Can Europe Make It?

The spirit of the Commune

“When it is proposed to protect members of the public from those monuments… all Presidential hell breaks loose.”

Chris Myant
Chris Myant
5 August 2020, 8.59am
The execution of Communards by the French government before the fortification in the Bois de Boulogne, 29 May 1871.
Watercolour on paper by James Tissot, 1871.

Some images haunt my memory with a savage intensity that will not let go. The desolation of the moonscape across parts of Vietnam after Nixon’s B-52s had been by. An old woman sitting in a Belfast gutter, her back to a lamppost, her body slowly swelling, moments after an IRA bomb warning had gone wrong. My mother’s hands where the deep cracks in her skin were stained black after peeling potatoes and apples for hours . . .

Since I first saw it, this tiny watercolour has hung in my thoughts without a break. James Tissot was a society artist. He had real and striking talent, though most of his subjects alienate me. But you have to watch out for the incidental details in all of his paintings. They tell you something about him as a human being as well as an artist. He observed life and let it into his paintings: the children peeping into a half empty ballroom; the life in the street that carries on as a circle of self-satisfied young men pose one by one for a group portrait of the upwardly mobile; the ordinary sailors in the distant background of a society ball on their ship.

If you had the chance to visit the exhibition on Impressionists in London, either at the Tate Britain in London or the Petit Palais in Paris in 2018, or if you get to the current James Tissot: l’Ambigu moderne at the Musée d’Orsay, you may agree with me.

Staying in Paris

Tissot built a nice town house right in the heart of Paris out of the money his skills earned. He welcomed Emperor Napoleon III’s daughter, Princess Mathilde, there in 1868. Then came that Emperor’s disastrous war with Bismarck’s Prussia in 1870. Napoleon ignominiously surrendered at Sedan and Paris was besieged. As the Prussians closed in around the French capital, many of Tissot’s artist friends and colleagues, not to mention their patrons, slipped away.

He stayed, joined a military unit and was active in the fighting that followed. You can read about it in the memoire by the founder of Vanity Fair magazine, Thomas Gibson Bowles, The Defence of Paris Narrated as it was Seen. Tissot had done cartoons for Vanity Fair before the war and gave Bowles the illustrations for his book. In one skirmish, he told Bowles, “out of his company of sixty men, no less than seventeen are either killed or wounded”. One of those sketches is titled The first killed I saw.

One of those sketches is titled The first killed I saw.

By the time Tissot gave them to Bowles, there had been a peace deal with the Prussians and then elections in March 1871 that led to the declaration of the Paris Commune. Of those of his fellow artists who had stayed when the Prussians came, all but a few hurried away. Tissot did not.

He served in an ambulance unit for the Commune’s defenders as those to whom the Prussians had handed over power as a government of France sought to crush this revolutionary expression. He stayed to the very, very end and witnessed what became known as la semaine sanglante, the Bloody Week, when thousands of Communards were executed by firing squads. Like General Franco in Spain 60 years later, the new rulers of France wanted to extirpate every last possibility of a return of the spirit of the Commune. They killed thousands. Historians argue over exactly how many thousands, but that it was thousands is not disputed.

Images of humanity

Tissot is good at capturing faces and their different expressions. A quick watercolour shows a soldier sprawled in his uniform and bandages after being wounded in fighting with the Prussians, his eyes half looking at the spectator, half downcast. It is by an artist who knew precisely what it was to take an enemy bullet. The painting is full of his empathy for the subject.

It is there too in the record of what he saw in the Bois de Boulogne during la semaine sanglante. The current retrospective does not include the image, though it does appear in the catalogue.

And it was there in 2018 at the Petit Palais. Smaller than an A4 sheet of paper, it did not seem to attract many. I could not leave the spot. As a journalist, I have always felt it my responsibility to let others know about that which they cannot see for themselves, to give them the feel, the facts and the importance of events in which they have not been able to participate. Tissot was doing just that in his watercolour. He wanted the world to see what he had seen, to share his horror. Somehow the fact that he did not just click a camera, gives the image more engagement, more humanity.

“They fell like a rag doll.”

He wrote a long, hurried letter to an English contact on the day he painted. He had already recorded his eye-witness view of the execution of two Communards in a street near his house four days earlier. Now he wrote of how “We saw them going very quickly, each in their turn, to the place where they were killed. They fell like a rag doll . . .” He wanted his friends in London to know and let others know.

Bowles wrote for the Morning Post as well as his own magazine. There is a piece in the Post for 2 June, datelined Paris 31 May that reads like his copy: “The scene is simply appalling . . . This is Paris! This great centre of civilization! . . . At the Place de la Bastille four Communeaux were found in the ditch, terrible remains of humanity, one of them quite a child, with fair, flaxen hair curling around his discoloured face . . . The cemetery of Père la Chaise where a last stand was made . . . was a dreadful sight. In a large open pit lay the 145 dead bodies of the men who were shot yesterday – shot, be it remembered, without any form of trial or judgement, at the pure discretion of the troops . . . most of them in the tattered, sordid dress of the proletaire, the uniform of misery . . . A superior officer tells me that 15,000 of the Communists have been killed, either in actual fight or by summary execution.”

Grand memorials

Why recall all of this? Just because I have been moved by a small painting? Partly. But also because it tells us something important about the grand memorials we have inherited that celebrate brutal moments in history or brutal practices of the past.

On the site of the first violent exchanges between the forces of the new government and those of the Commune there is now the massive, white Sacré-Coeur Basilica at Montmartre. One possible origin of that name is Hill of Martyrs. Today, the basilica’s main entrance platform gives stupendous views and visitors who come to see us always want to go there.

Those currently responsible for the church deny that its construction celebrated the defeat of the Commune. You can read their arguments at length on the Basilica’s website. But that is not the way it was seen at the time by many of those campaigning to have it built. One of the key protagonists for the basilica, another painter Hubert Rohault de Fleury, said on the day the foundation stone was laid in 1875, “Yes, it is where the Commune started that the Sacré-Coeur will rise . . . This hill is inhabited by a population that seemed hostile to any religious idea, that seemed above all animated by hatred of the church.”

The Sacré-Coeur is there for the duration.

The Sacré-Coeur is there for the duration. No one is proposing that it be demolished. The arguments championed by de Fleury have lost nearly all their force. Reactionaries in the Catholic hierarchy still try to wield power and influence, but their power to affect the lives of individuals is in steady retreat. The offence it may represent is no longer linked to a daily experience of oppression.

That is not the case if you are young, Black and find yourself with a police officer sizing you up for an unnecessary stop and search. Or if your name or clothing betrays Muslim origins and you are looking for a flat to rent or a job to secure. These injustices, deeply rooted in modern French life, remind their targets that the history represented by the statues of long-dead protagonists of slavery and colonialism still has its knee on their necks.

The latest statues to fall

The latest statues to fall were not in the metropolitan France, but in a former colony, now a department of France, the Caribbean island of Martinique. One that went toward the end of July was the statue of Pierre Belain d’Esnambuc, credited with being the “founder” of the French slave colony in 1635. Slavery there was finally abolished in 1848, but the statue of d’Esnambuc went up in 1935.

Another that went was of Napoleon Bonaparte’s Joséphine, his first Empress. She was born Marie Josèphe Rose Tascher de La Pagerie in 1763 on the Martinique sugar plantation her family owned and which was then worked by over 200 slaves. You learn plenty about why it should long have been removed from the squeamish – no, mendacious – way in which AFP, France’s main news agency, reported that she was a “native of Martinique where her family possessed an agricultural exploitation”.

France has real difficulty in confronting its history of colonial slavery, robbery and pillage. President Macron declared on July 14: “The Republic will erase no name. It will topple no statue.” His view had been hinted at by Brigitte Macron who told us during a radio interview just beforehand: “We must not rewrite history as we are doing with the statues. It is very important not to renounce history, not to renounce our culture . . . I live resolutely in the present . . . The future can be troubling. But the future with Emmanuel is not.”

Anyone reading this sort of thing must surely find themselves asking a question or two. Who is doing the rewriting? Those getting rid of a statue of a human monster, guilty of crimes against humanity on a scale my imagination is not capable of conceiving, but whose statue praises him as a great French hero? Those who rub out the fact that Joséphine came from a slave plantation and who leave on one side the fact that the dictator she married restored slavery in France and its colonies and tried to re-impose it on Haiti at terrible human cost? And just what on earth does she mean by “our” culture?

All human societies exist, and have existed, in a state of diversity. On occasion that is a matter of personal choice or preference. More usually it is a matter of choices imposed, with varying degrees of cruelty, malice aforethought and self-interest on the many by the few. The statues are of the few, with rare exceptions.

Statues of the few

The latest 2020 version of the Guide du Patrimoine en France by the government’s Centre for National Monuments might be expected to help explain Brigitte Macron’s thought. As it has a link to Napoleon, the place where Joséphine was born, it is naturally now an important bit of that French history which must not be rewritten or renounced. “It resembles a little farm out in a Norman orchard with its dormer windows, its tiled roof and its solid stone walls,” is the description the guide gives of La Pagerie on page 909.

Not a word in the whole entry about why it was there, about what drove d’Esnambuc to plant the French king’s flag there and to bring African slaves by force to the island, not even the tiniest of nods in the direction of reminding us how those slaves at La Pagerie toiled, suffered and died to keep the inhabitants of this fake Normandy farmhouse in the comfort they considered was their birthright.

“Emmanuel” plays with French history as he plays with the forces he tries to manipulate for that future Brigitte is looking forward to sharing. He picks and chooses according to his political needs of the moment. He wants to keep the statue of Colbert, the administrator behind Louis XIV, the 17th Century Sun King, and whose name is associated with the Code Noir, the slavery code, that permitted Joséphine’s parents to brutalise the human beings on their “agricultural exploitation”. It suits his current turn toward to the right.

It has been the same this summer with his posturing over the Great War of 1914-1918 and the Second World War, conflicts that have left memorials in every commune across the land, memorials where some of the many get a walk-on role in the lists of names telling sometimes of all the men in a family consumed in the Flanders trenches.

One for which I have a particular liking is the war memorial in the village of Cotignac in the Var, a department on the Mediterranean shores of France.

It portrays a French poilu or ordinary infantry soldier in his greatcoat, his boots and puttees, with his rucksack, basin, water bottle, rifle and bayonet on his back, peering out from the trench in which he is standing. But underneath his helmet and behind his wide moustache, his look is one of trepidation, if not rank fear. Doubtless, exactly the look on the faces of hundreds of thousands of soldiers, dragged from all parts of the world, just before an officer’s shrill whistle ordered them over the top and to their deaths. That makes for a real memorial, a reminder of what it was like for human beings less fortunate than the rest of us. The model for the statue was a local man, a grandfather, who knew from personal experience what sacrifice and war meant.

The commune at Cotignac

During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, like many towns and villages in what is now France, Cotignac gained a degree of control over its own affairs. A history of the commune published in 1860 (the only one I have been able to find) cites a 1521 contract between the seigneur who had inherited feudal rights over the village and “la communauté” represented by 172 heads of families. This largely finalised the hand over of local power to the commune’s municipal council. The oldest minutes of the council date from 1558. These say the meeting that year was held in the handsome masonry building that is to this day the village town hall.

One reason why the commune was able to assert its independence was the income from the Catholic pilgrims coming to visit a chapel on the spot where a local butcher had a vision of the Virgin Mary in 1519. Pilgrims still come to Cotignac to make the devotional walk up to the chapel, high on a promontory offering an uplifting panorama of la Provence verte.

One hundred and eighteen years later, in 1637, Louis XIV had not yet been conceived despite 23 years of trying by his parents, Louis XIII and Anne of Austria. This threatened a catastrophe for the ruling dynasty. Luckily the Virgin Mary appeared again. A Parisian monk saw her while he was praying and she said that there would be good news soon. As proof, she told him of a painting behind the altar in that chapel at Cotignac.

The court sent word down to the village. Was the painting really as it had appeared in the vision? It was! The Queen felt something move and the Sun King was on his way. When he was six, his mother sent the monk to the chapel to install another painting she had commissioned of Louis handing his crown to the Virgin Mary. In 1660, when he was 21, Louis decided it was time to go there in person.

There was panic in Cotignac when the commune heard he and his entourage had got to Aix-en-Provence. The minute of a meeting on 20 January reports that the council was told their treasury “n’a poinct d’argens” – they were skint. Confiscating grain from some farmers late with payments, they rustled up enough money to send a holding present of 30 capons, ten partridges and 24 sizeable boxes of prunes.

Then on 8 February they learned that the whole cavalcade of the court would be coming to the chapel – royal carriages, carts with all the necessary for a royal life, the same for accompanying aristocrats and courtiers, a detachment of musketeers and 40 gendarmes (yes, they were already on the scene). The commune had to repair the road from Brignoles, nearly 20 miles in all, so that this small army of privilege and power could get to the chapel, as the minutes record, “without being worn out or shaken up”. Those whose lot it was to do that sort of work got it finished in some ten days and the Sun King reached the chapel on 21 February.

All he left behind as thanks for their efforts was a blue ribbon that he put at the feet of a statue of the Virgin Mary. The commune spent months paying off the debt for the road, the feed for the horses, the food for the court, the courtiers and the military. Louis spent the rest of his life cementing in place an absolute monarchy bolstered by an absolutist Catholic faith.

Remembering the chapel forever linked with the miracle of his birth, Louis sent a copy of his marriage contract with the daughter of the Spanish king down to Cotignac along with the accompanying Treaty of the Pyrenees that ended a quarter of a century of warfare between the two crowns. The documents were magnificently bound in leather along with a portrait of Louis and the new queen.

A vigilant revolutionary spotted the portraits and ripped them out.

It took a while but the Revolution came. The chapel was knocked down, the priests sent away, paintings burnt and its library confiscated. A vigilant revolutionary spotted the portraits and ripped them out. The 1860 history says the volume was still there in a nearby public library – minus its two portraits. Imagining that winter toil on the road across many a nasty hump, one can understand the fury behind this destruction.

The only painting that survived was the one that the monk had seen in his vision. Well, perhaps. That history records that the Cotignac mayor at the time said he had cut the picture out of its frame and kept it hidden in his home until Napoleon was Emperor and the chapel was rebuilt on the same spot. But the author has some doubts. “Such at least is the local tradition,” they write. “The freshness of the paint and the general form of the tableau seem to protest against this pious tradition. At the same time it is possible that too complete a restoration, and one badly done, has taken away from this painting the cachet of antiquity that should have been preserved at all costs.”

This tableau, whether from the sixteenth century or later, is still there in the chapel, brightly restored once again and available to visitors in a 1€ postcard version along with pots of jam made from local plums.

While Louis was enforcing an increasingly centralised authoritarian rule on France that brooked no diversity, he was also, often very personally, involved in promoting the development of the Caribbean sugar slave colonies. Martinique was the advanced guard for this. It was there that the content of the Code Noir was crafted and the primary resources for a worldwide French empire generated.

At least one can accept that most of the war memorials of the last century were intended to commemorate sacrifice, not domination. Even so, the latter creeps in regularly. Mort pour la France en Algérie, Died for France in Algeria, can head a short supplement on the memorial. That on the Cotignac memorial for this brutal climax to French colonialism is just two names under the coy heading AFN. The initials stand for Afrique française du nord, that is Algeria.

Asking permission

Where we live in the very centre of Paris, many streets that have been given the name of one or other colonial military figure who took part in occupying Algeria. Particularly ironic, given that French soldiers are still dying in the Sahara, is the Avenue du Général-Laperrine where the little blue street nameplate tells you that he was “Pacificateur du Sahara”.

A couple of paces from the start of this avenue, is a monument to the exploit of the then Captain Jean-Baptiste Marchand. Starting from the French colony of Congo Brazzaville, he had taken a French military expedition north and east to Fashoda in what is now the Southern Sudan, arriving there in the summer of 1898 after a journey of eighteen months. The monument records a French defeat (the British forced France to accept that Sudan was not for the French) and only went up in time for his death soon after the great 1931 colonial exhibition in Paris, a riot of racism of the rankest kind.

When a group of activists tried to hold a protest march this July visiting several of the imperial and colonial monuments around Paris they were blocked at that object in memory of Marchand’s attempted conquest. The police commander explained that the group had not sought permission for their march. One wonders if the slightest glimmer in that officer’s brain explored the idiocy of such a proposition, given that the idea of asking anyone’s permission was something neither Marchand nor the ministers back in Paris ever concerned themselves with when it came to his long parade through other people’s lands.

A bitter irony is that museums across France are full of valued objects removed from their original sites in order to protect them from the ravages of time and from potential harm caused by members of the public: it may be an old painting, a chasuble from pre-Renaissance times, or some wooden wall panelling from an aristocratic pile. Yet when it is proposed to protect members of the public from those monuments that glorify leaders responsible for past crimes against humanity, monuments which serve only to legitimise present prejudices, all Presidential hell breaks loose.

Modest memorials

Go north and west from Cotignac and the hills of la Provence verte stretch for a good few miles, dominated by the isolated humps of the Gros et Petit Bessillon. Today, all is covered by pine forests and dry undergrowth of rosemary, broom and brambles where the incessant rhythmic calls of the cicadas and the hissing of the mistral wind through the trees can drown out all other sounds.

Was it like that on 27 July 1944 when the Wehrmacht went out to eliminate the Maquis established on the Bessillon? Hard to tell, as this whole area is laced with old stone terraces and walls under the carpet of trees and scrub. Humans worked this harsh but fertile land long before a German soldier shot Léon Gérard that day on the southern slope of the Gros Bessillon. How much the forest had already taken back from olive groves and orchards of plum, peach and quince is obscure, even in the memories of the oldest in the village.

Deep into this tangle of woods, a wild, rough, stone and mud track – carrying the absurdly prestigious name of RN100 – takes you eventually to a large upland vineyard. Half way along, if you keep your eyes peeled, you’ll see a low slab of concrete with a white notice bolted on and announcing “A 200 mètres Stèle F.T.P.F Léon Gérard”. This July, in a dry, searing heat, mid the rich odour of pine and rosemary, we made our way to his modest memorial.

A liaison agent for the Franc Tireurs et Partisans, the Communist-led Résistance organisation, Gérard was 33 when he died. Others of his comrades were killed by the Nazis on the far side of the hill. A fortnight later Cotignac was free from the Occupation and its Vichy collaborators.

There was no Tissot to hastily sketch Gérard’s final moments…

There was no Tissot to hastily sketch Gérard’s final moments, nor was there, so far as I know, for any other Résistance victims of the Nazis. There is just a host of small memorials, some deep in woods, others pinned to a wall in one street or other. At one junction of narrow streets in the old centre of Cotignac you can see screwed on either side of the same house corner, the names of both. On one wall: Rue Gabriel Philis, Mort pour la France le 27 juillet 1944 au Bessillon. And on the other: Rue Léon Gérard, Mort pour la France le 27 juillet 1944 au Bessillon.

One can hope that future generations seeing those plaques will want to ask who were these two, what brought them to their deaths, to stop and think for a while about how the sacrifice of two ordinary individuals, among now nameless millions of others, has stopped the modern world from being as bad as it would otherwise have been. If they do, it will be a sign that some people are still capable of behaving in ways that deserve a monument or a memorial here or there.

As for me, every time I see the Sacré-Coeur now, I have in my mind’s eye the image created by James Tissot as he watched one after the other, those Communards marched to their deaths.

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