Napoleon III, Haussmann and the Invention of Paris

In her new book, Dividing Paris: Urban Renewal and Social Inequality (1852-1870), Esther da Costa Meyer, professor of art and archeology at Princeton, invites readers to see the French capital in a new light. The Paris of tourists is not the authentic Paris, but rather an elaborate staging engineered by the Second Empire and Baron Haussmann. A triumph of capitalism to the detriment of the working classes.
© Hervé Pinel

France-Amérique: Paris as it is known to tourists and celebrated by American movies does not correspond to the actual city. Is the French capital divided into a metropolis invented during the Second Empire and a working-class city?

Esther da Costa Meyer: There was certainly a huge gap between the almost operatic splendor of Second Empire Paris and that other Paris inhabited by the majority of the population which was poor. But the Paris of myth was also the work of the city’s great writers, painters, and later film directors. In The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Victor Hugo’s dramatic imagination forever changed our views of le vieux Paris before Haussmann destroyed part of the historic center. And in 1989, when there was an attempt to demolish the decrepit Hôtel du Nord, in the grimy area of the Canal Saint-Martin, cinephiles protested because it recalled Marcel Carné’s famous film starring Arletty and Louis Jouvet. The film had in fact been shot in studio, where the hotel was reconstructed, but the protesters had the actual façade landmarked.

The sumptuous side of Paris is thought to have been mainly developed by the prefect Georges-Eugène Haussmann at the request of Napoleon III. Was their aim to create an exceptional, modern city?

Paris had been planned by a group of advisors gathered by Napoleon III. They consulted dozens of specialists in different branches, and outlined the main changes required to transform the city into a modern metropolis. Among other topics, they studied new streets and squares, markets, churches, synagogues, fountains and reservoirs, working-class housing, greenery, mortality rates, cemeteries, bread, and special railway prices for the ouvriers. “Haussmann’s Paris” was thus the work of innumerable Parisians of different groups and professions, including, of course, Haussmann himself, who managed to put an extraordinary infrastructure in place, aided by the municipality’s first-class civil engineers.

The destruction of the old town was designed to make the neighborhoods cleaner and safer. But was this interest in hygiene also spurred by political objectives, such as separating the bourgeoisie from the proletariat?

Ever since cholera struck Paris in 1832, killing some 20,000 people, the city’s epidemiologists had called for urban renewal and the destruction of the slums in the city center. The highest mortality rates had taken place precisely in the old, decrepit center, which was also the site of violent uprisings in 1832. Associating revolution and cholera, the middle and upper classes saw the pandemic as a “Jacobin” illness. The urge to demolish the old historic fabric and replace it with broad streets and salubrious housing was thus prompted by both hygienic and political concerns. The elites and their allies no longer wished to live with the poor. “One worker sufficed to contaminate a building,” declares the caretaker in Emile Zola’s Restless House.

Was the division between the Paris of the rich and of the poor a consequence of Haussmann’s work, or rather a deliberate goal?

It was both. Thousands of workers continued to live in the center before, during, and after Haussmannization. But many more, especially families with children, had to relocate to the outskirts, since they could not afford higher rents in the gentrified areas of the historic center. Meanwhile, those who remained in the city had to squeeze themselves into the suffocating rented rooms of the marchands de sommeil, slumlords, or find refuge in the old tenements that had not yet been torn down. Urban renewal thus led to a dangerous rise in urban density precisely in the poorest districts of the city while also contributing to social and spatial polarization.

© Mathieu Persan

The modernization, or reinvention, of Paris by Haussmann also took place underground. Surely everyone benefits from this invisible Paris, with its drinking water, sanitation, and public transportation?

Unfortunately, the modern networks that Haussmann put in place were never distributed in an egalitarian manner. There was plenty of water in the elegant new districts of the capital, which were served by private companies. But the city’s workers suffered grievously from class-driven politics of uneven water distribution. The same was true for sewers: Paris still had 20,000 barbarous, foul-smelling cesspools, largely in working-class areas where landlords did not want to install costly systems to have human waste removed. As for public transportation, the itineraries of the omnibus companies of the time served primarily the grands boulevards, avoiding less profitable quartiers.

With the major works of the 19th century, the poor moved out of the center. This trend is continuing today. Did Haussmann invent the concept of the banlieue?

Haussmann had everything to do with the de facto expulsion of part of the working class to the banlieue. However, this was also happening in other cities. The industrial revolution had created a new class of entrepreneurs who were eager to promote the fruits of their labor: Production entailed consumption, and they worked tirelessly with the regime to create broad boulevards that facilitated the circulation of both crowds and merchandise. The old historic polis had to make way for the modern metropolis, and the historic centers were drastically curtailed to make room for the spaces of modernity. Workers, who had hitherto lived close to their work in the center, moved to the banlieue in great numbers.

The Haussmannian model had a major influence across the world, as far as New York City and Rio de Janeiro. Could this be referred to as the Haussmannization of the world based on the Parisian project?

Haussmann definitely had a pronounced impact across the continents and in France itself, where Marseille, Lyon, Toulouse, and Montpellier styled themselves after his renovated Paris. However, it was in the Americas that Haussmann’s impact was greater – and more destructive. Francisco Pereira Passos, mayor of Rio de Janeiro from 1902 to 1906, had studied in Paris in the days of Haussmann, and he subjected the city to ruthless urban reform, lowering hills, cutting straight avenues through the urban fabric, and destroying everything in their path… In the United States, Daniel Burnham took Haussmann’s ideas into account in his plan for Chicago with its plazas, its broad avenues, and terminating vistas. Years later, in New York City, Robert Moses emulated the French prefect’s authoritarian, top-down form of urbanism predicated on widespread demolition.

The current mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, is working on removing vehicles and adding green spaces. There is also a wave of gentrification washing across formerly working-class neighborhoods. Has Haussmann won on all fronts?

These trends are happening in all large post-industrial cities. Gentrification pays high dividends, especially when there are no plans for social sustainability. That is, former residents, unable to pay for the upkeep and rents of renovated properties, have to move further away. Greenery plays a crucial role in this agenda, as the more vulnerable elements of the population have to make way for upscale lifestyles and higher income residents for whom the new green spaces are meant. This was indeed Haussmann’s agenda.

What advice would you give a curious American tourist looking to escape the Haussmannian circuit?

Paris is full of wonderful places dating from before and after Haussmann. The passages, which date to the Bourbon Restoration and the July Monarchy, are magical microcosms where one can find tiny shops selling walking canes, lutes, rare stamps, and all sorts of bric-à-brac. Their inward-looking world seems to exist outside of time. The Grande Mosquée de Paris, with its outdoor café and fig trees that transport us to the Middle East, is another favorite spot. But I would also advise tourists to see a real gem that Haussmann bequeathed to Paris: the Buttes-Chaumont, one of the most original and exciting urban parks in Europe, where the municipal engineers used the uneven terrain of the old quarries to create peaks and precipices that still take one’s breath away.

Dividing Paris: Urban Renewal and Social Inequality
(1852-1870) by Esther da Costa Meyer, Princeton University Press, 2022.

Interview published in the December 2022 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.