The Paris Hotel de Ville: Robespierre, Napoleon, and Revolution!


If you’re a fan of Marvel Comics, you may
know a character called The Watcher.
Part of an immensely powerful race, The Watcher
observes the events on Earth – all its wars
and upheavals – without ever interfering,
a mute witness to history.
But what if we told you a real-life Watcher
exists?
One that has seen kings and emperors rise
and fall, revolutions explode, and reigns
of terror soak the streets with blood.
The name of that Watcher?
The Paris Hotel de Ville.
Originally constructed as a 16th Century City
Hall, the Hotel de Ville has stood at the
epicenter of the wildest events in history.
It was on its doorstep that the French Revolution
ignited, in its opulent rooms that Robespierre
tried to commit suicide, and in its vast corridors
that a radical anarchist sect siezed Paris
at the end of the Franco-Prussian War.
The saying goes “if these walls could talk,
what stories they would tell.”
Today, we’re going to listen as the Hotel
de Ville spills its secrets: from Napoleon
III, to revolution.
When is a Hotel Not a Hotel?
In 1533, Francis I was a king with a problem.
He was ruler of one of the greatest powers
in Europe, with a city – Paris – that was
likely the largest in the whole of Christendom.
But Francis was a guy who cared about appearances.
And the cramped, smelly Paris of the sixteenth
century did not look like the greatest city
Christianity had to offer.
So Francis gathered his architects, and ordered
them to build the Hotel de Ville.
Despite its name, the grand Renaissance structure
wouldn’t actually be a hotel.
There’d be no bellhop, no reception, no
free ice.
Rather, it’d be what most of us would call
City Hall, a place for the Provost of Merchants
– the guy most of us would call mayor – to
run Paris from.
Sadly, this City Hall would be so magnificent
that Francis would never get to see it.
The king died in 1547, a full seventy years
before the Hotel de Ville was finished.
It wasn’t declared open until 1628, by which
time the latest in a long line of guys called
Louis was on the throne.
It would be under one of his descendants that
the Hotel de Ville would have its first brush
with history.
OK, so we’re going to jump forward in time
here, all the way to 1789, when Louis XVI
is king, Marie Antoinette is queen, and France
is rumbling with discontent.
By the way, we apologize if you came to this
video itching to hear about municipal planners
using the Hotel in the early 17th Century,
but we’ve only got 22 minutes and, trust
us, this is way more interesting.
Anyway, the big deal in France in 1789 was
something called the Estates General.
A few years before, it had become obvious
that the nation was broke.
So broke the entire state was teetering on
the brink of collapse.
Unfortunately, financial reform was impossible.
With hard decisions to be made, it had become
a rallying cry for the king to call representatives
of all three estates – the clergy, the nobility,
and the commoners – so those hard choices
could have something resembling legitimacy.
For a long time, Louis XVI had resisted that
call.
But, by 1789, he’d finally accepted that
calling the estates was the only way to save
his kingdom from bankruptcy.
Only, there was a problem.
No Estates General had met since 1614, before
the Hotel de Ville was even finished.
You couldn’t simply ask a priest, a peasant,
and a posho to all come over and hash things
out.
No.
There would have to be elections.
Specifically, deputies would have to be chosen
to represent the commoners.
In Paris, that meant dividing the city into
60 districts to elect delegates.
It was meant to be a simple administrative
exercise, nothing that would have any lasting
consequence.
No-one could have known it in 1789, but that
simple act of administration would become
the spark that set the world on fire.
The Fires of Revolution
On the night of July 14, 1789, Jacques de
Flesselles was inside the Hotel de Ville when
he heard the first shouts.
It had been a hectic few months.
The Estates General had finally met in May,
only for the king to do everything in his
power to ignore it.
In retaliation, the commoners had split off
and declared themselves the National Assembly,
the new authority representing the people
of France.
Louis XVI had tried to physically lock them
out of their meeting hall, but the Assembly
had just met on a tennis court, where its
members all swore an oath not to disband until
France had a constitution.
Today, the Tennis Court Oath is seen as a
pivotal event in the French Revolution, the
moment when the king’s authority evaporated.
But no-one at the time realized they were
even having a revolution.
It wasn’t until an angry Parisian mob stormed
the Bastille on July 14 that it became clear
the old order was collapsing.
And now here was poor Jacques de Flesselles,
listening in horror as that same angry mob
converged on the Hotel de Ville.
As the Provost of Merchants – remember?
Basically the mayor – Flesselles took it upon
himself to go out and speak to the crowd.
But this being Revolutionary Paris, that didn’t
go so well.
By which we mean the mob shot him dead, chopped
up his body, and paraded it around on pikes.
As the blood of Jacques de Flesselles dripped
down the steps of the Hotel, it was clear
to everyone inside that nothing would ever
be the same again.
The very next day, representatives of the
60 districts of Paris met at the conquered
Hotel de Ville.
Their demands were simple.
They wanted Paris run by Parisians..
Like the National Assembly before them, they
declared themselves sovereign, calling themselves
the Paris Commune.
For Louis XVI, the appearance of the Commune
was deeply troubling.
While no-one was yet wheeling out the guillotine,
he only need look at the remains of poor Jacques
de Flesselles to see what fate might await
him if he opposed its creation.
So the king did the only thing he could.
He gave the Commune his blessing.
On July 17, just three days after the storming
of the Bastille, Louis XVI reluctantly presented
himself at the Hotel de Ville.
There, the Commune took him up to a balcony,
pinned a revolutionary tricolor to him, and
sent him out to see the crowd.
The sight of the king on the balcony of the
Hotel de Ville, apparently all cool with the
revolution, sent the Parisian mobs into raptures.
Some even shouted “long live the king!”
The following spring, May, 1790, the National
Assembly passed a law allowing the Commune
to run Paris however it saw fit.
While that made sense in the early days of
the Revolution, when Liberté, Equalité and
Fraternité were still in supply, those early
days were already almost over.
When the Commune finally heard the siren song
of the guillotine, everyone was going to regret
giving them power.
Terror Reigns
In a top ten list of Days that Changed History,
August 10, 1792 could easily be number one.
That was the day the liberal, only-slightly-murderous
first French Revolution metamorphosed into
the rampaging guillotine monster.
The night before, the Hotel de Ville had been
shattered by the Commune breaking into two
parts: the original liberal Commune, and the
working class Insurrectionary Commune.
As the sun dawned that fateful day, the Insurrectionary
Commune announced itself the sole authority
in Paris.
As if on cue, the streets exploded.
The bloodshed of August 10 was beyond anything
Paris had yet seen.
The working class sans-culottes – the urban
poor – all came out on the side of the insurrectionaries.
By the time the smoke cleared, the new Commune
was in control of Paris and everyone was in
trouble.
It was this new, 1792 Commune that brought
guys like Georges Danton and Maximilian Robespierre
into the limelight.
Working out of the Hotel de Ville, they used
their power over the Paris mob to change the
course of the revolution.
When the newly-created National Convention
threatened to get too moderate, they sent
sans-culottes to attack centrist deputies.
When revolutionary tribunals were created,
they made sure their men sat on them.
And when even the radical Girondins got too
moderate for the Commune, they helped Danton
and Robespierre denounce and execute them.
By September, 1793, the alliance between the
super-radicalized Commune in the Hotel de
Ville, and the extremists in the National
Convention was strong enough for them to do
anything.
What they wanted to do was bring terror to
the streets of Paris.
Over the next ten months, the Reign of Terror
– under the direction of Robespierre – sent
17,000 to the guillotine.
As the bodies piled up, the Commune in the
Hotel de Ville simply cheered.
But by mid-1794, the violence had become so
staggering that even the streetfighters of
Paris were appalled.
Someone needed to do something.
On July 27, they did.
That day, the National Convention rose up
against Robespierre, stripping him of his
power, an event known today as the Thermidorian
Reaction.
Realizing his time as dictator was over, Robespierre
fled to the Hotel, hoping the sans-culottes
would protect him.
But they didn’t.
No-one showed to save the bloodthirsty madman.
As the Convention’s soldiers closed in,
Robespierre raised a pistol to his head…
…and fired.
The suicide attempt succeeded only in blowing
the bottom of his jaw off.
In pain, bleeding heavily, Robespierre was
arrested in one of the Hotel’s opulent rooms.
The following day, the Reign of Terror’s
architect was dragged to the guillotine.
Just before he was beheaded, the executioner
ripped off his dangling piece of jaw.
The screams could be heard all the way back
at the Hotel.
In the wake of Robespierre’s fall, the Hotel
de Ville faded from the story of the French
Revolution.
The Commune’s authority was stripped when
The Directory seized power after Thermidor.
In May, 1795, the sans-culottes tried one
last time to occupy the Hotel.
But, though reactionary, The Directory was
just as vicious as Robespierre.
The army crushed the sans-culottes and the
dream of the Paris Commune died with them.
At least, it did for a while.
Because while the story of the French Revolution
may be over, the story of the Hotel de Ville
is not.
In just a few short decades, the Watcher of
Paris would be back at the forefront of history.
Say You Want a Revolution
The next two decades passed like a hurricane.
Napoleon overthrew the Directory, did some
conquering, made the major mistake of invading
Russia, and got overthrown himself.
By 1814, the Napoleonic era was over – for
now, at least – and Louis XVI’s brother,
Louis XVIII, was on the throne.
Because nobody liked the idea of all those
decades of revolution being for nothing, Louis
was only allowed to take the throne after
agreeing to something called the Charter of
1814.
Basically a constitution, the Charter guaranteed
some freedoms, while acknowledging the king’s
power derived from the masses, and not from
God pointing his giant sky finger at Louis
and declaring “I CHOOSE YOOOOOOU!”
For the next few years, the Charter held France
together.
It survived Napoleon’s return in 1815, his
subsequent downfall, and the restor-restoration
of Louis XVIII.
It even survived Louis’s 1824 death and
the transfer of power to his brother, Charles
X.
But it wouldn’t survive the new king’s
reign.
That’s because Charles was an old-fashioned
“God chose me to be king, so suck it, peasant”
type of ruler.
By 1830, he was so offended by the Charter’s
limits on his power that he decided to get
rid of it all together.
Monday, 26 July, 1830 became known as the
day Charles X published the Four Ordinances,
effectively tearing up the Charter.
It also became known as the day Paris once
again exploded.
That day, people awoke to notices announcing
Charles had banned the opposition, ended freedom
of the press, and done a whole lot of other
things considered “not cool”.
Out on his estate, the king’s ambitious
liberal cousin, Louis-Philippe, the Duc d’Orleans,
even declared Charles had pulled off a royal
coup.
But if Charles thought he’d just made himself
divine king of all France, Paris had different
ideas.
History’s Kiss
On the night of Monday, 26 July to Tuesday,
27 there were demonstrations across Paris.
Skirmishes.
Come the morning, the army hastily moved to
garrison the Hotel de Ville, lest any Parisians
try to pull another 1789.
But sending the army in didn’t have the
calming influence Charles had hoped for.
Instead, it goaded the Parisians to start
fighting.
The violence that broke out that morning fired
the starting gun on something known as the
Three Glorious Days.
A citywide uprising, it saw ordinary Parisians
fill the streets with improvised barricades
and open fire on anyone who tried to dismantle
them.
By Wednesday, there was blood in the gutters
and the whiff of gunpowder on the air.
By Thursday, there was revolution.
That day, the fighting was fiercest around
the Hotel de Ville.
The Parisian mobs went on the attack, determined
to take the symbolic building.
Fearing a massacre, the army commander gave
the order to pull back.
As his forces fled the city, the last thing
they saw was the bloodstained flag of Charles
X pulled down, and the tricolor hoisted high
above the Hotel de Ville.
After three days of fighting, the revolutionaries
had won.
But what did that actually mean?
As Charles X fled into exile – his head remarkably
still attached to his body – everyone started
looking around nervously to see if any guillotines
showed up.
Was this a revival of the 1789 revolution?
The 1792 insurrection?
Or something new?
It was while Paris was in this state of confusion
that Louis-Philippe struck.
Remember, Charles’s ambitious liberal cousin
we briefly introduced?
Well, he saw an opportunity in this chaos.
Egged on by elements of the bourgeoise, he
rode into the burning city to present himself
as a newer, kinder king.
This was a move of unparalleled stupidity.
Really, it’s a wonder no workers grabbed
him, chopped off his head and used it as a
doorstop.
But they didn’t.
Louis-Philippe reached the Hotel de Ville
just in time to meet the Marquis de Lafayette.
A hero of the 1789 revolution, the Marquis
was respected by all but the most radical
Parisians.
Yet he was also aware that this new revolution
could snowball into another Reign of Terror
if it wasn’t wrapped up, like right now.
So he took Louis-Philippine into the Hotel.
Got him to promise to be a more liberal king.
Then the Marquis draped them both in a tricolor,
marched out onto the balcony and publicly
embraced the new king.
The crowd below them erupted.
It was just like Louis XVI stepping onto the
balcony in 1789, with hardened Parisian streetfighters
suddenly chanting “long live the monarchy!”
But, just like with Louis XVI, that euphoria
couldn’t last forever.
If the walls of the Hotel de Ville could talk,
they might have warned King Louis-Philippe
that there was only one way these revolutions
ever ended.
The King and the Emperor
In the end, it was banquets that brought the
new king down.
The so-called July Monarchy of Louis-Philippe
ruled with a liberal touch that seemed velvet
soft in comparison with Charles X, but painfully
hesitant compared with everyone’s hopes.
The new government expanded the franchise,
but also made sure voting was something only
the one percent could do.
It guaranteed freedom of the press, but also
banned political gatherings.
By 1847, the July Monarchy was unpopular,
out of touch, and ignorant of public feeling.
You can almost picture the Hotel de Ville
putting its head in its hands and muttering
“oh Louis-Philippe.
I’ve seen all this before.”
Well, it was about to see it all over again.
Throughout 1847, opposition groups got around
the political meetings ban by holding banquets
where people aired their grievances.
But the banquets got so popular that Louis-Philippe’s
government panicked and canceled a massive
one due to be held in Paris in February, 1848.
And that was how Paris on February 22 came
to be full of tens of thousands of super politicized,
super hungry people who were super pissed
at losing both their rights and their lunch.
Did they riot?
Dude, this is France we’re talking about.
Of course they rioted!
They rioted until so many people were in the
streets that it became yet another revolution.
This time, though, the Hotel de Ville only
played a peripheral role.
From the point of view of Paris’s Watcher,
it spent two days being ignored by crazed
streetfighters, only for people to remember
it when news broke that Louis-Philippe had
abdicated and fled for England.
On that day, February 24, 1848, a large group
of radicals converged on the Hotel, intending
to declare a new Paris Commune.
In the years since Thermidor, the Commune
had become mythologized.
Stripped of its context, it was remembered
by the public less as a murderous enterprise,
and more as the one time in history that Paris
had been run by and for Parisians.
But when those radicals got to the Hotel,
they found members of the government opposition
already there to declare a liberal republic.
The two sides nearly came to blows.
But eventually they reached a compromise.
A new republic would replace a new Commune,
but it would follow a semi-radical agenda.
The Second French Republic was announced from
the Hotel de Ville soon after, but all the
people making triumphant speeches forgot to
mention just how short-lived it would be.
The liberals first tried to short-change the
radicals, then cracked down on them.
That summer, the June Days saw 1,500 working
class Parisians killed.
But the liberals were wrong to think it was
the myth of the Commune that threatened their
new state.
Like an audience watching a magic trick, they
were too distracted by the threat of another
1792 to notice what was really happening.
And what was really happening was that a brash
populist was skillfully building an unlikely
coalition to overthrow them all.
In December, 1848, Napoleon’s nephew, Louis-Napoleon
came to power on the back of France’s first
presidential election.
Shortly after, on the anniversary of his uncle’s
coup, he launched a coup of his own.
On December 2, 1852, Louis-Napoleon officially
abolished the Second French Republic and declared
himself Emperor Napoleon III of the Second
French Empire.
One of the early acts of the new emperor was
to give the area around the Hotel de Ville
a facelift.
Gone were the narrow, squalid streets, in
came open spaces and shiny boulevards.
The Hotel itself the new emperor left intact,
probably because its grand exterior complemented
his own self-image.
But Napoleon III failed to realize that the
Parisians looking at the Hotel de Ville didn’t
see what he did.
They saw promises.
The fabled promise of 1789, and the broken
promises of 1830 and 1848.
Twice now they’d been tricked into accepting
a new king or emperor, instead of reviving
the dream of the Commune.
As the saying almost goes: “fool me once,
shame on you.
Fool me twice…
You’re going to lose your head.”
The Commune Reborn
For the Paris Commune to stand any chance
of being reborn, though, things were going
to have to go very wrong for Napoleon III.
In 1870, they did.
That summer, the emperor decided to teach
the upstart nation of Prussia a lesson by
personally leading a war against them.
Instead, the well-trained Prussians quickly
surrounded Louis-Napoleon and the emperor
was captured.
Back in Paris, the by-now-standard stages
of revolution played out.
Once again, opposition deputies rushed to
the Hotel de Ville, and declared a new, liberal
republic.
But, this time, the streetfighters of Paris
were nowhere to be seen.
Shortly after, the Prussian army surrounded
the capital, trapping it in a brutal siege.
And we mean brutal.
The people of Paris were reduced to eating
rats as Prussian bombs fell.
All that time, the betrayals of 1830 and 1848
continued to eat away at people’s souls.
Even as the siege lasted into a miserable
winter, little worms of resentment tunneled
deep into Parisian’s minds.
While there was a war on, there was nothing
they could do, not if they wanted to beat
the Prussians.
The problem was, not everyone did.
In January, 1871, the liberals in power agreed
an armistice with the Prussians, lifting the
siege.
But the terms were humiliating.
In besieged Paris, the number one desire was
to keep on fighting, to show those Prussian
bâtards what the French were made of.
When instead Prussian soldiers held a victory
parade past the Arc de triomphe, the Parisians
simply couldn’t digest it.
All that suffering.
All those lunches of rat.
All had been for nothing.
The elites of the new Third Republic did nothing
to convince the masses otherwise.
Rather than thank the Parisians for holding
out so long, President Adolphe Thiers demanded
they hand over all their guns, lest they fall
into radical hands.
To which the Parisians were all like “yeah?
Why don’t you come and get them?”
To which Thiers replied “OK, I will.”
On March 18, 1871, the French Army marched
into Paris.
But the sight of the guns being removed, and
the government’s clear lack of trust in
the people, was enough to send the city haywire.
Fights broke out.
Skirmishes.
Barricades went up.
By the time March 19 dawned, the National
Guard had joined the Parisian streetfighters.
Overwhelmed, the French Army surrendered the
city.
As they scuttled for the safety of the countryside,
the commanders who looked back saw a flag
being triumphantly hoisted above the Hotel
de Ville.
But it wasn’t the tricolor of 1830.
The red flag of socialism was now fluttering
in the breeze.
On March 26, the modern sans-culottes in Paris
descended on the Hotel de Ville.
From its steps, the Paris Commune was declared
reborn.
Eighty two years after an angry mob had lynched
poor Jacques de Flesselles and put themselves
in charge of Paris, the Commune was back.
This time, it would lead to more bloodshed
than ever.
Burning Down the Hotel
The story of the Paris Commune changes drastically
depending on who you talk to.
For some, the 1871 Commune was nothing less
than a new Reign of Terror.
No sooner were the Communards in charge than
they were taking clergymen and businesspeople
hostage.
For others, such as Karl Marx, the new Commune
was nothing less than history’s first attempt
at real popular rule.
The Commune’s leaders were radical in every
way.
Some were professional revolutionaries, others
were socialists, others still were feminists.
Not that they would’ve used these labels.
In the mind of the Parisians running the new
Commune, they were simply a continuation of
the 1789 dream.
They even based themselves in the Hotel de
Ville.
But while we can debate what the Communards
really were for all eternity, there’s one
thing pretty much everyone is in agreement
on.
They were useless.
Yep, there are no stories here about reigns
of terror and the swish thunk of the guillotine.
The Communards were committed to a radical
vision of Paris governing itself by consensus.
That meant everyone having a say.
That meant not becoming a Robespierre-style
dictatorship.
Guys, we love your integrity, but seriously?
You’re about to go toe to toe with the French
Army.
Maybe at least designate someone leader till
the crisis blows over?
In the two short months it ruled Paris, the
Commune instituted sweeping reform, separating
church from state, abolishing the death penalty,
promoting workers’ rights, and bringing
in a social safety net.
On the other hand, it was so militarily incompetent
that it literally forgot to lock the back
door.
On May 21, the French Army was scouting the
city when they stumbled across a gate that
was open and unguarded.
So they went in, saw it wasn’t a trap, and
were all like “sweet.”
By the time the Communards noticed all these
soldiers suddenly in their city, it was too
late.
The Paris Commune fell in a long, bitter struggle
known as the Bloody Week.
Whereas the original Commune had aided the
Reign of Terror, this time it was the French
government that took the role of the Angel
of Death.
The Army massacred the citizens of Paris.
Men, women, children were all considered dangerous
revolutionaries and shot.
At a minimum, it’s thought 7,000 Parisians
were killed that week.
At a maximum, 20,000 are said to have died;
more than during the entire Reign of Terror.
Not that the Communards were blameless.
As the net closed in, the revolutionaries
executed their hostages.
Then, on May 24, the prominent Communard Louis-Charles
Delescluze made a momentous decision.
He ordered the Hotel de Ville burned to the
ground.
The flames that engulfed the Watcher of Paris
turned the skies above the city black.
They triggered a wave of burnings, as the
Communards tried to raze the capital.
The Tuileries Palace.
The Palais de Justice.
All joined the conflagration.
When the French Army finally retook the city,
there was almost no city left.
That day, 240 years of Parisian history came
to an end.
Having stood witness to four French revolutions,
the Reign of Terror, and enough bloodshed
to fill several wars, the Hotel de Ville was
finally gone.
Its story, like that of the Paris Commune,
was finally over.
…Or was it?
In 1874, the French government decided to
rebuild Paris.
Having arrested, executed, or deported almost
all the city’s radicals, they were no longer
afraid of another Commune arising.
So they rebuilt the Hotel de Ville.
They even rebuilt it in the same style as
before.
The story of the new Hotel de Ville is beyond
the remit of our video today.
But there is one tale from its life we should
mention.
In 1944, as Allied troops converged on Paris
and the Nazis were finally overthrown, Charles
de Gaulle needed somewhere to announce the
liberation of the capital from.
Somewhere that would have resonance not just
with Parisians, but with all French people.
He chose the Hotel de Ville.
Even now, after so many centuries and revolutions
and its own destruction, the story of the
Watcher of Paris isn’t over.
For now, and maybe forever, it continues to
sit there as it always has: a silent witness
to the hurricane of human history.

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