The Opinions of the French

The Empress Eugenie

    As cousin of Ferdinand de Lesseps, the Empress supported him from the beginning to the end of the project, pleaded his case to Napoleon III her husband, and quite naturally, presided as god-mother during the inauguration of the canal. Eugenie, whom de Lesseps called the ‘Guardian angel of the canal’, arranged numerous interviews for him with Napoleon. Even during the project’s darkest hours, she never ceased to play the role of intercessor between the two men, putting before Napoleon de Lesseps’s defence against the many criticisms levelled at the work.

    During her voyage to Suez in 1869 - which the Empress considered as her last ever ‘pleasant memory’ - to attend the inauguration of the canal, she praised de Lesseps with these words:

    Ah! What the will of man can achieve is limitless! He planted his tent one day in the bare sand and to the whole world he said: ‘Trust me. There’s not a blade of grass here, the sun blazes down, the desert breaks everything down, thirst is everywhere. Here, where everything dies I shall sow life. On this wasteland there will be fields, gardens, palaces and towns. And ships from every nation will pass along these banks’.


The Emperor Napoleon III

    Napoleon was initially reticent about de Lesseps’s plan because of his concern to maintain stable Franco-British relations: in fact it seemed that Franco-British co-operation and the opening of the Suez Canal were not compatible. A letter from the Empress to de Lesseps, dated 1855, makes reference to this difficult situation:

    ‘The Emperor has charged me to tell you that we must abandon our plan. To pursue it would be to start a war between France and England. We must bid our dream farewell!’

    Without taking matters as far as war, the government was concerned about the possibility of a cooling of relations. Even Queen Victoria expressed to Napoleon personally her disquiet on the subject of the realisation of such a project, to which the Emperor replied that he could in no way intervene in a private company. During a visit to Paris Victoria asked again:

    ‘My ministers are fixed in their opinions. Your Majesty could use his influence in the affair...There are various ways of destroying this company: the press, the authority which you wield, your ambassadors, even the influence we have in Constantinople’.

    In the face of these political threats, Emperor preferred to remain prudent. But this in no way deterred him from encouraging de Lesseps to persevere. In 1856, the Emperor declared to de Lesseps:

    ‘When you are very strong, everyone will support you, myself first of all’.

    However, despite the fact that the first time he declared himself in favour of the canal was in 1859, it was not until 1864 that he made his position public knowledge. The Suez Canal business was synonymous with the prestige and influence of France in the East - to support the canal was to defend French interests abroad. Napoleon III therefore abandoned his softly softly approach and openly arbitrated between the Canal company and the Ottoman Sultan. He furthermore created a arbitration commission in March 1864, presided over by Thouvenel, the French ambassador to Constantinople, which gave its opinion on 19 July in the form of an imperial announcement.

    In 1865, the Grand Vizir Fuad Pasha was astounded at the Emperor’s indifference during a meeting in Marseilles. When questioned about his attitude, Napoleon III replied with an expressive gesture and the two words ‘the Firman’, referring officially to the Turkish decree authorising the building of the canal. In 1867, when the Company was experiencing financial difficulties, the Emperor put pressure on the legislative to provide a debentured loan of 100 million Francs.

    Despite his timorous attitude during the first years of the canal building project, Napoleon III subsequently vigorously affirmed the will of the Imperial Government to see the affair brought to a successful conclusion. In 1869, he was held back in Paris because of health and pressing political problems, and so was unable to be present at the inauguration. He did however pronounce these words in Parliament.

    ‘The Empress is not here today at the opening of Parliament because it was my opinion that by her presence she represents the sympathies of France for a work which is the result of the perseverance and genius of the French’.


The Duc de Morny

    The Duc de Morny got involved in the Suez canal affair because he was attracted by the potential profit to be had from its shares. Having been encouraged by a group of British financiers to have De Lesseps’s company replaced by a British publicly owned company, Morny, with Nubar Pasha (Ismail Pasha’s minister for foreign affairs and also in the pay of the British), attempted to compromise De Lesseps’s company. He attacked the company both on the French stock exchange and in the press via the newspaper of his friend Emile de Giradin. He also spoke directly to the Emperor, using these words:

    ‘De Lesseps is engaging upon a risky financial affair which would appear impossible, he will ruin all the small investors who have trusted him, and that will be a catastrophe. For his own good, he must not be allowed to continue’.

    He managed to have himself promoted to the role of mediator in the Suez Canal affair. And immediately things began to resemble a spy novel as a letter from Nubar Pasha which spelled out clearly Morny’s role was intercepted by Tastu, the French consul in Alexandria and sent to de Lesseps. De Lesseps counter-attacked immediately at his next meeting with the Duke.

    ‘I have too high an opinion of you, My Lord, not to speak frankly to you. You are the last person in this affair who could possibly act as an arbitrator. I am sure that you are perfectly well aware of some libellous remarks, according to which some of the opponents of the canal hope that you will take action to make Nubar’s undertaking be successful. We are talking about considerable sums of money given or promised, and your name - it is my duty to tell you this - has served as protection for the mission of Nubar Pasha which the French Consul General in Egypt wished to oppose. I am sure that you see that given the existence of such rumours, against which I have constantly protested and which I am sure give cause for great indignation, reticence on your part would seem to be a necessity.

    Morny moderated his attacks a little after this meeting but continued to deal with Bulwer, the British ambassador in Constantinople. In this shady matter of cloak and dagger diplomacy Morny was driven by greed for personal gain. But death overcame him in 1865 preventing him from completing his action. Bulwer himself wrote to the British government:

    ‘Since M. Morny is now dead, we no longer have any hope of changing the destination of the concession for the canal’.


Prince Jerome Napoleon

    Prince Napoleon was right from the beginning and right up to the very end of the matter one of the strongest supporters of the Suez Canal. Indeed it was the only point of which he and the Empress saw eye to eye, their dislike for each other being well known. With his official title as ‘Protector of the Company’, granted in 1858 with the founding of the company, he visited the construction works in 1863. On that occasion he offered the company a steam launch. In February 1864 he presided over a banquet given at the palais de l’Industrie in de Lesseps’s with 1600 guests. All the representatives of public and private world were there, notably, members of the Institute, the Senate, The Conseil d’Etat, right down to humble workmen. Prince Napoleon gave a speech lasting one and half hours in which he praised ‘the first and greatest work of National importance driven merely by the initiative of individuals’. He encouraged all the supporters of the canal not to let themselves be influenced by the rumours and the attacks levelled against such an illustrious work and its promoter:

    If M. de Lesseps, with his deep knowledge of both the men and the ways of the East, had not acted as he did, you would have been left with piles of paper but nothing done. Persevere and all will be yours in the end’.

    Speaking as a private citizen, he expressed the wish that the government of the Emperor ‘the natural protector of the rights of French citizens abroad’, should be more official in its support. This banquet and speech, widely reported by the European press, had a strong effect on international public opinion, and the speech was seen as France’s official position on the matter.

Banquet of Prince Napoleon
Extract from Monde illustré, n°358, 20 février 1864.
Banquet given by to Mr Ferdinand de Lesseps by the shareholders of the Suez Canal.


On Thursday last, 11 February, at eight o’clock, was held the banquet of the Company of the Suez Canal in the Palais de l’Industrie.

The occasion, presided over by His Imperial Highness prince Napoleon, was attended by more than 1,500 guests who crowded around tables laid out in the gallery decorated with hangings and against the backdrop of an immense canvas showing a panorama of the Isthmus of Suez.

The high table at the banquet offered by M. de Lesseps to the share-holders of the Suez Canal, Thursday 11 February, at the Palais de l'Industrie.
(le Monde illustré)

While it is not our remit to reproduce the speech made by the prince Napoleon, nor is it our role, as faithful chroniclers of great events, to give our opinion concerning the facts as they stand, we can nonetheless report that the warm terms in which His Imperial Highness spoke were greeted with rapturous applause, and the completion of the freshwater canal, a precursor to the forthcoming opening of the ship canal, was celebrated with all due honour.

To the right of the prince sat M. de Lesseps, to his left the admiral Jurien de la Gravière.

After the prince Napoleon, it was M. de Lesseps who took the floor and his words met with general approval.

Senator Procurator general Dupin also made a short speech characterised by that notoriously sharp verve of his; he spoke of the Suez Canal as the canal of good hope and the evening drew to a close with several vivats to his Majesty the Emperor, prince Napoleon and M. de Lesseps.
Those who have, of late, dared to maintain that the piercing of the isthmus of Suez is not an undertaking of national importance, have only to recall the banquet of 11 February 1864.
O. DE J.