Louis Napoleon Bonaparte 1808-1873
President of the French Second Republic 1848-1851
Emperor Napoleon III of France 1851-1870


The revolutions of 1848 had a complex impact on France. They were sufficiently powerful to sweep away the government of Louis-Philippe, but were unable to remove the conservative interests that had supported it. These political groups were quick to annul the threat of a republican government by electing Louis Napoleon as its president. This choice brought with it the prospect of another Napoleonic regime in which France would be restored to a pre-eminent position within Europe and consequently Louis Napoleon came to power with many conflicting expectations to fulfil.

When Louis Napoleon was first elected as President of the Second Republic there was a general expectation that he would emulate his uncle, and restore France to a pre-eminent position within Europe. Accordingly, as Emperor, Napoleon III tried to associate himself with the popular image of Napoleon Bonaparte and to portray himself as the champion of national interests. Much of the drive for his foreign policy derived from this, together with his desire to appeal to nationalists within France.

Popular Support

The ease with which Louis Napoleon was able to accomplish his 1851 coup d'état reflected the degree to which he possessed popular support within France: a fact demonstrated by the results of the December plebiscite. However, disillusionment with the regime increased during the course of Napoleon's reign; after Prussia defeated France in 1870, Napoleon was exiled to Britain. The collapse of the Second Empire, accompanied by the humiliation of France meant that immediate historical judgments on Napoleon III were harsh. However, it is undoubtedly true that, due to the structure of the regime, Napoleon held personal responsibility for many of the decisions taken during his reign.

The Constitution

One of Napoleon III's first acts was to introduce a new, authoritarian constitution. Modelled on Napoleon's Constitution of 1799, it placed almost absolute power in the hands of the President and although there appeared to be a parliamentary system, the Senate and the Corps Législatif had a purely consultative role. They could not initiate legislation or exercise any political control and while much of the Senate was directly appointed by Louis Napoleon the elections for the Corps Législatif were similarly rigged in favour of official candidates. The unelected Conseil d'état, on the other hand, acted as Louis Napoleon's ministers and carried out many essential political duties.

Central to the Napoleonic view of politics was an abhorrence of the party system which, it was believed, got in the way of good government; instead there was a feeling that the head of state could be above politics and heal the divisions between different factions. Accordingly, Louis Napoleon made no attempt to build up a Bonapartist party after 1851 and indeed the party that had sprung up during his rise to power was allowed to decline. Instead, Louis Napoleon had confidence in his strategy of using the best men available, regardless of their political affiliations. However, although fundamental to Napoleon III's political vision, this belief meant that support for his government was never organised, while opposition to the regime was able to coalesce and indeed became increasingly outspoken towards the end of his regime.

Domestic Policy

A coherent and ruthless domestic policy was adopted in the immediate aftermath of the coup, in an attempt to signal that opposition to the regime would not be tolerated. More than 27,000 arrests were made and 10,000 men exiled from France. A strict system of censorship was introduced to limit criticism of the government while bureaucratic and military salaries were increased and the Catholic Church provided with assurances about its future in an effort to create loyalty to the regime.

A policy of economic liberalism had been advocated by Louis Napoleon since 1853, since he felt that an increase in economic prosperity would improve the general quality of life. Accordingly, the conservative French banking system was reformed and cheap credit provided through the agencies of the Crédit Mobilier and the Crédit Lyonnais tapped the vast reserves of private wealth that were France's greatest economic advantage. Loans could thus be made to finance public works performed by private contractors without placing an undue burden on government finances.

Free Trade & Industrialisation

Napoleon III was also an enthusiastic supporter of free trade, which he thought had been the cause of Britain's prosperity in the nineteenth century. Possessed of a deep-seated belief that an increase in prosperity would improve the quality of life throughout France, Napoleon introduced a series of changes, such as a new banking system, the construction of railways and canals accompanied by an increase in government expenditure. However, the conclusion of the Chevalier-Cobden Treaty in 1860 followed by a similar trade agreement with Prussia in 1862 opened up France to European trade, a move which was unpopular among many industrialists since, although it created a larger market for export goods it put a great deal of market pressure on inefficient French manufacturers.

French industrialisation was a long and continuous process and had begun long before the advent of the Second Empire. Nevertheless, a great deal of progress was made over the course of Louis Napoleon's regime, most especially in the fields of railway construction and the extraction of raw materials. With the improved communications provided by the railways the cost of moving materials around the country dropped dramatically and a considerable level of prosperity was brought to the regions which they covered. Agricultural production also increased while consumption per head of all major foodstuffs increased between 1850 and 1870.

Foreign Policy

Louis Napoleon knew that many French people hoped that he would restore France to the period of international dominance it had achieved under his uncle yet he realised that he had to proceed with caution. Accordingly, in 1852, he summed up his foreign policy by stating that 'l'Empire, c'est paix'. While he hoped that it would be possible for France to return to a position of importance within Europe without the use of force, he was prepared to countenance small-scale military enterprises, particularly when these were aimed at overturning the Vienna Settlement. On the other hand, French involvement in the Crimean War, Italy and in Mexico occurred almost accidentally and emphasised the power of Napoleon's self-delusion.

Some of the most visible problems faced by Napoleon were military, as the pursuit of glory led him into difficult situations, especially in his dealings with Bismarck. The contradictions inherent within his disjointed approach to foreign policy meant that while Napoleon achieved a degree of success in Italy and the Crimea in the 1850s, French involvement with Mexico and Prussia after 1860 turned out to be disastrous. Intervention in Mexico, in particular, proved to be misguided, losing Napoleon the support of many nationalists as France suffered a comprehensive and embarrassing defeat.

The Papacy

Throughout the first half of his reign, Napoleon III worked hand in glove with the Papacy in an attempt to retain the conservative support which had brought him into power. However, as a result of Napoleon's support for Piedmontese expansion in 1860 and the publication of the pamphlet 'Le Pape et le Congrès', in which the Pope's competence to participate in politics was questioned, Pius IX became increasingly distrustful of Napoleon. Antagonising the Pope in this way threatened Catholic support within France and further weakened Napoleon's position as did the appointment of the anti-clerical Duruy as Minister of Education in 1869.


There is no question that, in its last decade, the Second Empire softened its authoritarian nature and adopted a range of more liberal characteristics. Historians have found it difficult to agree, however, about many of the motives behind such changes. Undoubtedly, as time went by, the repressive measures introduced by Napoleon III in 1852 were progressively viewed as anachronistic and unfair, generating a considerable amount of protest. Yet, fundamentally, Napoleon III was neither a conservative nor an orthodox liberal, but instead a pragmatist who did all he could to maintain himself in power. Pressures such as those provided by the economic recession of 1857-8, and by the limited success of the Italian campaign in 1859, forced Louis Napoleon to make concessions in response to the expression of the public will.

Between 1860 and 1870 the political system of the Second Empire went through a series of dramatic changes. The first change was introduced in 1860 when the Corps Législatif was granted the right to debate a statement of the Government's intentions and provided with increased control over the budget. Over the course of 1867-8 the Senate and Corps Législatif were allowed to question ministers over government policy while laws governing the press and restricting public meetings were relaxed. In 1869-70 reforms were instituted which heralded a return to the type of parliamentary system that had existed under the restored Bourbon Monarchy. The Corps Législatif became able to initiate legislation while the Senate was converted into an upper house with the power to delay legislation. A plebiscite held in May 1870 was passed by almost as large a majority as that of 1851 and it seemed as though Louis Napoleon had achieved a successful transition from a virtual dictatorship to a parliamentary democracy.


The strength of the Second Empire lay in the effective administrative machine that it operated; and the fact that Napoleon drew much of his bureaucracy from previous, conservative regimes meant that it was often difficult for him to enforce measures which he personally supported. Due to Louis Napoleon's deteriorating physical condition throughout his reign, the direction and implementation of Imperial policy became increasingly determined by Empress Eugenie in concert with the most trusted of his ministers. On the other hand, the political changes seem more likely to have been brought about because of a wish on the part of Napoleon to move in that direction. It is true that the changes did tend to follow the expression of public opinion but this was because Napoleon needed external pressure to enable him to overcome the opposition to reform that existed within the government.

A Successful Leader?

Thiers, discussing Napoleon's government, commented that "there is not a single mistake left to be made", yet despite a series of misjudgements, particularly in the field of foreign affairs, when facing domestic problems, Napoleon consistently applied original and imaginative policies to great effect, making significant and lasting progress in social and economic terms. While the attempt to set Bonapartism above politics weakened Napoleon's position, he nevertheless inspired great personal loyalty until the end of his reign; while Napoleon floundered in Mexico he had previously achieved success in the Crimea; while he was consistently outmanoeuvred by Bismarck he did succeed in bringing an end to the Vienna Settlement.

Before 1860, therefore, Louis Napoleon can be seen as having achieved a deal of success. Popular support appeared to be on his side, most particularly after the 1852 General Elections in which government supported candidates won 83% of the vote. Many notables were won over by his non-doctrinaire approach and the fact that he preserved the positions of most politicians and administrators from previous regimes while institutions such as the Church, the Army and the bureaucracy were attracted by the active steps that Louis Napoleon took to encourage support.

However, although Louis Napoleon initially appeared to be a successful compromise candidate, he found it increasingly difficult to please all the factions that were important in French politics. As time went by, the number of Frenchmen who abstained from voting increased while Napoleon's position among Parisians had always been precarious. Napoleon's sharing of political power can also be viewed as being merely a response to growing political opposition. In 1863, although only ten per cent of the seats were won by opposition candidates, 18 of the 22 largest towns in France fell to them, suggesting that there was widespread urban discontent, due to increasingly obvious electoral manipulation, and inciting fears of mob violence and revolution.

It is difficult to argue that there is a clear break between Napoleon achievements before and after 1860 but it is certainly true that in relaxing the censorship laws he laid his government open to criticism. Opposition to Napoleon's government grew slowly throughout his reign yet, in the France of 1870, Louis Napoleon's regime was still widely accepted as representing the form of government that gave the best balance of authority and freedom. Napoleon's government was be no means disastrous after 1860 and indeed had it not been for the impact of the Franco-Prussian War, the government and the Constitution of 1870 might have endured for a long time.

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