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https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/06/Louise_Michel2.jpgLouise Michel (29 May 1830 – 9 January 1905) was a teacher and important figure in the Paris Commune. Following her penal transportation she embraced anarchism. When returning to France she emerged as important French anarchist and went on speaking tours across Europe. The journalist Brian Doherty has called her the "French grande dame of anarchy."[1]

Louise Michel was born on 29 May 1830 as the illegitimate daughter of a serving-maid, Marianne Michel. She was raised by her grandparents, Charlotte and Charles-Étienne Demahis, in north-eastern France. She spent her childhood in the Château à Vroncourt la Cote and was provided with a libertarian education. When her grandparents died, she completed the teacher training and worked in villages.[2]

In 1865 Michel opened a school in Paris which became known for its modern and progressive methods. Michel corresponded with the prominent French romanticist Victor Hugo and began publishing poetry. She became involved in the radical politics of Paris and among her associates were Auguste Blanqui, Jules Vallès and Théophile Ferré.[2] In 1869 the feminist group Société pour la Revendication du Droits Civils de la Femme (Society for the Demand of Civil Rights for Women) was announced by André Léo. Among the members of the group were Michel,[3] Paule Minck, Eliska Vincent, Élie Reclus and his wife Néomie, Mme Jules Simon, Caroline de Barrau and Maria Deraismes. Because of the broad range of opinions, the group decided to focus on the subject of improving girls' education.[4] Commonly known as the Revendication des Droits de la Femme (Demand for Women's Rights), the group had close ties with the Société Cooperative des Ouriers et Ouvrierés (Cooperative Society of Men and Women Workers). The July 1869 manifesto of the Revendication des Droits de la Femme was thus signed by the wives of militant cooperative members. The manifesto was also supported by Sophie Doctrinal, signing with Citroyenne Poirier, who would later become a close associate of Michel in the Paris Commune. In January 1870 Michel and Léo attended the funeral of Victor Noir. Michel expressed disappointment that the death of Noir had not been used to overthrow the Empire. At the start of the Siege of Paris, in November 1870, Léo in a lecture declared "It is not a question of our practicing politics, we are human, that is all.[3]

During the siege, Michel became part of the National Guard. When the Paris Commune was declared she was elected head of the Montmartre Women's Vigilance Committee. Michel thus occupied a leading role in the revolutionary government of the Paris Commune. In April 1871 she threw herself into the armed struggle against the French government. She closely aligned with Ferré and Raoul Rigault, two of the most violent members of the Paris Commune. However, Ferré and Rigault persuaded her to not carry out her plan to assassinate Adolphe Thiers, the chief executive of the French national government. Instead Michel fought with the 61st Battalion of Montmartre and organised ambulance stations.[5] In her memoirs she later wrote "oh, I'm a savage all right, I like the smell of gunpowder, grapeshot flying through the air, but above all, I'm devoted to the Revolution."[6]

Women played a key role in the Paris Commune. They not only chaired committees, but also built barricades and participated in the armed violence. Michel ideologically justified a militant revolution, proclaiming: "I descended the Butte, my rifle under my coat, shouting: Treason! . . . Our deaths would free Paris".[7] Michel would be among the few militants who survived the Paris Commune and reflected: "It is true, perhaps, that women like rebellions. We are no better than men in respect to power, but power has not yet corrupted us."[8] In her memoirs Michel confessed that the realities of the revolutionary government strengthened her resolve to end the discrimination against women. On the attitude of her male comrades, she wrote "How many times, during the Commune, did I go, with a national guardsman or a soldier, to some place where they hardly expected to have to contend with a woman?". She challenged her comrades to "play a part in the struggle for women's rights, after men and women have won the rights of all humanity?"[9]

In December 1871, Michel 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 dared the judges to sentence her to death.[10] Michel was sentenced to penal transportation. It is estimated that 20,000 defenders of the Paris Commune had been summarily executed. Michel was among the 10,000 supporters of the Commune that were sentenced to deportation.[11]

After twenty months in prison Michel was loaded onto the ship Virginie on 8 August 1873,[10] 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. It was this latter contact that led Louise to become an anarchist. She remained in New Caledonia for seven years and befriended the local kanak people. She taught them French and took their side in the 1878 Kanak revolt. The following year, she received authorisation to become a teacher in Nouméa for the children of the deported—among them many Algerian Kabyles ("Kabyles du Pacifique") from Cheikh Mokrani's rebellion (1871).[12]

In 1880, amnesty was granted to those who had participated in Paris Commune. Michel returned to Paris, her revolutionary passion undiminished. She gave a public address on the 21st of November, 1880[10] and continued her revolutionary activity in Europe, attending the anarchist congress in London in 1881, where she led demonstrations and spoke to huge crowds. While 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.[13] In France she successfully campaigned, together with Charles Malato and Victor Henri Rochefort, for an amnesty to be also granted to Algerian deportees in New Caledonia.[14]

In March 1883 Michel and Émile Pouget led a demonstration by unemployed workers. In a subsequent riot three bakeries were pillaged. Reputably, Michel led this demonstration with a black flag, which has since become a symbol of anarchism. Michel was tried for her actions in the riot and used the court to publicly defend her anarchist principles. She was sentenced to six years of solitary confinement for inciting the looting.[15] Michel was defiant, for her the future of the human race was at stake, "one without exploiters and without exploited." [16] Michel was released in 1886, at the same time as Kropotkin and other prominent anarchists.[17][18]

In 1890 she was arrested again. After an attempt to commit her to a mental asylum she moved to London. Michel lived in London for five years. She opened a school and moved among the European anarchist exile circles.[15] Her International Anarchist School for the children of political refugees opened in 1890 on Fitzroy Square. The teachings were influenced by the libertarian educationist Paul Robin and put into practice Mikhail Bakunin's educational principles, emphasising scientific and rational methods. Michel's aim was to develop among the children the principles of humanity and justice. Among the teachers were exiled anarchists, such as Victorine Rouchy-Brocher, but also pioneering educationalists such as Rachel McMillan and Agnes Henry. In 1892 the school was closed, when explosives were found in the basement.[19] (see Walsall Anarchists) Michel contributed to many English speaking publications. Some of Michel's writings were translated into English by the poet Louisa Sarah Bevington.[20] Michel's published works were also translated into Spanish by the anarchist Soledad Gustavo.[21] The Spanish anarchist and workers rights activist Teresa Claramunt became known as the "Spanish Louise Michel".[22]

By that time Michel had become a legendary speaker, touring Europe repeatedly to speak in front of thousands of people.[15] In 1895 Sebastien Faure and Michel founded the French anarchist periodical Le Monde Libertaire (Libertarian World).[23] In the same year Michel met Emma Goldman at an anarchist conference in London, at which both were speaking. The young Goldman was hugely impressed by Michel, considering her to have a "social instinct developed to the extreme". In reference to the harsh conditions of Michel's life, Goldman asserted "Anarchists insist that conditions must be radically wrong if human instincts develop to such extremes at the expense of each other."[24]

Michel returned to France in 1895, and was not active in the agitation provoked by the Dreyfus affair in 1898.[25] In an 1896 article, entitled "Why I am an Anarchist", Michel argued that "Anarchy will not begin the eternal miseries anew. Humanity in its fight of despair will cling to it in order to emerge from the abyss."[26] In 1904 Michel went on a conference tour through French Algeria.[14] Michel was scheduled to meet the anti-colonial campaigner Isabelle Eberhardt, but Eberhardt died shortly before Michel arrived in Algeria.[27]

Michel died in Marseille of pneumonia on the 10 January 1905. Her funeral in Paris was attended by more than 100,000 people.[15] 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.

Academic interest in Michel's life and political writings was prompted in the 1970s by Édith Thomas's comprehensively researched biography.[52]

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  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Louise_Michel