Virtually the entire revolutionary left of the 1840s used to visit No. 4. This was where the Slav exiles lived and where Bakunin used to meet Proudhon,Leroux and many others. Bakunin was finally expelled from France in 1847.
After receiving threats to his life, in 1937 Jean Zay moved to the road that was so close to the heavily guarded Chamber of Deputies.
Coup d’état, Second Empire, Haussmann, Colonialism, Sedan, National Government – in progress
The topography of Paris changed dramatically under the Second Empire. Driven by dual needs to re-engineer whole areas to facilitate military intervention against resistors and to create and sustain housing speculation, Louis-Napoléon’s Paris prefect, Georges-Eugène Haussmann, invested public funds massively in renovating Paris.
Near the very beginning of this process, the realisation by some commercial entrepreneurs that the developing railway system made it possible to put on sale together a wide variety of national and international manufactured products and foodstuffs led to the establishment of what we now call Department stores. Huge stores that sold many different products rather than just one type of good or service catered for Paris’s growing wealthy upper and middle classes.
On November 18 1852 the Bon Marché store opened its doors on the Rue de Sèvres. With its fixed prices, acceptance of returns and advertising it revolutionised the shopping habits of well-to-do Parisians.
Four years later the second oldest surviving department store was opened on the rue Rivoli. At first it was called ‘The Parisian Bazar’, and from 1856 it was renamed the ‘Bazar Napoléon’ before the end of the Second Empire in 1870 led to its current name BHV (Bazar de l’Hôtel de Ville). In 1865 Le Printempswas opened on the corner of the Boulevard Haussmann and the Rue du Havre, close to the busy Gare St Lazare, the capital’s first railway station built in 1837.
Called after a grandson of Louis XIV, the Duke of Bourgogne (1682-1712), the road was opened in 1707. Running south from today’s National Assembly, the Palais Bourbon, on January 18 1798 it was renamed the Rue du Conseil des Cinq-Cents after the Council of Five Hundred had begun to meet in the Palais Bourbon.
On February 6 1934 there was a police cordon stretching across the road at Nos 7 and 8 to the rue St Dominique protecting the National Assembly from the extreme right demonstrators.
The music teacher and composer Adolphe Reichel (1816-1896) lived at No. 4 in the mid-1840s when Bakunin stayed with him. Bakunin was expelled from France in 1847, but Proudhon and Pierre Leroux visited him there often.
During the Occupation a Resistance group based at No. 28 (pictured) organised escape routes to Spain both for allied soldiers and later for the roughly 200,000 men over 20 avoiding the Obligatory Work Duty (Service du travail obligatoire) introduced by the Laval government on February 16 1943.
The road was given the name Mill Street after the mills situated on a small hill that existed there as late as the 17th century. It was opened in 1624 and the hillock levelled out by its new owner.
From January to December 1844 the fortnightly German language paper Vorwärts! (Forward!) was published by Henri Bornstein at what was then 32 rue des Moulins but is now No. 14. Its circulation was about 1,000 copies, and Marx became a major editor of it from the summer. This was where Bakunin stayed when he first arrived in Paris in July 1844.
Vorwärts! was outlawed on January 25 1845 after an article was published applauding an attack on Prussian King Frederick William IV.
Meetings of the editorial collective of the Deutsch–Französische Jahrbücher (German–French Annals), also took place there. However, only one double issue appeared in February 1844. Several of contributors and potential contributors met and argued there frequently in 1844, eventually going their own ways. They included Proudhon, Leroux, Etienne Cabet and Louis Blanc, as well as Marx, Arnold Ruge and Bakunin.
This café was also where Marx and Engels met on August 28 1844 and agreed to work on ‘The Holy Family‘ together. Further along the street, at No. 251, was the Valentino Hall, which Engels entered on one occasion in his brief 1844 visit to Paris to escape the police spies who were following him.
Upstairs the Café de la Régence was the centre of French chess for over a century. It was where Robespierre, the young officer Napoléon Bonaparte and Louis Philippe all played their chess (no not together!). The café also doubled as one of Paris’ four cafe/shop post offices in the early 19th century.
The Café was well-positioned. It was close to the Palais Royal before the Revolution and afterwards it was on the route of those being taken from the Conciergerie prison to the Place de la Concorde to be guillotined.
At 10.30 pm on the evening of December 3 1973 one of the cartoonists for the French satirical paper Le Canard enchaînéreturned to its offices at No. 173 to find a government DST ( Direction de la surveillance du territoire) team of spies installing microphones. The French State has always believed it has the right to spy on dissidents.
Nearly two hundred years earlier the French state still believed in its right to execute dissidents. One issue was how this done. Should it be a lengthy process by strangulation (hanging) or a lengthy process by chopping at your neck with an axe?
Dr Joseph Ignace Guillotin, a humanist who opposed the death penalty helped develop a quicker, more efficient way of killing people. One of those who drafted the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, he died on March 26 1814 in his medical office at No. 209. This was on the route of those travelling to be ‘humanely’ executed at what is now the Place de la Concorde.
On November 29 1847 Bakunin spoke to the 1,500 people who attended a commemoration banquet of the 1830 Polish uprising against Russia at the Valentino Hall. Before Haussmann’s re-modelling of Paris its address was No. 359 rue St Honoré. This was where Valentino, the orchestra conductor and violinist, introduced the polka dance to Paris that same year, 1847.
The size and central location of the Hall attracted many revolutionaries to hold meetings there. In 1848, in February Cabet held a meeting of the Icarians there.
In March, Blanqui organised meetings of the Central Republican Society he chaired at Valentino’s. The Club of Political Prisoners presided by Armand Barbès with Blanqui as its vice-president also met there.
The Socialist Workers’ Club whose honorary president was Louis Blanc also met there until the May 15 1848 demonstration when it was dissolved after the failure of a left insurrectionary attempt to defend the socialist aspects of the February 1848 revolution.
On January 27 1871 the Valentino Hall was used by the Officers of the 1st Battalion of the National Guard to protest against the Armistice signed by the Thiers government with the Prussians.
Olympe de Gouges, opponent of slavery and author of the 1791 Declaration of the Rights of Women and Women Citizens, lived at No. 270. A History of Paris marker post has been put by the front foor to mark this feminist pioneer and martyre.
The main entrance to the second Jacobin monastery in Paris was at No. 328. Its side entrance in the Rue St Hyacinthe led to the monk’s canteen where the anti-royalist Breton Club began to meet in 1789. After the closure of the monasteries in 1790 the convent was rented to the Friends of the Constitution, who later took the name the Jacobin club .
General Lamarque died at his home at No. 368 of cholera. His funeral procession that left from here on June 5 1832, sparked the 1832 uprising against Louis-Philippe’s increasingly authoritarian rule that features in Hugo‘s Les Misérables.
When Robespierre was himself guillotined on July 28 1794, the cart carrying him to the scaffold stopped outside No. 398 (formerly No. 366) where he had lived for three years since he moved there secretly on July 17 1791 to avoid arrest after the Champs de Mars massacre. The house’s walls had been dripped with the blood of butchered cattle.
This Paris street widens as you walk up it towards the Luxembourg Palace in the Rue Vaugirard. It was once the home of several of France’s wealthiest people who built small palaces outside the confines of the inner Paris wall.
But it also has a left history. André Gide lived at No. 2 for eight years, from 1875-1883.
Next door, Alexandre Ledru-Rollin at the Hôtel de Montmorency at No. 4, was followed to his home from the assembly on June 24 1848 and threatened with death after he was denounced for being too supportive of the workers’ insurrection. Sharing the same address at the time was Lamartine, another leading campaigner for the extension of the suffrage.
Jacques Prévert moved to the fifth floor of No. 5 for a year in the winter of 1910 when he was ten years old. Fifteen years later he married Simone Dienne, three years younger than him, whose family lived on the ground floor in 1910.
In 1840 Charles Fourier, the early utopian socialist, edited the revue in the offices of La Phalange (sucessor paper to the Phalanstère) at No 6.
During the 1848 revolution, the anarchist Bakunin stayed at the Republican Guard barracks at No. 10.
In May 1871 the barracks offered a different menu: it was where some Communards fighting in Paris’ National Guard were court-martialed during the bloody week.
The Foyot restaurant that was bombed in 1894 where Laurent Tailhade, ironically a supporter of the ‘propaganda by the deed’ anarchist movement, lost an eye was also used by the painter Gustave Courbet and other Commune supporters in 1871.
A scandal broke out at Foyot shortly before Verlaine died when in rags he was invited to dine there by a symbolist poet and dandy.
Initially bits of the boggy land on a narrow country lane through Abbey land were sold by Saint-Germain-des-Prés Abbey to builders, and it was called the Saint Sulpice lane in 1517. The road was soon renamed Rue de Tournon in 1541, after Cardinal François de Tournon (1489-1562) who ran the abbey.
Under the Second Republic in 1849 the government decided to allow the road to take its current unique bell-shaped dimensions, running from 13.5 meters wide up to double that when opening up to the Luxembourg Palace.
While anarchism may contain extreme individualism, in France it emerged as a bottom-up collective ideology alongside communist thought as a major mutualist strand within early French socialism.
Peter Kropotkin (1842-1921) suggested anarchism emerged out of the ‘naturalist philosophy’ of the enlightenment.
Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809-1865) considered that in putting individual human rights at the legal heart of the social order, the French Revolution itself was the start of doing everything differently. Justice became possible in political, economic and social life within a peaceful transition to an anarchist world he described as ‘Anarchy is Order Without Power’.
Proudhon, who many see as the ‘father’ of anarchism, regarded property as a means of exercising authority.
He rejected it, god and government – whether elected or imposed by
revolutionaries. He opposed both reformists and utopians.
For Proudhon, only the
workers themselves could achieve freedom. And they could only do so through exercising
direct control over their daily work.
Proudhon, Perry Anderson (The New Old World) reminds us, also believed in a European confederation of federations – a bottom-up association of mutually supportive workshops.
In the 1850s and 1860s Proudhon’s writings reached a wide audience among the growing numbers of skilled French workers, who often found themselves in workshops alongside their working employer. The French delegates to the First International, founded in London in 1864, were largely Proudhonist, without their belonging to a specific anarchist organisation.
The suppression of the 1871 Paris Commune killed (literally) the Proudhonist collective bottom-up dynamic.
It took the return of the amnestied Communards in 1879 and 1880 for anarchism to re-emerge. But its form was then quite different.
The now-marginalised Proudhonists increasingly wished to differentiate themselves from the socialists. In 1882Louise Michel (1830-1905) argued ‘
No more flags dyed red with the blood of our soldiers. I will carry the black flag to mourn our dead and all illusions.
In 1884 in a regular meeting place, the Salle de la Réunion, at 8, Rue de Lévis, the anarchist grouplet, the ‘Batignolles Panther‘ (la Panthère des Batignolles) held one/two meetings that ended in street battles with the police and monarchists. This was a period of rising monarchist agitation. Either on 23 November or 7 December 1884, or on both dates, the meetings included speakers such as Louise Michel,Jules Favre, Henri Rochefort and Léon Gambetta.
Propaganda by the deed
Many anarchists reflected their frustration with the conservatism of the strongly liberal and anti-socialist Third Republic by turning to what became called ‘Propaganda by the Deed’.
Breaking with Proudhon’s moderation as well as with Mikhail Bakunin’s (1814-1876) anti-authoritarianism, the new generation of libertarians increasingly considered that a social revolution could only occur if sparked by insurrectional acts.
At the right moment, the
‘spirit of revolt’ inherent in the working masses would spontaneously lead to a
This ideology justified violence directed against individual capitalists and their supporters on the grounds that capitalism itself was founded on violence. ‘Individual seizures’ of bourgeois goods and possessions were justified as helping to destabilise the bourgeois order.
The ‘propaganda by the deed’ anarchists denounced
attempts to create lasting organisations, as well as strikes (reforming the
system) and any joint work with the socialists.
Their public presence grew,
as their ideas attracted many intellectuals and artists who detested the authoritarianism
and conformity of 1880s French society.
Felix Fénéon (1861-1944) and some of his artistic and literary friends like Maximilien Luce started attending anarchist meetings. Anarchism also attracted younger workers angry at continuing massive poverty and inequality.
Anarchist papers were selling 20,000 copies a week in Paris by the mid-1880s. The papers edited by Jean Grave(1854-1939), successively le Révolté, La révolte and Les Temps nouveaux (New Times) and supported by Kropotkin and Élisée Reclus, were the most influential.
On May Day 1891 nine demonstrators for the 8-hour day were shot dead by police at Fourmies near the Belgian border.
On the same day at another demonstration at Clichy in Paris three anarchists were arrested and badly beaten up after the police decided to seize the red flag at the march’s head. Gunfire was exchanged. One anarchist and some police slightly wounded.
Two of the anarchists were jailed by the judges
for five and three years.
As an individual act of reprisal for this
injustice, the 32-year-old François (Koenigstein) Ravachol then bombed the homes
of two judges involved in the Clichy trial. He was caught and guillotined on 11
On November 8 1892, five days after the end of the 10-week Carmaux miners’ strike in the south of France, Émile Henry, the 20-year-old son of a Spanish communard, planted a time-bomb at the Carmaux company’s Paris office. It was found and taken to a police station where it exploded killing five gendarmes.
On 9 December 1893 August Vaillant threw a bomb into the Chamber of Deputies from the public gallery in protest against political corruption. It wounded 20 deputies and Vaillant was guillotined on 3 February 1894.
Nine days after Vaillant’s execution, the 22-year-old Henry carried out a revenge bombing at the Café Terminus at the Paris Gare St Lazare. It killed one man and wounded another 19. Henry was caught at the scene and guillotined on 21 May 1894.
On 24 June 1894 an Italian 20-year-old anarchist knifed the French president in Lyon. Sadi Carnot died a day later and Caserio was tried and guillotined in August.
Under new anti-anarchist laws passed in December 1893, 426 anarchists were rounded-up in April 1894 of whom 30, including Fénéon, the anarchist journalists Jean Grave and Émile Pouget(1860-1931), and a burglar, Philippe Léon Ortix, were also put on trial in August 1894 for ‘criminal conspiracy’.
The prosecution aimed to
prove that the anarchist anti-capitalists were working closely with known
criminals. After Fénéon’s brilliant appearance in the dock, and Bernard Lazare
‘s committed legal defence, only three were finally jailed.
Later in 1894 a few anarchists, including Bernard Lazare and Fénéon, were among the first to denounce the silence on the left in front of the national anti-Semitic lynch mob atmosphere after Captain Dreyfus was arrested for alleged treason on October 29.
Earlier that year Lazare had published Anti-Semitism, its History and Causes, and Lazare became the key figure in exposing the framing of Dreyfus with a pamphlet published in November 1896.
Criticism of the ‘propaganda
by the deed’ ideology, the repression targeting anarchist newspapers and
individuals, as well as the clear failure of these terrorist acts to stimulate revolution,
led many anarchist sympathisers to turn towards trade union and socialist
As early as 1893 Michel, Kropotkin and others in the Avant-Garde group of anarchists began to argue against the individualist-isolationism of ‘propaganda by the deed’ and for a return for anarchism to the workers’ movement as a component of socialism.
Their object, inside the
trade unions and socialist sects, was to attack the advocates of state
socialism through parliament and to argue for extra-parliamentary action,
particularly the general strike as a means of achieving emancipation. Entering
unions that were only legalized in 1884 and working with the socialists there
would end the isolation fueled by the failures of ‘propaganda by the deed’.
It would also dovetail with the understandings of the very small numbers of trade unionists. They rationalised their minority status in relationship to their fellow workers as proving their responsibility was to lead by example. If a minority took direct action on an important issue, then the majority might join in.
‘Direct action’ was thus democratic – it offered workers the possibility of participating in their own liberation – and it did not involve a dependency upon either the state or the employers. Neither party politics nor collective bargaining could be relied on to improve workers’ conditions; workers could only rely on what was gained through direct action.
In September 1895, albeit paradoxically, the founding conference of the Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT) trade union centre at Limoges voted to ‘stay outside of all political schools’. The paradox is that this apolitical stance was adopted by the majority of delegates made up of Jean Allemane supporters, anarchists and Blanquists in order to scupper the influence of Jules Guesde‘s French Workers’ Party.
syndicalist’ trade unionism tended to place a greater emphasis upon the
‘general strike’ for longer-term goals of social transformation and
internationalism, and to stress the importance of generalising actions against
the employing class as a whole. It took a deep
hold on the unskilled worker activists whose uncertain, irregular and very low
paid work meant they were effectively excluded from the widespread
state-supervised mutual savings societies (mutualités)
with the requirement of regular payments before benefits could be accrued.
syndicalists were sometimes politically close to the still sizeable body of anarchists.
They often came from smaller firms and trades where the prospects of reactionary
paternalist employers ever agreeing to trade union recognition and collective
bargaining were highly remote.
They defended direct action, confrontation with the employers, the General Strike and sabotage such as ‘go slows’. In the CGT’s 1906 agitation for the Eight Hour Day, it therefore called neither for legislation on working time nor for negotiations: its aim was to have enough workers take strike action to convince everyone to simply impose the eight hour day on the employers.
The anarchist Émile Pouget (1860-1931), author of Le Sabotage (1898), became Joint-General Secretary of the CGT from 1901 to 1908. In 1906 he helped draft the Amiens Charter that is still a cornerstone of much French trade unionism with the cobbler, Victor Griffuelhes (1874-1922).
It was largely thanks to
Griffuelhes’ organizational talents as General Secretary that the CGT grew from
around 100,000 members in 1901 to the near 500,000 claimed when he was forced by
the 1908 reformist coup to resign.
World War 1
Anarchism, like the whole revolutionary left, took a big hit in 1914. All belief that class interests would trump national interest crashed. Worse still for the anarchists than for the social democrats who wanted to win state power, and had already seen some former socialists move into ministerial positions, Kropotkin and Grave and a handful of other leading anarchists argued that workers should support the Entente alliance against the greater evil of German militarism.
The 1917 Russian Revolution
was experienced by the revolutionary syndicalists as an emotional
roller-coaster. Revolutionary inspiration turned quickly to the sad
confirmation of their greatest fears and predictions about the consequences of a
single party state.
Anarchist insistence that workers
could and would seize a revolutionary opportunity to overthrow the state was shattered.
The defeat of the 1919 German revolution and the arrival of the successful
fascist counter-revolution in Italy added to their demoralisation.
The shrinking numbers of anarchists began to see anarchism as first needing to educate the masses and even to organise to ensure this happens.
The ‘anarchist summer’ of 1936 in France and particularly in Spain, with agricultural collectives being formed bottom-up across whole regions, and with revolutionary syndicalists dominant in the trade union refuelled the anarchist belief that they could make history and not just be subjected to it.
Yet by November 1936 the choice between making the revolution and defending the Spanish Republic had to be made: the anarcho-syndicalist CNT trade union confederation decided to enter the Spanish Republican government and was backed by the Iberian Federation of Anarchists (FAI).
After World War Two
In the 1940s and 1950s some French libertarians tried to resuscitate anarchism from its identification with violence by renaming it ‘libertarian socialism’ or ‘libertarian humanism’. Most kept defending the earlier anti-state mantra, and failed to support growing anti-colonial struggles.
The most prominent sympathisers in this period, like the surrealist André Breton (1896-1966) and poet/singer George Brassens (1921-1981), remained individualist rather than collectivist. Brassens was one of the editorial collective behind the revival of Le Libertaire, which resumed production in December 1944 and came out on a weekly basis until 1956, when the fragmenting anarchist movement suspended its production.
A libertarian renaissance started in the early 1960s, inspired partly by the experiments in self-organisation in Tito’s Yugoslavia and in Ben Bella’s (1916-2012) Algeria.
May 1968 saw an explosion of radical libertarianism. Spontaneous and anti-authoritarian it denounced the bureaucratised trade unions and Communist Party.
For a time a black flag was raised over the Odéon Theatre. This was occupied by the students, and became a centre of debate about the future of the movement. My step-mother recalled how the teargas used by police in 1968 to end the occupation wafted up into the flat 50 metres from the theatre that I’m now lucky enough to be able to use to follow the footsteps of the French Parisian left.
May 1968 generated a new
mass feminist movement in France. It relaunched the ecology environmental
movement. It led to the formation of hundreds of experimental self-governing
collectives and a large squatting movement.
Among those radicalised by 1968 were many French anarchists. A journal, Camarades, was launched in 1974. It was influenced both by increasingly the militaristic Italian ‘Autonomous Workers’ organization (of whom many members fled to France in 1979) and by Spanish anti-Franco activists in the Groupes d’action révolutionnaires internationalistes (GARI) who believed it necessary to continue an armed struggle against the state.
In 1976, Jean
Bilski, an anarchist acting alone, murdered the chief executive of the giant
Credit Lyonnais bank, and then killed himself.
In 1977 a group of Maoists belonging to the Armed Units for Mass
Self-organisation (Noyaux armés pour l’autonomie populaire) carried out 7 bombings on their own and
another series of attacks on nuclear targets with anarchists belonging to GARI.
The first ‘General meeting
of Parisian self-organised groups’ (Assemblée générale parisienne des groupes
autonomes – AGPGA) is held in October 1977,
after the July 31 brutal police attacks on the anti-nuclear demonstration in
the ‘Battle of Malville’. Some of those there created a loose ‘internal armed
political coordination network’ within the wider group.
A month later on the night
of 19 November 1977, 23 coordinated attacks (bombings, Molotov cocktails) on
the French electricity company (EDF) and the nuclear industry took place across
While most French anarchists considered the time was not ripe for mounting similar attacks and robberies to those associated with the Red Brigades in Italy from 1975 to 1979, a tiny minority clearly did.
Some of them formed Action Directe, borrowing the name from
the revolutionary syndicalists. This group’s first action was on May Day 1979.
They machine-gunned the headquarter offices of the Patronat (the largest French
employers’ organization, then called the Conseil
national du patronat français).
The group followed this up with another 80 bombings,
bank robberies, acts of sabotage, machine-gunning and assassinations over a
nine-year period. In 1987 its four remaining leaders were jailed for life. The
last one, Jean-Marc Rouillan, aged 66 was released in May 2018 after spending
28 years in prison, of which ten were in isolation, and then published his
account of Ten years of Direct Action.
Most ‘new’ anarchists resumed
involvement in the major struggles of the late 20th century –
against racism, for equality, against unjust laws, and even for workers’
rights. In the 1970s and 1980s a ‘workers’ control’ movement appeared.
Many are involved in
‘alternative world’ movements, often working closely with radical environmentalists.
Eco-anarchists, following Élisee Reclus, generally argue that mankind should
stop attempting to dominate nature.
These groups usually stress key libertarian themes such as direct democracy, task rotation, anti-authoritarianism, solidarity and federalism.
The black and red flag of French anarchism is now mainly carried by a few hundred young men at the margins of demonstrations. They are often primarily interested, it would seem, only in confronting the police or in being attacked by them.
Yet the conviction that a radically different way of organizing economic and social relations to contemporary capitalism is both possible and necessary remains alive and kicking. And French anarchism reminds us that this cannot be achieved without also ensuring individual freedom.