The square was originally laid out as a square in 1853, by flattening the mounds of gypsum quarrying debris. It was laid out as a garden in 1877 and named the Square Saint-Pierre after the nearby Saint-Pierre de Montmartre church.
Today’s Square Louise-Michel lies just below the Sacré-Coeur basilica. Building the basilica began in 1875 but was only completed in 1912 and finally opened after World War 1 in 1919. It represented a 17th century Catholic cult that celebrated the heart of Jesus, and had the aim commemorating the victory over the Paris Commune.
On the inside of the dome a giant figure of Christ appears, David Harvey tells us, where ‘two words stand out directly from the Latin motto – GALLIA POENITENS. And beneath this stern admonition that “France Repents,” stands a large gold casket containing the image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, burning with passion, suffused with blood, and surrounded with thorns.’
The Paris Archbishop who chose the spot and laid the basilica’s founding stone (and eventually had the street next to the Sacré Coeur named after him), only accepted the post when, a month after the May 1871 Bloody Week of the Commune, Thiers, the mastermind of the massacres, wrote to Monsignor Guibert:
The ‘reds’, totally vanquished, will not recommence their activities tomorrow; one does not engage twice in fifty years in such an immense fight as they have just lost.June 1871 Thiers writes to the prime candidate as Archbishop of Paris
130 years later, with the 2001 election of the first socialist as mayor since the Commune, Paris’ municipal council began to look at remembering the left history of Paris. There are now three plaques commemorating the Commune. Two are in Belleville, near the sites of the last barricades, and one is in the Town Hall, remembering Commune’s elected representatives.
In 2005 the Paris municipal council decided to change the name of the Square Willette to the Square Louise Michel.
Adolphe Willette had been a local artist who had designed the famous mill on top of the Moulin Rouge in the Place Blanche. He stood in the 1889 municipal elections as the Antisemitic Candidate. Nonetheless, the year after his death, the Saint-Pierre Square below the Sacré Coeur was renamed the Square Willette.
Hidden at the lower western edge of the Square walking up a gravel path to the left of the carousel, is the Fountain of the Innocent, sculpted by the anarchist Émile Derré and placed in the Saint-Pierre Square in 1907.
Around the mother and children are Rabelais’ words, loosely translated by me as ‘It’s easier to write laughing than with tears’ (Mieux est de ris que de larmes escrire). And the next well-known line of the poem continues: ‘Because [the capacity to] laugh is unique to man’. When the fountain is on the water shoots out of the baby’s penis.
It was given its slightly marginal position and name by the local Catholic authorities who disapproved of it from the start. Below the basin is Derré’s quizzical face of another mother. She is asking, perhaps, whether the French Republic is as happy as the smiling faces above suggest?
Derré also sculpted Louise Michel’s gravestone in the Levallois-Perret cemetery and the Column of Kisses (moved from the Luxembourg Gardens and now in Roubaix). A little higher up the Louise-Michel Square on the other side of the main stairway in the garden/hill on the pathway near the rustic bridge are Derré’s two lovers in the Grotte de l’amour.
The sculptor answered the nearby mystical reactionary philosophy of the Sacré Coeur with humanity, laughter and physical joy, without forgetting the tears.