Saturday, March 5, 2011

Street Smarts

One of the things I love about walking in Paris is how much French history I learn, just by reading the street names! Some are straightforward, like rue de l'Opera, but others offer tidbits of information that, inevitably, lead me to dig a little deeper to find out more.

Here's our street name, for example, honoring someone named Réaumur, a physician and a naturalist. Curious to know more, I looked him up.
I discovered, among other things, that René Antoine Ferchault de Réaumur was prolific in many fields of science, was elected a member of the Académie de Sciences in 1708, and from then on, for nearly half a century, barely a year went by without at least one paper by him being published in the Mémoires de l'Academie. These included one confirming that crustaceans can replace lost limbs and another confirming that corals are animals, not plants.  An 18th century Stephen J. Gould perhaps!

Then there's rue Étienne Marcel, another major street in our neighborhood.

The street sign tells you that M. Marcel was the Provost of Merchants of Paris during his 14th century life.

But it turns out that Étienne Marcel's life was also full of drama, danger and political intrigue.   Yes, he did have this title of Provost of Merchants during the reign of King John II, known as John the Good, but then he tried to set up Charles the Bad of Navarre (that was his real name!) to oppose John the Good. Bad idea. Not only did he run afoul of the King, he further undermined his name with the aristrocacy by murdering two marshals, and then was himself murdered by guards at the Porte Saint-Antoine on July 31st 1358.

In spite of all this notoriety, though, his name is officially remembered on the street sign (and also on a big statue near the Hotel de Ville) as merely Provost of Merchants.

Walking down the rue du Louvre in the 1st arrondissement the other day,  I noticed this street sign recognizing a Colonel Driant. The final line of the plaque, "mort à Verdun", made me think at first, "oh, another tragic loss of a young life," but then I calculated his dates and realized he was 61 years old when he died. Obviously, there was a story here...

...and it didn't take long to find out that Émile Augustin Cyprien Driant had been a distinguished career military officer until 1906 when he devoted himself to journalism and politics, serving in the Chamber of Deputies in Nancy.

Throughout all this time, however, he also moonlit as a fiction writer.  Using the pseudonym Danrit, he produced 30 novels over 25 years, all of them with heroic military themes.

When WWI began, he was recalled to the army, at age 59,  as Captain, and sent to the Eastern Front. In a desperate defence of the Bois des Caires in Flabas, he was killed by enemy artillery on 21 February 1916. Today, he's still considered a hero in France, remembered every year on the day of his death, along with his comrades, although his novels seem to have fallen into oblivion...

Then there's rue d'Argout, which bisects both rue du Louvre and rue Étienne Marcel.

"homme politique" it says -- politician?

Well, yes, but le Comte Antoine Maurice Apollinaire d'Argout was a politician who seems to have navigated the treacherous waters of 19th century French politics by following a centrist, moderate path through the Bourbon Restoration and the July Monarchy. He even contracted cholera and survived. His skills did not go unnoticed by the Banque de France, where he was appointed Governor, retaining this position until his death on 9 June 1857. His prominent nose made him a popular target of the caricaturists of the day, including the inimitable Honoré Daumier!

During the same period as le Comte Argout was pursuing his steady, straightforward life, a young man from Limoges was following a different path.

Born near Limoges in 1818, Dennis Dussoubs became a left wing political activist, participating in the uprising at Limoges in 1848, and serving two years in prison. His brother, Marcellin, was elected a social-democrat deputy in Paris in 1849, and, two years later helped organize the resistance movement against Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte's coup d'État. In a cruel twist of fate, Marcellin fell ill, and it was Dennis who picked up his brother's tricolor banner and took his place on the barricades at the rue Montorgeuil. He walked toward the soldiers, alone and unarmed, urging them to rally to the Republique and reject the Monarchy. To no avail. He was hit by rifle shot and died on the barricade. In Limoges, a statue in Juliette Square honors his sacrifice. In Paris, he has a street name to intrigue the curious passer-by.

As one such curious passer-by I love the fact that all this history -- and much more -- lies within a three block radius from our flat!

À bientôt!

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