The Trial of Louise Michel – Paris Commune 1871
The stunning gazetted report of the trial of Louise Michel, along with her testimony, for her involvement in the 1871 Paris Commune as a pétroleuse.
This version is translated by Jade Maître and shareable under a Creative Commons 4.0 license.
REVIEW OF THE COURTS Gazette.
VIth COUNCIL OF WAR (standing at Versailles).
PRESIDENCY OF M. DELAPORTE, COLONEL OF THE 12th HUNTERS ON HORSEBACK Audience of December 16, 1871.
If it was not enough that the Commune did not have enough people to defend itself from the devoted men who made up the National Guard, it instituted regiments of children under the name of “Wards of the Commune”. It furthermore wanted to organise a “Battalion of Amazons”, and while this body was not constituted, women were observed who wore a military costume – fanciful, more or less – and carried a carbine on their shoulders, preceding the battalions which went to the ramparts.
Among those who seem to have exerted a considerable influence in certain quarters, we noticed Louise Michel, ex-teacher at the Batignolles, who never ceased to show boundless devotion to the insurrectionary government. Louise Michel is thirty-six years old, brunette, with a very developed forehead, then abruptly receding from the very prominent nose and lower face. Her lines reveal extreme hardness. She is dressed entirely in black. Her exaltation is the same as in the first days of her captivity, and when they brought her before the council, she suddenly raised her veil, gazing fixedly at her judges.
Captain Dailly occupies the seat of the public ministry. Monsieur Haussmann, appointed ex officio, assists the accused, who, however, declared to refuse the assistance of any lawyer.
Mr. Clerk Duplan reads the following report:
It was in 1870, on the occasion of the death of Victor Noir, that Louise Michel began to display her revolutionary ideas. An obscure teacher, almost without pupils, it is not possible for us to know what her relations were then, and the origins that could be attributed to her in what would culminate in the monstrous attack which terrified our unfortunate country. It is probably useless to recount the incidents of March 18 in full, and as a starting point for the accusation, we will limit ourselves to specifying the part played by Louise Michel in the bloody drama of which the Montmartre hills and the rue des Rosiers were the theatre.
She was an accomplice in the arrest of the unfortunate Generals Lecomte and Clement Thomas. She feared that the two victims would escape her. “Don’t let them go!” she shouted with all her might to the miserable people around them.
And later, when the murder was accomplished, in the presence, so to speak, of the mutilated corpses, she testified all her joy for the spilled blood and dared to proclaim “that it is well done.” Then, radiant and satisfied with her good day, she went to Belleville and La Villette, to make sure “that these districts remained armed”.
On the 19th, she returned home, after having taken the precaution of stripping herself of the federales uniform which could compromise her; but she felt the need to talk a little about events with her concierge.
“Ah!” she exclaimed, “If Clemenceau had arrived a few moments earlier in the rue des Rosiers, the generals would not have been shot, because he would have opposed it, being on the side of the Versaillaise.” Finally “the hour of the advent of the people has sounded”, she said.
Paris, in the power of foreigners and rascals who had come running from all corners of the world, proclaimed the Commune. As the Secretary of the so-called “Moralisation of Workers Through Work” Society, Louise Michel organised the famous Central Committee of the Women’s Union, as well as the Vigilance Committees responsible for recruiting ambulance workers and, at the supreme moment, women workers for the barricades; perhaps even arsonists.
A copy of a manifesto found at the Town Hall of the 10th arrondissement indicates the role she played in the said committees during the last days of the struggle. Let us reproduce this text verbatim:
“In the name of the social revolution that we acclaim, in the name of the demand for labor rights, equality and justice, the Union of Women for the Defense of Paris and the Care of the Wounded protests with all its might.
This reflects the illustrative proclamation to the citizens, posted the day before yesterday and emanating from a group of reactionaries.
The said proclamation states that the women of Paris appeal to the generosity of Versailles and demand peace at all costs.
No, it is not peace, but outright war that the workers of Paris come to demand.
Today a conciliation would be a betrayal. This would be to deny all the working-class aspirations acclaiming absolute social renewal, the annihilation of all legal and social relations currently existing, the suppression of all privileges, of all exploitations, the substitution of the reign of labor for that of capital; in one word, the freeing of the worker by himself.
Six months of suffering and betrayal during the siege, six weeks of gigantic struggles against the allied exploiters, the floods of blood shed for the cause of freedom, are our titles to glory and vengeance!
The present struggle can only have as its outcome the triumph of the popular cause. Paris will not retreat, because it carries the flag of the future. The supreme hour has sounded. A place for the workers! Bring back their executioners! Deeds! Energy!
The tree of freedom grows, watered by the blood of its enemies!
All united and resolute, amplified and enlightened by the suffering that social crises entail in their wake, deeply convinced that the Commune, representing the international and revolutionary principles of the peoples, carries within it the seeds of social revolution, the women of Paris will prove to France and to the world that they too will, at the moment of supreme danger, run to the barricades, on the ramparts of Paris, if the reaction forces the doors. That they will give, like their brothers, their blood and their life for the defence and the triumph of the Commune, that is to say, for the people! Then victorious, able to unite and agree on their common interests, workers and workers, all united by a last effort. (This last sentence remains unfinished.)
Long live the Universal Republic! Long live the Commune!”
Combining all these jobs, she ran a school at rue Oudot, 24. There, from the height of her pulpit, she professed, in her rare leisure time, the doctrines of free thought, and made her young pupils sing the poems that had fallen from her pen, among others the song entitled: Les Vengeurs.
As the President of the Revolution Club, held at the Church of Saint Bernard, Louise Michel was responsible for the vote returned in the session of May 48 (2nd floréal year LXXIX), and for having the goal of “The suppression of the magistrature, the annihilation of the Codes, their replacement by a commission of justice; the suppression of worship; the immediate arrest of priests; the sale of their property and that of fugitives and traitors who supported the wretched of Versailles; the execution of a hostage every twenty-four hours, until the release and arrival in Paris of citizen Blanqui, appointed member of the Commune.”
It was not enough, however, for this ardent soul, as the author of this fanciful notice which appears in the file, to stir up the populace, to applaud the assassinations, to corrupt the childhoods of children, to preach a fratricidal struggle, to verbally support all these crimes: it was still necessary to give the example in person!
We thus also find her at Issy, Clamart and Montmartre, fighting in the front rank, firing the shots or rallying the fugitives.
Le Cri du Peuple attests to this in its April 14 issue: “Citizen Louise Michel, who fought valiantly at Moulinaux, was wounded at Fort Issy. Very fortunately, we hasten to recognise, this heroine of Jules Vallès came out of this brilliant affair with a simple sprain.”
What was the motive that pushed Louise Michel down the fatal path of politics and revolution?
It is obviously pride.
An illegitimate daughter brought up by charity, instead of thanking Providence which had given her a superior education and the means to live happily with her mother, she gave way to her exalted imagination, her irascible character and, after having broken with her benefactors, running the adventure in Paris.
The wind of your Revolution is beginning to blow. Victor Noir has just died. It’s time to enter the scene, but the role of sidekick is repugnant to Louise Michel; her name must strike public attention and figure prominently in deceptive proclamations and advertisements.
It only remains for us to give the legal qualification to the acts committed by this fanatic since the beginning of the terrible crisis that France has just gone through until the end of the impious fight in which she took part in the middle of the graves of the Montmartre cemetery.
She assisted, with knowledge, the authors of the arrest of Generals Lecomte and Clément Thomas in the facts which consumed her, and this arrest was followed by bodily torture and the death of these two unfortunate people.
Intimately connected with the members of the Commune, she knew all their plans in advance. She helped them with all her might, with all her will; much more, she assisted them and often she exceeded them. She offered them to go to Versailles and assassinate the President of the Republic, in order to terrify the Assembly and, according to her, to put an end to the struggle. She is as guilty as “Ferré the proud Republican,” whom she defends in such a strange way, and whose stubbornness, to use her expression, “is a challenge to consciences, and the response, a revolution.”
She aroused the passions of the crowd, preached war without mercy or truce and, a wolf greedy for blood, she provoked the death of the hostages with her infernal machinations.
Consequently, our opinion is that Louise Michel should be put on trial for
1° Attack intending to change the government;
2° Attack intended to stir up civil war by inducing citizens to arm themselves against each other;
3° For having, in an insurrectional movement, carried visible weapons and a military uniform, and using these weapons;
4° Forgery in private writing by assuming the identity of other persons;
5° Use of a forged document;
6° Complicity by provocation and plot to assassinate persons supposedly held as hostages by the Commune;
7° Complicity in illegal arrests, followed by bodily torture and death, and assisting the perpetrators, with knowledge of the action in the facts that consummated it.
Crimes provided for by articles 87, 91, 150, 151, 59, 60, 302, 341, 344 of the penal code and 5 of the law of May 24, 1834.
EXAMINATION OF THE ACCUSED.
Mr. President – You have heard the facts of which you are accused. What do you have to say in your defence?
The accused – I don’t want to defend myself, I don’t want to be defended; I belong entirely to the social revolution, and I declare that I accept responsibility for all my acts. I accept it completely and without restriction. You reproach me for having participated in the assassination of the generals? To that, I would answer yes, if I had found myself in Montmartre when they wanted to fire on the people; I would not have hesitated to shoot those who gave similar orders myself, but when they were prisoners, I do not understand why they were shot, and I regard this act as a sign of cowardice. As for the fire from Paris, yes, I took part. I wanted to prevent the Versailles Invaders with a barrier of flames. I have no accomplices for this fact; I acted on my own initiative.
I am also told that I am an accomplice of the Commune! Assuredly yes, since the Commune wanted above all the social revolution, and the social revolution is the dearest of my wishes. Moreover, I do myself the honour of being one of the promoters of the Commune, which moreover had nothing, nothing, as we know well, in the assassinations and the fires. I attended all meetings at the Hôtel de Ville, and I declare that there was never any discussions of assassinations or arson. Do you want to know the real culprits? It was the people in the police department, and perhaps later, the light will shine on all these events for which today it is quite natural to blame all the partisans of the social revolution.
One day, I proposed to Ferré to invade the Assembly. I wanted two victims, M. Thiers and myself, because I had made the decision to sacrifice of my life, and I had decided to strike him.
Mr. President – In a proclamation, you said that every twenty-four hours a hostage was to be shot?
The accused – No, I only wanted to threaten. But why would I defend myself? I have already declared it to you, I refuse to do so. You are men who are going to judge me; you are in front of me with your face uncovered; you are men, and I am only a woman, and yet I look you in the face.
I know very well that anything I can say to you will in no way change your sentence. So just one last word before I sit down. We have never wanted anything but the triumph of the great principles of the Revolution; I swear it by our martyrs who fell on the field of Satory; by our martyrs whom I still acclaim here loudly, and who one day will indeed find an avenger.
Once again, I belong to you; do with me what you will. Take my life if you want it; I am not the woman to dispute it with you for a single moment.
Mr. President – You declare that you could not have approved of the assassination of the generals, and yet it is said that, when you heard about it, you exclaimed “We shot them, it was well done.”
The accused – Yes, I said that, I admit it. (I even remember that it was in the presence of citizens Le Moussu and Ferré.)
Mr. President – So you approved of the assassination?
The accused – With respect, saying something is not proof. The purpose of my words was to advance the revolutionary momentum.
Mr. President – You also wrote in the newspapers; in Le Cri du Peuple, for example?
The accused – Yes, I make no bones about it.
Mr. President – These newspapers made daily calls for the confiscation of clerical property and similar revolutionary measures. Such, then, were your opinions?
The accused – Indeed; but note well that we never wanted to take these goods for ourselves. Our only thought was to give them to the people for their well-being.
Mr. President – You asked for the abolition of the magistracy?
The accused – It was because I always had examples of its errors before my eyes. I remembered the Lesurques case and so many others.
Mr. President – Do you admit that you wanted to assassinate Mr. Thiers?
The accused – Perfectly. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again.
Mr. President – It seems that you wore various costumes under the Commune?
The accused – I was dressed as usual; I only added a red belt on my clothes.
Mr. President – Didn’t you wear men’s clothing several times?
The accused – Only once, it was on March 18, when I dressed as a national guard, so as not to attract attention.
Few witnesses have been summoned, the facts alleged against Louise Michel not being opposed by her.
First we hear the testimony of the Poulain woman, a merchant.
Mr. President – Did you know the accused? Do you know what her political ideas were?
The witness – Yes, Mr. Chairman, and she made no secret of it. She was very exalted, you only saw her in the clubs; she also wrote in the newspapers.
Mr. President – You heard her say about the assassination of the generals, “It’s well done.”
The witness – Yes, Mr. President.
The accused – But I admitted the fact. It is useless for witnesses to come and certify it.
The testimony of the wife of Botin, a painter.
Mr. President – Didn’t Louise Michel denounce one of your brothers to force him to serve in the National Guard?
The witness – Yes, Mr. President.
The accused – The witness had a brother, I thought he was brave and I wanted him to serve the Commune.
Mr. President (to the witness) – You saw the accused one day in a car walking among the guards and giving them queen’s salutes, according to your expression?
The witness – Yes, Mr. President.
The accused – But that can’t be true, because I wouldn’t want to imitate those queens we talk about, and whom I would like to see all beheaded like Marie-Antoinette. The truth is that I had simply gotten into the car because I suffered from a sprain which was the result of a fall in Issy.
The wife of Pompon, concierge, repeats all that we already know of the account of the accused. She knew her to be very exalted.
Cécile Denéziat, without a profession, knew the accused very well.
Mr. President – Did you see her dressed as a national guard?
The witness – Yes, once, around the 17th of March.
Mr. President – Was she carrying a rifle?
The witness – I said that, but I don’t quite remember that fact.
Mr. President – Did you see her driving around in the middle of the National Guards?
The witness – Yes, Mr. President, but I don’t remember exactly the details of that fact.
Mr. President – You have also already said that you thought she was of the highest rank when Generals Clément Thomas and Lecomte were assassinated?
The witness – I was only repeating what was said around me.
Captain Dailly takes the floor. He asks the council to cut the accused off from society, as she is a continual danger to it. He drops the accusation on all counts, except on that of bearing arms, apparent or concealed, in an insurrectional movement.
Mr. Haussman, to whom the floor is then given, declares that in view of the formal wish of the accused not to be defended, he simply relies on the wisdom of counsel.
Mr. President – Accused, do you have anything to say for your defence?
The accused – What I claim from you, you who affirm yourselves Council of War, who present yourselves as my judges, who do not hide yourselves like the Commission of Pardons; you who are soldiers and who judge in the face of all: what I ask for is the field of Satory, where our brothers have already fallen.
I must cut myself off from society; you are told to do so. Well, the Commissioner of the Republic is right. Since it seems that every heart that beats for freedom is only entitled to a little lead, me, I claim my part! If you let me live, I will not stop crying revenge, and I will denounce the assassins of the commission of pardons to the revenge of my brothers.
Mr. President – I cannot give you the floor if you continue in this tone.
The accused – I’m done. If you are not cowards, kill me.
After these words, which caused deep emotion in the audience, the council retired to deliberate. At the end of a few moments, they returned to the session, and, according to the terms of the verdict, Louise Michel was unanimously condemned to deportation to a fortified enclosure.
The accused was brought back and informed of the judgment. When the clerk told her that she had twenty-four hours to appeal she exclaimed, “No! There is no appeal; but I would prefer death !”
COMMENTS of Louise Michel
I will limit myself to pointing out a few errors.
1° I was not brought up by charity, but by my grandparents, who thought it right to do so. I left Vroncourt only after their death, and to prepare for my teacher’s diploma; I thought I could be useful to my mother in this way.
2° The number of my pupils in Montmartre was one hundred and fifty. This was noted by the Town Hall at the time of the Siege.
3° Perhaps it is not useless to say that contrary to the description of my person made at the beginning of the report of the Gazette of the courts, I am tall rather than small; it is good, in the times in which we live, to pass only for oneself.