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Springtime in Paris

By: Denis Boyles
June 1, 2017

he dull fog of populist change rolling across Europe matters less than it appears. In France, neither elections nor populism genuinely threatens the ruling class’s comfort. France’s énarques—a term amalgamating graduation from the École nationale d’administration with “monarque”—are geniuses at self-preservation; they’ve had each other’s backs for the entirety of the Fifth Republic.

This time around, the “populist” was 48-year-old Marine Le Pen, a member of the European Parliament since 2014, the familiar National Front leader and campaign veteran. Meanwhile, the status quo’s champion was Emmanuel Macron: an énarque (class of ’04) and reformed investment banker not yet 40; who had never run for public office; didn’t even have an election platform until a few minutes ago; and leads a year-old “movement,” as opposed to a political party, called En Marche! allegedly because he liked the initials. Marcon’s only previous governing experience was as the economics minister of François Holland’s despised and dismally performing Socialist administration.

The elections were not much of a “change.” The French faced what the media like to call a “stark choice”—although there was little starkness in it. In the time-honored manner of barricade-mounters everywhere, French celebrities threatened to move to Canada if Le Pen won, so the winner was Macron, a “centrist” relatively speaking who was supported by almost all other parties and campaigned passionately on a theme of change—but who was chosen mostly because voters expected him to change as little as possible. If you want a real populist uprising, try someplace more volatile, like Britain or Vermont.

This restraint is not without reason. France learned the hard way that the old American expression, “If you’re going to be a bear, be a grizzly,” frames populist uprisings perfectly. What starts as an uprising must either become a full-blown revolution or end as just another failed, usually bloody, political moment. In the 1790s, for example, the revolutionary populists in Paris murdered Louis XVI then send armed columns to western France with orders to destroy every trace of the rural populists. By 1800, the deeply secular, Parisian populist army had killed as many as a quarter-million rural Catholic Vendéens. Historians have persuasively argued that this massacre amounted to the first modern genocide, though many Parisian academics try unconvincingly to dismiss it as a counter-revolution of aristocratic invention.

The post-revolutionary affection for uprisings established a national political tradition: to change government policy, the ballots that count are paving stones. As Yale historian John Merriman points out in Massacre, his magnificent survey of the life and death of the Paris Commune, Parisians rose up against their government eight times in the 21 years beginning in 1827, leading ultimately to the 1848 February Revolution.

It took only two decades of Napoleon III, the establishment’s incompetence during the new and ill-fated Third Republic, and a timely flowering of socialist sentiment to amass the resentments that would explode into the century’s most violent popular uprisings. The “Paris Commune” was the name given to the radical tantrum that grew out of Napoleon III’s 1871 surrender in the Franco-Prussian War, and the ensuing Prussian siege of Paris, during which pets, ponies and even animals from the local zoo appeared on the best French restaurants’ menus. As part of its capitulation to Bismarck, the new republic, headed by Adolphe Thiers, agreed to disarm most of the regular French army—but didn’t dare disarm the thousands of highly politicized, ill-tempered, badly disciplined National Guard militiamen, who were left to police Paris and protect its radicalized workers. Separate from the French army since its 1789 establishment, the Guard was fiercely independent. When Thiers tried to seize the cannons in Montmartre and Belleville, the home neighborhoods of the most radical workers, the defeated citizenry and its ragtag militia turned their fury on the government, now housed in Versailles, one of the story’s ironies. By mid-March, the American ambassador was warning that the “insurrectionists”—that is, the workers building barricades and National Guardsmen with their rifles turned upside-down to show their unwillingness to fire upon the populace—were gaining control of Prussian-besieged Paris. Chaos was king.

Merriman brilliantly describes Paris during the ensuing two months, a scene of assaults, barricade-battles, and intrigues. Massacre follows Paris’s most colorful personalities, including artist Gustave Courbet; Maxime Vuillaume, a Communard journalist; Georges Darboy, the impressively pious archbishop of Paris; the “Red Virgin,” a very angry proto-feminist named Louise Michel; and a cameo appearance by Karl Marx’s daughter Jenny. Through command of carefully researched facts, Merriman weaves together compelling narrative strands while vividly conveying the random atrocities and summary executions that punctuated those bloody spring afternoons. He effectively contrasts working-class precinct insurrection with life in the élite quartiers, where military defeat and the Commune were relatively minor inconveniences. The chaos, for example, didn’t seem to impede the servants of an indolent, wealthy avocat who was sent for groceries that included “first-rate mackerel, a filet of venison with small white onions with cream.”

Cannon fire in the distance provided seasoning. His little cat slept through it all. If fighting came to central Paris, he would simply remain inside his apartment. Besides, he had enough to eat for several days at least. 

Eventually, however, insurrections must envelope the entire nation or fail. In the horrific third week of May, 130,000 troops entered the city, massacred thousands of Communards, and restored governmental authority.

Merriman brings cinematic immediacy to the chaos and horror of civic destruction, choosing details with intelligence and precision. His description of the slaughter of the communards at the Wall of the Fédérés in Père Lachaise Cemetery is especially moving. Massacre even contains detailed maps for tourists who wish to dodge the selfie crowd while visiting the battlefield. Merriman concludes with a brief, up-to-the-minute elegy on the Wall of the Fédérés, the scene of many latter-day populist demonstrations.

But the most lasting scars of the Paris Commune are those inflicted on France’s political sensitivities, where populist outrage is a recurring, terrifying nightmare for those in power. Recently, the government tried to annul the national holiday of Pentecost. Furious protesters sent not by the powerless archbishop of Paris, but by a leftwing labor union, hurled paving stones and forced the government to back down. Workers whose last view of a church was the interior of a baptismal font had won the day, just as they had when the government tried to make it possible to fire lousy employees, and as they will again when Macron attempts to implement his proposed reforms.

Merriman knows this corner of French history better than almost anyone, and his account of the Commune’s butterfly life shows not only his mastery but also his sincerity. The Thiers government killed Communards by the thousands, often in summary executions; the populists killed not even a hundred. And although he has taken their side in the story, it’s hard not to feel repulsed by the Communards’ leftwing sanctimony as they pointlessly murder heroic clerics and other prisoners. The romance of a leftwing cause is hard to resist; the Commune is what “Occupy Wall Street” wanted to become. Ultimately, Merriman’s sympathies are undermined by the story’s power and the beguiling research that buttresses it. One finishes Massacre convinced that if the Communards had possessed the tactics and the guns, they would have been the slaughterers, not the slaughtered.