This Day in World History
March 26, 1871
Paris Commune formed
In the wake of France’s defeat by Prussia in the Franco-Prussian War, workers and students of Paris joined together to form a revolutionary government called the Paris Commune. Elected on March 26, the Commune was in direct opposition to the conservative national government. Some historians call the period of the Commune’s rule the first working-class revolt. Though historic, the rebellion failed.
The revolt was prompted in part by the peace negotiated by the French government, which allowed the Prussians to occupy the city. Parisians were angered by what they saw as betrayal after they had survived a six-month Prussian siege. Worried that the restive Parisians might cause trouble, the French government sent troops on March 18 to seize the cannon that Paris’s militia — the National Guard — had used during the war. That action sparked the rebellion. The National Guard refused to turn over the weapons and called for elections of a citizen’s government.
The Commune government created on March 26 was a mix of liberals who embraced the principles of the French Revolution, socialists who wanted thoroughgoing social reform, and radical socialists who insisted on armed revolution. The Commune issued a series of laws that once again removed government support from the Roman Catholic church and created a ten-hour workday. Inspired by the Parisians’ example, people in other French cities established communes as well.
The government organized its forces and struck back. First, it repressed communes in Lyon, Marseilles, Toulouse, and other cities. Meanwhile, the Paris Commune had become more divided and incapable of functioning smoothly. Then, on May 21, the national government sent troops into Paris. In fierce fighting that lasted a week, the Commune government and the people’s revolt were destroyed. Perhaps as many as 20,000 Communards were killed, and thousands more were arrested.