26 March 2015

Drama, detonations & dastardly deeds

Despite its name, FNAC Bellecour does not lie directly on Place Bellecour, but rather at the start of the adjacent pedestrian precinct commonly referred to as "Rue de la Ré," where it is sandwiched between a chain café and a chain retail clothing store.

Like all FNAC stores, the interior is a combination of boringly nondescript false walls and equally nondescript false low ceilings, the combined effect of which is undoubtedly designed to avoid distracting the consumer's attention from the purpose of his visit.

However, the façade is the polar opposite of the building's interior; a beautifully ornate creation centred on two huge topless female statues seemingly beckoning you inside. Strangely enough, though, no plaque, architect's mark or date stamp gives any indication of the building's provenance or history. So I decided to investigate.

What I found wasn't all sugar and spice and all things nice.
Emile Guimet

It appears that the site on what was then Rue Impérial was initially occupied by a café chantant, a kind of music hall or vaudeville. When this was destroyed by fire on 3 November 1875, a Lyonnais-born polymath called Emile Guimet (1836-1918) had greater plans. 

Guimet, an industrialist, world-traveller, collector, ethnologist, composer and philanthropist who also paid for and supplied all the exhibits for a natural history museum on Boulevard des Belges (the Guimet collections are now housed in the Musée des Confluences), decided that what Lyon needed was an immense and grandiose theatre. He therefore commissioned the architect Jules Chartron (1831-1884) to come up with a suitable design.

The café of the Théâtre Bellecour
Chartron, who also designed the Musée Guimet, didn't disappoint. Apart from the wonderful façade, his design for what would be known as the Théâtre Bellecour had seating for 3000 people, making it the largest in all of Lyon. 

The artist Charles Savoye sculpted the two larger-than life statues by the entrance. 

Jules Chartron's original design
as it appeared in La Construction Lyonnais
The theatre also had a café and a basement restaurant-cum-nightclub dubbed L'Assommoir ("drinking den" or - more prophetically - "murder hole") and frequented by the bourgeoisie.

The Théâtre Bellecour was a great success, hosting, amongst other things, the Bal des Etudiants, an annual charity event that raised money for unemployed workers, from 1880 onwards.

Unfortunately, disaster struck on the night of 22-23 October 1882, when two incendiary devices triggered a massive explosion in the Assommoir, killing one staff member. 

Although it's not exactly clear who planted the bombs, the attack was pinned on Antoine Cyvoct, an anarchist who had recently penned an article entitled "Le Droit Social" ("On Social Law") for a Lyonnais anarchist magazine. Cyvoct was subsequently tried and convicted alongside fellow anarchists in the famous Procès des 66

Inside the Théâtre Bellecour during the Bal des Etudiants
 Cyvoct was granted an amnesty and freed in 1898.

Engraving of the 1883 explosion in the Assommoir
The explosion proved a death knell for the Théâtre Bellecour, which went bankrupt a few years later. In 1887, Guimet offered to hand over the theatre and his museum to the city of Lyon free of charge, but for whatever reason, the municipal authorities weren't interested. In December 1892, however, Guimet finally found a buyer for the theatre in Léon Delaroche, the publisher of the daily newspaper Le Progrès.

Detail of the renovated façade
showing the Mora mosaic
Delaroche, who had bought the newspaper from the founder's widow in 1880, asked the architect Prosper Perrin to redesign the building so that the paper's editorial staff and printers could use it. Perrin took his client at his word, completely gutting the splendid Haussmannian theatre and leaving only the elaborate façade. 

The name of the theatre was replaced by a Mora mosaic spelling out the newspaper's name. Other embellishments included the addition of the letters "LP" to an iron railing in front of the central, second-floor window.

On 4 April 1895, Le Progrès left its former headquarters on Place de la Charité and moved into its new location on Rue Impérial. It remained there for nearly 90 years before returning to Place de la Charité in 1983, although it now occupies more modern premises in Confluence, further down the Presqu'Île.

The building has been a FNAC store since 1985.

Militia HQ
on the cover of a book
Although Le Progrès owned the building for the better part of a century, it didn't use it throughout that time. Indeed the one time it didn't, it was put to far more nefarious use - though, as with many other aspects of this period, French guide- and history books tend to overlook it

In November 1942, during the Nazi Occupation, Le Progrès temporarily closed up shop. With the building empty, the recently-formed collaborationist French Militia moved in, first squatting there, from about June 1943, and on 23 October officially establishing both both their headquarters and the notorious 2° Service, its de facto police force and intelligence-gathering unit, at 85 Rue de la République. They remained until the Liberation of Lyon in September 1944.

The regional head of the Milice Francaise, Joseph Lécussan, had his office there, as did Paul Touvier, who headed the 2° Service. 

Assisted by their brutal lackeys, Lécussan and Touvier ruthlessly assisted the Nazis in capturing and deporting Jews and members of the French Resistance and even participated in numerous killings. 

Despite their paramilitary and fascist methods, the Milice also sought to win over the local population. Wartime footage shows militiamen (and women) on the ground-floor hall of the building handing out coffee captured from the black market:

After the War, Lécussan was captured in Germany and sentenced to death by firing squad in Lyon in 1946 for the assassination of human rights activist Victor Basch and his wife Héléne two years earlier.
Nazi troops march past the building and onto Place Bellecour
Touvier, whom some French newspapers dubbed "the French Klaus Barbie," evaded capture with the help of high-ranking members of the Roman Catholic church, moving him from one hiding place to another. Nevertheless, Touvier was found guilty of treason and colluding with the Nazis and condemned to death in absentia in 1945 and again in 1949.

With Touvier still in hiding, the secretary to the Archbishop of Lyon started lobbying for a pardon from 1957 onwards. Ten years later, in 1967, Touvier's death sentence expired under the statute of limitations. He was therefore a free man and emerged from hiding. 

Liberation march-past, 1944
In 1971, under pressure from the Catholic Church, French President George Pompidou issued Touvier with what amounted to a pardon. But such was the outrage at this decision, especially among Jews and surviving Résistants, that Touvier was charged with crimes against humanity - which were not covered by the statute of limitations - in 1973, making him the only Frenchman ever to be charged thus.

Touvier again went underground - again with the help of the Church - and he wasn't tracked down for another 16 years, when he was finally discovered hiding in a Catholic priory in Nice in 1989. He was arrested and put on trial in 1994, accused of being directly responsible for the deportation of Jews. Touvier denied all the charges except the murder of seven Jews in Rillieux-la-Pape in June 1944, for which he was found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment. 

He died in prison two years later.

Locate 85 Rue de la République on Google Maps

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