Boulevard Saint-Michel

Arrondissement: 6

Numbers: 31

In 1842 Gustave Courbet‘s first workshop was at 89 Rue de la Harpe which, after the Southern part of the Rue de la Harpe was knocked down, was approximately at the location of 31 Boulevard St Michel. This was where Courbet got to know Proudhon.

One of Baron George Haussmann’s objectives in tearing up much of old Paris after the 1848 Revolution was to try and eradicate the possibilities of street barricades and open resistance, or at least to ensure that the army and police would find suppressing it easier. The Latin Quarter and its student and poor working class inhabitants were a key target.

Hazan (IOP) quotes Haussmann as acknowledging his aim was to restructure Paris ‘strategically’:

I read, in a book which enjoyed great success last year, that the streets of Paris had been enlarged to permit ideas to circulate, and, above all, regiments to pass. This malicious statement (which comes in the wake of others) is the equivalent of saying that Paris has been strategically embellished. Well, so be it . . . I do not hesitate to proclaim that strategic embellishments are the most admirable of embellishments.”

In 1851 Paris comprised 30,770 houses; by 1860, when he expanded Paris to include all the land within the 33km-long Thiers Wall, built between 1840 and 1844, he had already demolished 14% of them. Between 1852 and 1868 a grand total of 18,000 houses had been demolished.

Haussmann’s first idea for the Fountain at the Place St Michel, on the new North-South axis he had constructed through Paris, was for a giant Napoleon Bonaparte. Finally, the architect Gabriel Davioud designed the ‘Victory of Good over Evil’, with Saint Michael defeating the devil (or Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte defeating the 1848 Revolution) that was put in place in 1860, hiring nine different sculptors to sculpt its different elements.

Strategically, though, Boulevard Saint-Michel may be considered to have been more successful than the dreadful fountain. In May 1871 it took little time for the fragile barricades in the broad street to be broken.

On August 21 1944, the Boulevard Saint-Michel was again a key strategic route for the German occupiers to move their troops from the garrison at the Luxembourg Gardens to the right bank in the North.

The resistance built a barricade across it to the Café Cluny on the corner with the Boulevard Saint-Germain, on whose pavements in 1995 I first met Sylvie, a French doctoral student who became very close to me over the following two decades.

In August 1944 the strategic crossroad there quickly became known as the ‘crossroad of death’. In one account I read there was a suggestion that some Germans tied French men and women to the front of their tanks as human shields to go up Boulevard Saint-Michel.  

Insurgent Paris rarely sleeps long. On May 13 1968 ten years to the day after the Algerian generals’ coup d’état toppled the Fourth Republic, a one million strong trade union and student demonstration protesting police violence against students on the night of the barricades (May 10) marched down the Boulevard Saint-Michel and past the Place Saint-Michel over to the right bank. The following day factory occupations started to spread throughout France.

Back in London at the LSE in May 1968, we Socialist Society activists organised a sit-in in solidarity with French students and workers on the one day that week when we didn’t have exams. From the sublime …

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