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12 Historical Events That Shaped Paris

Picture of Noa Radosh
Noa Radosh
Updated: 5 October 2016
There’s more to Paris than fashion and wine. We have compiled the 12 most important historical events that changed Paris, contributing to the creation of one of the most magnificent metropolitan cities known for its creativity, knowledge and innovation.

Why the name ‘Paris’?

The Parisii were a sub-tribe from Celtic Senones established in the Île de la Cité, one of the remaining natural islands along the Seine, in the years between 250-225 BC. In 52 BC the Roman army defeated the Parisii and established a Gallo-Roman city called Lutetia.

King Clovis I

Clovis was the first king of France, and the founder of the country as well. He changed the power structure of tribes, banishing local leaders and uniting the people under one single ruler, making kinship hereditary for his successors. His brilliant military tactics, policies and religious devotion that enabled him to conquer the region of Gaul, making Paris the capital city in 508 after the fall of the Roman Empire.

Notre Dame de Paris

The magnificent Our Lady of Paris, better known by its French name Notre Dame, is one of the most famous cathedrals in the world and the most admirable example of French Gothic architecture. Breaking with previous Romanesque architecture, the cathedral perfectly exemplifies this period’s style, which originated in France during the 12th century and lasted for four more centuries. Some of the style’s main characteristics are pointed arches, ribbed vaults and flying buttresses, all of which can be appreciated in the Catholic cathedral. The construction began in 1163 during the reign of Louis VII and lasted until 1345 when the last elements were completed. Even though today there are numerous remains of Gothic style along France and European streets, Notre Dame is its icon.

Le Siècle des Lumières

Paris is often referred to as ‘The City of Lights’, and not because the Eiffel Tour illuminates the city every night. In the mid-18th century, Europe became ‘enlightened’. With Paris as its epicenter, the Enlightenment was a period in which philosophers and thinkers sought to rely on reason, liberty, tolerance and progress, rather than absolute monarchy and religious oppression. Led by the French writers Voltaire and Rousseau, this movement covered domains like the arts, science, economics but mostly politics. It was this humanistic inclination that inspired and shaped the French revolution.

The French Revolution

This 10 year bloodshed that cost thousands of French lives, was what ultimately ended the absolute monarchy of Louis XVI and the feudal system – establishing a republic led by Napoleon Bonaparte. Influenced by Enlightenment ideals, the French people rose against the system in an attempt to achieve sovereignty, political and social rights. Even though it was a very costly war in terms of human losses, and not all objectives were achieved, the civilians succeeded in showing how the power of their union could change the fate of their country’s politics. On July 14th, 1789 civilians took over La Bastille in Paris, the place where the state stored its guns and ammunition, as well as political prisoners, marking the beginning of the revolution. This upheaval led to a period of instability that lasted until 1799, as people from both the cities and countryside went out to the streets in violent outbreaks unlike anything ever seen before, tired as they were of being exploited by a monarchy incapable of improving the country’s economic situation. The tremendous repercussions in all aspects of society and politics, make the French Revolution one of the most important events in history, and Paris was its center stage.

Napoleon Bonaparte

A bloodthirsty dictator or France’s genius savior? Leader of the French revolution during its very last years, Napoleon Bonaparte became Emperor of France from 1804 until 1814. Through his multiple conquests and impressive military intelligence, Napoleon attempted to spread the French revolution and his liberal ideas to various countries outside of France. His contributions are numerous and of great significance in today’s France: he created the Napoleonic Code, the foundation of French law; popularized education; achieved religious freedom; and reformed France out of economic decay, introducing massive construction of industries and infrastructure, fair taxes and a new commercial code, among other things.

Baron Haussmann

If you like to walk through the beautiful streets of Paris filled with its impressive monuments, you can thank Georges-Eugène Haussmann. Appointed by Napoleon III, it was under Haussmann that the aesthetics and modern infrastructure of the French capital proliferated. Wide avenues, the destruction of medieval neighborhoods drowning in filth and disease, the annexation of suburbs to the city, construction of new parks, squares, fountains, aqueducts and sewers were some of the Baron’s accomplishments. Many of Paris’ most iconic structures, including the Palais Garnier (Opéra), Gare du Nord, Parc Monceau, and Place Chatelet, can be attributed to Haussmann’s renovations.

La Belle Époque

As its name suggests, La Belle Époque was a golden era comparing to the horrific realities of World War I that followed. Starting in 1870 under the Third French Republic, this period was characterized by economic prosperity, science, technology and culture modernization, regional peace and overall optimism; resulting in a thriving artistic wave, with Paris as the main hub. The construction of the Eiffel Tower for the 100-year celebration of the French revolution, the inauguration of the Paris Metro, the opening of the Moulin Rouge, Impressionism in painting and Modernism in literature: these are just some of the major contributions of this period that gave Paris its personality.

L’Exposition Universelle

In 1889, during La Belle Époque, Paris held L’exposition Universelle (The World Fair) for the 100th year anniversary of the Storming of La Bastille. The goals of the celebration were to reconstruct La Bastille, as well as the construction of many other structures such as the Grand Palais and the Petit Palais. The fair took place in the area of Champs de Mars, Trocadero, Quai de d’Orsay, along the Seine and in the Invalides. The main attraction was the Eiffel Tower, symbolizing the people’s resistance, built in metal to represent the innovations of a new industrial world.

World War I

The four-year war that turned the streets of Europe into a battlefield, reached Paris with the arrival of the German army in 1914. The war forced many Parisians to flee the city, running away from the bombing of shells, and the government moved to Bordeaux, afraid that Paris would be taken and destroyed by the Germans. However, the French were able to push back the Germans and avoid the destruction of the city. Still, France lost many lives in a combination of fighting in the front lines and concurrent outbreak of an epidemic flu. The war ended with France’s victory but the city found itself in between sentiments of relief and those of despair and loss.

The Crazy Years

During the interwar period, France couldn’t recover from the damages of battle, and the situation exacerbated as the Great Depression hit Paris in 1931. However, this period was also characterized by artistic and cultural development. It became an attractive and inspiring location for both national and international artists, thinkers and writers such as Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, Ernest Hemingway, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, who easily found inspiration in the cafes of Montparnasse and Saint Germain. The intellectual and cultural evolution, combined with economic improvement and peace efforts, gave the 1920s the title of the ‘Crazy Years.’

The Liberation of Paris from Nazi occupation

On August 25th 1944, the French fought against the Nazis to liberate Paris, which had been under Nazi control since June 1940. Right before Germany’s surrender, Hitler gave the order to destroy and burn the French capital, which was already covered in dynamite and explosives; the fact that the city kept intact can be regarded as a miracle. In reality, the Nazi general Dietrich Von Choltitz, had developed a deep affection for the beauty of the city during his rule, so he refused the command and eventually surrendered to the French resistance. Paris remained untouched throughout the deadliest, most violent war in modern history.