The elephant of memory

The elephant of memory is the smallest public cinema in the world but also the most expensive per square meter (cost: 1M € in 1989).

It is a work inaugurated on June 15, 1989 in Lille for the bicentennial of the Revolution by the General Council of North 1 .


Napoleonic origins

The elephant of the Bastille is a Napoleonic project of Parisian fountain designed to adorn the Place de la Bastille . Fueled by the water of the Ourcq channeled through the Canal Saint-Martin , this monumental fountain was to be surmounted by the colossal statue of an elephant with a howdah shaped tower.

Entrusted after 1812 to the architect Alavoine , its realization was called into question by the fall of Napoleon before being abandoned, after the Revolution of 1830 , in favor of the column of July . Only the infrastructure, the basin and the base of this fountain were made between 1810 and 1830 .

Victor Hugo, miserable and Gavroche

On the occasion of the demolition of the elephant, in July 1846, the writer and peer of France Victor Hugo recovered a piece of framework. He was then preparing a novel, entitled Jean Tréjean then Les Misères , in which he made the decrepit model fortune-housing young Gavroche , which is also unlikely at the time serving as a backdrop to the story. After abandoning him for the benefit of his political activities during the Second Republic , Hugo did not finish until 1861 Les Miserables. It is above all this novelistic work, published in 1862, which ensured the posterity of the plaster animal up to our days. Hugo took advantage of this scene to confront the two superhuman characters of his novel, the Napoleon of the people and the God of mercy.

“Twenty years ago you could still see in the south-east corner of the Place de la Bastille near the canal station dug in the old ditch of the prison-citadel, a strange monument that had already erased itself. of the memory of the Parisians, and which deserved to leave some trace of it, for it was a thought of the “member of the Institute, general-in-chief of the army of Egypt.” We say monument, although it was only a model. But this model itself, prodigious sketch, grandiose corpse of an idea of ​​Napoleon that two or three successive gusts of wind had carried away and thrown each time further from us, had become historical, and had taken I do not know what of definitive, which contrasted with its provisional aspect.
It was an elephant forty feet high, built of carpentry and masonry, bearing on its back its tower, which looked like a house, formerly painted in green by some kind of painter, now painted in black by the sky, the rain, and the weather. In this deserted and uncovered corner of the square, the broad front of the colossus, its trunk, its tusks, its tower, its enormous rump, its four feet like columns made, at night, on the starry sky, a surprising silhouette and terrible. We did not know what that meant. It was a kind of symbol of popular strength. It was dark, enigmatic and immense. It was some unknown powerful ghost visible and standing beside the invisible spectrum of the Bastille.

Few foreigners visited this building, no passer-by looked at it. He was falling into ruin; at each season, plaster casts which detached themselves from his flanks made him hideous. “The ediles,” as they say in elegant dialect, had forgotten him since 1814. He was there in his corner, gloomy, sick, crumbling, surrounded by a rotten palisade soiled at every moment by drunken coachmen; crevasses cracked his belly, a slat protruded from his tail, the tall grass pushed him between his legs; and as the level of the place had risen for thirty years all around by this slow and continuous movement which insensibly exalts the soil of the great cities, it was in a hollow and it seemed as if the earth was sinking under it. He was filthy, despised, repulsive and beautiful, ugly to the eyes of the bourgeois, melancholic in the eyes of the thinker. He had something of a garbage that we are going to sweep away and something of a majesty that we are going to decapitate.

As we said, at night, the appearance changed. The night is the true medium of all that is shadow. As soon as dusk fell, the old elephant was transfigured; he assumed a tranquil and formidable figure in the formidable serenity of darkness. Being of the past, it was night; and this darkness went to his greatness.

This monument, rough, stocky, heavy, harsh, austere, almost misshapen, but certainly majestic and imbued with a kind of magnificent and wild gravity, has disappeared to let to reign in peace the species of gigantic stove, adorned with its pipe, which replaced the dark fortress with nine towers, much as the bourgeoisie replaces feudalism.
Anyway, to return to the place of the Bastille, the architect of the elephant with plaster had managed to make great; the architect of the stovepipe managed to make small with bronze.

O unexpected utility of the useless! charity of great things! goodness of the giants! This immeasurable monument that had contained a thought of the Emperor had become the box of a kid. The kid had been accepted and sheltered by the colossus. The bourgeoisie, dressed in their Sunday best, passed by the elephant of the Bastille, and said with an air of contempt, with their eyes on the head: “What is the point?

This was used to save the cold, frost, hail, rain, to guarantee winter wind, to preserve sleep in the mud that gives fever and sleep in the snow that gives death, a small to be without father or mother, without bread, without clothes, without shelter. It served to gather the innocent person that society rejected. This served to diminish the public fault. It was a lair open to the one to which all the doors were closed. It seemed that the old miserable behemoth, invaded by vermin and oblivion, covered with warts, molds and ulcers, staggered, worm-eaten, abandoned, condemned, a colossal beggar begging in vain the alms of a benevolent look in the middle of the crossroads, had pity him, this other beggar, poor pygmy who He went without shoes to his feet, without a ceiling on his head, blowing in his fingers, clothed in rags, fed with what was thrown away. That’s what the elephant of the Bastille was for.

This idea of ​​Napoleon, scorned by men, had been taken up by God. What had only been illustrious had become august. It would have been necessary for the Emperor, to realize what he meditated, porphyry, brass, iron, gold, marble; to God the old assembly of boards, joists and plaster was enough. The Emperor had a dream of genius; in this titanic elephant, armed, prodigious, erecting his trunk, carrying his tower, and spurting joyous and vivifying waters around him, he wished to incarnate the people; God had made a greater thing of it, he lodged a child there. ”

Victor Hugo, Les Misérables , 1862 2 .

Origins of the Revolution Bicentennial

Following the call for candidacy launched by the President of the Republic for the commemoration of the Bicentennial of the French Revolution , the architects Agency Huet (proxy) and Patrice Neirinck 3 , OTH NORD design office propose to the North General Council to rework on the elephant of the Bastille of the architect Jean – Antoine Alavoine and to realize the Elephant of the Memory in tribute to Gavroche.

The Department of the North, Manager of the Colleges, located in the heart of the land of the giants appeared the community most likely to mount this project 4 . This itinerant project (propagation of revolutionary ideas), hosted in its “belly”, a visual audio projection against child labor in our societies.

Budget and controversies

The cost and use are controversial including the departure of Bernard Derosier from the presidency of the Northern General Council in 2011 5 .

The powerful federation of the Socialist Party with characters such as Pierre Mauroy , Bernard Derosier , Martine Aubry wanted to concretize, imagine the Idiotism  : Elephant of the Socialist Party in such a work.

An initial cost of 7 million francs; one million euros, it is bought for the symbolic euro by the Communauté d’agglomération du Douaisis in 2014.


Revolution Bicentennial and exhibitions

  • He toured the main cities of the Department of North as well as the cities of Paris, Brussels and Charleville Mezieres.
  • In 2004 During Lille 3000 the theme of the elephant is taken again with India.

From Arenberg to Maubeuge

  • Since 1997 he has not returned to the cemetery of the elephants but in one of the buildings Arenberg tank of Wallers to be stored pending use or purchaser 6 .
  • The project to host the Elephant of Memory in 2015 at Arkéos Archaeological Museum in Douai is proposed in 2014 7 . Before the costs associated with the installation of the pachyderm in the archaeological park, the project is canceled in 2015, the city of Maubeuge then agree to install the Elephant of the Memory on its zoo 8 .


Realized by the Haligon society of Brie-Comte-Robert , the elephant is in four modules plus an access tower inside. It consists of three bolted steel elements. Built on the basis of two trays of semi-trailers to be itinerant and assembled to form a ground structure of 12 m by 8 m .

The elephant, by itself is built in four modules, the belly and legs; the back and the head; the trunk and basket assembled around an IPN steel frame and square tubes covered in laminated polyester resin of 12 mm thick, it has dimensions of 13 m high, 11 long, 4.30 wide, 37 2 of area. This elephant is surmounted by a palanquin designed as a place of animation and exhibition.

Six semi-trailers and a 25-ton crane are needed to move it by 17 tons .

Zoo Maubeuge

The city of Maubeuge proposed to install in 2016 the elephant of the Memory on its zoo 8 .

Eugène François Vidocq

Eugène-François Vidocq , is December 27, 1796 , sentenced by the criminal court of Douai to eight years of hard labor for “false in public and authentic writings” 9 . Then François Vidocq and César Herbaux, his co-accused, are exposed for six hours on a scaffold that will be for this purpose erected on the public square of Douai before being incarcerated.

Incarcerated they try the escape by the Scarpe but it is a failure 10 . A new attempt with a false key is a success. He is taken back, readmitted to Douai, and new escape.

Thereafter he will become convict escaped from the galleys, then also head of the police force, the future police headquarters of Paris .

Victor Hugo is inspired by the figures of his time to camp his characters. The Memoirs of Vidocq , published in 1828, which inspired Balzac the character of Vautrin , seem to be partly in the two antagonistic characters that are Jean Valjean and Javert. The first corresponds to Vidocq the former convict and the second to Vidocq, chief of security of the Prefecture of Police. This is, at least, an observation made by many studies 11 , 12 , 13 . However, Victor Hugo will never recognize the influence of Vidocq on creating these characters 14 .

However the Vidocq prison in Douai is still visible and is located close to the project of installation of the elephant of the Memory Arkéos archaeological museum . It recalls the model that Victor Hugo made in 1846 the makeshift housing of the young Gavroche , in a piece of framework recovered during the demolition The elephant of the Bastille .

Projection room and records

In its “belly”, an audio visual projection room, originally to propagate revolutionary ideas against child labor in our societies.

This public screening room, by its dimensions make it the smallest cinema in the world.

It is also one of the smallest movie projection booths held, a record in the Guinness Book of Records currently held by the Port of Tudy Island Café ( Finistère ) since 1993 15 .


  • When love interferes with Jeremy Michalak



Notes and references

  1. ↑ Bernard Defontaine, ”  Wallers: The Elephant memory he will finally come out of oblivion?  ” The Voice of the North, ( read online  [ archive ] )
  2. ↑ Victor Hugo, Les Misérables , Gallimard, 1995 t. II, p.  281-286 (or II, pp.  557-561 in the three-volume edition).
  3. ↑ Remy Didier, ”  A revolutionary memory awaited elephant in Brussels  ”  [ archive ] , on  [ archive ], (accessed October 14, 2014 )
  4. ↑ ”  The Elephant of Memory  ”  [ archive ] , on  [ archive ] (accessed October 14, 2014 )
  5. ↑ Marc Prevost, ”  Tribute to B. Derosier: goodbye, President!  “, Http://  [ archive ] ,, Bernard Derosier, a man with a great sense of history: An elephant, that’s wrong. Old saucepan. In 1989, the North General Council gave birth to an elephant on legs and wheels to accompany the Bicentennial of the Revolution. Even today, it is difficult to specify the cost and impact of such a find (with publicity campaigns in support, we talked about 40 million francs – 6 million euros). At the time, to justify the glittering pachyderm, one advanced the hugolian episode of a Gavroche taking refuge in such an animal of Les Misérables. Schoolboys and blond heads had to swoon in front of the traveling parable that surveyed the colleges (skills of the Department!) – North. After a year’s journey, the memory elephant sank into the limbo of oblivion. We find his trace on the side of Wallers, in the Valenciennes region, where visitors of the local museum are plunged into abysses of perplexity. A future pilgrimage for the nostalgic of Nanard?( read online  [ archive ] )
  6. ↑ ”  Within a year, the elephant of memory will leave Wallers  “, The Voice of the North , ( read online  [ archive ])
  7. ↑ Bernard Défontaine, Wallers: Elephant’s Memory he will finally come out of oblivion? April 25, 2014, [1] [ archive ]
  8. ↑ a and b Beatrice Frère, Maubeuge inherits the Elephant from memory and will probably install it at the zoo, January 15, 2016, [2]  [ archive ]  ; Sébastien Leroy, Nord: a second life for the Elephant of Memory which had finally fallen into oblivion? January 24, 2016, [3]  [ archive ]  ; Béatrice Frère, The Elephant of Memory is waiting in Maubeuge, April 27, 2016, [4]  [ archive ]
  9. ↑ Eugène François Vidocq , Vidocq memoirs, police chief of the Sûreté until 1827 , post, :

    “The Tribunal after hearing the Commissioner of the Executive and the Citizen Despres Council of the accused sentenced François Vidocq and César Herbaux to the penalty of eight years of irons”

    , read online = onepage & q =% 22eug% C3% A9ne% 20fran% C3% A7ois% 20vidocq% 22 & f = false  [ archive ]

  10. ↑ Eugène François Vidocq , complete history F.- E. Vidocq former head of the safety police published after the unpublished notes, documents and the newest and most authentic information about his adventurous life, from birth to his death , Bailly,( read online  [ archive ] ) :

    “Vidocq was arrested at the time of the parade and brought back to Lille then transferred to Douai in the departmental prison, put in dungeons and irons with the Defroseux and Doyennelle appointed; they dig an underground bay in the direction of the Scarpe River, which bathes the walls of the prison; but, having miscalculated the level of the water at the moment of recovering the liberty, they are suddenly submerged and forced to call for help, after having lost fifty five days of work and as many nights, they put them in dungeons separated. One morning that Vidocq had been led with two of his companions in a corridor in order to talk to his lawyer, he took advantage of the fact that he was absent for a moment, and using a false key, Escape, he and his two comrades in captivity. “

  11. ↑ Claude Frochaux, Man alone , Part II, p.  185 .
  12. ↑ “Criticism of Vidocq”  [ archive ] on Like at the
  13. ↑ Sylvie Thorel-Cailleteau, Splendor in mediocrity: a novel idea , p.  139-140
  14. ↑ ( in ) Sarah Margaret Ross, The Evolution of the Theme of Criminality From Balzac To Hugo, Zola TB , p.  18 .
  15. ↑ ”  The Cinema of the Port  ”  [ archive ]
  16. ↑ ”  NORTH 59 – THE ELEPHANT OF THE MEMORY- 1989-  ”  [ archive ] , on , (accessedOctober 14, 2014 )

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