Where I live we [I say “we”, but who am I kidding, I’m not French] have a fine reputation to uphold regarding revolutions. The Bastille was just around the corner, the last stand of the Communards was up the road in the 20e arrondissement and the biggest massacre by the government troops was just up the road at Père Lachaise Cemetery.
Some of these topics are too big to cover briefly and have been well covered elsewhere. I am also not sure I could do justice the history of the Paris Commune and it is a topic that needs suitably respectful coverage. Respectful to the Communards that is, not to the government.
This is a shorter story of revolutionary, republican behaviour. Across the road from the bar called Le Chat Bossu [The Hunchbacked Cat and a very nice traditional bar for lunch], there is an off license and above the doorway is a sign that has seemingly been put up unofficially.
Translated it reads “Killed 2nd December 1851 on the barricade raised here by the insurrection against Napoleon III’s coup d’état. The bronze statue erected here was given by Pétain to make cannons.” What’s a bit strange is that all of the accounts that I’ve seen of Baudin’s death reckon he was killed on the 3rd December although the barricade was raised on the 2nd.
Seeing this sign piqued my interest. I hadn’t realised the number of revolts and uprisings that occurred in Paris. I knew that we had revolts, riots and rebellions galore in the UK but my historical awareness is not so great here. Since I wasn’t brought up here, I haven’t absorbed as much history through simply living amongst the stories. If I’d bothered thinking then I would have guessed there would be have been the same kinds of riots and revolts, I just wouldn’t have been able to guess the facts.
Louis Napoleon was the nephew of the Emperor Napoleon. He had been elected as President in 1848 by a huge majority. At that time every male had the vote but the Assemblée Nationale introduced a rule that only male homeowners could vote in an effort to ensure that electoral support for Louis Napoleon was undermined. Napoleon was prevented from standing for re-election as president by the constitution since he was the incumbent. His period as president was due to come to an end in December 1852. He tried to force through constitutional change to allow him to stand again for election but this was blocked in the parliament and so he started plotting his coup.
On the night of the 1st and the morning of the 2nd December, troops loyal to Napoleon took up positions throughout the city and key opposition figures were arrested and Napoleon declared the Assemblée Nationale to be dissolved and that he was now in charge.
An insurrection against Napoleon was launched, led by, among others, Victor Hugo the famous author. A bounty was put on Hugo’s head and he considered this an enormous compliment. According to Eric Hazan, Hugo saw it as his duty to get killed in this insurrection which, had he succeeded, would have denied us his epic Les Miserables and, less worryingly, the spectacle of Russell Crowe singing.
On the members of the Assemblée Nationale who felt obliged to make a stand against Napoleon’s coup was Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Baudin, a doctor from Ain in the far east of France.
Across Paris barricades were erected. Troops loyal to Napoleon began to murder people indiscriminately with people even being murdered in their homes. Over 350 prisoners were shot at the École Militaire.
A particularly enormous barricade was erected on the Rue Faubourg St Antoine, next the junction with Rue de Cotte. According to Hugo, this barricade was as high as the second storey of the surrounding buildings and was built in a similar location to that described Les Miserables by the barricade builder Frederic Constant Cournet during the 1848 revolution. Cournet was one of the leaders of the 1851 revolution against Napoleon and he read out the proclamation of rebellion that was written by Hugo. The revolution posters and declarations covered the barricade and many people gathered to discuss and read them.
It was at one point, whilst the crowd gathered to read the posters that, according a possibly apocryphal story, an old woman said that “The Twenty-Five Francs are crushed. So much the better!”. She was referring to the twenty-five francs per day that the members of the Assemblée Nationale received as remuneration, compared to the wage paid to the men and women who worked in the National Workshops of 2 and 1 franc per day respectively. The troops of the 19th Leger formed into ranks on the street and Baudin attempted to motivate the workers to join the barricade. Asked whether Baudin truly expected the workers to do die so that he could keep his twenty-five francs per day, Baudin made his grand comment, “I’ll show you how someone dies for twenty five francs” and climbed onto the barricade where he was shot and died.
In order to recover Baudin’s body for burial, his family was obliged to make some commitments to the government about not making a fuss or political statements and Baudin was buried secretly in Montmartre, where is grave became a meeting point for Republicans. A campaign was launched some years later to recognise Baudin’s sacrifice, for which Charles Delescluze, the journalist responsible, was jailed for six months. Delescluze was later killed by government forces during the Commune. In 1879 a plaque was fixed to the house at the location of the barricade, which reads “Before this house fell gloriously Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Baudin, representative of the people for the department of Ain killed Dec. 3, 1851 Act defending the law and the Republic. ”
In 1901, a statue was erected, not at the site of the barricade but at the junction of Avenue Ledru-Rollin and Rue Traversière.
In 1942 the statue was taken during the Nazi occupation and melted down. This rationale hides another truth. The government officials, acting on the wishes of Marshal Pétain, were happy to perform, in the words of the Minister of Education, “a just and salutary revision of our glories, so that there are no more intruders or unworthy people represented by statues.” Victor Hugo, among others, had his statue taken down.
After the Liberation many of the statues, including Hugo, are restored. But not that of Baudin. In 1977, the base of his statue was even removed so as to permanently prevent any possibility of reconstruction.
So is there something unsavoury about Baudin to the French officials? Is it the fact that he was a member of the government that turned against his own? Is that enough? Or is he really a person unworthy of a statue? There is clearly some support for his recognition as can be seen by the recent plaque shown earlier but I don’t get any sense of widespread coverage or support. He has a street [a rather insignificant street], a one star hotel and a school named after him. Is that enough?