The city as a stage set


The Senegalese float in the bicentennial parade, 1989

The state organized the 1989 commemoration at a time when the socialists of President Frangois Mitterrand were sharing power with the conservatives. Not surprisingly, this led to tensions about how to represent the revolutionary
past. A bicentennial commission, known as the ‘Mission’, was established to organize the commemoration. Its director, Jean-Noel Jeannenay, was a historian by profession, not a government functionary. The ‘Mission’ worked in conjunction with the ministry of ‘The Great Works’ which was responsible for the large architectural projects of Mitterrand’s tenure and, in fact, the commemorative events of the bicentennial were carefully orchestrated by the state to complement its architectural transformation of the French capital.

From his first year in office, Mitterrand took it upon himself to promote the building of significant architecture during his tenure. In a speech, Mitterrand rhetorically asked, ‘Will we succeed to inscribe in space and to sculpt into building materials our cultural project? With all my energy, I will apply myself to the task.’14 During the bicentennial year, more buildings were raised out of the ground than at any time since Haussmann’s construction projects in the nineteenth century.

The bicentennial parade was located in the centre of the city at the heart of the ‘seat of power’, on the right bank between the Arc de Triomphe and the Tuileries Gardens. It also ended in one of the most historically-charged sites in the city – Place de la Concorde – the site of revolutionary events such as the execution of Louis XVI and, in turn, Danton and Robespierre. The parade descended the Champs Elysees which connects the Louvre palace, the Arc de Triomphe and two of the new commemorative monuments planned and orchestrated by Mitterrand: the Louvre Pyramid and the Grande Arche at La Defense. The Bastille Day parade inaugurated this grand axis. In a monumental sleight-of-hand, a commemorative landscape which balanced the old with the new and yet insisted on their connection, was presented to all of Paris, France and millions of viewers world-wide.

Updated: 3rd October 2014 — 1:37 pm