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One of the miracles of Paris as a city -as agreeable to the eye as it is on your feet- is the thrilling vista of its wide and leafy avenues.
An observant eye will note that there is a direct relationship between the width of Parisian avenues and the height of the buildings which flank them. When everything was built, the rule was very clear on this point. Buildings would be as high and no higher than the width of the avenue, forming three equilateral sides to a box. Thus in Paris, unlike anywhere else in the world, buildings are perceived as neither too squat –and therefore irrelevant- nor too tall –and therefore overbearing and oppressive. Like Goldilocks’ porridge, they are just right.
Who do Parisians and the rest of us have to thank for this masterpiece of urban harmony?
Suddenly, the classroom is alive with upraised arms and eager voices hissing: “Haussmann. Baron Haussmann!”
Well, let’s put aside the slightly embarrassing reality check that Georges-Eugène Haussmann was no more a member of the French nobility than say Sacha Baron Cohen. Haussmann was to Paris what General Leslie Groves was to the Manhattan project; an incredibly energetic “can do” locomotive of a man who bludgeoned his way through red tape, mud, delays, protests and incredible difficulties to turn a vision into reality.
Today, the world admires the result. The vision is truly magnificent, unique, romantic and the envy of every town planner, city administrator and civil architect from every continent. But the vision, splendid as it is was not the brainchild of Haussmann alone. The true instigator and the constant driving force of this vastly ambitious urban renewal project was Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, later known as Napoleon III.
Like his famous uncle before him, Napoleon III was elected President of the French Republic before losing patience with the democratic process and staging a coup d’état by which he made himself Emperor. His reign lasted almost twenty years and saw some of the most fascinating but least known events in French history (to which we will return in another story).
In 1848, the period just prior to acceding to the presidency, Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte went into temporary exile. Tales were brought to him of the terrible riots taking place in the streets and wretched insalubrious slums of old Paris. Barricades were thrown up at numerous choke points, bringing life in the city to a standstill. The streets were both too narrow and too winding –and thus too dangerous-to be brought under control by the army.
This revolution of 1848, known as the “Springtime of the Peoples” left a lasting impression on Louis-Napoleon. As a young man, he had seen and shuddered at the terrible Paris riots of 1830. They impressed him just as they did writer Victor Hugo who immortalized Paris’ poor and huddled masses as Les Misérables.
Louis-Napoleon swore to himself that never again would Paris be a victim of barricades. By the time he became Emperor, after consulting with his best artillery officers, he instructed Haussmann to pull down all of central Paris, every street, every house, every shop, every tavern, every bawdyhouse. And then rebuild. With avenues wide enough to run a cavalry troop line abreast, with radiating intersections interlocking in a way which could be commanded by a few strategically placed artillery pieces capable of blasting any barricade to smithereens.
So for the next eighteen years, that is what happened. With the singular exception of a square mile or two on the left bank in what has become known as the Latin Quarter as well as a few hilly bits too costly to flatten, Paris became for all intents and purposes a gigantic construction site.
The whole project came to a grinding halt in 1870, not because Haussmann had finished the job (thirty years later with the coming of the Paris Metro, city-wide digging would begin all over again). It stopped because France suddenly found itself at war with Prussia. Ten months later the war was over and so was Napoleon III’s Empire. With this defeat, France was definitely done with any form of monarchy. (Prussia on the other hand took to the idea and promptly proclaimed The German Empire)
In spite of Haussmann’s best efforts, Paris had not become revolution-proof much less barricade-proof. The communards of 1871 barricaded themselves in Montmartre and other “unHaussmannized” pockets of resistance all over the working class neighborhoods of Paris for two months before they were winkled out and shot.
In 1944, Paris was liberated by Leclerc’s French Armored Division incorporated into General Patton’s Third Army and also by the French Forces of the Interior (FFI) who threw up barricades to fight against the Nazi occupiers.
As recently as the turbulent spring of 1968 –which still brings a nostalgic tear to the eye of ageing soixante-huitards (a species of highly politicized left bank radical born from or possibly instigator of the so-called “Events of May ‘68”), barricades were built across the very haussmannien Boulevards St. Germain and St. Michel with the paving stones set in place by Haussmann’s road crews, using them as both bricks and projectiles.
So deeply entrenched are barricades in the Parisian mentality that they take on a strongly symbolic meaning which echoes through the ages. “Here on the barricades, we make a last heroic stand”, “Liberty leading the people” is the title of Eugène Delacroix’ stirring allegorical painting. And “Sous les pavés, la plage!” (Beneath these paving stones, the beach!) , an oft-repeated graffito first scrawled in 1968.
Every true American can relate to Parisian barricades. They are the urban equivalent of circling the wagons. They are Custer’s last stand. They are the Alamo. They are Bataan. They are Khe Sanh.
Today, the barricades of Paris have gone. In their place, all that remains are Haussmann’s –and above all, Napoleon III’s- timelessly beautiful avenues in one of the world’s most enchanting cities.
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