Continuity of the Centre: “Point Zéro” de la France

Point Zéro des routes de France, the point of reference and beginning of French road network, situated in front of Notre-Dame in Paris

“Au mois d’avril 1768, le chapitre de Notre-Dame de Paris a fait placer dans son parvis, au pied de la tour septentrionale de son église, une pierre triangulaire, du milieu de laquelle sort un poteau chargé de ses armes. C’est de là, comme d’un centre commun, que l’on commencera à compter les distances que l’on a dessein de marquer sur toutes les grandes routes du royaume”.

(Jean-Joseph Expilly, Dictionnaire géographique, historique et politique des Gaules et de la France, 1762-1770, p.114)


Some centres persist, they transcend political and social changes and become part of everyday life. In this article we will see how an old historical centre can become a reference point in a new nation-state and a “point-zero” or an axis mundi for modern and post-modern communication systems. The case studied is the Point Zéro des Routes de la France, in Paris and just in front of Notre-Dame on the famous square which is called the Parvis de Notre-Dame (or the Parvis, too simply).

Figure 1: Point Zéro des routes de France, the point of reference and beginning of French road network, situated in front of Notre-Dame in Paris

FIGURE 1: Point Zéro des routes de France, the point of reference and beginning of French road network, situated in front of Notre-Dame in Paris


Point-Zéro des routes de France, a physical centre or route measure in France

The Point Zéro is the official centre of the City of Paris and the point from which distances are measured in France. This centre is marked by a commemorative metal point on which we can read “POINT ZERO DES ROUTES DE FRANCE”. The Point Zéro is the beginning for national roads in France and for modern GPS French systems.

This physical/functional entre of France has a high symbolic function: it is just in front of Notre-Dame, the cathedral of Paris, capital of the country. And it is in the Ile de la Cité, the seat of the first French kings and the oldest part of Paris and the seat of many central functions till today.

This centre is not new, we will see, very briefly, the construction of the Point Zéro as the heart of France:

A- From the Roman times to the reign of Louis XV: During the Roman Empire the Parvis was an open space just to the east of the city’s cardo maximus (actual rues St. Jacques, de la Cité and St. Martin) and a temple of Jupiter existed in the placement of actual Notre-Dame.

before the end of the Roman Empire the site of the temple had become a basilica under the name of Saint Stephen. The basilica became a cathedral of a suffragan bishop when Paris became the seat of the Kingdom of the Franks and the Royal Palace was just to the west of the Ile de la Cité. The Parvis became the meeting and market-place of Paris with its location between the cathedral and the Royal quarters.

Notre-Dame was built between 1163 and 1345. During these long centuries Paris became, more and more, the centre of the Kingdom of France and the seat of its royal government. The Parvis in front of Notre-Dame became one of the most important squares of the city. The new cathedral was a “lighthouse” than can be seen from far. This resulted in the Parvis before Notre-Dame to become the most central place of Paris, seen from outside the walls.

Figure 2: The Parvis de Notre Dame, Paris, the square in which the Point Zéro is situated

FIGURE 2: The Parvis de Notre Dame, Paris, the square in which the Point Zéro is situated

B- From the reign of Louis XV to the beginning of the XX Century: In 1768 the Chapter of Notre-Dame set a “triangular stone from which stems a stake carrying the arms of the Chapter” according to Father Jean-Joseph Expilly, a contemporary author and witness. This stone was designed as the beginning of all distances in France (Premier Mille) by Louis XV, king of France, in his letter patent of 22 April 1769. The Parvis was much smaller than it is today: so the stone was just in the middle of the square.

The Ancien Régime of the kings fell under the protests of the people in 1789 but the spatial reference to the Point Zéro was kept intact. In fact the French Revolution began a gigantic project to centralise administration, transport, language, space and time on Paris. The Point Zéro served for the reference point of new constructions and new networks to be the formal centre of Paris, centre of the French Republic.

The centrality of the Point Zéro continued to be functional under the Empire and the succeeding political systems. In 1831 Victor Hugo published one of his masterpieces around, Notre-Dame de Paris, and the Parvis is onmipresent in his novel as the “must” of the city of Paris for every and each kind of event. After 1852, during the Second Empire, Baron Haussmann the Ile de la Cité underwent a radical change: new fares, squares and central functions where added and the Parvis de Notre-Dame was profoundly modified and enlarged. But the Point Zéro kept its centrality, functional and symbolic, as heart of Paris, by then deeply transformed by the works of Haussmann.

B-From the beginning of the XX Century to our present day: In 1924 the Municipality of Paris placed a metal octogonal plaque (with the writing POINT ZERO DES ROUTES DE FRANCE) on the location.

With the developement of road atlases then complex Global Positioning Systems the Point Zéro has kept its eminent functional/symbolic role as the point of beginning of French transport system and centre of Paris, itself administrative, political and economic centre of France.


Centralising a nation on the longue durée

The Point Zéro is a spelndid example of a centralisation process: symbolic and functional. By a simple reading of maps of Paris since the high Middle Ages we can see how the Ile de la Cité has played a major role in centralising the city and the country around it. We can see the four maps of the Figure 3:

Figure 3: Four maps of Paris. A, 1550 by Münster. B, 1676 by Bullet. C,

FIGURE 3: Four maps of Paris. A, 1550 by Münster. B, 16O9 by Quesnel. C, 1676 by Bullet. D, 1775 by Jaillot.

A- The first, drawn in 1550 by Sebastian Münster. The Ile de la Cité is at the heart of Paris, but the map is centred on the Seine and the Place de Grève (actual Châtelet).

B- The second, drawn by François Quesnel in 1609. Here the map is a beautiful semantic shift from he first: the Ile de la Cité is at the heart of Paris and is the centre of the map.

C- The third, drawn by Pierre Bullet in 1676. The mapmaking and cartography skill are quite developed and “topographic” features can be seen. Yet the Ile de la Cité is still at the heart of the city and the map is vaguely centred on the Parvis.

D- The fourth, drawn by Jaillot in 1775. The map is quite “scientific” and elaborate, and the city is centred on the Parvis, represented as a small white rectangle inside the Ile de la Cité. By that time and as we saw the Point Zéro was almost official (The cartographer must have known about it, at any rate!).

Figure 4: The Jaillot Map of Paris, 1775

FIGURE 4: The Jaillot Map of Paris, 1775, detail

We see, by zooming on the Jaillot Map (Figure 4)  that, in the heart of the Ile de la Cité and just in front of Notre-Dame, there is a “vacuum”, a small empty rectangle, the Parvis de Notre-Dame. By that time the Point Zéro was in the heart of the Parvis. When looking at it on the map one can but think of the words of Roland Barthes about the “empty heart” of every centre and in his lecture Semiology and Urbanism:

“As a more general rule, the studies made of the urban core of different cities have shown that the central point of the center of the city (every city possesses a center), which we call the “solid core,” does not constitute the culminating point of any particular activity, but a kind of empty “heart” of the community’s image of the center. Here too we have a somehow empty place which is necessary to the organization of the rest of the city.”

The Point Zéro was not only a centre of a city but one of a nation: the “empty heart” serves as a heart of a nation and its functional centre, being the reference point for the road network and many GPS systems. The example of the Point Zéro is significant: from the marketplace of a pronincial cathedral to a royal Kilometre Zero then to a centre of a great nation-state and a functional centre of many of its networks. The Point Zéro becomes an axis mundi around which symbolic and functional values of the nation turn.

Result: The persistence of the centre

The centre can persist, can transcend time and space and remain the focal point of a city or of a country during the centuries. Some of the well known examples are the Milliarium Aureum of the Roman Forum or the Milion of Constantinople.

The Parvis de Notre-Dame has been the centre of the city and thus of the nation since the centralisation of the administration by the XVIIth Century. Although Versailles was the royal residence the kings chose the heart of Paris to be the centre of their kingdom. And the Revolution kept the arrangement and gave the Point Zéro an official aspect in every detail of the administration. With the information and communication technologies the Point zéro is incorporated as a reference point for the coordinates. In the sense of Roland Barthes functional capital cities need an “empty heart” around which all can revolve and happen. This is what the Point Zéro is.

Further readings

You can see this rich collection of ancient maps of Paris.

A Historical Atlas of Paris.

Dictionnaire administratif et historique des rue de Paris et de ses monuments by Félix Lazare.

The Official Site of Nore-Dame de Paris.

The Parvis de Notre-Dame.

Notre-Dame de Paris, by Victor Hugo, on the Project Gutenberg site.

Semiology and Urbanism by Roland Barthes.

The photographs are by the authors. The maps and images belong to the Public Domain.





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