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History of Paris

Paris's fascinating history dates back to the time when it served as the capital of an empire that stretched from Algiers to Hanoi.

Paris gets its present name from the Gauls of the Parisii tribe who established a fishing village on an island in the river that is the present day Ile de la Cite (the centre around which Paris developed) in 250 BC. The Romans conquered Paris in 52 BC under the helm of Julius Caesar. Although one of its earliest rulers, Clovis made it his seat, Paris was not always the capital of the kingdoms that were established in this area. In fact, the Carolingians who were the Emperors of France during the Middle Ages ruled from Aix-en-Chapelle (now in Germany). In AD 987 Paris was named the capital of the kingdom of France by Capet, the reigning Count of Paris; for the next 800 years, Paris prospered in the fields of politics, trade and culture under the Capetians. Of course, it looked nothing like it does today - By the 10th century, Paris was still partly a waterlogged marsh (the Marais area of the city derives its name from the French term for ‘marsh’) and Parisians were subject to periodic outbreaks of epidemics. Despite its shifting fortunes, however, Paris remained an important European city throughout the Middle Ages due to its strategic riverside position. In the 11th century, the first trading guilds were established here.

The emperor Philippe Auguste (1180-1223) established the areas that delineate the political, religious and academic quarters today. The political and religious institutions stand on the Ile de la Cite and the trading centres on the Right Bank. The present reputation that Paris enjoys as one of the intellectual hubs of Europe was first cultivated around this time. The Left Bank, and especially the area known as the Latin Quarter became a center for learning and erudition - educational institutions such as the University of Paris (where Thomas Aquinas lectured) and the Sorbonne were established in the 13th century here.

The next period in Parisian history was blighted by war and epidemic – the Hundred Years War started in 1337; and the Black Death claimed a third of Paris’ population. To add to the troubled situation, there was a failed revolt by Marcel and an attempt to capture the throne of Paris. The English defeated the French forces at Agincourt and occupied Paris, which plunged the city into revolt and anarchy. The Joan of Arc also made an attempt to capture Paris and drive the English out, but she failed, was captured and burnt at the stake. English occupation was disastrous for Paris, with many important architectural structures destroyed – some of these were restored in subsequent years.

The Renaissance came to France in the 16th century and signaled a period of intense artistic and scientific renovation. Some examples of buildings from this era can be found in and around Paris – the Tour Saint Jacques, the Eglise Saint Eustache on the right Bank and Eglise Saint Etienne du Mont on Left, the Pont Neuf, several hotels particuliers in the Marais area and the Francois I’s chateau at Chantilly.

By the 1530s it was the turn of the Reformation to divide Paris over the Wars of Religion that lasted from 1562 to 1598, and involved three groups – the Huguenots (French Protestants), the Catholic League and the Catholic king. In 1572, around 3000 Huguenots were murdered in Paris the worst incident of the war – the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. Paris remained solidly Catholic and refused the newly crowned Bourbon king Henri IV entry into the city until he relented and accepted communion at Saint Denis, making the famous statement, Paris vaut bien une messe (Paris is well worth a mass). The rule of the famous Sun King Louis XIV lasted from 1661 to 1715 and involved France in a series of costly wars that caused bankruptcy and vagrancy in Paris.

The year 1789 is familiar to any history buff – it was the year that a violent Parisian mob stormed the Bastille and started one of the great founding revolutions of the modern democratic liberal republic – the French Revolution . For Parisians, the Revolution meant the Reign of Terror perpetuated by the fearsome Jacobins’ Committee for Public Safety – this included the desecration of churches, daylight arrests, looting and summary executions by guillotine or less humane means. The Revolution eventually gave way to the reign of Napoleon Bonaparte in the early 1800s. The Second Empire lasted from 1852 to 1870, during which Paris was taken apart and completely rebuilt by Baron Haussmann who commissioned the parks, public offices and grand boulevards that we see today. The Third Republic is known for absolute confusion over who was to govern France and included the Bloody Week during which thousands of "Communards’ (members of the famous Paris Commune) were executed, but it also included the Belle Epoque (beautiful age) – a period of scientific innovation (including the construction of the first metro line in Paris), artistic movements (including Impressionism) and shining architectural achievements (including the Eiffel Tower).

The rest of French history is only too well known. At the turn of the 20th century, war clouds started brewing over Europe and culminated in the shockingly destructive First World War. The inter-war period confirmed Paris as the hub of the avant garde, attracting the best of artistic, literary and intellectual talent to the city. There was also a profusion of heady entertainment, from jazz clubs to strip joints. The Second World War broke out in 1939, and by June 1940, France had capitulated to Hitler’s armies, and Paris came under German Occupation. The French Resistance movement was also led from Paris with the support of General Charles de Gaulle, who went on to become the President of France at the end of the war.

The Fourth Republic, a period of unstable coalition governments and economic recovery was established with the drafting of a new constitution in 1946, but lasted only till 1958. The Fifth Republic was established in the face of right-wing anger over perceived clay-footedness of the French government in the Algerian issue. The Fifth Republic was threatened by an attempted coup in 1961 by a group of army officers and then in 1968 by a radical coalition of workers and students (known to radical intellectuals the world over as the May Uprising), but de Gaulle survived these attacks from the Left and Right. Paris reclaimed its reputation as the intellectual and creative powerhouse of the world during the 1960s, when the likes of de Beauvoir, Sartre and Camus lounged at its cafes and expressed the revolutionary ferment around them in their writing.

After de Gaulle, Georges Pompidou became President, followed by Valery Giscard d’Estaing and Francois Mitterand, who commissioned several grandes projets in Paris like the Centre Pompidou, the Grande Arche de la Defense and the Musee d’ Orsay. In 1995, Jacques Chirac succeeded Mitterand, to be followed by Lionel Jospin. The current President is Nicolas Sarkozy, under whom France continues to thrive.

Paris still remains one of the most popular destinations of all time.


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