The City of Light has made a habit of immortalising eminent figures from history through its street signs. Grab a plan de ville and you’ll be struck by the big guns such as Avenue Victor Hugo, Place Charles de Gaulle and Boulevard Haussmann.
Then there are the streets, squares, snickets and hidey-holes named after philosophers, scientists, writers, artists … and fiery revolutionaries.
One of them is Louis-Auguste Blanqui, one of French history’s most radical leftists, known for his conspiratorial strategies. He sought to implement socialism by mobilising secret armed groups to seize power and crush the bourgeoisie. Hence the prison terms – he spent a total of 33 years behind bars.
One of his prison spells came after he led a group of followers in an effort to spark the revolution by seizing a fire station in the La Villette area. Firefighters being part of the military in France, they hoped to grab a haul of weapons which were stored there and declare a republic to replace Emperor Napoleon III. That didn't work out.
Blanqui was elected president of the Paris Commune, which ruled Paris for two months in 1871 after a working-class uprising seized power following France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War. Even after his death, his “Blanquist” followers played an important role in the the workers’ movement, although to Marxists Blanquism became a byword for trying to cut corners to revolution without winning the support of the masses.
So what of his legacy today? The leafy Boulevard Auguste Blanqui lies in Paris’s 13th arrondissement and is home to the very respectable daily newspaper Le Monde. Just days ago left-wing demonstrators opposing Nicolas Sarkozy’s pensions reform marched its length en route to the city centre.
But how many of those united in the name of social justice thought about Monsier Blanqui?
Fewer than you would think, judging from a sampling of your average pedestrian. “Hidden Paris” headed down to the location in question to find out what people make of this hero of the 19th century French working class.
Despite his fancy boulevard, it seems Auguste Blanqui is not exactly in fashion today.
“Nope, never heard of him. Sorry,” was the most usual response, although retired university teacher Annie was able to pinpoint him as a left-wing politician who is now dead.
Not even a cluster of high school students spilling out of the Lycée Le Rebours, smack-bang on the boulevard, could shed light on the matter.
“We don’t learn this type of history; we aren’t yet in college,” chorused Fleuron, Philippe, Marian and Guillaume. “But we know that they name streets after famous people in Paris because this is an historic city, and it helps to remind us.”
Also scratching her head was American university exchange student, Sarah. But she says that Paris’s tradition of naming streets after important people reveals a country proud of its history.
“It creates a national identity, because the French can look around at all of these names and feel proud,” she says. “I love walking around the huge avenues and checking out the plaques that tell us who these people were, and why these places were given these names.”
Of course Paris didn’t always consist of a triangular maze of airy boulevards and open public squares. This was the work of Baron Haussmann, who was commissioned by Napoleon III to reconstruct the city and open up its narrow cluster of medieval streets.
Following this renovation, which sought to end the city’s history of insurrections and street barricades, the responsibility of street-naming fell to Paris’s City Council.
There were, of course, conventions to be followed, like giving the bigger streets more majestic names, and making sure that streets surrounding churches took on the names of saints and famous preachers.
Retaining the names of old streets “keep the memory of an ancient population”, journalist Charles Merrauu commented in 1862 when he worked for the Prefecture of the Seine. Naming new streets should “perpetuate the memory of great men, and of great actions that have made the nation proud”.
But Blanqui was nicknamed l'enfermé because of his jail time and took part in an armed uprising to seize the Palais de Justice and Hotel de Ville. Can we really say that his activities make the nation proud?
There’s no question that Blanqui would today be identified a terrorist, says Oleg Kobtzeff, a political geographer at the Amercian University in Paris.
“He would be on the hit list of numerous agencies throughout the world.” But, adds Kobtzeff, the names of socialist leaders, radical or otherwise, have been allowed to live on as Paris streets thanks to a spirit of political reconciliation following World War II.
“You did have a very important communist and socialist influence in those years during the liberation of French territory from the Nazi occupiers. And in some cases, streets were named this way because municipal councils leaned more towards the left,” Kobtzeff says.
“Also, the naming of these streets is a way of taming these radicals. By making them part of the institutions, by making them household names, you make them much less dangerous.
“It’s like when you build a huge bronze statue to someone, the minute the first pigeons come and leave their souvenirs on the shoulders or on the head, the great general or the great revolutionary whom you turned into a monument becomes part of the scenery.”
So why are French students so ill-informed about Auguste Blanqui, and figures of the past that were deemed important enough to be immortalised through the naming of Paris’s principal thoroughfares?
Kobtzeff laments that, as in other countries, historical education in France is becoming less and less important.
“And indeed Blanqui was very radical, so even socialist ministers of education aren’t very excited about letting children know everything about him.”
They prefer other figures, such as Jean Jaurès, the Socialist MP and famous orator who founded the paper l’Humanité and was assassinated by a right-winger on the eve of World War I. He has a street in pretty much every town in the country named after him, as well as a metro station in Paris.
“Jean Jaurès is much safer,” says Kobtzeff.