Saint Germain des Pres, the cradle of French Existentialist Movement

Saint Germain des Pres became one of the trendiest areas of Paris during the inter war period.

Saint Germain des Pres Metro entrance in Paris
Saint Germain des Pres Metro entrance in Paris

A new generation of artists, writers, philosophers and politicians indeed gathered in the cafes on Boulevard Saint-Germain and surrounding streets.

Existentialism arose in France in the 1930s. It was a reaction against the establishment of the time.

Jean-Paul Sartre, the main French leader of the movement, believed that God didn’t exist and that:

“L’Homme doit trouver en lui ses propres valeurs et il doit décider par lui-même les actes qu’il commettra” 

“Man must find his own values and must decide for himself how to act -” and that “existence precedes essence.”

Man is free and entirely responsible for his own evolution. What he does and chooses makes him what he is.

The personal commitment in the pursuit of goodness and truth is essential. 

Saint Germain des Pres - back street
Saint Germain des Pres – back street

It can be achieved only through personal experience run by personal beliefs.

Blaise Pascal was the first to evoke the existentialist principles in the early 17th century.

The Dane Kierkegaard, however, is considered the father of 20th century existentialist movement.

Kierkegaard said that:

“l’Homme ne peut trouver le sens de sa vie qu’à travers la découverte de sa propre et unique vocation”

“Man can find meaning in his life only through the discovery of his own unique vocation”

He was followed by Heidegger, Nietzsche, Kafka, Dostoevsky, Sartre, Camus, Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco to name a few…

Where did the Existentialists meet in Saint Germain des Pres?

The cafes of Saint Germain des Pres founded their own literary circles in the early 20th century.

This took place when promoters started to develop Montmartre

Artists, musicians and photographers indeed deserted ‘their village on the hill’ and moved down to Montparnasse and Saint Germain des Pres.

Saint Germain des Pres - Les Deux Magots
Les Deux Magots

They joined a new generation of actors, singers and writers.

Among these were Picasso, Léo Ferré, Georges Brassens, Jacques Brel, Charles Trenet, Guy Béart, Charles Aznavour, Juliette Greco and Serge Gainsbourg…

They spent their days putting the world to rights at the terrace of the Café de Flore, Café Les Deux Magots, Brasserie Lipp and Le Procope.

They spent the night in the underground clubs or caves à musique, such as the Club Saint-Germain or the Blue Note.

There, they listened to New Orleans Jazz and Be Bop played by young Sidney Bechet, Miles Davis and Duke Ellington…

The success of these cafés was reinforced during WWII. 

They were indeed the last establishments where people could still meet when Paris was occupied and subject to restrictions and curfews.

They were a glimmer of hope in bleak times!

Saint Germain des Pres after WWII

However, things changed at the end of the war.

Saint Germain des Pres - Café de Flore
Café de Flore

The carefree youth of Saint Germain des Pres indeed developed their own interpretation of Sartre’s existentialist philosophy.

They devoted themselves to the boundless pleasures of life, shocking the well-meaning souls in a Paris still affected by the tragedy of war.

The Avant-Garde or Vanguard movement took off at the Liberation.

The ‘new comers’ were called Samuel Beckett, Ionesco and Cocteau…

Directions: 6th district
Metro: Saint Germain des Pres on Line 4
Coordinates Saint Germain des Pres: Lat 48.853798 – Long 2.333328

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