City of Light

The Making of Modern Paris


By Rupert Christiansen

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A sparkling account of the nineteenth-century reinvention of Paris as the most beautiful, exciting city in the world

In 1853, French emperor Louis Napoleon inaugurated a vast and ambitious program of public works in Paris, directed by Georges-Eugè Haussmann, the prefect of the Seine. Haussmann transformed the old medieval city of squalid slums and disease-ridden alleyways into a “City of Light” characterized by wide boulevards, apartment blocks, parks, squares and public monuments, new rail stations and department stores, and a new system of public sanitation. City of Light charts this fifteen-year project of urban renewal which — despite the interruptions of war, revolution, corruption, and bankruptcy — set a template for nineteenth and early twentieth-century urban planning and created the enduring landscape of modern Paris now so famous around the globe.

Lively and engaging, City of Light is a book for anyone who wants to know how Paris became Paris.


A view of the foyer of Garnier’s Opéra as it is today. (JOE VOGAN / ALAMY STOCK PHOTO)

An artist’s impression of the foyer of Charles Garnier’s Opéra on its opening night, January 5, 1875. (EVERETT COLLECTION / BRIDGEMAN IMAGES)

The building had been under construction for nearly fifteen years at vast cost, with no expense spared on either materials or decoration. But for the moment, nobody cared about the budget sheet (several million francs over the original estimate, as is so often the case): a week before, Garnier had formally handed over the 1,942 keys to the management, and now the singers and dancers prepared to christen it in a lengthy program of operatic scenes and balletic divertissements. To a city addicted to excitement, scandal, and headlines, the novelty was all: as The Times of London reported, the opening of the Opéra was “the sole, the only topic which engages public interest and attention.”

Garnier’s Opéra, as seen from the Avenue de l’Opéra, circa 1880. (PRIVATE COLLECTION / BRIDGEMAN IMAGES)

The show proved something of an anticlimax, dragging on interminably without aesthetic distinction. Exacerbated by opening-night panic and production problems, the scenery did not fit the space properly, and the stage management proved amateurish. The prima donna Christine Nilsson had withdrawn at the eleventh hour, as prima donnas tend to do, because of “an indisposition.” As the exasperated critic Léon Escudier wrote in his review, “A corner grocer’s shop could have organized a more attractive artistic celebration.” There were problems of protocol as well: so lengthy was the list of honored guests that Garnier, the genius who had fanatically devoted himself for over a decade to the creation of this wonder of the world, was assigned a seat in a box to the side of the auditorium on the second tier, an appalling snub that he brushed aside by choosing to remain in his office and continue working instead.

This was the public’s first glimpse of the foyers where Garnier’s imagination had run free: gilded and mirrored salons, shimmering candelabra and marbled colonnades, ceilings covered with mosaics and frescoes, classical statuary, and flaming gas torchères, all enhancing a superb central stairwell that turned the ascending and descending audience into a spiraling spectacle far more impressive than anything that the clunking grand operas and silly, twittering ballets could display on stage. Patriotic hearts were exhorted to rejoice, and even the satirical weekly Le Sifflet responded to the call: “Be proud of being French when looking at our Opéra! Foreigners who come to visit this marvel will see that despite all our misfortunes, Paris is and always will be without rival.”

Yet ultimately the significance of this opera house was not a matter of music, art, or even architecture. It was an ideologically charged symbol of France’s recent history and bruised national pride: an ambiguous monument to a triumph and a disaster that had started as one thing and ended as another.

The project had originated as a key element of a vast, unprecedented strategy to redevelop the capital’s center that was conceived by Louis Napoléon, authoritarian ruler of France from 1852 to 1870, and executed by his fearsomely effective left-hand man and de facto mayor of Paris, Baron Haussmann. An opera house would be a focal point for a network of new streets, new private housing, new public buildings and monuments, new parks, new sewers, and even new city boundaries that ranks among the greatest experiments in urban planning ever undertaken.

But in 1870 the French had foolishly gone to war against Prussia and suffered a crushing and unexpected defeat. Louis Napoléon’s regime, known as the Second Empire, had collapsed, and Paris had in consequence endured a long siege, followed by a revolt that resulted in the brief establishment of the socialistic Commune, suppressed by the new republican government through a swift massacre of perhaps 20,000 French citizens.

By this time, Haussmann had lost his job, victim of his own high-handedness. Although much of the master plan that he gave to the capital would continue to be realized for a time, the fate of Garnier’s Opéra hung in the balance. A humbled France was bound to pay a huge indemnity to Prussia after the war, and public funds were scarce. Given those circumstances, many believed that it was profoundly wrong to dedicate scarce resources to the completion of a pleasure palace that symbolized the ostentatious hedonism and frivolity of the Second Empire’s culture.

But with three-quarters of the work already achieved by 1870 and much of the remainder already commissioned or paid for, it was too late to cancel or even substantially reconsider Garnier’s scheme, and as if to end the debate, Paris’s grand opera house on the Rue Le Peletier burned to the ground in 1873. So after Garnier accepted a face-saving budget cut and made several minor but politic alterations, including removal of the imperial insignia from the facade, the theater was ready for business. It swiftly proved a triumph, hailed internationally as a wonder, and even today it remains a fully functional home for opera and ballet as well as being a popular tourist attraction.

Those who turned away in moral disgust could console themselves with the construction by public subscription of a white monument in Montmartre, at the highest point of the city, on ground literally stained by the recent violent turmoil. The foundation stone for the Basilica of Sacré-Coeur (as it would eventually be consecrated in 1919) was laid only a few months after the opening of the Opéra, and its purpose could hardly have been more different: built on austere Romano-Byzantine principles, the basilica represented an overt penance for the war with Prussia and the crimes associated with the Commune, as well as an implicit rebuke of the sins and errors of the Second Empire. A shrine of traditional Catholic piety and doctrine, it would be devoted to orthodox worship, sober reflection, and spiritual regeneration.

The Basilica of Sacré-Coeur under construction.


The basilica and the opera house, embodiments of the sacred and the profane, were two buildings that looked strangely backward, reflecting from opposite ends of the moral spectrum a quarter century of the most tumultuous physical and political change that the city had ever known. How had this schism erupted, and where should this chapter in Paris’s story begin?



SINCE THE STORMING OF THE Bastille in 1789, France had suffered continual political instability: different constitutions, dynasties, and ideologies were constantly jostling for power as models of empire, monarchy, and republic were adopted and rejected, sometimes with violence and always overshadowed by the wayward course of wars with the rest of Europe. The Revolution of 1789–1794 had gathered a terrifying momentum as it intensified from moderate demands for constitutional reform under the Bourbon Louis XVI to the high-minded republicanism of the Girondins to the radical dictatorship and murderous populism of the Jacobin Terror. The more conciliatory but insecure regime of the Directory followed, its weakness allowing the rise of the successful General Napoléon Bonaparte to the rank of consul and then self-appointed emperor in 1804. All this within fifteen years.

What ensued was no less tumultuous as Napoléon won and lost territory that extended as far as Moscow. At Napoléon’s downfall, the monarchy was restored as Louis XVI’s brothers Louis XVIII (1814–1824) and Charles X (1824–1830) established a repressively conservative and Catholic culture that led to a further outbreak of revolution in Paris in 1830.

From that unrest came a more liberal constitutional monarchy: Louis-Philippe of the House of Orléans, a man bourgeois in personal style and mollifying in political temperament, took a newly conceived and circumscribed throne validated by a narrow electorate of the propertied class. But fierce opposition from various extreme factions was constant, and he survived seven assassination attempts before abdicating and fleeing to England in 1848. Poor harvests, high unemployment, a mismanaged economic slump, and political unrest among a radicalized youth had sparked another bloody outbreak in Paris that led to another republic being declared, based on high hopes and universal male suffrage.

Who could lead France now? Enter the stocky, unassuming, and unprepossessing figure of Louis Napoléon, born in 1808 as the son of Napoléon’s brother Louis and of Hortense de Beauharnais, the daughter of Napoléon’s wife, Josephine, by her first marriage.1

After Napoléon’s downfall, all members of his dynasty were banished from France, so Louis Napoléon’s childhood was itinerant: Switzerland, Germany, Italy, Britain. After Napoléon’s son died in 1831, Louis became the great hope of the Bonaparte dynasty, a position that consolidated a burning idea that it was his destiny and his right to rule France. He expounded his mission in various pamphlets and polemics, claiming to be the man who could rise above party and faction to unite the nation on the basis of a vote made by universal male suffrage.

During Louis-Philippe’s feeble and compromised reign, Louis Napoléon won a ready hearing: with corruption rife throughout the incompetent administration, there was growing support for a return to the strong central government of the Bonapartes. In 1836 Louis Napoléon planned a coup: it failed humiliatingly, and he had a lucky escape. After trips to Brazil and the United States, he settled for a couple of years in London. Living off the fortune of his late mother, he strolled daily through the city’s parks and admired the sweep and vision of John Nash’s great scheme of shops and housing that stretched down Regent Street to Carlton House Terrace.

In 1840 he landed at Boulogne to attempt a second coup. It proved another hopeless flop, verging on the farcical. Louis Napoléon was arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment in the château of Ham in Picardy. Here he spent six years in moderately comfortable circumstances, entertaining guests—including the mother of his two illegitimate children—and writing a variety of articles on social and political issues as well as a popular book focused on the problem of poverty and its elimination. In 1846 he managed without much difficulty to disguise himself and escape, returning to London for two further years, during which he socialized with the likes of Disraeli and Dickens. Always one for the ladies, he now took up with the worldly and wealthy courtesan Harriet Howard, who remained his mistress for several years and funded his political ambitions.2

When revolution erupted in February 1848, Louis Napoléon literally swapped places with Louis-Philippe: on the same day that the latter left Paris under the assumed identity of “Mr. Smith” for exile near London, Louis Napoléon set out to cross the Channel, confident that his moment had come. In fact, he was a few months premature: in the wake of riot and bloodshed, with only the most fragile of provisional governments sustaining the declaration of a republic based on the 1789 cry of Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité, he held back from staking his claim—wisely as it turned out, because another wave of street violence erupted in June, plunging the city back into a nightmare of barricades, slaughter, and mass arrests.

Leaving others to sort out the mess and lose their reputations in the ensuing recrimination, Louis Napoléon kept his distance from the fray until a round of elections in September, when he was elected by a large majority to the new National Assembly; sick of reforming liberals, radical socialists, and reactionary monarchists, the peasantry and working class voted overwhelmingly for a Bonapartiste candidate promising national unity and a return to the good old days when Napoléon was a strong-arm ruler and France was Europe’s dominant nation.

The new government prepared a constitution that included an elected president. With a convincing show of humility and florid expressions of being motivated by nothing except a desire to serve France to the best of his ability, Louis Napoléon offered to stand as a candidate in the presidential elections of December 1848. His populist manifesto promised—as such manifestos invariably do—stability, justice, and prosperity for all, with particular reference to interventions designed to improve the lot of the poor without stinging the rich through a socialist redistribution of property. Buttressed by an efficient campaign that reached throughout the country, this hollow rhetoric convinced the voters: he won by a staggering margin, gaining almost three-quarters of the vote, defeating candidates from across the political spectrum, including the idealistic poet Alphonse de Lamartine, the pacifist leader of the provisional government who opposed the death penalty and campaigned for the right to work.

But the title and powers of president of the Second Republic of France would not be enough for him, not least as the new constitution forbade him to stand for a second term. With the stealth and cunning that always characterized his political behavior, he hatched a quiet plan to reestablish his regime on a more permanent footing. To placate liberal and leftist factions, he initially swore to uphold democratic institutions and appointed several republicans to his cabinet, only to sack them one by one shortly afterward. His propaganda insisted on identifying nameless plots and underground conspiracies ready to foment anarchy, the threat they posed being sufficient to necessitate stiffer police powers and repressive measures. Meanwhile, he appeared in public in the uniform of a general (to which he had no legal right) and planted cheerleaders in crowds who noisily hailed him not as president but as emperor—the Napoléonic honorific. The army’s loyalty was assured through a hefty pay raise.

Having thus tested the water—and controlled its temperature—he enacted a swift coup d’état in December 1851. Another demagogic revolution threatened France, he proclaimed, and there was no alternative to a state of emergency if order was to be maintained. As he had guessed, the inevitable opposition could be managed and its noisier dissidents dispatched to prisons or penal colonies. He was now “prince president” of the Second Republic, endorsed by a massive majority after another national referendum: well over 7 million in favor, some 600,000 against, and 1.7 million abstentions. Enraged by what he saw as an act of outright tyranny perpetrated by someone he had initially supported, the great poet and novelist Victor Hugo left France and would not return for twenty years: from his base in the Channel Islands, he would publish a scathingly satirical pamphlet titled Napoléon le petit that made him the new regime’s most prominent ideological enemy, albeit one with no firsthand experience of it.3

But Louis Napoléon knew he had an unbeatable mandate. He set to work amending the constitution to give himself new powers that would see him elected to a renewable ten-year term, with the independence of parliamentary institutions vastly reduced and the scope of the opposition minimized. One of his more-trivial measures was a prohibition on students at universities growing full beards, excessive hirsuteness being regarded as a sign of red republican tendencies.

Further stage-managed elections ensured that the right people were in command of the right positions, and in October 1852 the prince president made a tour of the provinces, giving a keynote speech in Bordeaux that set out his vision of a France made newly prosperous through a vast development of its infrastructure: “We have immense uncultivated territories to clear, roads to open up, ports to construct, rivers to make navigable, canals to complete, a railway network to finish… everywhere we have ruins to restore, false gods to overthrow, truths to make triumphant.”4

The roars of approval that greeted such rhetoric emboldened him further. The Senate was sharply nudged to propose that the Second Republic should be replaced by the Second Empire and that the prince president be crowned Napoléon III, emperor of the French. This was put to the electorate, and another referendum delivered the necessary landslide. The field was clear.

WHO WAS LOUIS NAPOLÉON? NOBODY altogether knew. Genuinely mild mannered to the point of blandness (Karl Marx dismissed him contemptuously as “a grotesque mediocrity”)5, he became one of those second-grade dictators who avoid heavy-handed gestures and prefer being liked and admired to being feared and loathed. He was flexible; he was ready to listen and to hold back. He was never excessively vindictive or bloodthirsty, and he preferred taming his enemies to coercing them—exile to Algeria was his preferred punishment for serious political offenders, and even they were eventually offered pardons. He countenanced neither torture nor extortion, and although his means were often deeply unscrupulous, he was perhaps justified in terms of his end: the domestic stability of the Second Empire allowed a genuine extension of France’s material prosperity.

Nor can he be accused of megalomania: he accepted that at some point in the future he would be wise to relax his grip and allow genuine democracy to prevail. In an address made shortly after his coronation in 1853, he said: “To those who regret that a greater share has not been allotted to liberty I reply: liberty has never helped to found an enduring edifice: it crowns it when time has consolidated its existence.”6 True enough, surely—especially in a country that could scarcely serve as an advertisement for the benefits of liberté.

Three principal strategies secured his position. The first involved providing a simulacrum of democratic institutions—a senate, an independent judiciary, councils, elections, consultation, and representation—without permitting them any teeth or claws. They were merely talking shops; the making and enacting of all significant decisions were centralized in Louis Napoléon’s personal office. Yes, you could expect a fair trial and adult males were enfranchised with a vote, but boundaries were gerrymandered, there was no secret ballot, and in rural areas peasants (often illiterate) were strongly advised by the presiding mayoral officers to select the “official candidate,” who was the only one permitted to use white paper. Yes, there was parliamentary debate, but members of legislative bodies could be dismissed at the emperor’s whim. Yes, there were amnesties for troublemakers, but only on condition of signing an oath of loyalty to the Empire.

The second strand was a cunning system of censorship that could almost pass for reasonable tolerance and relied more on self-censorship than a strictly enforced code. The rules were vague: you could say and write what you liked as long as it did not incite disorder or flout decency—the definitions of which could be freely determined by the police. Cafés, cabarets, and other dives in which heretical talk might ignite unrest were kept under surveillance, and clubs with any sort of political agenda were banned. The chief news agency, Havas, was in effect an arm of the Ministry of the Interior, issuing an official version of the truth and editing out anything that did not fit the message. Stamp duty on all publications was increased, and caution money had to be lodged as a deposit against fines for anticipated future infringements of the code. Such measures discouraged opposition, to say the least.7

However, it was Louis Napoléon’s third focus that had the most striking impact. He spent huge amounts of public money. Following his uncle’s adage that “a new government must dazzle and astonish,”8


  • "The demolition and rebuilding of Paris during the Second Empire was, then as now, a subject of impassioned disagreement.... [An] astute, gossipy history."—New Yorker
  • "Highly readable... Christiansen grounds Haussmann's story in the political turmoil of the times."—Wall Street Journal
  • "Witty, learned and informative...This little book will make you want to walk the expansive elegance of Paris, as well as its back streets, from one end to the other, seeking of French history in the sites it brings so vividly to life."—New York Times Book Review
  • "If you are heading for sure to put City of Light in your bag...Rupert Christiansen's account of the destruction and rebuilding [of Paris] is masterly-vivid, dramatic...and ultimately tragic."—Sunday Times (UK)
  • "Good reading for all lovers of the City of Light."—Booklist (starred review)
  • "A concise yet admirably thorough account of the reinvention of one of the world's great cities...Engrossing."—Kirkus
  • "A valuable contribution to modern French and urban history."—Publishers Weekly
  • "Brisk, vivid, and unexpectedly stirring."—Mail on Sunday
  • "Christiansen writes about the streets he clearly loves with wit and élan...Christiansen's splendidly illustrated book made this homesick expat look at Paris with new eyes."—Times
  • "If you are heading for sure to put City of Light in your bag...Rupert Christiansen's account of the destruction and rebuilding [of Paris] is masterly-vivid, dramatic...and ultimately tragic."—Sunday Times
  • "Elegant and gorgeously illustrated."—Irish Independent
  • "A history buff's must-bring Parisian travel companion."—France Magazine
  • "Detailed.... Christiansen...looks back over this time of major upheaval whose results can still be seen today."—France-Amérique
  • "In City of Light, Rupert Christiansen illuminates the tumultuous years of the Second Empire (1852-70) of Napoleon III who, in league with Parisian overlord, Baron Georges Haussmann, rewrote the script for what a modern city should be. Written deftly and with an unfailing eye for colorful detail, City of Light offers an insightful and heartfelt appreciation of the nineteenth-century origins of a world city."—Colin Jones, author of Paris: Biography of a City

On Sale
Oct 9, 2018
Page Count
224 pages
Basic Books

Rupert Christiansen

About the Author

Rupert Christiansen has been writing about the arts for the Daily Telegraph since 1996. His many books include Prima Donna, Paris Babylon, and Romantic Affinities, which received the Somerset Maugham Award. A fellow of the Royal Society of Literature since 1997, he teaches at Keble College, Oxford and lives in London.

Learn more about this author