people crying, ‘Vive Paris! Death to the traitors!’ The movement even spread to the agricultural classes. At Saincoin in the Cher, at the Charité-sur-Loire, at Pouilly in the Nievre, the National Guards in arms carried about the red flag. Cosne followed on the 18th, Fleury-sur-Loire on the 19th. The red flag was permanently hoisted in the Ariege; at Foix they stopped the transport of the cannon; at Varilhes they tried to run the munition trains off the lines. At Périgueux, the workmen of the railway station seized the machine-guns.

On the 15th April five delegates from the municipal council of Lyons presented themselves to M. Thiers. He protested his devotion to the Republic, swore that the Assembly should not turn into a Constituent Assembly. If he chose his functionaries outside the Republicans, it was in order to treat all parties with consideration in the interest of the Republic itself. He defended it against the men of the Hôtel-de-Ville, its worst enemies, said he; the delegates might assure themselves of this even in Paris, and he was quite ready to furnish them with safe-conducts. Besides, if Lyons dared to stir, 30,000 men were ready to quell it.[168] This was his typical speech. All the deputations received the same answer, given with such an air of bonhommie and such complacent familiarity as quite to overwhelm the provincials.

From the presidency they proceeded to the luminaries of the Extreme Left, Louis Blanc, Schoelcher, Adam, and other eminent democrats, who endorsed M. Thiers’ words. These gentlemen, if condescending to admit that the cause of Paris was not altogether wrong, declared it ill-begun and compromised by a criminal combat. When Paris once disarmed they would see what could be done. Opportunism is not of yesterday’s growth. It was born[169] into the world on the 19th March, 1871, had Louis Blanc & Co. for godfathers, and was baptized in the blood of 30,000 Parisians. ‘With whom should they treat in Paris?’ asked Louis Blanc. ‘Without speaking of Bonapartist and Prussian intrigues, the people who were there striving to seize the government were fanatics, fools, or rogues.’[170] And all the Radicals bridled up: ‘Should we not be at Paris if Paris were in the right?’ The majority of the delegates, lawyers, doctors, business men, brought up in veneration of these shining lights, hearing besides the young men speaking like the pontiffs, went back to the provinces, and as the Left preached to them, preached in turn that it was necessary to abandon the Commune in order to save the Republic. A few of them had visited Paris; but seeing the divisions of the Hôtel-de-Ville, often received by men unable to formulate their ideas, threatened by Félix Pyat in the Vengeur, they came back convinced that nothing could emerge from this disorder. When they again passed through Versailles the deputies of the Left triumphed. ‘Well, what did we tell you?’ Even Martin-Bernard gave his electors the ass’s kick.

At Paris there were people who could not believe in such barefaced treachery on the part of the Left, and still adjured them. ‘What are you about at Versailles when Versailles is bombarding Paris?’ said an address of the end of April. ‘What figure can you cut in the midst of these colleagues who assassinate your electors? If you persist in remaining amongst the enemies of Paris, at least do not make yourselves their accomplices by your silence. What! you allow M. Thiers to write to the departments, “The insurgents are emptying the principal houses of Paris in order to put the furniture to sale,” and you do not ascend the tribune to protest! What! the whole Bonapartist and rural press may inundate the departments with infamous articles, in which they affirm that at Paris murder, violation, and theft reign supreme, and you are silent! What! M. Thiers may assert that his gendarmes do not assassinate the prisoners; you cannot be ignorant of these atrocious executions, and you are silent! Ascend the tribune; tell the departments the truth, which the enemies of the Commune conceal from them. But our enemies, are they yours also?’

A useless appeal, which the cowardice of the Left knew how to elude. Louis Blanc, in his Tartuffe style, exclaimed, ‘0 civil war! hideous struggle! The cannon thunder! People are killing each other and dying; and those in the Assembly who would willingly give their life to see this sanguinary problem pacifically resolved are condemned to the torture of not being able to make an act, utter a cry, speak a word.’ Since the birth of the French Assemblies so ignominious a Left had never been seen. The spectacle of the prisoners smitten, reviled, spat upon, was unable to draw a protest from these wretched Parisian deputies. One only, Tolain, asked for an explanation on the assassination at the Belle-Epine. Louis Blanc, Schoelcher, Greppo, Adam, Langlois, Brisson, etc., the Gérontes and the Scapins, sanctimoniously contemplated their bombarded electors, and, fully aware of the facile forgetfulness of Paris, dreamt of their future re-election.

Their calumnies succeeded in stifling the action but not the anguish of the provinces. With heart and soul the workmen of France were with Paris. The employees at the railway stations harangued the soldiers on their passage, adjuring them to raise the butt-ends of their guns; the official posters were torn down during the night; the large centres sent their addresses by the hundred; all the Republican papers demanded peace, sought for some method of conciliation between Paris and Versailles.

Paris and Versailles! The agitation becoming chronic, M. Thiers launched forth Dufaure, the Chapelier [author of a law of 1791 prohibiting strikes] of the modern bourgeoisie, one of the most odious executors of its dirty work. He enjoined his procureurs to prosecute all the writers countenancing the Commune, ‘that dictatorship usurped by foreigners and ticket-of-leave men, which signalizes its reign by burglary, breaking open private houses in the dead of night and by force of arms,’ and to lay hands upon ‘the conciliators who entreat the Assembly to hold out its noble hand to the blood-stained hand of its enemies.’ Versailles thus hoped to strike terror at the moment of the municipal elections, which took place on the 30th April.

They were everywhere Republican. These provinces, which had risen against Paris in June, 1848, and in the elections of 1849, did not send a hundred volunteers in 1871, and would only fight the Assembly. At Thiers (Puy-de-Dome) the people occupied the Hôtel-de-Ville, hoisted the red flag, and seized the telegraphs. There occurred disturbances at Souppe, Nemours, Château-Landau, in the arrondissement of Fontainebleau. At Dordives (Loiret) the Communards planted a poplar surmounted by the red flag in front of the mairie. At Montargies they raised the red flag, put up posters bearing the appeal of the Commune to the rural districts, and forced a solicitor who had tried to tear down the poster to ask pardon on his knees. At Coulommiers (Seine-et-Marne) a demonstration took place to the cries of ‘Vive la République! Vive la Commune!’’

Lyons rose in insurrection. Since the 24th March the tricolor lorded it here, save at the Guillotière,[171] where the people maintained the red one. The Council on its return to the Hôtel-de-Ville had demanded the recognition of the rights of Paris, the election of a Constituent Assembly, and named an officer of francs-tireurs, Bourras, commander of the National Guard. While the Council multiplied its addresses and its applications to M. Thiers, the National Guard was again stirring. It presented a programme to the municipal council, which officially rejected it. The rebuff met by the delegates sent to Versailles increased the irritation. When the communal elections were announced for the 30th April, the revolutionary element maintained that the municipal law voted by the Assembly was null and void, because that Assembly had not the rights of a constituent one. Two delegates from Paris summoned the mayor, Hénon, to postpone the elections; and one of the actors in the affray of the 28th September, Gaspard Blanc, reappeared on the scene. The Radicals, always upon the scent of Bonapartism, have made much ado about the presence of that personage. However, at that time he was as yet but a madcap, and only in exile put on the Imperialist livery. On the 27th, at the Brotteaux, in a large public meeting, abstention from voting was decided upon. All the committees of the Guillotière followed, and in a public sitting of the 29th resolved to oppose the vote.

On the 30th, the day of the elections, from six o’clock in the morning the rappel was beaten at the Guillotière; armed citizens carried off the ballot-boxes, and posted sentinels at the entrance of the hall A proclamation was posted up: ‘The city of Lyons can no longer’,look on while her sister the heroic city of Paris is being strangled. The Lyonnese revolutionaries have with one accord named a Provisional Commission. Its members are above all determined, rather than sustain defeat, to make one heap of ruins of a town cowardly enough to allow the assassination of Paris and the Republic.’ The Place de la Mairie was thronged with an excited crowd; the mayor, Crestin, and his adjutant, who attempted to interfere, were not listened to, and a Revolutionary Commission installed itself in the mairie.

Bourras sent an order to the commanders of the Guillotière to unite their battalions. They drew up towards two o’clock in the Des Brosses court. A great number of guards disapproved the movement, yet no one was willing to be the soldier of Versailles. The crowd surrounded them, and finally broke the ranks; about a hundred, led by their captain, went to the mairie to hoist their red field-colours. The mayor was sent for, and the Commission called upon him to join the movement; but he refused, as he had done on the 22nd March. Suddenly the cannon thundered.

Hénon and his council, as they did the month before, would have liked to temporize; while Valentin and Crouzat dreamt of Espivent. At five o’clock the 38th of the line came out by the bridge of the Guillotière; the crowd penetrated into the ranks of the soldiers, conjuring them not to fire, and the officers were constrained to take back their men to the barracks. During this time the Guillotière was fortifying itself. A large barricade, extending from the storehouses of the Nouveau-Monde to the angle of the mairie, barred the Grande Rue; another was thrown up at the entrance of the Rue des Trois Rois; a third on a level with the Rue de Chabrol.

At half-past six the 38th came out of their barracks, but this time watched by a battalion of chasseurs. Valentin, Crouzat, and the procureur de la république marched at their head. In front of the mairie the Riot Act was read; some shots answered it, wounding the prefect. The cavalry swept the Des Brosses court and the Place de la Mairie, while two pieces of cannon opened fire on the edifice. Its doors soon gave way and the occupants abandoned it. The troops entered after having killed the sentinel, intent upon mounting guard to the very last. It has been said that five insurgents, taken by surprise in the interior of the building, were killed by a Versaillese officer with shots from his revolver.

The struggle continued during part of the night in the neighbouring streets, and the soldiers, deceived by the darkness, killed about a hundred of their own men. The losses of the Communards were less great. By three o’clock in the morning all was over.

At the Croix-Rousse some citizens had invaded the mairie and scattered the voting-papers; the check of the Guillotière cut short their resistance.

The Versaillese took advantage of this victory to disarm the battalions of the Guillotière; but the population refused, rallying round the victors. Some monarchists had been elected during the day, but everybody considering the elections of the 30th null and void, they were obliged to submit to a second ballot, and not one of them was re-elected. The movement in favour of Paris continued.

These newly-elected republican councillors might have effectively counterbalanced the authority of Versailles; the advanced press encouraged them. The Tribune of Bordeaux had the honour first to propose a congress of all the towns of France, for the purpose of terminating the civil war, assuring the municipal franchises, and consolidating the Republic. The municipal council of Lyons issued an identical programme, inviting all the municipalities to send delegates to Lyons. On the 4th May the delegates of the councils of the principal towns of the Hérault met at Montpellier. The Liberté of the Hérault, in a warm appeal reproduced by fifty newspapers, convoked the departmental press to a congress. A common action was about to take the place of the incoherent agitations of the last few weeks. If the provinces understood their own strength, the time, their wants – if they found a group of men equal to the occasion, Versailles, taken between Paris and the departments, would have been obliged to capitulate to Republican France. M. Thiers, with a vivid presentiment of the danger, affected the attitude of a strong Government, and energetically forbade the congresses. ‘The Government would betray the Assembly, France, civilization,’ said the Officiel of the 8th May, ‘if it allowed the assizes of Communism and of the rebellion to constitute themselves by the side of the regular power issued from universal suffrage.’ Picard, speaking from the tribune on the instigation of the congress, said, ‘Never was there a more criminal attempt than theirs. Outside the Assembly there exists no right.’ The procureurs-généraux and the prefects received the order to prevent all meetings. Some members of the Ligue des Droits de Paris on their way to Bordeaux were arrested.

More was not needed to frighten the Radicals. The organizers of the congress of Bordeaux held their peace; those of Lyons wrote a piteous address to Versailles, to the effect that they had only intended convoking an assembly of the notables. M. Thiers, having attained his object, disdained to prosecute them, even allowed the delegates of eighteen departments to draw up their grievances, and seriously declare that they ‘made that one of the two combatants responsible who should refuse their conditions.’ And yet they might feel proud. Their chief had done less, Gambetta had retired to Spain, to St. Sebastien, and there, mute, without a sign of sympathy for those who sacrificed themselves for the Republic, he in a cynical far niente [do-nothing] awaited the issue of the civil war.

Thus the middle class of the provinces missed a rare chance of conquering their liberties, of again taking up their grand role of 1792. It became obvious how much its blood and its intelligence had been impoverished by a long political vassalage and the complete absence of all municipal life. From the 19th March to the 5th April they had forsaken the workmen, when by seconding their efforts they might have saved and continued the Revolution. When at last they wanted to pronounce, they found themselves alone, the toy and laughing-stock of their enemies. Such is their history since Robespierre.

So on the 10th May M. Thiers entirely mastered the situation. Making use of all arms, of corruption as well as of patriotism, lying in his telegrams, making his journals lie, by turns familiar and haughty in his interviews with the deputations, putting forward now his gendarmes, now the deputies of the Left, he had succeeded in baffling all attempts at conciliation. He had j us t signed the peace of Frankfort, and, free on this side. rid of the provinces, he remained alone face to face with Paris.

It was time. Five weeks of siege had exhausted the patience of the rurals; the suspicions of the first days were reviving; they fancied that the ‘petty bourgeois’ was procrastinating in order to spare Paris. The Union des Syndicats had just published a report of a new interview, in which M. Thiers had seemed to relax. A deputy of the Right rushed to the tribune accusing M. Thiers of putting off the entry into Paris. He answered curtly, ‘The opening by our army of trenches only six hundred yards from Paris does not signify that we do not want to enter there.’ The following day, 12th May, the Right returned to the charge. Was it true that M. Thiers had said to the mayor of Bordeaux, ‘If the insurgents will cease hostilities the gates of Paris shall be flung wide open for a week for all except the assassins of the generals?’ Could it be that the Government intended withdrawing some Parisians out of the clutches of the Assembly? M. Thiers inveighed, whined. ‘You select the day when I am exiled, on which my house is being pulled down. It is an indignity. I am obliged to command terrible acts; I command them. I must have a vote of confidence.’ At last, nettled out of patience, he retorted upon the rural growls with a snarl. ‘I tell you that there are among you imprudent men, who are in too great a hurry. They must have another eight days. At the end of these eight days there will be no more danger, and the task will be proportionate to their courage and to their capacity.’

Eight days! Do you hear, members of the Commune?


[164] On the 23rd, Picard telegraphed to the procureur-general of Aix: ‘The Republic was, the day before yesterday, again affirmed in a proclamation of the Assembly. The very proclamation which the Assembly had refused to conclude by the cry ‘Vive la République!’

[165] The same day – it was that of the Marseilles insurrection – Dufaure telegraphed to the same procureur-general: ‘Read the name République Française at the head of all the despatches I send you.’

[166] 1 have in my possession about twenty proclamations of prefects or magistrates. They am all on this point identically the same.

[167] A great speech of the President of the Council has been applauded by the Extreme left.’ The speech of the 21st Much against Paris. Dufaure to the procureur-general at Aix, 23rd March.

[168] He confessed his trickery in a speech pronounced at Bordeaux in 1875: ‘I was enabled with the remains of the defeated army to unit a military force of 150,000 men, but if this force was sufficient to tear Paris from the Commune, it could not have kept down the large towns of France, keenly bent on the maintenance of the Republic, and coming to ark me with distrust and irritation if it were the monarchy that we combated for.’

[169] 1 should say ‘resuscitated’, if it were not doing these eunuchs too much honour to compare them to Robespierre, who by their side appears a hero. But how prevent one’s thoughts from wandering to the pontiff declaring inopportune the Republican outburst of June-July 1791; inopportune the cries of Paris famished by engrossers; inopportune the people asking for a single article in their favour in the Constitution of 1793; inopportune the commissars, without whom France would have been dismembered; inopportune the great movement against the Church; inopportune the Socialists and Jacques Roux, whom he did to death; inopportune the popular societies closed by him, and after the disappearance of which Paris expired; inopportune Clootz, yearning to rally round France an the revolutionary forces of the world; inopportune Hébert, who, nevertheless, had helped him to stifle the socialists; inopportune, in fine, all that was not cut out after his own amiable day when he was himself declared inopportune by the great bourgeoisie, who found it as easy as opportune to swallow him at a mouthful as soon as he had purged, bled, muzzled for them the revolutionary lion.

[170] Appendix XIII.

[171] The workmen’s quarter in Lyons.

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