Conducts research and collects data on the global history of labour, workers, and labour relations

'The words I used were worse'*

Louise Michel’s speech of 3 June 1886: what did she really say?

In the short biography of Louise Michel by Hélène Saudrais on the IISH website, it is said that the period after 1885 was characterized by the following: “The next five years for Michel were spent alternating between attending meetings or in prison.”

In this contribution we zoom in on an episode in which Michel explored the boundaries of the Law on the Freedom of the Press of 1881. This bill defined the liberties and responsibilities of the press in France. It is often associated with the Déclaration des droits de l’homme et du citoyen of 1789. In this bill, the limits of press freedom are also defined: the press may not instigate to crime, murder, plundering, or arson. Editors, authors, and distributors of press media are held responsible both  individually and collectively.
Louise Michels words during a meeting on 3 June 1886 returned her to prison again.

The Strike in Decazeville

France in 1886 saw a number of sharp labour conflicts. One such conflict, one where violence played a role, was a strike of miners in Decazeville, a town in the Aveyron region. The strike broke out on January 26, after the announcement by the management of a wage cut of 34%. During skirmishes the first day, the deputy director of the mine, engineer Jules Watrin was thrown out of a window. He was severely wounded and died at the end of the day. This led to a fierce reaction by the authorities. The military moved in to quell the unrest. The strike was not broken, and lasted, with ups and downs until June 14, when workers returned to work after gaining a small victory.
The long conflict attracted a great deal of attention. Numerous solidarity meetings were organized all over France and even support from the UK and Belgium reached Decazeville.

The meeting in the Chateau d’Eau Theatre

On June 3, 1886 a large solidarity meeting was organized in Paris in the Chateu d’Eau Theatre. Among the people who spoke were Jules Guesde, Paul Lafargue, Paul Susini, and Louise Michel.

The meeting ran a lively course and was widely reported on by the press. The police estimated there were 1500 participants. Louise Michel also wrote about this meeting and the consequences in her memoirs - see next chapter. One such consequence being that these four speakers were prosecuted on the basis of the Loi du 29 juillet 1881 sur la liberté de la presse, the law of July 29, 1881 on the freedom of the press.

* Mémoires de Louise Michel. Bruxelles Tribord 2005. pp. 509

18 April 2012