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The basic unit of government in nineteenth-century France was the commune; the main subdivisions of the nation were the eighty-odd departments, over each of which presided a prefect appointed by the central government. “In the prefect’s hands,” wrote one prefect in 1849, “are concentrated all the powers of the state, all the moral force of the country, all the municipal liberties of the communes.” 1 The image of these agents of the central government—supervising every action of local governments, treating municipalities “like minors,” and behaving (in Napeoleon’s words) like “little emperors”—is a staple of French historiography. 2 The chief merit of this book is that it substantially qualifies this view, at least for large cities, insisting that “municipalities [End Page 231] carved out for themselves considerable space for maneuver and were the principal actors responsible for transforming their cities” (21).
Cohen examines the institutions and operations of the municipal governments in Lyon, Marseille, and Bordeaux—France’s three largest cities, after Paris—plus Toulouse, an old administrative center, and Saint-Etienne, a rapidly growing industrial center. Chapters cover municipal political institutions, city finance, municipal employees, police and fire protection, public schools, theaters, public health, welfare, urban construction projects, and the “municipalization” of services like water and gas supply. The methodology is traditional. Cohen relies on citations from his vast reading in municipal archives and published and unpublished writings (reflected in more than seventy pages of notes) to illuminate local institutional life across the century.
Although Cohen includes ten tables, they are often brief and unsatisfying, containing scattered data that are sometimes hard to interpret. For example, none is a systematic presentation of levels of income and expenditure across the five cities. Such a table might have clarified many issues and constraints, but Cohen seems mildly suspicious of clarity. He often prefers picking holes in other historians’ generalizations to advancing his own, sometimes settling for agnostic conclusions, as on welfare programs: “Variations in numbers on the dole and average amounts of grants cannot be easily explained” (199). Similarly, the extent of municipalization of public services depended on “the individual character of each municipality, colored by the local constellation of political forces and the varying commitments of local leaders”—although readers can get little sense of character, forces, or leaders from a fourteen-page chapter covering five cities across a century (254).
Coverage of such a broad range of issues is inevitably shallow. On public education, Cohen effectively describes the overall evolution of teaching methods, attendance levels, and the quality of teachers and schoolbuildings, conveying the efforts of successive governments from the 1790s through 1914 to use the schools “to uphold the existing political and social order” (103–104). But readers hoping for a clear picture of how schools at Bordeaux differed from those at Saint-Etienne are likely to be disappointed by this twenty-three-page chapter. On public health, Cohen fails to use demographic data systematically to investigate the well-known pattern of higher urban mortality. Although he cites Preston and van de Walle, he does not pick up their argument that early public-health progress gave Lyon a decided advantage over Marseille (and Paris) in this respect. 3 Cohen’s focus on municipal institutions means that political history (elections, parties, leaders, and political culture), economic history, and social history all get short shrift. [End Page 322]
Still, the book makes useful contributions. Readers will come away from it with a sense of the gradual modernization of urban institutions during the nineteenth century, and of the extent of variation around this trend from one city to the next. This variation is the most compelling evidence in support of Cohen’s thesis that municipalities enjoyed a considerable amount of flexibility vis-à-vis the central state and its prefects and that much depended on local initiative.