The road gets its name from the alms houses for the respectable poor whose income was too low to pay taxes – the ‘road of the too poor to pay tax bourgeois’. They were built where Nos. 32 to 36 are today, probably in the 17th century. Before then it was called the road of old pulleys (Rue des Viez-Poullies). Part of the the road was renamed the Rue des Francs-Citoyens during the French Revolution.
The road still shows off several of Paris’ oldest buildings and now separates the third and fourth arrondissements. At Nos. 14-18 you find the Carnavalet Museum of Paris’ historical collections the museum’s official address is at No. 23 Rue de Sévigné. No. 25 is the best-preserved 16th century Hôtel de Lamoignon, now a public library of the history of Paris. There are vestiges of the Philippe august wall at Nos. 31-33 and No. 57 and several other grand town houses.
When the SFIO and then PCF theoretician Charles Rappoport first arrived in Paris from Russia in 1895 he lived at No. 50.
The magnificent private mansion built on the site of the Hôtel de Guise at No. 60 was known as the Hotel de Soubise. It became the National Archives in 1794 and was saved from being burnt down by shell fire from the Versaillais troops attacking the barricade at No. 61, and by the 125th battalion of the National Guard of the on May 25 1781 by Louis-Guillaume Debock and André Alavoine. They were later pardoned for their support of the Commune because of their actions that day.
While he was studying at the Lycee Charlemagne in the 1880s, Leon Blum lived as a boarder in the Rue des France-Bourgeois.
A short very old street that used to run along the Philippe Auguste wall around Paris, it was once named ‘the street of the Priests of Saint-Paul’. It was renamed under Louis-Philippe in 1844 after King Charlemagne, the French king who became Roman Emperor in 800 AD. Bits of the old wall remain at numbers 9 and 15.
In 1817 under the Restoration the Rue Ferrand (after the landowner on which it was built in 1777) was renamed the Rue Laval after the 71-year-old aristocrat Abbess of Montmartre (Marie-Louise de Laval-Montmorency) executed on July 24 1794. In 1887 it took its present name to honour the composer and music teacher Victor Massé who had died three years earlier.
In the 1920s and 1930s, No. 6 housed the People’s Bookshop (Librairie Populaire) run by the Communist Party. You could buy not just books and pamphlets there, but also busts of great people, badges, red flags and also red liberty caps (Phrygian bonnets).
Close to Montmartre several artists had workshops and/or lived in the road. Edouard Manet had studied at Thomas Couture’s workshop at No. 23 in 1850. Pierre Bonnard lived at No. 18 in 1890. During his second stay in Paris Vincent van Gogh lived with his brother at No. 25 in March 1886. Berthe Weill had a gallery at that address too, where in 1901 she held a joint exhibition of paintings by André Derain, Maurice de Vlaminck and Henri Matisse. This was also where Diego Rivera opened his first solo exhibition on April 21 1914.
Maurice Ravel also lived in the street between 1880 and 1886 at No. 29, while Edgar Degas lived at No 37 from 1890 to 1912 with his workshop in the attic.
By 1930 the growing advance of Taylorist management in France’s larger workplaces against the backdrop of the 1919 48-hour week law meant that their workers’ annual hours had fallen to about 2,300, a reduction echoed elsewhere in Europe. Working time then, however, dropped dramatically and uniquely in France by another 400 hours a year between 1935 and 1937.
This was the result of a wave of mass factory occupations, that were legitimated by the Matignon agreements and the Law of June 24 1936. What was significant about this reduction was that while it reflected the temporary weakening of the hold of French employers, it was essentially politically-driven rather than the outcome of worker demands.
Election, Factory occupations, Matignon agreement, Blum Popular Front Government – in progress
The factory occupations that followed the 1936 Popular Front election victory initially called upon local mayors to arbitrate the reinstatements of workers fired for striking on the May Day that fell between the two rounds of elections. Other workers then used the same defensive tactic (to prevent non-strikers from working) over wages.
Factories occupying – in progress
As the movement spread occupying workers began first to call for trade union rights and the recognition of shop stewards and, less frequently, for two weeks’ paid holiday and, even more rarely, for the 40-hour week. The reduction of the working week without loss of pay, however, had been included in the Popular Front’s 1936 election programme.
What difference did the factory occupations make?
The reformist CGT leader, Jouhaux, had campaigned vainly for years for a 40-hour week agreement, and in 1935 a measure proposing two weeks’ annual paid holiday was brought before the Senate. But these were not major rallying issues for French workers devastated by the loss of 1.3 million industrial jobs between 1931 and 1936. Between 1919 and 1935 only 1.3% of single-issue strikes and 13.1% of multi-issue strikes recorded in France concerned a shorter working week.
When faced with employers who, even as thousands of their factories were being occupied, still refused to negotiate with the unions, the new prime minister Léon Blum saw the opportunity to go considerably further than had the 1919 Law in reinforcing the collective bargaining machinery that had been increasingly ignored since the mid-1920s by the employers.
The 1936 Law gave the Minister of Labour powers to convene ‘joint commissions’ of ‘the most representative’ of employers’ associations and trade unions in a regional or national ‘branch’ of any industry to negotiate collective agreements. It reintroduced a First World War procedure whereby the Minister could order all the employers in the branch to comply with the agreements – whether or not they had participated in them – if their workers were trade union members.
And it prescribed a minimum substantive content (the 40 hours, two weeks’ paid leave, minimum wages for different job classifications and periods of notice) and minimum procedures (recognising workers’ rights to trade union membership, the election of workplace delegates). Labour inspectors were, however, also granted powers to make exemptions, powers that were used more and more frequently as the slow economic growth from 1937 was blamed by the employers on the 40-hour week.
The law of June 24 1936 was the most important pre-Second World War advance in state intervention on wage formation. It specified that the collective agreements negotiated should lay down minimum wages for each level of worker in the sector and included the possibility that the agreements reached between the negotiating parties could be extended by Ministerial order to all firms within the particular industry or region. It thus created a state mechanism for generalizing standard minimum rates for all workers.
The Lycée Henri-IV at No. 23 stands on the site of the Abbaye-Sainte-Geneviève canteen, cellar and garden hut which, after the fall of Robespierre in 1794, became home to the Panthéon Club. This was established on 17 November 1795 as a broad assembly of those who wished to carry forward the revolutionary spirit. Babeuf and Buonarroti were among those who took part.
On February 28 1796 the club was closed down by the authorities, with General Bonaparte personally supervising the operation. Babeuf and Buonarroti then pursued the struggle through less legal channels.
The Abbey became the Lycée Napoléon from 1804 to 1815 and again from 1848 to 1870. During the Commune it became a workshop for making uniforms for the National Guard that was defending Paris.
The boulevard du Montparnasse crosses three arrondissements. The odd numbers on the north side are all in the 6th; the even numbers from 2 to 66 are in the 15th; and from number 68 onwards the addresses are all in the 14th. It was named with reference to the Greek residence of the muses by 17th century students after a tiny hillock in the area.
One excellent source on the left in Paris, the website Parisrévolutionnaire suggests that both Lenin and Trotsky were at the Dôme in 1905. Hazan (IOP), however, insists the Dôme… should never have been allowed to call itself the café of Trotsky and Kertész.
What is certainly true is that in the early years of the 19th century, the Dôme at No 108 became a major intellectual centre, and attracted many left political and artistic people.
Pablo Picasso as well as Modigliani, Utrillo and Apollinaire all drank or ate at le Dôme(No. 108) and la Rotonde(No. 103). The owner of La Rotonde was denounced by Aragon on July 13 1923 for having been a police informer on Lenin before World War One. Other neighbouring well-frequented intellectual and artist cafes of the interwar years included la Coupole (No. 102-104) and le Select (No. 99) .
Diego Rivera was also part of this leftish Montparnasse scene in the early 20th century.
Léon Blum saw himself primarily as a writer before 1914, moving into the artists’ block of flats and studios at No. 126 boulevard Montparnasse. Henri Matisse lived and worked at No. 132 in 1927.
From 1865 to 1866, after the publication of his first novel, Émile Zola lived in a room at No. 142.
At the eastern end of the Boulevard near the Port Royal, this famous restaurant is where in June 1941 Simone De Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre organised a clandestine ‘Socialism and Freedom’ meeting of about 50 intellectuals, including Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Yet in the face of increasing repression they did not do much more, and in September 1941 Sartre agreed to take the job of a secondary school teacher who had been fired for being Jewish.
Hemingway was also known to eat frequently in the years 1924-1926 at the Le Nègre de Toulouse restaurant at No 159.
Louis Aragon met Mayakovsky for the first time at the Coupole on November 5 1928. The Coupole was requisitioned between 1940 and 1944 for German-only events
Earlier, under the Second Empire that he satirised so brilliantly, Émile Zola lived at No 142 in 1865 to 1866.
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.
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, Fraternitéwas 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.
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.
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.
One of the 22 metre-wide roads hammered through the old medieval street network of central Paris under Baron Haussmann from 1854 to 1858. It absorbed some of the ancient streets it went through and destroyed others. Its final section, westwards from the rue St Denis, was only opened in 1897.
Léon Blum was moved round the corner from his birthplace in rue St Denis to No. 57 when he was a young boy.
A member of the Paris National Guard and of the International Workingmen’s Association, Jacques Durand, lived at No 90 (at the time No. 8 rue Thévenot). A cobbler who had stood as an IWMA candidate in the February 8 1871 elections he was elected by the 2nd Arrondissement to the Paris Commune on April 21. On May 25 1871 after fighting ended in the area he was arrested at home, interrogated at the Town Hall of the arrondissement, and then taken to the back of the Notre-Dame des Victoires church and shot.
From 1924 to 1940, the editorial office and printworks of what was then a right-wing paper, ‘L’Intransigeant‘ that was edited by André Malraux in 1934, were at Nos. 98-100.
After the June 1940 Occupation of France the building housed a German press centre from 1940-1944, and was targeted several times by the Resistance.
After Liberation in 1944 No. 100 became the offices and printshop of the papers Franc-Tireur and the Défense de la France that eventually became France-Soir.
The L’Algérie libre paper of Messali Hadj’s Mouvement pour le triomphe des libertés démocratiques was also printed at No. 100 from its launch at the end of 1948 until its suppression in November 1954. On June 17 1950 sellers of the paper were arrested, and on September 18 1950 when the edition of the paper was seized for the first time, a protest demonstration led to the arrests of 1,100 Algerians who came to protest outside the printworks.
The newspaper Jean Jaurès co-edited at No. 111 in 1898, La Petite république, was France’s widest circulation socialist paper in the 1890s. This was where he published ‘The Proofs’ of the innocence of Dreyfus.
This is one of the earliest known streets in Paris. It was named after an abbey built on the site of a Roman Villa directly to the north of the Roman city of Lutetia. Many believed the villa was the burial site of the Italian evangelist Denis who came to Paris between AD 250 and 270, and was its first Bishop and martyr. So in 630 King Dagobert (of the Franks in what is now northern France) started to build a huge basilica on the spot and called it Saint-Denis. When he died in 639 he was buried there.
From that year on until the French Revolution when the body of the guillotined Louis XVI was disposed off in a quicklime pit, all French kings were buried in the St Denis Basilica. The church was also used to crown the King’s Queen and the road from it into Paris was also always used by the royal family for their processions into Paris, and so was known as the ‘royal route’.
Today the St Denis road begins its journey to the north of Paris at the Place du Châtelet where it is crossed by the Avenue Victoria. It used to go right down to the ‘Grand-Pont’ (Big Bridge) that from the 9th century crossed the wider reach of the Seine and accessed the central island, the Ile du Cite. That bridge was washed away several times and finally replaced by the Pont au Change.
The northern end of the road is at the magnificent Porte St-Denis, a huge triumphal arch created by Louis XIV in 1672 on the site of a major fortified gateway through the (now demolished) Charles V defensive wall that protected the right bank of Paris. The photograph of the arch above was taken in the 1930s.
On June 23 1848 one of the main barricades of the workers’ insurrection against the closure of the national workshops blocked the Boulevard Bonne-Nouvelle from being used to move troops from West to East Paris where the movement was strongest. It was defended by engineers who worked on the Northern Railway Company, and was only taken by the government’s troops after their canon had fired 80 shots at the barricade.
The Rue St Denis continues beyond the Porte’s Arch northwards towards the Saint-Denis suburb. From this point it becomes the Rue du Faubourg St-Denis which runs as far as the Boulevard de la Chapelle.
Number 20 used to be the entrance to the Halles Centrales café and concert hall, where Blanqui spoke at several meetings in 1870.
The weekly anarchist journal Le Libertaire that had resumed publication on December 21 1944, thanks to the financial support of Georges Brassens, was able to install itself alongside the Libertarian Communist Federation in an office at No. 79 in March 1954. Series 5 of the paper finally stopped publication on July 12 1956.
Subsequently, from 1960 to 1976, No. 79 became the headquarters of the exiled Spanish anarcho-syndicalists who believed that the Confederación Nacional del Trabajo should work with the exiled government.
One of the few barricades built by the leftists who participated in the Society of Seasons uprising on Sunday May 12 1839 led by Blanqui and Barbes was at No. 90. It blocked the road at the junction with the Rue de la Grande Truanderie.
The 1839 barricade was just next door to the one built at No 92 bis in front of the St Leu church on November 19 1827. This was the first barricade in Paris since 1795 and was put up after troops were ordered to remove all signs put up in houses celebrating the liberal victory in Paris in the November 17 legislative elections. The resulting riot was put down with a cavalry charge and some gunfire in which a young Blanqui was wounded by a bullet in the neck.
At the principal barricade built across the road at No. 120 on the same day the 18th regiment fired at the defenders, killing four of its defenders.
No. 151 (or No. 153 or No. 243 where the family lived soon afterwards as is suggested in the Paris birth records) was the birthplace of Léon Blum on April 9 1872. Then, like today, it was in the heart of the Parisian textile and clothing industry. But where once it was predominantly Jewish, today the businesses in the area are largely of North African origins.
The bloody week that ended the Paris Commune took its toll at No. 199. This was where a barricade was built across the corner with what is now the Rue Réaumur saw serious fighting on May 24 1871. Another barricade at No. 237/239 that crossed to the Passage du Caire covered alleyway was defended by the Commune’s 92nd battalion.
As long ago as the Middle Ages the central Paris area around Rue Saint-Denis, Rue Grenata, the Rue aux Ours and the Rue de Saint-Martin was known as the ‘Huleu’ (screeching) quarter because of the prostitutes calling out for clients as men passed by. The women used to hire covered wooden stands, and men climbing on to the stand went ‘en bords’ (onboard). This was the origin of the now internationally recognised word ‘bordel‘ (brothel). Paris counted some 50,000 prostitutes by the mid-19th century.
For me, the southern part of the road near what used to be the huge Les Halles market still conjures up memories of that night in 1962 when I and my close school friend David walked on a cool dark summer night, with money in our pockets, determined to lose our virginities. I was quite amazed to find that more than 50 years later, despite the removal of the Halles market and the gentrification of central Paris, Tripadvisor is actually still selling the area as the place to go to see ‘Paris nightlife’.
The Rue d’Ulm, going south from the Panthéon, was opened on January 6 1807. It was named after the crushing defeat of the Austrian army by Napoléon at the Battle of Ulm between October 15 and 20 1805.
It is largely known because since November 4 1847 it hosted France’s most prestigious higher education selective university, the École normale supérieure (ENS) at No. 45. This special institution was initiated by Napoléon on March 17 1808 when he created a ‘standard boarding school’ (Pensionnat normal) within Paris university to train arts and science teachers. The students had to follow military rules and wear uniforms and were chosen from those who performed best in the secondary schools.
Louis Pasteur‘s laboratory was based there from 1864 to 1888, and was where he discovered a vaccine for rabies. The photgraph above shows the ENS in 1905.
From 1888 to 1926 the socialist Lucien Herr was the director of the ENS general library, with one of the students he influenced being Léon Blum. Herr also convinced Jaures there in 1898 of the innocence of Captain Dreyfus.
Perhaps the ENS’ most well-known left resident was Louis Althusser. He entered the ENS in 1945. Having passed the final exams with the highest marks, he began to work there from 1948, living in a staff flat provided by the ENS. This was where in 1980 in a fit of manic depression Althusser strangled his partner of 54 years.
In the aftermath of 1968 the Maoist group, La Gauche Prolétarienne (The Proletarian Left), held regular meetings in the Cavaillès lecture theatre. Among their leaders was Benny Levy. On October 21 1970 they used the ENS building to make Molotov cocktails.
This street is best known for No. 57, the Matignon Palace. The hôtel Matignon has been the official home of French prime ministers since 1922. In 1914, then the Austrian Embassy, it had been sequestered by the government who then bought it and what was Paris’ largest private garden in 1922.
Louis Aragon and Elsa Triolet rented a flat at No. 56, the Hôtel Gouffier de Thoix, from 1960 until Aragon’s death in 1982. The town house was built for the sister of the mistress of England’s Charles II between 1719 and 1727. Nationalised as the goods of foreigners during the French revolution, and then rented out, today it is used by the prime minister’s office.
Under the Occupation, the German Military Court was based at No. 12.
Nearly a kilometer long this street is filled with huge 18th century private houses that have become government buildings, embassies and the house at No. 77, now a museum, where Rodin lived, in the hôtel Biron. This was built for a former wig-maker who became a housing speculator in 1727-1728, and was sold to the hero of the 1745 battle of Fontenoy, the General Biron in 1753. His nephew ended up on the guillotine in 1793.
Under the restoration the building was given to the catholic girls school, the Ladies of the Sacré-Cœur, and then taken back by the state in 1905. By then it was nearly falling down and scheduled for demolition.
Several artists then moved in temporarily, including Matisse and Jean Cocteau, as well as Isadora Duncan’s Dance School.
In 1908 Auguste Rodin moved in. In 1916, the year before his death, he promised to give his entire works to the state if it transformed the building into the Musée Rodin, and this was then voted on by the National Assembly and by the Senate. Rodin died in 1917.
Most probably the street’s Varenne name comes from a corruption of the French word garenne meaning a hunting reserve, suggested also by the nearby Rue de Bellechasse (the ‘great hunting’ street. In the 16th century the area was part of the forest attached to the Louvre Palace. it was originally cut through in the early 17th century, got its name in 1651 and was extended to its present length in 1850.
French socialism began to distinguish itself both from Proudhon’s anarchistic appeal to humanity’s moral responsibilities and from Blanqui’s insurrectionism in the 1890s. Founded by Blum, Jaures and Vaillant in 1905 in the aftermath of the Dreyfus affair, the SFIO united left reformist republicans and Marxist sectarians. The alliance broke up in 1920 when a majority at the Tours Conference voted to affiliate to the new Communist International.
Despite being a minority at that SFIO conference, the SFIO of left reformist socialism became the leading left political current through nearly all the interwar period. After the Communist Party ended Stalin’s ‘class against class’ propaganda against the Socialists and proposed a Popular Front alliance, Blum became prime minister in 1936.
Under the Fourth Republic its internal divisions over Algerian independence, with Mendes France and the challenge of the stronger Communist Party allowed De Gaulle to take power. In 1981 Mitterrand won a decisive majority on a left platform that he abandoned three years later. From then the Socialist Party became largely a party of elected national and local officials, without any real mass membership. In 2017, following five politically disastrous years under Hollande, the Socialist Party suffered a major defeat in both the presidential and National Assembly elections. A new left party, La France Insoumise (France untamed), did relatively well, with the Left Front’s presidential candidate getting 19.6% of the vote in the first round.
Like the Socialists, though, Melonchon’s La France Insoumise has still virtually no local membership base. In the European elections of 2019, its share of the vote fell to 6%.