Lucie Aubrac/Bernard

1912-2007 • France

Communist • Resistance • Anti-racist

Lucie Bernard, born in the suburbs of south-eastern Paris, was the daughter of a gardener badly wounded in the First World War. She attributed her early passionate pacifism to her hatred of the damage war brings.

In the 1930s she joined the young Communists and after 1940 became a resistance fighter in the Unoccupied Zone while working as a teacher. A film was made of the dramatic escape from the Gestapo that she organised for her husband in 1943, after which her husband adopted the pseudonym Aubrac they both changed their names to in 1950.

Lucie Bernard initially aimed to become a primary school teacher. But after securing a rare competitive scholarship she rejected the dormitory living and uniforms required and left home, drawn to studying history and wider political ideas.

She joined the International Youth Circle of Quakers in the early 1930s. It used to meet in Rue Guy-de-la-Brosse.

In 1933, after Hitler came to power in Germany, the French section of the Society of Friends set up an International Refugee Aid society in Rue Rataud to help refugees from Germany, and later from Spain.

This was probably how Bernard found out in 1935 that she could get cheap lodgings in an attic room in the same building as the Refugee Aid society, just to the south of the Sorbonne. She kept renting the room until 1939.

While still attending the Quaker Youth Circle meetings, in 1932 Bernard/Aubrac also joined the Young Communists. They appeared to her at the time as the most active and committed anti-militarists.

Bernard was a militant and courageous seller of the bi-monthly Avant-Garde young communist publication. In the 1930s its sellers were often attacked by members of the numerous fascist leagues. In 1935 she was asked by the Communist Party to sit on its Paris regional committee and invited (but declined) to go to the Lenin School in Moscow to be trained as a future leader.

Fascists were marching in Paris in the 1930s, and would beat up Communist Party and other left newspaper sellers if they were not defended by their comrades

In 1936 Bernard/Aubrac was helping make ends meet by working in a nursery school in Rue Victor Cousin next to the Sorbonne. She also heard a speech by the young radical politician, Jean Zay, and was so impressed that she cycled down to get involved in his re-election campaign in the Loiret in 1936.

Graduating from the Sorbonne in 1938 she was nominated to teach in a secondary school in Strasbourg. In December 1939, she married the son of wealthy Jewish shop owners, Raymond Samuel, a young engineer who had been called up into the army where he was also based in Strasbourg.

Raymond Samuel (Aubrac) (1914-2012) married Lucie in 1939 and was rescued from prison by her three times. He was a leader of the resistance in the Southern Zone. After the war he was close to the PCF and the Citizens Movement

By July 1940 Raymond was a German prisoner of war but Lucie Samuel helped him escape, with both of them travelling to Lyon in the unoccupied zone of France. That autumn with Emmanuel d’Astier they created a resistance group called ‘The Last Column‘ and started producing an underground paper called Libération. It aimed to break the predominant apathy towards the German occupation shared in the Southern Zone.

In the summer of 1942 Libération Sud asked Raymond to lead its new military wing. In March 1943 he was arrested by French police, along with other local resistance leaders. Lucie then went to the prosecutor pretending to be an agent of De Gaulle. She warned him that he would be a dead man if Raymond (then François Vallet) was not released. He was let out shortly afterwards and Raymond and Lucie then organised the escape of the other resistance fighters when they were being transferred to hospital.

In June 1943 Raymond was arrested again in Lyon with Jean Moulin and eight other national resistance leaders. This time the arrest was by the Gestapo, headed at the time by Klaus Barbie.*

*Barbie, known as the ‘Butcher of Lyon’, had personally tortured French resistance fighters. The US helped him escape to Bolivia after the war, where in 1980 he was implicated in the 1979 Garcia Meza fascist coup d’état. After the Junta was forced out of power in 1982, Barbie was extradited to France, tried and convicted of crimes against humanity. His lawyer maliciously used the trial to accuse Raymond Aubrac of being the agent who had denounced Moulin, an accusation only finally declared false in the European Court of Human Rights in 2004. Barbie finally died of cancer in prison in 1991.

Courageously, Lucie Aubrac went to see Barbie personally and persuaded him that she had to marry Raymond (now Claude Ermelin) before he was executed because she was six months pregnant by him. Allowed to leave the Prison Montluc for the marriage Lucie organised an attack on prison wagon, killing five guards and rescuing Raymond and another ten resistance fighters.

After several months in hiding, on February 8 1944 the family arrived in London on one of the special planes that moved at night between France and England. Lucie gave birth to her daughter twelve days later.

Lucie Aubrac’s wartime exploits were made into a film in 1997

In October 1944 Aubrac was nominated to the Provisional Consultative Assembly as one of just 12 women out of 248 delegates. Based in Algiers from November 1943 to July 25 1944, after the liberation of France its second series of sessions were held at the Luxembourg Palace in Rue Vaugirard from November 7 1944 to August 3 1945.

Aubrac first staying on getting back to Paris with her two children at the Hotel Pont Royal in the Rue Montalembert. Her husband Raymond Aubrac was Commissioner in charge of Marseilles, stirring up opposition by requisitioning 15 collaborationist companies between September 10 and October 5 1944.

From January 1945 until the spring of 1946, the reunited family lived in a sequestered flat in Rue Marbeuf. At this time, Raymond, sacked for his left views as Marseille Commissioner, was now responsible for the national de-mining programme, while Lucie was active in the Consultative Assembly.

Aubrac immediately launched a weekly paper Privilèges des femmes to inform French women of their new rights. After 13 issues it folded, judged too communist by the socialists and not communist enough by the PCF.

From March to July 1945 she was editor of La Femme (Woman), the weekly paper of the Femmes de la Libération (FLN) before her proximity to the PCF saw her removed.

By December 1945 La Femme had stopped referring to the militancy of women in the resistance and was reinforcing a woman’s traditional role

From 1945 to 1947 Lucie Aubrac made several attempts to join the Communist Party – but despite the support of several leading Communists including André Marty each was rejected.

Despite this, In October 1946 she stood for election as a deputy in the SaôneetLoire department on the list of Communists, republicans and resistance fighters led by the Communist Waldeck-Rochet. She was only put in third place by the PCF, with only the first two getting enough votes to be elected as deputies.

Aubrac was still considered too ‘indisciplined’ and her first book about the resistance movement was considered to have not made enough about the role of the PCF. She was criticised for not submitting everything she wrote to the Party before publishing it.

In November 1946 she was resinstated as a teacher and given a post in the Lycée Jacques-Decour in Avenue Trudaine, where she worked for most of the next ten years. It was the only lycée in France renamed in honour of a resistant after the occupation.

Despite the PCF’s reticence about Lucie, her husband was an open supporter of many Communist policies. When Ho Chi Minh came to Paris to follow the negotiations with the government, he stayed at their new house and became god-father to their daughter Elisabeth.

Ho Chi Minh stayed with the Aubracs for six weeks in August and September 1946 while following the negotiations led by Pham Van Dong on the future of Indochina. He is photographed here with new baby Elisabeth and Lucie Aubrac by l’Humanité on September 16 1946.

Campaigning against France resuming its colonial policies in IndoChina and elsewhere, In 1948 Lucie and Raymond jointly founded Le Mouvement pour la Paix (Peace Movement).

Became a major anti-racist campaigner.

Lucie Aubrac in her 90s

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Charlotte Bonnin

1887 – 1969 • France

Trade UnionistFeminist

Living in the 18th arrondissement, she was Deputy General Secretary of the CGT’s post office trade union federation in 1931 and 1932, and then treasurer of the union in 1938.

A member of the executive of the French League for the rights of women, she is quoted as saying:

To be a trade unionist is a good thing, but to be both a trade unionist and a feminist is better, because feminism gives a shot in the arm to the trade unionist in danger of keeping to general facts and forgetting that a woman worker has twice as much to complain about because she is exploited twice: as a woman, and as a worker’.

Charlotte Bonnin’s article calling for ‘Equal Wages for Equal Work’ on 29 June 1929 in La Française, the Journal of Women’s Action and Education.

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Simone De Beauvoir

1908 – 1986 • France

FeministAuthor • Philosopher

A major writer, intellectual, existentialist philosopher, political activist, feminist and social theorist from the 1940s to the 1980s.

In Paris in 2016, I was still walking round following dreamers and lovers. It was 30 years since Simone de Beauvoir died. Along with George Sand, she is probably close to the top in France (and with a world-wide reputation) when it comes to fighting for women’s rights – both politically and personally.

Simone de Beaouvoir lived in a first floor flat above the café brasserie at the centre of the Montparnasse art scene before the First World War

So I headed back to La Rotonde on the boulevard du Montparnasse. When I first had a drink there with the ghosts of Trotsky and Rivera I didn’t know that when they were there in August 1914, the six-year-old Simone was living above their heads in the posh flat where she was born. That didn’t last long. Her maternal grandfather, who had funded her wannabe-actor legal secretary dad (his Breton name including ‘de’ doesn’t mean he was an aristocrat), went bankrupt after World War 1.

In 1919 the family was forced to move to a sixth floor (ie servants’) flat) at 71 rue de Rennes, without (like most Parisian working class families at the time) running water. (It’s not like that today!!). From there she went first to the Catholic Cours Desir secondary school in the Rue Jacob and then to the Lycée Fénelon, the first girls’ lycée in Paris that had opened in 1893 in the Rue de l’Éperon. It’s just down the road from where my father’s partner for 30 years still lives (she’s over 94 and going strong).
Simone de Beauvoir became an atheist at 14, around the time a close friend died.

She passed her Bac exams in 1924 and became the ninth woman to get a degree at the Sorbonne University where, at 20, she first saw the 23-year-old Jean-Paul Sartre at philosophy lectures.

In 1928, still living at home, she completed the equivalent of a Masters dissertation on Leibniz under the supervision of the husband of the leading feminist, Cecile Brunschvicg.

Philosophy student Jean-Paul Sartre in his 20s

A year later, she had moved out to the Avenue Denfert-Rochereau. That same year, in 1929, De Beauvoir and Sartre met again at the Cité Universitaire (where I first lived in Paris in the Maison de la Tunisie in 1964), and that was it. For the rest of their lives they kept a close intimate and work relationship going. Over the years, De Beauvoir had many other lovers, men and women, while Sartre had many women lovers.

Simone De Beauvoir in 1945 at the end of the Second World War

From 1929 to 1943 de Beauvoir taught at various lycées to support herself. Her independence was crucial to her thought. In 1931 and 1932 she was allocated to Lycées outside Paris teaching first in Marseille and then in Rouen.

In 1936-37 she was back in Paris, teaching at the Lycée Molière in the wealthy 16th arrondissement while living in the royal Bretagne hotel in the Rue de la Gaîté. On mornings when she wasn’t teaching, she used to have breakfast at the Dôme, the haunt of many German refugees who read newspapers there and played chess.

At one point Sartre proposed marriage to her so that they could both be sent to the same region of France, but she rejected this idea. Her independence was not for sale.

In September 1937 both de Beauvoir and Sartre were assigned teaching posts in Paris, and they both rented rooms in the Hôtel Mistral in Rue Cels. They lived there until September 1939 when Sartre was called up. This was where de Beauvoir began to work on her first novel (L’Invitée, published in 1943, in English ‘She Came to Stay’). There is now a joint plaque to them outside the Hotel.

After Sartre was mobilised into the army, de Beauvoir moved to the Hotel Danemark in the Rue Vavin. From there she moved to the Hotel d’Abusson on the Rue Dauphine. When Simone was thrown out of teaching in 1943 after being subject to political and personal criticisms the pair moved into separate rooms in the even cheaper Hotel Louisiana in the Rue de Seine.

Strangely, though, given her huge reputation, I only found one individual plaque to her. There was no plaque at what is now an expensive restaurant with an average-priced brasserie attached, La Closerie des Lilas. This was where Sartre and de Beauvoir organised a ‘Socialism and Freedom’ meeting attended by 50 people in 1941 after Sartre returned from a prisoner of war camp.

From 1948 to 1955 De Beauvoir lived in a three-room flat in the Rue de la Bûcherie. She then moved to a first-floor flat in the Rue Victor-Schoelcher opposite the Montparnasse Cemetery with Claude Lanzmann.

A rare plaque in Paris to a leftist who opposed the Algerian War and was an inspiration to the world feminist movement

This was her final move. She lived there until until 1986, where a plaque recognises her presence.

De Beauvoir’s most important work, ‘The Second Sex‘, was published in 1949. Its central argument is that women are constructed as a subordinate ‘Other’ by men, but that they can choose freedom rather than accept this construction. She certainly did this.

After two hours walking I sat down at another cafe – not far from where the couple had shared much, and near the Montparnasse Cemetery were they now lie together.

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Antoinette Fouque

1936 – 2014 • France

Feminism • Socialism

A key figure in the French Women’s Liberation movement (Mouvement de libération des femmes) and founder editor of the publishers, Éditions des femmes

Challenging the general mysogeny and machoism in Paris in 1968, she was one of the founders of the French Women’s Liberation movement. She was elected a left radical member of the European Parliament from 1994 to 1999.

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Benoîte Groult

1920 – 2016 • France


Best-selling novelist who embraced feminism in the 1970s, she founded the monthly ‘F Magazine’ in 1978. She was the first to denounce female genital mutilation, and she fought for the right to die with dignity.

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Rosa Luxemburg

1871-1919 • Poland

Philosopher • Economist • Revolutionary

The Rue Riquet Rosa Luxemburg

Rosa Luxemburg lived most of her 48 years a long way east of Paris, mainly in Warsaw and Berlin. But a new garden has been named after her in the 18th Arrondissement of Paris. The Rue Riquet garden is next to the railway lines leading into Paris’ Gare de L’Est. A few kids were playing in the Jardin Luxemburg when I walked round. Trains kept passing in the background. 

The beautiful garden and play area opened in 2014, one hundred years after Luxemburg had spoken alongside the French socialist leader, Jean Jaurès, at a mass anti-war meeting in Brussels, on July 29 1914

Rosa Luxemburg and Jean Jaurès spoke at a mass anti-war meeting in Brussels on 19 July 1914

Just two days before Jaurès was murdered and a week before the First World War broke out. Luxemburg had travelled to Belgium as part of the last desperate efforts of the Second International to stop the war. With Karl Kautsky and Hugo Haase she represented Germany at that emergency meeting. Keir Hardie was there too, representing Britain. 

World War 1 

In his last ever public speech, given at Brussels’ Cirque Royal, Jaurès congratulated the 100,000 Berlin workers who had demonstrated against war the day before. And he added: ‘You will allow me to especially pay tribute to the courageous woman, Rosa Luxemburg, who fans the flames of her ideals close to the heart of the German working class’. 

Luxemburg had already spent a year in German prisons. She would return to Germany from Brussels to be jailed for most of the First World War. 

She was born in Russian-controlled Poland in 1871. A big anti-Jewish pogrom took place in Warsaw in 1881, and this direct experience of anti-Semitism took the ten-year-old girl towards anti-racist internationalist politics. 


The Lithuanian Leo Jogiches with whom Luxemburg fell in love in Zurich in 1890

At 16 she got involved with a small socialist group. At 18 she followed her brother and enrolled at Zurich University, where she met and fell in love with a Lithuanian student and already committed revolutionary socialist, Leo Jogiches

Together they set up the Polish Kingdom Social Democratic party (SDKP) and after enrolling for a doctorate in Zurich, Luxemburg travelled to Paris to edit their new paper, Sprawa robot¬nicza (Workers’ Cause), whose first issue appeared in July 1893. 

Plaque for the ‘International Activist’ Rosa Luxemburg put up in 2010 outside 21 rue Feutrier

Luxemburg stayed initially near the Sacré Coeur in northern Paris. She lodged with another Polish revolutionary, Adolf Warszawski (murdered by Stalin in 1937), and his wife. On International Women’s Day, 2010, one of the few plaques to leftists in Paris commemorating her was erected at 21 rue Feutrier

In 1895 Luxemburg moved to a third floor flat at 7, Avenue Reille in the 14th arrondissement, sharing with another revolutionary, Cezaryna Wanda Wojnarowska.

While editing Workers’ Cause, Luxemburg regularly used to research her thesis at the Polish Library on the Ile St Louis and the French National Library at the Palais Royal (as did Lenin 15 years later). Her doctorate on the Industrial development of Poland was accepted at Zurich University in 1897. 


Luxemburg and Jogiches were political comrades and lovers for over half of their too short adult lives. But Luxemburg complained bitterly from Paris that all he ever wrote to her was about what she should put in the paper. 

In one letter she wrote: ‘Dearest, I was so furious [with your last letter] that I wasn’t going to write again before I left [Paris]…. Your letters contain nothing, absolutely nothing that isn’t about Sprawa robot¬nicza … Not a word about anything new that has affected you personally…The only thing that unites us is the Cause and old shared feelings. I feel as little desire to come back to Zurich as I have to stay here…I’ve got masses of impressions and thoughts – but no-one to share them with! You?’ 

In 1898 she had a marriage of convenience with a German socialist to get German nationality and moved to Berlin. There, Jogiches finally joined her in 1900. Her intimate relationship with Jogiches ended in 1906 and during the next five years she had another lover, the son of Clara Zetkin

German SPD 

Luxemburg speaking at an SPD meeting in Stuttgart in 1907

In 1899 Luxemburg published ‘Social Reform or Revolution’, a critique of Eduard Bernstein. She criticised Lenin’s views on party organisation and advocated mass strikes rather than parliamentary activity. 

Her growing political and theoretical influence in Germany, her public debates with Lenin about the centralized party and nationalism, and her criticisms of Bernstein made her a leading figure in the German Social Democratic Party (SPD). 

These qualities, coupled with her speaking Yiddish, French, Polish, Russian and German, led her to become a member of the Second International Bureau in 1903. In 1905 her experience of the Russian Revolution led her to theorise the role of the mass strike as a way of transforming the working class from a reactive to a proactive historical force. 


In 1912 a speech Luxemburg gave a speech on ‘Women’s Suffrage and Class Struggle’ at the Second German SDP women’s rally. She argued: 

‘Women’s suffrage is the goal. But the mass movement to bring it about is not a job for women alone, but is a common class concern for women and men of the proletariat… the proletarian woman’s lack of political rights is a vile injustice.’ 

She ended her speech: ‘Fighting for women’s suffrage, we will also hasten the coming of the hour when the present society falls in ruins under the hammer strokes of the revolutionary proletariat.’ In 1918 she supported women’s sections being created within the Spartakus League. 

After the German Social Democrats (as did the French Socialists and British Labour Party) voted war credits in August 1914, Luxemburg organised a group of resistors. 

They included Karl Liebnecht, Frank Mehring, Paul Levi, Clara Zetkin and Jogiches. 

Spartakus League 

From jail Luxemburg continued to campaign against the war, and in 1917 created the Spartakus League as the far left of a new Independent SPD opposed to the war. 

After the failed January 1919 Spartakus uprising that she had not encouraged but supported once it began, Luxemburg was arrested again. 

Liebnecht and Luxemburg’s portraits are now displayed in the German Historical Museum in Berlin

On her way back to prison she was shot in the head by the officer commanding her guards. Her body was dumped in a canal and an army communique issued saying she had been killed by angry crowds. Karl Liebknecht was assassinated in the same way the same day. 

Luxemburg’s presumed body was only finally recovered in May. By then, Jogiches, who had started asking questions about her murder, had also been arrested and then ‘shot will trying to escape’. 

The Rue Riquet Rosa Luxemburg garden in December 2016

In winter it’s not always easy to find a red flower against a background of railway beams and shunter trains. But there was at least one in the Rosa Luxemburg garden when I walked through it.

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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.

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Madeleine Pelletier

1874 – 1939 • France


On Saturday, December 9 2017, the Library of Parisian History reopened after an 11-month refurbishment in the stunning 16th century Lamoignon Hotel. One of the displays at the packed open day showed this torn copy of the front page of the first issue of La Suffragiste.  It was edited by Madeleine Pelletier from 1907 to 1914.

A slightly torn copy of La Suffragiste from December 1907

In 1904 Madeleine Pelletier was the first woman to be allowed to work as a psychiatric ‘docteur’ inside France’s mental health asylums after she had forced a change in the law. But when we visited the site of her medical practice in the interwar years just south of Gare Montparnasse, the plaque finally agreed to by the co-owners of the building at 80–82 rue de Gergovie in 2011 says, ‘Doctoresse’ instead.

Pelletier did however sign herself ‘doctoresse’ once before in an article denouncing false internments. Ironically, she then died an internee herself, inside the Perray-Vaucluse asylum on December 29 1939 aged 65. She was completely sane, held as a feminist political prisoner. She was placed there by a judge who decided to shut her up rather than allow her trial to continue on a charge of carrying out an abortion on a 13-year-old raped by the child’s brother.

Pelletier had campaigned for the previous 35 years for women’s contraception and the right to an abortion. Half paralysed after a stroke in 1937 she was clearly not guilty as charged (abortion was only finally legalized in France in 1974).

Pelletier began writing for La Fronde (The wind of change/Insurrection) that Marguerite Durand had launched in 1897.

In 1907 she launched the Suffragiste after attending the first Women’s Socialist International Conference in Stuttgart in August. She was part of an 8-strong delegation from the Paris SFIO.  Out of a total of 58 delegates from 15 countries she was one of the 11 who voted against Klara Zetkin’s formulation that ‘the struggle for voting rights for women workers is not separate from the class struggle’.

For Zetkin, the main task was to integrate women into all aspects of the class struggle, and to bring socialist ideas to the attention of working-class women. Zetkin argued that while social democrats should support women’s franchise, ‘we are not so politically uneducated as to demand that the socialist parties of every country, in every struggle for electoral reform and in all circumstances make the demand for voting rights for women the cornerstone, the deciding factor in their struggle.’

Pelletier and the 10 other women delegates were described as having a ‘bourgeois’ position for arguing that the right to vote for women was a central political right that socialists should fight for the hardest. Like Sylvia Pankhurst, Pelletier believed the struggle for the democratic right to vote for women was a key part of the struggle for socialism.

Pelletier argued ‘Certainly, with socialism a woman in poverty would gain materially, she would no longer be hungry and cold. But the yoke of the male would still extend over everything. Besides giving love and motherhood, there would still be no place for women in society. It is therefore essential that the emancipation of women be realized today; this struggle will thus present the society of tomorrow with a fait accompli.’

In 1905, Pelletier joined the SFIO, the French Socialist Party, to press the feminist case. In 1906 she became Secretary of the Women’s Solidarity feminist group. She was one of the leading feminists in France before the First World War. In the March 1908 Paris local elections Pelletier and two other leading feminists overturned ballot boxes in the 4th arrondissement and broke windows at another polling station. In June 1908 she travelled to London to participate in the half a million strong ‘Women’s Sunday’ Hyde Park demonstration organized by Womens’ Politicial and Social Union.

In 1910 the SFIO agreed to nominate Pelletier and some other women illegally as a parliamentary candidate (although in an unwinnable seat). She got 340 votes (4%), more than the previous male Socialist candidate had done.

One of two surviving (out of 12) children of a royalist vegetable stall-holder mother, her cab-driving republican father’s stroke when she was four that left him in a wheelchair, gave her someone to argue with. The building, 38, rue des Petits Carreaux in the working-class 2nd arrondissement, where she lived was so badly built it fell down in the mid-1930s (and is now the site of the amazing vertical green wall pictured here).

A living wall now occupies the site of Madeleine Pelletier’s home at 38, Rue des Petits Carreaux

Pelletier left school at 12 and after work escaped to local libraries and feminist and anarchist groups, meeting Louise Michel. Her reading gave her a life-time’s feminist, communist and libertarian principles. She took the name Madeleine instead of her militantly Catholic’s mother’s name, Anne.

At 22 and 23 Pelletier sat and passed the baccalauréat (A-levels). In 1899, when there were just 29 French women out of 4,500 medical students, she won a City of Paris grant to study medicine. After a feminist-led newspaper campaign in 1904 the law was changed so she could work inside the Paris Villejuif asylum. In 1906 she became France’s first qualified woman psychiatric doctor.

She cut her hair short and dressed like a man.

‘If I dress as I do,’ she wrote, ‘it’s because it’s convenient, but above all it’s because I’m a feminist; my suit speaks to a man: “I am your equal”’ ‘I will show mine (breasts) as soon as men start to dress in a kind of trousers that shows their…’

In 1914 she was one of the rare French socialists to denounce the First World War as imperialist, and volunteered to work for the Red Cross, on condition she would be allowed to provide health care to both French and Germans without distinction.

In 1920 Pelletier attended the Tours Conference of the SFIO where she supported the formation of the French Communist Party, which included equality of the sexes in its programme. In July 1921 she travelled illegally to Russia to attend the Second International Congress of Women Communists.

The anarchist freethinkers’ journal, Idée Libre, April 1926, which Pelletier contirbuted to occasionally between 1912 and 1924

By 1926 she had broken with the Communist Party, arguing consistently that communism must include freedom. In 1932 Pelletier joined a left group called ‘Party of Proletarian Unity’. In 1936 she applauded the appointment of the first women ministers in the Popular Front government of Leon Blum.

She lived and worked in the 1920s and early 1930s in the Rue de Gergovie, but then moved out to Gif-sur-Yvette to the South of Paris where she learned to drive a car and continued to campaign against fascism, for the right to abortion, contraception and women’s right to vote, writing novels, plays, and a biography.  Many of these were for the L’Idee Libre, an anarchist journal whose April 1926 front page is pictured here.

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Pauline Roland

1805-1852 • France

FeminismSocialismTrade unionism

In 2016 I followed the Parisian footsteps today of an amazing early French socialist, trade unionist and feminist who was effectively judicially murdered at the age of 47 by the populist dictator Napoleon III.

Pauline Roland was a contemporary and friend of George Sand, Flora Tristan and of Pierre Leroux, a printworker and socialist. After Roland’s premature death Victor Hugo, in exile in Jersey in protest against the dictator Louis Bonaparte, wrote a poem called ‘Pauline Roland’.
Very few French people have heard of her today, although the oldest women and children’s refuge in Paris (dating form 1890) is named after her. Only one of the houses she actually lived in and organized from is still standing (near St Germain des Prés, at 10 rue Jacob in the same street where Simone de Beauvoir later attended secondary school). The others I walked to today had all been knocked down and rebuilt between the 1890s and 1960s.

Pauline Roland sketched in 1830 at Falaise aged 25 before she left for Paris in 1832

Roland supported herself from the age of 20 when she started working in a bookshop. From the age of 28 (in 1833) to 40 (in 1845) she had an open relationship with another Sainte-Simonian socialist man, Jean Aicard, in Paris, had two children with him, and another child with another father. She insisted all the children carry her name and must be financially raised by her.

‘I will never agree to marry a man in a society that cannot recognize my absolute equality with the person I am forming a union with,’ she argued.

She survived financially by also writing for feminist newspapers and writing histories of France, England, Scotland and Ireland. In 1847 she worked as a teacher at the socialist Saint-Simonian Community established by Pierre Leroux at Boussac (in the Limousin in central France) with funding from George Sand.

Roland was a Republican, a trade unionist and a leading feminist. During the 1848 Revolution she became the leader of the Women’s Republican Club (at 8 rue de Trevise).

A year later she founded and led the Fraternal Association of Socialist Male and Female Teachers and Professors (at 21 rue Henri Monnier). Its programme stressed gender equality, called for universal education until 18 and for women to remain in the labour force.

Her next crime in the eyes of the dominant political conservatives was to play a key part in organizing a Union of Workers’ Associations. In October 1849 delegates from 100 trades elected Roland to its central committee. Six months later she was one of 30 people arrested after a government clamp-down on organized dissent.
But an even bigger crime in the eyes of the judges was her feminism. She was charged with ’socialism, feminism and debauchery’. She spent the first seven months of 1851 in jail.

A sketch of Pauline Roland drawn in the late 1840s

On December 2 1851 Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte realized he would lose upcoming elections and organized a coup d’état to seize power and declare himself Emperor. Roland, despite coming out of prison in poor health, threw herself into the resistance movement. It failed, she was rearrested early in 1852 at her home at 106 rue du Bac, and sentenced to 10 years’ deportation to the recently invaded (1830) French colony of Algeria.

Unlike many other political prisoners Roland refused to ask for a pardon from the dictator-Emperor. She was transported and forced to do hard labour and cleaning work when she got to Algeria. Three months later, her friends George Sand and the biggest singer song-writer of the day (Beranger) persuaded Louis Bonaparte to release her. Too late. She died at Lyon in December 1852 on her way home to Paris.

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Nelly Roussel

1878 – 1922 • France

Feminism, Birth control

One of many neo-malthusians before the First World War, she was an activist for birth control and was one of the first women to demand the right of women to control their bodies.

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George Sand

1804-1876 • France

Feminist • Novelist • Socialist

George Sand was a feminist and republican who described herself as a communist in 1848, when she worked in the Workers’ Commission in the Luxembourg Palace. Many French feminists wanted George Sand to stand in the 1849 presidential elections when universal suffrage still excluded women.

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Louise Saumoneau

1875 – 1950 • France

Feminism, Socialism, Trade unionism

A working class seamstress, Louise Saumoneau moved from being a militant feminist to becoming a leading socialist.

She founded a trade union for seamstresses and led a strike in 1901. This convinced her of the need to involve male workers and she became a supporter of Klara Zetkin’s position calling for women to become socialists. Arrested for her opposition to World War 1, she joined the SFIO and edited La Femme Socialiste.

Louise Saumoneau moved from being a militant feminist to becoming a leading socialist

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Flora Tristan

1803-1844 • France

Feminism • Divorce rights • SocialismTrade unionism

In 1843, at the time the young Karl Marx was living in Paris, Flora Tristan published a small pamphlet called ‘The Workers’ Union’ (L’Union ouvrière). 

In it the 40-year-old Parisian woman made the case that workers were a single social class. Workers must organise themselves as such. She aimed to bring all men and women workers into a giant working class party, the Workers’ Union.
She was totally original at the time: she focused on the working class, all who worked without any property other than their labour power, and stressed the need for men and women workers as well as national and foreign workers to come together in a common project of social change. 

Flora Tristan drawn in the 1830s when she was shot by her husband as she campaigned for a woman’s right to demand a divorce

Tristan was also a determined feminist.

In the booklet’s section called ‘Why I mention women’, Tristan denounced the way women were either ignored or treated as persona non grata by the Church and all political parties. Only if male workers recognized the need for unity could they share their different experiences and create real common objectives.

‘Workers, without women, you are nothing!’, she explained.

And, just as subversively, Tristan stressed that only if workers organised work themselves could they ever win liberty.
After the Workers’ Union pamphlet was published she set off on a national tour to promote local committees of the Union. Between April and November 1844 Flora Tristan criss-crossed France selling her pamphlet and holding meetings. 

‘With my union project in my hand, from town to town, from one end of France to the other, to talk to the workers who do not know how to read and to those who do not have the time to read….I will go find them in their workshops; in their garrets and even, if needed, in their taverns.’

The campaign effectively killed her. She died in Bordeaux, probably of typhoid, just 41 years old. 

Tristan’s memorial stone in Bordeaux has a copy of her book the Workers’ Union at the top

Eight thousand people attended her funeral in Bordeaux. In the aftermath of the 1848 revolution, workers throughout France gave donations to erect a monument to Flora Tristan. It was inaugurated on 22 October 1848 in the Bordeaux Cimitière de la Chartreuse. The monument, a broken column, circled by a garland of oak and ivy, has a copy of her most important book, The Workers’ Union, at its top.

She was an extraordinary woman. Brought up by a mother widowed when Flora was four, the pair eventually had to live in one of the Restoration’s worst Paris slums in the Latin quarter’s Maubert area. Tristan lived in the Rue du Fouarre from 1815 to 1821.

She started work as an engraver and porcelaine painter. In 1821, aged 17, she married her employer, the painter and lithographer André François Chazal. Four years later, pregnant with Aline, and already mother of two children, she moved out of Paris back to her mother’s, near the Jardins du Roi (now the Jardins des Plantes), and began a life-long struggle for the right to divorce.
She lived working as a maid and lady’s companion, experiencing this as humiliation, but enabling her to visit England.

She visited London in 1826 and again in 1839, where she heard about the Grand National Consolidated Union and the Tolpuddle martyrs of 1834. In Paris, she became influenced by the Christian socialism of Saint Simone and others. She became a committed feminist socialist. and writer.

She criticised George Sand for hypocrisy. While applauding her use of ‘the novel as a medium to call attention to the harm done to women by our laws’, nonetheless Sand ‘has signed her works with the name of a man. How effective can accusations be when they are disguised as fiction?’ Tristan wanted to know. 

In 1838, after she published a denunciation of her abusive marriage and a call for the right to divorce her violent husband stalked, and then shot her. Only then did the wounded Tristan get a legal separation, while the ex-husband got a 20-year prison sentence.

Tristan’s early death during her campaign for working class unity meant she could play no part when radical feminists put up a woman candidate in the 1849 male-only suffrage presidential election under the Second French Republic. And we will never know what she would have thought about the first Socialist president of the Fifth French Republic creating a Flora Tristan stamp in 1984.

In 1984 under France’s first socialist president Mitterrand a memorial stamp was issued with Flora Tristan featured

But we can be pretty certain she would still be fighting for Socialism and Feminism. She would also be quite surprised and probably particularly upset that an 1892 painting titled ‘When will you marry?’ by her grandson, Aline’s son, Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), would fetch prices of over £200m in 2017.

The grandson Flora Tristan never knew painted ‘When will you marry?’ half a century after her early death

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