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Public Housing in France

Public Housing in France (Société des Cités Ouvrières) Surveys of living conditions in the 1840s showed that French workers were among the most poorly housed in Europe and some tentative efforts were made to rectify the situation. But the revolution of 1848 and the cholera of 1849 forced Frenchmen to take a more active interest in the housing of the poorer classes of society.

The first few months of the Second Republic were too tumultuous for any clear housing policy to evolve. Louis Blanc's National Workshops did little to ease the pain of the 1847-1848 depression and virtually nothing for housing. However, the June riots and pressure from Catholic social reformers such as Armand de Melun forced the government to take account of the "social issue" and try to stimulate the economy. In July, the Constituent Assembly decreed a ten year exemption from door and window taxes and from property taxes on all buildings begun before 1849. The Sous-Comptoir des Entrepreneurs was established to provide loans for building purposes. To promote worker housing, a six percent subsidy was granted to contractors building in Paris. In November 1848, the government decreed that advisory boards on hygiene and salubrity be set up in every départment and arrondissement. However, the resulting boards had little power to correct problems. Auguste Blanqui was commissioned by the Académie des Sciences Morales et Politiques to study the condition of the working class as the forces for order continued trying to calm down the riotous populace. President Louis Napoleon, who had suggested the creation of agricultural communities in his book The Extinction of Poverty, sent a commission to London in 1849 to study worker housing, and he encouraged the translation and publication of Henry Roberts' The Dwellings of the Laboring Classes in 1850. In the same year, the Melun Law, the first public health law granting the French government the ability to supervise the salubrity of private dwellings, was passed.

In this fervent political atmosphere several would-be reformers proposed ways of housing the large numbers of Parisians who were inadequately or indecently housed. But the most important step taken toward improvement of worker housing was the formation of the Société des Cités Ouvrières (Society for Worker Cities), founded in Paris in 1849 under the leadership of M. Chabert. The directors included Benjamin Delessert, founder of saving banks in France (Caisses D'Epargne), l'Abbé (abbot) Deguerry (the curé of the Madeleine Church), Wolowski, the liberal economist, Gallis, an officer in the national guard, and Mocquart, a member of Louis Napoleon's government. This group, with government subsidization from the confiscated Orleanist properties, built the Cité Napoléon and launched the debate on the best method of housing the working poor. Chabert hoped to additionally capitalize his group with the sale of 240,000 shares sold at 25 francs apiece, but the group collected only 1.2 of the expected six million francs.

The Société's goal to house 10,000 workers and their families in healthy, well-ventilated, affordable blocks of flats in each arrondissement was never achieved, but the Cité Napoléon still stands on the rue Rochechouart. Designed by Gabriel Veugny, who was heavily influenced by Fourier's plan for a phalanstère, it consisted of 194 flats for approximately 500 inhabitants. Rents were between 130 and 170 francs per year for one or two rooms with a kitchenette. The ground floor included workshops, common meeting-rooms, small shops, and communal laundry facilities. Shared hallways, cramped quarters, and a barracks-like atmosphere doomed the Cité Napoléon to failure as a model for the rest of Paris. It was condemned as a "barracks" (caserne) and rejected by workers and by moral reformers who feared that such apartment blocks encouraged sexual anarchy and the spread of socialist "contagion." The Société went into liquidation in the early 1850s and by the 1880s the building was occupied mainly by families of the lower bourgeoisie. Although ultimately a failure, the Cité Napoléon served as a model for later housing reformers who would push for cheap housing constructed on a mass scale. During the Second Empire, French industrialists built many cités ouvrières in towns such as Le Creusot, Montceau-les-Mines, Anzin, Mulhouse, and Noisiel.

In later years, and especially during the Third Republic, the Le Playists and other social reformers would fiercely debate the relative benefits of single-family dwellings built on the model of the cité ouvrière in Mulhouse and large housing blocks such as the Cité Napoléon and its twentieth-century counterparts, the "moderately priced housing" (Habitations à loyer modéré). Conservatives and moralists argued that each family needed its own "home" and that the allure of bars (cabaret) and socialist politics could be minimized by providing each worker with a house and a small plot of land to grow his own vegetables. But it was the social upheaval of the 1848 revolution that initially forced the French ruling classes to recognize the existence of the housing problem and to propose solutions such as the Cité Napoléon. It was a sincere attempt to improve the lot of the working class, and a complete failure.
Mark Scholz


Bullock, Nicholas, and James Read. The Movement for Housing Reform in Germany and France, 1840-1914 Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1985.

Guerrand, R-H. Les Origines du logement social en France, Paris: 1967.

Shapiro, Ann-Louise. Housing the Poor of Paris, Madison: Univiversity of Wisconsin Press, 1985.

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