The Paris Commune of 1871 was one of the four great traumas that shaped modern France. It stands alongside the 1789 Revolution, the ascent of Vichy, in 1940, and (odd though it seems, given how nonviolent and small-scale they were) the Events of May, 1968. Other, more outward-bending crises—the Napoleonic campaigns, the two World Wars, the battle for Algeria—made as much noise and cost far more lives, but they now belong to the settled, archival past. That Napoleon was a bad man but a big figure, that the Great War was a valiant folly, that the war in Algeria could have ended only with Algerian independence: these are easy to assent to now. The four civic crises belong to the available, still contested past, the one that hangs around and starts living arguments. People ask whether the Revolution, with a little luck and better leadership, could have avoided the Terror and Bonaparte’s subsequent dictatorship, just as they argue over whether May of ’68 was a long-overdue assertion of liberty against hierarchy or the beginning of an infantile appeal to pleasure over value.
Adam Gopnik, “The Fires of Paris”, The New Yorker (22 & 29 December 2014), 145.