A teacher, she became a republican, feminist and anarchist in the 1850s and 1860s. She was one of the first women to take an active part in the defence of the Paris Commune in 1871. On her return from her deportation in 1880 she campaigned until her death for women, strikers and anarchism.
So on what was a cold wet miserable day in Paris and the anniversary of a murder that some see as helping change history, I decided just to walk near my flat to follow in some of Louise Michel’s footsteps.
On January 12 1870, in a temper tantrum, Napoléon III’s cousin murdered a 21-year-old journalist, Victor Noir. He had come unarmed to Prince Pierre-Napoléon Bonaparte’s Paris house at 59 rue d’Auteuil to act as a witness to a duel between the Prince and a Corsican republican journalist. The republican had taken umbrage at the Prince publishing an article describing Corsican republicans as ‘traitors and beggars’ who deserved to have their ‘guts roasted in the sun’.
In a verbal row in his living room, the Prince pulled out a gun and shot Victor Noir.
As befits a close relative of the Emperor, Pierre-Napoléon was acquitted of murder very soon after. Even before Napoleon III stumbled into the Franco-Prussian war of July 1870 republican sentiment was on the rise. Louise Michel, disguised as a man, and with a knife concealed in her clothes, was one of the 100,000 crowd who attended Noir’s funeral.
Louise Michel was then aged 40. The illegitimate daughter of a chamber maid she had become a teacher, moving to Paris in 1856, staying first in the Boulevard des Batignolles and then in the Rue du Château d’Eau. There, she became increasingly involved in radical democratic and then socialist and revolutionary clubs.
With funding from her mother, she opened her own day school in the working class 18th arrondissement in 1865. She was then living in the Rue Houdon. In 1868 she was also teaching in a school in what is now called the Rue Championnet.
In 1869 police records suggest she had become Secretary of a club called ‘The Moral Democratic club’ whose aim was to help working women live by their work.
On December 1 1870 she spent two days in jail for the first time, for having been involved in a women’s demonstration. By then she was president of the Republican Women’s Vigilance Club of the 8th arrondissement and soon after became director of a school in the Rue du Mont Cenis.
On January 22 1871, dressed in National Guard uniform, she fired her first rifle shot (in the air) outside the Paris Town Hall, as the city began to mobilise against the inertia of the new government. She fired many more during the battles on the barricades between the 21 and 24 May.
Her feminism and belief in education combined on 12 May 1871 when, with other supporters of the Paris Commune created on 18 March, she opened a school to teach draftsmanship, modelling and wood carving (‘industrial art’) to girls, at 7, Rue Dupuytren.
This short street is a favourite of mine because it is named after Baron Guillaume Dupuytren, who both treated Napoleon Bonaparte’s hemorrhoids and gave his name to the Viking-origin genetically-transmitted disease that as a sufferer I call ‘bendy finger’. (Thanks dad!)
Michel’s girls’ school lasted all of two weeks before disappearing in the bloody week of May 21 to 28, when the Commune was brutally suppressed and between 20,000 and 30,000 killed. Today Dupuytren has four perfume/chemist boutiques and three hairdressers.
On May 24 Louise Michel learned that her mother had been captured by the Versaillais troops. So she arranged to be taken prisoner in exchange for her mother’s release. She was sentenced to be deported and in August 1873 was shipped off to the penal colony on New Caledonia in the South-West Pacific.
She arrived at Nouméa (Port-de-France) in December 1873. In 1878 she openly supported the indigenous anti-colonial revolt.
Michel returned to Paris on 9 November 1880 via Melbourne and London after the general amnesty for the Communards. 6,000 supporters came to meet her and the other 550 who were shipped home to Dieppe and arrived with her at the Gare St Lazar station.
She immediately threw herself back into agitation. In March 1883 she and Émile Pouget (1860-1931) led a demonstration of some 500 unemployed workers and children from the Invalides Esplanade along the Boulevard Saint-Germain to the Rue du Four, where three bakeries were invaded and largely emptied by the demonstrators.
Michel was carrying a black piece of cloth at the end of a broom in mourning for the dead of the Commune and for the starving Parisians as they marched, and this soon became the black flag associated with anarchism.
In July 1883 she was sentenced to six years in the Saint-Lazare women’s prison (finally closed in 1935). Pouget was sentenced to 10 years. Michel was only released after an 1886 presidential grant of mercy to her and other anarchists, including Peter Kropotkin.
In 1888 she was shot while speaking at a public meeting in Le Havre, but as an anarchist refused to support the state’s prosecution of her attacker.
In 1890 she was jailed again while mobilizing for the May Day demonstration and strike. Amnestied she refused to leave her cell while others were still in jail, and the government tried to get her committed as ‘irresponsible for her actions’ to an insane asylum.
Concerned about this threat she then moved to London and opened an international school for anarchists. Closed down after the London police found explosives in the basement, she returned to Paris permanently in 1897 living in the Rue Jacob and resumed speaking tours all over France.
She died in Marseille in 1905 after returning from a speaking tour in Algeria.
Around 120,000 people followed Michel’s remains from the Gare de Lyon station to the Levallois cemetery in north-west Paris. In 2005 a garden just below the Sacré Coeur monument was renamed the Square Louise Michel. The Sacré Coeur had been built between 1875 and 1914 by right-wing Catholics to beg God for forgiveness for the sin of the Paris Commune.
There’s now a tiny plaque to the Paris Commune on a wall in the Luxembourg Garden. Hundreds of Communards were summarily executed there during the ‘Bloody Week’ of May 1871. But from 1906 to 1984 the gardens also had a memorial column sculpted by the anarchist sympathizer Emile Derré.
Originally called ‘A dream for a People’s House’ Derré’s column became known as the ‘Cornice of Kisses’: its three images show tenderness with a mother kissing a child, the lovers’ goodbye kiss (featuring Michel and Reclus) shown above, and a consolation kiss (featuring Michel and Blanqui). Michèle Audin (author of La Commune de Paris blog) found the wonderful postcard of the column when it was still in the Luxembourg Gardens.
The Louise Michel column was replaced by a statue of Pierre Mendès-France in 1984 on the order of Pierre’s friend, President François Mitterrand. The Kisses column was then unceremoniously dumped, forgotten and was only finally reborn in the old Northern textile town of Roubaix in 1997.
What a treat, I thought at the end of my short walk in the rain, to go to one of the bakers Louise Michel was supposed to have helped pillage in 1883 and buy a baguette (at prices that are still controlled right across France).
But the Rue du Four (Road of the Oven) no longer has a single bakery. The closest to a shop with anything to eat was this quick crepe and sandwich bar. I walked home disappointed. The drizzle was getting worse as I passed the new shiny Marks and Spencers food store in the totally renovated St Germain covered market.