Palais de Justice, Boulevard du Palais

Arrondissement 1

Number 10

From the left’s perspective the Palais de Justice could perhaps be better named the Palace of Injustice.

Located at Nos. 4-10 boulevard du Palais, the Boulevard was only given that name in 1864, after Haussmann bulldozed broad streets through potentially barricadable medieval streets.

The earlier names of the road in front of the Palace were the rue de la Barillerie  (street of wine cask makers) and the rue Saint-Barthélemy (named after the nearby Church Saint-Barthélemy that in 1791, like the nine others on the ile de la Cité, lost its parish status to Notre-Dame cathedral, was nationalised and then sold and demolished. The site was initially a theatre and from 1865 the current Tribunal de Commerce de Paris).

In 1830 Blanqui was involved in fighting outside the Palais de Justice as the insurgents moved to topple Charles X. He was back there, inside, in 1832 as one of the defenders in the ‘trial of the 15’. This was of the leading members of the mainly student republican ‘Society of Friends of the People’ including Raspail. On January 10 1832 all were acquitted except for Blanqui who was found guilty of an offence against the public peace.

During the May 12 1839 Four Seasons insurrection against Louis-Philippe, Barbès led a column of 600 men to the Palais de Justice where he urged the troops on duty to join him. A refusal led to fighting and the guard-post and Palais were taken, but they failed to capture the Prefecture opposite.

The Palais de Justice was one of the many historic buildings set fire to or bombarded in May 1871 during the ‘Bloody week’ at the end of the Paris Commune, when orders were given to burn the Tuileries Palace and other symbols of government authority in retaliation for the summary executions of Communards taking place all over Paris. In total 238 buildings were burnt down or damaged during the fighting.

A newspaper lithograph shows the return of the Versailles judges to the burnt out Palais de Justice after the defeat of the Paris Commune. Many of the 7,500 Communards who were exiled had their sentences pronounced here.

In 1878 the young lawyer, Jules Guesde, appeared at the Palais de Justice to defend members of the illegal International Workingmen’s Association.

François Ravachol (1859-1892), an anarchist who had placed bombs at the homes of the three judges who had jailed the three Clichy May 1 1891 demonstrators, was sentenced to death here after two trials. He was publicly guillotined on 11 July 1892.

The Palais was also the venue for the ‘Trial of the 30’ anarchists accused of conspiracy and supporting the ‘propaganda by the deed‘ bombings. Among those on trial and acquitted in August 1894 were the revolutionary syndicalist, Émile Pouget, the art critic, Félix Fénéon, the artist, Maximilien Luce, and Kropotkin‘s collaborator, Jean Grave.

One of the anarchists charged but who went to live in Britain under an assumed name (Georges Guyot) was Paul Reclus, the nephew of Élisée Reclus. In his absence Paul was sentenced to 20 years hard labour. Paul moved to Brussels in 1903 to help
Élisée with the publication of his anarcho-geographer testament, L’Homme et la Terre.

In 1913 the Palais was where Victor Serge and the Franco-Belgian anarchist Bonnot gang were tried, with Serge being sentenced to five years for robbery, three were guillotined and three others had their death sentences commuted to life imprisonment.

In 1927 eight PCF leaders including Jacques Duclos and André Marty were tried here following the demonstrations in support of Sacco and Vanzetti., Italian-born migrant anarchists who were executed on trumped up charges in the US on 23 August 1927.

On September 2 1941 only one of the Palais de Justice judges and magistrates, Paul Didier (1889-1961) refused to swear an oath of personal allegiance to Pétain as then required by the Vichy Government. He also refused to work in the Special Sections set up in the Palais de Justice to try Jewish people and those accused of ‘political crimes’. Didier was arrested the following day and then interned before being fired from the judiciary. Reinstated in 1944 Didier then chaired appeal court hearings, including that of PCF leader Jacques Duclos in 1952, being held in La Santé prison.

After the Second World War the Palace was again used to try and jail strikers (in 1950), Communists (1952) and supporters of Algerian independence (the Jeanson network was put on trial onSeptember 5 1960, with 14 sentenced to 10 years imprisonment each, of which just four were suspended sentences).

Ten years later, in November 1970, the leading Maoist was jailed at the Palais for two years for re-establishing the banned Proletarian Left (Gauche Prolétarienne) group.

The Justice Palace we see today dates back to the earliest years of the Roman occupation after the defeat of the Celtic Gauls under Vercingetorix by Julius Caesar in 52 BC. The already inhabited islands in the River Seine, now merged into the l’île de la Cité, were then just about the only pieces of defensible dry land around that also allowed soldiers and traders to cross the river.

The Romans set up a seat of government on the site of the Palais de Justice from where they ruled France for over 500 years. The mixture of Latin and local Celtic dialects created what became the French language.

Palais de la Cité seen from the rue de la Barillerie in 1650. The drawing shows the Pont Neuf and the Louvre Palace in the background.

From the 10th to the 14th centuries, the quarter of the island covered by the Palace of the Cité was the seat of every French monarch. During that time all the king’s constitutional and judicial courts were based there, including the Paris Parliament until Charles V moved to the right bank of the Seine in 1358 after Etienne Marcel and other important Paris merchants invaded the palace and murdered the Dauphin’s ministers on 22 February.

After Charles V (Charles the Wise) and the court left the Palace, however, all its principal administrative and judicial functions remained. In 1371, during the 100 Years War, the first public clock in Paris was installed at No.2, boulevard du Palais, on the corner tower that carried the Palace’s alarm bell. Over the centuries several major fires destroyed large parts of the royal palace. In 1630 the Sainte Chapelle spire burnt down followed, in 1776, by all the buildings between it and the Conciergerie (the offices and residence of the appointed caretaker in charge during the king’s absences that became a prison from 1391).

The neo-classical colonnade entrance to the Palais de Justice was built between 1783 and 1786, and the Revolutionary Tribunal (Tribunal criminel extraordinaire) with just five judges was located here from 6 April 1793 to 31 May 1795. While it was in existence the Revolutionary Tribunal decided to guillotine 2,585 people and to acquit 1,306 (including Jean-Paul Marat on 24 April 1793).

An engraving showing the Revolutionary Tribunal of 1793-1795 sitting in the Great Hall of the Palais de Justice, renamed ‘Liberty Hall’ (Salle de la Liberté)

Besides Marie-Antoinette and Robespierre and others condemned with whom it is more difficult to feel sympathy were those like Anaxagoras Chaumette, who had campaigned for the abolition of slavery, the journalist Camille Desmoulins who had criticised Robespierre, and Desmoulins’ wife, Lucile, as well as Olympe de Gouges, the author of the 1791 ‘Declaration of the Rights of Women and Women Citizens’ – a feminist answer to the 1789 Déclaration des droits de l’homme et du citoyen. She was arrested at the gates to the Palais de Justice on 20 July 1793.

Declaration of the rights of Women drafted by Olympe de Gouges, playwright and campaigner against slavery, it was published on 5 September 1791 in a pamphlet ‘Rights of Women’ presented to Queen Marie-Antoinette.
Palais de Justice photographed by Steve Jefferys in December 2018 after visiting the Sainte Chapelle – always best on a sunny day