Paris, France: A Short History

Art by Alex Macdougall

The terrorist assault on the city of Paris, which resulted in over one hundred innocent civilians losing their lives, marks another chapter in the history of Radical Islamist attacks in the West over the past two decades. Many Americans have reacted to the attacks with rightful sorrow and confusion, wondering why anyone would commit such a seemingly senseless and horrific act of mass murder on the city.

Art by Alex Macdougall
Art by Alex Macdougall

Two years ago I had the privilege of visiting Paris, as part of an art history class I was taking while studying abroad in Brussels. I was just one of many of the millions of tourists who flock to the city every year, drawn to its reputation as a city of beauty and high culture. It is home to the Louvre, the largest single collection of artwork in any one place on Earth, as well as the Musee d’Orsay, which houses some of the most famous works of the Impressionist period artists (Monet, Renoir, Gauguin, and Van Gogh). Its list of impressive architecture includes Notre Dame, Sainte-Chapelle, Arc de Triomphe, and of course, the Eiffel Tower. It has been the home of famous authors like Victor Hugo, Jean-Paul Sarte, and Ernest Hemingway. All of these things help contribute to the idea of Paris as one of the centers of Western culture, likely contributing to ISIS’ choice of it as a target.

While the reports of the terrorist attacks coming out of the city are shocking, it should be noted that sectarian violence occurring in the city is nothing new. In the year 1572, the city bore witness to the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre, in which thousands of Protestant Huguenots were slaughtered by Catholic mobs. Then there were the uprisings of the French Revolution beginning in 1789, in which the people of France, guided by the ideas of enlightenment thinkers such as Voltaire, overthrew the French monarchy, and with them the idea of the “Divine Right of Kings”. In 1940, the city was occupied by the Nazi regime, and saw several clashes between the Germans the the French Resistance. And just last year, the city saw several deaths in the killings of several members of the magazine Charlie Hebdo, known for drawing satirical depictions of the Prophet Muhammad. It remains to be seen how this second, more intense terrorist act will affect the city.

With regards to its history, it should also be mentioned, that to many in the Middle East, Paris represents that a colonial ruler that came into their lands and exploited their resources. The country of Syria, the location of ISIS headquarters and a country ravaged by war, was originally a French colony, its borders drawn to divide the former territories of the Ottoman Empire amongst the British and French. Other French colonies include Tunisia, the birthplace of the Arab Revolutions of 2011, and neighboring Algeria and Morocco, two of the most peaceful and Western-friendly of the Arab states (though both are ruled by rather undemocratic governments).  France, along with Britain and the United States, has played a big role in the unraveling of the region.

With this new terrorist attack, I worry for the future of this city and the course it chooses. Will it adopt more restrictive and authoritarian measures, as what happened in the United States post-9/11 with the PATRIOT Act? And what of the human rights of millions of Muslims, some long-time citizens and others newly-arrived refugees, who call France their home? Will they be subject to discrimination and surveillance? Or will France stick to the ideals it was founded on, the ideas of basic human rights and liberties, of the equality of all people, and the brotherhood of all mankind? Only time will tell how this city writes the newest chapter of its history.


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