Paris & the barricades: How Haussmann rebuilt a city to prevent unrest

The boulevards of Paris. Image: Getty.

The boulevards of Paris are centrepieces of the city, drawing well-heeled Parisians and doe-eyed tourists alike. But despite the high brand shopping and stylish cafes which dominate these wide and picturesque streets today, they were originally created not with posh Parisians in mind, but with pissed off ones.

Throughout the 19th Century, revolution was in the air in France, and the capital city had been at the centre of the civil unrest which had seen the country transition between royalty, republic and empire six different times by 1870.

One of the most useful tools for these riotous Parisians was the barricade, an ad hoc wall made from the all the neighbourhood’s furniture. Historian Mark Traugott recorded 21 instances of barricades being used between 1795 and 1871. The 1830 revolution saw over 4,000 barricades put up across the city; in that of 1848’s Feburary Revolution, there were as many as 6,000.

By blocking off Paris’ notoriously narrow streets, such barricades prevented the government of the day’s soldiers restoring order/ crushing dissent (eliminate depending on political sympathies). Failure to deal with this unrest let it snowball and led to the toppling of rulers time and time again.

The rue du Jardinet on the Left Bank, demolished by Haussmann to make room for the Boulevard Saint Germain. Image: Charles Marville/Wikimedia commons.

So by the time Napoleon III declared himself emperor in 1852, he realised that something needed to be done, otherwise he would go the same way as his predecessor. He found the man to do it in Georges-Eugène Haussmann.

A self-styled baron, Haussmann made up for his lack of architectural knowledge with his enthusiasm for demolishing things. He referred to himself in his own notes as an “artist-demolitionist”: rarely visiting the neighbourhoods he was destroying, he preferred to abstractly remould the city from a comfortable desk.

In this way, Haussmann re-planned Paris, bulldzing wide new boulevards through the fabric of old Paris giving soldiers easy access into all corners of the city – and preventing the construction of effective barricades. 

Haussman’s new streets are shown in red. Click to expand. Image: Dimitri Destugues/Wikipedia.

Haussman was particularly keen to do over neighbourhoods with dodgy reputations. Saint-Antoine, a suburb known for being restless and populated by those dangerous working classes so feared by Versailles – and one which had been at the heart of the 1789 revolution – had a shiny new boulevard cut straight through it.

Ancient roads such as Rue de Rempart, where Haussman himself had been caught in fighting in 1830, were demolished, to be replaced by swanky unbarricadeable boulevards like the Avenue de l'Opéra. No longer could any ne'er do wells throw their gran’s coffee table across a narrow street and overthrow the government.


Barricades were still used, most notably during the Paris Commune of 1871, but their strategic effectiveness was very much blunted. Instead they retained a symbolic value of resistance and revolution, which still captures imaginations today.

In his memoirs Haussman spoke with pride of erasing parts of Paris. Indeed he spoke about the peoples whose lives were destroyed in a way that would have made even a pre-revolution French aristocrat blush, describing them as “a floating mass of workers…. who are attracted only by impressions and the most deplorable suggestions”.

Despite this personal disdain, though, the ‘artist-demolitionist’ remoulded the city. It is thanks to him that most of the city no longer resembles the narrow and winding alleyways of the Marais district, the aristocratic area and one of the few untouched by Haussmann’s designs. It is thanks to him that people from around the world come to Paris to amble fondly along the boulevards unimpeded by barricades.

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A growing number of voters will never own their own home. Why is the government ignoring them?

A lettings agent window. Image: Getty.

The dream of a property-owning democracy continues to define British housing policy. From Right-to-Buy to Help-to-Buy, policies are framed around the model of the ‘first-time buyer’ and her quest for property acquisition. The goal of Philip Hammond’s upcoming budget – hailed as a major “intervention” in the “broken” housing market – is to ensure that “the next generation will have the same opportunities as their parents to own a home.”

These policies are designed for an alternative reality. Over the last two decades, the dream of the property-owning democracy has come completely undone. While government schemes used to churn out more home owners, today it moves in reverse.

Generation Rent’s new report, “Life in the Rental Sector”, suggests that more Britons are living longer in the private rental sector. We predict the number of ‘silver renters’ – pensioners in the private rental sector – will rise to one million by 2035, a three-fold increase from today.

These renters have drifted way beyond the dream of home ownership: only 11 per cent of renters over 65 expect to own a home. Our survey results show that these renters are twice as likely than renters in their 20s to prefer affordable rental tenure over homeownership.

Lowering stamp duty or providing mortgage relief completely miss the point. These are renters – life-long renters – and they want rental relief: guaranteed tenancies, protection from eviction, rent inflation regulation.

The assumption of a British ‘obsession’ with homeownership – which has informed so much housing policy over the years – stands on flimsy ground. Most of the time, it is based on a single survey question: Would you like to rent a home or own a home? It’s a preposterous question, of course, because, well, who wouldn’t like to own a home at a time when the chief economist of the Bank of England has made the case for homes as a ‘better bet’ for retirement than pensions?


Here we arrive at the real toxicity of the property-owning dream. It promotes a vicious cycle: support for first-time buyers increases demand for home ownership, fresh demand raises house prices, house price inflation turns housing into a profitable investment, and investment incentives stoke preferences for home ownership all over again.

The cycle is now, finally, breaking. Not without pain, Britons are waking up to the madness of a housing policy organised around home ownership. And they are demanding reforms that respect renting as a life-time tenure.

At the 1946 Conservative Party conference, Anthony Eden extolled the virtues of a property-owning democracy as a defence against socialist appeal. “The ownership of property is not a crime or a sin,” he said, “but a reward, a right and responsibility that must be shared as equitable as possible among all our citizens.”

The Tories are now sleeping in the bed they have made. Left out to dry, renters are beginning to turn against the Conservative vision. The election numbers tell the story of this left-ward drift of the rental sector: 29 per cent of private renters voted Labour in 2010, 39 in 2015, and 54 in June.

Philip Hammond’s budget – which, despite its radicalism, continues to ignore the welfare of this rental population – is unlikely to reverse this trend. Generation Rent is no longer simply a class in itself — it is becoming a class for itself, as well.

We appear, then, on the verge of a paradigm shift in housing policy. As the demographics of the housing market change, so must its politics. Wednesday’s budget signals that even the Conservatives – the “party of homeownership” – recognise the need for change. But it only goes halfway.

The gains for any political party willing to truly seize the day – to ditch the property-owning dream once and for all, to champion a property-renting one instead – are there for the taking. 

David Adler is a research association at the campaign group Generation Rent.

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