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History of Paris



Paris, the capital of France, came into being thanks to its particularly favourable geographic situation for the settlement of human life and to its history, closely linked to that of the kings of France.

Men settled on the central islet, which would become the Île de la Cité, as early as the Quaternary.

Life on this island was possible thanks to the proximity of land sufficiently fertile to allow an every growing population to survive, but also thanks to the stone and limestone quarries which allowed houses to be built. Its position as a commercial crossroads linking the North and South of Gaul, and its openness to the surrounding provinces, gradually allowed this island to become a particularly attractive town, the centre of numerous invasions and European conflicts.


As early as the second Iron Age the Parisii (Celtic population from Germania) settled on the Île de la Cité, which was called Lucoticia, and fought against the Roman conquest.

Thanks to the gold coins found in archaeological digs, we can assume that already at this time Lutetia enjoyed considerable economic importance.

The Romans won the battle for Lutetia and left the town in ruins. Lutetia then divided into two towns:

* The Gallic town rebuilt on Île de la Cité according to the models of Italian cities, from where the Roman governor ruled.
* The new city established on the left bank. There are still traces of Gallo-Roman remains from that time, such as the Amphitheatre ("les Arènes") of Lutetia or the Thermal Baths of Cluny.

The right bank was left uninhabited and abandoned to the marshes (hence the name of the Marais neighbourhood).

Under Roman rule the town was prosperous and commercial, of average importance, with a population of around 8000.

The town prospered for three centuries, then from the middle of the third century the invasions of the « Barbarians » (peoples from across the Rhine) began to destabilize the Roman Empire.

These invasions did not spare Lutetia, where the inhabitants withdrew to the Île de la Cité, a defensive site made even more effective by the construction of fortifications. It was at this time that Lutetia took the name of Paris and that Christianity appeared with the first bishop, Saint Denis.


The fifth century was marked by invasions, notably those led by Attila and the Huns, who destroyed Gaul but did not touch the Parisian Basin (then making up an independent Gallo-Roman state). Legend has it that Paris was saved thanks to the courage of a small shepherdess called Geneviève. She even became the patron saint of the city.

Although the Huns spared Paris, it finally came under the yoke of the Franks. Paris became the capital of the kingdom of Clovis, and his successors had numerous churches and basilicas built there (notably the Abbaye Sainte Geneviève as a tribute to the patron saint of Paris, the Église Saint Germain des Prés, and the Palais Royal.). The town now spread onto both banks.


The Carolingians succeeded the Merovingians in the 7th century and moved the centre of power toward northeast France, closer to the regions from where they originated (the Rhine area).

The emperor Charlemagne decided to establish the two capitals of the Empire in Rome and in Aix la Chapelle.

With the Carolingian decline Paris, which lost its political importance, was weakened. It became the scene of numerous assaults and sieges by Norse Vikings.

The town resisted as it could, but the Roman town located on the left bank and the suburbs were destroyed. For a century, the Parisians once again inhabited the Île de la Cité.


In 987 Hugues Capet offered Paris the opportunity to become the first capital of the kingdom. The town then grew rich, thanks to its trading activity and to its major land commercial routes (sheets from the north, wheat, fish).

The monarchs established themselves in the palace of the Cité and the densely constructed and inhabited Île de la Cité remained the royal and episcopal power centres.

In 1163 Bishop Maurice de Sully began the construction of Notre-Dame Cathedral, which was only completed in 1330. The kings Hugues Capet, Henri Ier, Philippe Ier and Louis VI succeeded each other in the Palais of the Cité.

The fortifications were reinforced, notably at the bridges, while the left bank was almost abandoned. It was used as agricultural land.


Under Philippe Auguste, Paris became a more important defensive town, capable of resisting the attacks of the king of England thanks to the construction of strong ramparts which also encircled the left bank (Paris moreover remained a fortified town for over seven centuries).

The Louvre, which was then a fortress, began to be built in 1180.

The left bank became important as the seat of new centres of education, independent of the episcopal schools, located in the Latin Quarter, which attracted a population of students who came to receive a university education. The University, a symbol of independence, ensured the intellectual reputation of Paris on an international level from the 12th century onwards.

At the same time, the construction of Notre - Dame cathedral and the creation of Les Halles market continued. In 1257, Robert de Sorbon, chaplain of Saint Louis, founded the Sorbonne University. As King Saint Louis had his court in Paris, the princes and dignitaries had private mansions built close to the Royal Palace.


Under Philippe le Bel (Philip the Handsome), the Parisian population reached 200 000 inhabitants in 1328. Paris then experienced an increasing political and financial importance. This trading town extended further onto the right bank, on which 4 fifths of the taxpayers lived.

This demographic fact led to the construction of a new wall on this bank, supported by the fortresses of the Louvre and of the Bastille. At this time, the town was divided as follows: the Île de la Cité was the seat of royal and religious power, the right bank was more commercial, while the left bank was the intellectual centre of Paris.

Etienne Marcel (provost of Merchants, who would be assassinated) was a key Parisian figure, embodying the discontent of the Parisian people (strikes) and opposing the heir apparent Charles V. The war against the English, the plague of 1348, the capture of king John the Good and the weakness of the heir apparent thus led to the first Parisian revolution.

Charles V then abandoned the palace on the Cité to establish himself in the fortress of the Louvre in 1358.

The English occupation, and the siege of 1429 in particular, ruined the town which maintained, despite all these difficulties, the central bodies of the royal government (Parliament, Chamber of Counts, etc.). To control the town, the king did not grant a Charter of commune to Paris. In compensation, he granted the Parisians, notably the Merchants (of water, butchers, drapers, …), important privileges. This guild became so important in this period that its representatives awarded themselves a commercial court, the levying of taxes and a headquarters. This increase in the power of the merchants enabled them to elect a first town council.


A new way of seeing the world appeared throughout Europe in the 16th century. The kings, receptive toward the ideas of the renaissance, became interested in architecture, among other things, and tried to harmonize the façades of Parisian houses. Flamboyant Gothic was the style of the day (église Saint Séverin, hôtel de Cluny) followed by Art nouveau (Fontaine des Innocents, palais des Tuileries.)

In 1528 Paris again became the capital of the monarchy under Francis I, who decided to reconstruct the fortress of the Louvre, razing the donjon to the ground and constructing a renaissance palace in place of the two wings of the castle, and to equip Paris with a city hall in keeping with the capital.

The creation of the Collège de France by Francis I again updated the intellectual fame of Paris, proposing a modernized education by adding exact sciences and humanism to traditional teaching.

The Reformation led to a religious civil war which reached its height in the night of Saint Bartholomew (1572) during which the Catholics massacred the Protestants in the streets of Paris (between 15 000 and 60 000 victims), under the orders of Catherine de Médicis and the Duc de Guise.

The destroyed and famished city rose up against the kings Henry III (who built the Pont Neuf, linking the right bank and the left bank), and Henry IV. However, the latter, by converting to Catholicism, was able to renew relations with the Parisians and re-establish the lost grandeur of the city with enormous building sites (place Dauphine, place des Vosges, followed by the construction of the Louvre and of the château des Tuileries). These building sites were based on the first town planning regulations laid down by Sully. This architectural momentum lasted well after the assassination of Henry IV. The city expanded and numerous monuments, squares and secondary homes were built.

Under Louis XIII, the capital was radiant thanks to the creation of the royal press in 1620, to that of the Jardin des Plantes and of the French Academy. The expansion of the city started up again thanks to new fortifications on the right bank. New neighbourhoods replaced the countryside (Faubourg Saint Honoré, Marais, île saint Louis, Faubourg saint Germain).
However, the Fronde created an important economic crisis, aggravating the misery of the people. Under Louis XIV, the death rate was higher than the birth rate, requiring the construction of the Hôpital général.

Louis XIV (the Sun King), concerned by the revolutionary nature of Parisians (he had to flee Paris as a child) established himself in Versailles, which he made the seat of government, in 1682 and left Colbert in charge of Parisian politics.

Calm gradually returned to Paris, where it was decided to demolish the ramparts in 1670, replacing them by a tree-lined promenade where triumphal arches replaced the fortified gates. These former gates of Paris can still be admired, for example on the « Grands Boulevards », where the Rue Saint Denis ends. Impressive buildings were constructed under the reign of Louis XIV (hôpital Salpetrière, Observatory, Invalides…) and others such as the Louvre and the Jardin des Tuileries were reformed. Although during this period Paris became adorned with majestic monuments, the people remained destitute.


Paris was liberated from a royal power installed in Versailles until the fall of the Ancien Régime. The City of Literature and the Arts was the symbol of an intellectual bourgeoisie in which philosophers and encyclopaedists criticized society and its values. It was the Paris of the Enlightenment, open to democratic ideas. An economic improvement led to population growth under the reign of Louis XV.

Major architectural projects were completed, with the construction of the organized neighbourhoods, notably the Ecole Militaire and the future Panthéon. Parisian architecture, although initially serving an aesthetic purpose, gradually came to have a social function, with markets, sewers, theatres, such as the « Odéon », which obliged the architects to think in a more humane manner. The period of Louis XVI and Louis XV marked the beginning of modern town planning.


The 1789 revolution broke out in this Paris of major upheavals, Paris being the privileged scene of numerous events. The economic crisis, the raising of the political awareness of the Parisian people by philosophers, and the resentment of the monarchy which had abandoned Paris more than once, triggered the anger of the people, led to the fall of the monarchy with the storming of the Bastille, and culminated with the beheading of the king Louis XVI and of his wife Marie-Antoinette.

The Jacobins and Cordeliers (QUE ES AIXO ???), originating from Parisian political clubs, took over the power. Despite the new values of Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, to quieten dissidents and impose a still shaky republic, the repressive regime known as the Reign of Terror was imposed. To implement their policies, they among others centralized power in Paris, thus strengthening a French trend which began under Louis XIV, and which continued until the 19th century and was increased with the creation of the networks of railway communications, the rural exodus and the industrial revolutions. It was necessary to wait until the second half of the 20th century for a timid movement of decentralization to begin.

The Terror gave way on the 9 Thermidor Year II, and was followed by compromise regimes (Convention Thermidorienne and the Directory).

When Bonaparte came to power, the architectural style changed with the appearance of Neoclassicism under the Directory then «egyptomanie », a style inspired on Bonaparte's expedition in Egypt.


The first French census of 1801 recorded an increase in the population of Paris (5 546 856 inhabitants), despite the losses under the revolution, notably thanks to provincial immigration, which was concentrated in the textile sector.

Louis XVIII did not offer Paris major architectural changes or reforms, but private construction underwent rapid development, inspired by a classical style mixed with the antique style (l'Europe and Saint Georges neighbourhoods).

Parisian society was then characterized by the rise of an economically powerful bourgeoisie, described by Balzac in his masterpiece La Comédie Humaine, triumphant under Louis Philippe, and which coexisted with a more modest bourgeoisie composed of civil servants. The proletariat also made up an important part of the Parisian population (65% of Parisians did not pay taxes and 80% of the dead went to the communal grave). This poverty-stricken population, the victim of violent epidemics (44 000 died in the 1832 cholera epidemic), lived in the central neighbourhoods. It was moreover in these poor neighbourhoods of Paris that the opposition movements of the regime were formed until they expressed their opposition as Revolutions (1830 and 1848). It was also the time of the first French railway, with the inauguration of the Gare Saint Lazare in 1837.


Although during the troubled period of the 1848 revolution there was an interruption in the building of the railways, the future emperor Napoléon III (a nephew of Napoléon I) ensured that the work continued, surrounding himself with, among others, the prefect of Paris, Baron Haussman and numerous engineers.

Major building work proliferated in this period (Opéra Garnier) as well as the construction of new stations and of a very important traffic infrastructure in Paris. Pavements appeared alongside the asphalt-covered public roads, along with improved sewage mains. Moreover, the City was razed to the ground then transformed with the addition of a new Hôtel Dieu (General Hospital) and police headquarters.

The Louvre doubled in size and green spaces were landscaped all around Paris (Bois de Vincennes, Bois de Boulogne, Parc Montsouris, public gardens, etc…).

The expansion of Paris (the number of inhabitants doubled between 1851 and 1871), its intellectual and artistic influence (numerous industrial fairs) and its economic richness increased until the 1870 war against Prussia which brought this prosperity to a halt, leading to disasters and poverty.


This war led to the defeat of the imperial regime by Prussia with the surrender of Paris. The Parisians felt abandoned by their leaders, rose up in the insurrection of 18 March 1871 and became the masters of their city.

This was the Commune, a revolutionary government which was expressed as a direct democracy in a city under siege and which lasted for a few weeks before being very severely repressed by the government of the republic which had withdrawn to Versailles (25 000 victims including many women and children).

Under the 3rd Republic Paris lost the political power that it gained in 1789, to the benefit of radical socialist provincial leaders.

The capital found it difficult to get over this political and economic defeat, although its population underwent considerable growth, thanks to immigration from the north which allowed it to reach almost three million inhabitants in 1911. The population increased most especially in the outlying arrondissements.

A real concern to achieve equal comfort for all Parisians led to numerous developments, such as the distribution of gas and electricity, the collection of household refuse, and the construction of primary and secondary schools, as well as hospitals. Moreover, the metro appeared as part of this same democratic momentum in 1900.

This flourishing period is called the Belle Epoque, an era in which the population enjoyed a certain euphoria which can be found in a colourful architecture, always in search of innovation and modernity. It was the era of Art nouveau, of Guimard, of the World Fairs, the Eiffel Tower was built in 1889, the Grand and Petit Palais in 1900, the Palais de Chaillot in 1937, and the Musée des Arts Africains et Océaniens for the colonial fair of 1931.

In 1910, Paris suffered from considerable flooding. The "années folles" (mad years) enjoyed an artistic agitation which granted Paris its international reputation as a capital of the arts.


Paris again suffered from war and its disastrous consequences with the 1914 - 1918 war. The post-war years were also very painful, with an economic and political crisis during which the Parisians tried to regain the political power that they had lost.

If urban politics did not enjoy the profits of the Belle Epoque, efforts were made in favour of the people with the creation of the "Habitations à Loyer Modéré" (public sector housing) and the extension of the metro to the inner suburbs. The appearance of concrete allowed big blocks of flats to be constructed, which gradually replaced the former housing and transformed the urban landscape of Paris.

In the Second World War France surrendered and in June 1940 the German forces occupied Paris. Again the city underwent years of hardship and bombardments which lasted four years. Throughout these years, there were ruthless arrests by the Gestapo, numerous imprisonments in concentration camps and tortures and executions in Paris. At the same time, the resistance (shadow army) was organized and developed around Jean Moulin (1943). The Resistance helped liberate Paris after the Allied Normandy landing and offensive (1944).


Paris was not destroyed by the war, and numerous restorations of monuments and improvements were the order of the day from the 1960s.

Paris developed thanks to a policy of major building projects concerning both the city and the suburbs. Over the last few decades this policy has led to the construction of the Opéra Bastille, the Bibliothèque Nationale, the Grande Arche de la Défense and the Louvre pyramid.

The Paris of today, as you will see when you visit it, is the legacy of all these events and many others that we do not have the space to explain here.

It is undoubtedly a city with an astonishingly rich culture, overflowing with vitality.

The romantic Paris of the end of the 19th century, of the Belle Epoque, no longer exists, no more than that of the intellectual elite of the 1950s and 60s. As a result of the immigration of the 1950s to 90s, it is now a highly multiracial and multicultural city, which has on the whole succeeded to integrate the old with the new, and which is dynamically rooted in the new millennium.

But visitors will not be disappointed, because they will see all the past and the traditions which made the city famous in its architecture, in its way of life, in the atmosphere of its neighbourhoods… there are still plenty of « titis parisiens » (typical Parisian kids)!!!