- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 12, 2003

Alistair Horne views the history of Paris through what he calls the city's "seven ages" beginning in the Middle Ages, continuing through monarchies and republics, insurrections and civil wars, building booms and urban renewals, the World War II trauma and triumph of Liberation following the Occupation, and concluding with the order and prosperity of the Gaullist era. There could, surely, be an eighth age, beginning in 1977, when the capital, fitted with a new legal status, acquired a mayor for the first time, the irrepressible Jacques Chirac, now France's president.
Following his mentor, the late Georges Pompidou, Mr. Chirac aimed for modernization and efficiency, pulling down neighborhoods and rebuilding them where he could (for example in the wholesale produce market quarter called Les Halles), encouraging the development of new suburban developments to relieve population pressure, insisting on sanitation and modern conveniences at least in the central and western districts (arrondissements) where the swells live and the tourists visit.
This eighth age could be said to have continued under Mr. Chirac's anointed successor, Jacques Tiberi, who took care of his hometown with love and efficiency for which he was scarcely thanked when he went down, a few years ago, in a maelstrom of financial corruption scandals for which he was hardly alone responsible. And the conservatives' Socialist successor, the affable Bertrand Delanoe, essentially has continued their modernization policies, with perhaps more emphasis on preservation and gentrification.
Mr. Horne would agree with this because his thesis is that the reason Paris is the world's greatest city is that it is forever changing even as its essential qualities remain the same it is, in short, alive. And although his seven ages are arbitrary, they are eminently sensible.
Age One is represented by Philippe Auguste, the greatest of the Capet kings, whose reign was marked by the historic victory at Bouvines (1214) against the Plantagenet King John, which temporarily lifted the English threat to dominate France. To demonstrate his grand plans for his country and the importance of its capital, Philippe started the Louvre, Les Halles, and expanded the University, whose "campus" in the modern fifth and sixth arrondissements is known as the Latin Quarter.
Mr. Horne, a prolific and graceful writer who has contributed fine books on 19th- and 20th-century French history, notably his studies of Napoleon, the Second Empire and the Commune, the Algerian War, and the battle of Verdun, as well as an acclaimed two-volume biography of Harold MacMillan, gives us the history of Roman and early medieval Paris in a terse but insightful introduction, in which he underscores the importance of geography in the rise of Paris as a political and cultural center.
The "ages" of Paris, however and Mr. Horne is the first to admit these must to some degree depend on the writer's personal judgment are defined as decades, or centuries, when a visionary leader left a decisive architectural and political mark on the city.
Philippe-Auguste was the first king of France to make of Paris the capital city of an expanding, self-conscious nation-state, armed with an imperial ambition, as it were, and a sense of its own importance. Paris had been, before this time, a prize at the junction of Normandy, Picardy, and the crossroads leading toward the Loire valley to the southwest and the rich plains of Burgundy to the southeast. Hemmed in around its center the islands of the Cite (the site of Notre Dame cathedral) and Saint-Louis Paris had to dominate or be dominated. And one could suggest worse readings of the city's biography than fluctuations between these two attitudes.
Mr. Horne's second age is that of Henri IV, the Bourbon Protestant from the southwest of France (Henri was from Navarre) who decided that religious arguments were less important than the unity of France. Converting to Catholicism ("Paris is worth a mass"), Henri and his successors, notably the prime minister-cardinals Richelieu and Mazarin, expanded and beautified the area at the center which is now marked by the Tuileries gardens and the Place Royale.
Louis XIV and his successors, numbers 15 and 16, naturally represent an age, even though the Sun-King is best known for moving himself and his court to a suburb named Versailles. Mr. Horne places the Revolution in this period, viewing the traumatic decade as the end of the old order as well as the beginning of the modern one, marked by nationalism and mass warfare. This is a very English view of French history, going back to Thomas Carlyle, which places more importance on Napoleon (whose fourth age of Paris, 1795- 1815, certainly affected the English people more than did the Revolutionary years) than on Robespierre and Danton.
Napoleon Bonaparte wanted Paris to outdo itself as the most beautiful city in the world, and his wish was to many observers amply fulfilled. But Mr. Horne sees in the historic defeat at Waterloo, not far from Bouvines, the beginning of a fifth age, Paris as the revolutionary capital, of the myth of the proletariat and the grand soir, the cataclysmic overthrow of capitalism and the erection of a just and classless society. This Paris reached its apogee in the Commune, 1871, though its romance and mythology continued during most of the 20th century.
Mr. Horne's Age Six is the city foreigners imagine when they think of Paris, the art capital, the cosmopolitan center, the place, as was said (either by A. J. Liebling or one of his contemporaries) where deserving Americans went when they died. The time when this image had substantial basis in reality was the belle epoque, the years before World War I, and, perhaps, the decade following the time evoked by "Jules et Jim," the fine novel by Henri-Pierre Roche that was made into a film by Francois Truffaut. This Paris depended on historical conditions that were destroyed by Europe's near-death in the world wars, and it could not continue except as a kind of museum.
The Gaullist Age Eight and its aftermath represent an attempt to have it both ways, which is a perfectly normal urban impulse, as one can see in any other city: Maintain the place everyone loves while making allowances for changing economic and demographic realities. Mr. Horne writes well, and spins his tale with evident relish, while pulling no punches when it comes to describing the horrors the city witnessed.
The historical anecdote, and the historical narrative, sometimes take over, blurring the author's focus on the strictly Parisian story. No matter: Paris is what you bring to it, and Mr. Horne brings his broad erudition and intense feel for French history. He not only understands the political passions that made the city the inescapable center of France's national life (by contrast, you could well imagine American history without Washington) but, more subtly, the poetry and music of the city's air, that not only attracted writers and painters from all over France and Europe (Balzac, Arthur Rimbaud, Pablo Picasso, Igor Stravinsky …but, of course, from the United States as well. To continue the contrast, you can easily leave Washington out of the story of American literature, but could you leave out Paris? Surely not.

Roger Kaplan's "Conservative Socialism" (Transaction) about contemporary France, will be published in January.


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