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  • Writer's pictureJack Dykstra, PhD

A Brief History of the Assemblée Nationale in Paris

What is the Assemblée Nationale?

Assemblée Nationale, or The National Assembly in English, is an 18th-century Baroque mansion in Paris that is the seat of the National Assembly, the lower house of the French parliament.

Assemblée Nationale

Assemblée Nationale History

At first sight, the Assemblée Nationale deceives the viewer. Its 19th-century neo-Hellenic façade conceals an 18th-century Baroque country mansion. Originally the Palais Bourbon, it was built in the 1720s for the daughter of King Louis XIV, Louise Françoise de Bourbon. In the late 18th century, the Prince de Condé (hero of the Seven Years’ War fought between Britain and France) rebuilt it as a Neoclassical palace and incorporated the Hôtel de Lassay on its west side. Before he could enjoy the fruits of his labour, he fled into exile as the French Revolution engrossed the capital.

The building achieved its current form with the addition of the north façade in 1807. Its imperial aesthetic reflects the tastes and ambitions of Napoleon Bonaparte and deliberately echoes the church of La Madeleine – originally conceived as a Neoclassical Temple of Glory for his Grande Armée – on the other side of the Place de la Concorde. Rather ironically, this building of democracy has its roots in monarchy and dictatorship.

In the popular myth of national history, King Louis XVI was dammed to die after the National Assembly voted for his execution by just one vote. In fact, there were multiple votes and they concluded with a slim majority. Besides, the National Assembly only came into existence in the first summer of Revolution. After a century of social and economic upheaval, soaring debt, unjust taxation, and rapid population growth, Louis called upon the Estates General in 1789. Summoned for the first time in 175 years, it comprised three bodies: the First Estate represented the clergy; the Second the nobility, and the Third the commons. Each had a vote, but the Third Estate was always outvoted. In June, the commons declared themselves the National Assembly after a prolonged stalemate and, in a tennis court, resolved to create a constitution and democracy. A perilously rocky road lay ahead. The Bastille (a medieval prison and symbol of royal tyranny) was stormed, sparking the Revolution; the renamed National Constituent Assembly abolished feudalism and published the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.

In 1791, the transformed incarnation of the Estates General was itself replaced with the Legislative Assembly, to whose seating arrangement – aristocrats on the right and commoners on the left – we can trace the origins of the political idiom of ‘right’ or ‘left’ politics still in use today. Yet in the extreme volatility of the political climate, this reconfiguration was superseded in the following year when the king was accused of foreign collusion. It was this subsequent National Convention, organised as a republic, which ultimately authorised the king’s execution by guillotine.

But while the National Convention nominally ruled until 1795, it was overruled by the Committee of Public Safety – a small group whose motto advocated ‘Liberty, Fraternity, Equality or Death’ in the Revolution’s defence against enemies, foreign and domestic. Indeed, it was the Committee of Public Safety, whose rather chilling name anticipates George Orwell by a century and a half, that inaugurated the bloodiest era of the French Revolution: the dictatorial Reign of Terror. The National Convention was thus replaced by The Directory, which in its terrible unpopularity only lasted for four years before Napoleon Bonaparte seized power in a coup just before the turn of the century.

Under The Directory, however, the Council of Five Hundred met in the Palais Bourbon in long white robes (reminiscent of Roman togas) and in a horseshoe-shaped chamber (in the style of a Roman theatre). This lower chamber of the French government, with the Council of the Ancients acting as the upper chamber, found the form in which it still exists today. The legislative houses lessened in power under Napoleon and their names changed in the Bourbon Restoration, but they continued to sit in the redesigned Palais Bourbon. Today, members of the Fifth Republic (since 1958), still wear tricolore sashes on ceremonial occasions in recognition of the palace’s revolutionary origins. White represents the monarchy, whilst blue and red, favoured by the 18th-century revolutionaries, represent the city of Paris.

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