From the Commune to Today, the Political Layers of Paris’ Working-class Neighborhoods


We conclude this issue by “going back” to Paris, in the neighborhoods where the last defense of the Commune against the Versailles army was led. In the last 150 years, many proletarian and/or immigration movements continued to add to the political ‘geological strata’ of these neighborhoods. On January 22, 2021, Léopold invited Funambulist friends Mogniss H. Abdallah and Hajer Ben Boubaker to take a stroll to excavate some of these strata.

Lambert Funambulist 2
Mogniss and Hajer, on Place des Grès, at the beginning of our walk. / Photo by Léopold Lambert (January 22, 2021).

Léopold Lambert: We have a small itinerary that will take us to the working-class neighborhoods of Paris’ 20th arrondissement where the Commune was particularly present, and where the last battles against the Versailles army took place. We will try to do a reading of the historical and political layers of these neighborhoods from the Commune to the present day. It may seem a little bit disjointed, as we’re going to jump from one era to another all the time. However, I think that it will only appear disjointed to people who are used to thinking about history through a very chronological reading. For those who are used to thinking about history through other approaches — in particular from a spatial point of view — they might be able to follow this excavation of the various political geological layers of the spaces that we will cross. A good starting point for this interview can be a conversation that I had with you, Hajer one or two years ago. I heard from you, as well as from a few other anti-racist activists that, despite your families not living yet in France at the time, you consider the Commune as the first moment of French history that you are making yours. Could we start with this?

Hajer Ben Boubaker: It’s true, that’s what I said, and that’s what I still think today. Indeed, my family was not at all in France at that time. In 1871, they were probably in Tunisia — and still, I’m not even sure. I think that the Commune’s ideal goes beyond the notions of nation-states and national belonging, so it really resonates for people who, like me, do not necessarily find themselves in the pre-established categories of the current French nation-state. The left-wing ideal carried by the Commune echoes for me, not only because it almost worked, but because it really proposed a revolutionary vision and a real overhaul of the systems that prevailed and still prevail today. And so, inevitably, I recognized something when I discovered the Commune, rather belatedly. Belatedly indeed, since it’s not really part of the school programs. So it was later, during adolescence, when I became interested in left-wing movements and started my activist journey, that I discovered the Commune. It’s also because I come from a neighborhood — the 18th arrondissement — where certain events had their importance in the Commune. It’s true that this memory can be a little more present among young people who claim to be left-wing. Because the Sacré-Cœur Basilica is there. Because when one understands the meaning of Sacré-Coeur, the meaning of its construction by the French state after the Commune, one wonders about history. And it may sound a little bit like Parisian pride, but this attachment to the Commune also comes from this local belonging. The Commune has given full value to local belonging, to local autonomy, according to the specificities of the territories where it was deployed. And so it still makes sense to me today as an ideal that goes beyond the differences imposed by the state.

LL: What about you Mogniss? What’s your relationship to the Paris Commune?