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France: Anarchism and the origin of the black flag

Last modified: 2017-05-31 by ivan sache
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The origin of the black flag

In France, the first report of the use of a black flag as a sign of protest is dated from the beginning of 1831: road workers raised the black flag in Reims (Champagne) as a sign of misery and distress.
On 21 November 1831, the silk workers from the borough of La Croix-Rousse in Lyon broke out in revolt. After the National Guard had killed some workers, the city broke out in insurrection, barricades were set up in the streets and the insurgents raised the black flag with the writing Vivre en travaillant ou mourir en combattant (To live at work or to die at fight). The insurrection was suppressed a few days later, as was a second insurrection in 1834. The revolt remained known as the révolte des canuts, from the local name of the silk workers. The songwriter Aristide Bruant (1851-1925) wrote a famous protest song called Les Canuts.

On 18 March 1882, Louise Michel called for the adoption of the black flags by the anarchists during a meeting hold salle Favie in Paris. She wanted to dissociate the anarchists from the parliamentary and authoritarianist Socialists:

Plus de drapeau rouge, mouillé du sang de nos soldats. J'arborerai le drapeau noir, portant le deuil de nos morts et de nos illusions.
(No more red flag, shed with the blood of our soldiers. I will hoist the black flag, going in mourning for our dead and our illusions.)

One year later, on 9 March 1883, a demonstration of sans-travail (unemployed) took place near Hôtel des Invalides in Paris. The demonstrators were dispersed by police but could march, however. Louise Michel marched with a black underskirt fixed on the top of a broomstick. Several bakeries were looted. Louise Michel was arrested and sentenced to six years of jail for excitation au pillage (incitement to looting).

On 12 August 1883, the first issue of the newspaper Le Drapeau Noir (The Black Flag) was published in Lyon. The newspaper was repressed and disappeared after 17 issues. The first issue said:

[...] c'est sur les hauteurs de la ville de la Croix-Rousse et à Vaise que les travailleurs, poussés par la faim, arborèrent pour la première fois ce signe de deuil et de vengeance, et en firent ainsi l'emblème des revendications sociales [...]
([...] On the heights of the city [of Lyon] in la Croix-Rousse and Vaise, workers, pushed by hunger, raised for the first time this sign of mourning and revenge [the black flag], and made therefore of it the emblem of workers' demands [...])

Source: Ephémeride anarchiste

The poet and singer Léo Ferré (1916-1993) wrote in his song Les Anarchistes:

Y en a pas un sur cent / There are less than one out of hundred
Et pourtant ils existent / However, they do exist
Ils ont un drapeau noir / They have a black flag
En berne sur l'Espoir / Half-masted for Hope
Et la mélancolie / And melancholy
Pour traîner dans la vie / To roam the life
Des couteaux pour trancher / Knives to cut
Le pain de l'Amitié / The bread of Friendship
Et des armes rouillés / And rusted weapons
Pour ne pas oublier / To never forget
Les Anarchistes / The Anarchists

Ferré performed this song live for the first time on 10 May 1968 in the Mutualité in Paris, in the heart of the May 1968 insurrection.

Source: Robert Belleret - Léo Ferré Une vie d'artiste - Actes Sud / Leméac, 1996.

Ivan Sache, 11 March 2004