Louise Michel was a school teacher and important figure in the 1871 Paris Commune. As the owner of an independent school in Paris at the end of Louis-Napoleon’s Second Empire, she became involved in the political clubs and support groups which emerged in response to the poverty, hunger and powerlessness of the working class at that time. By the time of the 1870 Prussian Siege, which saw Paris starved for four long months, Louise fed and taught hundreds of students at her school, often without accepting payment, where she encouraged them with pet turtles, role-play, textural alphabets and musical methods to enhance their learning.

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When Paris experienced a ‘peaceful revolution’ on the birth of the Paris Commune on 18 March 1871, Louise threw herself with devoted passion into creating the new world that the Commune promised. She proposed the secular education of girls, who until then, had mostly been given only a religious education in convents, if they were educated at all. She also wanted parent-teacher interviews, to ensure children were learning in the best way for them; equal pay for women and men teachers; the establishment of practical apprenticeships and training for women who had just left school, and the incorporation of the disabled into mainstream education.

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When the Versailles government attacked the Commune in April 1871, Louise donned a men’s uniform and fought as a soldier on a number of the battlefronts. She also nursed injured soldiers at the same time, and provided services for the hungry and wounded in her capacity as the head of the Women’s Montmartre Vigilance Committee (she was also a devoted member of the Men’s!) When the troops entered Paris and began its slaughter of citizens, she fought until the very end, and when she discovered her mother had been taken by troops, offered herself in place of her mother, where she was marched to the women’s prison at Versailles.

During the infamous Pétroleuse trials, Louise was identified as a dangerous warning against the follies of educating women. She was accused of having influenced poor, lesser-educated women to fight for the Commune and set fire to Paris.

Louise chose to represent herself at her own military trial, where she was accused of:

  • Attempting to overthrow the Government
  • Instigating civil war through encouraging citizens to arm themselves against each other
  • Having carried and used visible weapons and worn a military uniform,
  • Forgery and the use of false documents, and
  • Complicity in the assassination of the hostages of the Commune

She accepted responsibility for having set fire to the whole of Paris herself, and requested the death penalty, but was instead exiled to New Caledonia. You can read the stunning transcript of her trial here.

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Louise was transported to New Caledonia on The Virginie in 1872. While there, she embraced the local Kanak culture, becoming close friends with the local chief Ataï. She composed a collection of their fairy tales and legends, and recorded the first French-Kanak dictionary. She also consistently took the side of the Kanaks against the French colonists, and encouraged the Kanaks to revolt against France, which upset a number of her fellow Communards and the penal administration alike.

Louise Michel was granted amnesty in 1880. By this time she had become an anarchist, possibly through her close relationship with Nathalie Lemel, who was known to espouse anarchist principles, although just as possibly it was also through her experience of the Paris Commune injustices ten years before.

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When Louise returned to France she became famous as an anarchist. Her use of a black flag at a demonstration in Paris in March 1883 was also the earliest known of what would become known as the anarchy black flag. She faced further imprisonment for her involvement in a bread riot, which saw her in solitary confinement for several years. The experience was extremely traumatic for her, but she used some of the time to write her memoirs, along with a number of other works, including a science fiction novel.