In 1900, the eyes of the whole world were on Paris. Joy and optimism were at a peak in the elegant City of Light. The Exposition Universelle, which opened in April 1900, was an enormous celebration of French success. It welcomed 51 million visitors, half of whom were foreigners. Significant investments had been made to ensure that the Exposition would be a truly extraordinary event. Two splendid exhibition halls, the Petit and Grand Palais, were built for the occasion, along with three railroad stations: Gare d’Orsay, Gare de Lyon, and Gare des Invalides. Likewise, the first underground train line, the Métro, was opened. During the Exposition, it carried over 10 million riders through its tunnels, quickly and safely.

Paris became a showcase city, displaying the latest technical and scientific inventions, and also boasting avant-garde art galleries, lively cabarets, the ultimate in high fashion, and… the Parisiennes. Whether they were from the working class or the moneyed elites, they challenged old-fashioned sexual stereotypes. Determined to assert their potential, they engaged in activities that had always been for men only.

The myth of “La Belle Epoque” reigned supreme.

The archives captured these magical moments of lightness and euphoria, the marvels of scientific and aesthetic invention: the crowning glory of democracy. They show us the first globalized society, linked by rail, transatlantic travel, the airplane, and the telephone. We witness the high life in the French capital, the excesses of the wealthy gentlemen and their taste for money, pleasure, extravagance, and… women. Only rarely do the archives peek behind the scenes at the darker side of this period in history. But when they do, the images are gripping. Many feature “La Zone,” the immense slum on the periphery of Paris, or marches and protests organized by the first labor unions.

In this new world, war was thought to belong to the past. No one imagined that within 14 years, the interval of peace and prosperity would be buried in the mud of the trenches.

A film by Hugues Nancy 

FR Broadcaster: France 3 (Prime-time)
Producer: CPB Films
International sales: CPB International