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Visiting the Bourbon Palace, Paris, France: the National Assembly in a building recalling constitutional changes
Tumultuous events remembered beyond the Classical frontage
The Bourbon Palace (French: Palais Bourbon ) has a fine, classical frontage. Its striking portico was the work of architect Bernard Poyet, and built 1806-1808. However, part of the structure dates from the 18th century, and was built as a palace for Louise-Françoise, Duchess of Bourbon, daughter of King Louis XIV; this palace was originally modelled on the Grand Trianon, Versailles. However, the addition of Poyet's portico provided the building with which visitors to the Bourbon Palace are chiefly familiar.
The Bourbon Palace's years of association with French royalty were numbered, however. After the French Revolution it was nationalized, and eventually became the permanent home of the French legislature. All was not plain sailing, however, in terms of constitutional transition.
Indeed, the turbulent constitutional history of France makes for astonishing reading. Having decapitated their king at the neighboring Place de la Concorde, Paris, the French revolutionaries proceeded to debate the affairs of the day and came up with means to enforce their will: state terror. The original terrorists were these revolutionaries in government. At one point in 1794, in a single month, over 1300 people were guillotined on the place de la Concorde , which the Bourbon Palace faces. In less than the 200 years since the French revolutionaries dispatched Louis XVI, the Republic which the revolutionaries claimed to prize was itself subsumed into an Empire, finally defeated at Waterloo in 1815. The restored Bourbon kingdom then gave way to the Orleanist monarchy after another revolution in 1830. It was during the Orleanist period that Jean-Pierre Cortot left a permanent mark on the Bourbon Palace by way of sculptures of 18 figures at the frontage of the buidling.
The Orleanist monarchy was itself swept away by yet another revolution in 1848. This revolution established the 2nd Republic. However, this was short-lived when the French people elected as President Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, who, in 1851, staged a coup-d'état and established the Second Empire; North Americans will recall him as the leader who installed a Mexican Emperor during the American Civil War.
The Second Empire ended in military defeat during the 1870 Franco-Prussian War. (The German / Prussian aggression narrative, again? Actually, it was Napoleon III who declared war on Prussia, not the other way round. Undoubtedly Otto von Bismarck, the Prussian Minister-President, exercised a degree of manipulation of these tumultuous events). In due course, an ex-Royalist called Thiers emerged as provisional leader; in his view, a Republic was the form of government which divided French people the least. 1875 saw another Republican constitution: this time, what was known as the Third Republic lasted until 1940, when, in the face of military defeat, the French National Assembly voted itself out of existence in favour of an authoritarian, collaborationist régime headed by Marshall Pétain, a few years later condemned to death (1).
From the Liberation in 1944 until 1946, France was governed by the leader whom Allied Supreme Commander General Dwight D. Eisenhower believed was best placed to serve as interim leader: General Charles de Gaulle, in exile since 1940. 1946 saw the constitution of the Fourth Republic, which, however, proved to be so fractious, averaging a few changes of government every year until 1958, the year when General de Gaulle returned to power in a manoeuvre which historian Douglas Johnson analyzed as being in itself tantamount to a revolution. This state of affairs still prevails; another constitution followed in 1959, which was republican in both name and by various features, but which also draws from Napoleonic institutional tradition also. The Fifth Republic has a strong executive and a National Assembly, the powers of which are more restricted than under the previous constitution.
The intensity of US elections and the widespread pursuit of strong rhetoric during Presidential and Congressional elections arguably masks somewhat the underlying fact that the US Constitution is actually the world's oldest continuously functioning, written constitution. (Canada, indeed, has never had a revolution purporting to make a complete break with the past.) When considering France's institutions, it is this helpful for North American students to note just how historically volatile they have been.
(1) The death sentence on Marshall Pétain was not carried out.
Also worth seeing
In brief, visitors to the National Assembly and the nearby place de la Concorde may also wish to walk in a leisurely way down the historic Champs Elysées , which leads to the Arc de Triomphe .
See also the Eiffel Tower (la tour Eiffel ) from the Chaillot Palace (le Palais de Chaillot ): Métro (subway) station, Trocadéro . The famous Louvre Museum's main Métro station is Palais Royal - Musée du Louvre . Notre Dame Cathedral's Métro stations are either Cité or Saint-Michel .
How to get there: United Airlines flies from New York Newark to Paris (Aéroport Paris-Charles de Gaulle ), from where car rental is available; however, visitors to Paris may wish to explore the city via its excellent public transport system. The Métro (subway) stop for the National Assembly is Assemblée nationale . Please note that some facilities may be withdrawn without notice. Please check with the airline or your travel agent for up to date information.
MJFenn is an independent travel writer based in Ontario, Canada.
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