One of Paris' 21 City Halls

L'Hôtel de Ville de Paris
The City Hall, like France, has had a turbulent history.

The Main One is Called the 'Hôtel de Ville'

Paris:- Wednesday, 16. July 1997:- Some time ago, France had a Minister of Culture - probably André Malraux - who thought it would be a 'good thing' to have the grime scraped off Paris. This was done and is being still done, even now re-done, all these years later.

One of the major public buildings to be affected by this mania to be 'propre' is the Hôtel de Ville. The problem with it is the present building is relatively new - Parisians have continuously wrecked their City Hall - and so clean, it looks like a replica of itself - which it sort of is.

Here it sits, between the Seine and the rue de Rivoli in Paris' fourth arrondissement; facing its grand place de l'Hôtel de Ville, looking like a gingerbread fairy castle. The unreality of it has always put me off.

The place in front of the overly ornate building is huge. Charles de Gaulle filled it up with 200,000 on Friday, 25. August 1944, not many months after Pétain had done the same thing. In recent times, filling the place has been rare - so it is usually a very large, empty space, which I always think implies that the building is pure decoration on the edge of it.

A new fountain is placed in a wall parallel to the rue de Rivoli, at a right-angle to the Hôtel de Ville, and offers place to sit on marble - perhaps after traversing the square, which is easily 150 metres in length. Not far from this and the métro exit I watch the activity at one of the building's main entries.

Several police and fairly serious iron gates filter anyone going in; it does not look like the 'welcome' mat is laid out to one and all. The actual reception for the public is around the corner, at number 29. rue de Rivoli, at a much more modest entrance, guarded by less iron and fewer policemen.

This is where the Hôtel de Ville has its exhibitions and its information reception. I asked if the public has access to the interior of the building and was told no. Then the nice young lady gave me a small brochure containing detail of facade a history of the location, filled with a lot of glossy photos of its extravagantly opulent interior.

In the same area as the reception, there is an exhibition called 'C'Etait Paris dans les Années 50' - This was Paris in the '50's - and this small show is really worth a visit - so much so that its duration has been extended from June to the end of August.

Ornate both outside and in; but not much activity.

Apparently, the city asked for donations and all sorts of Parisians went through their attics and caves and turned up a wealth of ordinary daily items from the era of the '50's. I had thought this could be a bit musty, but it is not the case.

Somehow it was good to see formica again, and plastic table-radios; all of it seems to give off a sort of uncanny optimism, these post-war objects of ordinary life. The contents of this small-scale exhibition are completely contrary to the building where it can be seen, and there is just something undefinable about it, that leaves one with a good feeling.

I have not been the first to come away with this impression; the International Herald Tribune's Mary Blume wrote something similar in her review of the show some months ago. At the time I thought she was perhaps being overly fair, but I now I know she was right. Check it out; small, neat show - no entry charge.

I once worked in City Hall, in a tiny office just inside the front door. Because it was a working office it was tiny, and it was annoying to have visitors barge into it, thinking it was a reception or information office. I mention this because Paris has 20 other City Halls, all working ones; all ones anyone can walk into.

These are the City Halls of the arrondissements - the Mairies. They keep civil records and have city offices, and marriages are performed in them. When you are married, you are given a booklet called a 'livret de familie.' It is a sort of marriage and birth certificate, and eventual death certificate. For all sorts of administrative reasons, you have to furnish copies of part or parts of this livret, and the Mairies do this paperwork on demand. You might also pay for your kids' school lunch at the Mairie.

To do this, if you live in the fourth arrondissement where the Hôtel de Ville is located, you go the Mairie of the fourth, not the Paris City Hall. If you are a soldier and you marched down the Champs-Elysées on Bastille Day, you might be invited to lunch in the Salle des Fêtes at the Hôtel de Ville.

Paris' first municipal institution was created by Saint Louis in 1246. The 'bourgeois' - merchants - elected representatives to a central authority whose powerful chief was called the prévôt des marchands, and in the beginning this was the head of the Parisian 'Hansa,' and the first one was the powerful watermen's guild - which had a monopoly on river trade and thus Paris' lifeline in the foodchain - hence today's coat of arms, featuring the boat.

The prévôt was assisted by four aldermen, and all were supported by a pyramid system of followers, and all of these posts became hereditary, and eventually the whole thing was taken over by the crown; and was therefore weak politically up until the Revolution.

The first meetings were held at the Maison de la Marchandise, near Châtelet. On 7. July 1357, Etienne Marcel moved the meeting place to the Maison des Piliers at the place de Grève - the present place de l'Hôtel de Ville. It was a two-storied building with arcades and two towers.

It had been the property of Prince Charles. He thought he could save it from confiscation by donating it to Jean d'Auxerre, a simple 'bourgeois.' Marcel got the Bishop of Laon to denounce d'Auxerre, kicked him off the Prince's council, and seized the building by passing an ordinance to undo all donations made since Philippe le Bel. This was legal flim-flam, but it forced d'Auxerre to sell - to Etienne Marcel - for 2,400 gold florins of public money, the building which became the 'Hostel de Ville.'

Marcel led a revolt against Prince Charles, who had wisely absented himself after transferring his authority to his own prévôt. Marcel was killed by Jean Maillard in 1358 at the Saint-Antoine gate as he was about to deliver Paris to Charles the Bad, King of Navarre.

Princes do not forget, and they may come back as Kings, as Charles V did. He settled the war with the English, got rid of Charles the Bad and eventually regained nearly everything lost to the English.

However, his son, young Charles VI, at first was ruled by his uncles, pretending to be his 'tutors.' These drained the treasury and provoked a revolt by ordering an increase in taxes - a recurring theme in Paris - but he became king and beat the Flemish in 1382. After getting rid of his uncles he became Charles 'the Well-Liked' until he went crazy in 1392. He didn't die until 1422 and in the meantime his wife, Isabelle of Bavaria, managed to lose France again to the English on account of the anarchy caused by the feuds of the Bourguignons and the Armagnacs.

While this was going on, Paris got back its Hôtel de Ville in 1415 with its original statutes. It was rebuilt, starting with François 1st in 1553 and finished with Louis XIII in 1628. The centre face of the present building was inspired by the renaissance-style of this original.

The place de l'Hôtel de Ville was named the place de Grève until 1802 and then it was called place de la Maison-Commune for a while. Today 'grève' means strike, but it also means 'shore,' as in river-bank. At one time, the along the rue de Rivoli side unemployed gathered here to wait for work, to 'faire la grève' - to hang around waiting for work on the river in other words.

The photo-posters along the rue de Rivoli are for the '50's exhibition; near the entry.

The first public execution was held here on Whitsun - Pentecôte - in 1310. A priest from Beauvais and a lady were bumped off and a relapsed Jew was burned alive. Two boyfriends of the Princess of Bourgogne got theirs in 1314, the Count de Saint-Pol was beheaded in 1475, Anne du Bourg in 1559, Nicolas de Salcède was quartered in 1582, Eléonore Galigaï was beheaded in 1617, a bandit named Cartouche was cooked up in 1721 and the Count de Lally lost his head in 1766.

Lally was a general of French troops in India, who was 'convicted of treason' for losing Pondicherry to the English. He was arrested on Monday, 5. May and on Friday he was at the place de la Grève. An eye-witness, overlooking the place, reported that,

"All the places, all the windows, were rented at crazy prices for the occasion, and tiles were taken off roofs to make temporary stands. People were hanging off chimneys, because it was decided to carry out the execution by daylight instead of at night. The Count's arms were tied so he couldn't strangle himself and when he continued to rant against the king and the judges, he was gagged.

"Instead of being placed on a state carriage draped in black, he was brought on a common criminal's cart. All the way from the Conciergerie to the place he regarded the crowds impassively. At the place de la Grève he was placed with his back to the Hôtel de Ville.

"The eldest son of the old executioner, on the left facing his father, took the Damascus sword handed to him and without measuring his stroke, chopped too high. The old man instantly took the sword and did the job with the second stroke."

The Count de Lally was 64 years old and had been a loyal servant of the regime throughout his lifetime. This execution was one of the worst inequities of the government of Louis XV; 12 years later, on 21. May 1776, Louis XVI revoked the sentence.

On 25. April 1792, the guillotine had its begining on the place de la Grève, for the execution of a common criminal, and this was the only sort of execution carried out here during the Revolution. The last execution, that of a murderer, took place four days before the Revolution of July, 1830.

Starting with Louis XI on 14. June 1471, a grand ceremony was held in the place de Grève, called the 'Feu de Saint-Jean.' Wood would be brought to the place until it reached a height of tens of metres, and it would be decorated with bouquets, garlands of flowers, and sometimes there was a sack filled with two dozen cats and a fox. Fireworks and cannons would be placed, facing the Seine.

With pomp and fanfare the king would arrive, and the prévôt and the merchants would hand him a flaming torch to light the fire. After the cats and the fox were cooked and the fireworks shot off, all the bigwigs would go into the grand salle for the official ball, while the populace had a 'bal populaire' outside. When he was 10, Louis XIV lit it once; Louis XV and Louis XVI, never.

The Hôtel de Ville was enlarged in 1803 and again from 1837 to 1841. On 24. May 1871, the Commune which had held it since March, doused it with gas and burned it down, destroying its valuable archives a poster for the '50's exhibition and the building itself burned for eight days. It took ten years, until 1882, to reconstruct it - as a near replica of the renaissance-style original.

The history of Paris' Hôtel de Ville is like a summary of the history of France. Paris was governed by a government-appointed prefect until 1977, when Jacques Chirac was elected mayor. On his election as President of France in 1995, Jean Tiberi assumed the office.

After the centuries of turmoil, the '50's were a time of optimism.

This history has been a bit longer than the usual ones I do; partly because the history of the Hôtel de Ville has become so tranquil, and if you stand for a long time in the place in front of it, you will not see much happening.

Instead of doing this, go around to the rue de Rivoli side, or to the Salle Saint-Jean at the back in the rue Lobau, and take in the current exhibitions, listed below.

'C'Etait Paris Dans les Années 50'

Reconstructions of boutiques and apartments, which present aspects of the lives of Parisians after the war and in the 1950's. Ordinary objects, household goods, posters, newspapers, magazines and blown-up photos of Paris street scenes.
This exhibition has been extended to Saturday, 30. August - closed Sundays.
Salon de Acceuil - Hôtel de Ville
29. rue de Rivoli, Paris 4.

'Pierre et Rome, Vingt Siècles d'Elan Créateur'

Youth International Days will be taking place in Paris in August and the Pope is scheduled to attend. For the third time - after Denver and Manila - an exhibition with the theme, 'Towards the Third Millennium,' is displaying rare items from the Vatican's Papal collections, illustrating how Peter's successors promoted art through the ages and have conserved this artistic heritage.
Salle Saint-Jean, at 3. rue Lobau - which is the rear entrance to the Hôtel de Ville. Exhibition on until Sunday, 9. November. Daily from 11:00 to 19:00; closed Mondays. From 18. August to 22. August, open every day, from 10:00 to 22:00. Info Tel.: 01 42 76 51 53.


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