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.