History of the Paris Commune of 1871

8. Proclamation of the Commune

A considerable part of the population and the National Guard of Paris calls on the support of the departments for the re-establishment of order. (Circular from Thiers to the Prefects, 27th March.)

This week ended with the triumph of Paris. Paris-Commune again resumed her part as the capital of France, again became the national initiator. For the tenth time since 1789 the workmen put France upon the right track.

The bayonets of Prussia had laid bare our country, such as eighty years of bourgeois domination had left it – a Goliath at the mercy of his driver.

Paris broke the thousand fetters which bound France down to the ground, like Gulliver a prey to ants; restored the circulation to her paralysed limbs; said, ‘The life of the whole nation exists in each of her smallest organisms; the unity of the hive, and not that of the barracks. The organic cell of the French Republic is the municipality, the commune.’

The Lazarus of the Empire and of the siege resuscitated, having torn the napkin from his brow and shaken off the grave-clothes, was about to begin a new existence with the regenerated Communes of France in his train. This new life gave to all Paris a youthful aspect. Those who had despaired a month before were now full of enthusiasm. Strangers addressed each other and shook hands. For indeed we were not strangers, but bound together by the same. faith and the same aspirations.

Sunday the 26th was a day of joy and sunshine. Paris breathed again, happy like one just escaped from death or great peril. At Versailles the streets looked gloomy, gendarmes occupied the station, brutally demanded passports, confiscated all the journals of Paris, and at the slightest expression of sympathy for the town arrested you. At Paris everybody could enter freely. The streets swarmed with people, the cafés were noisy; the same lad cried out the Paris Journal and the Commune; the attacks against the Hôtel-de-Ville, the protestation of a few malcontents, were posted on the walls by the side of the posters of the Central Committee. The people were without anger because without fear. The voting paper had replaced the chassepot.

Picard’s bill only gave Paris sixty municipal councillors, three for each arrondissement, whatever might be its population. Thus the 150,000 inhabitants of the eleventh arrondissement had the same number of representatives as the 45,000 of the sixteenth. The Central Committee had decreed that there was to be a councillor for every 20,000 inhabitants, and for each fraction of 10,000; ninety in all. The elections were to be conducted with the lists of February and in the usual manner; only the Committee had expressed the wish that for the future open voting should be considered the only mode worthy of democratic principles. All the faubourgs obeyed, and gave an open vote. The electors of the St. Antoine quarter formed in long columns, and, headed by a red flag, their voting papers stuck in their hats, filed before the column of the Bastille, and in the same order marched to their sections.

The adhesion and convocation of the mayors dissipating all scruple, also made the bourgeois quarters vote. The elections became legal since plenipotentiaries of the Government had given their consent. Two hundred and eighty-seven thousand men voted, relatively a far greater number than in the elections of February; for since the opening of the gates after the siege, a great part of the leisured classes had rushed to the provinces, there to recover their health.

The elections were conducted in a way becoming a free people. At the approach to the halls, no police, no intrigues. And yet M. Thiers dared telegraph to the provinces: ‘The elections will take place to-day without liberty and without moral authority.’ The liberty was so absolute that in all Paris not one single protestation occurred.

The moderate papers even commended the articles of the Officiel, in which the delegate Longuet set forth the role of the future Communal Assembly: ‘Above all, it must define its mandate, fix the boundaries of its attributes. Its first work must be the discussion and the drawing up of its charter. This done, it must consider the means of having that statute of the municipal autonomy recognized and guaranteed by the central power.’ The plainness, the prudence, the moderation which marked all official acts was beginning to move the most obdurate. Only the hatred of the Versaillese did not abate. That same day M. Thiers cried from the tribune, ‘No, France will not let those wretches triumph who would drown her in blood.’

The next day 200,000 ‘wretches’ came to the Hôtel-de-Ville there to install their chosen representatives, the battalion drums beating, the banners surmounted by the Phrygian cap and with red fringe round the muskets; their ranks, swelled by soldiers of the line, artillerymen, and marines faithful to Paris, came down from all the streets to the Place de Greve like the thousand streams of a great river. In the middle of the Hôtel-de-Ville, against the central door, a large platform was raised. Above it towered the bust of the Republic, a red scarf slung round it. Immense red streamers beat against the frontal and the belfry, like tongues of fire announcing the good news to France. A hundred battalions thronged the square, and piled their bayonets, lit up by the sun, in front of the Hôtel-de-Ville. The other battalions that could not get into the place lined the streets up to the Boulevard de Sebastopol and to the quays. The banners were grouped in front of the platform, some tricolour, all with red tassels, symbolizing the advent of the people. While the square was filling, songs burst forth, the bands played the Marseillaise and the Chant du Départ, trumpets sounded the charge, and the cannon of the old Commune thundered on the quay.

Suddenly the noise subsided. The members of the Central Committee and of the Commune, their red scarfs over their shoulders, appeared on the platform. Ranvier said, ‘Citizens, my heart is too full of joy to make a speech. Permit me only to thank the people of Paris for the great example they have given the world.’ A member of the Committee announced the names of those elected. The drums beat a salute, the bands and two hundred thousand voices chimed in with the Marseillaise. Ranvier, in an interval of silence, cried out, ‘In the name of the People the Commune is proclaimed.’

A thousandfold echo answered, “Vive la Commune!’ Caps were flung up on the ends of bayonets, flags fluttered in the air. From the windows, on the roofs, thousands of hands waved handkerchiefs.. The quick reports of the cannon, the bands, the drums, blended in one formidable vibration. All hearts leaped with joy, all eyes filled with tears. Never since the great Federation had Paris been thus moved.

The filing off was very cleverly managed by Brunel, who, while having the square evacuated on the one hand, brought in those battalions that were outside, all equally anxious to acclaim the Commune. Before the bust of the Republic the flags were lowered, the officers saluted with their sabres, the men raised their muskets. Not until seven o’clock did the last procession pass by.

The agents of M. Thiers returned in dismay to tell him, ‘It was really the whole of Paris that took part in the demonstration.’ And the Central Committee might well exclaim in its enthusiasm, ‘To-day Paris opened a fresh page in the book of history, and there inscribed her powerful name. Let the spies of Versailles, who are prowling around us, go and tell their masters what the common movement of an entire population means. Let these spies carry back to them the image of the magnificent spectacle of a people recovering their sovereignty.’

This lightning would have made the blind see. 187,000 voters. 200,000 men with the same watchword. This was not a secret committee, a handful of factious rioters and bandits, as had been said for ten days. Here was an immense force at the service of a definite idea communal independence, the intellectual life of France – an invaluable force in this time of universal anaemia. a godsend as precious as the compass saved from the wreck and saving the survivors. This was one of those great historical turning-points when a people may be remoulded.

Liberals, if it was in good faith that you called for decentralization under the Empire; Republicans, if you have understood June, 1848, and December, 1851; Radicals, if you really want the self-government of the people – listen to this new voice, avail yourselves of this marvellous opportunity.

But the Prussian! What does it matter? Why not forge arms under the eye of the enemy? Bourgeois, was it not in sight of the foreigner that your ancestor Etienne Marcel tried to remake France? And your Convention, did not it fast act in the very midst of the hurricane?

What did they answer? Death to Paris!

The red sun of civil discord melts veneer and all masks. There they are side by side as in 1791, 1794, and 1848, Monarchists, Clericals, Liberals, Radicals, all of them, their hands raised against the people – one army in different uniforms. Their decentralization is rural and capitalist federalism; their self-government, the exploitation of the budget by themselves, just as the whole political science of their statesmen consists only in massacre and the state of siege.

What bourgeoisie in the world after such immense disasters would not with careful heed have tended such a reservoir of living force?

They, seeing this Paris capable of engendering a new world, her heart swelled with the best blood of France, had but one thought – to bleed Paris.

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