Paris During the Revolution

At the end of the 18th century, economic crisis hit France. This crisis, when combined with the unpopularity of King Louis the 16th, led to revolts and uprisings all over France. These revolts were the first murmurs of the drama that would become the French Revolution, whose center stage was Paris.

A Chaotic Period

The Revolution, of course, incites thoughts of Bastille Day and the capture of the prison this historic day is named for. But if you’re imagining an organized and insightful group of revolutionaries plotting to overthrow the royal power, you’re sorely mistaken!

The liberation of the Bastille’s prisoners was far from an organized uprising in the name of liberty and justice. At any rate, there were only seven prisoners in the Bastille at the time! Their liberation was a side effect of the true mission of the Parisians, who were looking to secure ammunition, after having already taken arms from the Invalides. They sought to protect themselves from regiments surrounding Paris, poised to “calm” the people and their rebellion.

The general feeling was rather chaotic all over Paris and France at the time. The chaos increased as the price of bread rose, thus Marie-Antoinette’s famous declaration… whether or not she actually said “let them eat cake” is another story.

In the Faubourg Saint-Antoine, just outside of the city center, rebellion broke out. The meeting of the Estates-General in Versailles was an utter failure. All of these events and more besides led to an impromptu speech on the 12th of July by Camille Desmoulins in the gardens of the Palais Royal, begging Parisians to defend themselves, and defend themselves they did.

The monarchic system fell soon after, leading first to a constitutional monarchy, wherein the king was forced to leave Versailles and rule from the Tuileries palace in Paris. Federation Day – and not Bastille Day, as we are wont to believe – marks the 14th of July 1790, one year after the Bastille was taken, to celebrate the reconciliation and unity of the French.

But reconciliation and unity would not last long, and neither would the constitutional monarchy. On August 10th, 1792, the Tuileries palace was attacked, and the king was forced to take cover at the Assembly, where he was stripped of his powers. After he was tried for his crimes, he was guillotined on January 21st, 1793. During the Terror that followed, the guillotine was in full gear, and revolutionaries scrambled to find some semblance of order. A Directory and then a Consul was placed at the head of the government, before, in the face of this chaos, Corsican-born Napoleon Bonaparte took power and named himself Emperor.

Revolutionary Journey

To uncover the traces of the Revolution in modern-day Paris, you can start at Place de la Bastille. You’ll find little evidence of the fortress that once stood here, save a brown paving stone on the ground at the corner of boulevard Henri IV and rue Saint-Antoine, which symbolizes the prison’s original location. The Bastille was demolished after the 1789 attack, and the stones of the former prison were used to build the Concorde Bridge.

The column in the center of the Place (the Column of July) was erected by King Louis-Philippe to commemorate the deaths of the heroes of the Trois Glorieuses or Three Glorious Days (1830), a revolt that overthrew the Bourbon kings in favor of the House of Orléans. The winged figure at the top represents freedom in flight, liberating itself from its chains.

Walking towards Ile Saint-Louis, you’ll find the base of one of the towers of the Bastille, in Square Henri Galli.

Visit the Conciergerie; this former palace was used as a prison during the Revolution, and it was the last home of both Marie-Antoinette and Robespierre, who spent their last days here awaiting execution by guillotine. Today, the cells are reconstructed with representative wax figures, to give you an idea of what the prison looked like. You’ll also be able to see the Guardroom, where the revolutionary tribunal sat during the reign of Terror.

In the Saint-Germain area, go first to the Cordeliers convent, which was home to one of the many political clubs after the 1789 Revolution. The Cordeliers club was one of the most active of the time, led by Danton and Marat. The latter was buried there after his assassination. Head next to the Procope, on rue de l’Ancienne-Comédie. Revolutionaries like Danton, Marat and Camille Desmoulins made this restaurant their home base. The revolutionary cap is said to have made its first appearance here, as revolutionaries planned the attack of the Tuileries in 1792.

At the Carnavalet Musuem, twelve rooms are consecrated to the Revolution and allow you to follow the large movements of this chaotic period. On Place de la Concorde, the former Place de la Revolution, Louis the 16th and Marie-Antoinette met their fate at the guillotine, along with many others who lost their lives to the Terror.

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