Songs of the Paris Commune

The revolutionary experience of 1871 inspired a large number of poems and songs. Engaged in the ranks of the insurgents, the popular authors and songwriters Jean Baptiste Clément and Eugène Pottier gave the Paris Commune its most famous anthems.

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Version française

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Here’s a selection including some of the most celebrated songs associated with the 1871 Paris Commune – whether composed before, during or after the events. The spirit of the revolution being timeless, several artists of the 20th century made sure to revive them in their repertoire: this list features the voices of Marc Ogeret, Francesca Solleville, Groupe 17, and Rosalie Dubois.

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Le Temps des Cerises (The Time of Cherries)
Lyrics: Jean Baptiste Clément (1866) – Composition: Antoine Renard (1868)

Artist: Cora Vaucaire – Other versions: Marc Ogeret, Yves Montand

Although Le Temps des Cerises remains the most famous song associated with the memory of the Paris Commune, it was actually written before 1871. Jean Baptiste Clément, who stood on the barricades during the infamous Semaine sanglante, later dedicated the text to a young ambulance driver presumably called Louise he met during the last stand on Rue de la Fontaine-au-Roi. The double meaning of the song’s lyrics, between springtime love and disappointed revolution, seems almost premonitory.

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La Semaine sanglante (The Bloody Week)
Lyrics: Jean Baptiste Clément (1871) – Composition: Pierre Dupont (1849)

Artist: Francesca Solleville – Other versions: Marc Ogeret, Compagnie Jolie Môme, Groupe 17

This tragic song echoes the last days of the Commune: Jean Baptiste Clément drew on his own experience to write the lyrics, shortly after witnessing the violence and abuses committed by the Versaillais against the people of Paris. Its chorus nevertheless includes a note of hope, proclaiming that “les mauvais jours finiront !” (the bad days will end).

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L’Internationale (The Internationale)
Lyrics: Eugène Pottier (1871) – Composition: Pierre Degeyter (1888)

Artist: Marc Ogeret – Other versions: Rosalie Dubois

This timeless anthem of the workers’ movement was written by Eugène Pottier, probably in the weeks following the Paris Commune. However, the Internationale was not published until many years later, and waited 1888 to find its current composition. Sung at the congresses of the Internationals, it became the national anthem of the USSR until 1944. One of the most widely translated political songs in the world, the Internationale still resonates during contemporary Parisian demonstrations.

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Quand viendra-t-elle ? (When Will She Come?*)
*In French, the feminine « Elle » can refer to “La Révolution” or “La République”
Lyrics: Eugène Pottier (1870) – Composition: Different versions, here Max Rongier (1971)

Artists: Groupe 17 – Other version: Mouloudji

As in Le Temps des Cerises, this text by Eugène Pottier follows an extended metaphor: the painful wait for the revolution parallels that of a lover who never seems to arrive.

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La Canaille (Rascals)
Lyrics: Alexis Bouvier (1865) – Composition: Joseph Darcier (1865 ?)

Artist: Marc Ogeret – Other versions: Francesca Solleville, Rosalie Dubois

Written prior to the events of the Commune, this protest song, in the vein of Jean Richepin, mocks the contempt of the bourgeois and conservatives for those who really keep “la vieille cité française” alive. The text paints a portrait of the workers, blacksmiths, artists, and other representatives of the hard-working Parisian people of the 19th century.

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Bonhomme
Lyrics: Émile Dereux (1870 ?) – Composition: ?
Starting at 17:55 :

Artists: Groupe 17 – Later version; « Vive la République » is replaced by « Vive la Commune »

The Blanquist Émile Dereux composed an ode to the revolutionary soul of France, calling on peasants, workers, and the everyday “Bonhomme” to imitate their heroes of 1789 and refuse the yoke of tyrants and exploiters.

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Le Drapeau rouge (The Red Flag)
Lyrics: Paul Brousse (1877) & Achille Le Roy (1885) – Composition: Unknown (?)

Artist: Francesca Solleville – Other versions: Marc Ogeret, Rosalie Dubois

Although it was already present in the Parisian revolutions of the previous decades, the red flag truly acquired its status as a symbol of socialism and the international workers’ movement with the Paris Commune.

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L’Insurgé (The Insurgent)
Lyrics: Eugène Pottier (1880) – Composition: Pierre Deteyger (1885?)

Artist: Marcel Mouloudji – Other versions: Groupe 17 (starting at 26:39)

From the collection Chants révolutionnaires by Eugène Pottier, L’Insurgé is a tribute to Auguste Blanqui, a key figure in the popular struggles of the 19th century. He was however not able to participate directly in the insurrection of 1871: arrested by Thiers on March 17th, he was considered the most valuable political prisoner held by the opponents of the Commune.

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Le Chant du départ (Song of Departure)
Lyrics: Marie-Joseph Chénier (1794) – Composition: Étienne Nicolas Méhul (1794)

This other anthem of the original French Revolution, commissioned by the Committee of Public Safety for the anniversary of the storming of the Bastille, seems to have enjoyed a revival in 1871. It was sung by the crowd along La Marseillaise at the time of the proclamation of the Commune by the Bellevillois Gabriel Ranvier. According to several sources, it could also be heard for the destruction of the Vendôme Column (quite a symbol: Napoleon had chosen Le Chant du Départ as the anthem of the French Empire in 1804!), and then sung by the insurectionnists led by general Jarosław Dąbrowski during the fighting of the Semaine sanglante.

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La Communarde
Lyrics: Jean Baptiste Clément (1883) – Composition: Unknown (1792)
Starting at 00:00 :

Artists: Groupe 17

Clément adapted one of the most famous tunes of the first French Revolution, La Carmagnole, to share his personal experience of the brutal repression of the Paris Commune.

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Au Mur (Against the Wall)
Lyrics: Jean Baptiste Clément (1872 or 1885) – Composition: Max Rongier (1971?)

(Note: contrary to what is indicated on the video accompanying the music, the first visual does not represent the real Mur des Fédérés)
Artist: Armand Mestral

In this dialogue written by Jean Baptiste Clément, a drunken Versaillais captain blindly sends his prisoners to the firing squad – one obviously sees in it a reference to the Mur des Fédérés (or “Communard’s Wall”), in the Père Lachaise cemetery, where rebels were executed en masse. This song tells of of the arbitrary massacres of the Semaine sanglante, and the repression which then fell on the supporters of the Commune as well as on Parisians who had not taken part in the fighting, or even in the insurrection.

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Elle n’est pas morte (She Is Not Dead*)
*In French, the feminine « Elle » can refer to “La Révolution” or “La République”
Lyrics: Eugène Pottier (1886) – Composition: Victor Parizot (avant 1866)
Starting at 11:04 :

Artists: Groupe 17

Pottier returns to the massacres of the Semaine sanglante, proclaiming that they will never be enough to silence the ideals of the Commune. The songwriter refers to numerous figures of the insurrection, evoking the burial of Jules Vallès, in 1885, to underline the intact motivation of the Parisian people and the international workers’ movement.

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Le Tombeau des Fusillés (The Tomb of Those Who Were Shot)
Lyrics: Jules Jouy (1887) – Composition: Camille Soubise & Frédéric Doria (1883)
Starting at 14:01 :

Artists: Groupe 17

This text is a tribute to the partisans of the Commune executed at the Mur des Fédérés. It also mentions the gatherings that have since taken place almost every year in this historical site for popular struggles and movements: “Is it the storm, or the swell / Rising to the assault of a reef? / It is the great voice of the crowd / Consoling the dead without a coffin”.

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La Commune
Lyrics: Georges Coulonges (1971) – Composition: Jean Ferrat (1971)

Artist: Jean Ferrat

Known for his commitment to the people and the progressive camp, Jean Ferrat celebrated the centenary of the Commune with a song honoring the artisans and workers of Paris.

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Les Cerisiers (The Cherry Trees)
Lyrics: Guy Thomas – Composition: Jean Ferrat (1985)

Artist: Jean Ferrat

In this slightly nostalgic text, the singer recalls his loyalty to the ideals of the Temps des Cerises revolution, a commitment that he would pursue until his last days: “I’ll remain faithful to the spirit / That we saw with the Commune / And that still blows in the heart of Paris”.

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BONUS: La Commune
Lyrics: Louis Marchand (1910) – Composition: Aristide Bruant (1910)

Artist: Georges Brassens

A rare recording of the free-spirited poet Georges Brassens, who covers an equally rare tune by famous Montmartre songwriter Aristide Bruant.

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This list is obviously far from exhaustive, and remains subject to a certain subjectivity. Released shortly before the centenary of the Commune, the records La Commune en chantant (presented by Georges Coulonges) and Autour de la Commune feature excellent examples of popular songs linked to this period.

Many of the authors and artists mentioned here have found their final resting place in the Père Lachaise cemetery. This is the case of Eugène Pottier and Jean Baptiste Clément, the latter being symbolically buried facing the Mur des Fédérés.

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Illustration: The Paris Commune is proclaimed, Place de l’Hôtel de ville – March 28th, 1871
© Lamy – Le Monde illustré

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