When it comes to the Sacré-Coeur basilica, my feelings are more than mixed. The building itself is in my eyes both majestic and ugly.

Majestic, because the location of the basilica on the top of the Montmartre hill makes it one of the highest points in Paris – along with the Eiffel Tower – and because the Sacré-Coeur sometimes gives you a wink by appearing from afar (and that is very pleasant).

Ugly because it bears no resemblance to Haussmannian Parisian architecture, which draws its inspiration from a neo-baroque style that I find so elegant. The Sacré-Coeur basilica is in Romano-Byzantine style, which explains its four round stone domes and its Greek cross plan. Its perpetual whiteness is due to the quality of the stone: far from Haussmannian cut lime stone, it is a travertine which self-cleans in contact with water. This Romano-Byzantine style, these cupolas and this whiteness inevitably reminds me of a sickening wedding cake, a garish cream puff or even a pretentious meringue – to paraphrase the Sacré-Coeur’s detractors.

Ugly too, because the Parisian collective unconscious associates it with the Paris Commune.

Rightly or wrongly, by the way.

The Paris Commune is the story of a revolution that lasted 72 days. The Paris Commune is a magnificent and tragic page of French history, which began on March 18, 1871 and died at the end of the Bloody Week on May 28, 1871.

However, the Paris Commune is not well known – people of my age (46 years old, to date) have hardly heard of it (just like the French 1830 and 1848 revolutions), all the official educational spotlights being focused on the only, the unique French Revolution of 1789 and the writing, from that date that became a symbol, of a smooth and idealized national novel.

Obviously, the Paris Commune does not fit well with this national novel, because we are talking about a republican revolution of the population, because we are talking about a civil war – and yet the Paris Commune was a genuinely patriotic and social popular uprising, which I believe has had little equivalent.  

The popular uprising that gave birth to the Paris Commune can be explained by a multitude of origins, but one of them stands out more clearly than the others, in my opinion, and it’s called patriotism. In July 1870, France launched a war against Prussia, which ended in the debacle of Sedan. Paris, which was besieged by the Prussians during the 1870-1871 Winter, held out for four months, despite the famine and the cold. And in fact, the Prussians never entered Paris. So what was the surprise of the Parisians when they learnt on January 28, 1871 that the French government of Adolphe Thiers – who fled to Versailles – signed an humiliating armistice with Prussia.

Humiliating, since Thiers accepted that 30,000 Prussian soldiers would march on the Champs-Elysées. The parade took place on March 1, 1871 surrounded by a dead silence, among the statues of the Concorde place all veiled in black.

The Prussians left Paris on March 3, and the Parisians symbolically burnt straw around the Arc de Triomple to purify the air and soil tarnished by the enemy army. But the ultimate humiliation further widened the gap between Paris and Versailles – a place oddly symbolic of absolute monarchy – where the government has taken refuge. Parisian resentment was strong. 

When on March 17, 1871, Thiers’ government ordered the seizure in the middle of the night of the cannons of the National Guard stored on the Montmartre hill, the spark was thrown on the powder keg – to use the words of Victor Hugo: the Parisians, feeling stolen from these weapons which they financed by their subscription, killed General Lecomte and General Clément-Thomas who came to seize them. 

What was this almost suicidal rejection of the French defeat by Prussia, you may ask? French spirit is the answer. Paris was already agitated by social movements, Paris lived through a grueling four-month siege, Paris was the helpless witness of a national defeat and saw elections in February 1871 which carried the monarchists at the head of the National Assembly. So yes, Paris persisted, Paris revolted, Paris kept its cannons.

And this is how the Commune was born.

On March 26, 1871, the Council of the Paris Municipality was elected, in which all political tendencies were represented – from anarchism to radical republican movements, and in between socialism, Blanquism, the International, Jacobism – but the common base remained the idea of a democratic and social republic.

The idea that prevailed beyond a variety of professions and ideas was to pay fair compensation for the work accomplished. The measures put in place were absolutely innovative: the separation of Church and State (before the French law of 1905), the reduction of the working day to 10 hours, the reestablishment of a moratorium on rents, the freedom of association for workers, the transformation into workers’ associations of properties abandoned by their owners (who could still be compensated). Regarding women’s rights, the principle of equal pay was in place, the free union was recognized and the Paris Commune was not afraid to distinguish female muses, Louise Michel remaining the most known. 

All of this in 72 days. 

Adolphe Thiers’ government launched its troops towards Paris. The Paris Commune was crushed during the Bloody Week, from May 21 to 28, 1871. Paris was on fire and the last enclave of resistance was wiped out at the Père Lachaise cemetery, where more than 400 Commune’s fighters were shot against a wall, which has since become the Mur des Fédérés.

The amnesty for the Commune’s fighters did not come until 1880, under the Republican seal of patriotic reconciliation.

Nevertheless, this Paris Commune, which only lived for 72 days, had an incredible international impact and became the matrix of all subsequent revolutions. It also challenged politicians, whether on the struggle between labor and capital, on working-class poverty or on the people’s demand for sovereignty.  

The current French movements of Nuit Debout and Gilets Jaunes jackets – consciously or unconsciously – take their inspiration from the Paris Commune. However, we must not be fooled: the Paris Commune has always conveyed the positive image of a struggle of the weakest for social justice and for a different world, but has today become a myth exploited by several political movements. 

Just like this Sacré-Coeur basilica which is – theoretically at least – the subject of this article. Because we have to come back to this cream puff that I love to hate and that I hate to love.  The French collective unconscious (which is therefore not furiously educated on the subject, as you can understand) links the erection of the Sacré-Coeur basilica with the victims of the Paris Commune.

At first glance, it seems relatively obvious to forge close links between the Sacré-Coeur and the Paris Commune: the construction of the basilica, which began in 1875, almost immediately followed the events of the 1871 Commune, in the very place where it began, all in a desire to restore or renew an official “moral order”. 

But on closer inspection, this “new moral order” is an idea prior to the Paris Commune, since it was mentioned in January 1871 by the French philanthropist Alexandre Legentil who expressed the wish to contribute to the construction of a Parisian sanctuary dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus – in the turmoil of the French defeats and the disintegration of Catholic authority. An urn in in the crypt of the basilica is a reminder that this wish was at the origin of the erection of the Sacré-Coeur basilica. 

On closer inspection again, the law of July 24, 1873 declaring the construction of the basilica to be of public utility makes no reference to the Paris Commune.

Political recycling, once the Paris Commune is defeated and buried? Yes, probably. The personal wish becomes at the convenient political moment a national wish and in the new moral and religious order is carried away any kind of political protest. It is obvious that the episode of the Commune and its bloody defeat gives an unexpected strength to a political project until then purely private, absolutely religious and profoundly apolitical.

The Sacré-Coeur basilica remains in the collective imagination as the symbol of the repression of the Commune fighters by the goverment, but very clever will be the one who, today, will understand the origins of this bloody, religious and political birth, even though the official address of the Sacré-Coeur basilica is rue du Chevalier de la Barre – the last person executed in France for blasphemy in 1766 – and even though the basilica faces the Square Louise-Michel – the great female figure of the Paris Commune.

May 28, 2021

Sacré-Coeur website