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Louise Michel

Louise Michel French author and anarchist

French author and anarchist
The basics
Quick Facts
Intro French author and anarchist
A.K.A. Clémence-Louise Michel
Was Teacher Poet Writer Journalist Communard Anarchist Politician Educator
From France
Type Academia Journalism Literature Politics
Gender female
Birth 29 May 1830, Vroncourt-la-Côte
Death 9 January 1905, Marseille (aged 74 years)
Star sign GeminiGemini
Louise Michel
The details

Louise Michel (French pronunciation: [lwiz miʃɛl]; 1830–1905) was a French anarchist, school teacher, medical worker, and important figure in the Paris Commune. She often used the pseudonym Clémence and was also known as the red virgin of Montmartre. Journalist Brian Doherty has called her the "French grande dame of anarchy." Yale historian John Merriman said: "She embraced the cause of women's rights, proclaiming that one could not separate 'the caste of women from humanity'".


Louise Michel was born at the Château of Vroncourt (Haute-Marne) on 29 May 1830, the illegitimate daughter of a serving-maid, Marianne Michel, and the châtelain, Etienne Charles Demahis.

She was brought up by her mother and her father's parents near the village of Vroncourt-la-Côte and received a liberal education. She became interested in traditional customs, folk myths and legends. After her grandfather's death in 1850 she was trained to teach, but her refusal to acknowledge Napoleon III prevented her from serving in a state school. She became violently anti-Bonapartist, and is even said to have contemplated the assassination of Napoleon III. In 1866 she found her way to a school in the Montmartre quarter of Paris, where she threw herself ardently into works of charity and revolutionary politics. In 1866 a feminist group called the Société pour la Revendication du Droit des Femmes began to meet at the house of André Léo. Members included Paule Minck, Eliska Vincent, Élie Reclus and his wife Néomie, Mme Jules Simon, Caroline de Barrau, Maria Deraismes and Louise Michel. Because of the broad range of opinions, the group decided to focus on the subject of improving girls' education.


During the Paris Commune of 1871, Louise Michel was active as an ambulance woman treating those injured on the barricades. During the Siege of Paris in the Franco-Prussian War, she untiringly preached resistance against the Prussians. On the establishment of the Commune, she joined the National Guard. She offered to shoot Adolphe Thiers, President of the French Republic, and suggested the destruction of Paris as a form of vengeance against the victorious Prussians.

She was with the Communards, who made their last stand in the cemetery of Montmartre, and was closely allied with Théophile Ferré, who was executed in November 1871. Michel dedicated a moving farewell poem to Ferré, l’œillet rouge (The Red Carnation). Upon learning of this loss, Victor Hugo dedicated his poem Viro Major to Michel. This ardent attachment was perhaps one of the sources of the exaltation which marked Michel's career, and gave many handles to her enemies.

The text of the L’œillet rouge" is as follows:

If were to go to the black cemetery
Brothers, throw on your sister,
As a final hope,
Some red 'carnations' in bloom.

In the final days of Empire,
When the people were awakening,
It was your smile red carnation
which told us that all was being reborn.

Today, go blossom in the shadow of the black and sad prisons.
Go, bloom near the somber captive,
And tell him/her truly that we love him/her.
Tell that through fleeting time
Everything belongs to the future
That the livid-browed conqueror
can die more surely than the conquered.

Michel in uniform.

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 vowed never to renounce the Commune, and dared the judges to sentence her to death. Reportedly, Michel told the court, "Since it seems that every heart that beats for freedom has no right to anything but a little slug of lead, I demand my share. If you let me live, I shall never cease to cry for vengeance."

She spent twenty months in prison and was sentenced to deportation.

At this time the Versailles press gave her the name la Louve rouge, la Bonne Louise (the red she-wolf, the good Louise).


Michel was loaded onto the ship Virginie on 8 August 1873, 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. Most likely, it was this latter contact that led Louise to become an anarchist. She remained in New Caledonia for seven years, refusing special treatment reserved for women. Befriending the local Kanaks, she attempted to educate them and, unlike others in the commune, took their side in the 1878 Kanak revolt. She is even said to have sent the ringleader of the rebellion, Ataï, a piece of her scarf.

The arrest of Louise Michel in May 1871

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) — and later in schools for girls.

Return to France

In 1880, amnesty was granted to the Communards and Michel returned to Paris, her revolutionary passion undiminished. She gave a public address on the 21st of November, 1880 and continued her revolutionary activity in Europe, attending the anarchist congress in London in 1881, where she led demonstrations, spoke to huge crowds, and headed a libertarian school. Whilst 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.

She travelled throughout France, preaching revolution, and in 1883 she led a Paris mob which pillaged a baker's shop. For this she was condemned to six years' imprisonment, but was released in 1886, at the same time as Kropotkin and other prominent anarchists. After a short period of freedom, she was again arrested for making inflammatory speeches. She was soon liberated, but, hearing that her enemies hoped to intern her in a lunatic asylum, she fled to England in 1890. She returned to France in 1895, taking part in the agitation provoked by the Dreyfus affair in 1898, and from this time forward, she divided her time between conferences and stays with friends in London.

Michel was stopped many times during demonstrations, and was again incarcerated for six years, but was eventually freed after three years, thanks to the intervention of Georges Clemenceau, so that she could see her dying mother. She went on to be incarcerated several more times, although for shorter periods.

Louise Michel at home in France during her later years.

During a period of illness she visited Algeria.

She was touring France and lecturing on behalf of anarchist causes when she died in Marseille on January 10, 1905. Her funeral in Paris drew an immense crowd that did not fail to impress contemporaries. Numerous orators spoke.

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.

Social legacy

Michel was greatly admired for her association with the Paris Commune. From her death until 1916, a demonstration was held every year at her tomb at Levallois-Perret.

A legendary figure of the labour movement, adept at inciting crowds to act, Michel is often described in language more commonly used for saints and heretics: e.g. "Bonne Louise" (Good Louise) and "Vierge rouge" (Red Virgin).

She was, with George Sand, one of the rare women of the 19th century to have worn male clothing at one stage of her life.

Michel's literary legacy consists of a few theoretical essays and some poems, legends and tales, including some for children. Perhaps the best known of these works is her thousand-page novel "La misère" (Poverty), which denounced the social crisis of the suburbs long before it was recognized as a problem.

Michel's tomb at the Levallois-Perret cemetery

Although primarily remembered for her militant activism — i.e., for her so-called "Social Revolution" — her name is frequently given to primary and secondary schools in French towns. She thus has an implicit image in French culture as France's school teacher.

On May 1, 1946, the Parisian métro station "Vallier" was renamed Louise Michel. See: Louise Michel (Paris Métro).

In 1975, the courtyard in front of the Basilica of Sacré-Coeur in Montmartre, Paris was named in Louise Michel's honor. The sign at the gate proclaims her a "Heroine of the Commune".

In 2005, the hundredth anniversary of her death was celebrated. During the celebration, two seminars paid homage to the "bonne Louise," notably the important March seminar "Louise Michel, figure of transversality" (led by Valérie Morignat), organized by the mayor of Paris and the cultural association Actazé. This event brought together 22 Louise Michel specialists.


Michel once joked, "We love to have agents provocateurs in the party, because they always propose the most revolutionary motions."


  • À travers la vie, poetry, Paris, 1894.
  • Le Bâtard impérial, by L. Michel and J. Winter, Paris, 1883.
  • Le claque-dents, Paris.
  • La Commune, Paris, 1898.
  • Contes et légendes, Paris, 1884.
  • Les Crimes de l'époque, nouvelles inédites, Paris, 1888.
  • Défense de Louise Michel, Bordeaux, 1883.
  • L'Ère nouvelle, pensée dernière, souvenirs de Calédonie (prisoners' songs), Paris, 1887
  • La Fille du peuple par L. Michel et A. Grippa, Paris (1883) Fleurs et ronces, poetry, Paris,
  • Le Gars Yvon, légende bretonne, Paris, 1882.
  • Lectures encyclopédiques par cycles attractifs, Paris, 1888.
  • Ligue internationale des femmes révolutionnaires, Appel à une réunion. Signed "Louise Michel", Paris, 1882.
  • Le livre du jour de l'an : historiettes, contes et légendes pour les enfants, Paris, 1872.
  • Lueurs dans l'ombre. Plus d'idiots, plus de fous. L'âme intelligente. L'idée libre. L'esprit lucide de la terre à Dieu... Paris, 1861.
  • Manifeste et proclamation de Louise Michel aux citoyennes de Paris, Signed "Louise Maboul", Paris, 1883.
  • Mémoires, Paris, 1886, t. 1.
  • Les Méprises, grand roman de mœurs parisiennes, par Louise Michel et Jean Guêtré, Paris, 1882.
  • Les Microbes humains, Paris, 1886. (translated by Brian Stableford as The Human Microbes, ISBN 978-1-61227-116-3)
  • La Misère by Louise Michel, 2nd part, and Jean Guêtré 1st part, Paris, 1882.
  • Le Monde nouveau, Paris, 1888 (translated by Brian Stableford as The New World, ISBN 978-1-61227-117-0)
  • Louise Michel à Victor Hugo, lettres de prison et du bagne (1871-1879) "Nous reviendrons foule sans ombre", lettres de prison et du bagne (1871-1879), adaptation de Virginie Berling, coll. Scènes intempestives à Grignan, ed. TriArtis, Paris 2016, ISBN 978-2-916724-78-2.
  • Vol. I. Avant la Commune. Preface by Laurent Tailhade, Alfortville, 1905.
  • Les Paysans by Louise Michel et Émile Gautier, Paris, Incomplete.
  • Prise de possession, Saint-Denis, 1890.
  • Le Rêve (in a work by Constant Martin), Paris, 1898.
  • Légendes et chants de gestes canaques. Présentation. Gérard Oberlé. Edition 1900. 1988.
  • Je vous écris de ma nuit, correspondance générale, 1850-1904, edition established by Xavière Gauthier, Édition de Paris-Max Chaleil, 1999.

In the press

Michel was often discussed in the French press during her lifetime, as well as the English-language press in Britain and the United States. These are a sample of press caricatures of Michel:

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