No, Nicolas, the Commune is not Dead!
They are closer to 70 than 50 but have all the dynamism of the French high school students who disrupted Paris this week. They came out of the workers’s movements of the 1960s and 1970s and have not lost their determination to change the world, or at least a name.
Some 40 members of the ‘Association of the Friends of the Paris Commune-1871‘ gathered in the 13th arrondissement of Paris Friday on the 145th anniversary of the declaration of the short-lived proletarian experience to demand City Hall honor a pledge to name a metro station after the first attempt by the working class to form its own government.
“The Commune is still news,” said Albert Prigent, from under his large bushy mustache. “The goals of the Commune are the same as today: equality between men and women; equality of salaries; secularism; self-management.”
“It was 72 days that changed the world,” added an elderly woman with yellowish gray hair tied in braids and wrapped around her head.
The Association of the Friends of the Paris Commune-1871 was formed as a self-help group by returning exiles after the amnesty of 1880. Today they claim 2,100 members and the support of some left wing parties, unions and other associations.
While they unfurled their red flags and banners, a group of bemused 16-year-olds from the Lycée at metro Tolbiac came to ask what it was all about. “The youth don’t know anything about the Commune,” said Jean Rajollean, a co-president of the Association. “There is only a line-and-a-half in the history books. The Commune is better known abroad than in France.”
The Paris Commune was formed after the French defeat in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870. The working class refused to have to pay the 200 million franc indemnity imposed by Bismarck. For a little over two months, the Communards held out against the government which had fled to Versailles while Prussian cannons looked over the city from Saint Cloud mountain. When the Versaillais finally moved in to crush the worker’s state, they killed and summarily executed all those they could find in the Semaine Sanglante, the Bloody Week.
Nearly seven thousand escaped and went abroad and 7,500 were deported. These are the people who formed the Association now fighting for a metro station of its own.
The group of elderly “communards” slowly marched off to visit sites where the insurgents had erected barricades around Place d’Italie before ending with a rally near the once working class, now trendy, Butte aux Cailles. It is here, after years of struggle, they got City Hall to inaugurate a ‘Place de la Commune de Paris-1871’ in 2000 in a small square where a barricade had stood.
“The CRS (riot police) were well behaved that day,” said one elderly man with a cane. “We didn’t have to beat them up.”
Not far away, on the rue des Cinq Diamonds, the Association’s store front remains bunting-red full of literature hailing the men and women who kick-started Marxism. When they die out, as they soon will, it is hard to see who will carry the red banner of the Paris Commune in their place.