Their hair has long turned gray. They have visions of barricades dancing in their heads. They have fire in their eyes and the same determination they had as youngsters in the 1968 revolts. Some 200 veterans of class struggle in France answered the call of the association Friends of the Paris Commune – 1871 on Saturday to celebrate the short-lived People’s Republic which became a springboard for proletarian revolution for a century.
Every year in September the association holds a block party at Place de la Commune de Paris in the 13th arrondissement of Paris, not far from where a barricade stood at the Butte aux Cailles. They sing the songs of 19th century hope and watch amateur theatre explain why Parisians took up arms against the bourgeoisie.
Young people would stop and try to figure out what all the anachronic fuss is about before moving on. French school children learn a lot about the disastrous Franco-Prussian war but little about how working people refused to pay for the defeat and, for the first time, took power into their own hands. They learn even less about how the Versailles army killed thousands to retake the city at the end of May 1871.
“There are more young people this year,” one enthusiastic Communard said. That was hard to see. It is ironic that 300,000 youth turned out Saturday for the Techno Parade at Place de la Bastille to enjoy music at a site which saw some of the bloodiest fighting of the Paris Commune.
The main demand of the association is the same as it was when it was founded in 1882: Rehabilitation of all those killed, executed, imprisoned or exiled. The association claims some 2,000 members around the country.
They are also fighting to have the metro station Belleville rechristened Place de la Commune de Paris. They point to the fact that in 1999, with the support of the arrondissement’s right wing mayor, Jacques Toubon, Paris Town Council voted to name this square Place de la Commune de Paris-1871. But the inauguration in April 2000 did not go as Toubon had hoped. In his speech, he praised Adolphe Theirs, the architect of the Bloody Week. Toubon received a hail of plastic cups and bottles thrown by the angry, elderly insurrectionists gathered for the occasion.
Over seventeen years later, these incorrigible Communards have lost none of their fervor or determination.
The event ended, as always, with the singing of The International, a poem written by Eugène Pottier just after The Bloody Week but this time starting with the fifth verse which all Communist parties suppressed once they came to power because of its anti-militarist tone. Anti-militarist, yes, but not pacifist as it calls for workers in uniform to strike, fraternize and shoot their own generals.
We will miss these old-timers when they are gone.
Note. The Association Les Amis de la Commune de Paris – 1871 has a book store just off the Butte aux Cailles at 46 rue des Cinq Diamants. Although the quarter has undergone rapid gentrification, there are still vestiges of the working class atmosphere and post 1968 movement which set up headquarters here in the mid-1970s around the theme of the 19th Century revolutionary song Le Temps des Cérises. The former anarchist bar La Folie en Tête is just off the Place de la Commune and is well known for its ti’punch. Le Merle Moqueur bar has lost all but its name while just across the street the workers’s cooperative restaurant Le Temps des Cérises remains true to its origins when it had just two menus to choose from: The Ruined Bourgeois and The Proletarian.