Haussmann’s Renovation of Paris, France, 1853-1870

Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte, after being elected first President of the French Second Republic in December 1848 perpetrated a coup d’état three years later in December 1851 against himself. He then took the throne as Napoleon the Third and instated the Second French Empire in December 1852, which would last until September 1870.

Living in London from 1846 to 1848, Napoleon the Third had the time to appreciate the modernization and the cleaning up of the British capital, marked by huge parks and the development of sewers. He also revered the benefits of industrialization, which allowed urban work to be carried out faster than it ever was before. Consequently, while taking the lead of the French State, he decided to renovate Paris and to turn it into a modern capital: sewers were to be expanded, trees had to be planted, squares were to be developed to allow every Parisian to enjoy a bit of nature within the capital; the architecture was to be uniform, streets had to be reorganized into big avenues, trains stations had to be built, and new buildings were to replace ageing ones. To meet his goals, in 1853, Napoleon appointed baron Haussmann as Prefect of the Seine -equivalent of a governor, for the Paris region, with powers beyond those of a Mayor.

At first, the rule of the emperor was authoritarian, and Haussmann made use of this in order to quickly start, carry on and complete important projects throughout the city, which may have been otherwise made impossible. Indeed, expropriation for public utility was made legal, as well as allowing the creation of a massive debt to finance the project. After 1860, and the beginning of the liberalization of the Regime, the judiciary often sides with the owners and landlords of to be destructed buildings, leading to an increase in expropriation costs for the State, and so a net increase of the public debt. As a result, criticism around Haussmann started to gain momentum, with more and more Parisians calling for his departure. Nevertheless, the emperor stood by his side throughout the 1860’s, before finally giving in and dismissing him in 1870. Shortly after, the Second French Empire was brought to an end by the Prussians led by chancellor Otto von Bismarck.

The 20 years spent on the rehabilitation of Paris cost highly for the Parisians of the time, with many being moved to other parts of the city after their homes were taken and destroyed, while being obligated to live in on going construction site for a whole generation. However, Haussmann’s works were fruitful and the goals were met by the end of Napoleon’s rule, and the Third French Republic continued to work on modernizing Paris. More than a hundred years later, visitors and inhabitants alike are still given the chance to enjoy the city’s architecture and infrastructure.

We shall close this chapter on a point we have deliberately omitted. A last goal of Napoleon the Third, in aerating Paris with broad avenues, was also to put an end to the turmoil the capital had been going through for the past decades. His advisers and himself judged that the narrow and curvy Parisian streets had allowed the people in past revolts, and most notably during the French Revolution of 1789, to take the advantage over the army. Now, with straight and broad avenues, the army could be rapidly sent to any part of the capital and deploy its artillery if necessary. There has not been any revolt taking over the government in France since 1852. Napoleon was indeed a clever man.