This grainy, nondescript photo of a rainy day Paris street is merely a pretext for me to write briefly on a couple of subjects that have interested me for a long time, subjects that many of you no doubt know far more about than I do.
It is impossible to imagine how awful was Paris at the time of the Revolution of 1848 before the advent of Napolean III’s Prefect of the Seine, Georges-Eugène Haussmann. It was a pestilential, over-crowded place, squalid and rife with crime, many of the streets no wider than two to five meters. Moreover, the dispossessed of Paris at that time had a long tradition of rising up occasionally and murdering people just to clear the air. There had been no less than seven popular uprisings in Paris between 1830 and 1848.
It is just as impossible to imagine the scale of the massive public works projects undertaken under Haussman’s direction that totally remade the city between 1853 and 1870. Sewers, bridges, fountains, aqueducts, building façades and the wide streets of today’s Paris. It is fair to say that when we speak of the beauty of that city today, we are largely speaking of Haussman’s work.
Several historians have argued that perhaps a not unintended side effect of Haussman’s street-widening projects was to make it easier for French troops to suppress popular uprisings in the city. The troops could move from here to there more easily, and the citizenry would find it more difficult to construct barricades in those wide streets. There is an argument, for example, that it was the new wide streets that enabled the suppression of the Paris Commune in 1870 and the slaughter of the insurrectionists.
The year that I visited the city, 2008, happened to be the fortieth anniversary of the uprising of students and workers in Paris in 1968. As with all such things French, it was difficult then for an outsider to understand exactly what was going on and why. I well remember that at the age of twenty-one in 1968 amid all the chaos of that year in this country, I could make no sense whatsoever of what was happening in Paris as I read about it. Apparently, the student uprising began because the students wished to be able to sleep with each other, hence the slogan “Egalité! Liberté! Sexualité!” That I certainly understood. But then it morphed into a much broader revolt against something–as an American I know not what. Perhaps it was just the French being French.
The epicenter of that student uprising was here in the Fifth Arrondissement. At that time Rue Gay-Lussac was paved with paving stones, which the students gleefully tore up to use in building barricades and as missiles while chanting “Sous les pavés, la plage!” (“Under the cobblestones, the beach!”). There was a bed of sand under the paving stones of Rue Gay-Lussac. Consequently, as the paving stones were ripped up, this street became a vast sand box. So it was that I visited Rue Gay-Lussac in 2008, stared at it, tried to imagine that, and came away not understanding a whit more about the student uprising of 1968 in Paris.