The Liberty Tour

Looking For the French Revolution in Paris

France celebrates the Storming of the Bastille every year. On July 14, 1789, the people of Paris invaded the prison that symbolized royal despotism and helped spark the French Revolution. Through a number of iconic monuments from the time, France-Amérique invites you on a walk through the heart of revolutionary Paris.
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The Bastille prison as it was in 1789, created using period engravings. © Watercolors by Yves Damin

1. The Hôtel des Invalides

Our journey begins at the Invalides subway station. The Seine River, the Petit Palais, and the Grand Palais are behind you, while the top of the Eiffel Tower can be seen to the right. The imposing Hôtel des Invalides stands proudly in front of you. As its name suggests, the classical building was built by Louis XIV to welcome wounded veterans. On the morning of Tuesday, July 14, 1789, Paris was at boiling point. A crowd had gathered in front of the gates to the Invalides demanding weapons. Most of the guards tasked with defending the building had fought under Lafayette during the American War of Independence. They supported the uprising and opened the gates, providing the mob with 32,000 rifles and 27 cannons. The fully equipped citizens’ army began its march towards the Bastille.

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Walk towards the Seine, cross the Alexandre III bridge and turn right towards the Place de la Concorde.

2. The Place de la Concorde

Welcome to the biggest square in Paris, where you can picture the scene just over two centuries ago on January 21, 1793. The site previously named Place Louis XV was packed; the king was about to be guillotined! The Convention had voted for the execution of “Citizen Capet,” as he was now known. He arrived in a horse-drawn carriage and was shoved towards the scaffold. He tried to berate the crowd, shouting “My people, I die innocent!”, but the drum major started a rapid beat and drowned out his protests. The king turned to the merciless executioner Sanson and his assistants, and spoke his final words: “I hope that my blood may cement the good fortune of the French.” His head rolled at 10:22 a.m. In the months that followed, his wife Marie-Antoinette, the two leaders of the French revolution, Robespierre and Danton, and many others met the same fate at the guillotine.

Walk through the Jardin des Tuileries to the Louvre pyramid, then turn left and make your way past the Académie Française until you reach the gorgeous gardens of the Palais-Royal.

3. The Palais-Royal

It was under one of these white stone colonnades, built 150 years earlier by the Cardinal Richelieu, that a civil uprising began and led to the Storming of the Bastille. At the time, this place was bustling with merchants, prostitutes, marmot showmen, and political agitators. On July 12, 1789, a young lawyer stood on the table of a cafe on the Montpensier gallery and harangued the crowd. The man, by the name of Camille Desmoulins, shouted: “We have but one thing left to do, take up arms and wear cockades by which we may know each other!” So as to illustrate his idea, he is said to have torn a leaf from a tree and stuck it in his hat, thereby inventing the green cockade symbolizing hope. The cockade then became red, white, and blue – the colors of Paris – several days later. As for Desmoulins, he was executed by beheading in 1794.

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Walk around the gardens and return to the Louvre, continue to the Seine and take a left along the quays. You are heading towards the Hôtel de Ville. On your way, you will pass the Ile de la Cité and notice a splendid gothic building. This is the Conciergerie, the main detention center during the Terror and the final residence of Marie-Antoinette

4. The Hôtel de Ville

Formerly known as the Place de la Grève (une grève is a flat plot of land near a waterway), this was where workers would come looking for jobs. This explains the French expression faire la grève (“to go on strike”), which originally meant standing on the Place de la Grève waiting for work. Over time, the expression’s meaning shifted, and now refers to the “collected and concerted halt of work in order to make professional demands.” While the building has been home to French institutions since the Middle Ages, the façade is relatively recent. After a fire was started by the Communards in the late 19th century, it was rebuilt in the Neo-Renaissance style inspired by the former building. As a result, you can imagine a similar Hôtel de Ville when picturing the countless public executions that were held here for more than five centuries. The very first execution by guillotine took place in 1792. The crowd, accustomed to horribly long ordeals (hanging, drawing, burning at the stake, the breaking wheel), was disappointed, and loudly booed Sanson the executioner. The following day, a little ditty could be heard in the streets of Paris: “Bring back my old wooden gallows…”

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Cross the Arcole bridge and head towards Notre-Dame, which you can see in the distance.

5. Notre-Dame

This iconic monument, whose syncretic architecture dates back to the 12th century, went through a dark time during the French Revolution. As it represented the Ancien Régime and the church at a time of major dechristianization, the cathedral was vandalized on countless occasions. Windows were broken, paving slabs were smashed, and statues were decapitated. Catholicism was outlawed and Notre-Dame became a “temple of Reason,” a holy site of the new religion known as the “cult of the supreme being,” as suggested by Robespierre. The cathedral was later used as a wine warehouse for the republic. It was not until 1802 that Notre-Dame was returned to the Catholic faith. Two years later, and following extensive renovation work, Napoleon Bonaparte was crowned there as emperor of the French.


Article published in the July 2020 issue of France-AmériqueSubscribe to the magazine.

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