Another Napoleon 1848-1906

IN DECEMBER of 1848, the French elected Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte as president of the Second French Republic. What he stood for was not very clear, but to most Frenchmen that did not seem important. He was the nephew of the great Napoleon and the very sound of his name stirred them like a battle-cry.

Since the defeat of the first Napoleon in 1815, there had been little in French politics to capture the imagination. As the years passed, the French looked back on the Napoleonic era as the time of their greatest glory. The writer Victor Hugo wrote poems about Napoleon. The Arch of Triumph, built in Paris in honour of Napoleon’s many victories, was completed in 1836. In 1840, Napoleon’s body was brought from his prison island, Saint Helena and buried in Paris on a bank of the Seine River. Pictures of Napoleon, usually showing him visiting the wounded or lying on his deathbed, could be found in the cottages of most peasants. Although it was not so, the peasants liked to think that it was Napoleon who had given them free ownership of their land.

Louis-Napoleon knew the magic of his name and intended to make the most of it. No one ever saw him angry or excited. He was not much to look at, but he had a strange sort of charm. An Englishman who had just met him for the first time wrote, “When Prince Louis-Napoleon held out his hand and I looked into his face, I felt almost tempted to put him down as an Opium eater. Ten minutes afterwards I felt convinced . . . that he himself was the drug and that everyone with whom he came in contact was bound to yield to its influence.”


The new president traveled about France, meeting the people and trying to prove that he took an interest in their problems. He hinted that the Assembly was controlled by dishonest rich men. He appointed close friends as the ministers of war and interior, and this gave him control of the army and the police.

On December 2, 1851, he took complete charge of the government. He ordered notices put up in Paris saying that the Assembly had been dismissed and that every adult would thereafter have the right to vote. The Assembly tried to meet, but its members were scattered by soldiers and some were arrested. Some fighting took place between republicans and the army. In Paris about one hundred and fifty people were killed. Many thousands were taken prisoner in other parts of the country, but the magic of the name Napoleon was enough to carry the day and on December 20, Louis-Napoleon was elected president for a ten-year term. A year later, he had himself crowned as Emperor of the French. He called himself Napoleon III, because he came next in line after Napoleon’s son.

Thus the Second French Republic came to an end and most Frenchmen were probably happy to see it go. They felt it had been too radical, too much under the control of the socialists. Before Louis-Napoleon became president, the socialists had stirred up the workers and unemployed in Paris and brought on revolts and bloody riots which had taken thousands of lives. The people had come to think of republics, constitutions and liberals as closely associated with socialists. Socialists did believe in the republican form of government, but they felt it was wrong that owners of wealth should have so much power over workers. They felt that factories, railroads, ships, banks and land should be owned by the community for the common benefit of all. People should be equal socially as well as in law and wages should be regulated so that no one received a great deal more for his work than did anyone else.

Louis-Napoleon was for power, but he kept that hidden by a show of democracy. Outwardly‚ he gave France a democratic form of government, with a constitution and a legislative body whose members were elected. Every adult male received the right to vote. The legislature, however, could consider only legislation sent to it by the emperor. The fact was that he made the laws and ruled as a dictator. He had his secret police and he controlled the press on the excuse that party politics could not be allowed to stand in the way of his great program.


To gain the support of the middle class, he promised to build roads, canals and railroads, thus promoting trade and improving business conditions. In one of his many speeches he said, “We have immense territories to cultivate, railroads to complete. . . . Such are the conquests I contemplate; and you, all of you who surround me and who wish our country’s good, you are my soldiers.”

To gain the support of the working class, he provided employment on public works, such as roads and canals. The building of boulevards, public squares and railroad stations in Paris alone employed many thousands of persons for a number of years. Workers were allowed to organize labour unions and in 1864 it was even possible for workers to go on strike. Workers were also provided with asylums, hospitals, free medicines.

Even so, after a few years the magic of the emperor’s name began to wear thin. He had, after all, done nothing to capture the imagination and France’s dream of glory had not been fulfilled. The emperor’s policy of free trade with other countries had turned a number of wealthy businessmen against him. The people who believed in democracy also turned against him because they could not tolerate his dictatorship.

Unlike the first Napoleon, Napoleon III was not a military man, and his few military ventures did him more harm than good. When he sent troops to help the Italians break away from Austria, he lost the support of the French Catholics. They were afraid that a united Italy would swallow up the Papal States of the Catholic Church.


In 1862, Napoleon III sent troops against Mexico, which was deeply in debt to French businessmen. The United States, torn by civil war, could do nothing to stop him and he became bolder. He was not satisfied to force Mexico to pay the debt. He took Mexico City, the capital and appointed a nobleman named Maximilian to rule over the country, but the United States army marched to the Mexican border after the end of the Civil War in 1865 and threatened to drive out the French unless they left peacefully. Napoleon withdrew his troops and all patriotic Frenchmen felt that France had been shamed.

Napoleon III knew he had lost the support of those who had once been his friend, and that he was no longer popular with the people. He decided to follow the example of his famous uncle, the first Napoleon and win the loyalty of his people with a victory on the battlefield. He did not have far to search for an enemy. Frenchmen were concerned about the powerful German state taking shape to the north.

In 1867, the Prussian leader Otto von Bismarck had brought Prussia and twenty-one other German states together to form the North German Federation. Four small states in the south had not joined the federation because they were afraid of France. Bismarck hoped to make the most of their fear. He felt that a war between Prussia and France would so frighten these small states that they would join the federation for protection. So Bismarck, too, was eager for war.


As soon as he could, Napoleon III found an excuse for declaring war on Prussia. The Prussians were well prepared and as Bismarck had hoped, the four small states gave him their support. The war was a short one. On September 2, 1870, after the battle of Sedan, the French army surrendered. Napoleon III fell into the hands of the enemy and was held prisoner.

This stunning defeat set off a new rebellion in France. Bismarck refused to deal with the new revolutionary government. He insisted upon a new election, so that the people themselves would feel bound by the terms of the peace treaty. A National Assembly was elected. Only about two hundred of its six hundred members were republicans; most of the rest were royalists who favoured a king with limited power, but the Paris republicans who had led the revolution refused to recognize the National Assembly.

A civil war broke out between the National Assembly, which met at Versailles and the city council, or “Commune,” of Paris. The Paris Commune was a working man’s government. It opposed the wealthy and the privileged and demanded government control of prices and wages. The leaders of the Commune were radicals and socialists, far too extreme for many people in other parts of the country. The National Assembly called out the armed forces and the fighting that followed was even more savage than that of the French Revolution. Before the Commune was crushed, 20,000 people had been killed and 38,000 arrested. About 7,500 were shipped to New Caledonia, the French islands in the South Pacific.


When the National Assembly attempted to form a new government, the royalists were divided on whom to put on the throne as king. The National Assembly established a temporary republic to look after government business until a king could be chosen. By 1875 no decision had been reached and the Assembly passed laws setting up a permanent republic. Under these laws the government was to have a president, two law-making bodies, a council of ministers and a cabinet headed by a prime minister. The prime minister and his cabinet were responsible to the law-making bodies, particularly the Chamber of Deputies‚ which was elected by all adult males.

Elections were held in 1879 and the royalists lost control of the government. The upper classes, the Catholic churchmen and the army officers continued to have a strong feeling against the republican form of government, but, as time passed, a number of them saw that their fears were groundless. The republicans gained control of the government with the support of a large part of the middle and lower classes. In this way the Third French Republic won enough time to prove to the French people that it was both peaceful and practical. Yet, during its first twenty-five years of existence it had to constantly be on guard against its enemies, who launched two powerful attacks against it.

The first was known as the Boulanger Affair. In the late 1880’s, General Georges Boulanger became the leader of the enemies of the republic. They included some workmen who believed that the government was not doing enough for them and those Frenchmen who wanted to fight a war of revenge against Germany. Boulanger’s followers were sure he would become so popular that he could use the army to take power and make himself dictator, but before that could happen, the government charged him with plotting against the state and ordered his arrest. Boulanger fled into exile and the effective way the republic had dealt with him won it the respect of the people.


The republic was not nearly so effective in dealing with the second attack. The Dreyfus Affair shocked the world and became one of the most famous cases in history. In 1894, Captain Alfred Dreyfus of the French army was tried by a military court of anti-republican officers and found guilty of selling secret military papers to the Germans. The nobles and other enemies of the republic pointed to Dreyfus as an example of all the dishonest officials and traitors in the republican government. Dreyfus was Jewish and anti-Semitism played an important part in the case.

Two years later, republican investigators discovered the evidence against Dreyfus was completely false. Republicans rushed to his defense and among them was the famous author, Emile Zola. He charged that royalist army officers had planned the case against Dreyfus in order to destroy the republic. Finally evidence turned up which proved that the military secrets had been sold to the Germans not by Dreyfus, but by a royalist officer. Dreyfus was declared innocent and in 1906 he was released from prison.

The Dreyfus case backfired against the royalists, for the French people supported the government in its fight to free an innocent man. Furthermore, the government took steps to remove all royalist army officers from the army and replace them with officers who were loyal to the republic.

Over the years, the Third French Republic continued to grow in strength. Its greatest weakness was the fact that the voters were divided up into many small political parties, no one of which was large enough to control the Chamber of Deputies. It therefore became necessary for a number of parties to agree on a general program which they could all support. If this group or block of parties was strong enough to control the majority of the votes in the Chamber of Deputies, it could form a cabinet and take care of the government.


The difficulty was that such cabinets, formed by block, never lasted very long. Whenever one of the parties opposed a bill the government was supporting, it could prevent the bill from passing. The cabinet then lost the confidence of the Deputies and was forced to resign. A new block of parties had to be organized and a new cabinet formed. During the sixty-five years of the Third Republic, more than a hundred cabinets were formed. Because of this, the Third Republic was unable to provide a very efficient form of government. Yet, in spite of its weaknesses, it lasted for more than seventy years and France joined the United States and Britain as one of the great democracies of the world.

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