The Faubourg Saint-Antoine is a Paris neighborhood that begins at Place de la Bastille (first photo) and stretches about 2 km eastward to Place de la Nation.
The word Faubourg means “outside the walls”, now usually translated as “suburb”. In the Middle Ages this neighborhood was in fact outside the city walls, but by now the walls have long since disappeared. Today the Faubourg Saint-Antoine is divided between the 11th and 12th districts (arrondissements) of Paris, with everything north of the Rue du Faubourg-Saint-Antoine belonging to the 11th district, and everything south to the 12th.
This historical plaque on Rue de Charenton, just off of Place de la Bastille, explains that the Faubourg Saint-Antoine “played a large role during the revolutions of 1789, of July 1830 and of February 1848.” All three times, the artisans and workers of this neighborhood contributed to the fall of the monarchy.
The third sentence of the plaque reads: “The insurrection of June 1848 was described by Victor Hugo in Les Misérables, especially the enormous barricade that was built at the entrance of the streets Charenton and Faubourg Saint-Antoine.” This sentence puzzled me at first because I recalled that the story of Les Misérables ended in 1833 with the death of the protagonist Jean Valjean. The revolutionary barricade that played a prominent part in Les Misérables was in the Marais, not Faubourg Saint-Antoine, and was in the revolution of 1832, not 1848. But after leafing through the novel for a few minutes I quickly found a seven-page digression which begins: “The two most memorable barricades which the observer of social maladies can mention do not belong at all to the period when the action of this book takes place.” One of these two was the June 1848 barricade at the entrance to the Faubourg Saint-Antoine, which Hugo describes as follows:
The barricade Saint-Antoine was monstrous; it was three stories high and seven hundred feet wide. It blocked off from one corner to the other the vast entrance to the suburb consisting of three streets; furrowed, jagged, toothed, chopped, crenellated […] Just from looking at it, one felt the immense agonized suffering which arrived in the suburb at this extreme moment when distress wanted to become a catastrophe. What was this barricade made of? From the ruins of three six-story buildings, especially demolished for the purpose, said some. From the miracle of everyone’s anger, said the others. It had the lamentable appearance of all constructions of hatred: it was a ruin. One could say: who built this? One could also say: who destroyed this? It was a chaotic seething improvisation. Look! this door! this fence! this canopy! this doorframe! this broken stove! the cracked pot! Bring it all! throw it all in! push it, roll it, pull it, shove it, take it apart, turn it upside down, collapse it, smash it all! It was a collaboration of paving stones, rubble, beams, iron bars, rags, smashed windows, broken chairs, tatters, old clothes, scraps of cloth and curses. […] One could see, in a jumble of despair, the rafters of roofs, pieces of attics with their painted wallpaper, window frames with all their panes of glass planted in the rubble, waiting for the cannons, the unsealed chimneys, cabinets, tables, benches, a screaming shambles and those thousands of destitute things that would have been rejected even by the beggars, containing both fury and nothingness. One would have said that this was the tatters of a people, tatters of wood, iron, bronze and stone, and that the Faubourg Saint-Antoine had swept it all out there in front of its gate with a colossal sweep of a broom, making a barricade out of its misery. [My translations from volume 2, page 541 ff.]
The French army conquered this huge barricade on June 26, 1848, at ten in the morning, but that didn’t mean the workers’ revolt was over, because first the troops had to overcome, one by one, the 65 smaller barricades that were spaced out along the rue du Faubourg Saint-Antoine between Place de la Bastille and Place de la Nation.
One of the many more or less hidden courtyards and passageways in the Faubourg Saint-Antoine is this one, the Cour du Bel-Air. Since it goes off from the south side of the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Antoine, it belongs to the 12th district of Paris. At the risk of being considered a name-dropper, I would like to mention that I am personally acquainted with a man who laid the carpets during the renovation of some of the apartments in the Cour du Bel-Air in 1976-1978, namely Paul Smith, who went by the name of pfsmalo on the now-defunct website VirtualTourist.
This is the Passage de la Boule Blanche (Passage of the White Ball), so called because there is a small white ball made of stone above the northern entrance at 50 rue du Faubourg-Saint-Antoine. The passage was opened in the year 1700 to connect the rue du Faubourg-Saint-Antoine with the rue de Charenton.
The Passage du Chantier is a small cobblestone passageway connecting the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Antoine with the Rue de Charenton.
This passageway still has a good selection of ateliers and craft shops specializing in traditional hand-crafted wooden furniture and related furniture trades, such as the Hummel furniture company, the Rosen furniture factory, Atelier Paul, Artisan Jur, Le Manoir de Gilles and Mercadier colors and materials.
This “Courtyard of the Three Brothers” is an impasse or dead-end street that is one hundred meters long and was opened in 1855. It was traditionally devoted more or less entirely to the crafts of furniture making. The “three brothers” in the name were the three sons of a certain M. Viguès, who was the owner of this property in the mid-19th century.
Towards the back of the “Courtyard of the Three Brothers” is a workshop belonging to Les Ateliers Armand, a company that seems to have its main store in the nearby Passage du Chantier. According to their website, they offer “Custom furniture in cherry, oak, mahogany, walnut … daybeds, sofas, chairs of all styles, repair of chairs, furniture restoration, large selection of fabrics.”
Besides the traditional furniture workshops, the “Courtyard of the Three Brothers” is now also the home of a decidedly non-traditional hairdressing salon called “TONY&GUY”, which has been installed here in a “resolutely contemporary space”. This turns out to be a chain of hairdressers that is based in England but now has five locations in Paris and one in Aix-en-Provence. The price for a Coupe & Coiffage (Cutting and Styling) depends on “the technical level and experience of each stylist, determined by regular testing and continuing education.” What this means is that if you are willing to let a mere “Stylist” work on your hair you would be charged 54 Euros. For a “Top Stylist” you would pay 62 Euros, for a “Style Director” 71 Euros, for an “Art Director” 90 Euros and for a “Creative Director” 100 Euros. (Prices as of 2015.)
This “Courtyard of the Burnt Building” dates from the 17th century, when the furniture makers in this neighborhood were extremely prosperous thanks to the rich aristocrats who emulated King Louis XIV by furnishing their palaces with the latest (now antique) exquisite hand-crafted wooden furniture.
The “Courtyard of the Shadoks” at 71 rue du faubourg St. Antoine had me stumped at first, because it didn’t look particularly historic and I had never heard of anyone or anything called “Shadoks”. (Something lurking in the shadows, perhaps, in the dark corners of 17th century Paris?)
Thanks to Paul Smith (aka pfsmalo) for providing the explanation of this. In one of his over three hundred Paris “Off the Beaten Path” tips on the now-defunct website VirtualTourist, Paul explained that the Shadoks were “strange little personages” who appeared on French television starting in 1968. He said the Shadoks “lasted for over 200 episodes and 6 comic albums and were known to all young French kids at the time.” They were created by a man named Jacques Rouxel, who “had a building in this courtyard where he lived and worked until his death in 2004.”
This “Courtyard of the Bear” dates from the early 19th century and is still the site of some furniture shops and cabinetmakers. On the right in this photo is a cabinetmaking shop called Ébénisterie Straure, where some craftsmen were at work making or repairing traditional wooden furniture. Further back in the photo is a company called J. Tassin S.A., which specializes in providing leather for furniture makers.
Somehow I wasn’t expecting to find any bookshops in the Faubourg Saint-Antoine, but despite my preconceptions I really did find one, a shop for used books with the clever English name Book Off. It turned out to be a busy and friendly shop, with several customers selling books and several employees diligently shelving them.
I suppose you could call it a particular mark of authenticity. Like a lot of places in France, Book Off has a couple of loose electrical cables dangling over its sign above the front entrance. I have noticed this particularly in southern France, for instance at a fancy shop in Avignon, at Marseille’s best ice cream shop and even at the stage entrance of the Marseille opera house.
It turns out that Book Off is a Japanese company, founded in 1990, which currently has three shops in Paris. Their first shop, at 29 rue Saint-Augustin in the second district of Paris, sells Japanese books, CDs and DVDs, but the other two (at 11 rue Monsigny in the 2nd district and this one in the Faubourg Saint-Antoine) have them mainly in French with a few in English and other languages.
At Book Off I bought this used paperback copy of Molière’s Tartuffe, which I promptly read. The first three acts resemble some of his other plays, for instance Les Femmes Savantes, which I had seen a few years earlier in Lyon, or Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, which I saw in an elaborate production at the Royal Opera in Versailles. What these plays have in common is that one of the parents tries to marry off their lovely daughter to an odious older man, but these plans are foiled by the daughter and her boyfriend and the other parent and especially the maid, who always has the best lines in Molière’s plays. In Tartuffe, however, the maid goes strangely silent after the third act, because the author realized he was in dangerous territory. This time he was satirizing not just foppishness or self-importance, but religious hypocrisy, which was risky because religious hypocrisy was rampant in high places in the 17th century, up to and probably even including King Louis XIV at this time of his life. So in the fourth and fifth acts of Tartuffe it takes more than just a clever maid and a valiant boyfriend to solve the problem, it takes two representatives of the King himself, with most of the play’s characters effusively praising the King’s wisdom. (Louis XIV did in fact prohibit public performances of Tartuffe when it first appeared, but relented five years later after Molière had done some extensive re-writing. During this re-writing phase he reportedly read parts of the text to his friends at the literary salon of Ninon de Lenclos in the Marais district of Paris.)
On the same block with Book Off is another Japanese store called Muji. I didn’t find anything I wanted to buy there, but I found the store interesting because of its interior architecture, with fancy cast iron elements from (I suppose) the 19th century.
My photos in this post are from 2015. I revised the text in 2017.