Numbers: 2, 10
The largest square in Paris, covering 18.8 acres (7.6 hectares, was laid out on a boggy piece of land largely belonging to the Crown in 1755. A statue of Louis XV was erected in the square that was named after him on June 20 1763.
On May 30 1770 the firework display to celebrate the marriage of the future Louis XVI and the Austrian princess Marie Antoinette went wrong. 132 people died and were buried in the nearby Madeleine cemetery.
In 1787 Louis XVI commissioned a bridge over the Seine on its southern side to be called the Pont Louis XV.
By 1791, when the bridge was finished, the French Revolution had forced the King back to Paris from Versailles and the statue torn down. On August 11 1792 the new bridge was renamed the Pont de la Révolution at the same time as the Square was renamed the Place de la Révolution and the statue of Louis XV destroyed.
The west of the Square saw the ‘humane’ execution machine, the guillotine, installed there for the first time on January 21 1793. The beneficiary of this humane public death was King Louis XVI. The square’s public went on to witness another 1,118 executions before the guillotine stopped publicly killing people in Paris’ largest square.
On May 11 1793 the guillotine was brought back to the square and placed on the east side. It stayed there until June 9 1794, when it was moved again with the introduction of the Great Terror. It was then placed between the square’s centre and the entrance to the gardens of the Tuileries Palace.
Queen Marie Antoinette lost her head in the square on October 16 1793 as did Georges-Jacques Danton on April 5 1794. Soon afterwards the guillotine was moved to what is now the Place de la Bastille (for four days) and on June 13 1794 to the current Place de la Nation, which was at that time called ‘The Square of the Overthrown Throne’ (Place du Trône-Renversé ).
The guillotine only returned for the last time to the Place de la Revolution on July 28 1794. This was expressly to execute Maximilien Robespierre, the principal architect of the ‘Terror’. A day later it was then transferred back to the square in front of the Town Hall, the Place de Grève, the traditional site for Paris executions.
Other name changes for the square followed French revolutionary and counter-revolutionary history. In 1795 the final session of the Convention before the Directorate took over renamed it La Place de la Concorde. This was intended to mark an agreement to end the bloodshed and promote reconciliation.
At the Bourbon restoration under Louis XVIII it was rebadged as the Louis XV Square. Then, two years after the accession of Charles X, in order to show exactly what the new absolutist king felt about the First Republic executing his eldest brother, it became the Louis XVI Square.
In the 1830 July Revolution there were several exchanges of fire in the square between the insurrectionaries and troops still loyal to Charles X. When Charles fled and the constitutional monarchists who had seized power passed the crown on to Louis Philippe, the Duke of Orleans, the square’s name went back to Place de la Concorde.
In 1836 King Louis Philippe installed the 3,400 year-old Egyptian Obelisk in the centre of the Square. It had once marked the entrance to the Luxor Temple in Egypt and had been ‘given’ to Charles X in 1829. Its gold cap was added under Chirac in 1998.
On the north side of the square several buildings witnessed key events in the history of the French left. In 1789 the recently built Royal Hôtel du Garde-Meuble became the Marine ministry at No. 2 in 1789. It remained there with this function, under German occupation becoming their marine headquarters, until the building was closed in 2015 for (continuing at the time of writing in 2020) renovations.
This building was where, on March 4 1848, Victor Schoelcher chaired the opening meeting of a commission to abolish slavery in the French colonies.
On May 23 1871 the Marine Ministry was the site of the most important barricade defending the Commune captured by the Versaillais troops. Its defenders were all massacred.
The square saw further bloodshed on February 6 1934. Some 20 were killed and 2,300 wounded as far-right demonstrations attempted to seize the National Assembly. The left’s reaction to this evidence of the growing strength of French fascism was to hold counter-demonstrations and to build Left Unity between the divided trade unionists and between Communists and Socialists.
No. 10, the Hotel de Crillon, was built in 1758. Under the Occupation from June 14 1940 it became the Headquarters of the occupying German army, initially under Bogislav von Studnits and then, from 10 August 1944, by Dietrich von Choltitz. To his shame, the singer Maurice Chevalier performed at a charity function there during the way.
In 1968 the square saw a massive demonstration by the right in support of De Gaulle on May 30. This effectively turned the political tide against the left; but it did not restore De Gaulle’s brand of absolutism that the mass protest movement and wave of factory occupations had broken.
The right used the Place de la Concorde again, on May 7 1995 and on May 6 2007 to celebrate the presidential election victories of first Chirac and then Sarkozy.