The Louise Michel Case

The Commune 2, part 1

Louise Michel as a Fédéré, a defender of the Commune.

Louise Michel was for a long while the only well-known female member of the Commune, even in France. That’s more than a little strange, given the role women played but to add another layer to the story, there was in France, beyond the woman herself, « the idea of Louise Michel, » the portrait of a person, a sort of relentless character, everywhere at once, determined to play a role in her time. A near-martyr of the Commune, she returned in 1880 as a heroine from exile in the penitentiary colony of New Caledonia. For the left, she incarnated a radical, selfless feminism; for the right, an « hysterical » fury : irrational, unnatural, irredemiably destructive.    

This « idea » of Louise Michel has hidden her successes and even many of her engagements, both political and intellectual. Teacher and pedagogue who during the high tide of the Second Empire proposed new teaching methods, she publicly affirmed her status as a republican, attending many of the public meetings of the opposition. 

During the Commune she joined the women’s division of Vigilance Committee of Montmartre, founded in September 1870 by none other than a young Clemenceau - who in short order became one of this determined young woman’s ardent admirers. In her memoirs Michel called the Committee an attempt by the women who formed their own division to « escape their class. » She was at the same time presiding at meetings of the Revolution Club, writing articles for the paper Cry of the People and fighting alongside the 61st batallion of the National Guard, who defended Paris after the surrender of Louis-Napoléon and the retreat of the government to Versailles. 

You perhaps now have a sense of a dynamo who attracted the admiration not only of Clemenceau but drew love poems from the pen of Victor Hugo. A distant love, although it’s impossible to say with any certainty…

Deported to New Caledonia in the aftermath of the Commune, she remained in jail for seven years, using the time to make ethnographique studies of the native Kanaks, translating their legends and their long poems. Michel lent her support to their revolt in 1878, never stopping her theoretical work on feminism, anarchism and anti-imperialism. With amnesty in 1880, she returned to France, gave speeches throughout Europe and in Algeria. 

Getting off the train in Paris in November of that year, she was greeted with cries of «Long live Louise Michel ! Long live the Commune ! Down with the assassins ! » 

The Haute-Marne region, between Paris and Champagne, has been the starting point for numerous outstanding women, from the seventeenth century savant Emilie du Châtelet to La Marquise de Pompadour, to Simone de Beauvoir, the very model of the modern feminist. Safe to say though that none however came up quite the hard way Louise Michel did. 

Born at the austere — you might call it drab, forbidding, rundown, even slightly scary — Château de Vroncourt in 1830, she was the illegimate child of a maid by the son of the lord of the manor. She took the noble Demahis’ last name and received a liberal education, with many testimonies to her altruistic character. That ended in 1850 with the sale of the chateau. Things speed up and we begin to see evidence of the person - and the ideal - Louise Michel. 

In 1851 she earns a degree as a teacher in Chaumont in the Haute-Marne but promptly loses her position for refusing to give the class a sermon dedicated to Napoléon III, Louis-Napoléon, as was required of all instructors. Instead of suing, she founded the first of her own « free schools » in Audeloncourt and again in 1854 in Clefmont and again in Millières, all in the Haute-Marne,  in 1855. Her relentless character is beginning to show. In ’56, she leaves the region for Paris, where she works as a teacher, begins a literary career and becomes a militant.

FULL STOP here to catch up with the news of the day in France. Louise Michel’s story will be picked up again here just a little further on….