Louise Michel

For the 1936–1939 Spanish Civil War units, see Louise Michel Battalions.
For the Paris Métro station, see Louise Michel (Paris Métro).
Louise Michel
Born (1830-05-29)29 May 1830
Vroncourt-la-Côte, France
Died 9 January 1905(1905-01-09) (aged 74)
Marseille, France
Nationality French
Other names la Louve rouge (red she-wolf), la Bonne Louise (the good Louise)
Occupation Revolutionary, Teacher, Medic
Known for Activities in the Paris Commune

Louise Michel (French pronunciation: [lwiz miʃɛl]; 1830–1905) was a French anarchist, school teacher, medical worker, and important figure in the Paris Commune.[1] She often used the pseudonym Clémence and was also known as the red virgin of Montmartre. Journalist Brian Doherty has called her the "French grande dame of anarchy."[2] Yale historian John Merriman said: "She embraced the cause of women's rights, proclaiming that one could not separate 'the caste of women from humanity'".[1]


Louise Michel was born at the Château of Vroncourt (Haute-Marne) on 29 May 1830, the illegitimate daughter of a serving-maid, Marianne Michel, and the châtelain, Etienne Charles Demahis.[1]

She was brought up by her mother and her father's parents near the village of Vroncourt-la-Côte and received a liberal education. She became interested in traditional customs, folk myths and legends.[1] 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 even said to have contemplated the assassination of Napoleon III. In 1866 she found her way to a school in the Montmartre quarter of Paris, where she threw herself ardently into works of charity and revolutionary politics.[3] In 1866 a feminist group called the Société pour la Revendication du Droit des Femmes began to meet at the house of André Léo. Members included Paule Minck, Louise Michel, Eliska Vincent, Élie Reclus and his wife Néomie, Mme Jules Simon and Caroline de Barrau. Maria Deraismes also participated. Because of the broad range of opinions, the group decided to focus on the subject of improving girls' education.[4]


During the Paris Commune of 1871, she was active as an ambulance woman treating those injured on the barricades. During the Siege of Paris she untiringly preached resistance against 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). Upon learning of this loss, Victor Hugo dedicated his poem Viro Major to Michel. This ardent attachment was perhaps one of the sources of the exaltation which marked her career, and gave many handles to her enemies.

The text of the L’œillet rouge"[5] is as follows:

If were to go to the black cemetery
Brothers, throw on your sister,
As a final hope,
Some red 'carnations' in bloom.

In the final days of Empire,
When the people were awakening,
It was your smile red carnation
which told us that all was being reborn.

Today, go blossom in the shadow of the black and sad prisons.
Go, bloom near the somber captive,
And tell him/her truly that we love him/her.
Tell that through fleeting time
Everything belongs to the future
That the livid-browed conqueror
can die more surely than the conquered.[1]

  1. ^ Twohig, Niall. (2016). Revolutionary Constellations: Seeing Revolution Beyond the Dominant Frames. UC San Diego: Literature. Retrieved from: http://escholarship.org/uc/item/9339p4bj
Michel in uniform.

In December 1871, she was brought before the 6th council of war, charged with offences including trying to overthrow the government, encouraging citizens to arm themselves, and herself using weapons and wearing a military uniform. Defiantly, she vowed never to renounce the Commune, and dared the judges to sentence her to death.[6] Reportedly, Michel told the court, "Since it seems that every heart that beats for freedom has no right to anything but a little slug of lead, I demand my share. If you let me live, I shall never cease to cry for vengeance." [7]

She spent twenty months in prison and was sentenced to deportation.

At this time 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 on 8 August 1873,[6] to be deported to New Caledonia, where she arrived four months later. Whilst on board, she became acquainted with Henri Rochefort, a famous polemicist, 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 the 1878 Kanak revolt. She is even said to have sent the ringleader of the rebellion Ataï a piece of her scarf.

The arrest of Louise Michel in May 1871

The following year, she received authorisation to become a teacher in Nouméa for the children of the deported — among them many Kabyles (Kabyles du Pacifique) from Cheikh Mokrani's rebellion (1871)[8] — and later in schools for girls.

Return to France

In 1880, amnesty was granted to the Communards and Michel returned to Paris, her revolutionary passion undiminished. She gave a public address on the 21st of November, 1880[6] and 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. Whilst in London, she also attended meetings at the Russell Square home of the Pankhursts where she made a particular impression on a young Sylvia Pankhurst.

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 Dreyfus 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 after three years 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.

Louise Michel at home in France during her later years.

During a period of illness she visited Algeria.

She was touring France and lecturing on behalf of anarchist causes when she died in Room 11,[9] Hotel Oasis, Marseille on January 10, 1905. Her funeral in Paris drew an immense crowd that did not fail to impress contemporaries. Numerous orators spoke.

Michel's grave is in the cemetery of Levallois-Perret, in one of the suburbs of Paris. The grave is maintained by the community. This cemetery is also the last resting place of her friend and fellow communard Théophile Ferré.

Social legacy

Michel was greatly admired for her association with the Paris Commune. From her death until 1916, a demonstration was held every year at her tomb at Levallois-Perret.

A legendary figure of the labour movement, she had the ability of inciting crowds to act. She is often described in language more commonly used for saints and heretics: e.g. "Bonne Louise" (Good Louise) and "Vierge rouge" (Red Virgin).

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.

Her literary legacy consists of a few theoretical essays and some poems, legends and tales, including some for children. Perhaps the best known of these works is her thousand-page novel "La misère" (Poverty), which denounced the social crisis of the suburbs long before it was recognized as a problem.

Michel's tomb at the Levallois-Perret cemetery

Although primarily remembered for her militant activism i.e., for her so-called "Social Revolution" her name is frequently given to primary and secondary schools in French towns. She thus has an implicit image in French culture as France's school teacher.

On May 1, 1946, the Parisian métro station "Vallier" was renamed Louise Michel. See: Louise Michel (Paris Métro).

In 1975, the courtyard in front of the Basilica of Sacré-Coeur in Montmartre, Paris was named in Louise Michel's honor. The sign at the gate proclaims her a "Heroine of the Commune".

In 2005, the hundredth anniversary of her death was celebrated. 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.


Michel once joked, "We love to have agents provocateurs in the party, because they always propose the most revolutionary motions."[2]



In the press

Michel was often discussed in the French press during her lifetime, as well as the English-language press in Britain and the United States. These are a sample of press caricatures of Michel:

See also


  1. 1 2 3 4 Merriman, John (2014). Massacre: The Life and Death of the Paris Commune of 1871. New Haven and London: Yale University Press. p. 43. ISBN 9780300174526.
  2. 1 2 Doherty, Brian (2010-12-17) The First War on Terror, Reason
  3. Thomas, Edith (2009). Louise Michel (PDF). Black Rose Books. pp. 44–46.
  4. McMillan 2002, p. 130.
  5. The Red Eyelet, a common form of Dianthus, rather than the big modern carnation.
  6. 1 2 3 Louise Michel, a French anarchist women who fought in the Paris commune
  7. Edith Thomas, The Women Incendiaries: The Inspiring Story of the Women of the Paris Commune "", Haymarket Books. Accessed June 23, 2009.
  8. "Deportation to New Caledonia - Introduction". www.iisg.nl. Retrieved 2016-08-21.
  9. I Stayed in the Room Louise Michel Died..., forum post at libcom.org, accessed 2006-06-19

Further reading

Wikimedia Commons has media related to Louise Michel.
Wikisource has the text of The New Student's Reference Work article about Louise Michel.
This article is issued from Wikipedia - version of the 11/28/2016. The text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share Alike but additional terms may apply for the media files.