Immediately after the coup d’état of 2 December 1851, the question of liberalising the regime, still in limbo, was raised. On 31 December 1851, the Prince-President Louis-Napoléon [future Napoleon III] announced his intention to create a “system that would restore authority without harming equality”, in order to found the “only edifice capable of sustaining a wise and beneficial liberty later on”. Over the next decade, Louis-Napoleon admitted his distrust of that freedom that had often became “the torch that set the fire”. The ruler’s conviction was firmly established: public liberties were not intended to form the basis of the constitution, but to consolidate an imperial system rooted in the people’s conscience. Can a “Napoleon” coexist with a framework that respects civil liberties and cares about the prerogatives of parliamentary representation? L’Empire Libéral. Essai d’histoire globale, a collective work directed by Éric Anceau and Dominique Barjot, approaches the Second Empire from its liberal side, an original experiment that began in 1860 and took shape with the formation of the Ollivier government in January 1870. Was this initiative the flowering of the “necessary liberties” claimed by Adolphe Thiers? The Journal des Débats of 6 January 1870 triumphantly exclaimed: “This is the end of the regime established in 1852 and the triumph of parliamentary institutions”, authorising the regulation of state power while involving the elites whose influence had been diminished by imperial authoritarianism.
However, this unprecedented ecosystem, in which the sovereign responsible to the people and the government derived from the parliamentary majority coexisted, was preceded by economic liberalisation. Napoleon III, who despised “the licence of the tribune”, posed as a defender of “freedom of transactions”, including in the grain trade. In 1854, he justified his commitments in the Crimea in the name of the “freedom of the seas” [“La liberté des mers”] which guaranteed the “just influence (of France) in the Mediterranean”. Thus, the “economy of 2 December” [“l’économie du 2 décembre”], formulated in 1852 by the Saint-Simonian Michel Chevalier, aimed to revive business according to a liberal model, supplemented by massive investments in transport infrastructure and urban development. The Empire drew part of its legitimacy from this modernisation, prosperity being a decisive lever for rallying the the largest sections of society. According to the imperial rhetoric, freedom was put at the service of “peacekeeping” [“travaux de la paix”], which contributed to the “moral and material well-being of the people” [“bien-être moral et matériel du peuple”] in a speech by the Emperor at the opening of the legislative session – February 1865. By this was meant: the freedom of transactions, commercial freedom (trade treaties from 1860 onwards), the freedom granted in favour of commercial associations, the law on workers’ coalitions, etc. The authoritarian Empire favoured the emergence of more flexible legislation in economic matters, on the grounds that “competition alone stimulates progress” [“la concurrence seule excite le progrès”]. On the occasion of the inauguration of the Boulevard Malesherbes in August 1861, the sovereign congratulated himself on the dismantling of the obstacles that hindered the development of industry and trade. Hence the diversity of initiatives in favour of an overhall of the credit system, the regulation of the statutes of limited companies, the development of monetary policy… A new generation of entrepreneurs took advantage of these new opportunities. By making capital available to France and the rest of Europe, the banking world became accessible to men who, despite not coming from the traditional moneyed classes, launched their own business ventures, not always very wisely. A taste for innovation permeated the managing classes. The rise of the company Ernest Goüin et Cie (later Société de Construction des Batignolles), which was the very first manufacturer of locomotives which then branched out into the construction of metal bridges, illustrates this dynamism. French engineers benefited from an internationally recognised expertise.
A famous slogan, coined by Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte in Bordeaux, affirmed that “the Empire is synonymous with peace” [l’Empire, c’est la paix”]. However, the ‘works of peace’ involved supporting the economy by the dismantling of ‘restrictive regulations’ and other prohibitions, which were prerequisites for ensuring the well-being of ‘those who work’ (letter from the Emperor to the Minister of State – 5 January 1860).
So, was the “Liberal Empire” the product of free trade or the consequence of an increased politicisation of society? Mirroring the British model, the Emperor expressed an ideal where “the development of all interests” and the “manifestation of all opinions” would be combined. The first months of 1870 reveal a complexity that is rich in contemporary challenges, namely: the “progress of consumption”, “prosperous industry”, and the rise of capital, called for by Napoleon III. Were these inseparable from the establishment of an imperial liberal democracy? Or was the authoritarian framework a necessary and a sufficient condition for the reforms carried out under the Empire?
Juliette Glikman (November 2021)
► Juliette Glickman has a PhD in history and is associate researcher at the Sorbonne. She is the author of numerous books and articles, including “L’Adieu aux larmes. Le souvenir du 5 mai entre sédition et commémoration, de la monarchie de Juillet au second Empire” in “Le plus puissant souffle de vie… “. La mort de Napoléon (1821-2021) (Perrin, 2021), La belle histoire des Tuileries (Flammarion, 2016), La monarchie impériale, l’imaginaire politique sous Napoléon III (Paris, Nouveau Monde Editions, 2013).
In 2011, she gave an interview to napoleon.org for the publication, by Aubier, of her first book, Louis-Napoléon prisonnier. Du fort de Ham aux ors des Tuileries (which won an award from the “Académie des Sciences Morales et Politiques” and also the Historia prize for historical biography).
► Juliette Glikman is the author of most of the courses in our section Teachers (in French) > High school > Second Empire (2019)