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Le Havre (Municipality, Seine-Maritime, France)

Last modified: 2021-06-20 by ivan sache
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Flag of Le Havre - Image by Olivier Touzeau, 4 February 2021

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Presentation of Le Havre

The municipality of Le Havre (169,733 inhabitants in 2017; 4,695 ha; municipal website) is located on the northern shore of the estuary of river Seine.

The most important places near the estuary of the Seine were once the port of Harfleur and the abbey town of Montivilliers, located on the edge of the Pays de Caux.
After the port of Harfleur, sanded up, had to be abandoned, King Louis XI (1423-1483, r. 1461-1483) ordered in 1478 the exploration of the estuary of the Seine. Louis XII (1462-1515, r. 1498-1515), commissioned Sieur de Chaillou with the same duty.
Francis I (1494-1547, r. 1515-1547), in needed of a safe harbor to be used in military operations against England, doubted the loyalty of the burghers of Rouen; accordingly, he asked Guillaume Gouffier de Bonnivet (c. 1488-1525), Great Admiral of France, to build a new port in the lower valley of the Seine. In February 1517, Bonnivet was granted full power to build le dit havre et fortification au lieu de Grasse, au dit pays de Caux.
Bonnivet selected a desert, marshy and brackish area where high tide lasted two hours longer than in the neighborhood.
In 1518, the vessel Hermine entered the King's Basin along with the flagship of the Royal Navy. The new port was named Le Havre-de-Grâce. The French word havre, used now to design a small protected port or a very peaceful area - not necessarily a port -, comes from Middle Dutch havene, and is probably cognate to German Hafen, Danish Havn etc. Le Havre was for a while renamed Françoise-de-Grâce.
Achieved in 1523, the port soon developed trade with Morocco and Brazil. The town progressively thrived with the creation of a tax-free zone and a market, having around 5,000 inhabitants in 1540.
In 1541, the Italian architect Bellarmato organized the town according to a grid plan. Borough Notre-Dame was reorganized while borough Saint-François was created near the port. New town walls were built in 1551.
At the end of the 16th century, Le Havre was a very busy port, involved in whaling and trade with Peru, Brazil and the West Indies. Several Protestants were active in commerce, who left after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes by Louis XIV in 1685. In retaliation, England bombed Le Havre in 1694 and 1696.
The economic activity resumed in Le Havre in 1716-1717, mainly targeted to the West Indies. Until the French Revolution, the port of Le Havre was a main point of entrance of colonial products (cotton, coffee, tobacco, tropical hardwood), which were reshipped all over Europe. The port was also used for resupplying the American insurgents.

The Revolution and Empire wars stopped the port activity, which resumed after the lift of the Continental System in 1808. New basins were built while the town walls were destroyed to allow the growth of the town. The Havre and Tancarville Canals were built to avoid the difficult navigation in the lower valley of Seine. Le Havre started its transatlantic career and received the nickname of porte océane (Oceanic Gate). Technical progress made the crossing of the Atlantic Ocean ever quicker. In 1850, the sail and paddle ship Franklin linked Le Havre to New York in 15 days. In 1864, the Compagnie Générale Transatlantique, one of the legendary "French lines", launched the steamer Washington, which was succeeded by the famous Normandie, Íle-de-France, Liberté and France. The golden age of the "French lines" suddenly ended in the 1970s.

The rise of international trade caused the emergence of a rich society of merchants and shipowners, who built big vacation houses along the beach, north of the commerce port, and in the neighboring town of Sainte-Adresse. A sea resort with expensive hotels was built. The neighboring villages of Sanvic and Bléville were incorporated to Le Havre, and an upper town developed above the ancient lower town. The two parts of the town were linked by a complex network of 89 stairs and a funicular. Jules Siegfried, Mayor from 1878 to 1886, developed the town and proposed in the French Parliament the Law on the habitations à bon marché ("cheap houses"), which allowed the lower classes to be decently housed.
The First World War ruined the sea resort; most hotels and rich estates were sold and destroyed. A few houses were kept, the most famous of them being the Villa Maritime, built in 1890 by architect Toutain for Mrs. Aldecoa, who sold it in 1896 to Dufayel, the owner of the Nice havrais in Sainte-Adresse. The house has an area of 1,200 sq. m and 42 windows, and includes a glasshouse and two artificial grottos. Later owned by the writer Armand Salacrou (1899-1989), the estate is now a restaurant.

The port and the lower town of Le Havre were completely destroyed during the Second World War. In June 1940, the German Air Force bombed the oil port and sunk the ship Niobé, killing 800 passengers and crew members. In September 1944, the battle of Normandy was over and Paris was liberated, but the Germans still kept Le Havre. A series of 146 bombings started on 2 September, killing more than 4,000, destroying 9,935 buildings and damaging another 9,710. More than 80,000 people were homeless. Before surrendering on 13 September, the Germans blew the port with dynamite. The architect Auguste Perret (1874-1954), known as "the wizard of reinforced concrete", rebuilt Le Havre following Bellarmato's original plan. The new town was organized around the town hall, made of a long flat building flanked by a tower, and the St. Joseph church, surmounted by a 109-m high bell-tower. The Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer (b. 1907, the designer of Brasilia) built the Vulcano near the Commerce Basin. One of the only remains of the ancient town is the Notre-Dame cathedral (1575-1630).
It took two years to clear the port, whose activity progressively resumed. Le Havre is now the first commerce port in France and the fifth in Europe.

The writer Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre (1737-1814) was born in Le Havre. His main book is the exotic idyll Paul et Virginie. Raymond Queneau (1903-1976), also born in Le Havre, founded in 1960 Oulipo as a branch of the Collège de Pataphysique; very diverse, his works include novels, some of them taking place in Le Havre, mathematics, poems, linguistical analyses, etc. President René Coty (1882-1962; in office, 1954-1959) was born and passed away in Le Havre. The Swiss composer Arthur Honegger (1892-1955), member of the Groupe des Six, was born in Le Havre.
Two painters from Le Havre, Raoul Dufy (1877-1958) and Othon Friesz (1879-1949) were among the founders of the Fauvist group. Eugène Boudin (1824-1898), born in Honfleur, on the other bank of the Seine, spent most of his life in Le Havre. Boudin is considered as a precursor of Impressionism. Most of his paintings are shown in the Museum André-Malraux in Le Havre, including a striking collection of studies of cows.

In 1874, Claude Monet showed a painting called Impression soleil levant. Attempting to be amusing, a critic derogatively called Monet and his friends "Impressionnistes" because he did not find Monet's impression impressive at all. Once famous, the Impressionist painters did not reject the name, which was later given to musicians such as Debussy, Ravel, Dukas, Roussel and Satie. Impression soleil levant was most probably painted in a small room located in Le Havre near the Commerce Basin.

Ivan Sache, 14 October 2003

Flag of Le Havre

The flag of Le Havre is white with the municipal logo (photo, 202; photo, 2013).

Olivier Touzeau, 4 February 2021

Former flag of Le Havre


Former flag of Le Havre - Image by Pascal Vagnat & Arnaud Leroy, 14 October 2003

The former flag of Le Havre (photo) was white with the greater municipal coat of arms, "Gules a salamander argent in flames crowned or a chief azure three fleurs-de-lis or overall a canton sable a lion rampant or armed and langued gules", in the center.

The salamander was the personal emblem of King Francis I, the founder of the town. The salamander was said to be able to stay alive in flames - probably because of its thick and always wet skin - and even to be able to extinguish a fire. The scroll below the shield bears Francis I's personal motto "Nutrisco et extinguo" (Latin, "I stoke and extinguish"), another reference to the alleged fireproofing ability of the salamander. The decorations below the scroll are the Cross of the Légion d'Honneur and the War Cross.

On a document dated 1532, the arms of Le Havre are shown as "Azure a salamander argent between three fleurs-de-lis or". In the 18th century, the fleurs-de-lis were moved to fesswise in chief.
The arms used during the First Empire had the fleurs-de-lis removed and a chief added, as "Azure three stars or a 'N' crowned or in canton". At the Restoration, the fleurs-de-lis were reinstated and placed on a chief of France, "Azure three fleurs-de-lis or". After the First World War, a canton featuring the arms of Belgium was added to honor the King of the Belgians, whose government stayed in the neighbouring town of Sainte-Adresse during the War.

The Armorial Général overrode the arms granted by François I and ascribed completely different arms to Le Havre (image), "Azure a nave pr a base wavy argent", which were never used.

Ivan Sache & Olivier Touzeau, 4 February 2021

Tourism flags


Flag of Le Havre Porte Océne de Paris - Image by Olivier Touzeau, 4 February 2021

The flag (photo, photo) of the tourism brand "Le Havre Porte Océne de Paris" (Le Havre, Ocean Gateway to Paris", which was developed in the 2010 to promote Le Havre as a cruise port is white with the brand's logo.
The Porte Océne (description), designed by Auguste Perret in the 1950s, is made up of two towers and two low blocks, comprising 256 flats and garages. The northern part was built by Jacques Poirrier from 1951 to 1953, while the southern part was built by André Hermant from 1951 to 1956.


Flag of Le Havre Patrimoine mondial - Image by Olivier Touzeau, 4 February 2021

Before 2012, a white flag with the black words "Le Havre" / "Patrimoine mondial" (Le Havre / World Heritage) was hoisted near the town hall (photo, photo), refering to the inscription in 2005 of Le Havre downtown on UNESCO's World Heritage List.


Flag of the Le Havre-Pointe de Caux Tourism Office - Image by Olivier Touzeau, 4 February 2021

The flag of Le Havre-Pointe de Caux Tourism Office (photo), subsequently replaced by a larger structure called Le Havre-Étretat-Normandie Tourisme, was white with the office' logo.

Olivier Touzeau, 4 February 2021

Bretagne-Accueil Les Bretons du Havre et des Environs

Bretagne-Accueil Les Bretons du Havre et des Environ (BABHE, website) is an association set up by the Breton community in Le Havre and its region.
A massive immigration of Bretons in Le Havre occurred in 1875-1940; it is believed that 40% of the today's inhabitants of the town are of Breton origin. Like most immigrants, the Bretons grouped and set up mutual aid associations, the first of them, the Aumônerie Bretonne (Breton Chaplaincy), being created in 1875 with the support of the Roman Catholic Church. The non-religious Association des Bretons du Havre, founded in 1909, merged in 1986 with Bretagne- Accueil to form BABHE.
BABHE is today a cultural association aimed at spreading and supporting the Breton culture and at preserving the Breton heritage in Le Havre. The association organizes every year a festival celebrating St. Ivo of Kermartin, the patron saint of Brittany.

The flag of BABHE (description; photo, photo) is horizontally divided blue-white-green with a golden crowned salamander all over. The flag was chosen by the members of the association among proposals designed by the Bannieloú Breizh association. It was inaugurated on 23 May 2009 during the St. Ivo Festival, celebrating the 100th anniversary of the association.
Blue and green are the traditional colours of the Association des Bretons du Havre. They also recall the two components of Brittany, the sea (armor, blue) and the land (argoat, green), as used on the logo and flag of Region Bretagne. The black ermine spot in the white stripe recalls the Breton traditional flag. Moreover, the three stripes and the three ermine spots recall the triskelion emblem.
The salamander comes from the coat of arms and flag of Le Havre.

Ivan Sache & André Coutanche, 15 August 2010