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Better the drama of today's street-fighting; Paris Between Empires. 1814-1852. By Philip Mansel (John Murray, pounds 25). Reviewed by Keith Brace.

Byline: Keith Brace

We have all seen them sitting there, the Parisians, peacefully enjoying their aperitifs, writing their novels (if they still do in cafes), reading their papers, waiting for their lunch.

Yet we know from the history of the great city that at any moment a rent-a-horde of students will barge round the corner, shouting 'Down with the Revisionist Neo-Fascist Sewage Department of the 18th Arrondissement', tear up the paving stones and build a barricade.

The riot police will disperse them. The students will throw stones and distribute pamphlets. The onlookers will take up their papers again and another chapter of Parisian history will have been written.

Why they do this, and they the adjacent British, until recent years at least, don't, Philip Mansel does not explain. But he does give a compelling account of the Parisians doing it through the turbulent years between the downfall of Napoleon I and the rise and fall of his (supposed) nephew, Napoleon III.

The great first Napoleon is defeated in 1814 by the allies, Austria, Prussia and Russia, and retreats moodily to Elba, while thousands of his erstwhile supporters flock to the restored Bourbon King, Louis XVIII.

These renegades including famous warriors, politicians, nobles, writers etc, are careful to keep their tricoloured Napoleonic cockades hidden in case the great man returns.

Which, of course, he does, to great acclaim, though not from the ordinary mothers, sons and daughters of the one-and-a-half-million French soldiers who died through the nine years of Napoleon I's massive, unprincipled attack on civilised Europe - just for the fun of it, as it now often seems in retrospect.

Waterloo sends him packing to St Helena, Louis XVIII returns, and Paris is again the cultural, musical, literary, artistic centre of Europe, with its colleges, museums, theatres, glittering cafes and club-like brothels.

Attempts are made to draw up democratic constitutions, charters for the protection of the people. But the ambitions of would-be tyrants continue, the love of rebellion and violence is never quenched. Better the drama of today's street-fighting than the dullness of British-style democracy.

The 'bourgeois' Louis-Philippe takes over from the reactionary Charles X in 1830. Despite 18 years of feverish money-getting, the money runs out. In 1848 another revolution throws him out.

Louis-Napoleon eventually make himself Emperor, indulges in disastrous foreign adventures and ignores the Prussians, rivals for Top Nation as they get more numerous, better educated, more industrial and better armed. In contrast, Napoleon III foolishly involves himself in war with Prussia.

France is defeated and ruined, but, mysteriously as ever, quickly revives yet again to enjoy the cultural and financial rewards of 'la Belle Epoque'. The poor remain poor (though not quite so poor, according to some modern reassessments of Napoleon III) and powerless apart from their bloody moment of glory in the 1871 Commune when they were bloodily put down.

All this is recounted with brilliant narrative and anecdotal fireworks, including great set pieces like the funeral of Napoleon I in 1840. But Mr Mansel leaves it to us to work out why it happened and why it never looks or sounds anything like the parallel history of Great Britain.

Even at its most bloodstained and chaotic, Paris carries on with social reform, sewers, medical care, great building schemes. And from 1814 to 1871 there are intermittent hopes, always dashed, for a union of European countries.

It is easy to sneer at Mr Mansel's 19th century Parisians as frivolous, hypocritical and often bloodthirsty serial turncoats, from Napoleon's Hundred Days to Vichy France.

But this allegedly feckless, unreliable nation has made a great contribution to human progress, enjoys a high standard of living, teaches its administrators how to administer and certainly runs a much more efficient railway system than ours.

All this without really giving up its revolutionary, one-crisis-at-a-time, un-British way of politics. Sip your Pernod patiently and those tiresome students will be digging up the paving stones yet again.


A legacy of Paris Between the Empires? Parisians enjoying a riot on the Rue Saint-Antoine with anarchists throwing stink bombs during an 'Alienation Celebration' staged during the annual May Day parade in 1977
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Title Annotation:Books
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Aug 18, 2001
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