Louise Michel: The Grande Dame Of Anarchy

Louise Michel: The Grande Dame Of Anarchy

Jeanette Lamb - March 3, 2017

In many ways, Louise Michel was an ordinary woman. She was a school teacher, medical worker, and she supported her local community. What set Louise Michel apart from other French women during her lifetime was that she was also an anarchist.

Louise Michel: The Grande Dame Of Anarchy
The arrest of Louise Michel in May 1871. Public Domain

Louise was born the illegitimate daughter of a servant in 1830. Her paternal grandparents shared the responsibility of raising her. During Louise’s education, she was drawn toward traditional French folklore, customs, and myths. Eventually, she was trained as a teacher, which is when her rogue disposition began to emerge. Teaching history, she purposely left Napoleon III out of her lessons. The act made Michel ineligible to teach at state schools, which only seemed to fuel her contempt toward the French leader — she did not revere any part of French culture that absorbed Bonapartist ties. The lack of admiration for the French leader spurred rumors that she desired for Napoleon to be assassinated. She was not alone with her wishes.

France at that time was deeply divided between extreme liberal and conservative ideals. Parliamentary election outcomes only intensified divisions. Overall, Napoleon III won over 4 million votes, and the republican opposition won over 3 million. However, in Paris, the republican win was significant (enough to be suspect). They took over 200,000 votes to the Bonapartist Party’s meager 77,000.

For Michel, this made teaching in a rural, Bonapartist-leaning region hard for her to find a teaching position that suited her outlook. She soon found herself in the Montmartre quarter of Paris, where she was able to teach and explore her points of views passionately. At this time in her life, she began to study revolutionary politics in detail. She also became a member of a radical socialist revolutionary government: La Commune de Paris also called, Paris Commune.

Background: Paris Commune

France was ruled by the Third Republic who were actively at war with Prussia. Meanwhile, the Paris Commune ordered the government of Paris, from March 18 to May 28, 1871, following the defeat of Napoleon III. At that time, the city was steeped in multiple firestorms that may have been reflective of the country as a whole: radical working-class political movements were forming, dissolving, and re-emerging all over the city, which was a little like the Wild West.

Paris was not under the protection of the army, who were disarmed as a result of an armistice with Prussia. The National Guard did not lose their arms and therefore took over where the army could not. The National Guard’s members were mostly made from individuals associated with the Paris Commune. Not surprisingly, the Commune did not take long to go their direction. The rogue, armed, radicals killed two army generals, which set a series of events into action that ended in heated political debates.

The Paris Years, Trial and Deportation

In addition to the Commune, Michel joined a feminist group, Société pour la Revendication du Droit des Femmes. Any hopes of meeting like-minded women through the group were quickly dashed. The women’s opinions were so widely varied; they restricted themselves to the topic of education for girls and nothing else. Fortunately for Michel, the group’s narrow scope did not distract her from pursuing other interests. She was more of a doer rather than a passively interested spectator. She began working as an ambulance driver.

Not surprisingly, this soon overlapped with her teaching interest and soon she began sharing her ideas about resistance in context to the Franco-Prussian war. She became a member of the National Guard, which was like going full circle. Her intense political opinions could only be matched by her actions. She proposed to the group that she assassinate the President of the French Republic. His murder would cause chaos and lead to the destruction of Paris. Other members of the group were up in arms, lamenting over the loss of Theophile Ferre who had been executed in November of 1871.

Ferre and Michel were both members of the Commune. Ferre was acting on behalf of a decree the Commune passed giving them the authority to arrest anyone they suspected of being loyal to the French government in Versailles. Several hundred were arrested and held captive, including an archbishop. The commune plotted to exchange some of those they had arrested for political allies they wanted to set free.

Louise Michel: The Grande Dame Of Anarchy
Theopile Ferre. Wikipedia

The French government would not agree to the exchange and soon had Paris surrounded. Fighting between the National Guard and French government went on for a week. It was during this time, Ferre was appointed to the position of prosecutor. Using his authority, he ordered six of the hostages the Commune was holding captive be executed. When Ferre was later captured by the French government, he was tried and sentenced to death.

To mark the occasion, Louise read a Victor Hugo poem, The Red Carnation. When Hugo heard about the event, he in turn wrote and dedicated a poem to Michel, Viro Major. Many speculate Michel and Ferre were deeply in love as a result of their shared radical views and dedication to the revolutionary fight. Following Ferre’s death, Michel was arrested and charged with attempting to overthrow the government. To solidify the accusation, she was accused of wearing a military uniform, carry a weapon and encouraging ordinary citizens to arm themselves. She was found guilty and served 20 months in prison and was sentenced to deportation.

During her trial, she provoked the court by swearing her eternal allegiance to the Commune. She also swore vengeance. The press loved her colorful story and outspoken demeanor. They dubbed her, “la Louve rouge, la Bonne Louise” (the red she-wolf, the good Louise). While being deported to New Caledonia, she met Henri Rochefort and Nathalie Lemel, who may have influenced her into finally becoming an anarchist. After seven years, she organized a revolt and caused a stir everywhere she went. Still, Michel was authorized to teach in Noumea, which she did until 1880, when she was allowed to return to France. Upon arriving back, she traveled to Paris and began giving public speeches.

In 1881, she was back in full revolutionary mode. In London, she led demonstrations before traveling throughout France encouraging anarchism and revolution. She overstepped a line after she led a mass of protestors to pillage a bakery. The audacious behavior landed her back in prison for six years; she was released and picked up where she left off. However, by this time Michel had made a lot of enemies. Rumors that it was being considered to put her in an asylum worried Michel enough that she relocated to England. During the Dreyfus Affair, she began splitting her time between England and France, where she eventually died while on a lecture tour on January 10, 1905.