Paris Reborn

Beginning in the 1850s, Napoleon III tasked George-Eugene Haussmann, newly appointed prefect of Seine, with the rebuilding of Paris. As Stephane Kirkland said in his book Paris Reborn, Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte “had a great ambition for Paris. He wanted to transform it into the most modern and functional city of the world, a city where wide, convenient boulevards suitable for modern transportation would replace narrow streets, where elegant ladies could walk without treading in filth and decay, where new neighborhoods would rise to house the swelling population; he wanted a city that would represent the principles of order and modernity of his presidency …”

View of Place de la Concorde and the Champs Elysees in 19th century Paris with Arc de Triumph in the distance

Kirkland goes on: “It was a heavy-handed enterprise, which achieved its ends at tremendous human and cultural cost and wiped from the map an old, much-loved Paris … the Second Empire rebuilding of Paris was responsible for creating one of the world’s great cities.”

If you’ve been to Paris, you will have had the pleasure of walking those wide boulevards conceived by Napoleon III and admiring the Haussmann-style architecture of five- and six-storey buildings that dominate the city.

Historical accounts say that Napoleon III “installed a huge map of Paris in his office, marked with coloured lines where he wanted new boulevards to be.”

Like any large public venture, the rebuilding of Paris created winners and losers. Those with insider knowledge made fortunes. Many of those whose homes or businesses stood in the way of one of Napoleon III’s boulevards lost everything. Another consequence of this new Paris was to replace the heterogeneity of the old neighbourhoods, with new arrondissements that put “the rich with the rich and the poor with the poor.” Ile de la Cite is a good illustration. “In fewer than ten years, a veritable hive of human activity, with a complex organic structure of houses and little streets, was cleared away and replaced by large open spaces and boxlike institutional buildings.” The population of the island in the middle of the Seine fell from 15,000 to 5,000.

Along with the boulevards and new apartment buildings designed to house Paris’ growing population, Napoleon III created splendid new parks and gardens and new churches to mollify the working class. New department stores, new sewage and water systems were also built. The avenues were planted with chestnut trees.

Parc Monceau – intended for wealthy Parisians

The families of my two protagonists in Paris In Ruins, Camille and Mariele, are from the wealthy class that benefited from the rebuilding of Paris. Indeed, Camille’s father made some of his money by leveraging insider knowledge. But the seeds of unrest were sown. Seeds that would ultimately lead to the Paris Commune.

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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, PARIS IN RUINS, is available for pre-order on Amazon US, Amazon Canada, Kobo, and Barnes&Noble. An earlier novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

It’s always about the money

one of the octroi collection points
one of the octroi collection points (source Paris 75011)

Do you know what octroi refers to? Well, before investigating the history of Paris, I had no idea. Apparently it’s a local tax levied on goods coming into a city and can sometimes refer to the place where that tax is collected and the people collecting it. The Romans had such a tax but didn’t call it octroi. In the middle ages, French cities flexed their muscles and demanded the right to collect taxes – demanded is probably too strong a word as the reigning sovereign had to approve such matters and wasn’t above taking a share for his own coffers. Paris was one of the cities to apply an octroi to goods coming into the city.

Fast forward to the 19th century. By 1850 long lines of vendors formed everyday at customs pavilions designed by Claude-Nicolas Ledoux to pay the tax. But the city had grown beyond these collection points and according the Stephane Kirkland in his book Paris Reborn, “The octroi collection points posed a real problem of convenience. Each time one wanted to reenter the city, one had to stop, queue for a time routinely as much as half an hour, and state whether or not you had anything to declare … fashionable people on their promenades constantly had to cross through the Etoile checkpoint, which was one of the busiest.”

Beware inconveniencing fashionable people.

By the mid to late 1850s, Haussmann had an idea. Expand the city limits of Paris. In that way, the collection points for the octroi would encompass more goods and transactions and hence more funds, and the inconvenience factor would disappear. Eminently sensible particularly at a time when the rebuilding of Paris required a lot more money.

Haussmann was good at manoeuvring. He made clever arguments to the right people including Napoleon III and by January 1, 1860 the city boundaries had expanded. Kirkland sums it up like this: “Overnight, the city grew from thirteen to thirty-three square miles and gained 400,000 new inhabitants, taking its population from 1.1 million to 1.5 millions.” Paris now incorporated towns like Belleville, Montmartre, Passy, Auteuil and others. And a new arrondissement structure came into effect.

Octrois in Paris and throughout France were finally abolished in 1948.