September 4th 1870: Napoleon III deposed
On this day in 1870 French Emperor Napoleon III, nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte, was deposed. Before assuming the imperial title in 1852 he was the first President of France, having been elected by popular vote. However when prevented from running for a second term he staged a coup d’état and seized the throne. Napoleon’s initial reign was characterised by repression of political enemies and wide-ranging reform of French life, including some positive changes like extensive rebuilding of Paris, financial reorganisation and some labour rights. He was eventually overthrown due to his poor leadership in the Franco-Prussian War, which resulted in decisive Prussian victory under the leadership of Otto von Bismarck. The Emperor was even captured by the Prussians himself at the Battle of Sedan and after this surrendered to the Prussians in what many French saw as a humiliating debasement. Soon after that debacle he was removed from power and was held in captivity before going into exile in Britain. The Third Republic was declared and the monarchy abolished, thus making Napoleon III the last French monarch.
August 4th 1821: Louis Vuitton born
On this day in 1821 the French businessman Louis Vuitton, founder of the namesake fashion brand, was born in Anchay. From a working class French family, Vuitton had ambitions beyond his small hometown. He famously spent two years traveling to Paris on foot between 1835 and 1837. Once there he had great success as a box maker, eventually becoming Emperor Napoleon III’s wife’s personal box maker. He established the Louis Vuitton company in 1854, and passed the business to his son George upon his death in 1892 at age 70. Louis Vuitton remains one of the world’s leading high-fashion brands.
193 years ago
July 14th 1789: Storming of the Bastille
On this day in 1789, French revolutionaries stormed the Bastille fortress in Paris. This event came towards the beginning of the French Revolution which led to the toppling of the monarchy and execution of King Louis XVI. The dramatic events at the Bastille were precipitated by the King’s refusal to approve the reorganisation of the Estates-General, a general assembly designed to represent the clergy, the nobles and the common people. In response to fears of a counter-attack by the King’s forces, revolutionaries planed to seize the weapons in the Bastille. The prison was lightly guarded and the revolutionaries were able to force their way through and the ensuing violence led to the surrender of the defenders. The Bastille was where the French monarchy held their opponents, including figures like the mysterious ‘Man in the Iron Mask’ from 1670 to 1703, and so the mob also released the seven prisoners held there. The Bastille had represented ironclad royal authority and its fall was a major turning point in the revolution. After the Bastille the revolution escalated, with the passage of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and abolition of feudalism in August. A republic was declared in 1792 and the King was beheaded in January of the next year. For its prominent role in the French Revolution, this day is commemorated in France as a public holiday, Bastille Day.
"Is this a revolt?"
"No Majesty, this is a revolution”
- supposed conversation between Louis XVI and adviser Duc de Liancourt after the storming of the Bastille
June 14th 1940: Paris falls to the Nazis
On this day in 1940 during World War Two, German soldiers marched into Paris without resistance, and began the occupation of the city. France had fallen quickly to Nazi Germany partially due to its ill-preparedness for war, and the formidable Nazi blitzkrieg attack. Troops took over the city and hung swastikas on public buildings and monuments. Many Parisians fled, and those who remained faced four brutal years of occupation. Many reported on other people’s opposition to the Nazis, and the dissidents faced torture by the Gestapo and SS. Parisian Jews were also persecuted and sent to concentration camps. Paris was eventually liberated in 1944, 70 years ago this year, following the Allied invasion of Normandy.
May 21st 1871: Bloody Week begins
On this day in 1871 French troops marched on the Paris Commune and began fighting the revolutionaries there. The Commune took power in opposition to the conservative royalist National Assembly which was elected in February 1871; republican Parisians feared the Assembly would restore the monarchy. When officials of Adolphe Thiers’s government tried to remove the cannons of the city’s guards on March 18th the Commune seized power and were later elected on March 26th. The Commune enacted socialist policies such as ending support of religion and promoting female suffrage; they adopted a plain red flag as the flag of the Commune. Communard soldiers killed two French troops and refused to stand down, prompting the attack on the Commune by French forces who entered through an undefended area. The Commune was brutally repressed by the national government during the street fighting of ‘Bloody Week’, with around 20,000 insurrectionists being killed before the Commune fell on May 28th. The government treated the surviving Communards and their supporters ruthlessly - arresting around 38,000 and deporting around 7,000.
May 5th 1821: Napoleon Bonaparte dies
On this day in 1821 French Emperor Napoleon I, aged 51, died in exile on the island of Saint Helena. Napoleon became Emperor in 1804 and led France in the wars against various European coalitions in the Napoleonic Wars; for his leadership in these wars he is considered one of the greatest generals of all time. France had initial success in the wars but by 1812 was in decline, partly due to Napoleon’s disastrous invasion of Russia in 1812. Napoleon was forced to abdicate and was exiled to Elba in 1814 after defeat at the Battle of Leipzig. He returned to power in 1815, but was defeated at the Battle of Waterloo which sealed the fate of the French army, and the coalitions declared victory; France and thus Napoleon were defeated. Napoleon was then exiled on Saint Helena, and in 1821 died of stomach cancer.
"France, army, head of the army, Joséphine."
- Napoleon’s last words - Joséphine was his first wife
March 28th 1854: Britain and France declare war on Russia
On this day in 1854 in a pivotal moment of the Crimean War, Britain and France declared war on Russia. This conflict originated in the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars when Europe tried to rebuild and ensure future stability. One of the concerns was the crumbling Ottoman-Turkish empire, known as the ‘sick man of Europe’. The Russians planned to carve up the European part of Turkey, but Turkey objected and eventually declared war. The war was also prompted by debates over the rights of Christians in the Holy Land, which was under Ottoman control. Britain and France, each with their own interests in the preservation of the Ottoman regime, also joined the war when Russian troops failed to withdraw from the Russo-Turkish border. The allies decided to land in the Crimea to assault the Russian naval base at Sevastopol in order to gain the Black Sea. The siege took far longer than expected, and made Crimea the primary front of the war. The Crimean war was characterised by poor military leadership on both sides and a failure to adapt tactics to modern weaponry. The Battle of Balaclava in October saw the infamous British ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’, a frontal assault against Russian artillery. Eventually Sevastopol fell, the Russians were defeated, and the war ended with the signing of the Treaty of Paris in March 1856. This war has been the subject of much recent discussion due to Russia’s controversial annexation of Crimea, which was previously an autonomous region of Ukraine.
160 years ago today
February 27th 1892: Louis Vuitton dies
On this day in 1892 the French businessman Louis Vuitton, founder of the namesake fashion brand, died aged 70. From a working class French family, Vuitton had ambitions beyond his small hometown of Anchay. He famously spent two years traveling to Paris on foot between 1835 and 1837. Once there he had great success as a box maker, eventually becoming Emperor Napoleon III’s wife’s personal box maker. He established the Louis Vuitton company in 1854, and passed the business to his son George upon his death in 1892. Louis Vuitton remains one of the world’s leading high-fashion brands.
September 2nd 1945: Vietnamese Proclamation of Independence
On this day in 1945 the Vietnamese Proclamation of Independence was issued. The Proclamation, written by communist revolutionary Ho Chi Minh, was first announced in public at the Ba Đình flower garden in Hanoi. Vietnam had been a colony of France since the 19th century, but revolutionary forces were able to take hold following the occupation of the country by the Japanese during World War Two. The Proclamation itself began with a direct quote from the US Declaration of Independence and liberally quoted from French revolutionary texts to highlight the hypocrisy of brutal and repressive French imperialism. The Communists’ Proclamation made no reference to Marx or Lenin but despite its praise of the American Founding Fathers and attempts to appeal to them, the Cold War driven United States was determined to destroy this new communist state. The US therefore supported France in their attempt to reassert control in the ensuing Indochina War. However the French were no match for Ho Chi Minh’s well-organised guerilla forces, and suffered humiliating defeat at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954. The war ended with the Geneva Accords which divided Vietnam along the 17th parallel into a communist North and Western-friendly South. After years of struggle and unrest between the two, and the steadily increasing presence of US advisers, full scale war broke out and by 1965 the US had decidedly entered the conflict on the side of the South. The Americans underestimated the determination of the North Vietnamese and eventually withdrew from the war that had killed millions of people. Shortly after in April 1975, thirty years after the initial proclamation of independence, Saigon fell to the communists and Vietnam was reunited as an independent communist state.
"Vietnam has the right to be a free and independent country—and in fact it is so already. And thus the entire Vietnamese people are determined to mobilize all their physical and mental strength, to sacrifice their lives and property in order to safeguard their independence and liberty"
- excerpt from Vietnamese Proclamation of Independence
July 28th 1794: Robespierre et al. executed
On this day in 1794, Maximilien Robespierre, Louis Antoine de Saint-Just, Georges Couthon and many of their peers were executed by guillotine in Paris. Robespierre, Saint-Just and Couthon were leading figures in the French Revolution and were radical Jacobins. They served on the Committee of Public Safety, which ruled France during the bloody ‘Reign of Terror’ which saw mass violence and executions of ‘enemies of the revolution’. There was a coup against the Committee on July 27th 1794, which prompted a reactionary movement against the bloody policies of the Reign of Terror. For their role in the violence, Robespierre, Saint-Just and Couthon were executed.
June 18th 1940: Churchill’s ‘Finest Hour’ speech
On this day in 1940, the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill gave his famous 'Finest Hour' speech in the House of Commons. The speech came at the end of the Battle of France during World War Two, after France had fallen to the forces of Nazi Germany. In this speech, Churchill called for Britain to prepare for its role in defending the world from the Nazis; he called for people to make this ‘Darkest Hour’, after the fall of a key ally, into a ‘Finest Hour’. After making the speech to the Commons, Churchill recorded it to be broadcast to the British people over the radio.
"the Battle of France is over. I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin…Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this Island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands. But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.’”
May 27th 1564: Calvin dies
On this day in 1564, the French theologian John Calvin died in Geneva aged 54. Calvin, born in France in 1509, is best known for his formulation of the Protestant doctrine known as Calvinism. Calvinism advocates the view of predestination - that God chooses who will be saved and who will be damned even before their birth; there is thus nothing one can do in this life to alter their fate in the next. Whilst there is nothing one can do to alter their fate, Calvinists hold that those who live a godly life show evidence of being one of God’s elect, and so there is a point to living righteously. The elect had to prove their status by giving a narrative of their conversion before the church (which at this point meant the congregation of the elect). It was these views that provided the foundation of Puritan belief in Britain and colonial America. Calvin’s views made him a controversial figure in his lifetime, and he was an early supporter of Martin Luther’s Protestant Reformation. In the last years of his life, Calvin was the ruler of Geneva where he relentlessly promoted Protestantism, even resorting to executing and exiling religious dissenters.
"We call predestination God’s eternal decree, by which He determined what He willed to become of each man. For all are not created in equal condition; rather, eternal life is ordained for some, eternal damnation for others.”
- John Calvin
May 7th 1954: Battle of Dien Bien Phu ends
On this day in 1954, 60 years ago, the decisive battle of the First Indochina War at Dien Bien Phu ended with a resounding victory for the Viet Minh. The war was fought between the colonial French powers and a group of Vietnamese soldiers led by communist Ho Chi Minh. The Vietnamese forces had been battling the colonial French since the aftermath of World War Two, with each side being funded by the opposing camps of the Cold War - the Vietnamese from China and France from the United States. In the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, the communists were led by General Vo Nguyen Giap, who encircled the French stronghold with 40,000 men and heavy artillery. After a fifty-seven day siege, the French defense crumbled and the Viet Minh were victorious. The decisive battle essentially ended the war, which led to the Geneva Conference to negotiate peace. The Conference, which was attended by most of the major world powers, resulted in the division of Vietnam along the 17th Parallel. It was this division which kept tensions alive between the communist North and US-backed South, which ended in war between the two and heavy US involvement to support the South. In 1975, after the US had mostly retreated, the Southern capital of Saigon fell to the communists and the nation was once again united.
"The Viets are everywhere. The situation is very grave. The combat is confused and goes on all about. I feel the end is approaching, but we will fight to the finish”
- Christian de Castries, French commander at Dien Bien Phu, in the last hours of the siege
March 31st 1889: Eiffel Tower opens
On this day in 1889 in the French capital of Paris, the iconic Eiffel Tower was officially opened. The tower was built for the 1889 World’s Fair to celebrate the centenary of the French Revolution and is named after its designer Gustave Eiffel. After two years of building it was inaugurated on March 31st 1889 with Eiffel, government officials, and the press going to the top of the tower by foot. Upon reaching the top, Eiffel hoisted a French flag which was accompanied with a 25 gun salute. The tower was supposed to be dismantled in 1909 but it soon became apparent the tower had both cultural and practical value as it was used for communications. Upon its creation it was the tallest man-made structure in the world (it was defeated by the Chrysler Building in New York City in 1930). The tower is now the national icon of France and is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the world, drawing almost seven million visitors in 2011 alone.
March 7th 1875: Ravel born
On this day in 1875 the French composer Maurice Ravel was born in Ciboure, France, not far from the Spanish border. He was born into a Catholic household to a Swiss father and Basque mother. Ravel’s father imparted onto his son his love of music, which shaped the young Maurice’s future. His musical talents led him to the Paris Conservatoire, and whilst he was not academically successful there he was acknowledged as a gifted musician. Ravel went on to enjoy an illustrious career as a composer, especially known for his piano pieces like ‘Gaspard de la nuit’ and ‘Jeux d’eau’. However Ravel’s most famous work is probably the orchestral piece 'Boléro' which premiered in 1928. Always a Ravel classic, this piece especially rose to prominence after it was used by British ice dancers Torvill and Dean for their gold medal winning performance at the 1984 Sarajevo Winter Olympic Games. Maurice Ravel died after undergoing brain surgery on December 28th 1937, aged 62.