Flâneries in Paris: Place de la Nation and the Picpus Cemetery

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Flâneries in Paris: Place de la Nation and the Picpus Cemetery
This is the 26th in a series of walking tours highlighting the sites and stories of diverse districts of Paris. Emerging from the metro station at Place de la Nation, my first impression was of an enormous roundabout with at least 10 exit roads, a place to make me glad I’ve never tried to drive in Paris. But I knew it would be more intriguing than that, if just because of its colorful previous names: Throne Square and The Square of the Upturned Throne. The massive central statue of Marianne is a reminder that the rejected monarchy was replaced by that key French concept, la République.     It all began in June 1660, when Louis XIV wanted to make a grand entrance into the city as he returned with his new bride, the Spanish Infanta Marie-Thérèse. A throne was duly set up for an impressive ceremony. Louis’ grandiose plans for a triumphal arch to mark the spot were never realized, but there is a different reminder of the square’s royal past at the top of Avenue du Trône, the roading leading east from the square towards Vincennes.    A later king, Louis-Philippe, had statues of two 13th century monarchs, Philippe Auguste and Louis IX, positioned high up over each side of the road. That was in 1841, when the monarchy had been restored, presumably to reimpose the idea of kings as national rulers. So, there they sit surveying “their” territory, although I couldn’t help wondering what they make of the feisty republican Marianne who towers over the square today. She’s having the last word, it would seem.  La Triomphe de la République, as the statue is titled, was erected in 1889 to mark the centenary of the Revolution. Marianne is gazing towards the Place de la Bastille where the Revolution began. I had to look up the significance of the figures surrounding her, which include a blacksmith representing work, children representing the nation’s future, and statues of Justice and Abundance. She was the finishing touch to the square, which had recently been renamed Place de la Nation, another republican gesture in an era which brought in the tricolore and the law stating that the motto liberté, égalité, fraternité should be written on all public buildings.  I began to understand why la Place de la Nation has become a focus for demonstrations, the place from which protest marches often begin. Where else but here would Parisians gather in 1937 to celebrate the first year that May Day, la Fête du Travail in French, was declared a public holiday? In May 2023, the protest march against President Macron’s proposal to raise the retirement age began at Place de la République and ended here. Some protesters clambered up the statue, others held up hastily scribbled banners with dismissive messages like “Manu, tu descends,” informing the president in over-familiar and no uncertain terms that he was “going down.”  Postcard of the monument at Place de la Nation in 1908. Wikimedia commons
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Lead photo credit : Panoramic view of the Place de la Nation. Credit: Francoise de Gandi / Wikimedia commons

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Recently retired from teaching Modern Languages (French and German), Marian now has time to develop her interests in travel and European culture and history. She will be in Paris as often as she can, visiting places old and new, finding out their stories and writing it all up as soon as she gets home. Marian also runs the weekly podcast series, City Breaks, offering in-depth coverage of popular city break destinations, with lots of background history and cultural information. She has covered Paris in 22 episodes but looks forward to updating the series every now and then with some Paris Extra episodes.