Place de la Nation

Arrondissements 11, 12

A symbol of anti-fascism and left unity

The huge garden-square-roundabout was originally called the Place du Trône. This name was given it from August 26 1660 when the young Sun King, Louis XIV, sat on a huge throne placed there at the entrance to Paris to receive oaths of allegiance from the Paris guilds after he arrived from the Franco-Spanish border having just married his 22-year-old double-cousin Marie-Thérèse of Austria and Spain.

In 1787 two huge columns were erected alongside the two single story customs houses and 60 metre-high gates that completed the tax border wall built by the Paris Tax Farmers. Statues of Kings Philippe II and Louis IX were put on top of the columns in 1845.

After the Jacobin insurrection of August 10 1792 the square was renamed ‘The Square of the Overturned Throne’ (place du Trône-Renversé). Two years later on June 13 1794, three days after the passage of the Law of 22 Prairial, the guillotine was erected on the shadier south side of the square. From then until 9 thermidor an 2 (27 July 1794) and the overthrow of Robespierre, an average of 30 people a day were executed there.

At the restorations of 1814 and 1815 the square’s name became again the Place du Trône.

On July 14 1880, at the same moment that the Third Republic determined that inscription Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité was made obligatory on all French public buildings, the square was given its current name.

Nine years later, on the one hundreth anniversary of the storming of the Bastille, the sculpture The Triumph of the Republic put in the centre of the Place.

This was a large piece by the Communard Jules Dalou, who had returned from exile in 1879 and who had originally designed it for a competition to place a republican statue in the Place de la République. Dalou also sculpted the tombs of Victor Noir and Auguste Blanqui in the Père Lachaise  cemetery.

In 1908 sea monsters in a basin sculpted by Georges Gardet and representing reactionary forces being kept at bay by the Republic were added. The crocodile-like monsters were melted down for the German occupiers in 1942 and the basin concreted over.

A general strike supported by both the CGT and the CGTU in defence of the republic against the growing fascist threat was called on Monday February 12 1934. A Socialist column headed by Leon Blum and other Socialist deputies walked from Vincennes to la Place la Nation, with Dalou’s Republican statue its message. There the Socialist column was joined by an even larger Communist march creating a demonstration of 150,000 in Paris alone, while tens of thousands demonstrated elsewhere in France.

On February 12 the divided trade unions and left parties created the biggest demonstration yet seen in France and marked the beginning of united left action against fascism that led to the Popular Front.

The Place de la Nation became a symbol of anti-fascism and left unity. So two huge contingents came together there on July 14 1936 to celebrate the Popular Front victory. This time the call came from 48 different organisations and delegations in traditional provincial as well as working clothes were present alongside each other. Tartakowsky (1997) estimated there were a million people on the streets of Paris for the occasion, marching from the Place de la Republique and Place de la Bastille to the Nation.

Communist and Socialist columns met at the Place de la Nation again to celebrate the first-ever French May Day public holiday on May 1 1937.

In 1938, with the end of the Popular Front government, the strike called on November 30 by the CGT against the dismantling of the 1936 labour laws saw demonstrators attacked by the police.

A young FTP-M.O.I. resistance group (Meier List, Marcel Rajman and Jaroch Klesczelski) threw a grenade at a group of German soldiers in the Place on December 12 1942.

On May 1 1951 the police attacked a May Day demonstration of Algerians who were carrying the MTLD independence movement’s flag. One hundred police were injured and 1,600 Algerians arrested.

On July 14 1953 the traditional march took place from the Place de la Republique to the Place de la Nation. Then the Algerian demonstrators behind the MTLD banners continued to where their lorry was parked to stack their placards.

At that point the Paris police opened fire on them: six Algerians and one French CGT worker were killed and 126 wounded. No inquiry was held into the police action.

A plaque in memory of those killed is now fixed on the side of one of the customs houses
A film poster about the July 14 1953 police murders of Algerian independence supporters in the Place de la Nation. The film is by Daniel Kupferstein

MAP