Why you should care
Because French schoolchildren still learn about Leon Gambetta’s famous escape.
In a square in Montmartre, Léon Gambetta wrapped himself in a fur and took to the skies above Paris. The hope of a city under siege by the Prussian army, the 32-year-old French politician was on a mission to organize reinforcements. So, in a balloon named the Armand-Barbès, after a famous revolutionary who had died in exile in The Hague just months earlier, Gambetta soared over the German lines and into history.
Gambetta is famous for other things, of course: He’s remembered today as a masterful politician and speaker who was able to bring hyperpartisan factions of the French government into agreement. Though he died in 1882 at the age of 44, he’s not forgotten. A Métro station named for him leads to a wide avenue that bears his name, which in turn opens onto a park where his massive statue still stands.
But in that Métro station, the plaques tell you about the balloon escape on Oct. 7, 1870, because even in a life marked with drama, that was still as dramatic as it gets.
Gambetta’s hairbreadth escape became overnight the stuff of legend.
Adam Begley, author
Gambetta was the son of a small-time grocer, a legacy that forever imbued him with a distrust of big business. As a child, he lost his eye in a freak accident — a workman’s tool broke as young Gambetta was walking by and fragments blinded him, though there were rumors as he got more powerful that he had blinded himself out of stubbornness.
A few years later, his bad eye was removed and replaced with a glass one, which may be why almost all portraits of Gambetta show him in profile, keeping the faux eye out of sight. Shortly afterward, he began a lifelong romance with Léonie Léon, his mistress, with whom he corresponded almost daily, generating thousands of letters — more than 1,000 have survived. When a firearm accident confined him to bed shortly before he died of an unrelated ailment that may have been appendicitis, the muckraking press published wild theories that his lover had shot him — rumors she never lived down, though witnesses confirmed they were false.
“Gambetta strikes me as a very likable personality,” says Susan K. Foley, author of A Political Romance, which examines the Gambetta-Léon relationship. “He was a truly remarkable speaker who could get audiences eating out of the palm of his hand, and his debating in the chamber was ferocious. … [Léonie] was also intelligent and well-read, so their relationship was not just a sexual one but also an intellectual one.”
Back to the balloons: Another dramatic character in this saga, one largely forgotten today, is Gaspard-Félix Tournachon, a portraitist, cartoonist and balloon aficionado. Under the pseudonym Nadar, he experimented with aerial photography from a balloon moored above an orchard and later constructed Le Géant, the largest balloon ever created, made of 12 miles of silk and capable of carrying 45 people.
That one was a bust — its maiden voyage from the Champ de Mars ended in a nearby swamp, and subsequent journeys concluded in multiple injuries. But in 1870, with the Prussian army surrounding Paris, Nadar gave purpose to his aerial adventures, constructing a fleet of military balloons that allowed Parisian forces to monitor German troop movements, make maps and send mail out of the city. It was one of Nadar’s balloons, of course, that carried Gambetta up, up and away.
“Gambetta’s hairbreadth escape became overnight the stuff of legend,” writes Adam Begley in his biography of Nadar, and every detail of that morning flight was recorded. Gambetta’s balloon, which trailed a French tricolor flag, was accompanied by a second balloon named for Nadar’s friend, the author George Sand. Gambetta shouted “Vive la République!” as the balloons floated over the Prussian troops. The enemy fired on the airborne giants, and the punctured Armand Barbès began to lose its hot air, descending lower and lower and eventually touching the ground.
When locals warned that Prussians were approaching, Gambetta and his fellow passengers began throwing out ballast to lighten the craft and regain the safety that came with altitude. Eventually, the balloon landed in an oak tree. “Unsure about who would rescue them, Gambetta once again cried out ‘Vive la République!’” writes Begley, and received a reassuring response from below: “Vive la France!”
Though Gambetta played a hugely important role in creating France’s postwar republic in the late 19th century, many of his contributions are ignored or forgotten, even in the country he helped shape. The balloon ride, though — as Foley points out, the technology of the day made sure his great (and picturesque) escape lived on in engravings and reproduced images have made it through to today, in school texts and on Métro walls.