Armand Barbès

1809-1870 • France

Republican Insurrectionist

Organiser with Blanqui of the republican Rights of Man society, he was wounded in the 1839 insurrection and sentenced to life imprisonment. Called ‘the scourge of the establishment‘ by Marx , in 1892 perceptions had changed. The 18th arrondissement’s Boulevard Barbès and in 1903 the new Barbès metro station were named after him as a republican icon.

Barbès was one of the many left political prisoners who were jailed in the Sainte Pélagie prison from 1831.

On June 2 1836 several members of the Society of Seasons led by Barbès and Blanqui were arrested in their secret workshop at 22-24 Rue Dauphine where they were making gunpowder.

On May 9 1839 Barbès arranged for a trunk to be left that evening with the 55-year-old Catherine Rouchon, a widow who made trimmings for furniture, at 23 Rue Quincampoix. On May 12 when she wasn’t there some of the Society knocked down her door and collected its contents, ammunition. After the insurrection she identified Barbès to the police in the infirmary at the Conciergerie.

When the Society of Seasons insurrection finally took place on May 12 1839 Barbès and Blanqui took part in the pillaging of the Lepage armoury at 22 Rue du Bourg l’Abbé. Today, after the Haussmann rebuilding of Paris under the Second Empire, this is where the buildings stand at 64-66 Boulevard de Sébastopol.

Blanqui’s headquarters during the insurrection was in a café at 1 Rue Mandar. Barbès led another column to seize the Palais de Justice on the Cité island on the Seine, where they also attacked the police station, killing its commander.

The most important of the barricades erected on that Sunday in May 1839 was across the Rue de St. Martin. The insurrection was able to seize one local town hall at 43 Rue des Franc-Bourgeois.

The insurrectionaries, in the low thousands, including an estimated 200-300 students, occupied the Hotel de Ville. During the attack Barbès was wounded in the head. He was arrested outside 79 Rue des Gravilliers (now 248 Rue St Martin) at about 7 pm on May 12.

In 1848 Blanqui and Barbès were both released from prison, but they were no longer close allies. They did, however, found the Political Prisoners’ club at a meeting in the Salle Valentino at 251 Rue St Honoré  with Barbès as President and Blanqui Vice-President.

On March 21 Barbès founded the Club de la Révolution at a meeting in the Salle Molière at 159 Rue St Martin. At the same time he was meeting Proudhon, Pierre Leroux and Étienne Arago. With Leroux at 12ter Rue Coquilliere Barbes founded the newspaper, The True Republic, whose first issue stated: ‘Without labour reform, there is no true Republic‘. It produced 104 issues before being banned in August by Cavaignac.

On May 15 1848 the Republican left (Barbès, the worker Albert, Louis Blanc, François-Vincent Raspail and others) organised a demonstration in Paris to the Palais Bourbon, the Chamber of Deputies in support of the Polish revolution. While not being planned as an insurrection, Barbès took centre stage in the Constituent Assembly and announced the formation of a new government. Soon after they are all arrested.

The 15 arrested after the May 1848 protests against government inaction over the Polish revolt against the Russian colonisers included insurrectionary revolutionaries like Barbes and Blanqui alongside socialist republicans like Blanc and Raspail.

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Le Maitron



Second Empire, Coup d’État, pomp and defeat

Louis-Napoléon was mercilessly caricatured by Daumier and others

Coup d’état, Second Empire, Haussmann, Colonialism, Sedan, National Government – in progress

The topography of Paris changed dramatically under the Second Empire. Driven by dual needs to re-engineer whole areas to facilitate military intervention against resistors and to create and sustain housing speculation, Louis-Napoléon’s Paris prefect, Georges-Eugène Haussmann, invested public funds massively in renovating Paris.

Near the very beginning of this process, the realisation by some commercial entrepreneurs that the developing railway system made it possible to put on sale together a wide variety of national and international manufactured products and foodstuffs led to the establishment of what we now call Department stores. Huge stores that sold many different products rather than just one type of good or service catered for Paris’s growing wealthy upper and middle classes.

On November 18 1852 the Bon Marché store opened its doors on the Rue de Sèvres. With its fixed prices, acceptance of returns and advertising it revolutionised the shopping habits of well-to-do Parisians.

Four years later the second oldest surviving department store was opened on the rue Rivoli. At first it was called ‘The Parisian Bazar’, and from 1856 it was renamed the ‘Bazar Napoléon’ before the end of the Second Empire in 1870 led to its current name BHV (Bazar de l’Hôtel de Ville). In 1865 Le Printemps was opened on the corner of the Boulevard Haussmann and the Rue du Havre, close to the busy Gare St Lazare, the capital’s first railway station built in 1837.


Paris Commune

The Paris Commune, March to May 1871

Siege, Versailles government, Local representatives, Women, Barricades – in progress


From one war to another

The Dreyfus affair was the moment that redefined the French Left between the two wars against Germany

Anarchism, Socialism, Paris Exhibition, Dreyfus, Revolutionary syndicalism – in progress

Boulevard des Capucines

Arrondissements 2, 9

Numbers: 2, 11, 12, 13, 22

Dividing the 2nd and 9th arrondissement, the Boulevard gets its name from the Capucine Monastery, whose gardens used to lie along the south side of the road.

The Vaudeville Theatre at No. 2 organised a benefit show by the Art Theatre for Gauguin, Flora Tristan‘s grandson, and Verlaine on May 21 1891.

Lenin also showed up there on January 12 1910 to see a play called ‘The Barricade‘ by the catholic reactionary Paul Bourget.

During the Paris Commune‘s final days on May 22 1871 a barricade with 12 canon crossed the road at the Place de L’Opéra.

The first Pan African Congress was held at the Grand-Hôtel de la Paix at No. 12 on February 19 1919. Fifty black representatives who had been excluded from the Versailles Peace Conference met together, closely watched by the police. The American William du Bois and Senegalese Blaise Diagne were its joint chair persons.

The Café de la Paix on the ground floor of the hotel on the northwest corner of the junction between the Boulevard meets the Opera Square opened on June 30 1862. On July 14 1937 it was attacked by striking waiters.

Throughout the German occupation a notice was displayed saying: Jews not allowed (Interdit aux juifs).

The radical democratic German poet Georg Herwegh put up Marx and Jenny von Westphalen at No. 13 when the couple first arrived in Paris on October 12 1843.

The victorious Austrian Emperor Francis 1 stayed at the Colonnade private mansion at Nos. 37 to 43 in 1814 and again in 1815, when it became the Foreign Ministry. It stayed that until 1853.

On September 7 1831 a demonstration outside the Hotel de la Colonnade, the Foreign Ministry at Nos. 37-43, was dispersed violently by the army. The demonstrators shouted: ‘Long Live Poland, Down with the Ministers’.

In the early evening of February 23 1848 another demonstration outside the Ministry sparked the 1848 Revolution. The 14th Line Regiment, protecting the sacked reactionary prime minister Guizot, fired directly into the crowd killing 52 people and wounded many more. The bodies were then paraded throughout Paris and by the morning most arms shops had been looted and some 1,500 barricades erected.

A big meeting room at No. 39 saw several political meetings at the end of the Second Empire in 1870 and 1871. On September 22 1889 Louise Michel and Maxime Lisbonne, known as the d’Artagnan of the Commune, organised a meeting there in that year’s election campaign. Lisbonne’s manifesto stated:

‘ENTERTAINER I am! ENTERTAINER I remain! Give me your votes to swell the numbers of those who dare to say the same, and you will see that if I hesitate, like a real entertainer, the words on the paper that will come out of the hat will be ‘DEMOCRATIC SOCIAL REVOLUTION’.

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Rue Jacob

Arrondissement 6

56, 44, 40, 14, 10, 2

The outside of the Cours Desir during the great flood of 30 January 1910

This old narrow street running parallel to the Seine has both an international and a significant left history. It also used to flood when the Seine got very high, as it did in 1910.

In 1783 the British embassy was located at No. 44, and this was where Benjamin Franklin negotiated the American Independence Treaty from Britain. He refused, however, to sign it on British territory, so on September 3 1783 he and John Adams signed the treaty at the York Hotel where Franklin was staying at No. 56.

No. 44 became the Hôtel d’Angleterre and then the Hôtel Jacob, and this was where Hemingway and his wife Hadley stayed at first on their arrival in Paris on 22 December 1921.

Anne Pingeot used to live at No 40, where she was visited very regularly by the French deputy and future president, François Mitterrand.

Louise Michel spent her last years from 1897 to 1904 at No. 2. The Cronstadt hotel was then demolished in 1944 leaving a little garden.

Louise Michel lived in the building that once occupied this small garden site from 1897 until leaving for her last speaking tour in 1905.

In 1832 the independent Saint-Simonien, Pauline Roland lived in a flat at No. 10 with Pierre Leroux, who was then a foreman at the Panckoucke printers where the paper he helped found, Le Globe, was being printed.

After returning from exile in Belgium in 1862, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon returned to Paris and lived in an apartment at the back of the courtyard of No. 14 rue Jacob. An earlier resident, Richard Wagner, who stayed there from 1841-1842, has a plaque to his memory on the wall.

A view of an old entrance into No. 10 rue Jacob taken from the courtyard inside No. 12

At the end of the Second World War some leftist writers who had organised together before the war in the October Group led by Jacques Prévert, set up ‘Le Bar Vert’ (Green Bar) at No. 10. The first ‘American bar’ in Paris it stayed open all night, and it attracted many literary names including Raymond Queneau, Roger Vailland, Maurce Merleau-Ponty Juliette Greco and occasionally Jean-Paul Sartre.

The inside court of the Cour Desir during the great flood of 30 January 1910

Simone de Beauvoir went to the private Catholic secondary school at the Institut Désir at Nos. 37, 39, 41 and 45. The school’s buildings were partly taken over to build a new Medical Faculty in the the early 1950s and it moved away.

No. 60 used to host the Restaurant Michaud (later known as the Comptoir des Saints Pères), frequented by the ‘Lost generation’ of the 1920s such as Hemingway, Joyce and Scott Fitzgerald.


Jardin du Luxembourg

Arrondissement 6

Gardens with a darker side

A wonderful park in central Paris it also has a darker side. It was a place of summary trial and execution in 1871 and witnessed the final battle of the Liberation of Paris in 1944.

This garden is where I’ve spent many hours watching speed-chess and slow-boules (pétanque – from the old Occitane word meaning feet planted on the ground). I have even once waded in January into the half-frozen circular basin to rescue my ten-year-old’s sinking electronically-controlled boat (I hadn’t followed all the assembly instructions entirely correctly).

Hazan (WTP) writes ‘Few places in Paris have inspired so many writers and poets, not to mention cineastes’.

The Medicis Fountain dates back to 1630, but it was remodeled in 1864. Venus was removed and replaced by Ottin’s statues of the giant Polyphemus discovering the lovers Acis and Galatea. Perhaps that’s why couples enjoy the basin’s cool and calm.

The Medicis Fountain on the west side of the Palace that is now the French upper chamber, the Senate, can be a beautiful spot when it’s not overflowing with tourists.

The Luxembourg Gardens also have a darker side. On December 7 1815 it was where Marshal Ney was shot for having supported Napoleon during the hundred days before the defeat at Waterloo.

That was nothing compared to the hundreds murdered there by government troops in the final ‘bloody week’ of the Paris Commune.

A drawing of the executions in the Luxembourg Garden during the Bloody Week of May 21 to May 28 1871

On 29 November 2016, the French National Assembly (Parliament) passed a resolution to pardon all ‘the victims of the repression of the 1871 Paris Commune‘ – the 10-25,000 people who were shot, imprisoned, exiled, deported or otherwise punished by the French Government for their part in the Paris Commune between May 1871 and 1877.

There is no reference to Dr Tony Moilin or any other individuals murdered here by the Versaillais army in 1871

Sadly, commemorations appear to be about the only positive thing that Hollande’s socialist government did from 2012 to 2017.

There is now one very small plaque referring to the thousands killed in the Paris Commune.  Not at all obvious, it is on the wall facing the Palace to the South-East of the basin, often obscured from view in the Spring and Summer by couples profiting from the Luxembourg’s reclining chairs in the warmth of the sun.

I wrote what follows after walking for perhaps the thousandth time through the Luxembourg Gardens. It is strange what you don’t see when you don’t look. 

‘This time I quite quickly found the tiny memorial plaque beneath the Queens’ Terrace for those shot in the terrible week 21 May to 28 May 1871 that I’d first seen online two days ago. There were three burial pits dug in the gardens, where perhaps a third of the estimated 2,000 summarily executed prisoners across Paris were buried.

One of those given a military trial on the spot was a doctor, Tony Moilin, who had been jailed by Napoleon III for writing a futurist socialist book titled Paris in the Year 2000. Released with other political prisoners with the abdication of the Emperor in 1870, Moilin briefly became mayor of the 6th arrondissement. Taken prisoner on the 27th May he admitted helping the wounded on the barricades.

A few hours before he was shot on the 28th, he was allowed to marry his pregnant partner. His body was never recovered. The inscription on the plaque doesn’t even get the dates of the murders right.

Moving on through the Gardens I found the Pierre Mendès-France statue that Mitterrand had preferred to Émile Derré’s Column of Kisses cornice featuring the anarchists Louise Michel, Auguste Blanqui and Élisée Reclus

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

Michel had given the funeral oration to Blanqui in 1881 and Derré was an anarchist sympathiser and pacifist. In 1906, when he first exhibited it the sculpture, Derré (1867-1938) called it Dream for a House of the People. The column was then placed in the Luxembourg Gardens.

Louise Michel is shown kissing goodbye (and death) to Auguste Blanqui. The three other kisses sculpted represent maternal instincts, love and consolation

After being lost for several years it is now in the square in front of the Roubaix town hall in France’s old northern mining area that used to be a stronghold of socialism.

Émile Derré’s column shown in its new home in Roubaix in 2017. It was found, broken in three pieces, in the yard of the 400-year old St Gobelins tapestry and carpet works.

I too have a soft spot for Pierre Mendès-France (1907-1982). The university named after him in Grenoble was where I first did any teaching in France. He did end France’s Vietnam War in 1954, and then began decolonialisation in Tunisia.

In 1984 Mitterrand preferred to dump Derré’s column for Louise Michel and install his friend and mentor Pierre Mendès-France in the garden

Mendès-France was also a consistent opponent of De Gaulle’s 5th Republic constitution, that concentrates power very dangerously (as Macron began demonstrating in 2018) in the hands of the President. He had also served in Leon Blum’s Popular Front government of 1936.

From 1896 to 1898 the future Jewish first minister of France, Blum (1872-1950), lived at No. 36 rue Guynemer (then rue de Luxembourg) on the western edge of the Garden.

But the Mendès-France statue is far from being about dreams of social change. Surely Mitterrand could have moved one of the hundreds of memorials to France’s ruling class power in the Jardin du Luxembourg rather than take away the beautiful and romantic Louise Michel column.

Mitterrand’s easier option was to replace one politically ‘left’ public object by another. Sad.

The Luxembourg Palace was also the site of the last armed German resistance in Paris at Liberation in August 1944. All round the Latin Quarter there are memorial plaques to the courageous French men and women who died in the uprising between August 19 and August 29. Altogether some 1,500 Parisian resistance fighters were killed, including some 600 civilians.

Looking towards the Luxembourg boating pond past the occupying German tanks on August 25 1944 shows the gardeners kept putting out the palm trees during the Germany occupation of the Luxembourg Palace.

On August 25 1944 Pierre Georges (Colonel Fabien), who had fought in the International Brigade in Spain, commanded 300 resistance fighters around the Luxembourg Palace. Fighting was intense and the SS, who were concentrated there, only finally surrendered when given an hour’s notice of an aerial bombardment.

The garden still displays some sculptures that remind us of some key personalities and movements in French left history.

George Sand, sculpted by Francois Sicard was inaugurated in 1904 on the centenary of her birth. Not at all the image of the male-clothed self-declared communist.

Jules Dalou‘s three commissions all come from the same period from the 1890s through the 1900s when liberal republican governments fought off the right and sought to strengthen republican imagery and values. different and all interesting.

In 1890 Dalou’s Monument to Eugene Delacroix – the painter whose most famous work, Liberty leading the people was kept hidden by King Louis-Philippe from 1832 until 1848, and that we have borrowed characters from in designing LeftinParis – was inaugurated in the garden.

Dalou produced a bust of Delacroix but also comments on his belated recognition. Delacroix had died 27 years earlier, so Dalou shows him being given a palm and crown by Glory, lifted up by Time and applauded by Apollo, the god of genius.

In our brief biography of Dalou we show his two other sculptures present in the garden:The Triumph of Silenius, finished in 1885 but only erected in 1898 and the Monument to Scheurer-Kestner, installed in 1908.

A statue referencing surrealism and poetry, dedicated to Paul Eluard, a founder of surrealism who then joined the Communist Party, was erected in 1954, just two years after Eluard’s death. It was sculpted by Ossip Zadkine.

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Hôtel de Ville / Paris Town Hall

Arrondissement 4

Number 10 Place de l’Hôtel de Ville

Jean-Victor Schnetz‘s painting of the July 28 1830 battle outside the symbolic Paris Town Hall shows both the Tricolor and a Red flag – with the words’ ‘Long Live the Charter’ on it. The July Revolution was about restoring a semblance of democratic bourgeois rights, with the threat of workers’ rights behind it.

Lamartine rejecting the red flag on 25 February 1848 in favour of the Tricolor representing the Bourbons (white), the Empire (blue) and the Republic (red).

At the next successful insurrection on February 25 1848, Henri Philippoteaux painted the republican Lamartine outside the Town Hall rejecting the Red flag and endorsing the Tricolor.

Citizens, for me, the red flag, I am not adopting it, and I’ll tell you why I’m against with all the strength of my patriotism. It’s that the tricolor has toured the world with the Republic and the Empire with your freedoms and your glory, and the red flag was that around the Champ-de-Mars, dragged into the people’s blood.

Alphonse Lamartine

On March 22 1848 a delegation of women activists from the ‘Women’s voice’ group went to the Town Hall to demand women have full citizens’ rights including the right to vote.

On May 15 1848 demonstrators against French intervention in Poland, including Blanqui, the worker Albert, Blanc, Cabet, Leroux and Raspail occupied the Town Hall and declared a new provisional government before being arrested.

Lamartine went on to order the brutal suppression of the June 1848 workers’ insurrection sparked by the government’s closing of the world’s first unemployment system with national workshops offering work paid by the state.

On September 4 1870, after Napoleon III’s capture at the battle of Sedan, Léon Gambetta stood on the Town Hall balcony and announced the end of the Second Empire and proclaimed the creation of a new Republic.

On 31 October Blanqui and others demonstrated in front of the Town Hall demanding more action against the Prussian army from the new government led by Jules Favre. A supporter on the inside unlocked the doors and the demonstrators occupied it.

On January 22 1871 Louise Michel was one of many who protested outside the Town Hall at the government’s inertia in face of the Prussian siege of Paris. the demonstrators were fired on and Louise Michel later wrote that this was the first occasion that she had fired back with her rifle.

On March 18 1871 the Thiers government first placed a regiment loyal to to it into the Town Hall overnight, and then attempted to seize all the canons in Paris. These events sparked the creation of the Paris Commune by the Central Committee of the National Guard on March 29 1871.

Retreating before the murdering Versaillais troops the Communards carried out their warning that they would burn down several of Paris’ historic buildings, including the Hotel de Ville

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While anarchism may contain extreme individualism, in France it emerged as a bottom-up collective ideology alongside communist thought as a major mutualist strand within early French socialism.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau argued that ensuring freedom was a key moral obligation on the organisation of society

Peter Kropotkin (1842-1921) suggested anarchism emerged out of the ‘naturalist philosophy’ of the enlightenment.

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809-1865) considered that in putting individual human rights at the legal heart of the social order, the French Revolution itself was the start of doing everything differently. Justice became possible in political, economic and social life within a peaceful transition to an anarchist world he described as ‘Anarchy is Order Without Power’.

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon aged about 30

Proudhon, who many see as the ‘father’ of anarchism, regarded property as a means of exercising authority. He rejected it, god and government – whether elected or imposed by revolutionaries. He opposed both reformists and utopians.

For Proudhon, only the workers themselves could achieve freedom. And they could only do so through exercising direct control over their daily work.

Proudhon, Perry Anderson (The New Old World) reminds us, also believed in a European confederation of federations – a bottom-up association of mutually supportive workshops.

A postcard of the founding meeting of the First International Workingmen’s Association in London in 1864 attended by Marx and many French Proudhonists

In the 1850s and 1860s Proudhon’s writings reached a wide audience among the growing numbers of skilled French workers, who often found themselves in workshops alongside their working employer. The French delegates to the First International, founded in London in 1864, were largely Proudhonist, without their belonging to a specific anarchist organisation.

The suppression of the 1871 Paris Commune killed (literally) the Proudhonist collective bottom-up dynamic.

It took the return of the amnestied Communards in 1879 and 1880 for anarchism to re-emerge. But its form was then quite different.

Louise Michel led an unemployed demonstration in 1883 wearing a black veil. This became the anarchist colour

The now-marginalised Proudhonists increasingly wished to differentiate themselves from the socialists.  In 1882 Louise Michel (1830-1905) argued ‘

No more flags dyed red with the blood of our soldiers. I will carry the black flag to mourn our dead and all illusions.

In 1884 in a regular meeting place, the Salle de la Réunion, at 8, Rue de Lévis, the anarchist grouplet, the ‘Batignolles Panther‘ (la Panthère des Batignolles) held one/two meetings that ended in street battles with the police and monarchists. This was a period of rising monarchist agitation. Either on 23 November or 7 December 1884, or on both dates, the meetings included speakers such as Louise Michel, Jules Favre, Henri Rochefort and Léon Gambetta.

The Panther of the Batignolles anarchist group was set up in October 1882. A police spy reported that they had ‘quiet’ meetings with a lot of reading of scientific books on how to make explosives

Propaganda by the deed

Many anarchists reflected their frustration with the conservatism of the strongly liberal and anti-socialist Third Republic by turning to what became called ‘Propaganda by the Deed’.

Breaking with Proudhon’s moderation as well as with Mikhail Bakunin’s (1814-1876) anti-authoritarianism, the new generation of libertarians increasingly considered that a social revolution could only occur if sparked by insurrectional acts.

At the right moment, the ‘spirit of revolt’ inherent in the working masses would spontaneously lead to a revolution.

This ideology justified violence directed against individual capitalists and their supporters on the grounds that capitalism itself was founded on violence. ‘Individual seizures’ of bourgeois goods and possessions were justified as helping to destabilise the bourgeois order.

A lithograph of the moment of the explosion at the Restaurant Foyot, 36 Rue de Condé on April 4 1894

The ‘propaganda by the deed’ anarchists denounced attempts to create lasting organisations, as well as strikes (reforming the system) and any joint work with the socialists.

Their public presence grew, as their ideas attracted many intellectuals and artists who detested the authoritarianism and conformity of 1880s French society.

Felix Fénéon (1861-1944) and some of his artistic and literary friends like Maximilien Luce started attending anarchist meetings. Anarchism also attracted younger workers angry at continuing massive poverty and inequality.

Anarchist papers were selling 20,000 copies a week in Paris by the mid-1880s. The papers edited by Jean Grave (1854-1939), successively le Révolté, La révolte and Les Temps nouveaux (New Times) and supported by Kropotkin and Élisée Reclus, were the most influential.


On May Day 1891 nine demonstrators for the 8-hour day were shot dead by police at Fourmies near the Belgian border.

On the same day at another demonstration at Clichy in Paris three anarchists were arrested and badly beaten up after the police decided to seize the red flag at the march’s head.  Gunfire was exchanged. One anarchist and some police slightly wounded.

Two of the anarchists were jailed by the judges for five and three years.

As an individual act of reprisal for this injustice, the 32-year-old François (Koenigstein) Ravachol then bombed the homes of two judges involved in the Clichy trial. He was caught and guillotined on 11 July 1892.

Émile Henry was captured close by the Café Terminus after his February 1894 bombing

On November 8 1892, five days after the end of the 10-week Carmaux miners’ strike in the south of France, Émile Henry, the 20-year-old son of a Spanish communard, planted a time-bomb at the Carmaux company’s Paris office. It was found and taken to a police station where it exploded killing five gendarmes.

On 9 December 1893 August Vaillant threw a bomb into the Chamber of Deputies from the public gallery in protest against political corruption. It wounded 20 deputies and Vaillant was guillotined on 3 February 1894.

Nine days after Vaillant’s execution, the 22-year-old Henry carried out a revenge bombing at the Café Terminus at the Paris Gare St Lazare. It killed one man and wounded another 19. Henry was caught at the scene and guillotined on 21 May 1894.

On 24 June 1894 an Italian 20-year-old anarchist knifed the French president in Lyon. Sadi Carnot died a day later and Caserio was tried and guillotined in August.

Felix Fénéon at the Mazas Prison opposite the Gare du Lyon in 1894 sketched by Maximillien Luce

Under new anti-anarchist laws passed in December 1893, 426 anarchists were rounded-up in April 1894 of whom 30, including Fénéon, the anarchist journalists Jean Grave and Émile Pouget (1860-1931), and a burglar, Philippe Léon Ortix, were also put on trial in August 1894 for ‘criminal conspiracy’.

The prosecution aimed to prove that the anarchist anti-capitalists were working closely with known criminals. After Fénéon’s brilliant appearance in the dock, and Bernard Lazare ‘s committed legal defence, only three were finally jailed.

Later in 1894 a few anarchists, including Bernard Lazare and Fénéon, were among the first to denounce the silence on the left in front of the national anti-Semitic lynch mob atmosphere after Captain Dreyfus was arrested for alleged treason on October 29.

Earlier that year Lazare had published Anti-Semitism, its History and Causes, and Lazare became the key figure in exposing the framing of Dreyfus with a pamphlet published in November 1896.

Direct action

Criticism of the ‘propaganda by the deed’ ideology, the repression targeting anarchist newspapers and individuals, as well as the clear failure of these terrorist acts to stimulate revolution, led many anarchist sympathisers to turn towards trade union and socialist alternatives.

As early as 1893 Michel, Kropotkin and others in the Avant-Garde group of anarchists began to argue against the individualist-isolationism of ‘propaganda by the deed’ and for a return for anarchism to the workers’ movement as a component of socialism.

Their object, inside the trade unions and socialist sects, was to attack the advocates of state socialism through parliament and to argue for extra-parliamentary action, particularly the general strike as a means of achieving emancipation. Entering unions that were only legalized in 1884 and working with the socialists there would end the isolation fueled by the failures of ‘propaganda by the deed’.

It would also dovetail with the understandings of the very small numbers of trade unionists. They rationalised their minority status in relationship to their fellow workers as proving their responsibility was to lead by example. If a minority took direct action on an important issue, then the majority might join in.

Direct action and the General Strike as opposed to political action were adoped by the founding conference of the CGT in 1895

‘Direct action’ was thus democratic – it offered workers the possibility of participating in their own liberation – and it did not involve a dependency upon either the state or the employers. Neither party politics nor collective bargaining could be relied on to improve workers’ conditions; workers could only rely on what was gained through direct action.

In September 1895, albeit paradoxically, the founding conference of the Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT) trade union centre at Limoges voted to ‘stay outside of all political schools’. The paradox is that this apolitical stance was adopted by the majority of delegates made up of Jean Allemane supporters, anarchists and Blanquists in order to scupper the influence of Jules Guesde‘s French Workers’ Party.

Revolutionary syndicalism

‘Revolutionary syndicalist’ trade unionism tended to place a greater emphasis upon the ‘general strike’ for longer-term goals of social transformation and internationalism, and to stress the importance of generalising actions against the employing class as a whole. It took a deep hold on the unskilled worker activists whose uncertain, irregular and very low paid work meant they were effectively excluded from the widespread state-supervised mutual savings societies (mutualités) with the requirement of regular payments before benefits could be accrued.

Revolutionary syndicalists were sometimes politically close to the still sizeable body of anarchists. They often came from smaller firms and trades where the prospects of reactionary paternalist employers ever agreeing to trade union recognition and collective bargaining were highly remote.

They defended direct action, confrontation with the employers, the General Strike and sabotage such as ‘go slows’. In the CGT’s 1906 agitation for the Eight Hour Day, it therefore called neither for legislation on working time nor for negotiations: its aim was to have enough workers take strike action to convince everyone to simply impose the eight hour day on the employers.

The anarchist Émile Pouget (1860-1931), author of Le Sabotage (1898), became Joint-General Secretary of the CGT from 1901 to 1908. In 1906 he helped draft the Amiens Charter that is still a cornerstone of much French trade unionism with the cobbler, Victor Griffuelhes (1874-1922).

It was largely thanks to Griffuelhes’ organizational talents as General Secretary that the CGT grew from around 100,000 members in 1901 to the near 500,000 claimed when he was forced by the 1908 reformist coup to resign.

World War 1

50 years after the start of World War 1 French anarchists were still dealing with the reality that many leading anarchists supported their countries in the war

Anarchism, like the whole revolutionary left, took a big hit in 1914. All belief that class interests would trump national interest crashed. Worse still for the anarchists than for the social democrats who wanted to win state power, and had already seen some former socialists move into ministerial positions, Kropotkin and Grave and a handful of other leading anarchists argued that workers should support the Entente alliance against the greater evil of German militarism.

The 1917 Russian Revolution was experienced by the revolutionary syndicalists as an emotional roller-coaster. Revolutionary inspiration turned quickly to the sad confirmation of their greatest fears and predictions about the consequences of a single party state.

Anarchist insistence that workers could and would seize a revolutionary opportunity to overthrow the state was shattered. The defeat of the 1919 German revolution and the arrival of the successful fascist counter-revolution in Italy added to their demoralisation.

The shrinking numbers of anarchists began to see anarchism as first needing to educate the masses and even to organise to ensure this happens.

In 1936 Spanish anarchism briefly appeared to demonstrate that anarcho-communism from below was possible

The ‘anarchist summer’ of 1936 in France and particularly in Spain, with agricultural collectives being formed bottom-up across whole regions, and with revolutionary syndicalists dominant in the trade union refuelled the anarchist belief that they could make history and not just be subjected to it.

Yet by November 1936 the choice between making the revolution and defending the Spanish Republic had to be made: the anarcho-syndicalist CNT trade union confederation decided to enter the Spanish Republican government and was backed by the Iberian Federation of Anarchists (FAI).

After World War Two

In the 1940s and 1950s some French libertarians tried to resuscitate anarchism from its identification with violence by renaming it ‘libertarian socialism’ or ‘libertarian humanism’. Most kept defending the earlier anti-state mantra, and failed to support growing anti-colonial struggles.

George Brassens was a leading anti-authoritarian rebel in the 1950s and 1960s

The most prominent sympathisers in this period, like the surrealist André Breton (1896-1966) and poet/singer George Brassens (1921-1981), remained individualist rather than collectivist. Brassens was one of the editorial collective behind the revival of Le Libertaire, which resumed production in December 1944 and came out on a weekly basis until 1956, when the fragmenting anarchist movement suspended its production.

A libertarian renaissance started in the early 1960s, inspired partly by the experiments in self-organisation in Tito’s Yugoslavia and in Ben Bella’s (1916-2012) Algeria.

May 1968

In May 1968 the Odéon Theatre was occupied by the students and next to the banner saying ‘Odeon is Open’ a Black anarchist flag flew alongside a Red one

May 1968 saw an explosion of radical libertarianism. Spontaneous and anti-authoritarian it denounced the bureaucratised trade unions and Communist Party.

For a time a black flag was raised over the Odéon Theatre. This was occupied by the students, and became a centre of debate about the future of the movement. My step-mother recalled how the teargas used by police in 1968 to end the occupation wafted up into the flat 50 metres from the theatre that I’m now lucky enough to be able to use to follow the footsteps of the French Parisian left.

May 1968 generated a new mass feminist movement in France. It relaunched the ecology environmental movement. It led to the formation of hundreds of experimental self-governing collectives and a large squatting movement.

Direct Action

Among those radicalised by 1968 were many French anarchists. A journal, Camarades, was launched in 1974. It was influenced both by increasingly the militaristic Italian ‘Autonomous Workers’ organization (of whom many members fled to France in 1979) and by Spanish anti-Franco activists in the Groupes d’action révolutionnaires internationalistes (GARI) who believed it necessary to continue an armed struggle against the state.

In 1976, Jean Bilski, an anarchist acting alone, murdered the chief executive of the giant Credit Lyonnais bank, and then killed himself.  In 1977 a group of Maoists belonging to the Armed Units for Mass Self-organisation (Noyaux armés pour l’autonomie populaire) carried out 7 bombings on their own and another series of attacks on nuclear targets with anarchists belonging to GARI.

The first ‘General meeting of Parisian self-organised groups’ (Assemblée générale parisienne des groupes autonomes –  AGPGA) is held in October 1977, after the July 31 brutal police attacks on the anti-nuclear demonstration in the ‘Battle of Malville’. Some of those there created a loose ‘internal armed political coordination network’ within the wider group.

A month later on the night of 19 November 1977, 23 coordinated attacks (bombings, Molotov cocktails) on the French electricity company (EDF) and the nuclear industry took place across France.

The leaders of Directe Action were tracked down to a farmhouse and arrested in 1987

While most French anarchists considered the time was not ripe for mounting similar attacks and robberies to those associated with the Red Brigades in Italy from 1975 to 1979, a tiny minority clearly did.

Some of them formed Action Directe, borrowing the name from the revolutionary syndicalists. This group’s first action was on May Day 1979. They machine-gunned the headquarter offices of the Patronat (the largest French employers’ organization, then called the Conseil national du patronat français).

The group followed this up with another 80 bombings, bank robberies, acts of sabotage, machine-gunning and assassinations over a nine-year period. In 1987 its four remaining leaders were jailed for life. The last one, Jean-Marc Rouillan, aged 66 was released in May 2018 after spending 28 years in prison, of which ten were in isolation, and then published his account of Ten years of Direct Action.

21st century

Most ‘new’ anarchists resumed involvement in the major struggles of the late 20th century – against racism, for equality, against unjust laws, and even for workers’ rights. In the 1970s and 1980s a ‘workers’ control’ movement appeared.

Many are involved in ‘alternative world’ movements, often working closely with radical environmentalists. Eco-anarchists, following Élisee Reclus, generally argue that mankind should stop attempting to dominate nature.

Some are involved in the small revolutionary syndicalist organisations. A small trade union exists called the CNT (Confédération Nationale du Travail) française. Still smaller groups are l’Union des Anarcho-Syndicalistes (UAS),  le Syndicat intercorporatif anarchosyndicaliste (SIA) et le Groupement d’Action et de Réflexion AnarchoSyndicaliste (GARAS).

These groups usually stress key libertarian themes such as direct democracy, task rotation, anti-authoritarianism, solidarity and federalism.

A march against the Macron trade union reforms on 19 April 2018 was hijacked by 250 young men under a black-red flag wanting to confront police eager to tear gas them

The black and red flag of French anarchism is now mainly carried by a few hundred young men at the margins of demonstrations. They are often primarily interested, it would seem, only in confronting the police or in being attacked by them.

Yet the conviction that a radically different way of organizing economic and social relations to contemporary capitalism is both possible and necessary remains alive and kicking. And French anarchism reminds us that this cannot be achieved without also ensuring individual freedom.



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.