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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“Every twitch, breath or thought necessitates a contactless tap”: on the rise of the chain conffeeshop as public space

Mmmm caffeine. Image: Getty.

If you visit Granary Square in Kings Cross or the more recent neighbouring development, Coal Drops Yard, you will find all the makings of a public space: office-workers munching on their lunch-break sandwiches, exuberant toddlers dancing in fountains and the expected spread of tourists.

But the reality is positively Truman Show-esque. These are just a couple examples of privately owned public spaces, or “POPS”,  which – in spite of their deceptively endearing name – are insidiously changing our city’s landscape right beneath us.

The fear is that it is often difficult to know when you are in one, and what that means for your rights. But as well as those places the private sector pretends to be public space, the inverse is equally common, and somewhat less discussed. Often citizens, use clearly private amenities like they are public. And this is never more prevalent than in the case of big-chain coffeeshops.

It goes without saying that London is expensive: often it feels like every twitch, breath or thought necessitates a contactless tap. This is where Starbucks, Pret and Costa come in. Many of us find an alternative in freeloading off their services: a place to sit, free wifi when your data is low, or an easily accessible toilet when you are about in the city. It feels like a passive-aggressive middle-finger to the hole in my pocket, only made possible by the sheer size of these companies, which allows us to go about unnoticed. Like a feature on a trail map, it’s not just that they function as public spaces, but are almost universally recognised as such, peppering our cityscapes like churches or parks.

Shouldn’t these services really be provided by the council, you may cry? Well ideally, yes – but also no, as they are not under legal obligation to do so and in an era of austerity politics, what do you really expect? UK-wide, there has been a 13 per cent drop in the number of public toilets between 2010 and 2018; the London boroughs of Wandsworth and Bromley no longer offer any public conveniences.  


For the vast majority of us, though, this will be at most a nuisance, as it is not so much a matter of if but rather when we will have access to the amenities we need. Architectural historian Ian Borden has made the point that we are free citizens in so far as we shop or work. Call it urban hell or retail heaven, but the fact is that most of us do regularly both of these things, and will cope without public spaces on a day to day. But what about those people who don’t?

It is worth asking exactly what public spaces are meant to be. Supposedly they are inclusive areas that are free and accessible to all. They should be a place you want to be, when you have nowhere else to be. A space for relaxation, to build a community or even to be alone.

So, there's an issue: it's that big-chain cafes rarely meet this criterion. Their recent implementation of codes on bathroom doors is a gentle reminder that not all are welcome, only those that can pay or at least, look as if they could. Employees are then given the power to decide who can freeload and who to turn away. 

This is all too familiar, akin to the hostile architecture implemented in many of our London boroughs. From armrests on benches to spikes on windowsills, a message is sent that you are welcome, just so long as you don’t need to be there. This amounts to nothing less than social exclusion and segregation, and it is homeless people that end up caught in this crossfire.

Between the ‘POPS’ and the coffee shops, we are squeezed further by an ever-growing private sector and a public sector in decline. Gentrification is not just about flat-whites, elaborate facial hair and fixed-gear bikes: it’s also about privatisation and monopolies. Just because something swims like a duck and quacks like a duck that doesn’t mean it is a duck. The same can be said of our public spaces.