Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
However, he's not completely wrong about Napoleon.
President Donald Trump talked about a lot of things in his latest interview with the The New York Times, and much of today’s pundit chatter revolves around his suggestion that he wouldn’t have hired Attorney General Jeff Sessions if he’d known the guy was going to recuse himself from the Russia investigation.
But here at CityLab our urbanist ears pricked up when we saw this: a report of a conversation with France’s President Emmanuel Macron.
“So I asked the President, so what about Napoleon? He said: ‘No, no, no. What he did was incredible. He designed Paris.’ [garbled] The street grid, the way they work, you know, the spokes. He did so many things even beyond. And his one problem is he didn’t go to Russia that night because he had extracurricular activities, and they froze to death.”
As noted by Yoni Appelbaum, our alert colleague over at The Atlantic, the president has his Napoleons confused.
It’s true that the Napoleon behind Paris’s 19th-century redesign was not the same one who invaded Russia—or as Trump chose to phrase it, apparently failed to invade because he had unspecified “extracurricular activities,”whatever that means. (Insert here your own speculation about what kind of extracurricular activities in Russia the president might be imagining.)
But Trump doesn’t get it entirely wrong. It was indeed Napoleon’s nephew, confusingly called Louis-Napoleon, or Napoleon III, (1808-1873), who led the remodeling of Paris and thus created the spoked city of wide boulevards we know today. But the more famous Napoleon—Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821), husband of Josephine, retreater from Moscow—did in fact play a small role in changing the layout of Paris. While he was still First Consul in 1801 (he crowned himself Emperor later), Napoleon did commission the construction of the Rue de Rivoli, a broad, paved street that, when complete, came to form central Paris’s main east-west axis. Napoleon even got involved in making sure the street stayed classy, issuing an order stating that butchers, workers using hammers, and “craftsmen whose condition requires the use of an oven” should be barred from setting up shop there.
But while Napoleon I did a little tinkering with the street plan here and there, it was really his nephew Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte who transformed the city. After he was elected president in 1848, Paris started to turn into the city we know today.
It might seem improbable comparing the French and British capitals in 2017, but in the mid-19th century, London was a more orderly, spacious, and well-planned city than Paris, whose labyrinthine, medieval street plan was still largely intact. Louis-Napoleon was the driving force behind a major redesign of the city, particularly in creating the huge, landscaped parks at the Bois de Boulogne and Bois de Vincennes. His chosen master planner, Georges-Eugène Haussmann, led the capital’s reconstruction. While the city already had some boulevard rings that pre-dated Napoleon I, it was Haussmann who smashed new avenues through its old streets, forming the spokes Trump mentions that radiate from huge squares.
As Vox notes, scrambled Napoleons are hardly the most serious errors of fact in the Times interview, and plenty of non-experts would similarly flub Parisian history. If I were American, I’d probably be more concerned about the fact that he seems to have no understanding of how health insurance operates.