It was just after we joined the Rue des Fossés St Jacques on a cool August evening that we found, painted on the footpath, the words: ‘Au Panthéon; Simone de Beauvoir et Louise Michel’.
We had celebrated my birthday in a Greek restaurant just off the Place St Médard, at the southern edge of the 5ème arrondissement. After eating we had climbed the rue Mouffetard towards the Place de la Contrescarpe and the Panthéon, the final resting place of the great men of France. Of the 71 worthy people buried there only one, Marie Curie, was a woman. I could understand the case for de Beauvoir joining her; but Louise Michel was new to me.
I visit Paris regularly but over the years I spend less and less time on the Champs Elysées and the grands boulevards for which Haussemann had in the 19th century demolished large swathes of an older Paris, leading Baudelaire to write in Le Cygne: ‘Le vieux Paris nest plus; la forme d’une ville change plus vite, hélas! que le coeur d’un mortel.’ (Old Paris is no more; the form of a city changes more quickly, alas! than the human heart.)
I prefer the less ordered older quarters of Paris that escaped Haussemann’s attentions, mainly those clustered around the hills or ‘buttes’ of the city, including Montmartre. My favourite is that which tumbles down the contrescarpe along the rue Mouffetard. As we walked back down the slope I determined to find out more about Louise Michel.
By the time we set out again the following morning a combination of an iPad and hotel wifi had given me a short introduction to the remarkable life of this anarchist, teacher and poet. Born in 1830 in the Haute-Marne as the illegitimate daughter of the son of the local chateau and one of his servants, Michel trained as a teacher and moved to Paris where she opened a school, wrote poetry, corresponded with Victor Hugo and became active in left-wing republican politics.
We walked along the rue Pascal, following the course of the river Bièvre which used to flow past the Gobelins and the tanneries at the foot of the Rue Mouffetard but is now confined to an underground canal. We were heading in the direction of the Butte aux Cailles in the 13ème arrondissement – in 1871 one of the last strongholds of the Paris Commune.
The Commune was established in Paris (and in many other major French cities) following France’s defeat at the end of the war against Prussia. The spark that lit the uprising was the French army’s attempt to take back the cannons that had been used to defend the city during the siege of the final months of the war. And it was Louise Michel who had alerted the people of Montmartre to the presence in the city of the French army.
We crossed the Boulevard Auguste Blanqui – named after the revolutionary who had been imprisoned by the French government to prevent him joining the Commune – and ventured up the rue Daviel towards the Butte aux Cailles – in English the ‘hill of quails’. This area is another where much of the old housing has survived since before Haussmann, and numerous narrow streets and passages scramble up the hillside, lending the area a village-like feel until a more modern tower block looms up ahead and brings you back to modern Paris.
The Commune survived for two months – time to introduce new ideas and practices far ahead of their time – but eventually the French army began to move into the city, massacring thousands of communards as they went. Louise Michel fought the soldiers in the suburbs and later the city barricades. At her trial Michel denounced her persecutors:
‘Puisqu’il semble que tout coeur qui bat pour la liberté n’a droit qu’à un peu de plomb, j’en réclame une part, moi ! Si vous me laissez vivre, je ne cesserai de crier vengeance… Si vous n’êtes pas des lâches, tuez-moi!’ (Since it seems that every heart that beats for freedom has the right only to a little lead, I demand my share. If you let me live, I shall never cease to cry for vengeance… If you are not cowards, kill me!)
At the top of the butte we found the place de la Commune de Paris and drank tea in the cooperative café Le temps des cerises, named after a song by Jean-Baptiste Clement which the author later dedicated to a nurse who had been with him on one of the final barricades:
Mais il est bien court, le temps des cerises,
Où l’on s’en va deux cueillir en rêvant
Des pendants d’oreilles.
Cerises d’amour aux robes pareilles
Tombant sous la feuille en gouttes de sang.
(But it is too short, the time of the cherries
When together we gather them while dreaming of earrings
Cherries of love dressed in red robes
Dripping from the leaf in drops of blood)
Louise Michel was not granted her wish by the court, but was instead exiled to New Caledonia, where she supported the indigenous people in their fight against French colonialism, and ran a school with methods that were a century ahead of their time. It was there that she concluded: ‘C’est que le pouvoir est maudit, et c’est pour cela que je suis anarchiste.’ (Power is cursed, and that is why I am an anarchist.)
She was eventually freed and returned to Paris in November 1880, to be welcomed by an immense crowd. She continued her fight for social justice and remained a thorn in the side of the government, spending several stretches in prison. She wrote extensively – poems, pamphlets, an autobiography and a personal history of the Commune. When she died in 1905 some 100,000 people followed her cortège through the streets of Paris.
We continued to wander around the Butte aux Cailles, lingering in particular in the passage Boitton with a Parisiénne who spends her spare time exploring and photographing the backstreets of her beloved city. She told us where we could find the graffiti below.
There is talk that François Hollande may decide to include another woman in the Panthéon, and Michel would seem an ideal candidate – along with Simone de Beauvoir and Olympe de Gouges, who published a Declaration of the rights of women during the revolution of 1789. In the meantime, she retains an alternative commemoration beyond the gift of any of today’s politicians – Victor Hugo dedicated his poem Viro major to her:
Et ceux qui, comme moi, te savent incapable
De tout ce qui n’est pas héroïsme et vertu,
Qui savent que, si l’on te disait: « D’où viens-tu ? »
Tu répondrais: « Je viens de la nuit d’où l’on souffre. »
(And those who, like me, know you to be incapable
Of all that is not heroism and virtue,
Who know that, if you were asked, ‘Where do you come from?”
You would answer: “I come from the night where there is suffering.’)
We walked back along the Avenue des Gobelins and that evening ate in Les Bugnes, a Basque restaurant just off the rue Mouffetard. And here is the video of my song, Rue Mouffetard, with some echoes of the Commune.
For more about Louise Michel you can listen to one of the BBC’s Great Lives radio programmes, read a blog from Pam McAllister or listen to a talk from Paul Foot about her and the Commune.