- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 9, 2002

Paris is a city under construction all great cities are, and Parisians, native-born and adoptive, are sensitive to the small and large changes that are forever in evidence. For several years now, there has been much activity on the eastern side of town, long-neglected by urban planners and architects. I am skeptical of these developments: The neighborhoods around the new Opera complex at the Bastille are no doubt seeing some improvements such as indoor plumbing, but to do all this they, the powers that are, have demolished quite a lot of quaint space.
Working-class streets have been transformed into residential quarters for the French equivalent of yuppies, and the unmistakable accents of vieux Paris have been replaced by an appalling euro-lingo which perhaps helps explain why a substantial number of voters in this country cast their ballots a few weeks ago for a man who, hateful though his ideas and proposals are, nonetheless is the only orator remaining on the French political scene, who makes his disgusting and vile speeches in a robust language that owes nothing to today's fashionable jargon.
Well, Paris changes and changes again. As the Bastille area is consolidated as a hangout for the equivalent of the Dupont Circle set, with all their loathsome habits and I am not referring to sex here the people, le peuple, moves into the old northeast sectors of Paris, the 19th and 20th arrondissements, some neighborhoods of which remain comparatively affordable. As these neighborhoods in turn get interior toilets the French equivalent of gentrification the poor move on into the suburbs, and their children vent their frustrations on Jews. Plus ca change, as the French, the more it remains constant.
The French term for large-scale urban renewal is grand travaux, major work. The grand travaux of the Mitterrand era, which included the new Opera and the nearby Bibliotheque (library) and are supposed to culminate in the raising of the streets on the left bank of that part of the city, also included the final touches to the Defense neighborhood, which rises to the west of the Triumphal arch at the top of the Champs Elysees (which also has undergone some renovation lately, that has somewhat diminished the unqualifiable vulgarity of that street). Mr. Mitterrand was trying to be evenhanded, west and east. In fact, most of his presidency's urban work was planned many years before. In France, as in Italy, it can take a while to get anything done.
Although Paris has been under construction for a long time consider Notre Dame cathedral the consensus among urban historians is that the modern face of Paris is largely the work of a high civil servant of the mid-19th century, Georges-Eugene Haussmann. A man of Alsatian origin who became prefect of the Seine department during the reign of the emperor Napoleon III, Haussmann expanded the city's limits, built throughways and concentric boulevards to facilitate traffic (and pioneered public transport), planned new neighborhoods and new zoning and construction regulations, and in general made the city more "modern." (To give an idea of the scale of his work, Paris had 12 arrondissements, or districts, when he took charge, and 20 when he was finished, the same number it has today.)
He was the Robert Moses of his place and time, and it is probably inevitable that he should have gone down in history with a reputation no less controversial than New York's parks-and-forests-beaches-and-highways man. The Paris that we know is, in short, the product of Haussmann's genius.
Or is it? A merit of the new, exhaustive biography by Michel Carmona,"Haussmann: His Life and Times, and the Making of Modern Paris," is that while giving a very full history of what happened to the urban and architectural landscape during Haussmann's tenure (1853-69), the author also explains the context in which this took place. Mr. Carmona, a noted urban specialist who has written on a variety of French historical figures and events as well as on specialized areas of urban planning, while sympathetic to Haussmann, is not intent on giving him more credit than he deserves.
This has usually been the case, as both critics and admirers of the transformation of Paris in the mid-19th century have tended to put most of the onus on Haussmann. Mr. Carmona's reading of the period is fairer than this. Haussmann was a strong-willed man with definite ideas, but he was also a loyal civil servant respectful of the republican, and later the imperial, authorities under whom he served. Ultimately, Mr. Carmona argues, the changes that took place under Haussmann's leadership required the vision and will of the last president of the Second Republic, Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, who scuttled the regime and replaced it with the Second Empire.
The Second Empire never had a good reputation: Victor Hugo loathed it, Karl Marx mocked it, the working class of Paris rebelled against it and, in the Paris Commune, contributed mightily to giving Paris its political traditions and myths. After the Commune, the revolutionary city, to which Mao said he sent his students to make them better Marxists, never again had a left-wing government, until the administration that came in two years ago and that represents the chi-chi (or bobo as they now say there) left rather than the revolutionary left, forget the working class.
Against this kind of competition, what could Louis-Napoleon offer history, especially after his ignominious surrender at Sedan before the Prussians, which set up the annexation of Alsace and Lorraine and, with that, World War I, which led to ah, poor Napoleon III, and how mean, but true: Hugo was to call him le petit, to make unmistakably clear the difference from his famous uncle. Napoleon the First merely destroyed a generation of French manhood and set Europe ablaze; his goateed nephew was a compassionate conservative social reformer of the Les Lenkowsky type. Battlefields trump settlement houses any time, except for the infantrymen.
Under Louis-Napoleon's benign authoritarianism, Haussmann's work outlasted the French-German wars, outlasted France's dreams of empire, outlasted, evidently if the European Union is for real, which I rather doubt France. Haussmann, the strict Lutheran prefect from Alsace, made the Paris that we know; the Paris that will last, beyond all human perfidy. Myself, I will visit again this summer, and I will be enriched, as I walk the old neighb's and the old haunts, by Michel Carmona's fine explanation of how they got there. Anyone who loves Paris, and never mind the Parisians, will enjoy this book.

Roger Kaplan, who grew up in Paris, is a writer and critic in New York.




Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.

 

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide