France commune

Parisian boulevards built not for cars but to better suppress street protests

© 2018 Bloomberg Finance L.P.

Despite President Emmanuel Macron‘s recent attempts to unite his nation, this Saturday will see central Paris once again locked down, with riot police once again aiming to quell any violence from the yellow vests protesters. France’s “yellow vests” took to the streets of Paris for the first time on November 17, ostensibly opposed to green fuel tax hikes introduced to make driving more expensive. Many motorists have been reluctant to pay more to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and in protest have donned the high-visibility vests that all cars in France must wear. The demands of the Yellow Vests movement then transformed, partly motivated by a groundswell from which Macron must resign.

France has a long and legendary history of street protest. Paris, in particular, has deep associations with revolutionary foment, with many of its famous boulevards designed not so much to facilitate the passage of wheeled vehicles as to prevent the kind of crowd control that fueled the French Revolution from 1789 and subsequent manifestations of 1830. and 1848.

The majestic grand boulevards of Paris were created between 1853 and 1870 by Georges-Eugène Haussmann, better known as Baron Haussmann. Acting under the instructions of Napoleon III, Haussmann razed much of medieval and revolutionary Paris to create its wide, straight and long boulevards. Dramatic, yes, but the widths and the straightness were not intended for the pleasure of the coachbuilders. Air circulation for health and a desire to be bigger than London were part of the plan, but crowd control was an important impetus. Narrow roads can be easily blocked by erecting barricades.


While part of the Champs Elysees is today paved with oblong granite cobblestones, the road was originally paved with compacted crushed stone, a surfacing known as macadam after its Scottish inventor John Loudon McAdam. The use of macadam instead of pavers, cobblestones or tarred wooden blocks, reduces the availability of ready-to-use missiles and fire starters.

At the time, Mark Twain said Haussmann’s wide, straight roads were an adjunct to Napoleon’s plans for his own safety:

He annihilates the winding streets and builds in their stead lofty boulevards as straight as an arrow – avenues which a cannonball could run from end to end without encountering an obstruction more irresistible than the flesh and bones of men – boulevards whose majestic edifices will never allow themselves refuges and plotting grounds for hungry and discontented revolution herders. The mobs used to riot there, but they must seek another rallying point in the future. And this ingenious Napoleon paves the streets of his great cities with a smooth and compact composition of asphalt and sand. No more slab barricades, no more assaults by His Majesty’s troops with cobblestones.

Much to Haussman’s annoyance, its grandiose city planning did not prevent the 1871 insurrection that led to the Paris Commune, a socialist government that briefly ruled Paris in the spring of that year.

The Haussmannian metamorphosis of the city did not stop this mini-revolution, in part because the street widening plan was not yet complete. Many roads were still narrow and covered with tarred wooden blocks, which the insurgents used as weapons, in bonfires and barricades. Victor Hugo, relating the revolution of 1830 in his novel Wretched, wrote: “The barricade was built with cobblestones… Not an off-line stone…”

Jon Furniss/Invision/AP

It’s true, the barricades used in the modern staging of Wretched are historically inaccurate: the actual barricades were made of oblong cut stone, not wooden furniture.

And it is these cobblestones – a later addition to the Parisian street scene and not a coating ordered by Haussmann – which will be torn from the ground on Saturday and thrown at the CRS by the yellow vests.