Yellow Vests in Context: Haussmann, Urban Transformation and Street Violence

Burning cars in Pey-Berland Square, Bordeaux. Used with permission. ©GUILLAUME BONNAUD


Since November 2018, cities across France have been jolted by street violence linked to the Yellow Vests social movement. Protest against rising fuel taxes has moved quickly from social media to the streets, where sympathisers show solidarity by displaying the fluorescent yellow vest (gilet jaune) that every car owner is required by law to keep in the vehicle. Paris and Bordeaux have been particularly hard hit. Ironically, both cities were part of (1809-1891) urban transformations that were intended to make street fighting obsolete.

Parisian by birth, Georges-Eugène Haussmann settled in Bordeaux, where he became Prefect of the Department of Gironde in 1851. Armed with the old, eighteenth-century plans of Dupré de Saint-Maur and the Marquis de Tourny, he had schemes for the city, including a boulevard belt. But in 1853, six months after declaring himself emperor, Napoleon III offered him the job of Prefect of the Seine, and the chance to raze and rebuild Paris in the grandiose fashion the new emperor wanted as his legacy.

Haussmann hadn’t lived in Paris for 22 years, but the chance of creating a new, modern Paris was too exciting to pass up. Curiously, the same contradictory character traits that alienated Haussmann from the Bordelais got him the job in Paris. Arrogant yet hard-working, conniving yet supportive of a chosen few, eager to improve public safety yet distrustful of the masses: of all the prefects interviewed for the post, Napoleon III found Haussmann to be the most audacious and the best replacement for Jean-Jacques Berger, who found the Emperor’s plans too ambitious.

Napoleon III wanted to aesthetically improve Paris and put his stamp on the city, but he was also conscious of the power of the public, as was Haussmann. Though they hoped that people who visited their public parks and promenaded down shady, wide streets lined with elegant buildings instead of stagnant ravines would be calmer, they took precautionary measures. New streets connected the barracks to the riskier districts, and wide boulevards were built to be more difficult to barricade than narrow alleys.

Both men understood the force of Parisian street violence. Barricades featured in the insurrections of 1830, 1834 and 1848; Haussmann was wounded in the 1830 fighting; and Louis Napoleon Bonaparte used street tactics in the 1851 coup d’état which led to him becoming Emperor Napoleon III. In order to keep the peace in Paris, they agreed, there must be no more coalitions of the urban poor and the bourgeoisie. They had to separate them.

Memories of the putrid sewers of his Parisian childhood led Haussmann to be proud of what he called his “gutting” of old Paris. He tore up areas like densely-populated Notre Dame, installed gas street lights, and replaced open sewers with 560 km of sewage pipes. Narrow, winding roads became boulevards where building height was proportional to road width. The new city centre moved west, near the Opéra. Living in new Paris became expensive, so poorer classes moved out of the centre and wealthy residents, who were less likely to revolt, moved in.

Jules Galdrau, “Travaux nocturnes des constructions de la rue de Rivoli, éclairés par la lumière électrique”. Construction by night on the Rue de Rivoli, Paris.

It all went very well until it came to paying for things. Large-scale city planning was expensive, but Napoleon III refused to increase taxes to fund it. Thinking back to Tourny’s use of private capital in Bordeaux, Haussmann drew up a plan. He linked funding to inflated property values, duties on city imports, and new capitalist banking.

Paris’ revenue increased, but didn’t cover the building costs. Important people, like the Pereire family who lost their bank in the scheme, opposed Haussmann’s plans. So did those who loved the old Paris of Victor Hugo and Balzac, with its little streets and pungent smells. In January 1870, Napoleon III’s new prime minister dismissed Haussmann. To the ex-Prefect’s chagrin, the Emperor did not save him. His remaining 21 years were spent in relative obscurity.

Camille Pisarro painting of Haussmann’s new Paris

Today, the ‘Yellow Vests’ are not a coalition of urban poor and bourgeoise, but money, street violence, and Haussmann are very present in the movement. Falling living standards and increasing taxes are blamed for starting the current unrest, and the infiltration of thugs known as casseurs has turned the Saturday marches violent. In the revolution of 1830, where Haussmann was wounded, people rioted in the streets of Paris calling for a better standard of living and succeeded in removing King Charles X.

A Gilets jaunes protest in Belfort, France on 29 December 2018. Photo credit: Thomas Bresson

Almost 190 years later, the Yellow Vests are rioting in the streets of Paris and calling for President Macron to resign. The difference is, they are doing it in the streets that Haussmann built to stop them.  Pey-Berland Square, one of Haussmann’s first projects during his 19 months as Prefect of Gironde, is the centre of ‘Yellow Vest’ violence in Bordeaux. In Paris, barricades have been erected and burned on Boulevard Haussmann, built by and named for him. Alphonse Karr’s phrase, Plus ça change, et plus c’est la même chose, comes to mind.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *