-by Suravee Mrigadat
What would come to be known as the Paris Commune had its origins in the immediate aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War. Still reeling from defeat at the hands of the Prussians, the French Republic (which replaced the vanquished empire of Napoleon III) elected a new National Assembly in February 1871. The royalists won a majority of the seats. This development, however, caused the republican inhabitants of Paris to fear that the National Assembly, which at the time met at the old royal palace of Versailles, would restore the monarchy.1 To its supporters, the Paris Commune represented a continuance of the French revolutionary values of liberty, fraternity, and equality. To its detractors, the Commune represented nothing more than the height of depravity and disorder. Both the supporters and detractors of the Commune held that the Commune was an entity that best represented the French Revolution. However, while the proponents of the Commune held that the Commune was a resolute bearer of republican values against a corrupt French state, its detractors maintained the Commune was a harkening back to the excesses of the reign of terror. The worry that the success of the Commune would mean a return to 1793 resonated especially among the well-heeled inhabitants of Paris and those in power in Versailles.
Louis Adolphe Thiers was at the head of the government sequestered at Versailles at the time. Thiers came to power a month after the French surrender to the Prussians on January 1871. A shrewd politician who had managed to reach the pinnacle of the French government by changing his positions to whatever was favourable, Thiers’ main priority after coming to power was to restore France to peace, order, and liberty under a republican, yet conservative government.2 To Thiers and members of the political right, the Paris Commune represented the foremost threat to the aforementioned goal, for not only was the Commune a rival authority in the heart of Paris, it was also one which advocated for the annihilation of the very state which they were aiming to rebuild.3 Among the wealthy urbanites of Paris, their greatest fear regarding the Commune was that it represented an attack on the privileges and property which they held.4 Among the bourgeoisie, there was nothing, not country, nor their fellow men, which came before their wealth and enrichment. Taking into account how those in power and the Parisian privileged classes viewed the Commune, it should come to no surprise that one of the most popular representations of the Commune among them was one which embodied both discord and destruction of property.
One of the most prominent manifestations of this image is the depiction of the Pétroleuse, which by definition alone refers to women who, with vessels of petrol along with other flammable substances, committed acts of arson against Parisian buildings during the Commune’s last week of existence. The image of a Pétroleuse represents both the purported depravity and chaos that accompanies the Commune; not only does the Pétroleuse defy the societal norm that a woman should be demure, but she also takes an active part in launching attacks on both life and property with unfathomable fury.5 The image of the raging Pétroleuse became so prominent in the eyes of the Communes detractors that she came to represent all crimes tied to the Commune. With the prevalence of such depictions of the Commune and its participants, it should come to no surprise that the image of the Commune as embodied in the Pétroleuse is one that came to be prevalent among those who were opposed to the Commune. For example, it was documented that both members of the political right, and to a lesser extent the Thiers cabinet, had referred to the Commune as a mob.6 This insinuated that both the political right and the Thiers cabinet viewed the Commune and all who were part of it as nothing but a criminal gang that must be pacified by any means necessary. In short, the image of the Commune as embodied by the Pétroleuse was important in that it not only helped to reinforce the image of the Commune as held by the bourgeoisie, but also that it also helped to shape the perception of the Commune in Versailles.
from the archive
What is shown above is a caricature produced by Leonce Scherer circa 1871 depicting the brief takeover of the French capital by the Communards and the National Guard. Within this caricature, the Communards, depicted by Scherer as small rowdy nuisances, were shown attempting to hand out pamphlets, which upon closer glance can be seen to be prominent revolutionary publications such as Le Pere Duchesne and Le Cri de Peuple. They are shouting to the great annoyance of the respectable citizens of Paris, depicted by Scherer as respectable figures of adult height. Furthermore, the expressions on the faces of the Communards are akin to children up to mischief, which was Scherer’s way of conveying how, like children, despite the noise and destruction which they produce, the Communards were not capable of much beyond that. Below the caricature was written a text which sardonically stated that under the Commune, Paris has never been so tranquil.7
Overall, what this caricature as a whole implies is that under the rule of the Commune, Paris only knows chaos and disorder, never peace and order. The significance of this caricature is that it perfectly encapsulates how the French state, which had evacuated itself to Versailles during this period, had viewed the development of the Commune and all who had participated within it. This is because for the duration of the Commune, the provisional government under Adolphe Thiers had come to view the Commune as hooligans with nothing to offer except for turmoil and disorder. Furthermore, the provisional government saw much of the Commune’s leadership as being comprised only of those who sought to wreak havoc, and those who’s only talent is in the art of rhetoric.8 Still, what is most terrifying to Versailles regarding the Commune is how with time, the Commune devolved into violence reminiscent of the reign of terror, thus taking Paris into the depths of turmoil and depravity.9 Hence, the caricature serves not only to lampoon the Commune, but also to inform us about how the Commune was viewed from the perspective of those in power.
- Encyclopedia Brittanica, s.v. “Commune of Paris: 1871,” last modified July 20, 1998, https://www.britannica.com/event/Commune-of-Paris-1871/additional-info#history.
- Encyclopedia Britttanica, s.v. “Adolphe Thiers,” last modified November 15, 2017, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Adolphe-Thiers; “Louis Adolphe Thiers.” Proceedings of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences 13 (May 1877): 458.
- Mikhail Bakunin, Statism and Anarchy, trans. Marshall Shatz (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990): 42
- Bakunin, 43-44.
- Gay Gullickson, “La Pétroleuse: Representing Revolution,” Feminist Studies 17, no.2 (1991): 250.
- Robert Tombs, “The Thiers Government and the Outbreak of Civil War in France, February–April 1871,” The Historical Journal 23 no.4 (1980): 827, 829.
- Leonce Scherer, Jamais Paris n’a été si tranquille / Que sous la Commune, 1871, Print, 36.4 cm x 27 cm. Paris https://www.parismuseescollections.paris.fr/fr/musee-carnavalet/oeuvres/ndeg11-jamais-paris-n-a-ete-si-tranquille-que-sous-la-Commune#infos-principales
- Charles H.C. Wright, A History of the Third French Republic (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1916): 20.
- Wright, 21.
Nord, Philip G. “The Party of Conciliation and the Paris Commune.” French Historical Studies 15, no. 1 (1987): 1–35. https://doi.org/10.2307/286502.
This text is important in that it serves to highlight how the fact that the political right, and to a lesser extent, members of Thiers’ cabinet had viewed the Commune as a mob.
Vidalenc, Jean. “Adolphe Thiers.” In Encyclopedia Britannica, July 20, 1998. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Adolphe-Thiers
This text can help its reader to not only enlighten themselves regarding how Thiers had risen to become the first executive of the Third French Republic, but also that it gives valuable perspective regarding Thiers’ vision for rebuilding France.
One thought on “versailles”
Thanks for your snapshot of the perspective from Versaille Suravee, it seems those in power have been using the same old tricks (charges of chaos, senseless violence, total disorder, threat) to discredit peoples movements for some time now.