Louise Michel

1830 – 1905 • France

AnarchistFeministParis Commune

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.

Pierre Bonaparte murdered the unarmed Victor Noir and is acquitted. Louise Michel is among the 100,000 who join the funeral protest

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. 

Moral democracy 

Michel worked as a teacher outside and then within Paris before the 1871 Commune

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.

Paris Commune 

Michel was one of the first women to join the Communards fighting on the barricades

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. 

Louise Michel volunteers to take the place of her mother as a prisoner of the Versaillais soldiers on May 24 1871

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. 

Michel was jailed for 6 months after the 9 March 1883 unemployed marchers stole bread from bakeries in the Rue du Four

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

Michel was jailed again for four months in 1886, after speaking at a meeting in support of the Decazeville striking miners, along with Jules Guesde and Paul Lafargue

Michel was shot at in 1888 but refused to make a complaint against her attacker

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. 

Michel continued to campaign until her death at 75

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

Louise Michel is shown kissing love and goodbye to Elisee Recl;us. The two other kisses sculpted represent tenderness (with maternal instincts) and consolation (with Michel kissing Auguste Blanqui)

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

A postcard of the Cornice of Kisses in the Luxembourg Gardens taken around 1910

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.

More info

Place Blanche

Arrondissement 18

A bustling square on the 1791-1860 northern boundary of Paris at the old tax gate into Paris to the south of the Montmartre hill. Its barricade in May 1871 involved fighter from the Women’s Union. Today it is home to Le Moulin Rouge that opened in 1889 and dozens of tacky strip bars and sex shops.

A century ago the Place Blanche already looked something like it does today

The Place Blanche (White Square) was named after a café called the ‘White Cross’. It got its name from the showers of white flour and gypsum whose mills and quarries often covered those working on and near the Montmartre hill.

A 1785 painting of the customs post at the Place Blanche gate in the recently-built Tax Farmers’ wall around Paris

The tax collectors’ building in the Farmers-General Wall at the Place Blanche was burnt down here on 11 July 1789 in a protest by quarry workers against the taxes on the carts they had to pay to enter neighbouring inner Paris. It was one of the many sparks that ignited in Paris three days later on July 14 1789.

The Farmers-General Wall of the Ancien Regime was built to tax Paris not to defend it as were the 13th and 14th century walls

The tax wall was first abolished by the Constituent Assembly in 1791 and in November 1793 32 of its wealthy tax collectors were arrested and 28 guillotined. After the tax wall’s reintroduction by the Directorate in 1798, it and its gates survived until 1860, when Montmartre was incorporated into Paris.

The Place Blanche tax gate photographed in 1855 before tax collections at the wall finally stopped in 1860

The halfmoon-shaped square was laid out in 1803 as La Place de la Barrière Blanche, and only became La Place Blanche in 1864.

The barricade with women defending the Commune at the Place Blanche in May 1871

On the morning of 23 May 1871 it was the site of a major battle at the barricade across the southern end of Rue Lepic. The barricade was defended by Elizabeth Dmitrieff, Nathalie Le Mel, Louise Michel and between fifty and 120 fighters from the Women’s Union for the Defence and Care of the Wounded of Paris.

The women fighters had already retreated from the Batignolles barricade, and after the Versaillais took this barricade they were then forced to retreat again to the next barricade at the Place Pigalle.

MAP

Rue de Clignancourt

Arrondissement: 18

Number 42-54, site of the Château Rouge

The entrance to Rue Clignancourt where a barricade blocked the road in May 1871

The most imposing building in the Rue de Clignancourt used to be the Château Rouge. It was built in 1780 with white stone and red brick by one of Paris’ tax collectors. Under the Empire it became the home of Napoleon’s brother Joseph Bonaparte . On March 30 1814 it was the place that he signed the capitulation to the allies.

A drawing from the early 19th century of the Château Rouge banqueting, meeting and dance hall

The house and estate were sold off in lots in 1844, when the house and front garden were bought by a businessman who turned it into the Château Rouge Dance Venue outside the Farmers’ General tax wall around Paris. This was where the reforming monarchists and a smattering of republicans gathered at the 9 July 1847 banquet to hear political speeches against the government of King Louis-Philippe.

Alexandre Ledru-Rollin and others then toured the country making republican speeches at other oppositional pro-democracy banquets.

The reformist political banquet of 9 July 1847 at the Château Rouge attended by 200 people including Ledru-Rollin among the 86 deputies

It was the banning of the 21 February 1848 banquet proposed for the Champs Elysées that triggered the 1848 February Revolution.

Louise Michel’s close Blanquist friend, Théo Ferré, lived opposite the Château Rouge at No 41, where the Vigilance Committee met during the Prussian siege of Paris from September 1870 to January 1871.

On March 18 1871, when General Lecomte failed to seize Paris’ canons further up the Montmartre Hill, he was first brought to the Château Rouge, then acting as the headquarters of the 18th Arrondissement’s Committee of Vigilance. In the afternoon he was taken back up the hill and shot.

During the Commune the 26-year-old Ferré was nominated Prosecutor, and in response to the growing number summary executions of Communards who surrendered to the Versaillais troops took place during the ‘bloody week’ May 21-28, on May 24 he authorised the execution of six of the hundreds of hostages held by the Commune at the prison of La Roquette. He wrote ‘especially the Archbishop’ of Paris (George Darboy) on the note.

Théo Ferré (1845-1871), close friend of Louise Michel, and follower of Blanqui. He became Prosecutor during the Paris Commune and was tried and shot for approving the execution of six hostages held by the Commune.

Many Communards were executed at the Château Rouge, their bodies being buried in the grounds and only uncovered when a local school was built. Ferré was captured, tried and shot on the early morning 28 November along with two army officers who had defected to the Commune.

In 1881 a developer bought the building and park and built the 13 huge houses at 42-54 rue de Clignancourt and from 7 to 13b rue Custine.

MAP