A Visit to the Assemblée Nationale

Chambers of the Assembly

Chambers of the Assembly – l’hémicycle

Like our previous articles about the Sénat, Hôtel de Ville, and Sorbonne during the special weekend for Journées Européennes du Patrimoine, we also went to the Assemblée Nationale, the French legislative branch lower house. The Assemblée Nationale is not normally open to the public.

A little about the Assemblée Nationale – it consists of 577 members elected directly by the public in a two election process. All candidates compete in the first round of the election. Then in many cases the two candidates with the most votes in round 1 compete in round 2, though it’s possible for a candidate to win outright on the 1st round if he/she has a simple majority. Members serve a term of 5 years. The President of the Republic has the power to dissolve the Assemblée Nationale – a way to resolve stalemates, and the Assemblée has the power to overthrow the executive (the Prime Minister and Ministers of the Cabinet) through a vote of no confidence. In practice neither of these measures are exercised because the President and majority of the Assemblée are from the same party, and the President’s term coincides with those of the members of the Assemblée, so throughout his/her term, there is a majority from his/her party to defeat such a vote. A vote to censure the executive branch is usually a form of protest that can never pass. The Assemblée is presided over by the President of the Assemblée, currently Claude Bartolone. The President is from the majority party. He also has several vice presidents from the other parties.

The Assemblée meets in the Palais Bourbon, which is located along the Seine across the river from Place de la Concorde. The Palais was built by Louis XIV for one of his daughters, Louise François de Bourbon. Construction was completed in 1728. The President of the Assemblée resides in an adjoining building, the Hôtel de Lassay. Our tour visited parts of both these buildings.

We waited probably an hour in a long line outside before reaching the entry to the Hôtel de Lassay. We proceeded through the opulent public spaces of that building and then along the corridor joining it to the Palais Bourbon. All along the way there were placards in French explaining details of the spaces and how that space is used in the daily operation of the legislature. Too many details to cover for you. The highlights of the Palais Bourbon were the assembly chambers, with a huge skylight in the overhead. The library with ceilings by the famous French painter Eugene Delacroix was spectacular. It contained such works as the trial transcript of Joan d’Arc, an Aztec calendar, a copy of the constitution annotated by Robespierre, and numerous articles and manuscripts by Lamartine, Hugo, Clemenceau, Jaurès, and other famous French statesmen.

You can see a photo tour here, and there is a more comprehensive virtual tour on the French web site here.

Tour of the Sorbonne

Main entry into the Sorbonne

Like our previous articles about the Sénat and Hôtel de Ville, during the special weekend for Journées Européennes du Patrimoine, we also went to the historic Sorbonne, which is not normally open to the public. A lovely couple we met on one of the Paris Walks told us about this special weekend or we never would have known. La Sorbonne was first a college started in the middle ages, part of the loose affiliation known as the University of Paris, which still adorns the entry, and now refers to the historic building in the Latin Quarter of Paris, which is used in part by four different universities:

  • Panthéon-Sorbonne University (Paris I), which also houses the observatory of the Sorbonne and the Sorbonne Law School.
  • Sorbonne Nouvelle University (Paris III)
  • Paris-Sorbonne University (Paris IV), which also houses the “School of Journalism (CELSA)” and the “Maison de la Recherche”
  • Paris Descartes University: Faculté des Sciences Humaines et Sociales – Sorbonne (Paris V)
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Shown outline is the Phillip Augustus city wall. The portion inside the wall south of (below) the Seine River is the Latin Quarter.

I was hoping to find a simple explanation for origin of colleges and universities in the Latin Quarter – but no (more details here). The simplest starting point is that the church, represented by the Cathedral at Notre Dame, encouraged development of schools on the left bank. Students could be identified because the tops of their heads were shaven, and those with that identification were under the protection of the church, and not subject to the King’s laws or courts. Paris, as is shown in the diagram of the city wall of Phillip Augustus, which was completed in about 1215, included portions on the right bank and left bank with a core on Île de la Cité. The Latin quarter is in the south (bottom) part of the picture. The right bank (north part) was governed by the Provost (mayor of the merchants – he lived at Hôtel de Ville). The King lived on Île de la Cité and governed that space. On the left bank the students were only accountable to ecclesiastical jurisdiction, and the King had no authority there. Originally there were the palace school, the school of Notre Dame, and the Saint Geneviève Abbey, as well as numerous smaller schools. The school of Saint Victor later rose to rival the earlier schools, and the palace school faded in importance. One of its most famous professors (I must point out) was Hugh of Saint Victor. It seems, though the literature is not positive, that these three remaining schools formed the University of Paris in about 1208. The students were also organized by nations, a fraternity like arrangement where students of certain nationalities spoke a common language and complied with a certain set of rules.

The chapel at the Sorbonne was destroyed in the French Revolution

The chapel at the Sorbonne was destroyed in the French Revolution – painting at the Carnavalet Museum

The Collège de Sorbonne, was founded in 1257 by Robert de Sorbon. The Latin quarter had many scholar residents who taught students. The original colleges were started to house and feed the students rather than to provide classrooms and administration for the faculty. In later years the college was reformed to become the university it is today.

France’s principal minister under Louis XIII, Cardinal Richelieu, is represented today as an important figure in the life of the Sorbonne. In 1622, Richelieu was elected the proviseur or principal of the Sorbonne. He presided over the renovation of the college’s buildings, and over the construction of its famous chapel, where he is now entombed. There is more about his internment at the Chapel of the Sorbonne (from the Wikipedia article):

Richelieu died on 4 December 1642, aged 57. His body was embalmed, and interred at the church of the Sorbonne. (On hearing of Richelieu’s death, Pope Urban is said to have remarked, “If there is a God, Richelieu will have much to answer for. If there is not, he lived a successful life.”) During the French Revolution, the corpse was removed from its tomb, and the mummified front of his head, having been removed and replaced during the original embalming process, was stolen. It ended up in the possession of Nicholas Armez of Brittany by 1796, and he occasionally exhibited the well-preserved face. His nephew, Louis-Philippe Armez, inherited it and also occasionally exhibited it and lent it out for study. In 1866, Napoleon III persuaded Armez to return the face to the government for re-interment with the rest of Richelieu’s body.

The French Revolution also destroyed the chapel, which has not been completely restored to this day and is only opened on special occasions. Our photo tour below includes photos of the present day chapel.

The 20th Century again brought a major transformation to the Sorbonne and the University of Paris. Following contentious demonstrations and riots at the University in 1968, in 1970 the University of Paris was reorganized into 13 autonomous successor universities, four of which occupy the historic building of the Sorbonne, as noted above.

From the Paris-Sorbonne University web site:

Paris Sorbonne University is the main inheritor of the old Sorbonne, which dates back to the 13th century. It was one of the first universities in the world.

The biggest complex in France, dedicated to Literature, Languages, Civilizations, Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, is located on the original medieval foundations, and now extends to the Latin Quarter and to other areas in Paris.

The University has two characteristics : rich culture and tradition, with top-quality researchers, and therefore an excellent scientific reputation shown through publications and international exchanges; its concern to constantly adapt to present day social and technological changes and to encourage as many students as possible to study at Paris-Sorbonne while preparing for their future careers. The Sorbonne incites its students to think freely, to construct their own judgment, so that they can become responsible and inventive citizens who can promote dignity and peace culture.

Our photo tour to tries to capture some of this famous institution. See the photo captions to find out more about some of the famous people who studied and taught there. Many have had an influence on our lives in America. Also in the photo tour (and potentially of more interest to some) are photos of some Paris fashions that were on display in the main salon as we passed through. Magnifique!

Story of a painting in my parent’s living room

Irene Cahen d'Anvers by Pierre-Auguste Renoir

Irene Cahen d’Anvers by Pierre-Auguste Renoir

I’ve been told that this story is confusing. If you need to get a pencil and paper please do so now.

An inexpensive copy of this painting used to hang in my parent’s living room in Peoria, Illinois, when I was growing up. The original, titled “Mademoiselle Irène Cahen d’Anvers”, was painted in 1880 by the famous Impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir after he received a commission from the Cahen d’Anvers family of Paris. Irène was then 11 years old. When the work was completed, the family told Renoir that they did not like the painting and offered only 1500 francs, far less than the painter’s normal fee, to purchase both this painting and another showing Irène’s two younger sisters.

Our story begins last weekend, when we were on a Paris-Walks Tour showing Paris of the Impressionists. The tour focused on Parc Monceau and the nearby neighborhood l’Europe. Our guide displayed the picture while talking about two large houses in the neighborhood and how the son of one of the owners had rejected joining the family business so he could study art. That son later became a collector of art and financial backer of the Impressionists. The story of the Impressionists in this part of Paris we’ll save for another time, but that painting – it was in my parent’s living room – who was that person again?

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Oriel Caine of Paris Walks shows us the photo in her notebook

In 1868, a Sephardic Jewish banking family from Constantinople moved to Paris. Two brothers, Behor Abraham Camondo and Nissim Camondo, purchased and built houses on side-by-side lots adjoining what is today the beautiful Park Monceau. Behor died and passed his home to his son Isaac. Isaac was the son who decided to study art. Nissim died and passed his home to his son Möise. Möise later (in 1912) rebuilds the other property into a masterpiece of 18th century French art and furniture. However, long before that, in 1891 he married Iréne Cahen D’Anvers (the woman in the painting), and they had two children, Nissim and Béatrice. They were married just 5 years before separating and later divorcing, and when they separated, the children remained with their father Möise. In 1896 Irène (the woman in the painting) converted to Catholicism and ran off with the Camondo’s stable man, Count Charles Sampieri. The painting of Iréne was given back to Iréne’s mother as part of the divorce settlement, and in 1910 she gave the portrait to Iréne’s daughter Béatrice.

Family home of Moise de Camondo, where the children grew up

Family home of Moise de Camondo, where the children grew up

World War I began in 1914, and late in the war tragedy struck when in 1917 Nissim (Möise’s son) was killed in aerial combat in Lorraine. This was a great blow to his father Möise, who from that point withdrew from public life. In 1918 his daughter Béatrice married Léon Reinach and had two children, Fanny and Bertrand. They purchased their own home, so Möise was then alone in his large mansion. Moïse died in 1935, with his fortune largely going to his daughter Béatrice. His mansion and art collection were donated to the City of Paris to establish Musee Nissim de Camondo to honor his deceased son Nissim.

In 1940 the Germans invaded and occupied France. Prior to that time Béatrice had divorced Léon and converted to Catholicism. She was very wealthy and well connected socially, and thinking she was safe from the Nazi’s harassment of Jews, she ignored Léon’s warning to take the children out of the country. In 1943 they were all arrested – Béatrice, Léon and their children and were sent to an internment camp and then to Auschwitz, where they were all killed. Béatrice’s estranged mother Irène (the woman in the painting), now separated from Charles the former stable man, was able to save herself from arrest by hiding behind her former husband’s Italian last name and religion.

The Renoir painting was confiscated from Béatrice in 1941 by the Germans and became the property of General Hermann Göring in Paris. He sold it to an art dealer representing Emil Bürhle, a Swiss collector and head of an arms manufacturing business. In 1946 Irène saw the painting of herself on display at an exhibition of Paris art, and she applied for and eventually succeeded in having it returned to her custody. In 1949 she sold the painting through a gallery, and the purchaser was Emil Georg Bürhle, the same person who bought it previously. The painting remains today in the Bürhle Foundation Museum in Zurich.

According to several sources, Irène was the sole heir to daughter Béatrice’s fortune from the former de Camondo estate. Sources say that she gambled away or otherwise spent the money made on that portrait and the entire Camondo fortune in casinos in southern France during the many years before 1963, when she died in Paris at age 91.

I sent a post card of the painting to my 91 year old mother with a note telling the story of  Irène, her family, and the picture that was in our living room.

A Visit to the Sénat

Main staircase to the Luxembourg Palace

Grand Staircase of the Palais du Luxembourg

As part of the event called Journées Européennes du Patrimoine, we toured the Sénat, which is one of two legislative houses of the French government, similar to (but also different from) the Senate and House of Representatives in the US. The Sénat represents grass roots France, providing a voice for the governments of all municipalities. It also represents French citizens living abroad, who do not have a voice in the National Assembly. In France the government (the President of the Republic and his ministers) has priority in setting the agenda before the legislative assemblies, though members of the both assemblies may also introduce legislation and time is set aside in their monthly agenda for the discussion of member’s legislation.

There are 348 senators, each elected for a period of 6 years with elections held every 3 years to renew half of the members of the house. Senators are elected indirectly by electoral colleges made up mostly of delegates of municipal councils. The number of senators from any given municipality varies according to its population. The Sénate cannot make the government resign, but Senators can investigate and question ministers of the government. It also has a committee specifically dedicated to the review of legislation and regulations of the European Union. And  it also participates in various ways in the international relations of France. Although the President of the Republic can dissolve the National Assembly, he or she must consult with the President of the Sénat prior to doing so. The Sénate cannot be dissolved.

Until an election can be held, the President of the Sénat also is tasked with temporarily replacing the President of the Republic should he die or resign. The President of the Sénat is elected to a 3 year term. There is a managing committee of 25 senators, including 8 deputy speakers, 3 Questers who handle the management and administration of the Sénat, and 14 secretaries who supervise voting. There are 7 standing committees, one of which is assigned to review each new piece of legislation.

Our tour was of the Sénate quarters in the Luxembourg Palace (Palais du Luxembourg), built following the death of King Henry IV by his wife Marie de’ Medici starting in 1612. It was declared a National Palace in 1791 after the Revolution. Our tour started at the Petit Luxembourg, to the west of the Palais du Luxembourg, and connected to it through interior courts. The Petit Luxembourg was the sixteenth-century original hôtel of the duc de Piney-Luxembourg and was rebuilt during the construction of the Luxembourg Palace. It was once the home of Cardinal Richelieu. Since 1958, the Petit-Luxembourg has been the official residence of the President of the French Senate (président du Sénat). We saw the public spaces used by the Sénat President.

Then we proceeded into the Luxembourg Palace and up the grand staircase, through the various salons and offices, through the spectacular library with paintings by Eugene Delacroix and a fabulous view of the gardens, then into the Sénat chambers, then to the huge  golden Conference Hall and yet another spectacular space with Sénat Archives. Lastly we saw a short film about the Sénat and toured some of the media spaces. You can see some photos of our tour at this photo tour.

Hôtel de Ville

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Hotel de Ville with beach volley ball court and palms set up in the square

Every year during a weekend in September the French government opens for public touring many buildings normally closed to the public. The event is called Journées Européennes du Patrimoine, and one way we took advantage of the opportunity was to see Hôtel de Ville (city hall).

Hôtel in French is used in the name of many different types of buildings. Some hotels are hotels, but the name can apply also to hospital buildings, private residences, police stations and government buildings. Hôtel de Ville is the standard term for city hall. I had no idea that it wasn’t a hotel the first time I saw it. Unlike City Hall in Poulsbo, Hôtel de Ville is not a place you can wander into to pay your water bill – each of the city’s administrative districts (called arrondissements), has its own building for the normal interactions between citizens and government. Hôtel de Ville is where city council meets and the mayor lives, though the current mayor Bertrand Delanoë declined to live there and opened up his flat as a nursery for workers children and for the display of public works of art.

Hôtel de Ville was established in 1357 by Etienne Marcel, then provost (mayor) of the merchants. In those days he would have had jurisdiction over the affairs on the right bank. Paris had separate administrations for the left bank (colleges and the University of Paris) and for Île de la Cité. The square in front was then called Place de la Grève (now Place de l’Hôtel de Ville) and was used for public floggings and executions. You can see a good description in the “Hunchback of Notre Dame”. These days it is used for more mundane public entertainment – an ice skating rink, a garden show complete with tons of dirt, trees and grasses planted, & lawn chairs, a tennis court with big screen and lots of chairs to view the French open, a rock concert, or beach volleyball courts with tons of sand for Paris Plage.

In 1537 King François I established plans for a new building in the Renaissance style. He was also rebuilding the Louvre Palace in a similar manner. Work on the new Hôtel de Ville was not completed until 1628 during the reign of Louis XIII, but no further changes were made after that for the next 200 years. During the French Revolution in 1789, the mayor was killed by an angry crowd, and a few years later the Jacobin leader Maximilien Robespierre, leader of the Terror that was such a destructive part of the Revolution, was wounded (prior to his execution) when he fled there after the National Convention had voted to execute him and other members of his Committee for Public Safety. In 1835 two more wings were added to allow more space for the government. During the revolt of the Paris Commune following the Franco Prussian War of 1870, the Communards burned the building down. Hôtel de Ville was redesigned and rebuilt from 1870 to 1892 using the same exterior stone walls but redesigning the interior in the 19th century style.

Our tour was fantastic. The city had employees on hand to explain many details about the building and promote some aspects of local government. The huge halls and staircases were spectacular. There were people to explain how the parquet floors are made, about the special hardware they use on doors, how the old furniture is maintained, how the heating system is maintained, and how they keep the clocks working. They showed how the city saves money on electricity by converting the chandeliers and other lights to LED lighting. They showed art work made from recycled materials, and other artworks displayed in the Mayor’s quarters. We saw the chambers for the city council, as well as their huge library. The extensive Mayor’s office was reserved for last. The art work in the mayor’s office is on loan from museums and private parties.

See more photos of Hôtel de Ville.

Visit to the Arc de Triomphe

Hugh and Brenda at Place de l'Étoile - Feb 2013

Hugh and Brenda at Place de l’Étoile – Feb 2013

What we term as a visit to the Arc de Triomphe actually consisted of several visits. Many of our visitors have wanted to see it. There is a tunnel under the wide circle around the monument so you can avoid having to cross the street in the chaotic traffic of this huge round-a-bout, and the view from the top is stunning. On one visit I spent a wonderful evening there watching the city lights come on.

The Arc is one of the most famous monuments in the world. It has a longer formal name, the Arc de Triomphe de l’Étoile. Étoile is French for star, and the famous round where streets join at the Arc is called Place de l’Étoile. There is another smaller but similar arc at the Louvre called the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel.

The Arc was commissioned in 1806 by Emperor Napoleon I following his victory in the Battle of Austerlitz (fought in the modern Czech Republic), one of Napoleon’s most daring and famous victories. The Arc honors those who fought and died for France in the French Revolutionary (1792-1802) and the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815), basically corresponding to the periods of the First Republic and then Napoleon’s First Empire. These wars were complex. At the time of the revolution, other imperial governments wanted to support France’s fallen monarchy and feared that similar populist uprisings might occur in their kingdoms. The Holy Roman Emperor was also the brother of French Queen Marie Antoinette, so he had an interest. The Austrian Empire, Prussians, Russians, and English, as well as others at various times, opposed the French and their allies. These conflicts occurred for nearly 25 years in various seemingly interminable phases throughout Europe and North Africa, until first Napoleon’s defeat in Russia and then his subsequent loss at Waterloo put an end to the conflict.

After a long period of construction, the monument was completed in about 1835 during the reign of King Louis Phillipe. It is about 165 feet high by 150 feet wide and 75 feet deep. The arch is so large that in 1919 a daredevil pilot flew his biplane through it. Four main sculptures depicting the Departure of the Volunteers (1792), the Triumph (1810), the Resistance (1813), and the Peace (1815) adorn the legs of the monument. Six reliefs on the upper facades depict famous battles (including Austerlitz) and the funeral of the famous Revolutionary War General Marceau. Shields across the top are engraved with the names of significant victories. The names of Generals and battles won are also engraved on the inside of the monument. At the base is the French tomb of the unknown soldier. The eternal flame for the unknown soldier was the inspiration for the eternal flame at John F Kennedy’s grave. Also mounted at the base are brass memorial plates honoring soldiers from various more recent battles in French history.

The arch is a focal point of many events, Bastille Day ceremonies, the return of Napoleon’s remains to Paris (he is buried at Invalides), the funeral of Victor Hugo, the celebration of the end of WWI and WWII (as well as by the Nazi’s when France was occupied). Every year the Tour de France bicycle race ends here.

See some photos of the monument and the view from the top.

Another Great Adventure

Brenda looking for something else to do.You might wonder how we figure out what to do each day. Well often things are well planned – visitors, appointments, concerts, etc., but some days the plan just evolves. Here is an example.

We set out to see the Jardin de la Nouvelle France, which Brenda read about on a Paris Blog – the writer went on and on about it being a hidden treasure and a wonderful place to spend the afternoon. I looked at the map and noted that it was tucked in behind the Grand Palais on the other side of the building from the Champs Elysees. We had walked by it before, and I knew exactly where to go, so after a quick ride on the Metro – voila – we arrived.

It was a small park and we finished exploring the whole place in about 5 minutes. We couldn’t find some of the items we thought were there (the link above shows statues and a memorial scupture to French explorers of Canada), so figuring we must have misunderstood, we decided to explore several other park areas along the Champs Elysees. We found several other park areas and some large statues, but not an afternoon’s entertainment. We meandered onward. You can just follow along on Google Maps if you want.

I suggested that we go to WH Smith, an English language bookstore near Place de la Concord. We walked along the Champs Élysées until we reached Place de la Concorde. We looked along the Champs Élysées for the Élysée Palace, where the President of France lives. We could see the flag, but security was heavy, and we couldn’t get a good look at the building. I noticed we were right by the US Embassy, so tried to take a photo – but no – I heard the sharp whistle of the nearby guard warning me that no photos are permitted. You have to be able to whistle loudly with your fingers to make it on the police and security forces here.

We visited WH Smith. Brenda bought Elle magazine in French. I noticed this huge building at Place de la Madeleine – looks sort of like the Parthenon in Athens. Must investigate. Enroute we used Yelp to find the closest boulangerie, where we stopped for a sandwich. We first saw the building at Madeleine the night we were going to see a Melody Gardot concert. We had walked over there looking for another metro station after our metro train caught on fire and we were evacuated.

The big building turned out to be a Catholic church – L’église de la Madeleine (Church of Mary Magdaline). An older church originally on the site was replaced by a design selected by Emperor Napoleon I, Temple de la Gloire de la Grande Armée (“Temple to the Glory of the Great Army”). The old church was razed, but the Temple was not completed before Napoleon was forced to step down. The design was finally completed many years later, and it was again consecrated as a Catholic church, opening in 1842. Services are held here daily. Chopin’s funeral was held at this church. The neoclassical design is massive, and the interior is spectacular.

Along the way to see the church, we spotted another huge cathedral down the road – what was that? After departing L’église de la Madeleine, we hiked up Boulevard Malesherbes to the next church, which turned out to be L’église Saint Augustin de Paris. This massive church was not as light and bright and spectacular as L’église de la Madeleine but still very impressive. Outside it is a statue of Joan of Arc, erected in 1896. Inside was a sign noting that in 1886 a man named Charles de Foucauld was converted to Catholicism. He became a priest and spent many years spreading the faith in the Sahara in southern Algeria. He was assassinated and became a Catholic martyr in 1916. He was beatified by Pope Benedict XVI in 2005. According to Wikipedia:

The Prefect of Paris, Baron Haussmann was responsible for much of the design of the layout of Paris’s rectilinear avenues, which called for prestigious edifices. Saint-Augustin was built between 1860 and 1871 by Victor Baltard (architect of Les Halles) in an eclectic and vaguely Byzantine style. It is almost 100 metres in length, with a dome height of 80 metres, and was one of the first sizable buildings in Paris constructed about a metal frame.

So that was how we spent the day. That night I posted to Facebook about a shop we passed along the way – Odiot.

See pictures of the day’s adventure.

Victor Hugo

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Portrait of Victor Hugo from the museum

No extended trip to Paris would be complete without delving into the life of French poet, writer, artist, and politician Victor Hugo. His literary achievements and fame go far beyond his two best known works in the English speaking world, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” and “Les Miserables“. Later in life he was also a well known politician and member of the French Assembly and Senate. He is buried among France’s most famous intellectual heroes at the Pantheon, just a few blocks up the hill from our apartment.

Hugo was born in 1803 – Napoleon Bonaparte was at the height of his military success and would soon become Emperor Napoleon I. Hugo’s father was a high ranking officer in Napoleon’s army, and his mother was a Catholic loyal to the King. Thus Hugo’s parents were politically at odds. The family settled in Paris by the time of Victor’s birth, but because of his father’s travels, Victor was able from an early age to see some of the world outside France. His beliefs, however, started out more like his mother’s. He was educated primarily in Paris and married his childhood sweetheart Adèle in 1822. They had 5 children. One died in infancy. The oldest daughter Lèopoldine drowned in the Seine at age 19 along with her husband, who was trying to save her. This was a great loss to Hugo and the frequent subject of his poetry. Later in life he lost his wife and 2 sons in a short period, then committed his daughter Adèle to an insane asylum. He was no stranger to heart rending effects of love and loss, and his writing reveals the impact such loss has in the lives of his characters.

Hugo’s first novel, Notre Dame de Paris (The Hunchback of Notre Dame) was published in 1831, the same year he moved into a fine apartment at Place des Vosges, the oldest square in Paris. Though Hugo later spent a considerable amount of time living elsewhere, a family friend purchased the apartment at Place de Vosges after Hugo’s death and donated it to the City of Paris to become today’s Victor Hugo Museum.

The museum combines elements and artifacts from throughout Hugo’s life. It also displays his artwork. Though not a professional artist, he was talented and loved to sketch and draw.

The novel Notre Dame de Paris was a huge success. It has a host of characters, including the hunchback Quasimodo, the gypsy Esmeralda, an aspiring writer Pierre Gringoire, Archdeacon Claude Frollo (who both raised a younger brother and adopted Quasimodo), the valiant officer Phoebus, a grieving mother locked for life in Tour Roland, King Louis XI, and of course the Church itself. Prior to reading the book, I had always thought of Quasimodo as some kind of monster or comic character who haunted the Cathedral, but he is actually a very real human with severe deformities trying to find a life during the middle ages. I won’t go into further detail about the novel in the hope that some of you might give the English version a try. It remains today a fascinating and gripping story.

Hugo was a romanticist, and in the novel he explored the nature of love and other aspects of psychology through the various characters. He also presented a thorough historical representation of Paris in the 15th Century. It was fascinating to read his descriptions of medieval churches, squares, and streets that still exist near where we live. Unfortunately many of these places were destroyed in the urban renewal of Paris that occurred under Napoleon III from 1850 – 1870. Hugo also spent a portion of the book describing how the printing press had become the death of architecture. In modern times the lament is that the Internet has become the death of the print industry. One effect of the novel was to shame the City of Paris into restoring Notre Dame de Paris, which attracted thousands of visitors after the novel’s publication. It also inspired an interest in preserving other pre-renaissance buildings in Paris. If you look at the photo tour below, you’ll see based on the shops and restaurants nearby the Cathedral, the novel still plays a major role in attracting the interests of tourists.

In 1841 Hugo was elected to the Académie Français (the elite body of distinguished writers who make recommendations regarding the usages, vocabulary, and grammar of the French language) and was appointed by King Louis Philippe as a Peer of France (a position of nobility in the government). Hugo opposed the death penalty and advocated social injustice. More and more he became an advocate of republican government. At the time of the 2nd Republic in 1848, he was elected to the Constitutional Assembly and Legislative Assembly. This all came apart when Napoleon III staged a coup d’état in 1851 and declared himself to be Emperor. Hugo declared Napoleon III a traitor to France and left the country, eventually settling on the Isle of Guernsey, where he lived from 1851 to 1870. He refused to return until the republic was restored.

In 1862 Hugo published a novel about social misery and injustice, “Les Miserables”. Although it was panned by some early critics, it became popular by highlighting important social issues, and its impact was such that these issues were soon to be addressed by the French National Assembly. The work remains popular today not only as a novel, but also in opera and in the movies.

Hugo returned to Paris in 1870, where he remained active as a writer and politician until his death in 1885. His last novel, judged to be among his finest works, was “Ninety Three” (Quatre-vingt-treize), published in 1874. This work dealt with The Reign of Terror, that inglorious period of the Revolution when so many enemies of the government were beheaded.

View the photo gallery of images related to Victor Hugo, including photos from the Museum, photos of artwork depicting scenes from The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and photos of businesses around the church showing the continuing interest and influence in the story.

See our short history of Paris for more historical detail.

From the French Revolution to a Stable Democracy

Our Paris apartment is in the building to the right of the bridge, shown in this painting done at the time of the Paris Commune.

Our Paris apartment is in the building to the right of the bridge, shown in this painting done at the time of the Paris Commune, a part of the long road to a stable democracy

I look at the current efforts in the Middle East to establish democratic government (Egypt, Syria, Tunisia, Libya, and others) and wonder if the world expects too much too soon. Abraham Lincoln said it well when he expressed in his 2nd Inaugural Address his amazement at how much more difficult the Civil War had been than he or others had expected.

Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding.

The French Revolution provides an example of how much effort it might take for any of these governments to become stable democracies. Years pass by as institutions are established and political deadlocks are resolved. Stability is elusive. Consider the French timeline.

  1. After about 800 years of rule by a king, the French staged a revolution in 1789 and proclaimed the first republic in 1792. The Girondists attempted to form a constitutional monarchy as was done in England, but ultimately lost out to the Jacobins, who abolished the Monarchy and established the First Republic. They set up a dictatorial government around the Committee for Public Safety. In a reign of terror, they executed more than 2500 Parisians and more than 14,500 French. Ultimately, the members of the committee are executed.
  2. In 1799 the popular general Napoleon returned from success in battle and overthrew the government, naming himself as emperor. He ruled as an autocrat, albeit to the benefit of France, until he was forced from rule in 1813 and ultimately defeated at Waterloo in 1815.
  3. The French brought back a member of the Bourbon family, Louis XVIII, to be king again, reigning from 1814 – 1824. He was then replaced by another king, Charles X, who continued to struggle between implementing the goals of the revolution and reverting to the customs of the old monarchy.
  4. In 1830 Charles gave up the throne to King Louis Phillipe, who made an enlightened attempt to set up a constitutional monarchy. It ultimately failed in 1848 and he was removed. The 2nd Republic was formed.
  5. An election was held and Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, nephew of the still popular general, was elected. In 1851 the legislature deadlocked, and Louis Napoleon Bonaparte staged a military coup, declaring himself Emperor Napoleon III. France again had autocratic rule until 1870, when Napoleon III was captured in battle against the Prussians.
  6. A new government was formed and elections were held. The winners campaigned on a popular peace platform. When they took control they signed a treaty with the Prussians. The settlement included huge war reparations, loss of the Alsace and Lorraine provinces, and 30,000 Prussian occupation troops. A public outcry ensued and once again there was a revolt.
  7. A communist anarchist insurrection (the Paris Commune) formed in 1871 and established parallel local governments in parts of the city. Although elected as the city council, the Commune proclaimed its authority to rule all of France. Rioting broke out. The Tuleries Palace (at the Louvre) and Hotel de Ville (City Hall), as well as other important buildings, were burned. The elected Versailles government launched a counter offensive using the army. There was fighting in the streets and thousands were killed. The elected government regained control, and stability was finally established until World War II, when France fell to the Germans.

From the time of the Revolution, it took 80 years of turmoil before a stable democracy was established in France.

Celebration of the Assumption of Mary

Tonight we saw police in the street outside our apartment as we were leaving the building. A short time later we were engulfed in a parade celebrating the Feast of the Assumption of Mary. Clergy and several thousand Catholic followers from Notre Dame paraded down our street to celebrate the Assumption of Mary. We had heard the church bells and observed a large group with candles proceeding to the church last night, but didn’t know of the parade we now observed.

If you’ve studied the Bible you may have noted that it doesn’t contain much information about Mary and Joseph. As far as I know they are not a big part of the message of the Gospel. Yet at the same time, one need not look far to find Mary as an iconic figure in the Catholic Church. Cathedral Notre Dame de Paris (Cathedral of Our Lady of Paris) is a reference to Mary, not to mention the US university you see on TV every weekend in the fall. The figure of the Virgin Mary in sculpture and paintings may be as common as artwork for Christ. While I could try to decipher the terminology of the church, suffice it to say that the Catholic Church realized that Mary was an important part of their message of Christianity. Even before 500 AD there was tacit acceptance that the end of Mary’s life was a holy event and that the anniversary was to be celebrated and recognized.

It was not until 1950 that the Catholic Church officially incorporated the Assumption into its dogma, thus vouching for a practice that had long been condoned. This event was noted at the time by the Swiss psychologist Carl Jung to be “the most important religious event since the Reformation”. Protestant movements have not similarly included Mary, to which Jung at the time commented,”Protestantism has obviously not given sufficient attention to the signs of the times which point to the equality of women. But this equality requires to be metaphysically anchored in the figure of a ‘divine’ woman. . . . The feminine, like the masculine, demands an equally personal representation.” He said that many years ago, but his observation seems rather modern to me.

You can see a few photos of the event below:

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