Saturday, March 22, 2014

City Hall

I love City Halls. There they sit, center stage, anchoring their town with their size, style, elegance, and dignity. Within the city of Paris, there are 20! Each arrondissement has its own "Mairie" (City Hall), and its own Mayor and Corporation, all of them tending to the needs of the residents of their particular neighborhood. Here in the 2nd Arrondissement, our Mayor, Jacques Boutault (Green Party), has won our undying gratitude for fighting off an effort to install a "McDo" (McDonalds) at the top of the rue Montorgeuil!

And then there is the Hôtel de Ville de Paris, a city hall to end all city halls, bordered by the River Seine on one side and the rue de Rivoli on the other.  We recently took a tour of the inside of the building, not normally open to the public, and got quite swept up in its dramatic history.

The site has been the seat of city government since the 14th century, when Etienne Marcel acquired a modest building, "Maison aux Piliers", and set up the first municipal assembly comprised of merchants who held a monopoly on everything that went up and down the river.

The Paris coat-of-arms still displays the boat emblem that dates back to that period. The square in front of city hall, known now as Place de l'Hôtel de Ville, was for centuries called Place de Grève. Today, the word "grève" is greeted with shudders and moans. It usually means some group is going on strike and life in the city will be disrupted. Ironically, back then, "grève" meant a meeting place for employers and day laborers looking for work!

Construction began in the mid-16th century to replace the "Maison aux Piliers" with a city hall more worthy of Paris and its citizens. Designed by Boccador and Pierre Chambiges, the handsome Renaissance building opened its doors in 1628 during the time of Louis XIII.

150 years later, during the French Revolution, pitched battles were fought outside the Hôtel de Ville, dramatically captured in this painting by Jean Victor Schnetz.

When the French Revolution began, the Hôtel de Ville became a symbol of the freedom of Paris. This painting depicts the first mayor of Paris, Jean-Sylvain Bailly, presenting Louis XVI with a tricolor cockade, combining the white of the Bourbons with the red and blue of Paris, on 17 July 1789 -- just three days after the storming of the Bastille! At that point, Louis maybe thought he was going to "ride out" this turbulent situation, unscathed...

Well, we all know how that worked out! And turbulent times continued to find expression in and around the Hôtel de Ville. In this painting by Felix Philippoteaux, the writer, poet and politician Alfonse de Lamartine - a staunch Republican - is seen declaring the Second Republic of France in 1848.

Alas, power swings continued throughout 19th century France, from Republic to Monarchy to Republic. To me, the most shocking events followed the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, when those who supported the Commune took over the center of the city, proclaimed yet another Republic, and chose the Hôtel de Ville as their headquarters. Then came a harsh five-month siege. As the anti-Commune troops approached the city in May 1871, the Communards systematically burned to the ground as many of the Royal symbols as they could during what's known as the "semaine sanglante" -- the Palace des Tuileries, the Palace de St. Cloud, the Cour des Comptes, and others. In some kind of final desperate act, they also set ablaze the Hôtel de Ville. All existing records from the French Revolution were lost, along with priceless works of art by David, Géricault, Delacroix, and others.

When the dust finally settled, Parisians seemed to be most devastated and saddened by the loss of the Hôtel de Ville. Within a couple of years, architects were invited to submit plans to rebuild. The winner, Théodore Ballu, proposed a building very similar to the old one. Work began immediately and by the end of the 19th century the grand building we see today was completed.

On our tour of the reception rooms, it was clear that no detail or expense had been spared on the interior decorations. The Grande Salle des Fêtes stretches the length of a football field, lit by dazzling Baccarat crystal chandeliers...

...with beautifully painted ceiling panels, depicting an invitation to the ball, music, dance, flowers and perfume, all surrounded by loads of ornate gold and interspersed with the words "liberté, égalité, fraternité"...

Around the border all the regions of France are shown. You can see Lyonnais in this photo and then to the right, the colony of Algeria.

The adjacent Salon Georges Bertrand is devoted to rural life. At the end of the 19th century 80% of the population were farmers. This lavish wood-panelled room is dedicated to them.

In the center of the ceiling is this stunning homage to the farmer...

...whilst in niches around the room, statues and other decorations celebrate wine, fishing and hunting. And there's that golden boat symbol again, above the marble statue, just to remind us of the origins of this grand building site.

Although these lavish reception rooms are not open to the public, there are other parts of the building that are. Two large spaces offer free admission to some excellent art exhibitions. Currently, we have enjoyed a beautiful show displaying the works of the Hungarian-born photographer Brassaï, who more than anyone captured the soul of Paris in his black and white images.

In the other space, "Fusillé pour l'exemple" a much more sober exhibition, looks at the brutal life in the trenches during WWI, when for a long time, officers had a free rein to shoot deserters or soldiers who would not obey orders, with little or no judicial oversight. In this the centenary of that "war to end all wars" there are many shows around town documenting this anniversary.

The current Mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanöe, is stepping down this month after 12-plus years in office. In fact tomorrow, Sunday, Parisians go to the polls to elect a new Mayor, and for the first time it will be a woman! Either Anne Hidalgo (socialist candidate, like M. Delanöe) or Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet (conservative candidate) will take over the reins. The public doesn't vote directly for the mayoral candidate of their choice. They vote for City Council members, and it is they who then choose the Mayor. According to polls, Anne Hidalgo has the edge, although a run-off next weekend is expected.

Whoever wins will have a tough act to follow. From his official seat in the Hôtel de Ville, Bertrand Delanöe gained fame quickly through implementing immensely popular programs, like the Velib bicycles, the Auto-lib cars, "Paris-Plages" every summer, when the banks of the Seine are closed off to traffic and are turned into beaches, with palm trees, umbrellas, games and activities for those families who cannot afford to go away on vacation. In the winter, he turns the Place de l'Hôtel de Ville into an ice skating rink, and in the summer, voilà, it's beach volley ball!

And all the time, the stately building, with its long and frequently bloody history, looks down, and seems content. Long may it be so!

À bientôt!


  1. Very richly detailed and thoroughly researched piece! Thank you! I could spend forever in the Carnavalet looking at historic paintings of Paris!

  2. Envy your access to Hotel de Ville....It is one of our favorite stuctures,,,, Great insights! Merci!

  3. What a trip, into history and back to Tomorrow/today for the new Mayoress. Love it.

  4. Great to hear the present day...and the historical...politics in Paris. A terrible shame all those buildings (and historical info) were burned, but I can imagine the feelings at the time. And I adore the notion of creating the beach in town—no wonder the exiting mayor was popular, indeed! hugs, Lyons

  5. Another great Blog and fantastic pictures loved it xx