Paris, City of Violence
The recent terrorist attacks are sadly only the latest bloodletting in the French capital’s long and brutal history.
“Here fell, for the liberation of Paris, on Aug. 22, 1944, André Gardelle, 21 years old.” “Here fell, for the liberation of Paris, on Aug. 28, 1944, Roger Lambert, 19 years old.” “Here fell, for the liberation of Paris…”
The small, dignified plaques are everywhere in the center of Paris, monuments to the Parisians who gave their lives in rising up against the Germans as the allied armies approached, two-and-a-half months after D-Day. And they are almost the only official signs, along the opulent, bustling boulevards of the French capital, that throughout history this city has seen more than its share of spectacular violence.
For the most part, the physical scars of this violence have been erased, and the monuments to it are discreet. Paris successfully, and understandably, presents itself as a city of peace, of elegance, and of sophisticated civilization — a city whose inhabitants have exorcised its violent past, banished it to the museums and history books. But history can play some exceptionally cruel tricks, and a city that wanted so badly to overcome the most difficult and divisive aspects of its legacy has again, this past week, found itself the scene of fanaticism and slaughter.
Of course, the traces of earlier episodes of violence remain, just under the surface. Not far from where several of last Friday’s terrorist attacks took place, the massive column at the center of the Place de la Bastille provides no explicit reminder of the pitched battle that took place on the site on July 14, 1789, and that marked the first great popular victory of the French Revolution. The Bastille fortress and prison that the Parisians stormed on that date were soon demolished, and the column commemorates a later, smaller revolution, that of 1830. It does so without reference to bloodshed. But the very name Bastille remains resonant, for anyone who has ever opened a French history book.
Few of the visitors who throng the great, open courtyard of the Louvre know that until 1871 the space was closed off by another palace, the Tuileries, which gave its name to the adjacent gardens. The Tuileries burned that year during the final convulsions of the Paris Commune, whose radical left-wing government was brutally suppressed by conservative republican forces in the turmoil that followed France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War. The magnificent Hôtel de Ville, Paris’s city hall, on the banks of the Seine burned as well — the building that stands there today is a copy of the older structure. But particularly attentive visitors may note an inscription inside the gaudy basilica of Sacré-Coeur, which peers down at Paris from the heights of Montmartre and stands as a monument to the reactionary French Catholicism of the late 19th century. The structure, it explains, was built “to expiate the sins” of the commune — in particular the radicals’ execution of the city’s archbishop.
The revolution and the commune are only two examples of the spectacular violence that has regularly punctuated the life of Paris in modern times. It has occurred for many different reasons, including war against external enemies. Sometimes, it has occurred for very good reasons: to end oppression and establish liberty. But it has occurred again and again, and has most often been inflicted by French people upon themselves, in a pattern that has challenged generations of scholars. (The great sociologist Charles Tilly even called one of his books The Contentious French.)
And from this historical perspective, the horrors of Nov. 13, however shocking and unnatural they appear, also represent the terrible continuation of a very old story. It now appears that some of the attackers came from the Middle East. However, following the pattern of the January attacks on Charlie Hebdo and the Hyper Cacher market, some were French citizens, and other French citizens helped them. The scourges of the past may have been overcome, but new ones have developed to take their place.
Religion has provided some of the oldest, as well as the newest, pretexts for slaughter in the heart of Paris. At the height of the Reformation-era French Wars of Religion, on Aug. 24, 1572, streets near the Louvre resounded to screams of terror as Catholics massacred thousands of Protestants in the gruesome St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. Sixteen years later, as the wars raged on, the fervently Catholic city rose up against the insufficiently zealous King Henry III, as militants of the Catholic League built barricades out of paving stones, carts, and furniture and drove out the royal army. Before peace finally returned, the city was forced to endure a long and painful siege by the new, Protestant King Henry IV (who eventually converted to Catholicism himself to bring the wars to an end).
In the middle of the 17th century, in yet another prolonged episode of civil war (non-religious, this time), the barricades went up again, and the young King Louis XIV fled the capital. The king’s resentment of Parisians never entirely vanished, and he deliberately built his magnificent palace of Versailles at a safe, 12-mile remove from the city center.
During the French Revolution, spectacular violence did not end with the fall of the Bastille in 1789. Three years later, on Aug. 10, 1792, a larger battle took place around the Louvre and the Tuileries, as militant “sans-culottes” and volunteer revolutionary National Guardsmen fought King Louis XVI’s Swiss Guards in a battle that took well over a thousand lives. The result was the king’s arrest and the end of the French monarchy (at least for a time). And just a few weeks after that, the threat of a Prussian invasion led sans-culottes to storm the city’s prisons and summarily execute around 1,300 suspected counter-revolutionaries. Full-fledged civil war threatened the city at several other moments during the revolution. At one point, Maximin Isnard, a deputy to the National Convention, warned that if the sans-culottes did not stop threatening elected representatives, then Paris would be “annihilated” and soon “people will be searching along the banks of the Seine to see if Paris ever existed.”
Although Napoleon Bonaparte came to prominence in part by helping to lead the bloody suppression of royalist rioters just a few blocks from the Louvre in the fall of 1795, the massive wars he waged in subsequent years across Europe left Paris relatively untouched. The Russian occupation of the city after Napoleon’s defeat in 1814 caused little destruction.
The 19th century, however, saw the city’s peace broken time after time. Barricades arose during the brief Revolution of 1830 (which toppled the restored Bourbon dynasty and brought King Louis-Philippe to the throne) and again in 1832, in the abortive uprising commemorated by Victor Hugo in Les Misérables. In 1848, yet another revolution saw the creation of a new, unstable French Republic, and between June 23 and June 26 of that year, its conservative government savagely suppressed a left-wing uprising. Extensive street fighting throughout central Paris took more than 4,000 lives. Even more died during the suppression of the Paris Commune in 1871, including the execution of 147 commune fighters in the Père Lachaise Cemetery at the end of the so-called semaine sanglante, or bloody week. And in 1894, in a frightening harbinger of the 20th and 21st centuries, self-proclaimed anarchists carried out some of the first modern terrorist attacks in Paris, including a bombing of the café at the Saint-Lazare train station.
Unlike so many European cities, Paris largely escaped massive destruction during World War I and II. Even so, during the first half of the 20th century, external enemies left their violent mark. During World War I, the German army deployed artillery capable of hitting the city from behind the front lines at a distance of 75 miles (the 234-pound shells reached an altitude of nearly 140,000 feet, the greatest yet attained by a man-made object). The attacks caused hundreds of casualties, including 88 people killed while worshipping at the Church of Saint-Gervais on March 29, 1918. In World War II, the city endured limited aerial bombing and then the uprising by the French Resistance against the German occupiers in 1944. Still, all in all, the destruction was on a far smaller scale than that experienced by Warsaw, or London, or major German and Soviet cities. The 1944 street battles commemorated by the memorial plaques resulted in the deaths of fewer than 2,000 people. The retreating German army made elaborate plans to destroy Paris’s principal monuments and set explosives throughout the city — but in the end refrained from detonating them.
Paris has never again faced the sort of threat it did during World War II, but spectacular violence has nonetheless continued to occur at regular intervals, for many different reasons. During the Algerian War of Independence, renegade French army officers threatened a coup d’état and the possible armed seizure of the city. On Oct. 17, 1961, Parisian police massacred as many as 200 Algerian demonstrators, with many of their bodies thrown into the Seine. The massive civic unrest of May 1968 saw barricades go up one more time, and events briefly appeared so threatening that President Charles de Gaulle fled to a French military base in Germany. And since the early 1980s, terrorists have struck Paris repeatedly. From 1985 to 1986, members of a pro-Iranian Lebanese group carried out a series of attacks that killed 13 people and wounded nearly 250. Algerian terrorists killed eight in 1995 and nearly succeeded in bombing the high-speed “TGV” train. Jewish targets have suffered many times, including a Parisian synagogue where four people were killed in 1980. The city’s poor suburban areas have been repeatedly shaken by large-scale rioting by disaffected, largely Muslim youths — most spectacularly in 2005, when thousands of cars were burned and dozens of rioters and police injured. And then, of course, there were the attacks against Charlie Hebdo and the kosher market in January.
The Nov. 13 attacks cannot, of course, be explained within the French context alone. They form part of a much larger struggle. France, with its large Muslim population and a much smaller, but still significant, population of Muslim extremists, may be for the moment the epicenter of terrorism in Europe. But attacks have taken place in many other countries and will almost certainly continue to do so. Despite the carnage of Nov. 13, the single deadliest series of terrorist attacks in Europe since 9/11 remains the 2004 Madrid train bombings, which took even more lives.
But the Nov. 13 attacks do show again how horribly, despairingly difficult it has been for this most beautiful of cities to escape from the sort of spectacular violence that has haunted it throughout nearly all its history. Even as older sources of terror and strife seem to be overcome, new ones arise to take their place. They have now produced yet another dreadful Parisian semaine sanglante.
Photo credit: Archive Photos/Getty Images