The Songs of Angry Men


Can Les Misérables help us understand why some revolutions succeed and others barely get off the ground?


On a freezing Kansas afternoon, I dragged my mother to a palatial suburban movie theater to see the only holiday event I really cared about — reliving the tragic tale of history’s most musical revolutionaries. Most viewers left the showing of Les Misérables discussing Anne Hathaway (good), Russell Crowe (bad), and Sacha Baron Cohen (ugly) — but as a student of political violence, something else caught my eye. I was more interested in the structural integrity of the barricades and the poor substitution of tenors for tactics.

The history of Paris is a history of revolutions — 1789, 1830, 1848, 1870, 1968. For reasons known only to Victor Hugo, Les Mis is set during the lesser-known June uprising of 1832, an anti-monarchist rebellion that was crushed by King Louis Philippe I. The movie offers more than tragic romance and soaring ballads — it provides a blueprint for understanding the relationship between cities and violence.

Means, motive, opportunity

Why do some revolutions succeed, while others barely get off the ground? Many of the academic debates surrounding civil wars and insurgencies boil down to the relative weight of the opposing factions’ resources (means), grievances (motive), and political openings (opportunity).

The revolutionaries in Les Mis don’t lack for grievances. The revolution of 1830 had ended Bourbon rule in France, but disappointed both those who wanted to forge a republic and those who wanted the restoration of a Bonapartist regime. In addition, Paris was plagued by pervasive unemployment, censorship, poor public services, and a growing gap between factory owners and factory workers. But unwashed masses do not a revolution make — it was comparatively middle class Parisian students who led the 1832 uprising.

As the street urchin Gavroche makes clear in Les Mis, the students are afforded a compelling opportunity for their revolt: the public funeral of Gen. Jean Maximilien Lamarque, one of the most prominent anti-monarchist figures in France at the time. Co-opting public events and demonstrations is a standard tactic for urban uprisings — which is why, for example, government censors in China tolerate criticism of the regime but not calls for public gatherings or protests.

While the students have sufficient opportunity and solid grievances, they lack the means to pursue their revolution. Not only are they short on weapons and ammunition, they also lack broad public support: Few residents donate furniture to their barricades. As a result, the rebellion fizzles — government troops are able to march through Paris and isolate the rebels after a few short days. Clandestine organizations like the students’ secret society may avoid government detection, but wider mobilization is inherently limited — leaving only empty chairs and empty tables, as the survivors sadly sing.

Haussmann and Napoleon III were right

The student uprising may have been crushed, but the physical terrain of the French capital at the time was favorable to armed insurgents — as shown by the successful uprisings of 1830 and 1848. The narrow streets and confined districts of Jean Valjean’s and Marius’s Paris provided cover to partisans, repeatedly thwarting efforts of government troops called in to restore “order” to the city. This is partially due to the rigid tactics favored by the governments of the day, where relatively large units marched down the street in formation.

The French authorities eventually learned their lesson. Following the collapse of the Second Republic in 1851, Napoleon III established the Second Empire. Among his most significant reforms during this period was commissioning Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann to redesign Paris, transforming it into the city we know today. Though aesthetic considerations drove demand for green spaces and new building facades, the desire to exert better control over rioting Parisians played a significant role. One of the central design elements of Haussmann’s Paris is wide boulevards — specifically, the width of a cavalry squadron in extended line.

This is where urban planning intersects with military plans. In addition to its boulevards, Paris’s famous circles are spaced to allow for interlocking fields of (cannon) fire. Haussmann isolated the most rebellious neighborhoods from the 1848 July Days by filling in a canal. He also placed Paris’s grand railway stations so that they would be rapidly accessibly by government troops, and designed urban blocks so that corner buildings were set back from the intersections — making them next to impossible to barricade, while simultaneously bringing light and air into city streets. After 1968, most of the city’s cobblestone roads were also paved over to prevent the pavers from being used as projectiles in future protests.

This isn’t just historical trivia from a bygone era: Modern urban planners are still looking for ways to move people and goods through a living city, while still securing it from attack. There are few better examples than Haussmann’s Paris.

Beyond the Battle of Algiers

While Paris may have a history of revolutions, urban uprisings don’t actually have a great history of success. One of the few pieces of received wisdom in counterinsurgency circles is the futility of urban revolts. Concentration of state security forces in built-up areas and the isolation of urban populations from potential sources of support have traditionally made it difficult to organize, recruit, and operate in cities. Urban rebel groups are thus typically detected and suppressed before they can reach a critical mass — see, for example, how easily Inspector Javert is able to infiltrate the student group spearheading the uprising.

But this conventional wisdom is changing, driven by grinding urban insurgencies in BaghdadRamadi, and Fallujah. It may now be possible to organize and train virtually, allowing networks and capabilities to grow without attracting the attention of modern-day Javerts. Rapidly growing urban spaces like Karachi and Lagos combine weak governance, informal settlements, and choking population density, which offer sanctuary to proto-insurgents. Add to this the ready availability of modern telecommunications, global finance networks, and regional and international transport, and these mega-cities present a perfect storm of means, motive, and opportunity for modern insurgents.

Having built a counterinsurgency doctrine based on the experience of Frenchmen fighting communist peasants, we may now need to update our framework to address a much more urban and inter-connected environment. Innovations in aerial surveillance, big data, and network mapping provide some tools for modern-day Javerts. But the protagonists of urban mayhem — protesters, revolutionaries, warlords, and crime bosses — will likely continue to sing the songs of angry men for years to come.

Foreign Policy


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