Paris—the Paris that inspires so many dreams—is a recent creation, the product of a charming playboy with imperial visions and his invaluable ally, a hard-driving bureaucrat with an extraordinary ability to get things done. The playboy was a Bonaparte, the nephew of France’s first emperor, and his dedicated right-hand man was Georges Haussmann. Together they completely rebuilt Paris from the ground up—from below the ground, counting the new water and sewer system—and created the city that Paris is today.
This breathtaking achievement had its origins on December 10, 1848, when Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte, was elected president of France’s Second Republic. He did not remain in elected office for long. Three years later, on December 2, 1851, he carried out a bloody coup d’état, which a plebiscite of France’s adult male voters overwhelmingly endorsed. This in turn led, a year later, to Louis-Napoleon’s proclamation of the Second Empire and his assumption of the title of Napoleon III (having granted Napoleon I’s son, who died young, the title of Napoleon II). His reign lasted eighteen years, until he led France into a catastrophic war with Bismarck’s Prussia and was deposed and replaced by the Third Republic.
Politically, it was not a glorious time for Paris or for France. During these almost two decades of imperial rule, Napoleon III imposed an authoritarian government that severely limited freedom of assembly, speech, and publication, all the while claiming to act on behalf of the common man. Yet those who most benefited from the Second Empire were not the workers but rather those new men of commerce, banking, and the railroads, whose sudden wealth led to a gaudy era of excess, in which the emperor led the way.
Still, Napoleon III’s vision included a better Paris for one and all, and this meant a complete overhaul of the city, much of which at the outset of his reign still resembled the Paris of medieval times. Paris in the early 1850s was a densely-packed metropolis, with narrow, winding, and often filthy streets lined by ancient and decaying housing. This was a Paris that Victor Hugo could rhapsodize over, but it also was a hellhole for those stuck there, especially in the eastern and central portions of the city. Napoleon III had a better idea for Paris, one that would improve the city’s housing and sanitation as well as encourage commerce by providing broad and wide avenues connecting the recently-built railway stations with one another and with the city’s center. Napoleon III had a vision, and he soon found the man to carry it out—Georges Haussmann.
During the seventeen years that Haussmann served as the emperor’s prefect of the Seine, he tore up an astonishing amount of old Paris, both above and below ground, introducing a modernized water and sewer system as well as those broad and wide avenues lined with uniform apartment buildings that have since become known as “Haussmann buildings.” Uniformity was prized, not only as aesthetically desirable but also as an economical approach to rebuilding the huge swaths of the city that were being razed. Order and prosperity marched together, as far as both Haussmann and his emperor were concerned, and the fact that these broad streets made it far easier for troops to march, and far more difficult for the workers of Paris to build barricades, was an added incentive.
And yet, even while the emperor imposed his vision on Paris, a number of Parisians, especially the young, refused to comply with the restrictions that the Empire imposed. Young artists such as Edouard Manet, Berthe Morisot, and Claude Monet, as well as young writers such as Emile Zola, Gustave Flaubert, and the poet Charles Baudelaire, resisted the constraints imposed by government censorship and entrenched institutional taste, even while politicized students and teachers such as Georges Clemenceau and Louise Michel linked up with a growing number of Parisians who were anxious to end imperial rule. And while Eugène Viollet-le-Duc staunchly resisted the stultifying influence of the all-powerful Ecole des Beaux Arts as he restored Notre-Dame-de-Paris to its former glory, the rising young photographer Nadar discreetly thumbed his nose at the palace—although not at those clients it provided.
Nadar had risen to prominence after a lengthy stint among the poor young artists, writers, and musicians of the Latin Quarter, who now became known as Bohemians, after Henry Murger’s publication of Scenes from Bohemian Life. Murger based his stories on his own hard experience as a starving writer in a Paris garret, and his book bestowed the name “Bohemian” on those who similarly eked out an existence dedicated to the creative arts. Yet not all young artists of this time were inclined to suffer, and even while resisting the rules, young Sarah Bernhardt did what was necessary to ensure her own comfort as she began what would turn out to be a long and glittering career, embracing an acting and life style that was distinctly her own.
While young Parisians were at the forefront of resistance to Napoleon III’s empire, defiance was not limited to the young. From his exile outside of France, Victor Hugo continued to fire literary broadsides at Louis-Napoleon, scathingly labeling him as “Napoléon le Petit,” while Hugo’s long-time friend Alexandre Dumas kept just shy of the censors at home and dove into the fight for Italian unification abroad.
It was a time of vast change—a change that was not limited to the enormous physical transformation occurring in Paris. Supported by the emperor, a network of railways grew during these years to encompass the nation, while back in Paris—the vortex of all this upheaval—innovative forms of banking and money-lending were buoying an upsurge in industry, creating new wealth even while attracting a growing number of poverty-stricken workers to the city in search of jobs.
Even more deeply, change was occurring in the very way people looked at and understood the world around them, as railroads revolutionized mobility, the telegraph and rotary press modernized communications, and photography transformed ways of viewing people and places. What would soon be known as Impressionism in art and Naturalism and Realism in literature would create their own cultural revolutions, leading the way into the era of the Belle Epoque. But first, a devastating war had to be fought, a siege endured, and an uprising of Paris’s workers overcome. Napoleon III’s empire began in bloodshed and ended with more bloodshed. But the Third Republic that rose from the empire’s ashes would endure, sometimes shakily, for seventy years.
As for the man who claimed the title of Napoleon III, he has been forgotten, in the way that embarrassments in history are largely forgotten. He led France into a devastating defeat against a newly-unified Germany, and therefore there is no memorial to him in Paris save for the small (and easily overlooked) area in front of the Gare du Nord called the “Place Napoléon III.”
Yet this was the man who created the Paris that is so beloved today. Paris, that city of dreams, has survived Napoleon III into the twenty-first century, and perhaps it can be said that this Paris, the Paris he created, is his lasting memorial.