On 2 September 1870, after France's unexpected defeat at the Battle of Sedan in the Franco-Prussian War, Emperor Napoleon III surrendered to the Prussian Chancellor Otto von Bismarck. When the news reached Paris the next day, shocked and angry crowds came out into the streets. Empress Eugénie de Montijo, the Emperor's wife and acting Regent at the time, fled the city, and the Government of the Second Empire swiftly collapsed. Republican and radical deputies of the National Assembly went to the Hôtel de Ville, proclaimed the new French Republic, and formed a Government of National Defence. Though the Emperor and the French Army had been defeated at Sedan, the war continued. The German army marched swiftly toward Paris.
In 1871 France was deeply divided between the large rural, Catholic and conservative population of the French countryside and the more republican and radical cities of Paris, Marseille, Lyon and a few others. In the first round of the 1869 parliamentary elections held under the French Empire, 4,438,000 had voted for the Bonapartist candidates supporting Napoleon III, while 3,350,000 had voted for the republican opposition. In Paris, however, the republican candidates dominated, winning 234,000 votes against 77,000 for the Bonapartists.
Of the 2 million people in Paris in 1869, according to the official census, there were about 500,000 industrial workers, or fifteen per cent of all the industrial workers in France, plus another 300,000-400,000 workers in other enterprises. Only about 40,000 were employed in factories and large enterprises; most were employed in small industries in textiles, furniture and construction. There were also 115,000 servants and 45,000 concierges. In addition to the native French population, there were about 100,000 immigrant workers and political refugees, the largest number being from Italy and Poland.
During the war and the siege of Paris, various members of the middle- and upper-classes departed the city; at the same time there was an influx of refugees from parts of France occupied by the Germans. The working class and immigrants suffered the most from the lack of industrial activity due to the war and the siege; they formed the bedrock of the Commune's popular support.
Radicalisation of the Paris workers
The Commune resulted in part from growing discontent among the Paris workers. This discontent can be traced to the first worker uprisings, the Canut revolts, in Lyon and Paris in the 1830s (a canut was a Lyonnais silk worker, often working on Jacquard looms). Many Parisians, especially workers and the lower-middle classes, supported a democratic republic. A specific demand was that Paris should be self-governing with its own elected council, something enjoyed by smaller French towns but denied to Paris by a national government wary of the capital's unruly populace. They also wanted a more "just" way of managing the economy, if not necessarily socialist, summed up in the popular appeal for "la république démocratique et sociale!" ("the democratic and social republic!").
Socialist movements, such as the First International, had been growing in influence with hundreds of societies affiliated to it across France. In early 1867, Parisian employers of bronze-workers attempted to de-unionise their workers. This was defeated by a strike organised by the International. Later in 1867, an illegal public demonstration in Paris was answered by the legal dissolution of its executive committee and the leadership being fined. Tensions escalated: Internationalists elected a new committee and put forth a more radical program, the authorities imprisoned their leaders, and a more revolutionary perspective was taken to the International's 1868 Brussels Congress. The International had considerable influence even among unaffiliated French workers, particularly in Paris and the big towns.
The killing of journalist Victor Noir incensed Parisians, and the arrests of journalists critical of the Emperor did nothing to quiet the city. A coup was attempted in early 1870, but tensions eased significantly after the plebiscite in May. The war with Prussia, initiated by Napoleon III in July, was initially met with patriotic fervour.
Radicals and revolutionaries
Louis Auguste Blanqui
, leader of the Commune's far-left faction, was imprisoned for the entire time of the Commune.
Paris is the traditional home of French radical movements. Revolutionaries had gone into the streets to oppose their governments during the popular uprisings of July 1830 and June 1848, and on many other occasions.
Of the radical and revolutionary groups in Paris at the time of the Commune, the most conservative were the "radical republicans". This group included the young doctor and future prime minister Georges Clemenceau, who was a member of the National Assembly and Mayor of the 18th arrondissement. Clemenceau tried to negotiate a compromise between the Commune and the government, but neither side trusted him; he was considered extremely radical by the provincial deputies of rural France, but too moderate by the leaders of the Commune.
The most extreme revolutionaries in Paris were the followers of Louis Auguste Blanqui, a charismatic professional revolutionary who had spent most of his adult life in prison. He had about a thousand followers, many of them armed and organized into cells of ten persons each. Each cell operated independently and was unaware of the members of the other groups, communicating only with their leaders by code. Blanqui had written a manual on revolution, Instructions for an Armed Uprising, to give guidance to his followers. Though their numbers were small, the Blanquists provided many of the most disciplined soldiers and several of the senior leaders of the Commune.
Defenders of Paris
By 20 September 1870, the German army had surrounded Paris and was camped just 2,000 metres (6,600 ft) from the French front lines. The regular French Army in Paris, under General Trochu's command, had only 50,000 professional soldiers of the line; the majority of the French first-line soldiers were prisoners of war, or trapped in Metz, surrounded by Germans. The regulars were thus supported by around 5,000 firemen, 3,000 gendarmes, and 15,000 sailors. The regulars were also supported by the Garde Mobile, new recruits with little training or experience. 17,000 of them were Parisian, and 73,000 from the provinces. These included twenty battalions of men from Brittany, who spoke little French.
The largest armed force in Paris was the Garde Nationale, or National Guard, numbering about 300,000 men. They also had very little training or experience. They were organised by neighbourhoods; those from the upper- and middle-class arrondissements tended to support the national government, while those from the working-class neighbourhoods were far more radical and politicised. Guardsmen from many units were known for their lack of discipline; some units refused to wear uniforms, often refused to obey orders without discussing them, and demanded the right to elect their own officers. The members of the National Guard from working-class neighbourhoods became the main armed force of the Commune.
Siege of Paris; first demonstrations
led several thousand National Guard soldiers to march to the Hotel de Ville chanting 'Long Live the Commune!".
As the Germans surrounded the city, radical groups saw that the Government of National Defence had few soldiers to defend itself, and launched the first demonstrations against it. On 19 September, National Guard units from the main working-class neighbourhoods—Belleville, Menilmontant, La Villette, Montrouge, the Faubourg Saint-Antoine, and the Faubourg du Temple—marched to the centre of the city and demanded that a new government, a Commune, be elected. They were met by regular army units loyal to the Government of National Defence, and the demonstrators eventually dispersed peacefully. On 5 October, 5,000 protesters marched from Belleville to the Hotel de Ville, demanding immediate municipal elections and rifles. On 8 October, several thousand soldiers from the National Guard, led by Eugène Varlin of the First International, marched to the centre chanting 'Long Live the Commune!", but they also dispersed without incident.
Later in October, General Louis Jules Trochu launched a series of armed attacks to break the German siege, with heavy losses and no success. The telegraph line connecting Paris with the rest of France had been cut by the Germans on 27 September. On 6 October, Defense Minister Léon Gambetta departed the city by balloon to try to organise national resistance against the Germans.
Uprising of 31 October
Revolutionary units of the National Guard briefly seized the Hotel de Ville on 31 October 1870, but the uprising failed.
On 28 October, the news arrived in Paris that the 160,000 soldiers of the French army at Metz, which had been surrounded by the Germans since August, had surrendered. The news arrived the same day of the failure of another attempt by the French army to break the siege of Paris at Bourget, with heavy losses. On 31 October, the leaders of the main revolutionary groups in Paris, including Blanqui, Félix Pyat and Louis Charles Delescluze, called new demonstrations at the Hotel de Ville against General Trochu and the government. Fifteen thousand demonstrators, some of them armed, gathered in front of the Hôtel de Ville in pouring rain, calling for the resignation of Trochu and the proclamation of a commune. Shots were fired from the Hôtel de Ville, one narrowly missing Trochu, and the demonstrators crowded into the building, demanding the creation of a new government, and making lists of its proposed members.
Blanqui, the leader of the most radical faction, established his own headquarters at the nearby Prefecture of the Seine, issuing orders and decrees to his followers, intent upon establishing his own government. While the formation of the new government was taking place inside the Hôtel de Ville, however, units of the National Guard and Garde Mobile loyal to General Trochu arrived and recaptured the building without violence. By three o'clock, the demonstrators had been given safe passage and left, and the brief uprising was over.
On 3 November, city authorities organized a plebiscite of Parisian voters, asking if they had confidence in the Government of National Defense. "Yes" votes totalled 557,996, while 62,638 voted "no". Two days later, municipal councils in each of the twenty arrondissements of Paris voted to elect mayors; five councils elected radical opposition candidates, including Delescluze and a young Montmartrean doctor, Georges Clemenceau.
Negotiations with the Germans; continued war
In September and October Adolphe Thiers, the leader of the National Assembly conservatives, had toured Europe, consulting with the foreign ministers of Britain, Russia, and Austria, and found that none of them were willing to support France against the Germans. He reported to the Government that there was no alternative to negotiating an armistice. He travelled to German-occupied Tours and met with Bismarck on 1 November. The Chancellor demanded the cession of all of Alsace, parts of Lorraine, and enormous reparations. The Government of National Defense decided to continue the war and raise a new army to fight the Germans. The newly organized French armies won a single victory at Coulmiers on 10 November, but an attempt by General Auguste-Alexandre Ducrot on 29 November at Villiers to break out of Paris was defeated with a loss of 4,000 soldiers, compared with 1,700 German casualties.
Everyday life for Parisians became increasingly difficult during the siege. In December temperatures dropped to −15 °C (5 °F), and the Seine froze for three weeks. Parisians suffered shortages of food, firewood, coal and medicine. The city was almost completely dark at night. The only communication with the outside world was by balloon, carrier pigeon, or letters packed in iron balls floated down the Seine. Rumors and conspiracy theories abounded. Because supplies of ordinary food ran out, starving denizens ate most of the city zoo's animals, and then having eaten those, Parisians resorted to feeding on rats.
By early January 1871, Bismarck and the Germans themselves were tired of the prolonged siege. They installed seventy-two 120- and 150-mm artillery pieces in the forts around Paris and on 5 January began to bombard the city day and night. Between 300 and 600 shells hit the center of the city every day.
Uprising and armistice
Between 11 and 19 January 1871, the French armies had been defeated on four fronts and Paris was facing a famine. General Trochu received reports from the prefect of Paris that agitation against the government and military leaders was increasing in the political clubs and in the National Guard of the working-class neighborhoods of Belleville, La Chapelle, Montmartre, and Gros-Caillou.
At midday on 22 January, three or four hundred National Guards and members of radical groups – mostly Blanquists – gathered outside the Hôtel de Ville. A battalion of Gardes Mobiles from Brittany was inside the building to defend it in case of an assault. The demonstrators presented their demands that the military be placed under civil control, and that there be an immediate election of a commune. The atmosphere was tense, and in the middle of the afternoon, gunfire broke out between the two sides; each side blamed the other for firing first. Six demonstrators were killed, and the army cleared the square. The government quickly banned two publications, Le Reveil of Delescluze and Le Combat of Pyat, and arrested 83 revolutionaries.
At the same time as the demonstration in Paris, the leaders of the Government of National Defense in Bordeaux had concluded that the war could not continue. On 26 January, they signed a ceasefire and armistice, with special conditions for Paris. The city would not be occupied by the Germans. Regular soldiers would give up their arms, but would not be taken into captivity. Paris would pay an indemnity of 200 million francs. At Jules Favre's request, Bismarck agreed not to disarm the National Guard, so that order could be maintained in the city.
Adolphe Thiers; parliamentary elections of 1871
, the chief executive of the French Government during the Commune
The national government in Bordeaux called for national elections at the end of January, held just ten days later on 8 February. Most electors in France were rural, Catholic and conservative, and this was reflected in the results; of the 645 deputies assembled in Bordeaux on February, about 400 favoured a constitutional monarchy under either Henri, Count of Chambord (grandson of Charles X) or Prince Philippe, Count of Paris (grandson of Louis Philippe).
Of the 200 republicans in the new parliament, 80 were former Orléanists (Philippe's supporters) and moderately conservative. They were led by Adolphe Thiers, who was elected in 26 departments, the most of any candidate. There were an equal number of more radical republicans, including Jules Favre and Jules Ferry, who wanted a republic without a monarch, and who felt that signing the peace treaty was unavoidable. Finally, on the extreme left, there were the radical republicans and socialists, a group that included Louis Blanc, Léon Gambetta and Georges Clemenceau. This group was dominant in Paris, where they won 37 of the 42 seats.
On 17 February the new Parliament elected the 74-year-old Thiers as chief executive of the French Third Republic. He was considered to be the candidate most likely to bring peace and to restore order. Long an opponent of the Prussian war, Thiers persuaded Parliament that peace was necessary. He travelled to Versailles, where Bismarck and the German King were waiting, and on 24 February the armistice was signed.