History

The Elysée Palace: 300 Years, 25 Presidents

Now a symbol of French hyperpresidentialism, the Elysée Palace has seen its share of events since it was built exactly three centuries ago. A series of small stories that have made history.
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The Elysée Palace, on the Rue du Faubourg-Saint-Honoré in Paris. © Présidence de la République

Paris is certainly not short of sumptuous palaces, majestic mansions, and exceptional residences of every sort. But a twist of historical fate saw one of these edifices in particular play a major role in the destiny of modern France. Standing away from the major Parisian avenues, on Rue du Faubourg-Saint-Honoré, the Elysée Palace has been the headquarters of the presidency and the official residence of the French head of state for the last 170 years. It may not be as eye-catching as the White House or Buckingham Palace, but it offers an internationally recognized symbol of a monarchy-inspired republican system. After all, it is nicknamed “the Château.”

When this mansion was built, between 1718 and 1722, the Faubourg-du-Roule neighborhood in the current eighth arrondissement of Paris was an almost rural setting. In fact, its first owner, Louis-Henri de la Tour d’Auvergne, Count of Evreux, chose a vegetable farm as the construction site. In order to finance the project, this close friend of the regent Philippe of Orléans decided to marry the daughter of shipping magnate Antoine Crozat. Considered the wealthiest man in France, he had built his fortune on slavery and trade with Louisiana. It should therefore be noted – a rather unpleasant symbol – that the current seat of the French presidency would have never been built without slaves.

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Louis-Henri de la Tour d’Auvergne, who had the Elysée Palace built, painted by Hyacinthe Rigaud, ca. 1710. © Metropolitan Museum of Art
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The Hôtel d’Evreux, ca. 1760. © Musée Carnavalet

The count lived there for 31 years, until his death in 1753, and the palace was named after him for a long time after. The famed Marquise de Pompadour, Louis XV’s favorite mistress, then purchased it, before the Hôtel d’Evreux was acquired nine years after her death by banker Nicolas Beaujon in 1773. The last owner before the French Revolution was the Duchess of Bourbon, daughter of the Duke of Orléans.

The Roaring Revolution Years

In 1789, the palace was requisitioned by the new administration and its fate hung in the balance – a project for a “temple of equality” was even considered! Although the Duchess of Bourbon regained ownership of her property in 1795, she could no longer afford to maintain it and rented out parts of the building, including o the parents of the future poet Alfred de Vigny. Concerts and public dances were held, and “private rooms” became the settings for secret loves. The Elysée Palace had become something of a no-tell motel!

Napoleon Bonaparte was the one who finally decided the palace’s future. He had first discovered it when his brother-in-law, Marshall Murat, purchased the building in 1805. Crowned King of Naples in 1808, he ceded all his French properties to the state. Rejecting the Tuileries, previously used as the residence of French royals, which he saw as “uninhabitable,” the emperor moved into the Elysée Palace in February 1809. He later signed his declaration of abdication within its walls on June 22, 1815.

Following the Restoration, the palace hosted the Duke of Berry, the son of King Charles X, for several years. After that, it remained almost empty for three decades, and was only used to welcome foreign monarchs and princes visiting Paris. It was not until December 12, 1848, after the February Revolution and the reinstatement of a republican system, that the National Assembly passed an ordinary law making the palace the residence of the president of the French Republic. From Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte – the future Napoleon III – to Emmanuel Macron, 25 men – but not a single woman! – have lived there.

Faure, Deschanel, and Doumer

One of the guests, Félix Faure, president from 1895 to 1899, has gone down in history for dying at the palace. And not under normal circumstances. It seemed that he was in the throes of passion with his mistress, Marguerite Steinheil, which supposedly inspired Georges Clemenceau, his political adversary of the time, to declare: “He wanted to be Caesar, but ended up as Pompey.”

Another president, Paul Deschanel, also caused a media storm. Suffering from severe psychological problems, he once found himself wearing pajamas on the side of a railroad after falling from the moving presidential train around the village of Mignerette in the Loiret département. On another occasion, he was found standing in the middle of a pond, and he would sometimes think that he was a crow. He ended up stepping down in September 1920, seven months after his election.

The life of one of Deschanel’s successors, Paul Doumer, was defined by a number of tragedies. He had lost four of his five sons during World War I, and was assassinated in the center of Paris on May 6, 1932, shortly after his election. In total, he only spent eleven months at the Elysée. Another figure who spent very little time there was François Mitterrand. The president preferred his apartment on Rue de Bièvre in the fifth arrondissement, although he still holds the record for the amount of time in office: 5,109 days, or almost 14 years.

The Elysée Gardens

Throughout the series of different owners and renters, the building and its park have undergone many changes. The Count of Evreux would not recognize the architectural project he commissioned three centuries ago. The gardens have been transformed several times. In the late 18th century, the grounds were home to an artificial waterfall, a windmill, and even a dairy. Today, the park forms a long, curved lawn lined with flowers, groves, and magnificent trees.

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The Elysée gardens. © Présidence de la République

However, the Elysée has retained the charm of old residences. Most of the furniture dates back to the 19th century. The living areas, the library, and the dining room make it an architectural masterpiece which can only be visited during the European Heritage Days, held in September every year. One of the unique features of the palace is the impressive number of clocks – around 300, and each more beautiful than the last!

While the walls, furniture, and wallpaper all recount the diverse historical periods of the palace, one space – in the basement – is exceptionally modern. The “Jupiter Command Post,” named after the god of the gods and master of lightning, is the building’s former air-raid shelter where the nuclear command room was installed in 1977.

The Presidential Hive

The Elysée is a hive of activity employing more than 800 people across a range of sectors. Authors Patrice Duhamel and Jacques Santamaria made a list of the professions represented in L’Elysée : Coulisses et secrets d’un palais (2012), including archivists, silversmiths, heating engineers, drivers, civil servants and military personnel tasked with administrative duties, cooks, cabinetmakers, electricians, cleaners, florists, gendarmes, clockmakers, bailiffs, nurses, gardeners, laundry workers, chandelier makers, butlers, mechanics, doctors, carpenters, pastry chefs, police officers, firefighters, childcare workers, secretaries, sommeliers, and upholsterers.

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The office of the President of the Republic is in the Golden Room, at the center of the palace. © Présidence de la République

De Gaulle was not fond of the palace, finding it awkward and with a less-than-glorious history. He was probably thinking of the violent years of the Revolution. The “great Charles” supposedly wanted to move the presidential seat to the Hôtel des Invalides or the Château de Vincennes, two far more prestigious sites. What’s more, there was a heliport there for the use of the head of state and his employees. This has never happened, but if ever there is a serious event, such as an exceptional flooding of the Seine, the presidential services will be transferred to Vincennes, around six miles from the Elysée.

Meanwhile, many politicians dream of moving into the building once occupied by Charles de Gaulle (from 1959 to 1969), François Mitterrand (1981-1995), Raymond Poincaré (1913-1920), and Adolphe Thiers (1871-1873). The number of candidates at each presidential election proves as much! And every single one of them knows that, in Greek mythology, the Elysium was where virtuous citizens and brave warriors went after they died.

 

Article published in the April 2022 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.

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