Paris – A Revolutionary City!

So, we’re all set. I’ve finalised plans for The Chain Gang’s weeklong exploration of all things Parisian.

The itinerary and some background are now available on our website, along with dates and prices. This year we’re planning just two tours, the idea being that next year there will be at least 3 of our guides that know our way around the sites, the restaurants, the back-routes, etc., and we can run a bigger programme.

I doubt two tours is enough, so I expect they’ll be over-subscribed. I’m half-hoping that means it’ll be mostly Chain Gang regulars, or at least repeaters, but all are welcome, naturally.

The itinerary sets out where we go, and tries to give a flavour of why. But space is always limited, whether in a brochure or on a website, so I fear it comes across as a bit functional – “we go here, we see this, we eat. Then we go there, we see that,” etc. What’s missing is why cycling in Paris made me think this is the most exciting thing we’ve ever done.

I plan to write plenty about Paris in future Newsletters, but as an introduction I thought I’d whistle-stop through recent revolting history, and do a quick maths lesson of French Empires and Republics.

The First Republic and The French Empire

One of the things that surprised me was that we speak of The French Revolution, when they’ve actually had lots.

We’re all familiar with the French national holiday on July 14th, which celebrates ‘Bastille Day’, the storming of the Bastille in 1789. This heralded the First Republic. In 1804 Napoleon declared The French Empire, which ended with his defeat at Waterloo in 1815.


The Bourbons, restored to the throne following Napoleon’s defeat, did not fare well, and following the death of Charles X in 1830, Louis Philippe of Orleans, the ‘Citizen King’ was declared King.

In the centre of the ‘Place’ where the Bastille stood is the July Column, with the golden ‘Spirit of Liberty’ on top. This monument actually commemorates the next revolution, in July 1830.

The Second Republic

Sadly, Louis Philippe was a bit crap. In 1848, disillusioned with continuing austerity and widening inequality, the citizens of Paris barricaded the city and forced Louis-Philippe into exile in the UK, declaring the Second Republic.

Anybody interested in how the French got to her current ‘Fifth Republic’ needs to pay attention here. This Second Republic was unpopular, prompting a Presidential election won convincingly by Louis-Napoleon, returned from exile in the UK (in Leamington Spa, if you can believe that!).

The Second Empire

Just 3 years later Napoleon III suspended the constitution and declared the 2nd Empire. (He was the son of Napoleon Bonaparte’s brother, also Louis Napoleon. Napoleon II was Napoleon Bonaparte’s son, who died in exile in Austria).

The Third Republic

In 1870 Napoleon III was overthrown following his capture in the disastrous war against Bismarck’s Prussia. Fearing invasion by Prussia, Parisians barricaded their city and declared the 3rd Republic, which lasted until the French capitulation to Nazi Germany in 1940.

The Fourth And The Fifth Republics

After the 2nd World War, in 1946 the French established the 4th Republic, which lasted just 12 years. Calls for Algerian independence from France led to deep divisions, and believe it or not sections of the French army unleashed a wave of terrorist attacks within France. Unable to govern, the 4th Republic was dissolved, and Charles de Gaulle came out of retirement to become elected President by electoral college. It was De Gaulle that came up with the system of directly elected term-limited Presidents – and that’s your Fifth Republic, which we’re familiar with today.

Very Nearly The Sixth Republic

But the story of French revolution was still not over. The May Uprising of 1968 was a huge event. What started as a student uprising in May became a general strike involving over 11 million workers, still the biggest strike in history. De Gaulle fled to Germany from where he organised a military and police response. It was the announcement of new elections that brought the uprising to an halt, but it was, to paraphrase Wellington after the defeat of Napoleon I, more of a ‘damn close run thing’ than is widely understood. Ironically, De Gaulle strolled the elections.

All of this history is reflected in Paris today, spectacularly so in the buildings, the boulevards, the monuments and churches, which reminds me of a comment from the Chinese Prime Minister Zhou Enlai, asked by the French President at the 200th anniversary for his assessment of the French Revolution: “It’s too early to say”.

He could just as well have replied “Which one? The one that started 200 years ago and is currently in a temporary lull?” It seems incredible now that all this can have happened in such a beautiful city. For all that London is wonderful, it simply doesn’t have the same history that Paris does. And believe it or not, it’s better by bike; it’s amazing by bike.

I’m tired, I’ll leave it there. Next month, perhaps some art, some Monet, Rodin and Toulouse-Lautrec. There’s a lot more to Paris than revolting!

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