24 October 2007

La Défense — why that name?

La Défense means exactly what you would think it means: the defense. But defense of what?

The Arc of Triomphe seen from La Défense

In 1870, long before an office park was planned for the west side of Paris, France was engaged in the first of three wars it would have with the Germans. The first one was the Franco-Prussian War (in French, La Guerre Franco-Allemande). The German armies rolled over the French in several battles in the eastern part of the country. Napoleon III and many thousands of French soldiers were taken prisoner.

Modern artwork at La Défense

In Paris, a coup put a national defense government in place. With the eastern battles won and Napoleon III a prisoner of war, the Germans mounted a siege to try to take Paris. They surrounded the city with as many as 400,000 soldiers, but Paris was well protected — forts had been built all around it. The German military headquarters were set up in Versailles, southwest of the city.

Seen at La Défense

The people of Paris organized themselves into a defensive force and the Germans never did take control of the French capital. Or at least not until the France's provisional government outside Paris signed an armistice a few months later and let the German forces in for a symbolic occupation of the Champs-Elysées. Meanwhile, the Germans had bombarded the city with artillery fire and the people of Paris, cut off from the outside world, had suffered great deprivation.

The old Défense de Paris monument

That was La Défense of Paris. In the 1880s, a grand bronze sculpture was erected out on the western edge of the city to the glory of the soldiers who had defended the city against the Prussian armies. Soon the whole surrounding neighborhood, which became an industrial center, was called by that name: La Défense.

The sculptor was named Barrias

The bronze statue is still there — it was moved to the esplanade of the new business center. It's dwarfed by all the big buildings, of course. All the old industrial facilities and 25,000 residents of the quarter were relocated when the current "business city" was planned and construction began.


  1. I didn't know at all about the history of La Défense.
    I like that photo of the statue with the towers as a background.
    Old and new.

  2. Still a fraught subject, I believe, because at the same time, the Paris Commune was set up to run the city on radical socialist and anti-clerical lines in the absence of a national government. When the new republican national government returned to take the city over, there was a bloodbath.

  3. K..
    If you ever want to un-retire (as if), I see a future as a history teacher! Thanks for the interesting info about La Defense.

  4. The Paris Commune lasted all of two months. There was no established national government at the time. And yes, there was a bloodbath when the new republican government sent in troops from its headquarters in Versailles and summarily executed a lot of the supposed communards.

    Those words "radical socialist" and "anti-clerical" are highly charged. (So is the word "republican" in American terms, where it is the name of a political party.) The people of Paris, especially the poor, had suffered through a famine and extreme hardship over the winter.

    There had been no peace treaty signed with the Prussians, and many in Paris wanted to continue to ensure the defense the city against the invaders. During that spring of unrest, several buildings symbolizing the monarchy and the old establishment had been burned down — the Palais des Tuileries, the Hôtel de Ville, the Palais de Justice (the Sainte-Chapelle was spared).

    Anyway, do you know that we all live in communes in France? That is the administrative term used for villages and towns. We all all communards nowadays.

  5. i'm really enjoying these lay of the land posts, thanks so much, and bon voyage, too.


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