Victor Hugo as futurologist? This may seem surprising, but an opportunity tempted him to try his hand. Before the great "Exposition universelle" in 1867, a publisher decided to put together a guide to Paris with contributions from a dozen of the most famous writers of the day. Although Hugo had been in exile in Guernsey for many years, he agreed enthusiastically to write a preface. He was a keen walker and loved the city, which he knew street by street, but he was also able to look critically at it and to produce a well-aimed and relevant assessment.
1866 was the year of the Austrian defeat by the Prussians at Sadowa, a brutal demonstration of Prussian military might. Coincidentally Prussia had decided to make a giant gun built by Krupp the star attraction of its pavilion at the Exhibition. Hugo reacted to this provocation and made his preface a plea for the ideas that he had long held dear: pacifism against the bellicose stance of empires, democracy against autocratic regimes, "a school that opens means a prison that closes".
Looking back, he argues that in 1789 Paris had been given a historic mission that had motivated people, even the masses, to invent a peace-loving and universal society. A utopia, of course, but in the best sense of the term and one that looked forward to the efforts of the League of Nations and later the United Nations Organization, and peace restored to the European continent through the moves towards unification.
In the first section of his text, reprinted here, Hugo outlines the broad features of this peaceful society that he so earnestly desired and describes the best ways this could be achieved. He foresaw that the rise of mass means of communication would be a factor promoting greater unity among peoples thanks to such things as tunnels through mountains, canals across isthmuses and even commercial aviation, to which he gave the delightful term "air-ships". His comments on a common currency and the fact that employment creates work for others are not dissimilar from the ideas of Alfred Sauvy.
The publishers Bartillat have had the happy idea of reissuing this rather flamboyant little book, with a preface by Dominique Fernandez, which will delight lovers of learned literature. It adds a new and pleasing dimension to our view of a great French writer.