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     Paris Commune
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Fifth republic
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The Paris Commune: 1871

The Paris delegates to Versailles win peace at a humiliating cost. France is to cede Alsace and much of Lorraine to Germany, to pay a massive indemnity of 5000 million francs, and to support a German army of occupation until the money is provided. Moreover Bismarck insists on immediate elections to provide a national assembly with the authority to sign a treaty.

Elections are held on February 8 and the assembly meets at Bordeaux on February 13. On March 1 the German terms are formally accepted. On that same day the Prussian army marches in a victory parade through the streets of Paris. The crowd watches in sullen silence. Trouble is in store.


There are many causes of Parisian resentment other than the parade itself. The government's capitulation has made meaningless the suffering endured in the four-month siege. Even worse, the composition of the recently elected assembly suggests that the new republic, acclaimed only six months previously, is already in danger. Republican delegates are in a minority, easily outnumbered by royalists (elected in rural areas) whose political aim is the return of the Bourbon dynasty. Ominously, the assembly decides to sit in Versailles rather than Paris.

In these circumstances Parisians rediscover the heady mood of the first French revolution. As then, radical unrest finds strength in alliance with the National Guard.


On March 18 the government tries to disarm the Paris National Guard. The result is an insurrection. Two generals are captured and shot by the insurgents. The government forces withdraw from the city. By March 26 municipal elections have provided a central committee which calls itself the Commune of Paris.

The committee is a radical body in the now well established revolutionary tradition (some of the delegates are also members of the International). It passes a few left-wing measures - in particular the immediate cancellation of past debts to landlords. But the circumstances leave little time for politics. Paris is again under siege, this time from French forces.


On May 21 government troops re-enter Paris through an undefended suburb. A week of bloody street fighting ensues, with the communards defending a succession of barricades, until a final battle is fought and lost in the Père Lachaise cemetery. But the deaths in this week of violence are nothing to the revenge which follows the fall of the commune. Thousands are dragged into the streets and killed by soldiers of the national army. The Figaro emphasizes the need to 'Purge Paris' of an evil which stretches back through 1848 to 1793.

The third French republic has a violent birth and it proves extremely unstable, with thirty governments in the first twenty years. But it lasts.


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