Why lespetroleuse?

October 31, 2009

This blog was emphatically not named after Les Petroleuses, the 1971 film in which Frenchie (Brigitte Bardot) and Maria (Claudia Cardinale) battle for control of a town founded by and for French people in the American Old West. Oh no.

Nor does it have anything to do with the early C21st electronic band of the same name – sometime part, apparently, of the French music collective Nouvelle Vague – whose works are variously described as jazz, indie trip-hop and downtempo. Oh no.

Lespetroleuse is named after the ‘folk devil’ female incendiaries who were held to be responsible for setting fire to Paris during and after the defeat of the 1871 democratic republican insurrection known as the Commune. Oh yes.

Historian Gay Gullickson tells it thus;-

“…one of the most powerful symbols of the C19th was created – the petroleuse. Virtually overnight this representation of the dangerous, unruly, female incendiary came to symbolize the evil of the Commune for its critics.
She could not have been imagined without the fires that burned furiously in parts of the city but she was also the heir of the female representations already circulating – the gun-wielding amazons, furies, viragoes, female orators and cantinieres.”

The point is, les petroleuses were a figment of the imagination of the successful counter-revolutionaries who brutally suppressed the Commune killing 20,000 of their compatriots. Les Petroleuses had the leading role in many a nightmare of those with hands on the levers of power; always a part worth auditioning for.

Very real and larger than life however, was Louise Michel, perhaps the model on which this folk devil was based; a woman who, on trial for her revolutionary actions, said from the dock-

“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.”

Difficult not to admire the courage and defiance involved in contemptuously urging a despised state, already responsible for the death of so many of her comrades, to do its worst.

And they bottled it.

It was probably a bigger mistake than my dropping the ‘s’ off the end of Les Petroleuses.

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