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

Rue Claude Bernard

Arrondissement 5

Numbers: 77, 90

Once this was a continuation of the Rue des Feuillantines. It was briefly named the southern section of the Rue Gay-Lussac. The street was knocked through under Haussmann in the 1850s when it was widened from 12m to 20m. In 1881 it was given its current name of the medical experimentalist Claude Bernard (1813-1878).

In the 1860s, when No. 77 was 91, Rue des Feuillantines, the three Reclus brothers, Élie, Élisée and Paul  lived here. together. Among the republicans and revolutionaries who visited them were the artist Courbet, the photographer Nadar, the historian Michelet, as well as Proudhon and Bakunin.

Daumier published this cartoon of Nadar on May 25 1863, calling it ‘Nadar raises photogprahy to the level of art’ after Nadar commissioned a balloon builder to build France’s biggest hot-air balloon for him to photograph from.

The earlier Repubiican Socialist and Feminist writer, George Sand, lived from 1864 to 1869 in No. 97 of what was then the Rue des Feuillantines, now No. 90 Rue Claude Bernard.

Rue Claude Bernard about 1905

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Rue Édouard Quenu

Arrondissement 5

Number 4

The editorial offices at No. 4 of the libertarian Les Temps Nouveaux (New Times) from 1902 to August 1914 when it was banned. Its first fortnightly edition appeared in 1895. It became a weekly in 1911. Edited by Jean Grave its contributors included Élisée Reclus, Peter Kropotkin and Pierre Monatte. It was illustrated by many libertarian sympathising artists, including Maximilien Luce, Félix Vallotton, Paul Signac and Camille Pissarro.

From 1902-1914 the influential anarchist review, ‘Les Temps nouveaux’ (New Times) was edited at No. 4 rue Édouard Quenu. Among those actively supporting the journal were Monatte, Signac, Pissarro and Luce.

Originally a 12th century road its name has changed many times since then. In 1890 it was made a continuation of the rue Broca. In 1938 it was given its current name in honour of the head of surgery at the Cochin Hospital in the 14th arrondissement who lived from 1852 to 1933. He organised the principles governing the evacuation of the wounded during the First World War.


Avenue Élisée-Reclus

Arrondissement 7

Named after France’s greatest geographer

A wealthy street close to the Eiffel Tower and the Seine River whose only claim to be in Left in Paris is because this naming took place two years after Reclus died in Belgium.

Why did France’s greatest geographer die outside France? The answer lies in the Paris Commune.

On 16 November 1871 Reclus was sentenced to deportation to a French colony for life, but after the intervention of English geographers in his favour this was commuted to perpetual banishment.

He went first to Italy, then he settled at Clarens, Switzerland, where he wrote many major books. In 1894 became Chair of Geography at Brussels University.

He had zero connection with wealthy Paris.

Five years after it was given Reclus’ name, the Avenue was truncated to its current 230m length. Exactly 330m of it were lopped off and renamed Émile-Deschanel. after a much more respectable Republican who had died the year before the Communard and anarchist.

Why? The Paris municipal elections of 1904 witnessed a considerable increase in the numbers of socialists, up from 20 to 26, and they became the largest single grouping – although the Boulangist nationalists won 21 seats to the Radical Republicans 18 and the Conservatives and monarchists 11 and the Right-wing Republicans 4. This was just enough to enable some left-inclined street naming.

But the 1908 elections saw the left on the retreat. There were just 10 Socialist Party councillors sit alongside another 11 independent socialists, while the Radical Republicans won 22 seats and the Right-wing Republicans 28 along with 9 conservative monarchists. The right-wing revenge was the truncating of Élisée-Reclus.

Nobuhito Nagaï’s study of the Paris municipal council electon results after the defeat of the Commune shows how the broad republican left (the two left columns) secured majorities from 1887 to 1900 and then again from 1904 to 1912, with the far-right present throughout


Rue Gabrielle

Arrondissement 18

Number: 17, 19, 32, 49

In 1919 , the 18-year-old André Malraux went to the home of the surrealist writer Max Jacob at No 17, the friend of Picasso, Jean Cocteau and Modigliani, and offered him a poem he had written.

Named in 1863 after the first name of a wife of one of the owners the road was first opened in 1840, initially being called the Rue Neuve-Saint-Paul and then in 1843 the Rue Bénédict.

Picasso lived at No. 49 with his friend Carlos Casagemas from October to December 1900. This was Picasso’s first studio in Paris, but after they returned to Spain for Christmas, Carlos returned on his own to Paris where he committed suicide early the next year. Another painter, an American or Bulgarian origins, Jules Pascin took over the studio there in 1909.

La Vie painted by Picasso in 1903 features his friend Carlos Casagemas who committed suicide in 1901 after falling into a deep depression due, it is believed, to his impotence.

Fifty years earlier Paul Verlaine first met his future wife, the 16-year-old Mathilde Mauté de Fleurville at No. 19.

The journal La Revue anarchiste that the exiled Élisée Reclus wrote for in 1893 was based at No. 32.

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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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Rue Mouffetard

Arrondissement 5

Numbers: 23, 89, 140

One of Paris’ oldest streets traced onto an earlier Roman road it dates back to the 3rd century AD when the old Roman town on the left bank was being abandoned in favour of the safer, fortified smaller location on the île de la Cité.

The road falls away on the south side of the Sainte-Genevieve hill. Its name could come from a corruption of the place name, Mont Cétard, to Mont Fétard and eventually becoming Mouffetard. Alternatively, the old French word ‘moufette‘ used to mean an awful smell, and it could be that this is its origin.

No. 23 was an important address for the interwar left in Paris. In 1933 Daniel Guérin  organised meetings there for antifascist German refugees.

The Rue Mouffetard was still a busy shopping street in the 1930s when this photograph was taken. Today No. 23 is a bar, and, still busy, the old road now has dozens of restaurants.

In 1935 it housed the offices of Marceau Pivert‘s Revolutionary Left newspaper, and in 1936 the anarchist journal ‘Spartacus’ Notebooks’ where Victor Serge published ‘16 shot: Where is the Russian Revolution going?‘.

In June 1848 a barricade went up across the road at No. 89. On June 23 1848 a company of the Mobile Guard was disarmed here.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given it was a very cheap area in which to live, and the numbers of political refugees coming to Paris, for nearly two decades from 1885, No. 140 was strongly associated with anarchist publications.

Rue Mouffetard with No 140 on the left, photographed around 1900. The market is in front of the Saint-Médard church.

On 1 February 1885 Jean Grave launched a French-based edition of Kropotkin‘s anarchist journal Le Révolté at this address. After its presses were seized it changed its name to La Révolte. Among those who wrote for it were the exiled Élisée Reclus and Émile Pouget. Among its readers was Pierre Monatte.

From 4 May 1895 it changed its name to become Les Temps Nouveaux (New Times), which continued to publish up to August 1914, when almost all its writers supported the First World War’s ‘Holy Unity’ against Germany.

On 24 February 1889 Pouget launched the weekly anarchist newspaper Le Père Peinard from the same address. This was frequently raided by the police and the last number of its first series appeared on 21 February 1894, when Pouget escaped to London.

In 1871 Élie Reclus, who had been director of the National Library in Paris under the Paris Commune was hidden in the rue Mouffetard by a family friend for several weeks before escaping to London.

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Rue des Poitevins

Arrondissement 6

Numbers: 4, 6

The street was named, it is believed, after the large numbers of students from Poitou who lived in the 13th century street. It became known as the Rue Poitevine in 1448.

In 1824 Pierre Leroux worked in the printshop belonging to Charles-Louis Panckoucke and founded the newspaper The Globe, that became the organ of the Saint-Simoniam utopian socialists from 1830. The printshop at No. 4 was in the Hotel de Thou, where Jacques Auguste de Thou, a president of the Paris parliament, had first established a major library there in 1587.

Rue des Poitevins photographed by Charles Marville in the early 1850s, a few years after Courbet roomed in the street in the early 1840s..

No. 6 was a lodging house and restaurant set up in 1840 and called the pension Laveur. It was based in a wing of Thou’s Paris mansion. Gustave Courbet, Elisee Reclus and many other 19th century political figures stayed and/or ate there as students or while first living in Paris – either at this address or at 20 Rue Serpente, where the pension Laveur moved to later.

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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.



The French story of environmental politics is a chequered one.

Individual pioneering initiatives took place in 1769, 1854 , 1858 and 1874.

From 1876 to 1894 the anarchist geographer Elisée Reclus wrote 19 volumes on Univesral Geography and 6 volumes of ‘Man and the Earth’.

In 1972, the year the first big green demonstration took place in France, a Ministry of protection of nature and the environment was set up.

A Green candidate first stood in a presidential election in 1974.

A leading environmentalist resigned from Macron’s government in 2018 concerned about the lack of muscle behind its green intentions.

Reclus was the major geographer of the late 19th century focusing on ecology
Jacques Élisée Reclus (1830-1905), a Communard, libertarian geographer and active anarchist