Place des Etats-Unis is one of the grandest squares in the wealthy and chic 16th arrondissement. At just half a kilometre from the Arc de Triomphe and shopping mecca, the Champs-Elysées, it is a sanctuary of green trees, smart lawns and monuments to France’s oldest ally, the United States of America.
But if, like me, you assumed the square is named the way it is because of some great wartime partnership you would be mistaken.
The square was created between 1866 and 1870 when the Passy area of Paris was redesigned to accommodate new reservoirs. At that time, the American Embassy was located just a short walk away at Rue de Chaillot. In 1881, Levi P Morton, a Republican serving in the 47th Congress was appointed to the position of United States Minister to France and relocated to Paris to take control of the Embassy.
Upon his arrival at Rue de Chaillot Morton decided that the existing Embassy building was no longer fit for purpose and so requested alternative accommodation on the newly-constructed square. However, the name of the square was not deemed appropriate for an American letterhead.
The Place des Etats-Unis had originally been named Place de Bitche.
Although the Bitche referred to in the square’s name had no relation whatsoever to the English definition of the word. Morton requested that the name of the square be changed to accommodate the Embassy’s linguistic sensitivities. The Seine Department approved this request and the name was reassigned.
Place de Bitche had been created to recognise the efforts of a commune in the north-east of France who had fought valiantly in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. The name was transferred to a (perhaps less prestigious) location in the 19th arrondissement.
Interestingly, the link between Bitche and the United States became more significant just six decades later when, during the Second World War, the U.S. 100th Infantry Division liberated the town from German occupation.
Next time I’m in the 16th, passing by this beautiful space, I know I’ll be grateful for both the French-American friendship that has shaped international politics and the people of Bitche, a brave town with an incredibly unique connection to the United States.