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From City of Blight to City of Light

By Robert ZaretskyJanuary 17, 2019

From City of Blight to City of Light

City of Light by Rupert Christiansen

SINCE EARLY NOVEMBER, France has been plagued by swarms of yellow jackets. Not the kind, mind you, that occupy hives. These yellow jackets instead occupy, usually on Saturdays, the country’s boulevards, highways, and traffic circles. As France enters the third month of protests, the economic cost of the movement known as the gilets jaunes — the French phrase for the high-visibility vests worn by the demonstrators — has been estimated at several billion euros. More staggering has been the human cost: the barriers at traffic intersections, as well as demonstrations in cities, have led to 10 deaths and hundreds of injuries.

The movement’s targets are many, ranging from the government’s proposed increase in gasoline taxes (meant to help France transition to green forms of energy) to the prospect of continued decreases in a typical household’s purchasing power. There are deeper causes, as well, in particular the growing divide between the nation’s so-called “métropoles” and “périphéries” — the thriving urban centers and withering rural and exurban regions. While the former welcome a highly educated and cosmopolitan elite, the latter shelter a struggling and alienated lower middle class and working class.

In their scramble to make sense of this persistent and powerful protest movement, commentators have turned to France’s revolutionary past. Inevitably, comparisons have been made to the mother of all revolutions, 1789, and the sequels it inspired in 1830 and 1848. One revolution, though, has been mostly overlooked: the Paris Commune of 1871. Yet this event anticipates, better than any other, what now is unfolding. The reason is simple: it marks the one instance when Paris, the lead actor in the country’s revolutionary romance, was pushed aside — and given a good pummeling, to boot — by the provinces.

The publication of Rupert Christiansen’s concise and compelling City of Light: The Making of Modern Paris could not, as a result, be better timed. A journalist who moonlights as a writer of popular histories of modern France and Great Britain, Christiansen focuses his new book on the relatively short 20-year period, between 1851 and 1871, when Paris became, well, Paris. It was during this span of time, in other words, that what was still a city of blight was turned into the city of light, and what had been the capital of a mostly rural nation was transformed into the capital of the 19th century.

Though the great man theory of history has fallen out of favor, it is nevertheless tempting to place the credit, and blame, for this transformation at the feet of one person: Georges-Eugène Haussmann, who implemented a program of urban renovation under Emperor Napoleon III. What is perhaps most remarkable about Haussmann was that, at least by most standards for great men, he was rather unremarkable. Haussmann was neither an architect nor engineer; instead, like his father before him, he was a civil servant, or functionnaire.

It turns out that no fonctionnaire was better at making things function than Haussmann. In 1853, Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, the newly minted emperor, intent on transforming Paris into an imperial character worthy of his family name, appointed Haussmann prefet of the department of the Seine. This particular administrative district included Paris, which for all intents and purposes made Haussmann the city’s mayor. Bonaparte’s choice of men was inspired: Haussmann was a bureaucrat who disdained the rules of bureaucracy, just as he was a Parisian who despised the chaotic character of his native city. But it was not that Haussmann had a vision for Paris — the emperor had already supplied that, having handed Haussmann a city map across which he had made bold strokes designating where he wished to see boulevards.

Instead, Haussmann had a mission — namely, to make Paris work as a modern city. This was no easy task. Between 1800 and 1853, the city’s population doubled, from some 500,000 to over 1,000,000, as its industries pulled in peasants, while its arts and wealth lured the ambitious. Having spilled over and submerged a succession of earlier walls — dating from late antiquity to the late 18th century — encircling the city, Paris’s population was now bursting through a fifth ring completed in 1840. The nearly organic quality of the city, feasting on those who sought to tame it, awed the 18th-century Parisian writer Restif de la Bretonne, who “marvelled at the way Paris devours its surroundings.”

This same organic quality made for the city’s lack of orderliness and regularity. More prosaically, it also made for indescribable filth, creating a fetid world periodically swept by plague and cholera, with the majority of its inhabitants sunk in poverty and ignorance. The density and darkness of most quarters, particularly those in the eastern half, where generations of Parisian lives seemed to settle like sediment at the bottom of a deep body of water, led Honoré de Balzac to compare Paris to a sea whose depths could not be plumbed. As he famously erupted, Paris was that “eternal monstrous marvel” and “city of a hundred thousand novels.”

Haussmann sought to domesticate the monster, editing the city to a single text — namely, a map whose straight lines and great traffic circles would, in a crucial sense, render Paris readable. Whether, as Christiansen suggests, Haussmann’s hatred of blockage issued from an obsessive-compulsive disorder, can be debated. But no debate is possible regarding Haussmann’s success in introducing circulation where congestion had reigned. No less in question is the brutal fashion in which Haussmann reshaped Paris. Christiansen rightly describes Haussmann’s approach as ruthless, but does not quite do justice to Haussmann’s own term for his method — éventrement, or evisceration. Entire quartiers were razed, most notably Île de la Cité, the island anchored in the middle of the Seine and home to Notre-Dame. The elimination of the island’s thousands of decrepit tenements, many of them pressing, like barnacles on a ship’s hull, against the cathedral’s vaulting walls and flying buttresses, displaced tens of thousands of working-class inhabitants. Unable to find affordable housing elsewhere in the city, they were effectively banished to the city’s banlieues, or suburbs.

In Christiansen’s felicitous phrase, the island thus became “little more than a lifeless theme park.” But along with the rest of Paris, it was plugged into systems to move human waste and fresh water. Though remembered for the deceptively uniform boulevards and grand traffic circles, Haussmann’s greatest accomplishments are those Parisians never see or think about — unless, that is, they stop working: the city’s vast grid of sewer and water lines. Before Haussmann, the Seine was both last stop for the city’s raw sewage and first stop for its drinking water. After Haussmann, while the length of Paris streets more than doubled, the sewer system grew by more than five times its previous length.

Without this subterranean revolution, Paris would never have become Paris. With just 170 pages of text, Christiansen could not do full justice to this achievement. He duly notes the role Victor Hugo gives the old sewers in Les Misérables, making it the site of Jean Valjean’s shattering epiphany as he trudges through the muck and mire with the wounded Marius draped across his shoulders. But Christiansen neglects to mention that Hugo devoted an entire chapter to the history of the sewers, which he considered the “conscience” of the city, a place where, along with the rest of society’s detritus, truths also came to rest. For Hugo, Haussmann’s great crime was to have destroyed these miasmal archives for the sake of mere hygiene.

With France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, and the ignominious fall of the Bonapartist regime, Haussmann’s career also came to an end. Yet another victim of the book’s apparently forced brevity is its account of the Commune. In effect, succeeding France’s war against Prussia was France’s war against Paris. While Paris was unwilling to accept the nation’s humiliation at Bismarck’s hands, the rest of the country, led by a reluctantly republican Adolphe Thiers, demanded peace. As the Communards — the men and women who embraced the city’s revolutionary past — dug in their heels, Thiers’s forces dug into place outside the very walls Thiers had himself ordered built in the early 1840s while serving as prime minister for the Orléanist monarchy. After a short siege, the provincial soldiers burst into the city, massacred its defenders, and, on bloodied foundations, established the longest lived of France’s five republics, the Third.

While the Commune perished quickly, Paris’s place as command center for the nation’s political, economic, and cultural policies has endured. But with the rise of the gilets jaunes, that place is again being contested. It is not accidental that the protestors, nearly all of whom hail from the provinces, have not only occupied the very spaces created by Haussmann, but have also desecrated the jewel at the center of his Place de L’Étoile: the Arc de Triomphe. While no one anticipates the same level of violence that attended the Commune, it may well be that, this time around, the provinces will have a more lasting say.


Robert Zaretsky teaches in the Honors College at the University of Houston. He is the author of numerous books and articles on French intellectual history. His new book, Catherine & Diderot: An Empress, A Philosopher and the Fate of the Enlightenment, will be published this winter by Harvard University Press. He is the history editor for LARB.

LARB Contributor

Robert Zaretsky teaches in the Honors College at the University of Houston. His books include Nîmes at War: Religion, Politics, and Public Opinion in the Gard, 1938–1944 (1994), Cock and Bull Stories: Folco de Baroncelli and the Invention of the Camargue (2004), Albert Camus: Elements of a Life (2010), Boswell’s Enlightenment (2015), A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning (2013), and Catherine and Diderot: The Empress, the Philosopher, and the Fate of the Enlightenment (2019). His newest book is Victories Never Last: Reading and Caregiving in a Time of Plague.


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