Capital’s Capital

Christopher Prendergast

  • Haussmann: His Life and Times, and the Making of Modern Paris by Michel Carmona, translated by Patrick Camiller
    Ivan Dee, 480 pp, £25.00, June 2002, ISBN 1 56663 427 X

In September 1848, Louis-Napoleon returned from his long exile in London armed with a startling blueprint for what he was later to call his ‘plan for the embellishment of Paris’. It consisted of a colour-coded roll of parchment representing the soon-to-be Emperor’s provisional thoughts on the renovation of the capital’s thoroughfares. This was the Urtext of the drastic transformations to the material and social fabric of Paris that were to take place during most of the Second Empire (the term ‘transformation’ was used for the first time in connection with city-planning during this period). The canonical image of Louis-Napoleon remains Marx’s withering portrait in The Eighteenth Brumaire, that of the supreme con-man in the age of con-men and hucksters (‘the serious buffoon who no longer takes world history for a comedy but his comedy for world history’). But where the remaking of Paris is concerned, opinion about his legacy was and continues to be sharply divided, with a growingly influential school of revisionism which has Louis-Napoleon as a key player in a necessary process of ‘modernisation’ (roughly where Michel Carmona stands) or as a star figure in the creation of ‘the city as a work of art’ (the title of Donald Olsen’s book on the subject, published in 1988).

Aesthetics were not Louis-Napoleon’s strong point. In the eclectic medley of Second Empire styles, his basic preferences were Modernist; he was a glass-and-iron man, as evidenced by his enthusiasm for the new Les Halles, and actively disliked the Gothic revival (the Empress, by contrast, was an ardent gothicist). On the other hand, he was also conservatively classical in his fondness for the straight line and the monumental vista (the straight line, Carmona maintains, was quintessentially French, while omitting to mention that this was so largely from the point of view of the ruling classes: Victor Hugo, in his ‘Guerre aux démolisseurs’, attacked the obsession with the straight line by linking it directly to the oppressive exercise of state authority). The Emperor’s main objectives, however, were strictly practical: to make the city safer, cleaner, more unified, above all a city for circulation (of bodies, goods and money), a city for the Age of Capital. Underlying this commitment there was also a fantasy of the great imperial city, centre and symbol of power, especially commercial power, a city of display in which the outstanding commodity to be looked at was the city itself, often in the mirror of the World Exhibitions (one reason why Second Empire Paris has so often attracted partisans of Guy Debord’s notion of the société du spectacle).

What of the man who gave his name eponymously to this massive Parisian facelift, Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann? Fervently loyal to his master, even after his fall from favour (over alleged financial mismanagement), Haussmann always maintained that the Emperor was the prime inspiration for the whole undertaking. In his memoirs he wrote that he would not have succeeded in his endeavours ‘unless I had really been the expression, organ or instrument of a great idea conceived by him and for which I should give him the principal merit’. Since this was written long after Louis-Napoleon’s death, we can take it at face value rather than as the flattery of a courtier. Yet, without the energy and determination of Haussmann during his near 17-year tenure as Prefect of Paris, it is inconceivable that the Emperor’s dreams would have been translated into reality, and it is naturally what he is now remembered for; Haussmann has become indistinguishable from Haussmannisation.

Only one chapter of Carmona’s long book is titled ‘Haussmannisation’, however. The rest, as befits the concerns of the conventional biographer, is given over to the individual himself, the Man behind the Work. What does the ‘life’ look like? Notwithstanding Carmona’s indefatigable scholarly efforts, the short – and, I fear, the best – answer is: tedious almost beyond belief. Nothing sums up Haussmann’s life better than his own remark: ‘My entry into the administration dates from my first steps in life.’ His passions, to the extent that he had any, were almost entirely those of the technocratic functionary. In the early years of his career in the provinces, nothing turns him on more than a visit to the local coalmine, munitions factory or sewage system. It’s true that while posted in Bordeaux he acquired a taste for the finer clarets. He also from time to time tried his hand at verse (the results are so execrable that even the generous Carmona pauses briefly only to move without delay to other matters). Nor could Haussmann be classified as one of the great 19th-century wits. About the best the Baron could muster, when quizzed at a dinner party as to why he had not been made a duke as a reward for his reform of the Paris water-supply, was the grinding pun: ‘I should be made an aqueduke.’

What emerges from the narrative of Haussmann’s time in provincial service is his unswerving devotion to the principle of ‘order’, at all levels from the bureaucratic to the political. In a circular issued during his prefectureship in the Yonne he proclaimed: ‘I do not wish to leave anyone in any doubt about the energy with which I shall fulfil my mandate to make order prevail everywhere and in all things over disorder; the authority of the law over anarchic passions; respect for rules over the spirit of insubordination.’ That is the quintessential Haussmann credo, and goes a long way to explaining why, had it not been for the call to Paris, his story would be no more than a footnote in the archive of 19th-century administrative history.

Oddly, when the call came, Haussmann proved reluctant. He was happy in Bordeaux (perhaps the clarets revealed another side to him) and would have declined the offer, but was caught on the hop by the Emperor’s announcement of the appointment in the Moniteur. But once installed in office he set about the business of ‘order’ with considerable relish and flair. The Yonne circular was issued at a time of agitation in the period between the defeat of the 1848 insurrections and Louis-Napoleon’s coup d’état of 1851. It is thus tempting to read from it the version of order that has standardly informed accounts of Haussmannisation: namely, that the essential purpose of the redesigning of Paris was to secure the city against future insurrection (notably by widening the streets and boulevards so as to inhibit the construction of barricades and facilitate the movement of police and soldiers).

This was, indeed, an important consideration for both the Prefect and the Emperor. When Haussmann recalled ‘the gutting of vieux Paris’ he significantly defined the latter as ‘the area of riots and barricades’. There is not the slightest doubt that the changes to the boulevard Richard Lenoir and the canal Saint-Martin were made in part to reduce the scope for working-class manoeuvre. On the other hand, where questions of law and order were concerned, he tended more to a consequentialist than an intentionalist view. In respect of the extensions to the rue de Rivoli, he claimed that while its ‘straight line made it unfavourable for the usual tactic of local insurrection’, this was more a ‘fortunate consequence of all his Majesty’s great road-building programmes’ than a deliberately planned outcome. As for himself, he blithely asserted that ‘I never gave the slightest thought to their greater or lesser strategic importance.’ This was to some extent disingenuous, and in any case the cunning of history was to deliver a further lesson in unintended outcomes. The more the city was rationalised, the more it became socially segregated, the rich settling in the west, the poor herded more and more to the east. This had the effect of concentrating pockets of republican and socialist resistance to the Party of Order, and the intense social antagonism thus generated finally erupted in the cataclysmic uprising of the Commune.

Nevertheless, the record suggests that Haussmann was unlikely to have seen this as the litmus test of success or failure (it was even less likely that someone of his cast of mind would have dwelt for long on the ironies of history). A politics of working-class containment was one strand in the story of the grands travaux, but there were many others. The (lightly worn) Saint-Simonian persuasions of the Emperor laid stress on ‘improvements’ to the old congested and filthy working-class quartiers, with particular emphasis on the provision of fresh water and fresh air. It’s possible that Haussmann’s greatest practical achievement was the reorganisation of the water supply (with the assistance of the formidable engineer Belgrand). Under the guidance of Adolphe Alphand, one of his most ardent supporters, fresh air was to be had in abundance from the creation of new parks and green spaces. The latter project was supported by the Church, on the grounds that what was good for the lungs was also good for the soul, ‘improvement’ all the way down.

It also spawned the great Second Empire myth of the park as a space for the amicable mixing of citizens from all walks of life, thus abolishing or suspending the frictions of class conflict and difference (in practice, the wealthy took themselves to the Bois de Boulogne while the poor congregated in the eastern Bois de Vincennes). The fact remains that, for all Louis-Napoleon’s commitment to Saint-Simonian ideas of ‘progress’ (it is a wild exaggeration on Carmona’s part to describe him as ‘a forty-eighter at heart’), the distribution of these gains in amenity was systematically weighted in favour of the rich. Certainly, Haussmann’s overriding agenda was economic and commercial, with scant regard to issues of justice. He sought to apply to Paris the dictum from his Mémoires: ‘How rich France would become if it were well governed – above all well administered.’ Administration was for Haussmann fundamentally about forging the conditions of wealth and prosperity for the bourgeois order that had emerged victorious from the traumas of 1848.

This explains the centrepiece of the whole enterprise: the recasting of the system of roads and thoroughfares. Efficient means of transport, both to and from and within the city was the founding principle of the grands travaux. The original idea was to link the railway stations, both with each other and with the city centre. Contemporary Paris was to be first and foremost a gigantic trading station, ‘a great consumption market’, as Carmona aptly puts it. Here Haussmann revealed an extraordinarily ambitious, even reckless aspect to his otherwise cautious and tidy personality. Where the city’s communication infrastructure was concerned, he wanted to play it both big and fast. This immediately raised the question of financing, since it would have been impossible to meet the costs of the rebuilding programme from the city’s annual tax revenues. His solution was bold: to apply the theory of ‘productive investment’ by raising capital through the issue of bonds to be serviced from income. The theory had it that a virtuous circle would be created, whereby increased economic activity (starting with the construction works themselves) would produce ever greater income, enabling the city not only to pay off its debts, but also to accumulate a surplus (not to mention the exponential increase in private fortunes for those lucky enough to cash in on the good times).

At first the conservative banking establishment, headed by Rothschilds, was appalled. This was a gross violation of the principle of sound money, a form of financial madness. Cold-shouldered by the bankers, Haussmann turned to the shady Pereire brothers, the whizz-kids of modern Parisian finance who launched the Crédit Immobilier, the institution directly responsible for what Haussmann needed most – the speedy circulation of money in a city that was itself to be speeded up. Anxious for a slice of the action, Rothschild soon capitulated. And so one of the great credit and property booms of modern times was born, as investment turned to speculation and the stench of corruption spread. There is no proof that Haussmann himself was corrupt (even Jules Ferry’s polemic, ‘Les Comptes fantastiques d’Haussmann’, did not accuse him of graft), although Madame Haussmann made a tidy sum from buying and selling requisitioned properties, which suggests a degree of insider dealing. In the end, boom turned to bust, but for a long time both the theory and practice worked; Haussmann well understood the mechanisms of modern capitalism.

Producing a capital for Capital had many consequences, in terms both of how the process was lived through as it unfolded and how it was experienced as an aftermath. The immediate perception was of huge physical destruction; for years parts of Paris resembled a war-zone, the laying waste resurrecting, in a modern key, the older Romantic imaginary of ruins (in ‘Mosaïque des ruines’ Gautier identified Haussmann as the new Piranesi). At a deeper level, it enforced major social dislocations, uprooting traditional networks of labour, leisure and sociability based on locality to make way for the emergence of grande industrie, streamlined, large-scale production cranking out consumer goods at an unprecedently rapid pace. Carmona has very little of note to say about this face of Haussmannian modernity (for a more crisply informed account we need to turn to the work of the Marxist geographer-historian, David Harvey). At the psychic and cultural level, the outcomes were often paradoxical: Haussmann’s glittering city, with its spanking new boulevards and enticing department stores, was felt by many to be a blank, empty at the heart. Edmond de Goncourt wrote in the Journal: ‘My Paris, the Paris where I was born . . . is passing away . . . I am a stranger to what is coming, to what is, as I am to these new boulevards without turnings, without chance perspectives, implacable in their straight lines, which no longer smack of the world of Balzac, which makes one think of some American Babylon of the future.’ A common trope was the city-as-desert (an anonymous publication of 1868 bore the title Paris désert: Lamentation d’un Jérémie haussmannisé), and one of the signature images of Impressionist painting was the view from a window over a deserted street or place. The conservative Louis Veuillot wrote that Paris had a become a ‘city without a past, filled with memoryless minds, tearless hearts, loveless souls. City of uprooted crowds, a mobile mass of human dust.’

To be sure, the discourse of lamentation was often a set-piece performance, with a strong element of reactionary nostalgia for a lost vieux Paris, and Veuillot’s reference to the ‘deracinated’ sets a few alarm bells ringing. But when someone as analytically smart as Auguste Cochin complains about the destruction of neighbourhood and community, we can see that the relevant perception was not merely a bit of backwards-looking sentimentality. One way of summarising these developments would be to say that Haussmann effected a major change in the nature of the city itself. Paris was never seen as a city just for Parisians. As Haussmann put it, it was the ‘city for all the French people’. This echoed the longstanding view of Paris as inextricably tied to the centralised and centralising state, which explains why the key office was not the mayor but the prefect (a direct government appointment). In short, Paris was a capital city in a uniquely powerful and enduring way. Haussmann exploited this history but, in doing so, he altered its status by propelling it towards the form of the modern metropolis. In a seminal paper published in 1986, ‘The Metropolis and the Capital’, Anne Querrien proposed a set of formal distinctions between the two categories: the capital is a political and cultural ‘centre’, with the power and the authority to dominate a wider ‘territory’, to keep in place a ‘social hierarchy’ and to ‘subjugate a population . . . to a common heritage’. A metropolis, on the other hand, ‘is not a centre and has no centre’, it ‘has no identity to preserve’, it ‘begins with the slightest desire to exchange’, is ‘made up of networks’, puts ‘an incongruous mix of beings into circulation’ and is ‘the place where migrants find their socially predetermined destination’. Since the later 19th-century Paris has been a combination of the two, but with a strong displacement towards the metropolitan (the dismal reflection of which today is the new business district, La Défense).

As for Haussmann himself, after he was forced from office he devoted his declining years to writing his memoirs, composing bad poetry, but above all to making money. Fittingly, as estate agent writ large, he tried – without success – to revive the flagging fortunes of Crédit Immobilier. He did better as director then chairman of the Compagnie des Entrepôts et Magasins Généraux, restoring it to something of its pre-bust prosperity. Naturally the new boulevard sporting some of the swankier department stores was named boulevard Haussmann (by order of the Emperor, although the Communards would have none of it, substituting the politically more congenial ‘Victor Hugo’). It was here that Proust lived, composing A la recherche du temps perdu in the famous cork-lined room (though curiously there is no mention of Haussmann in Proust’s vast panorama). Carmona also has little to say about literature, apart from a brief mention of the meretricious morality plays of the Second Empire dramatists, allegedly taking the new monied bourgeoisie to task while leaving both their fortunes and their identities intact. The decisive literary responses lie elsewhere: Baudelaire’s great anti-epic of desolation and exile, ‘Le Cygne’; Zola’s chronicle of the deals, frauds and sleaze of the bankers and property speculators in the Rougon-Macquart novels; Rimbaud’s decomposition of the city in the hallucinatory prose poems of the Illuminations. And of course Proust himself, narrative historian of the after-life of Haussmann’s Paris. One of Louis-Napoleon’s proudest achievements was his redesigned Bois de Boulogne, all artifice masquerading as nature. This is where Proust’s Odette de Crécy, forever on the make, takes her morning walks, and where, beneath the rustle of autumnal foliage and pink dresses, we hear the more discreet rustle of banknotes.