|If Paris is undeniably the center of French
civilization, it is also in many ways the center of the Continent; perhaps
more than any other city, its history has been Europe's history, the
culture it has dictated, Europe's culture and, thanks to the long arm of
Occidental influence, world culture. The history of Paris is a story of
millions fighting to get in (whether to burn and loot or to bask in the
city's glory), and of ideas, and sometimes armies, pouring out to conquer
The sleepy Gallo-Roman burg of Lutetia Parisorum sprang into existence in 52 BC, on a site blessed by the fertile confluence of Seine and Marne and surrounded by hills facilitating its defense. By the year 360 it had changed its name to Paris and become influent enough to host the crowning of Julian as Emperor. During that late Roman period and into the early Middle Ages, everybody wanted in, but not all were successful: Germanic peoples invaded in the 3rd , and the Ile de la Cité became the town's center; Saint Genevieve repelled the Huns in 451, only to have the Franks take over a century later; Eudes, Count of Paris and the first Capetian, turned back the Normans in 886, but not before they had burned, occupied, and rebuilt the city.
Thanks to Eudes' line, a relative stability finally came to Paris. Hugues Capet was crowned here, along with his son, in 987, and the town benefited, growing rapidly and becoming by the 11th century a large medieval city with surrounding wall and a monopolizing trade mafia, the 'water merchants.'
During the 12th century, the merchants' provost became mayor, but such corruption quickly became moot, as Paris already belonged to France and Europe as much as to its own burghers. Philippe-Auguste moved the walls out to contain the fast-expanding city, a decision which would often prove necessary to later leaders (Etienne Marcel, 14th century.; Louis XII, 17th c.; Tax-Farmers' Wall, 18th c.; Thiers [annexation of then-suburbs], 19th c.). As commerce, craft, and consequently, construction boomed, Notre-Dame established the city as a leader in Gothic architecture. Paris became an international center for students, monks, and teachers, resulting in the founding of the University of Paris in 1215 and of the Sorbonne in 1257.
Paris was now established as the cultural center of Europe, until the Hundred Years' War ' in which Joan of Arc offered thanks to Saint-Denis at his basilica - froze its expansion. The intense construction (e.g., Saint Eustache and Louvre additions) and refined civilization of the Renaissance, under Francis I, broke this stasis. The 16th century was also a time of religious violence and political turmoil, exemplified by Catherine de Medici's massacre of Protestants (primarily in Paris, on Saint Bartholomew's Day, 1572), Henry III's flight from Paris, and Henry IV's return and proclamation that 'Paris deserves a Mass.'
The 17th century saw the creation of the Ile Saint-Louis, so central to the myth of modern Paris, and the earliest example of suburban flight'the move of the monarchy, in full flower under the Sun King, to the opulent palace at Versailles west of Paris. But the kings of France had a rendezvous with history: the bloody Revolution put an end to their privilege, beginning in 1789 with the sack of the Bastille, and modern Europe was born. Unfortunately, the birth was not an easy one; the Revolution and Terror cost Paris numerous architectural treasures (mostly religious edifices) as well as the heads of many of its leading citizens. Napoleon came, and centralized France and his empire around the capital, enriching Paris with the spoils of war. But it was his nephew Napoleon III, with his prefect and city planner, Baron Haussmann, who shaped modern Paris more than anyone else. He created the wide boulevards and distinctive buildings that became the image of Paris to millions the world over, but destroyed much of the old city's charm and cohesion in the process.
Revolutions, sacks, and frequent changes of government continued to rock Paris throughout the 19th century, but did not prevent the city from renewing its place as cultural center of Europe, notably during the Restoration (1814-30) and the Belle Epoque at the end of the century. A series of exhibits from 1874-86 introduced Impressionism to the world and crowned Paris art capital of the world, a title it would retain until World War II. The city was also a center for technology and sports: by the turn of the century, Mr. Eiffel's tall Tower (1887-89) shocked the world at the Fair, and Paris opened its Métro (1899) and hosted the Olympic Games (1900).
Upheaval and war would haunt Europe during most of the 20th century. Paris fared better than some in both world wars, and knew a period of unparalleled cultural importance before and after World War I, when it was home to Picasso, Joyce, Hemingway, and dozens of artistic greats. Paris also became the home of a distinctly European variant of that American music that would dominate the century, jazz.
Following World War II, during which the Germans occupied the city for four years before the Allies flooded in on August 25, 1944, Paris knew a 30-year period of prosperity. During these 'trente glorieuses' or thirty glorious years, population decline and political revolt, culminating in the student riots of May 1968, accompanied a continued intellectual influence. In 1975, a much-needed reform was effected, granting Paris an elected mayor for the first time: the continuing political weight of the city, despite a national effort to decentralize in favor of provincial capitals, is illustrated by the eventual election as President of Paris' first mayor, Jacques Chirac.
At the end of this period, the face of the city also began to change again, with the destruction of the central Halles (market halls) and their replacement with an underground shopping mall(1971-81); the construction of the Boulevard Périphérique, a highway encircling the city (1973), and the modernist Pompidou Centre(1977); and, under the ambitious public-works program of President Mitterrand, the opening of the Louvre Pyramid (1989) and the growing importance of the exterior La Défense district, a futuristic agglomeration of office towers and avant-garde sculpture.
Today, although much of the power it once held now resides in cities like London, New York, and Tokyo, Paris remains uniquely central to Europe and the world. High-speed trains, benefiting from the geographic situation that has always favored Paris' importance, get diplomats and housewives from the French capital to London (by way of the Channel Tunnel) and Brussels in record times. Meanwhile, inside the ancient city and in its suburbs, amid burgeoning tourism, homegrown rap and techno music, social dysfunction, continued population loss, new construction, relentless immigration, the decline of small business, European integration, and the rise of the new center-left, life goes on.