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The incredible Baron Haussmann –the man who changed Paris

The Paris of today is the result of the work of one man, Baron Haussmann.  Here is his story

The central political role that the city of Paris played in governing France was made even more important during the French Revolution. During the time of the Emperor Napoleon I, the city was beautified to some extent with new infrastructure, such as the Rue de Rivoli, the Madeleine, the Arc de Triomphe; quays and some sewers were constructed and houses received numbering. Paris seemed ready to welcome the dawn of a new era after the fall of Napoleon at Waterloo.

Les passages Shopping arcades were constructed where women could pass a day in cleanliness and safety meeting friends, buying clothes and enjoying a meal or a coffee in little restaurants. This is one of the early arcades or "passages".
Unfortunately, people seemed disinterested in continuing the transformation. The poor lived in filthy hovels, (with a population density of about 1000 people per square hectare). Cholera epidemics killed tens of thousands - the one in 1853 resulted in 11, 520 deaths. The desperate poverty fed the fear among the better off, of "the dangerous social classes" (« les classes dangereuses »).
Bridge by old Notre Dame The old city centre around Notre Dame was an overcrowded slum.
On the other hand, many people liked the huge contrasts to be found in this Pre-Haussmann Paris. On the boulevards, you could see bankers brushing shoulders with poorly paid shop girls, wealthy investors walking alongside low paid workers. This provided writers like Victor Hugo and Balzac with good material for their books.
Old Notre Dame Hovels crowded around Notre Dame de Paris. It was Haussmann who created the open views of the cathedral that we know today.
During 1848, there was a revolution against the restored monarchy in Paris where ordinary people sought to try to better their working conditions, their wages and their right to choose a government.  This was the revolution of Hugo’s “Les Misérables”, in which workers and students barricaded the streets and fought long, bloody battles against the military and the police. 

The 1848 revolution was the background to Hugo's "Les Misérables".

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Once peace was restored, the government realised that it was necessary to control the “social menace” - those who lived in the cramped, squalid, lower class inner city suburbs and the city centre.  The Emperor, Napoleon III,  (who was the nephew of the original Napoleon)  wanted to give the whole city a total make-over, starting with the Ile de la  Cité, the area around Notre Dame.  He commissioned Baron Haussmann to take over the re-construction of the city.
Napoleon III

Napoleon III was the nephew of the original Napoleon.  He was the President but created himself Emperor in a coup d'état in 1851. He called his régime the Second Empire.


Haussmann had far sighted concepts which he was able to realise since he had the total backing of the Emperor.  He envisioned a “City of Light”, with wide streets, beautiful buildings, parks, piped water and sewerage.   For seventeen years, from 1853 to 1870, Haussmann worked to fulfil his dream.   Money was no object as he organised demolition on a huge scale.   He evicted the poorer classes and gentrified the areas, with wide roads, avenues, boulevards, luxurious apartment blocks to house the wealthy, shops, parks, piped water and hundreds of kilometres of sewers.  He put in paved footpaths for the pedestrians.
ave_gde_armee The Avenue de la Grande Armée is the widest road in Paris, and leads to La Défense, the CBD.
Haussmann  saw the Arc de Triomphe as the central triumph, to which all roads eventually led;  he designed his city so that the Arc could be seen from great distances as the culminating point of perspective. 
place_del_etoile Haussmann designed the surrounding boulevards to arrive like a twelve rayed star at the huge roundabout surrounding the Arc de Triomphe. The roundabout was originally called Place de l'Etoile, or Star Place.
Shoppers no longer needed to resort to the safety of shopping arcades.  They could enjoy strolling along the wide footpaths.  The big department stores opened their doors to the new generation of Parisians who were now mostly middle or upper class (bourgeois), with large disposable incomes. 
boulevard in 19c

"Paris in the Rain" by Caillebotte captures wealthy Parisians surrounded by new buildings in a wide boulevard.


It was a boom period for Paris, with property developers, interior designers, engineers, investors, speculators making huge fortunes as the city became one of the most beautiful in Europe. 
construction of opera The construction of the Paris Opera in 1857. Demolition of the old buildings can be clearly seen.
However, the transformation of the city centre had the unfortunate effect of pushing the poorer classes to either concentrated pockets in the city or the outskirts of the city.  This was the beginning of the unrest that led to the 1870 Revolution – but that’s another story!

Haussmann met an unfortunate end.  He became unpopular (evicting his own mother and demolishing her home didn’t help!)  Even though his work reaped millions of dollars for the Paris city council, he was accused of misspending public money and fraud, and was sacked in 1870.


Baron Haussmann

On other pages

Did you know?


This is the flag of Paris.


Notre Dame

Notre Dame was nearly demolished. It was only saved by Victor Hugo's campaign to save it. Click here to find out more.



Sacré Coeur is not really that old. Click here to find out about it.


Eiffel Tower

The Parisians hated the Eiffel Tower when it was first constructed. They wanted to pull it down. Click here to find out more


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