|Born||29 May 1830 |
|Died||9 January 1905 |
Louise Michel (1830-1905) was a French anarchist, school teacher and medical worker. She sometimes used the pseudonym Clémence and was also known as the red virgin of Montmartre.
Louise Michel was born at the Château of Vroncourt (Haute-Marne) on 29 May 1830, the daughter of a serving-maid, Marianne Michel, and the son of the house, Etienne Charles Demahis.
She was brought up by her father's parents, and received a liberal education. After her grandfather's death in 1850 she was trained to teach, but her refusal to acknowledge Napoleon III prevented her from serving in a state school. She became violently anti-Bonapartist, and is said to have contemplated the assassination of Napoleon III. She found her way in 1866 to a school in the Montmartre quarter of Paris, where she threw herself ardently into works of charity and revolutionary politics.
She was active during the Paris Commune as an ambulance woman, treating those injured on the barricades. During the Siege of Paris she untiringly preached resistance to the Prussians. On the establishment of the Commune, she joined the National Guard. She offered to shoot Thiers, and suggested the destruction of Paris by way of vengeance for its surrender.
She was with the Communards who made their last stand in the cemetery of Montmartre, and was closely allied with Théophile Ferré, who was executed in November 1871. Michel dedicated a moving farewell poem to Ferré, l’œillet rouge (The Red Carnation). It is without a doubt that upon learning of this loss, Victor Hugo dedicated his poem to Michel, Viro Major. This ardent attachment was perhaps one of the sources of the exaltation which marked her career, and gave many handles to her enemies. When she was brought before the 6th council of war in December 1871 she defied her judges and defended the Commune. She spent twenty months in prison and was sentenced to deportation. It was at this time that the Versailles press gave her the name la Louve rouge, la Bonne Louise (the red she-wolf, the good Louise).
She was loaded onto the ship Virginie to be deported to New Caledonia where she arrived 4 months later. Whilst on board, she became acquainted with Henri Rochefort, a famous polemist, who became her friend until her death. She also met Nathalie Lemel, another figure active in the commune. Most likely, it was this latter contact that led Louise to become an anarchist. She remained in New Caledonia for seven years, refusing special treatment reserved for women. Befriending the local kanaks, she attempted to educate them and, unlike others in the commune, took their side in their 1878 revolt. She is even said to have sent the ringleader of the rebellion Ataï a piece of her scarf.
The following year, she received authorisation to become a teacher in Noumea for the children of the deported -among them many Kabyles (Kabyles du Pacifique) from Cheikh Mokrani's rebellion (1871) - and later in schools for girls.
Michel returned to Paris in 1880 after amnesty was granted to the Communards, her revolutionary ardour undiminished. She continued her revolutionary activity in Europe, attending the anarchist congress in London in 1881, where she led demonstrations, spoke to huge crowds, and headed a libertarian school.
She travelled throughout France, preaching revolution, and in 1883 she led a Paris mob which pillaged a baker's shop. For this she was condemned to six years imprisonment, but was released in 1886, at the same time as Kropotkin and other prominent anarchists. After a short period of freedom she was again arrested for making inflammatory speeches. She was soon liberated, but, hearing that her enemies hoped to intern her in a lunatic asylum, she fled to England in 1890. She returned to France in 1895, taking part in the agitation provoked by the Dreyfuss affair in 1898, and from this time forward, she split up her time between conferences and stays with friends in London.
She was stopped many times during demonstrations, and was again incarcerated for six years, but eventually freed at the end of three thanks to the intervention of Georges Clemenceau, so that she could see her mother again at the brink of death. She was again incarcerated several times, although for shorter periods of time. One could say she was constantly followed by the police.
She was touring France and lecturing on behalf of anarchist causes when she died in Room 11, Hotel Oasis, Marseilles on January 10, 1905. Her funeral in Paris drew an immense crowd that did not fail to impress contemporaries. Numerous orators spoke, among them the Master Mason of the Lodge of Universal Fraternity, provoking interest in whether or not Michel was in fact a Freemason. She was invited to a Lodge one year before her death, but was never officially "initiated." The members of the Lodge felt honored by her joining, and believed that her previous actions exempted her from the rite of initiation. However, she never attended the Lodge, and when asked why, responded that she "thought they didn't accept women."
Michel became highly admired by French workers and revolutionaries, particularly for her association with the Paris Commune. From after her death until 1916, a demonstration was held every year at her tomb at Levallois-Perret.
A legendary figure of the labour movement, Louise had the ability to move crowds. Frequently, the language used to describe her is that reserved for saints and heretics; she is often referred to as "Bonne Louise" (Good Louise) or the "Vierge rouge" (red Virgin). For better or worse, Michel seems to have fascinated her contemporaries. This woman, educated and cultured, intelligent without being shy and retiring, and lacking the beauty of certain demimondaines and other women of loose morals who populated the period before the Belle Epoque, was surrounded by many male celebrities. They were often her steadfast friends, until the end of her life, or more frequently to the end of theirs. For a period when women still had essentially no rights, she was in many respects an exception.
The photos we have of her reveal a woman with a rather masculine and plain face, as if chiseled with age, with a slender figure. And when she took the bar, she could have resembled La Pasionaria. She was, with George Sand, one of the rare women of the 19th century to have worn male clothing at one stage of her life, revealing a feminist indignation.
Generous, devoted to the cause of the most wretched, it is without the slightest doubt her courage which best characterises her personality. When she found herself before the court, she used it as a political soapbox and imposed herself on the judges, who on several occasions commuted her sentences.
While her literary legacy comprises few theoretical essays and rather more poems, legends and tales, including some for children, who never failed to interest her, and while posterity remembers her primarily for her unstoppable militant activism for the Social Revolution, as she said, her name is paradoxically one of the most commonly given to primary and secondary schools in French towns. How appropriate, thus, that she now represents in the memories and unconscious of the people, the image of France's school teacher, rather than the secular missionary that she in fact was.
On May 1, 1946, the Parisian métro station "villier" was renamed Louise Michel, see: Louise Michel (Paris Metro).
In 2005, admirers celebrated the hundredth anniversary of her death. During the celebration, two seminars paid homage to the "bonne Louise," notably the important March seminar "Louise Michel, figure of transversality" (led by Valérie Morignat), organized by the mayor of Paris and the cultural association Actazé. This event brought together 22 Louise Michel specialists who underlined an unclassifiable, brilliant, and still contemporary personality. Louise Michel's extraordinary influence can still be seen today in departments of American Feminine Studies, in the form of her thousand-page novel "La misère" (Misery), which denounced the social crisis of the suburbs long before the crisis was recognized as a problem.