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.


Rue du Chateau

Arrondissement 14

Numbers: 42, 53

View of the working class street in 1900s

The road was named because it used to lead up to a small Château that was finally demolished in 1898. The so-called Château du Maine was the name given to a three story private town house built around 1730 also known as ‘Fantasie’ and finally demolished in 1898. The house itself was situated at what is now roughly No. 142 Rue du Château.The eastern part of the road, with numbers between 2 and 80, also appear to have been demolished roughly a century later.

Around 1867 when the International Association of Working Men was banned by Napoleon III, its supporters, including Nathalie Le Mel launched several cooperative restaurants. La Marmite (cooking pot) at No. 47 was one of these, part;y acting as a cover for continued political organisation.

South of Montparnasse station it was a working class street with cheap rents and poor quality housing (see picture above from the 1900s), most of which was pulled down if it didn’t fall down towards the end of the 29th century.

The Bar du Chateau at No. 53 was a regular meeting place for the surrealist group. This (largely male) group included André Breton, Louis Aragon, Benjamin Péret, Raymond Queneau and Max Morise were among those attending. One meeting on March 11 1929 saw three members including Roger Vailland breaking away after rejecting the supportive line for Stalin taken by a majority.

From 1924 to 1928 the poet Jacques Prévert lived in a creative colony at No. 54 with Yves Tanguy in a flat belonging to Marcel Duhamel. Duhamel sold it in 1928 to Louis Aragon, who moved in and was joined by Elsa Triolet in January 1929.

Two resistance fighters lived at No. 114 with their daughter in 1943. Olga Bancic was a 32-year-old Romanian Jewish Communist. She was captured on November 6 1943 and sentenced to death with the others in the Manouchian group.

French law did not allow the execution of women so Olga Blancic was deported to Stuttgart and her head hacked off with an axe


Rue du Cherche-Midi

Arrondissement 6

Numbers: 38, 39, 44, 47, 91

Named in 1832 after a shop sign showing a painted medieval sun dial with people looking for midday at 2 pm in the afternoon, the road brought together three shorter streets.

The Cherche-Midi military prison at No. 38 had originally been a monastery whose religious community was suppressed in 1790. It then became a factory making army uniforms and then a supply depot. It was largely demolished in 1847 although the trials of many of those arrested in the workers’ uprising of June 1848 took place there.

A new prison with 200 individual cells was built there in 1853. Prisoners worked in silence during the day and were isolated in their cells at night.

Several Communard fighters were slaughtered there on May 30 1871.

This was also the location of the official degradation of Captain Alfred Dreyfus on 24 December 1894.

On 22 September 1939 a demonstration outside the prison took place in support of the 16 court-martialed and jailed conscientious objectors, who refused to fight in the French army. On November 11 1940 the students arrested at the Armistice Day demonstration at the Place de l’Étoile were imprisoned here by the Germans who had taken the prison over.

In a bad state of repairs it stopped being used for military prisoners in 1947, after which it was only used for military tribunals.

On September 5 1960 the court martial took place here of six Algerian FLN fighters and 18 members of the Jeanson French support network.

The prison was finally demolished in 1966 and the Human Sciences building finished in 1970, which it now shares with the School for Advanced Studies in Social Science.

After his marriage to Adèle Foucher, Victor Hugo lived at No. 39 opposite the prison with his in-laws from 1822 to 1824. This was just up the road from No. 44, where Hugo had lived as a child in 1813-1814.

Paul Lafargue and Laura Marx moved into No. 47 on December 1 1868 soon after their marriage. Karl spent six days with them in July 1869 under the false identity of Alan Williams. This address was where the couple committed suicide together in 1911.

When she arrived in Paris in 1861 from Brittany, Nathalie Le Mel worked at the Angel Entreprise at No. 91. She was one of the first women to join the International Workingmen’s Association.

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Rue du Croissant

Arrondissement 2

Numbers 8, 10, 12, 13, 16 20

This street with an amazing history was named after a café sign of a crescent moon with gold stars that hung outside No. 12 way back in 1612.

More recently it became a major centre of left republican and socialist publications. The office of Le Charivari (1832-1893) where Honoré Daumier and other caricaturists worked was at No. 16. This was also the address of Le Siècle, whose office was used for the historic meeting on February 21 1848 that decided to resort to arms if troops were used against the banqueteers.

On September 9 1870 Henri Rochefort printed the first issue of La Marseillaise at No. 16. At about the same time Auguste Blanqui was printing La Patrie en Danger at No. 13.

Under the Commune in 1871 the street became full of daily and weekly newspapers. Henri Rochefort published Le Mot d’Ordre at No. 8. La Mère Duchêne was printed at
No 10.

L’ami du Peuple (originally the title of Marat’s publication in the French Revolution) was also printed at No. 13, where people could also buy Le Cri du Peuple and La Fédération, the journal of the National Guard’s Republican Federation. Its press also printed the newspapers La Sociale and La souveraineté du Peuple. Le Père Duchêne was launched at No. 16 and then banned a week later on March 12 1871. The satirical paper Le Grelot was published at No 20.

Later, under the Third Republic in 1884-1886, the L’Intransigeant, involving Rochefort and Nathalie Le Mel, was published at No 12. This initially left paper evolved rapidly towards the extreme right.

‘Newspaper Printing Works’ is still proudly displayed above the modern door to 16 rue du Croissant, former home of L’Humanité.

In 1910 the building at No 16 housed the editorial and business offices of l’Humanité.  This was where its founder, Jean Jaurès , was about to go when he was assassinated on July 31 1914 at the Café du Croissant on the corner with rue Montmartre.

The site where Jean Jaurès’ assassin fired two bullets through a café window in the street on the right of my photograph.


Rue Danton

Arrondissement 6

Numbers: 8, 10

The 1896 Congress of the Feminist International took place in the recently completed Hôtel des sociétés savantes (elite Knowledge Societies – ranging from Sociology to Zoology and Astronomy) at No. 8.

This was also the venue for a thousand-strong meeting to hear Trotsky speak on December 6 1907 about ‘The stages of the Russian Revolution and the Current Political Situation‘.

Lenin spoke more than once at the Knowledge Societies meeting hall. On May 12 1908 he spoke there on ‘Our Tasks’ and on November 29 1909, just after he came to live in Paris, he spoke on ‘Counter-Revolutionary Liberal Ideology’. He gave a lecture on Leon Tolstoy who had died two months earlier on 18 January 1911, and in June that year spoke on’ Stolypin and the Revolution’.

The Italian socialist Pietro Nenni spoke there at an advanced Socialist school on January 8 1935.

On 16 January 1955 Pierre Lambert and Marceau Pivert organised a meeting demanding the release of Messali Hadj in the same huge meeting room.

The building was bought by the Sorbonne in 1985 and since 2005 is the Research Centre of Paris IV – Sorbonne university.

About where No. 10 now stands in 1865 was No 1 Rue Larrey, where Nathalie Le Mel lived with her three children and organised the cooperative kitchens of the Marmite association. This was also an address where the International Working Men’s Association continued to organise after it was banned by Napoleon III.

The short street was only built between 1888 and 1895 and was named after the French revolutionary Danton from the start.

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Rue Dauphine

Arrondissement 6

Numbers: 1-2, 7, 18, 33, 39, 42

Rue Dauphine from Quai de Conti

Built in 1607 to link the first stone bridge (the Pont Neuf) across the Seine funded from the king’s purse with the Philippe Auguste wall, it was named after the Dauphin (eldest son) of Henri IV. This peculiar name (meaning dolphin in French) dated from 1349 when King Philippe bought land from the Count of Vienna on condition that all heirs to the French throne be named after the dolphin emblem on the count’s coat of arms.

The royal connection didn’t survive revolutionary France. From 1792 to 1814 it was renamed Rue de Thionville to honour the victorious two-month resistance of the town of that name to the 1792 seige by 36,00 Austrian and French Royalist troops. At the next challenge to the Bourbons a barricade thrown up between Nos. 1 and 2, opposite the Pont Neuf bridge, saw heavy fighting with Charles X’s soldiers defending the Louvre Palace on July 27 1830.

On May 25 1871 a barricade in the same place was taken without great difficulty by the Versallais troops.

Outside No. 7 there is a plaque on the wall. This is where in 1937 Picasso painted Guernica in his roof-top studio for the Spanish Republic’s hall in that year’s Paris International Exhibition. In vain Picasso left a will stating that the work would only be returned to Spain when it was again a Republic.

Picasso painted his most famous painting in his studio at the corner of Rue Dapuhine and the Quai des grands Augustins in just a month before the 1937 International exhibition where it was first shown.

A big arms cache of the FTP resistance group on the mezzanine floor of Staircase D of No. 18 was found by the anti-resistance Special Brigade of the Paris Police in June 1943.

Marat, Danton and Desmoulins used to attend the Cordeliers Club meetings at No 18 from 1792-1795. The club was dominated by the Herbertists

Martin Bernard, a typographer and member of Barbès and Blanqui‘s republican ‘Family Association’ (Société des Familles) conspiracy that subsequently became the Société des saisons and staged the May 12 1839 insurrection set up an ammunition workshop at No. 24. He was arrested there on June 2 1836.

In 1864 members of the newly-founded International Working Men’s Association, Eugène Varlin and Nathalie Le Mel, set up the La Marmite association at Varlin’s flat at No. 33. Within a few years it had grown to some 8,000 members.

In 1942 Simone de Beauvoir was staying at the Hôtel d’Aubusson, also at No. 33, when she was forced out of teaching. The left/existentialist intellectual bar, Le Tabou, that had been the Bar vert in the Rue Jacob was reopened in the basement by Juliette Greco for rehearsals in 1946 before opening to the public the following year.

No. 42 was the address of the editorial office of La Vie ouvriére, 1909-1911. The journal was founded with funds collected from supporters and edited by Pierre Monatte, aiming to be ‘the home of syndicalist intellectual cooperation’. Its contributors included the major figures of French trade unionism such as Victor Griffuelhes, Léon Jouhaux, Alfred Rosmer and Alphonse Merrheim.

After his marriage, Jacques Prévert lived at No. 39 on the fifth floor beneath the roof with his wife Simone Dienne in 1931-1932.

A fortnightly, La Vie ouvriére‘s subscribers numbered 550 in the first issue of December 1909  and rose to 1,350 in January 1911, the year its office moved to the Librarie du Travail on the Quai Jemappes, closer to the CGT’s main offices.

Rue Dauphine was Paris’ widest street in the 17th century, No 42 housed the editorial offices of the influential CGT revolutionary syndicalist fortnightly paper, La Vie Ouvriere.

Rue Dauphine (9 metres wide) was the widest street in early 17th century Paris. It also, arguably, holds one of the keys to Paris’ tradition of uniformity of architectural design.

Hazan (IOP) reports Henry IV writing to Sully in 1607:  ‘My friend, following what I have told you that work is beginning on the buildings that are in the new road going from the end of the Pont-Neuf to the Porte de Bussy, I wanted to send you this word to tell you that I would be very happy if you would explain to those who start building in this road that they should make the front of their houses entirely in the same order, for it would be a fine ornament to see from the end of the bridge this road with one and the same façade.’

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Rue de l’École-de-Médecine

Arrondissement 6

Numbers: 5, 7, 12, 15-21, 18/20

Named after the Medical School which now occupies much of its length, it received its current name for the first time in 1792 after the nationalisation of the huge Cordeliers monastery complex of the Capuchin Franciscan friars. Before then it was the Rue des Cordeliers.

One branch of the Franciscan (followers of St Francis of Assisi) friars, the hood and beard wearing Minor Capuchins, was particularly important in pre-revolutionary France where it had 284 monasteries. In Paris their Couvent des Cordeliers monastery (possibly so-called after the cords the friars tied around their stomachs) was one of the biggest. It covered an area that stretched from today’s Rue Racine and Rue de La Harpe to approximately 15-21 Rue de l’École de Médecine.

Briefly, between 1793 and 1794 the road was renamed Rue Marat, after the revolutionary who lived and was assassinated there in July 1793. At the overthrow of Robespierre it was immediately renamed the Rue de l’École-de-Santé and then from April 20 1796 it regained its earlier (and current) name.

No. 5 was the location of Louis XV’s free boys’ Royal School for Art and Design from its inception in 1767 until 1928. From 1810 it was funded by the State. Fernand Léger studied there in 1901-1902 after he had stopped studying architecture. the school was built on a medieval Jewish cemetery.

The School of Art and Design at No. 5 and the amphitheatre at No. 7 it was allocated after the new medical school was finished on the other side of the road.

The road’s medical connection dates back to 1255 and in 1763 the Barber-Surgeons Guild funded the building of a small amphitheatre where students could watch them carry out operations at No. 7. The building was given its present columns and courtyard and extended in 1794.

The area became known as the Cordeliers district, and even before 1789 already had a radical tradition. Danton, Desmoulins and Marat all lived in the area. Marat in the Hôtel de Cahors roughly where Nos. 18-20 would have stood. This was where he was murdered.

All of the Cordeliers monasteries were closed in 1790 and so, when the Paris Council abolished the Cordeliers district in the municipal reoganisation, Danton and other area leaders founded a club there in the monastery’s refectory on April 27 1790.

The refectory of the Cordeliers monastery at No 15 is the largest surviving building of the huge religious complex.

The club’s official name was Société des Amis des droits de l’homme et du citoyen (Friends of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen), but it was known as the Club des Cordeliers. Its motto, proposed by Antoine-Francois Momoro, became Liberté, égalité, fraternité or Death. On June 21 1791 it was the first club to call for the Constituent Assembly to proclaim a republic.

On July 17 1792 this was where, after the failure of Louis XVI’s escape bid, Marat proposed a petition declaring ‘royalty incompatible with freedom’. That night, after the Champs de Mars massacre, the constitutional monarchists ordered the closure of the Cordeliers club and its leaders went into hiding.

A year later, on July 16 1793, after his assassination, the monastery garden was where Marat was first buried.

The School of Medicine’s amphitheatres at No. 7 and No. 12 were used as meeting places by several revolutionaries in 1848. These included those involved in the Club des Homme lettrés , the Club central de l’Agriculture, the Club de l’École de Médecine and the Comité électoral du 11ème arrondissement.

The School of Medicine was not only used for anatomical observation. On January 19 1868 Nathalie Le Mel, Eugène Varlin and others met in the small amphitheatre to hold the General Meeting that created the food cooperative called ‘La Marmite‘ (the cooking pot).

The large amphitheatre at No. 12 witnessed the General Assembly of Lithograph Printers on 29 August 1869 when they decided to affiliate to the International Association of Working Men.

From October 1870 more and more meetings took place at No. 12. On April 12 1871 Gustave Courbet was one of 400 artists who met there to elect an Artists’ Committee for the Commune’s Republic (Comité des Artistes pour la République communale). Courbet and 46 others were elected.

Among the other artists attending to set up the Artists Federation were Aimé-Jules Dalou (who later sculpted the ‘Triumph of the Republic’ in the Place de la Nation) Honoré Daumier, Camille Corot, Édouard Manet, Claude Monet and Alexandre Falguière.


Rue Mazarine

Arrondissement 6

Numbers 5, 34, 36, 70

The road was named in 1687 after the nearby Four Nations College founded by the chief minister to Louis XIII and Louis XIV, Cardinal Mazarin. This is now the Institute of France, whose dome is seen at the end of the street.

It runs along the length of the Philippe August 13th century city wall, the base of one of whose towers can still be seen in the courtyard of the Institute of France at No. 5.

The Mazarin College, now the Institute of France at the end of the road shown here in the early 20th century, was where the revolutionaries of July 28 1830 distributed gunpowder before the assault on the Hotel de Ville.

The first of several cooperative Marmite restaurant was opened by Nathalie Le Mel at No. 34 in 1868. Associated with the Paris section of the International Workingmen’s Association, it offered food and political discussions

Proudhon had a long association with Rue Mazarine. He roomed in No 36 in 1844 and 1845, when he had several discussions with Marx there.

By 1847-1848 Proudhon was living in a cheap top floor room in the house built at No. 70, the same address as the novelist of Parisan poverty, Henri Murger..

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Rue du Temple

Arrondissements 3, 4

Numbers: 63, 79, 106, 158, 191

From the junction of Rue-du Temple and Rue de Turbigo looking at the Place de la Republique

One of Paris’ oldest streets it now runs for 1.3 km from the Rue Rivoli up the the Place de la Republique, with the Square du Temple garden created in 1857 leading off it at No. 158.

The name Rue du Temple comes from the Templars district, a large area of land given to the Knights Templar military religious order around 1170. In 1240 the 50 metre high keep was built within a walled enclosure. It initially housed the king’s treasure, and then became a prison. Its most famous occupants from August 13 1792 were Louis XVI and his family.

On December 18 1795 Marie-Thérèse Charlotte de France, their daughter, was the only Bourbon to leave the Tower alive and without a trip to the guillotine. Louis XVI was guillotined on January 21 1793. Marie-Antoinette on October 16 1793. Elisabeth, the king’s sister, on May 10 1794. Louis, the king’s son, died from tuberculosis in the keep on June 8 1795.

On June 29 2017 the Square’s name was changed to Square du Temple – Elie-Wiesel in honour of the human rights campaigner and Holocaust survivor.

In 2007 the incumbent Socialist mayor from a Jewish Polish family erected a Stele in the Square to commemorate the 85 Jewish children of the Third Arrondissement who, under the age of six, had been arrested by the French police and deported to Auschwitz, never to return.

The Templar Tower was knocked down by Napoléon Bonaparte in 1808 partly to prevent Royalist pilgrimages to the site and partly, some argue, to spare his future wife, the sight of her aunt’s last address. The garden and Square was one of 24 laid down under Haussmann’s plan for giving Parisians a little more air.

On February 27 1871 the Square at No 158 was the meeting point of the National Guardsmen on their way to the Champs-Élysées to try and stop the Prussians from entering Paris. Every Saturday during the Commune the band of the National Guard played there to raise funds for the widows and children of men who had died in the war.

Former soldiers who had joined the Commune and foreigners were the first to be executed in the Square on May 25 1871.

The statue by Amadee Doublemard of the popular anti-monarchist poet Pierre-Jean de Béranger that was placed in the Square at its inception was melted down in 1942, but replaced by one in stone by Henri Lagriffioul in 1953.

Women Communards such as Elisabeth Dmitrieff and Nathalie Le Mel used to meet in a women’s club at the Grand café de la Nation  at No. 79, the 17th century Hotel de Montmor. On International Women’s Day March 8 2007 under the recently elected Socialist Paris mayor, a small triangular square at the meeting point of the Rue du Temple and the Rue de Turbigo was named the Place Elisabeth Dmitrieff. It is just outside the entrance to the Temple metro station.

In October 1870 Blanqui was in hiding at No. 191. The flat belonged to Eugène Cléray, a clockmaker and follower of Blanqui who was deputy mayor of the Third arrondissement during the Siege of Paris. Blanqui stayed in the flat on October 31 before going to the Hotel de Ville to see how the insurrection against the new republican government’s indifferent handling of the war with Prussia was going.

Despite 15,000 demonstrating outside the Hotel de Ville for the resignation of the government and then occupying it, by the early hours of the next day it had failed. Blanqui then returned to No. 191.

Where the rue Rambuteau crosses the Rue du Temple at No. 63 there was a restaurant where the Russian Nihilists met in the late 19th century. Trotsky and Lenin also met there early in 1903.

During the occupation of Paris the Central Telephone Archives at No. 106, built in 1927-1928, was taken over by the Germans, and was one of their remaining strong-holds in August 1944.

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Rue de Vaugirard

Arrondissements 6, 15

Numbers: 4, 7, 9, 10, 15-17, 36, 85, 86-88, 93, 102, 150, 393, 399

The Luxembourg Palace (No. 15-17) is the most well-known building in the old Roman road that is the longest street in Paris. The road now stretches 4.360 Km westwards from the Boulevard Saint Michel to the junction of the Boulevards Lefebvre and Victor on the inner ring-road called the ‘Petite Ceinture‘ on which route a small train used to run round Paris

The end of the road was where, at Nos. 393 and 399 barricades were built across the street in March 1871 to prevent the Versaillais troops from entering.

The road’s name comes from the ancient village of Vaugirard, called after the mid-13th century owner of the land there, ‘Val du Girard’.

Among the tens of thousands who have lived in this old road are some who we feature in Left in Paris, often living alongside forgotten bits of left history.

The Trianon-hôtel, for example, at No. 1- 3 witnessed one of the first attacks by the resistance against a hotel requisitioned by the German army. The bombing took place on 14 November 1942 organised by the largely foreigner and Jewish Francs-tireurs et partisans – main-d’œuvre immigrée (Fighters and partisans – Migrant Workers) group.

At No. 4, then called the Hôtel Lisbonne, Paul Verlaine lived off and on between periods in hospital from 1889 to 1994. Today the hotel boasts of its earlier desperately poor and severely ill guest, and calls itself the Hôtel Fontaines du Luxembourg.

From 1906 Jacques Prévert lived at No. 7 and went to school next door, in No. 9. I’ve very fond memories of the Vaugirard school where my son Michael spent a happy four months when he was ten. The area has completely changed since then. The school was constantly complaining about the bourgeois dog owners who allowed their tiny animals to deposit all over the surrounding streets as they walked them to the Luxembourg Garden.

Émile Zola lived in rooms at No 10 in 1866 with Alexandre Meley whom he married in 1870.

After the Farmers’ General wall was completed there were two customs posts across Rue Vaugirard. One was at No. 102 and another (la barrière du Maine) from Nos. 111-132.

Victor Hugo and his wife Adèle lived at what was 90 rue de Vaugirard but is now numbered 86-88 for the first three years of their marriage, from 1824-1827.

Lenin sat for Naoum Aronson in his studio iat 93 rue Vaugirard on December 10 1904. The bust was subsequently displayed in the Soviet pavilion at the 1937 World Fair in Paris.

On December 10 1904 Lenin sat for the Russian sculptor, Naoum Aronson (1872-1943) at his studio in No. 93.

When she first arrived in Paris around 1860, the feminist bookbinder and Communard Nathalie le Mel mother of three worked at Pasquier et Vigneau’s bookbinding works at No. 150 (in the 15th arrondissement).

French measurements of distance

MËtre Ètalon par Chalgrin

For the real historical nerds among us, in the wall at No. 85 is an early 18th century ‘half-league stone’. The Fleur de Lys on it was removed during the French Revolution. The marker (borne) indicates the first half-league (lieue) – that is 500 toises.

A toise was the distance between a man’s outstretched arms, approximately 6 feet) or 2 Km from the entrance to Notre-Dame cathedral. 1 lieue = 1,000 toises, or approximately 4 Km. A toise is the equivalent of the fathom in English, but in France it was used both on land and at sea.

At the French Revolution France still used hundreds of different weights and measures, originally derived from Roman units where the leuga (lieue/league) was the distance that a man can run in an hour. King Charlemagne (742-814) had added the pied du Roi (the King’s foot) and the toise. The pouce (inch) was the width of a human thumb, and was 1/12th of the pied du roi. The ligne (line) was 1/12th of a pouce, and the point (Truchet point in English) was 1/12th of a ligne.

After Charlemagne the fragmentation of France and of Europe accelerated. So distances varied from town to town, with the variation in 1 league (lieue) being from 3.268 km to 5.849.

On August 4 1789 a successful resolution from the Jacobin Club at the Constituent Assembly abolished all the privileges of the Crown, including its right to determine measures of distance and weight.

In 1790 Talleyrand proposed the drawing up of a Universal Measure, and the National Assembly proposed doing this jointly with the United Kingdom, who refused.

In 1791 a law established a Commission to establish the universal measure. They decided it should be based on a quarter of the length of a meridian and gave two geographers the task of measuring it exactly. They took seven years to measure the distance between Barcelona and Dunkerque.

This exercise was considered too long-winded for both military and political reasons. So on August 1 1793 the National Convention passed a decree determining the ‘provisional’ length of what in 1795 was named the metre. This was based on a millionth of the 1739-1740 distance measured by Lacaille from the North Pole to the Equator. It was exactly 3 pieds, 11 lignes and 44 hundredths of the principal toise used in Paris.

Finally, on 7 April 1795, the new system of weights and measures adopted by the French National Convention were named: metres and grams. A metal metre-long yardstick embedded in marble was then placed in the wall at no. 36 rue de Vaugirard. And in a shop window at No.r 215 there is an 1840 cast iron kilometer stone marking 3.5 km from the centre of Paris.

The old and new systems were used concurrently in France over the next half century. Metric leagues were used from 1812 to 1840 with one metric lieue = 4000 metres or 4 Km. The use of the old system was finally ended across the whole of France by the law of 1837.

But when in 1988 Joe, Joan and I bought a half-finished farm/barn in the Haute Savoie, and I had to finish off the plumbing, I can still remember the plumbing shop in Thonon-les-Bains where the width of copper pipes and joints were still in pouces (inches). In the UK metrication became government policy under Wilson in 1965 and in 1973, with accession to the European Economic Community, the UK was given 5 years to adopt metric units and by 1980 virtually no schools continued to teach in feet and inches.


Cooperatism / Mutualism

The French Revolution’s legacy of a strong small farmer base coupled with influential skilled artisans was fertile ground for Saint Simon and in particular for Proudhon‘s advocacy of cooperative working or mutualism.

Early socialists such as Buchez and Leroux also called for cooperation to replace capitalism. After the defeat of the Commune cooperatives appeared the only way of keeping up the fight for equality.

Cooperatives today still associate tens of thousands of small producers across France.

13 mechanics formed a cooperative in Belleville in 1877 where producers and consumers met and the cooperative organised educational and social activities. One of the many responses by Proudhon-influenced workers to the defeat of the Commune.


Women ready to fight at a barricade in the Rochechouart district in May 1871

From 1791 French feminists argued for their natural rights. In the 1830s and 1840s many women campaigned for equality and the vote. Many saw the 1871 Commune as a route to equality and fought on the barricades. In 1909 a French women’s suffrage movement was established. France’s senate rejects giving women the vote in 1922 , 1935 and 1936. The vote was finally given by the 1945 Fourth Republic constitution. In 1975 women win the right to have an abortion. In 2017 French women’s average wage was still 24% less than men’s, and their pensions are 42% lower.

Marthe Bigot

1878-1962, Montargis (Loiret)

Teacher, feminist, and anti-war activist during World War I. Founder member of the Communist Party, which she left in 1926. A campaigner for female suffrage, she organised women’s candidacies at elections, taking up a pre-war tradition, and in March 1922 presented her own “symbolic candidacy” in the Paris municipal elections; unable to hold her own meetings she demanded speaking rights at those of other candidates, and despite being ineligible as a woman came third in the vote.