With its cobbled streets, terraced cafes and iconic landmarks, Paris evokes a sense of timelessness, yet the city has changed and evolved dramatically over the centuries. Paris’ history is a saga of battles, bloodshed, grand-scale excesses, revolution, reformation, resistance, renaissance and constant reinvention. This epic is not just consigned to museums and archives: reminders of the capital’s and the country’s history are evident all over the city.
Early Settlers: The Celts & Romans
The early history of Paris is murky, but the consensus is that a Celtic tribe known as the Parisii established a fishing village in the area in the 3rd century BC. Years of conflict between the Gauls and Romans ended in 52 BC, when the latter took control of the territory after a decisive victory during Julius Caesar's eight-year Gallic Wars campaign. The Romans promptly established a new town – Lutetia (Lutèce in French) – with the main public buildings (forum, bathhouse, theatre and amphitheatre) all located on the Left Bank, near today's Panthéon. Remnants of both the bathhouse and amphitheatre are still visible.
Though Lutetia was not the capital of its province, it was a prosperous town, with a population of around 8000. However, raids by the Franks and other Germanic tribes during the 3rd century AD left the settlement on the Left Bank scorched and pillaged, and its inhabitants fled to the Île de la Cité, subsequently fortified with stone walls. Christianity was introduced by St Denis – decapitated on Montmartre in AD 250 for his efforts – and the first church was built on the western part of the island.
The Roman town held out until the late 5th century – mythically saved from Attila the Hun by the piety of Geneviève, who became the city's patron saint – only to fall when a second wave of Franks overran the area for good.
The Middle Ages: Paris as Capital
One of the key figures in early Parisian history was the Frankish king Clovis I (c 466–511). Clovis was the first ruler to unite what would later become France, to convert to Christianity and to declare Paris the capital. Under the Frankish kings the city once again began to expand, and important edifices such as the abbey of St-Germain des Prés and the abbey at St-Denis were erected.
However, the militaristic rulers of the succeeding Carolingian dynasty, beginning with Charles ‘the Hammer’ Martel (688–741), were almost permanently away fighting wars in the east, and Paris languished, controlled mostly by its counts. When Charles Martel’s grandson, Charlemagne (768–814), moved his capital to Aix-la-Chapelle (today’s Aachen in Germany), Paris’ fate was sealed. Basically a group of separate villages with its centre on the Ile de la Cité, Paris was badly defended throughout the second half of the 9th century and was raided incessantly by Vikings, who eventually established control over northern and northwestern France.
The Paris counts, whose powers had grown as the Carolingians feuded among themselves, elected one of their own, Hugh Capet, as king at Senlis in 987. He made Paris the royal seat and lived in the renovated palace of the Roman governor on the Île de la Cité (site of the present Palais de Justice). Under the 800 years of Capetian rule that followed, Paris prospered as a centre of politics, commerce, trade, religion and culture.
The city’s strategic riverside position ensured its importance throughout the Middle Ages. The first guilds were created in the 11th century, and in the mid-12th century the ship merchants’ guild bought the principal river port, by today’s Hôtel de Ville (City Hall), from the crown. Frenetic building marked the 12th and 13th centuries. The Basilique de St-Denis was commissioned in 1136 and less than three decades later work started on Notre Dame. During the reign of Philippe-Auguste (r 1180–1223), the city wall was expanded and fortified with 25 gates and hundreds of protective towers.
The swampy Marais was drained for agricultural use and settlement, prompting the eventual need for the food markets at Les Halles in 1183 and the Louvre as a riverside fortress in the 13th century. In a bid to resolve ghastly traffic congestion and stinking excrement (by 1200 the city had a population of 200,000), Philippe-Auguste paved four of Paris’ main streets with metre-square sandstone blocks. Meanwhile, the Left Bank – particularly in the Latin Quarter – developed as a centre of European learning and erudition. Ill-fated lovers Pierre Abélard and Héloïse penned the finest poetry of the age and treatises on philosophy, Thomas Aquinas taught at the new university, and the Sorbonne opened its scholarly doors.
Dark Times: War & Death
Political tension and open insurrection were brought to Paris by the Hundred Years’ War (1337–1453); the Black Death (1348–49), which killed over a third of Paris’ population; and the development of free, independent cities elsewhere in Europe. In 1420 the dukes of Burgundy, allied with the English, occupied the capital and two years later John Plantagenet, duke of Bedford, was installed as regent of France for the English king, Henry VI, then an infant. Henry was crowned king of France at Notre Dame less than 10 years later, but Paris was almost continuously under siege from the French.
Around that time a 17-year-old peasant girl known to history as Jeanne d’Arc (Joan of Arc) persuaded the French pretender to the throne that she’d received a divine mission from God to expel the English from France and bring about his coronation as Charles VII. She rallied French troops and defeated the English north of Orléans, and Charles was crowned at Reims. But Joan of Arc failed to take Paris. In 1430 she was captured, convicted of witchcraft and heresy by a tribunal of French ecclesiastics and burned at the stake. Charles VII returned to Paris in 1436, ending over 16 years of occupation, but the English were not entirely driven from French territory for another 17 years.
The Rise of the Royal Court
Under Louis XI (r 1461–83) the city’s first printing press was installed at the Sorbonne and churches were built around the city in the Flamboyant Gothic style. But it was during the reign of François I in the early 16th century that Renaissance ideas of scientific and geographic scholarship and discovery really assumed a new importance, as did the value of secular matters over religious life. Writers such as Rabelais, Marot and Ronsard of La Pléiade were influential, as were artist and architect disciples of Michelangelo and Raphael who worked towards a new architectural style designed to reflect the splendour of the monarchy (which was fast moving towards absolutism) and of Paris as the capital of a powerful centralised state. At François I’s chateau, superb artisans, many brought over from Italy, blended Italian and French styles to create what is known as the First School of Fontainebleau.
But all this grandeur and show of strength was not enough to stem the tide of Protestant Reformation sweeping Europe in the 1530s, strengthened in France by the ideas of John Calvin. Following the Edict of January 1562, which afforded the Protestants certain rights, the Wars of Religion, which lasted three dozen years, broke out between the Huguenots (French Protestants who received help from the English), the Catholic League (led by the House of Guise) and the Catholic monarchy. On 7 May 1588, on the ‘Day of the Barricades’, Henri III, who had granted many concessions to the Huguenots, was forced to flee from the Louvre when the Catholic League rose against him. He was assassinated the following year.
Henri IV, founder of the Bourbon dynasty, issued the controversial Edict of Nantes in 1598, guaranteeing the Huguenots many civil and political rights, notably freedom of conscience. Ultra-Catholic Paris refused to allow the new Protestant king to enter the city, and a siege of the capital continued for almost five years. Only when Henri IV embraced Catholicism at the cathedral in St-Denis – 'Paris vaut bien un messe' (Paris is well worth a Mass), he is reputed to have said during Communion – did the capital submit to him. Henri’s rule ended abruptly in 1610 when he was assassinated by a Catholic fanatic when his coach became stuck in traffic along rue de la Ferronnerie, south of Les Halles.
Arguably France’s best-known king of this or any other century, Louis XIV (r 1643–1715), aka ‘Le Roi Soleil’ (the Sun King), ascended the throne at the tender age of five. He involved the kingdom in a series of costly, almost continuous wars with Holland, Austria and England, which gained France territory but nearly bankrupted the treasury. State taxation, imposed to refill the coffers, caused widespread poverty and vagrancy, especially in cities. In Versailles, Louis XIV built an extravagant palace and made his courtiers compete with each other for royal favour, thereby quashing the ambitious, feuding aristocracy and creating the first centralised French state. In 1685 he revoked the Edict of Nantes.
From Revolution to Republic
During the so-called Age of Enlightenment, the royal court moved back to Paris from Versailles and the city effectively became the centre of Europe. Yet as the 18th century progressed, new economic and social circumstances rendered the ancien régime dangerously out of step with the needs of the country.
By the late 1780s the indecisive Louis XVI and his domineering Vienna-born queen, Marie Antoinette, had alienated virtually every segment of society. When they tried to neutralise the power of more reform-minded delegates at a meeting of the États-Généraux (States-General) in Versailles from May to June 1789, the masses – spurred by the oratory and inflammatory tracts circulating at places like the Café de Foy at Palais Royal – took to the streets of Paris. On 14 July a mob raided the armoury at the Hôtel des Invalides for rifles, seized 32,000 muskets and stormed the prison at Bastille. Enter the French Revolution.
At first the Revolution was in the hands of moderate republicans, the Girondins. France was declared a constitutional monarchy and reforms were introduced, including the adoption of the Déclaration des Droits de l’Homme and du Citoyen (Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen). But as the masses armed themselves against the external threat to the new government – posed by Austria, Prussia and the exiled French nobles – patriotism and nationalism mixed with extreme fervour and then popularised and radicalised the Revolution. It was not long before the Girondins lost out to the extremist Jacobins, who abolished the monarchy and declared the First Republic. The Assemblée Nationale was replaced by an elected Revolutionary Convention.
Louis XVI was convicted of ‘conspiring against the liberty of the nation’ in January 1793 and guillotined at place de la Révolution, today’s place de la Concorde. Two months later the Jacobins set up the notorious Committee of Public Safety to deal with national defence and try ‘traitors’. The subsequent Reign of Terror (September 1793 to July 1794) saw religious freedoms revoked, churches closed and desecrated, cathedrals turned into ‘Temples of Reason’ and thousands incarcerated in dungeons in La Conciergerie before being beheaded.
After the Reign of Terror faded, a five-man delegation of moderate republicans set itself up to rule the republic as the Directory.
Napoléon & Empire
The post-Revolutionary government was far from stable and when Napoléon returned to Paris in 1799, he found a chaotic republic in which few citizens had any faith. In November, when it appeared that the Jacobins were again on the ascendancy in the legislature, Napoléon tricked the delegates into leaving Paris for St-Cloud to the southwest (‘for their own protection’), overthrew the discredited Directory and assumed power.
At first, Napoléon took the post of First Consul. In a referendum three years later he was named ‘Consul for Life’ and his birthday became a national holiday. By December 1804, when he crowned himself ‘Emperor of the French’ in the presence of Pope Pius VII at Notre Dame, the scope and nature of Napoléon’s ambitions were obvious to all. But to consolidate and legitimise his authority, Napoléon needed more victories on the battlefield. So began a seemingly endless series of wars and victories by which France would come to control most of Europe.
In 1812 Napoléon invaded Russia and captured Moscow, only for his army to be quickly wiped out by the brutal Russian winter. Two years later Allied armies entered Paris, exiled Napoléon to Elba and restored the House of Bourbon to the French throne at the Congress of Vienna (1814–15).
But in early 1815 Napoléon escaped the Mediterranean island, landed in southern France and gathered a large army as he marched towards Paris. On 1 June he reclaimed the throne at celebrations held at the Champs de Mars. But his reign came to an end just three weeks later when his forces were defeated at Waterloo in Belgium. Napoléon was exiled again, this time to St Helena in the South Atlantic, where he died in 1821. In 1840 his remains were moved to Paris’ Église du Dôme.
The Second Republic was established and elections in 1848 brought in Napoléon’s inept nephew, the German-reared (and -accented) Louis Napoléon Bonaparte, as president. In 1851 he staged a coup d’état and proclaimed himself Emperor Napoléon III of the Second Empire, which lasted until 1870.
France enjoyed significant economic growth at this time, and Paris was transformed by town planner Baron Haussmann (1809–91) into the modern city it is today. Huge swaths of the city were completely rebuilt (demolishing much of medieval Paris in the process), its chaotic narrow streets replaced with the handsome, arrow-straight and wide thoroughfares for which the city is now celebrated.
The Belle Époque
Though it would usher in the glittering belle époque (beautiful age), there was nothing particularly attractive about the start of the Third Republic. Born as a provisional government of national defence in September 1870, it was quickly attacked by the Prussians, who laid siege to Paris and demanded National Assembly elections be held. Unfortunately, the first move made by the resultant monarchist-controlled assembly was to ratify the Treaty of Frankfurt, the harsh terms of which – a huge war indemnity and surrender of the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine – helped instigate a civil war between radical Parisians (known as Communards) and the national government. The Communards took control of the city, establishing the Paris Commune, but the French Army eventually regained the capital several months later. It was a chaotic period, with mass executions on both sides, exiles and rampant destruction (both the Palais des Tuileries and the Hôtel de Ville were burnt down). The Wall of the Federalists in Cimetière du Père Lachaise is a sombre reminder of the bloodshed.
The belle époque launched art nouveau architecture, a whole field of artistic ‘isms’ from impressionism onwards, and advances in science and engineering, including the construction of the first metro line (1900). World Fairs were held in the capital in 1889 (showcasing the Eiffel Tower) and 1901 (in the purpose-built Petit Palais). The Paris of nightclubs and artistic cafes made its first appearance around this time, and Montmartre became a magnet for artists, writers, pimps and prostitutes.
But all was not well in the republic. France was consumed with a desire for revenge after its defeat by Germany, and was looking for scapegoats. The so-called Dreyfus Affair began in 1894 when a Jewish army captain named Alfred Dreyfus was accused of betraying military secrets to Germany; he was then court-martialled and sentenced to life imprisonment on Devil’s Island in French Guiana. Liberal politicians and writers succeeded in having the case reopened despite bitter opposition from the army command, right-wing politicians and many Catholic groups – and Dreyfus was vindicated in 1900. This resulted in more rigorous civilian control of the military and, in 1905, the legal separation of the church and the state. When he died in 1935 Dreyfus was laid to rest in the Cimetière de Montparnasse.
WWII & Occupation
Two days after the German invasion of Poland on 1 September 1939, Britain and France declared war on Germany. For the first nine months Parisians joked about le drôle de guerre – what Britons called ‘the phoney war’ – in which nothing happened. But the battle for France began in earnest in May 1940 and by 14 June France had capitulated. Paris was occupied, and almost half the population fled the city by car or bicycle or on foot. The British expeditionary force sent to help the French barely managed to avoid capture by retreating to Dunkirk, described so vividly in Ian McEwan’s Atonement (2001), and crossing the English Channel in small boats. The Maginot Line, a supposedly impregnable wall of fortifications along the Franco-German border, had proved useless – the German armoured divisions simply outflanked it by going through Belgium.
The Germans divided France into two: a zone under direct German rule (along the western coast and the north, including Paris); and a puppet state based in the spa town of Vichy and led by General Philippe Pétain, the ageing WWI hero of the Battle of Verdun. Pétain’s collaborationist government and French police forces in German-occupied areas (including Paris) helped the Nazis round up 160,000 French Jews and others for deportation to concentration and extermination camps in Germany and Poland.
After the fall of Paris, General Charles de Gaulle, France’s undersecretary of war, fled to London. He set up a French government-in-exile and established the Forces Françaises Libres (Free French Forces), a military force dedicated to fighting the Germans alongside the Allies.
The liberation of France started with the Allied landings in Normandy on D-Day (Jour-J in French): 6 June 1944. On 15 August that same year, Allied forces also landed in southern France. After a brief insurrection by the Resistance and general strikes by the metro and police, Paris was liberated on 25 August by an Allied force spearheaded by Free French units – these units were sent in ahead of the Americans so that the French would have the honour of liberating the capital the following day. Hitler, who visited Paris in June 1940 and loved it, demanded that the city be burnt towards the end of the war. It was an order that, thankfully, was not obeyed.
De Gaulle returned to Paris and established a provisional government. But in January 1946 he resigned as president, wrongly believing the move would provoke a popular outcry for his return. A few months later a new constitution was approved by referendum. De Gaulle formed his own party (Rassemblement du Peuple Français) and spent the next 13 years in opposition.
The Fourth Republic saw a series of unstable coalition cabinets following one after another with bewildering speed (on average, one every six months), and economic recovery, helped immeasurably by massive American aid. France’s disastrous defeat in Vietnam in 1954 ended its colonial supremacy in Southeast Asia. France also tried to suppress an uprising by Arab nationalists in Algeria, where more than a million French settlers lived.
The Fourth Republic came to an end in 1958, when extreme right-wingers, furious at what they saw as defeatism instead of tough action in dealing with the uprising in Algeria, began conspiring in an effort to overthrow the government. De Gaulle was brought back to power to prevent a military coup and possible civil war. He drafted a new constitution that handed considerable powers to the president, at the expense of the National Assembly.
Charles de Gaulle & the Fifth Republic
The Fifth Republic was rocked in 1961 by an attempted coup staged in Algiers by a group of right-wing military officers. When it failed, the Organisation de l’Armée Secrète (OAS) – a group of French colons (colonists) and sympathisers opposed to Algerian independence – turned to terrorism, trying several times to assassinate de Gaulle and nearly succeeding in August 1962 in the town of Clamart just southwest of Paris.
In 1962, after more than 12,000 had died as a result of this ‘civil war’, de Gaulle negotiated an end to the war in Algeria. Some 750,000 pieds noirs (black feet), as Algerian-born French people are known in France, came to France and the capital. Meanwhile, almost all of the other French colonies and protectorates in Africa had demanded and achieved independence. Shrewdly, the French government began a program of economic and military aid to its former colonies to bolster France’s waning importance internationally and to create a bloc of French-speaking nations – la francophonie – in the developing world.
Paris retained its position as a creative and intellectual centre, particularly in philosophy and film-making, and the 1960s saw large parts of the Marais beautifully restored.
A Pivotal Year: 1968
The year 1968 was a watershed. In March a large demonstration in Paris against the war in Vietnam gave impetus to the student movement, and protests by students of the University of Paris peppered the capital for most of spring. In May police broke up yet another demonstration, prompting angry students to occupy the Sorbonne and erect barricades in the Latin Quarter. Workers joined in very quickly, with six million people across France participating in a general strike that virtually paralysed the country. It was a period of creativity and new ideas with slogans like ‘L’Imagination au Pouvoir’ (Put Imagination in Power) and ‘Sous les Pavés, la Plage’ (Under the Cobblestones, the Beach) – a reference to Parisians’ favoured material for building barricades and what they could expect to find beneath them – popping up everywhere.
But such an alliance between workers and students couldn’t last long. While the former wanted to reap greater benefits from the consumer market, the latter supposedly wanted to destroy it. De Gaulle took advantage of this division and appealed to people’s fear of anarchy. And just as Paris and the rest of France seemed on the verge of revolution, a mighty 100,000-strong crowd of Gaullists came out on the streets of Paris to show their support for the government, quashing any such possibility. Stability was restored.
Once stability was restored the government immediately decentralised the higher-education system and implemented a series of reforms (including lowering the voting age to 18 and enacting an abortion law) throughout the 1970s to create the modern society France is today.
President Charles de Gaulle resigned in 1969 and was succeeded by the Gaullist leader Georges Pompidou and later Valéry Giscard d’Estaing. Socialist François Mitterrand became president in 1981 and immediately nationalised privately owned banks, large industrial groups and other parts of the economy. A more moderate economic policy in the mid-1980s ensured a second term in office for the then 69-year-old Mitterrand.
Jacques Chirac, mayor of Paris since 1977, took over the presidential baton in 1995 and received high marks in his first few months for his direct words and actions in EU matters and the war in Bosnia. But his decision to resume nuclear testing on the French Polynesian island of Mururoa and a nearby atoll was met with outrage in France and abroad, and when, in 1997, Chirac gambled with an early parliamentary election for June, the move backfired. Chirac remained president, but his party, the Rassemblement Pour la République (RPR; Rally for the Republic), lost support, and a coalition of Socialists, Communists and Greens came to power – under which France’s infamous 35-hour working week was introduced.
Chirac’s second term, starting in 2002, was marred by some of the worst violence seen in Paris since WWII. In autumn 2005, following the death of two teenage boys of North African origin hiding in an electrical substation while on the run from the police, riots broke out in Paris’ cités, the enormous housing estates encircling the capital where a dispossessed population lives. The violence quickly spread to other cities in France and the government declared a state of emergency. Only 9000 burnt cars and buildings later was peace in Paris restored.
The Presidential Pendulum
Presidential elections in 2007 ushered old-school Jacques Chirac out and the dynamic, ambitious and media-savvy Nicolas Sarkozy in. Contrary to the rigorous economic-reform platform on which he’d been elected and against the backdrop of the global recession, however, Sarkozy struggled to keep the French economy buoyant. Attempts to introduce reforms – eg the scaling back of the extremely generous French pension system – provoked widespread horror and a series of national strikes and protests. Sarkozy's popularity plummeted, paving the way for socialist François Hollande's victory in the 2012 presidential elections.
With France still struggling to restart the economy, Hollande pledged to end austerity measures and reduce unemployment. His failure to deliver on campaign promises saw his popularity plunge even faster and further than Sarkozy's and resulted in a near-total wipeout for French socialists in the 2014 municipal elections. The 2014 election of socialist Anne Hidalgo, Paris' first female mayor, meant the capital was one of the few cities to remain on the political left.
The year 2015 was a harrowing one for the French capital. On 7 January the offices of magazine Charlie Hebdo were attacked in response to satirical images it published of the prophet Muhammad. Eleven staff and one police officer were killed and a further 22 people were injured. The hashtag #jesuischarlie (I am Charlie) became a slogan of support around the globe.
But worse was to come. On the night of 13 November 2015 a series of coordinated terrorist attacks occurred in Paris and St-Denis – the deadliest on French soil since WWII. Three explosions shook the Stade de France stadium during a football friendly match between Germany and France. A series of neighbourhood restaurants and their outdoor terraces in the 10e and 11e were attacked by suicide bombers and gunmen. Three gunmen fired into the audience of Le Bataclan, where American band Eagles of Death Metal were performing. Over the course of the evening's terror 130 people lost their lives (89 in Le Bataclan alone) and 368 were injured, 99 seriously. Paris went into lockdown, the army was mobilised and a state of emergency was declared.
Parisians responded to the trauma by establishing memorials at the fatality sites and place de la République, which became the focal point for the city's outpouring of grief, and by taking to cafe terraces and other public spaces. The hashtag #jesuisenterrasse (I am on the terrace) represented Parisians' refusal to live in fear.
The city of Paris also refused to allow daily life to be disrupted. The long-planned United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP21) went ahead from 30 November to 12 December 2015. During the conference leaders from around the world reached an agreement to limit global warming to less than 2°C by the end of the century.
New President, New Directions
France's most recent presidential elections took place in 2017. The traditional parties were eliminated in the first round, with Emmanuel Macron, who launched centrist, pro-EU movement En Marche! in 2016 – now the party La République en Marche – defeating far-right Front National candidate Marine Le Pen 66.1% to 33.9% in the second-round run-off. At age 39, Macron became France's youngest-ever president. La République en Marche went on to field candidates in 2017's legislative elections and secure an absolute majority (308 seats) in the Assemblée Nationale, allowing Macron to forge ahead with economic reforms.
Late 2017 saw Paris awarded the hosting rights of the 2024 Summer Olympics and Summer Paralympics, which will also see numerous infrastructure projects completed by the opening of the games. Shortly afterwards, France was also awarded the 2023 Rugby World Cup.