We should not be surprised by this after more than forty years of fiddling with the history syllabus (the Second Empire only really came back into the French national syllabus five years ago) and a constant media focus on the Second Emperor.
Napoleon III has certainly been a victim of the circumstances of his accession in 1851 (the coup d’état which caused more than a thousand deaths) and of his fall in 1870 (an unprecedented military disaster), two events that obviously cannot be overlooked. But he still suffers from the ostracism of another era, inherited from the vengeful writings of Victor Hugo and the accusations of the founders of the Third French Republic. However, for some time now, historians have shown the exaggeration of some of these accusations, which were based on the leader’s reputation for having spent rather too much time enjoying himself. They have vindicated the criticisms of his economic and social policy, better assessed his foreign policy, and noted the immense successes of the imperial regime, etc.
This slowness to recover Napoleon III’s reputation shows that in history, too, it is necessary to be persistent, to insist again and again, to organise and participate in debates, to be pedagogical and open-minded. Endlessly. This is what we do here at the Fondation, whether for the First or the Second Empire, both of which are essential to be able to understand France today.
If we look at things in perspective, calmly, we could say that between the period of the Enlightenment and 1789, embodied by Napoleon I, and that of “contemporary” France, founded after the Liberation of France under the impetus of another great man, Charles de Gaulle, the reign of Napoleon III can be seen as a bridge to modernity, with the added bonus of the positive attitude to a phenomenon of globalisation that France actually led, rather than being subjected to it. It was certainly another era, no one can deny that, but it is one more link in the chain of events connecting all the parts of the history of the French nation.
This anniversary is also an opportunity to remember and highlight this.
Thierry Lentz is Director General of the Fondation Napoléon and an associate professor at the ICES-La Roche sur Yon. In 2022, he published Napoleon III. La modernité inachevée, co-edited by Perrin and the Bibliothèque Nationale de France.