A short history of Paris

Often our posts make reference to aspects of the history of Paris. If you are like me it may seem difficult to keep one era separate from another. If the French Revolution got rid of the King, then why some years later did Napoleon become the Emperor? What was the difference between Napoleon I and Napoleon III? Why do they call the current government the 5th Republic? What happened to all the other Republics? Why do they call it Paris?

Information for this post comes from the short histories and information in various travel guides, including Rick Steves Paris 2013 and the Lonely Planet Guide, as well as information we’ve received on various Paris Walks, and what I’ve studied from the ubiquitous Wikipedia. None of what appears below is the product of my own individual research.

Early History

Arènes de Lutèce was a Roman amphitheater dating from 1st century AD. It could seat about 17,000.
Arènes de Lutèce was a Roman amphitheater dating from 1st century AD. It could seat about 17,000.

Celtic speaking Gauls (indigenous tribes to the region of France) started settling in this area around 700 BC, and in the 3rd century BC a tribe called the Parisi settled in the region that is now Paris. After a long period of fighting, the Romans captured the area in 52 BC and started a community called Lutecia, which stands for mid-water dwelling. By the 3rd century about 10,000 people lived there. The first Christian Church appeared on Isle de Cité during this period. Our tour guide at the Cathedral at Notre Dame told us that the since Roman Times the church had been at one end of the island and the administrative headquarters at the other (headquarters today is home of the Palais de Justice and the Chief of Police). The Martyrdom of Saint Denis, the Bishop of Paris, occurred in about 250. The story goes that Saint Denis picked up his severed head and marched north to the area where the Cathedral Saint Denis is now located. Then he rested.

Middle Ages

Charlemagne united central Europe, but left the defense of Paris to local nobles
Charlemagne united central Europe, but left the defense of Paris to local nobles

In the 6th century the area was overrun by the Merovingian Franks, who converted to Christianity and in the mid 6th century and established the Abbey of St-Germain des Prés. The dynasty’s most productive ruler, Dagobert, established an abbey at St-Denis. This abbey soon became the richest, most important monastery in France and became the final resting place of its kings. The Merovingian Empire stretched over a wide swath of western Europe, and eventually became the Carolingian Empire. Charlemagne reinvigorated the military might of the dynasty and conquered new lands. He moved away from France and established his capital in the mid to late 700s in lands near what is today Aachen, Germany. Paris was left relatively undefended and subject to raids by the Vikings and others until the Counts of Paris established firm control over local affairs.

Portion in the Marias of the old Louis Philippe wall around Paris
Portion in the Marias of the old Louis Philippe wall around Paris

They elected Hugh Capet (I like the name) as king at Senlis in 987. He made Paris the royal seat and resided in the renovated palace of the Roman governor on the Île de la Cité (the site of the present Palais de Justice). Capetian rule would last for the next 800 years, and Paris established itself as a shipping port and the home of trade guilds. The left bank established itself as the centre of European learning and erudition, particularly in the so-called Latin Quarter. About 30 colleges were started, including the Sorbonne. Construction of the Cathedral at Notre Dame was begun in 1163 and completed in 1345. A wall is constructed around the old city of Paris by King Phillip Augustus between 1190 and 1215.

Hotel de Sens was an important residence from the Middle Ages
Hotel de Sens was an important residence from the Middle Ages

In the mid 14th century, the Hundred Years War (between the Capetians and the Anglo Normans) and the Plague both took a toll on the population of Paris. The Black Plague took 80,000 lives in 1348-49. The Hundred Years War (1337-1453) is too complicated to discuss. Basically the English and French Kings are waging war about who was the King of France. Within the envelope of the war, there was unrest within Paris. A wealthy merchant named Étienne Marcel led a peasant revolt against the dauphine (the future Charles V, not yet old enough to rule) and seized Paris in an effort to limit the power of the throne. He began building a city wall. A couple years later Charles supporters succeed in retaking control of the city. They kept working on that wall. In 1420 the Dukes of Burgundy, allied with the English King, take control of the city for 16 years. Around this time a 17 year old named Joan d’Arc convinces a French pretender to the throne, Charles VII, that she had received a divine mission to drive the English from France. Joan rallied the troops to defeat the English and allow Charles VII to be crowned, but she was captured and killed in a failed attempt to retake Paris. Charles VII returns to Paris finally in 1436. The city has been badly damaged, but a renaissance starts to take place. New churches are built, and two prominent residences, Hôtel de Cluny (now Musée National du Moyen Age) and Hôtel de Sens (now Bibliothèque Forney), are constructed.

Renaissance France
Ideas of the Italian Renaissance came to France in the early 16th century during the reign of François I. François also brings Italian artists to Paris, among them Leonardo da Vinci. François acquires the Mona Lisa, which has since remained French. He tore down the medieval palace and built a new Louvre Palace with a renaissance design. He financed the construction of Hôtel de Ville (City Hall).

The Protestant Reformation was also sweeping across Europe, and there were wars of religion from 1562 and 1598. This was a complex dispute between the English backed Protestant Huguenots, French Catholic League (a political group whose goal was to eradicate Protestantism), and the French King. Ultimately King Henry III is assassinated, and King Henry IV converts to Catholicism. The Huguenots were eventually converted or driven from France.

Henry IV built bridge Pont Neuf, now the city's oldest.
Henry IV built bridge Pont Neuf, now the city’s oldest.

Henry IV was the first Bourbon king. He did much to restore the city of Paris. Place de Vosges was constructed, the city’s oldest square, and also place Dauphine at the western end of the Île de la Cité. He built the bridge at Pont Neuf (means “new bridge”, but is the oldest in Paris). The Grande Gallerie was added to the Louvre. Unfortunately Henry IV was assassinated by a religious fanatic.

Palais du Luxembourg was home to Louis XII's mother, Marie de Medici.
Palais du Luxembourg was home to Louis XII’s mother, Marie de Medici.

His son, Louis XIII, was too young to rule, so Louis’s mother, Marie de Medici, was appointed as regent. Marie built the magnificent Palais du Luxembourg and its gardens, today the home of the French Senate. Louis XIII eventually takes the throne at age 16, but much of his time as king he is overshadowed by his chief minister, Cardinal Richelieu, who strengthened the monarchy to enable the absolute control of the successor king, Louis XIV. Richelieu also built Palais Royal across from the Louvre after Louis XIV moved the royal palace to Versailles.

Louis XIV turned fashion into a projection of his political power, both at home and abroad.
Louis XIV turned fashion into a projection of his political power, both at home and abroad.

Louis XIV also came to the throne early, at age 5. His mother, Anne of Austria, was appointed regent, and Cardinal Mazarin, a protégé of Richelieu, was named chief minister. Upon the death of Mazarin in 1661, Louis took over for both. He was a truly clever politician who knew how to project power and held the throne for a long time, from 1661 to 1715. He started several unpopular wars, incurred huge debts for the treasury, and continued the merciless persecution of the Protestants, but also kept the aristocracy in check. Members of the aristocracy and bourgeoisie had begun to challenge the high taxes and burdens of the monarchy. Louis XiV moved the royal palace to Versailles and established style and haut couture and fashion as the envy of not only everyone in his court, but in the courts of all his enemies as well. He also created strict rules of etiquette for anyone visiting, controlling access and communications with the nobility and wealth that needed the King’s favor. He funded and constructed L’Hôtel national des Invalides as a home, hospital, and chapel for the aged, but later to become a military museum and burial site for famous soldiers, most notably Napoleon Bonaparte. At the end of Louis XIV’s reign, the population of Paris was about 600,000.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau was one whose ideas on the revolution had such impact that he is buried at the Pantheon.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau was one whose ideas on the revolution had such impact that he is buried at the Pantheon.

After the popular Louis XIV, Louis XV was a failure, losing a fortune as well as the French colonies in the new world at the conclusion of the 7 Years War. He was succeeded in 1774 by his grandson Louis XVI, who helped the Americans win independence but also helped further bankrupt the state. His Austrian born wife, Marie-Antoinette, was unpopular with many of the King’s subjects. In the meantime there had been a French literary and cultural response to the excesses of the monarchy. Voltaire (François-Marie Arouet), Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Denis Diderot contributed to the enlightenment thinking that was taking hold in France.

The Revolution
The French people, armed with Renaissance ideas and disgust over the excesses of the King and the failure of others in the nobility to act. France was in a terrible economic crisis from the cost of 7 Years War and participation in the American War of Independence. The Nobility had revolted against the King and refused to pay the taxes to alleviate the crushing debt. In the Spring of 1789, a group of commoners formed calling itself the National Assembly, and proposed a constitution for the country. They took the Tennis Court Oath vowing to stand together in opposing the King. On July 14, a mob raided the armoury at the Hôtel des Invalides for rifles and stormed the fortress and prison at the Bastille, a symbolic challenge to the regime. In August the National Assembly adopted the Declaration of Rights of Man. The King was forced through a march on Versailles (started over the scarcity of bread) in October to return to Paris. The King and his supporters sparred with the Assembly and its supporters over the next several years until the Republic was proclaimed in 1792 and the King was executed (along with the Queen) at Place de la Concorde the following year. The revolution has for the first time empowered the peasantry and removed the special status of the King and Nobility, shaking the underpinnings of other European governments.

The French Revolution worried the governments of nearby countries, particularly the Queen’s brother, Holy Roman Emperor Leopold II, as well as King William Frederick of Prussia. Over the next 10 years there would be a series of external wars and conflicts. Ultimately with the rise of a then unknown artillery officer named Napoleon Bonaparte, among others, the French gained victories over many other European powers, as well as conquest of the left bank of the Rhine, the Netherlands, portions of Switzerland and Italy.

Meanwhile, in France the revolutionary government was trying to find its way. A moderate republican group called the Girondians declared France constitutional monarchy and proposed various organizing documents. Ultimately, however, they lost out to a more radical group, the Jacobians, headed by Maximilien Robespierre and several others. They abolished the monarchy and established the First Republic. The group set up a Committee of Public Safety with dictatorial powers to provide for the national defense and internal security. They turned radical, revoking religious freedoms, desecrating the churches, and starting a reign of terror that resulted in the beheading of 2500 so called traitors in Paris and as many as 14,500 throughout France. By the end of 1793 this movement consumed itself, and Robespierre and other leaders were themselves sent to the guillotine.


Napolean Bonaparte's Throne when he was emperor
Napolean Bonaparte’s Throne when he was emperor

In 1799 Napoleon returned to Paris to find a French government in disarray, so he overthrew the existing government and assumed control himself. In 1804 he crowned himself Emperor, and the First Republic had been transformed into the First Empire. The Louvre’s “The Consecration of the Emperor Napoleon and the Coronation of the Empress Joséphine on December 2, 1804” presents the political picture.

Napoleon returned to the battlefield to shore up his ratings, and he captured nearly all of Europe, but made a fatal mistake by invading Russia. A famous chart taught by Edward Tufte shows in dramatic fashion how the French forces dwindled from 600,000 to 90,000. The allies opposing France regrouped and eventually entered Paris, forcing Napoleon to flee in exile to Italy. The Senate deposed him as Emperor. At the Congress of Vienna, the allies declared victory and restored the Bourbon Kings to power, naming Louis XVI’s brother as Louis XVIII (another brother heir died in prison). Incredibly, Napoleon escaped exile in 1815, formed a huge army in the south, returned and took control of Paris and reclaimed the French throne, only to lose the Battle of Waterloo 3 weeks later.

The Arc de Triomphe commemorates Napoleon's victory at Austerlitz.
The Arc de Triomphe commemorates Napoleon’s victory at Austerlitz.

During Napoleon’s reign, he accomplished a lot – reorganization of the judicial system; the establishment of a new legal code, which forms the basis of the French legal system; and the establishment of a new educational system. He preserved the changes of the French Revolution and is looked upon as France’s greatest hero. Only a few of his architectural plans were completed, among them the Arc de Triomphe, Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel, La Madeleine, Pont des Arts, Rue de Rivoli and some buildings within the Louvre complex as well as the Canal St-Martin.

Post Napoleonic Monarchy and the Second Empire
Louis XVIII reigned from 1814-1824. He was replaced by Charles X (1824-1830). All the time both reigns struggled between trying to bring back the old monarchy and implementing the changes wrought by the Revolution. In July 1830, Charles was overthrown in a skirmish that captured Hôtel de Ville. A constitutional monarch was installed under Louis Philippe, but again things did not go well and he was overthrown in 1848, when the 2nd Republic was established.

Napoleon III's portrait hangs in his luxurious apartment in the Louvre.
Napoleon III’s portrait hangs in his luxurious apartment in the Louvre.

A presidential election was held in 1848, and Napoleon I’s nephew, Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, was elected. In 1851 after the legislature deadlocked, he staged a coup d’etat, after which he was proclaimed Emperor Napoleon III (Napoleon’s son was Napoleon II, but he never ruled). He moved into the Palais des Tuileries and commenced the Second Empire, a rule of some 20 years that would forever change Paris.

Paris was now over 1 million people, and France had become an economic power. Paris was transformed by town planner Georges-Eugène Haussmann into a city with wide boulevards and huge squares. The first department stores were built, including the Bon Marché in 1852, as were the passages couverts, Paris’s covered shopping arcades.

Napoleon III failed in his foreign policy, first losing the Crimean War (1854–56), then losing and being captured himself in a war with Prussia. It was this event that provoked Parisians back into the streets calling for a Third Republic.

The Third Republic
Meanwhile the Prussians lay siege to Paris, and the populace is starving. The Third Republic begins as a government to organize the defense of the city. In January 1871 the government negotiated a truce, and one of the Prussian demands was that elections be held immediately. Monarchists, who had campaigned on a peace platform, overwhelmingly defeat the republicans who had organized the city’s defense. The monarchist controlled Assembly ratified the Treaty of Frankfurt, but when the common Parisians discovered the terms, there was public outcry. The settlement included huge war reparations, loss of the Alsace and Lorraine provinces, and 30,000 Prussian occupation troops. So once again there was a revolt.

After the withdrawal of Prussian Troops in March, 1871, an insurrectionary government known as the Paris Commune seized control of the city. Their communist supporters (Communards) tried to burn the center of the city. Hôtel de Ville, the Palais des Tuileries and the Cours des Comptes (site of the present-day Musée d’Orsay) were all burned. In May, the Versailles government launched a counteroffensive in which many thousands were killed, and the elected government regained control.

The windmill atop Montmartre symbolizes the innovations in art - impressionism, cubism, that sprang from there.
The windmill atop Montmartre symbolizes the innovations in art – impressionism, cubism, that sprang from there.

The Third Republic was also a golden era for France. The city was again transformed by Art Nouveau Architecture, Impressionism, accomplishments in engineering such as installation of the first Metro line. A world exhibition in 1889 showcased the Eiffel Tower and Grand Palais, and another in 1900 showcased the Petit Palais. Nightclubs and cafe’s started to thrive in the City, and Montmartre became famous for its collection of artists and writers.

One event, the Dreyfus Affair, had a lasting effect upon the country. This began in 1894 when a Jewish army captain named Alfred Dreyfus was accused of betraying military secrets to Germany – he was then court-martialled and sentenced to life imprisonment on Devil’s Island. Liberal politicians and activists, including the writer Émile Zola, came to his defense. It became a major confrontation between the right wing and Catholic politicians against those on the left. Ultimately Dreyfus was vindicated in 1900, and the Army and Catholic Church were discredited for their roles in the affair. The political result was more stringent civilian control over the military and the separation of the Catholic Church from the French state.

Raymond Poincaré, the French President from 1913 – 1920, advocated steps against Germany for France to regain its provinces of Alsace and Lorraine, but World War I started when Germany and Austria-Hungary declared war on France and Russia following the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in June 1914. There was intense fighting along the German border early in the war, but the French were losing and fell into retreat. German troops had reached the Marne River, just 15 km from Paris, by September of 1914, and the army had recommended the evacuation of Paris. In a military turnaround, General Joseph Joffre, reinvigorated the French troops, who counterattacked and drove back the German offensive. The victory notably included the use of 600 Paris taxis to ferry troops to the front, which also lifted the morale of the troops. The Battle of the Marne resulted in 500,000 casualties. The aftermath was a stalemate that lasted until the end of the war in 1917. The armistice following World War I resulted in France regaining their territories of Alsace and Lorraine. The war had killed 20% of French men between ages 20 and 45, and another million were crippled. At the Battle of Verdun, the French let by General Petain, lost 400,000 men, as did the Germans.

World War II
We’ve covered many aspects of World War II in our story of the French family. As we relate there, the war began in 1939 with German and French forces massing near the border, but no fighting. Then in just a short time in May and June 1940, France fell. Almost half the population of 5 million left Paris. France was divided into a Nazi occupied zone including Paris in the North and to transform the 3rd Republic into the French State, an authoritarian government headed by Philippe Pétain, former French General and hero of the Battle of Verdun in World War I. The French State was located at the spa town of Vichy in central France. The Vichy government collaborated with the Germans, who by 1942 assumed control of the whole country. Among other atrocities, they collaborated in rounding up 78,000 Jews for extermination at Auschwitz. Post World War II, Petain was convicted of treason and sentenced to death, but the sentence was commuted to life in prison by Charles de Gaulle.

Charles de Gaulle, the Undersecretary of War, had fled Paris for England. He set up a government in exile and appealed to the French to resist the Germans. He established Forced Free Francais, a force dedicated to fighting the Germans. The French Resistance, actually less than 5% of the population, assisted the Allies through acts of sabotage and gathering of intelligence. After the Normandy landings in June 1944 and other landings in southern France in August, Paris was liberated on August 25th. Free French units were sent ahead of Allied troops to allow them the honor of liberating the city. It was fortunate that Hitler’s orders to burn Paris were never carried out.

Forth Republic
De Gaulle returned to Paris and set up a provisional government, but in January 1946 he resigned hoping that the French people would elect him as president. Such was not the case. A new constitution was approved by referendum, and the Forth Republic involved forming coalitions of multiple parties with diverse interests, on average forming a new government every 6 months or so. French colonies in Viet Nam and Algeria experience rebellions, which created political opportunities that aided in the frequent changes of the ruling coalition. By 1958, certain right wing factions were believed to be plotting to overthrow the government rather than allow the loss of the Algerian colony. Charles de Gaulle was brought back to power to prevent a possible civil war or military coup. He supervised drafting a new constitution that gave more power to the President at the expense of power to the National Assembly. Thus the 5th Republic was born, and Charles de Gaulle was elected as President. As part of forming the new republic, French colonies other than Algeria were granted their independence.

Fifth Republic
Charles de Gaulle promoted a politics called Gaullism, that France should continue to see itself as a major power and should not rely on other countries. He made the decision to allow the independence of Algeria, encouraged the development of French atomic weapons, withdrew from NATO, and twice vetoed admission of Great Britain into the European Union. He was opposed within France by both the right and by communists and socialists. He resigned in 1969 after losing a referendum where he proposed more decentralization of the government.

The Fifth Republic strengthened the executive by giving France a President elected every 5 years, as well as a Prime Minister. The Constitutional Council provides additional checks and balances by, upon request, approving that legislation does not violate the rights of citizens established by the constitution. French political parties represent a wide variety of both left and right wing politics. The government is currently Socialist, a strong minority presence continues to advocate other points of view. The past 50 years of French history has of course continued to dramatically transform Paris and the country of France.


Add Yours
  1. Gayle Heller

    Thanks for a great history lesson on Paris, Hugh! You and Brenda are certainly taking advantage of your year in Paris to really get to know the city! Best wishes from sunny Poulsbo! Gayle

  2. Roger Hull

    Thanks, Hugh and Brenda! Alice and I are really enjoying your wonderfully educational travel-log. We love the detail you are providing. Your efforts make us anxious to visit Paris someday. We are going to Oslo, Norway, on 11 August. We will be there for a bit more than a week. Alice will be meeting her paternal relatives for the first time. He father immigrated to America in 1919 when he was 19 years old and, sadly, passed away when she was only 14. None of his family ever came to America so this is an exciting time for both Alice and all those paternal relatives in Oslo. I look forward to seeing the city and observing the great family reunion. Again, thanks for keeping us informed of your most enviable activities! Best regards, Roger.

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