Posts Tagged ‘france’

Like the London Underground, the Paris Métro has its share of interesting or unusual station names: Campo-Formio, Dupleix, Europe, Glacière, Invalides, Le Kremlin-Bicêtre, Malesherbes, Oberkampf, Poissonnière, Pyramides, Rome, Stalingrad. The names of historic figures or battles are far more common than they are in London. Are the French more international in outlook and do they have a greater sense of history than we have in Britain? Authors, intellectuals, revolutionaries, military men, and even scientists, are prominent. There is a station for Robespierre but no station for Jeanne d’Arc (Joan of Arc).

pont de passy, seine, bir-hakeim, battle, free french

In 1948, the Pont de Passy over the Seine was re-named Pont de Bir-Hakeim to commemorate the Battle of Bir-Hakeim, fought by Free French forces in Libya in 1942. Bir-Hakeim métro station is off-camera to the right

In you have ever been to Paris, you will likely have been to the Eiffel Tower. And if you have gone there or left there by metro, you will have used the elevated station close to the left bank of the Seine that is nearest to the tower: Bir-Hakeim. In fact the sign on the station walls says ‘Bir-Hakeim – Tour Eiffel’. It’s an unusual name. Is it the name of an Arab leader? To me it has the feel of Egypt or somewhere else in the Middle East about it. Well it is the name of an abandoned oasis in the Libyan desert in north Africa, the former site of a Turkish fort located at the crossroad of Bedouin paths. But to France it is the place where its pride was restored after its humiliating defeat by Nazi Germany in June 1940 in the Second World.

bir-hakeim, paris métro, battle, free french, france

This plaque at Bir-Hakeim métro station translates ‘At Bir Hakeim from May 27 to 11 June 1942, the First Free French Brigade repulsed furious assaults from two divisions of the enemy and affirmed to the world that France has never ceased fighting’

For fifteen days in 1942, a Free French force of 3,700 soldiers under General Marie Pierre Koenig and vastly outnumbered by 45,000 attacking German and Italian forces led by General Erwin Rommel, defended the site from 26 May to 11 June. This allowed the retreating British Eighth Army to escape the annihilation that Rommel had planned, and to gain time to reorganize and subsequently halt the Axis advance at the First Battle of El Alamein in July. The full story of the battle can be read here. Koenig’s report after the battle said that 1,200 men were killed, wounded or were missing. (more…)


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You may know that the First Republic in France resulted from the French Revolution. But France has had five republics. And there were two empires and four revolutions. Why so many? Here is a brief guide, with some events omitted.

A republic is a political order whose head of state is not a monarch, a monarch being an absolute or ceremonial head of a state government: a king or queen, a prince or princess, an emperor or empress. It also describes a state in which power lies in the body of citizens who are entitled to vote for representatives responsible to them.

First Republic (1792-1804)

france, french revolution, national convention, robespierre, reign of terror

The National Convention. The Convention created the Committee of Public Safety to maintain public order and Maximilien Robespierre became its leader, effectively controlling France. During the Reign of Terror that followed, over 40,000 ‘enemies of the revolution’ were executed, until Robespierre’s own execution in July 1974.

The First Republic was proclaimed on 21 September 1792 by the newly established National Convention. This was in the third year of the ten years of the French Revolution which had started in 1789. The Revolution overthrew the Ancien Régime, the monarchic dynasties that had ruled France since the 15th century up until the last Bourbon king,  Louis XVI (‘L’état, c’est moi’ – I am the state).

By the late 1780s, France was in desperate financial trouble and Louis XVI, who believed he ruled by divine right, brought together the Estates General to try to solve France’s problems. The Estates-General, which met only rarely, was made up of assemblies of the First Estate, the clergy, the Second Estate, the nobility, and the Third Estate, the commoners, though in practice they represented the bourgeoisie. However many members of the Third Estate (who were to call themselves the Communes or Commons), met on their own and demanded a new constitution. The communes re-formed themselves into a National Assembly on 17 June 1789. Events followed quickly.

First the Tennis Court Oath (link) on 20 June, when all but one of the assembly believing themselves to be locked out of the meeting of the Estates-General, pledged not to separate until a new constitution was agreed. This was the first time that French citizens had formally stood in opposition to the king. When King Louis XVI refused the Assembly’s request to remove troops from Paris, public outrage precipitated the storming of the Bastille (which was seen as a symbol of the abuses of the monarchy) on 14 July, marking the beginning of the Revolution. The draft Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen followed in August.

‘The aim of every political association is the preservation of the natural and imprescriptible rights of man. These rights are liberty, property, security and resistance to oppression’ – National Assembly

The epic march to the Palace of Versailles in October by women protesting over the high price and scarcity of bread, forced the king and his family to return to Paris, effectively ending the independent authority of the king. The assembly, which had reconstituted itself as the National Constituent Assembly, became the effective government of France, and King Louis XVI was forced to recognise its authority.

The First Republic saw the execution of King Louis XVI in January 1793 (‘Louis must die that the country may live‘ – Robespierre), and the infamous Reign of Terror (link) from September 1793 to July 1794, the period of violence incited by conflict between rival revolutionary political factions.


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pierre curie, marie curie, laboratory, paris, radioactivity, polonium, radium, uranium

Pierre and Marie Curie in their makeshift laboratory in Paris where they laboriously extracted minute quantities of the radioactive elements polonium (named after her native Poland) and radium from tonnes of uranium ore

On 26 December 1898, Marie and Pierre Curie working in a converted shed, formerly a medical dissecting room, in the Municipal School of Industrial Physics and Chemistry in Paris, announced their discovery of the radioactive element Radium. In the process Marie Curie coined the word radioactivity. The origin of the name Radium comes from the Latin word radius meaning ray. At the World Physics Congress in Paris in 1900, one of the results presented by the Curies was that their new substance glowed; materials containing radium emitted light as well as radioactive rays.

Between 1898 and 1902, the Curies published a total of 32 scientific papers, including one that announced that diseased, tumor-forming cells were destroyed faster than healthy cells when exposed to radium. The Curies published details of the processes they used to isolate radium, without patenting any of them, believing scientists should devote their lives to research for the benefit of humanity. In any case, they had no reason to expect that radium would be a big money-maker. But in the meantime a new industry began developing based on radium.

radium, ink, l d gardner, new york, radioactive, luminosity

A 1904 advert for radium ink manufactured by L D Gardner in New York. You are instructed to hold the picture in a bright light for a minute and then look at it in an absolutely dark closet.

Due to its therapeutic power, radium came to be seen as a source of life. After scientists successfully killed cancer cells with radium in early experiments in Europe, the demand for the element soared. In 1904 in New York, L D Gardner patented his radium ‘health’ water, Liquid Sunshine, and a glow-in-the-dark radium ink. Factories producing radium cures and novelty products began to appear all over the city. Quack doctors aggressively sold radium cures for almost every ailment with enormous success. By 1906, the so-called radium craze was sweeping through France, Britain, America, Germany and Italy. In the same year, a Los Angeles ‘doctor’ who sold radium and milk cures was sued for not using enough radium in his product. The radium craze even spread to the New York stage, where radium plays and dances featuring performers in glow-in-the-dark costumes were shown in theatres throughout the city. However, many critics suspected that the glowing costumes were not made of radium because of its prohibitively high cost, but of phosphorous

But while the controlled use of radiation was curing some cancers, its uncontrolled use by healthy people was another matter entirely. The trouble was that even pioneers such as the Curies knew nothing of the hazards. Early radiographers tested their X-ray machines on their hands each morning.


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