The location of Place de la Concorde in Paris is strategic. Between the Louvre, Place de la Madeleine, the National Assembly and the Champs-Elysées, it is at the heart of France’s power.
Over its two centuries of existence, it has witnessed many memorable events in French history.
A party was held on the square Place Louis XV when it was still brand new. On 30 May 1770, the dauphin, the eldest son of the King of France, the future Louis XVI, married the Archduchess of Austria, Marie-Antoinette. For the occasion, a great ball was held in the salons of honour in the palace of the Garde-Meuble de la Couronne. Two days of festivities were organised on the square with Parisians.
On the programme was the presentation of the newly-weds to the crowd from the balcony of the Garde-Meuble de la Couronne and a magnificent fireworks show from the square.
Thousands of Parisians were gathered on the square when the party suddenly turned into a tragedy. A firework rocket flew off sideways and landed in the grand finale stock of fireworks. The explosion sparked a fire and triggered a huge stampede. Reporters at the time claimed the incident caused 1,200 deaths. The number of deaths actually stood at 133, with several hundred injured. This was a terrible tragedy for one of the first festive events on the square.
In the 1820s, Jean-François Champollion, undoubtedly the most famous French Egyptologist, deciphered hieroglyphics. This was a great milestone in archaeology and a tremendous discovery in regard to Egypt.
To thank him, Muhammad Ali, viceroy of Egypt, offered King Charles X and France the two obelisks that adorned the entrance to Luxor Temple. It was Champollion himself who chose to take only the right-hand one in 1830.
But transporting such a monument – 23-metres high and weighing 222 tons – over 5,000 kilometres was not easy. A ship was specially built for the operation so that the heavy gift could be carried up the Nile, over the sea and down the Seine. It took around two and a half years for the obelisk to complete its journey to Paris.
Erecting the Luxor obelisk on 25 October 1836, painted by François Dubois (1836)
It was finally erected on 25 October 1836 in the middle of the square, using an ingenious system of lifting machines and capstans.
Louis-Philippe, French king at the time, watched this historical moment from the reception rooms of the Hôtel de la Marine. Because he was not entirely sure that the operation would succeed and because he wanted to avoid looking silly, he waited until the obelisk was finally standing proudly on its plinth before appearing on the loggia and accepting the ovations from the crowd below. The stagecraft of this was cunning!
Did you know?
In 1976, the mummy of Ramesses II had to undergo surgery to save it from a fungal infection. The operation took place at the Musée de l’Homme in Paris. For the occasion, the pharaoh got an Egyptian passport authorising him to enter French territory. His stated occupation? ‘Dead monarch’. The Egyptologist Christiane Desroches Noblecourt who was in charge of the project asked for the helicopter carrying the mummy to fly via Place de la Concorde to show the pharaoh his obelisk taking centre stage in the heart of Paris!
After France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and the Siege of Paris, the country’s political situation was highly unstable. In March 1871, a violent insurrection broke out: the Paris Commune, a period of civil unrest in Paris culminating in the ‘bloody week’ from 21 to 28 May 1871.
Having withdrawn to Versailles, the government launched a campaign to recapture the city, quelling the insurrection with bloodshed. The Paris Communards set major buildings on fire in Paris to slow down progress of the troops advancing under the orders of Adolphe Thiers. Many monuments, archives and works of art disappeared during this conflict, such as the Tuileries Palace and the Paris archives.
The Hôtel de la Marine, which was occupied by the Paris Communards until the conflict, only owes its survival to two citizens’ refusal to set the building on fire: François Gablin, an equipment officer at the navy ministry who lived on site and Ludovic Matillon, an accountant. The insurgents deserted the building and evacuated the casualties there on 23 May.
A barricade on Rue Royale in 1871, photographed by Augustin-Hippolyte Collard
An interesting little tale
During the Paris Commune, Gablin hid treasures held in the Hôtel de la Marine from the Paris Communards: silver works and medals in a cesspit and 1,600 rifles and pistols in the chimney pipes of uninhabited rooms.
To support France’s national war bond for the liberation, voted by the French war ministry in September 1918, an exhibition of weapons and military equipment stolen from the Germans was set up on Place de la Concorde.
With tanks, artillery and tethered hot-air balloons, the government sought to display the superiority of the French army, capable of beating German military technology.
Following Armistice Day, crowds of Parisians vandalised the German planes on display in front of the Hôtel de la Marine.
Since 1919, the commemorative military parade of victory has gone from the Arc de Triomphe to Place de la Concorde.
German planes exhibited on Place de la Concorde vandalised by the crowd on 18 November 1918
During the Second World War, Nazi Germany’s navy – the Kriegsmarine – occupied the Hôtel de la Marine.
At dawn on 25 August 1944, troops under the orders of General Leclerc – the famous French Second Armoured Division – entered Paris. They were aiming for the districts of Place de la Concorde, Opéra Garnier and Rue de Rivoli, where the Nazi army high command was headquartered. At 4.30pm, the last German soldiers in the Hôtel de la Marine surrendered and lieutenant commander Georges Laurent de Faget put up the French flag between the columns of the loggia. Paris had been liberated!
Inhabitants seeking shelter from the gunfire of German marksmen when the allies entered Place de la Concorde on 25 August 1944.
The next day, General de Gaulle relit the flame of the unknown soldier under the Arc de Triomphe and walked down the Champs-Elysées to Place de la Concorde where a jubilant crowd had gathered to celebrate the victory.
Would you like to find out more about the history of Place de la Concorde? Read the full article!