FRANCE HISTORY, the second empire, french history

France History : 2nd empire, Napoleon the 3rd (III)

France History : the second empire

The Second French Empire or Second Empire was the imperial Bonapartist regime of Napoleon III from 1852 to 1870, between the Second republic and the Third Republic, in France.

Steps towards Empire

The anti-parliamentary constitution instituted by Napoleon III on January 14, 1852 was largely a repetition of that of the year VIII. All executive power was entrusted to the head of state, who was solely responsible to the people, now powerless to exercise any of their rights. He was to nominate the members of the council of state, whose duty it was to prepare the laws, and of the senate, a body permanently established as a constituent part of the empire.

One innovation was made, namely, that the Legislative Body was elected by universal suffrage, but it had no right of initiative, all laws being proposed by the executive power. This new political change was rapidly followed by the same consequence as had attended that of Brumaire. On December 2, 1852, France, still under the effect of the « Napoleonic virus », and the fear of anarchy, conferred almost unanimously by a plebiscite the supreme power, with the title of emperor, upon Napoleon III.

Ideals of Napoleon III

Although the machinery of government was almost the same under the Second Empire as it had been under the First, its founding principles were different. The function of the Empire, as he loved to repeat, was to guide the people internally towards justice and externally towards perpetual peace.

Holding his power by universal suffrage, and having frequently, from his prison or in exile, reproached former oligarchical governments with neglecting social questions, he set out to solve them by organising a system of government based on the principles of the « Napoleonic Idea », i.e. of the emperor, the elect of the people as the representative of the democracy, and as such supreme; and of himself, the representative of the great Napoleon I of France, « who had sprung armed from the French Revolution like Minerva from the head of Jove, » as the guardian of the social gains of the revolutionary period.

Napoleon III soon proved that social justice did not mean liberty. He acted in such a way that the principles of 1848 which he had preserved became a mere sham. He paralysed all those active national forces which create public spirit, such as parliament, universal suffrage, the press, education and associations. The Legislative Body was not allowed to elect its own president or to regulate its own procedure, or to propose a law or an amendment, or to vote on the budget in detail, or to make its deliberations public. Napoleon III during the Second French Empire

Similarly, universal suffrage was supervised and controlled by means of official candidature, by forbidding free speech and action in electoral matters to the Opposition, and by a skilful adjustment of the electoral districts in such a way as to overwhelm the Liberal vote in the mass of the rural population. The press was subjected to a system of cautionnements, i.e. « caution money », deposited as a guarantee of good behaviour, and avertissements, i.e. requests by the authorities to cease publication of certain articles, under pain of suspension or suppression; while books were subject to a censorship.

In order to counteract the opposition of individuals, a surveillance of suspects was instituted. Felice Orsini’s attack on the emperor in 1858, though purely Italian in its motive, served as a pretext for increasing the severity of this régime by the law of general security (sûreté générale) which authorised the internment, exile or deportation of any suspect without trial. In the same way public instruction was strictly supervised, the teaching of philosophy was suppressed in the lycées, and the disciplinary powers of the administration were increased.

For seven years France had no political life. The Empire was carried on by a series of plebiscites. Up to 1857 the Opposition did not exist; from then till 1860 it was reduced to five members: Darimon, Emile Ollivier, Hénon, Jules Favre and Ernest Picard. The royalists waited inactive after the new and unsuccessful attempt made at Frohsdorf in 1853, by a combination of the legitimists and Orleanists, to re-create a living monarchy out of the ruin of two royal families.

Prosperity and Culture

But it was not enough to abolish liberty by conjuring up the spectre of demagogy. It had to be forgotten, the great silence had to be covered by the noise of festivities and material enjoyment, the imagination of the French people had prosperity to be distracted from public affairs by the taste for work, the love of gain, the passion for good living.

The success of the imperial despotism, as of any other, despotism, was bound up with that material prosperity which would make all interests dread the thought of revolution. Napoleon III, therefore, looked for support to the clergy, the great financiers, industrial magnates and landed proprietors.

He revived on his own account the « Let us grow rich » of 1840. Under the influence of the Saint-Simonians and men of business great credit establishments were instituted and vast public works entered upon: the Credit foncier de France, the Credit mobilier, the conversion of the railways into six great companies between 1852 and 1857.

The rage for speculation was increased by the inflow of Californian and Australian gold, and consumption was facilitated by a general fall in prices between 1856 and 1860, due to an economic revolution which was soon to overthrow the tariff wall, as it had done already in England. Thus French activity flourished exceedingly between 1852 and 1857, and was merely temporarily checked by the crisis of 1857.

The Exposition Universelle (1855) was its culminating point. The great enthusiasms of the romantic period were over; philosophy became sceptical and literature merely entertainment. The festivities of the court at Compiègne set the fashion for the bourgeoisie, satisfied with this energetic government which kept such good guard over their bank balances.

If the Empire was strong, the Emperor was weak. At once headstrong and a dreamer, he was full of rash plans, but irresolute in carrying them out. An absolute despot, he remained what his life had made him. In his opinion the artificial work of the Congress of Vienna, involving the downfall of his own family and of France, invited destruction, and Europe should be organised as a collection of great industrial states, united by communities of interests and bound together by commercial treaties, and expressing this unity by periodical congresses presided over by himself, and by universal exhibitions.

In this way he would reconcile the revolutionary principle of the supremacy of the people with historical tradition, a thing which neither the Restoration nor the July monarchy nor the Republic of 1848 had been able to achieve. Universal suffrage, the organisation of Romanian, Italian and German nationality, and commercial liberty; this was to be the work of the Revolution.

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