Research Subjects: Napoleon Himself

Napoléon and Paris

By Augustin Marck

Napoléon had two lovers: Joséphine and… Paris! Indeed, the French Capital brought Bonaparte to glory, celebrating on the “13 Vendémiaire de l’an IV” (October 5, 1795) the winner of the royalist rebellion near the Tuileries Palace, saving the revolutionary "Directoire". In return, Napoléon transformed the city into the "Capital of the World”, building sumptuous buildings and modernizing its infrastructure.  In flattering the Parisians, Napoléon, as a visionary strategist, also knew that he consolidated his power: as he was often away from home, fighting in foreign countries, he had to keep the capital calm and under control. Thanks to his great works and buildings, he created many jobs and allowed Parisians to live comfortably, with new commodities. Thus, the risk of riots or reversal was reduced (for instance, only 2,600 soldiers controlled Paris, compared to 10,000 in London and 6,000 in Vienna).  But Napoléon was finally defeated by the Allies, and his work was never completed. However, the indelible mark of Napoléon still remains very present in the French Capital.

At the beginning of this love story, we must be aware that in the late 18th century, Paris was a poverty-stricken city. Its 600,000 inhabitants lived without a sewer system, while a walk through small and dark streets were real traps when night came… Unlike London, the streets had no sidewalks, and garbage accumulated on the ground. The city was hungry too; there were neither markets nor water service... Therefore, freshly appointed as a new Consul, Napoléon wanted to transform Paris into a real capital (like he did in Cairo during the Egyptian campaign). And at the end of the Empire, Paris was one of the most enlightened cities in Europe with 10km of sewers, sidewalks, bridges and breakthroughs arteries having been built. To stimulate the economic activity, Napoléon also decided to build kilometers of wharves and warehouses for grain. Finally, he also enforced the numbering of streets from the Seine, which still in use today.

Parallel to the construction of these infrastructures, Napoléon, as a great lover of antiquity and classicism, wanted Paris to look like a modern Rome. In 1806, some works of beautification were started, first by moving the city center, then located at the city hall (Hôtel de Ville), further west towards the villages of Auteuil and Boulogne. He widen Rivoli Street (rue de Rivoli), restored the Tuileries Palace (Palais des Tuileries), built the Carrousel Triumphal Arch (Arc de triomphe du Carrousel, whereas the Champs Elysees was embellished with the construction of the Triumphal Arch (Arc de Triomphe) at the top. Then, having created new institutions, Napoléon gave to them new sumptuous buildings, such as the Palais d'Orsay for the Cour des Comptes (the State finance auditing agency) and the Palais Brongniart for the stock exchange.

Unfortunately, in 1809, the wars prevent Napoléon from carrying out his urban development projects. Campaigns were expensive, and public finances could no longer meet the needs of the works, which slow the pace. Many buildings initiated by Napoléon were only completed after the end of his reign. And Paris would have to wait until Napoléon III and Baron Haussmann, 50 years later, to complete the works begun by Napoléon. 

Two hundred years later, most of these buildings are still in use and can be visited. Walking in the Emperor's footsteps in Paris is a original way to discover the “City of light”. For doing so, you can contact Napoléon Tours, a small travel agency specialized in Napoleonic guided tours of Paris. All their tours are led by professional guides and specialists, and a 100 pages booklet about Napoleon in Paris is offered to each visitor.

Napoleonic Paris
(Click on the image to see a larger picture)

Rue de Rivoli
Arc de Triomphe
Arc de Triomphe
Arc de triomphe du Carrousel


Placed on the Napoleon Series: August 2011


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