Unloved maker of Paris

8th arrondissement - corners of rue de Laborde / Boulevard Haussmann

Haussmann in stone, staring down the boulevard that carries his name. A worthy attempt at capturing the grandiose vision of the maker of modern Paris. Worthy, but failed. While not of outstanding interest, there is nothing wrong with Haussmann's statue per sé - but it has been erected on nothing more than the convergence of two streets (including the decidedly un-grandiose rue de Laborde). In addition, it is surrounded by poles and traffic lights, and dwarfed by a nondescript corner building set just 6 metres behind. Methinks the great man would have been unimpressed by such a half-baked idea.... But perhaps there is something deliberate behind the botched ergonomics, for Baron Georges Eugène Haussmann continues to stir fierce passions among Paris urbanists almost 150 years after he commenced his titanic task to turn the city into sometime more than an open cesspool.

The Baron was not necessarily what the French call sympathique. He was a ruthless, arrogant careerist forever fawning upon Napoléon III (Victor Hugo's "Napoléon le petit"). Indeed, some argue that Haussmann was little more than a clever administrator and executioner of designs for the French capital actually drawn up by Napoleon himself during his exile in England in1846-1848.

And then there is the destruction of dear old dirty Paris itself. Haussmann is accused of using fair means and foul in order to dislodge the people who lived along the route of the 137kms of avenues built during his reign. Huge areas were reduced to rubble, including the maze of medieval streets around Notre Dame, which were replaced with a grey, lifeless administrative quarter that still stands today. His enemies accused Haussmann of benefiting from some of the ill-gotten gains made from frenetic speculation accumulated during his reign as prefect of Paris from 1853 to 1870 (although, according to his biographer, David Jordan, there is absolutely no evidence of this and the Baron died leaving considerable debts after a retiremnt spent in relative modesty).

There is also the matter of the enormous debts run up by Haussmann, debts so huge that they were not entirely paid off by the city of Paris until 1929! In 1870, some 44% of the municipal budget went on interest payments for expropriations etc... And then there are the idiosyncrasies, the " stories " - invented or real - cited to explain why such and such a buiding was left standing. One concerns St-Germain-l'Auxerrois, the parish church of the Kings of France situated directly opposite the Louvre. The story goes that St. Germain l'Auxerrois and the dark, insalubrious streets behind it were to be torn down to open up the perspective down the rue de Rivoli from the Place du Châtelet to the famous Perrault columns of the Louvre. But Haussmann remembered his history and had second thoughts. In 1572, the bells of St. Gemain l'Auxerrois sounded the start of the Massacre of Saint-Bartholemew, when some 3,000 Protestants were killed during the Wars of Religion. Being a Protestant, and mindful that he was becoming increasingly unpopular, Haussmann decided to cancel the destruction of the church, an act which could easily be construed by his opponents as an example of the Baron's wanton revenge for a historical wrong. St. Germain l'Auxerrois was spared.


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