Eric Hazan: 'Paris: the Commune overjoyed'

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Journeying from Tahrir in 2011 to Tiananmen in 1989, passing via the Paris Commune-era Hôtel de Ville, Libération is spending three weeks surveying the now-symbolic places where citizens defied the powers-that-be in the name of democracy and individual freedom. Today we look at the square in front of Paris’ Hôtel de Ville.

In January 2011 people compared the demonstrators in Cairo’s Tahrir Square to the communards. There was even talk of a ‘Tahrir Commune’. But we might hesitate a little when we think about the Paris Commune and its squares, or more precisely, when it comes to choosing which of the city’s squares is most emblematic of the Commune. The argument in favour of the Place Vendôme is the great celebration of 16 May 1871, with the pulling-down of its column. Many photographs were taken – the subject lent itself to it, with the victorious people dancing on the tyrant who had bitten the dust, and the armed National Guards standing at the base amidst the cantinières, workers, and burghers. The shakoes mixed with peaked caps, top-hats, sailors’ berets and children’s straw hats. In the second row of the crowd, a bearded man wearing a bonnet: Courbet, the instigator, the vandal [the so-called ‘déboulonneur’], who would pay a heavy price for this moment of happiness. In other less posed photos, the groups are blended in with each other, hands are being shaken and arms raised toward the sky – you can almost hear the cries of joy.

Yet already that day, storm clouds were building (figuratively, that is: there was fine weather throughout all the month of May). The Versaillais had taken the fortresses of Issy and Vanves, while the Commune’s general council was dividing into authoritarians and libertarians like Courbet and Vallès. ‘We will save the patrie’, said the great Delescluze, ‘but perhaps from behind the barricades’. He saw it right – the ‘bloody week’ was approaching.

So if we are to evoke the resplendent Commune, the élan of its first days, then its emblematic site ought instead be the square in front of the Hôtel de Ville, and the date 26 March. A week had passed since the dawn of 18 March when working-class women had stopped Thiers’s soldiers from taking away the Parisians’ cannons. A week in which the central committee of the National Guard had organised the life of a city abandoned by the government and the police. This was the day that it handed its power to the Commune that had just been elected.

Two witnesses described the ceremony, two combatants who had their rifle in one hand and a pen in the other during these unforgettable days. Lissagaray’s unmatchable History of the Commune of 1871 recounted:

 ‘The next day [27 March] 200,000 wretches came to the Hôtel-de-Ville there to install their chosen representatives, the battalion drums beating, the banners surmounted by the Phrygian cap and with red fringe round the muskets; their ranks, swelled by soldiers of the line, artillerists, and marines faithful to Paris, came down from all the streets to the Place de Gréve like the thousand streams of a great river. In the middle of the Hôtel de Ville, against the central door, a large platform was raised. Above it towered the bust of the Republic, a red scarf slung round it. … While the place was filling, songs burst forth, the bands played the Marseillaise and the Chant du Départ, trumpets sounded the charge, and the cannon of the old Commune thundered on the quay. Suddenly the noise subsided. The members of the Central Committee and of the Commune, their red scarfs over their shoulders, appeared on the platform. Ranvier said “Citizens, my heart is too full of joy to make a speech. Permit me only to thank the people of Paris for the great example they have given the world”. … A thousandfold echo answered, “Vive la Commune!” Caps were flung up on the ends of bayonets, flags fluttered in the air. From the windows, on the roofs, thousands of hands waved handkerchiefs. The quick reports of the cannon, the bands, the drums, blended in one formidable vibration. All hearts leaped with joy, all eyes filled with tears. Never since the great Federation had Paris been thus moved’.

And Vallès described the scene in his paper Le Cri du Peuple:

‘What a day! The warm, clear sun that casts golden light on the muzzles of the cannons, the smell of bouquets, the frisson of the flags, the murmur of the revolution advancing calm and beautiful like a blue river; this fluttering, this glimmering, these brass fanfares, these flashes of bronze, these flames of hope, this scent of honour, here is the intoxicating pride and joy of the victorious army of republicans … hug me comrade, your hair as grey as mine! And you too, kid, playing with marbles behind the barricade, come and let me hug you! We have shed blood, we have cried for you. You will reap our legacy. Son of the damned – you will be a free man!’

The image of Blanquists and members of the International, boys and maids, Garibaldians and Poles rallying that day in front of the Hôtel de Ville – this image of a shared happiness obviously evokes the crowds that today assemble in far-away squares.

But if, tomorrow, Paris had the idea of imitating Cairo or Madrid, on what square would we meet? Place de la Concorde or Place Vendôme can be ruled out. The Places de la Republique, de la Bastille and de la Nation have been used for too many humdrum marches with balloons, trucks with stereos and the slogans of yesteryear. No one would think of meeting on the square facing the Hôtel de Ville – only the bazaar bearing the same name keeps ordinary people coming there. For me, there can be no doubt that it would be best to meet outside the walls of the Périphérique, at the sites that bear recent history like the Argenteuil esplanade or the Cité des 4,000 in La Courneuve.

Eric Hazan, 7 August 2014

Translated from french by David Broder

Read the original piece here.

See all of Eric Hazan's books here.