Sunday, 1 September 2013

Impressions of Paris - Sacré-Cœur

We spent our last few hours killing time in Paris before our train to Londres left Gare du Nord, by visiting the Sacré-Cœur, the large white basilica which stands on the highest point of the city - Butte Montmatre. The Sacré-Cœur can be seen from miles away and dominates central Paris like a malignant menace ready to wreak revenge on a truculent people, should they have the temerity to step out of line again.

The story of the Sacré-Cœur is illustrative of the struggle between the forces of democracy and the power of the Christian (in this case Catholic) Church which has invariably sided with the forces of autocracy and repression of the lower orders in society. It starts with the socialist-led uprising in Paris in 1871 following the French defeat in the Franco-Prussian war.

The war itself had been fought largely because it suited both sides at the time to have a war. The Machaevelian Otto von Bismark for Prussia had wanted an excuse to unify the multitude of autonomous German states and statelettes under Prussian dominance, and the French Emperor, Napoleon III, had wanted a foreign victory to emulate those of his uncle, Napoleon I, and so bring France to heel under his autocratic rule. He had been elected president by popular vote in 1848 and mounted a coup d'état in 1851 to avoid all the unpleasantness and inconvenience of facing another election. He then had himself crowned Emperor and effectively restored the French monarchy in 1852.

In the event it was Napoleon III who had badly miscalculated and German troops were able to lay siege to Paris for four months during which the aristocracy and much of the middle class fled the city and poor peasants from the surrounding countryside came in to escape the Germans. France had clearly lost the war.

Following a series of strikes and demonstrations in Paris mostly demanding the overthrow of the Emperor and the restoration of a republic, it became clear that the feared mob was gaining the upper hand and the government panicked and fled to nearby Versailles, taking with them what troops and police who would still obey orders, and who hadn't yet shot their officers, elected new ones and defected to the insurrection, as they could round up. The socialists' leaders occupied the Hôtel de Ville (Town Hall) and proclaimed the Government of National Defense and sued for peace with the besieging Germans. A condition of the armistice was that a token German occupation force would be allowed to enter Paris.

It had long been a grievance of Parisians that, unlike other French cities, Paris did not have its own local government but was ruled directly by the national government. The Communards were so-called because they were demanding their own Commune, or local government. So the Paris Commune emerged from the power vacuum and chaos in Paris which followed the war with Prussia. Provision of services and the restoration of orderly government fell to the Communards by default, the government having deserted the city. It should not be confused with a Communist uprising. The term 'Commune' owes more to the word 'community' than to the Communist commune. The French still refer to the area controlled by a local council as a Commune. Communism was to come later, drawing on some of the lessons and demands of the Communards from the Paris Commune. Marx and Engles drew extensively on the experience (and mistakes) of the Communards.

The success of the uprising caused panic and consternation to the ruling classes who had naturally thrown in their lot with the autocrats and who wanted nothing more than a compliant and obedient urban proletariat and rural working class. What enraged them was the demands they made for the government of all France, not just of Paris. There was some confusion over whether they had overthrown the national government and so could lay claim to be the legal government of all France, or were merely in charge of Paris - which had not heretofore had its own government. In any case they decided they were at least a rival national government to the one now reorganizing and regrouping in Versailles.

The decrees they issued for Paris, and which clearly they wished to extend to the whole of France included:

  • the separation of church and state;
  • the remission of rents owed for the entire period of the siege (during which, payment had been suspended);
  • the abolition of night work in the hundreds of Paris bakeries;
  • the granting of pensions to the unmarried companions and children of National Guards killed on active service;
  • the free return, by the city pawnshops, of all workmen's tools and household items valued up to 20 francs, pledged during the siege; the Commune was concerned that skilled workers had been forced to pawn their tools during the war;
  • the postponement of commercial debt obligations, and the abolition of interest on the debts; and
  • the right of employees to take over and run an enterprise if it were deserted by its owner; the Commune, nonetheless, recognized the previous owner's right to compensation.

Apart from this assault on the right of the middle classes to screw the poor for everything they could wring out of them and to put private greed above social need, and the demand for workers' rights, what really panicked the church was the first clause, a direct copy from the American constitution, for the abolition of the church's political power and influence. The decree separated the church from the state, appropriated all church property to public property, and excluded the practice of religion from schools. The people understood full well how the church aided and supported the anti-democratic forces and how the ruling elite uses the church to control the people in a mutual benefit society where the clergy supports and sanctifies the ruling elite in return for the state's protection and the granting of privileges to the clergy.

Like the American revolutionaries of 1776, the Paris Communards understood that they could never have a proper democracy with government of the people, by the people and for the people if the church-ruling elite mutual benefit society were allowed to continue.

In the event, the Communards failed to extend their influence to other French cities and especially the countryside where the food was produced. They also stupidly failed to take control of the French national bank in Paris which was able to transfer its billions of francs to Versailles where it was used to finance the government army. After "La Semaine ensanglante" (the bloody week) the Paris Commune was brutally supressed by French regular troops... and the church could exact its revenge.

So we come to the building of the Sacré Cœur, officially as an act of atonement for the Paris Commune; in reality as a reminder to working class Parisians that the Church rules. Okay! The official account says:
The inspiration for Sacré Cœur's design originated on September 4, 1870, the day of the proclamation of the Third Republic, with a speech by Bishop Fournier attributing the defeat of France in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 to a divine punishment after "a century of moral decline" since the French Revolution, in the wake of the division in French society that arose in the decades following that revolution, between devout Catholics and legitimist royalists on one side, and democrats, secularists, socialists and radicals on the other. This schism became particularly pronounced after the Franco-Prussian War and the ensuing uprising of the Paris Commune of 1870-71. Though today the Basilica is asserted to be dedicated in honor of the 58,000 who lost their lives during the war, the decree of the Assemblée nationale, 24 July 1873, responding to a request by the archbishop of Paris by voting its construction, specifies that it is to "expiate the crimes of the Commune". Montmartre had been the site of the Commune's first insurrection, and many dedicated communards were forever entombed in the subterranean galleries of former gypsum mines where they had retreated, by explosives detonated at the entrances by the Army of Versailles. Hostages had been executed on both sides, and the Communards had executed Georges Darboy, Archbishop of Paris, who became a martyr for the resurgent Catholic Church. His successor Guibert, climbing the Butte Montmartre in October 1872, was reported to have had a vision, as clouds dispersed over the panorama: "It is here, it is here where the martyrs are, it is here that the Sacred Heart must reign so that it can beckon all to come".

...the hour of the Church has come [that would be expressed through the] Government of Moral Order... a project of religious and national renewal, the main features of which were the restoration of monarchy and the defense of Rome within a cultural framework of official piety.

It was to take until 1905 for the final separation of church and state in France to be achieved and for France to become a modern secular democracy.

So today the Sacré Cœur dominates the Paris skyline in a symbolic, triumphalist reminder of how, as recently as 1873, the Catholic Church believed it should dominate the government and control the people and how any threat to its power and privilege was going to be met by brutal suppression and the denial of basic democratic rights, and how working-class people daring to take control of their own destiny was to be regarded as a mortal sin to be punished with all vigour.

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