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Napoleon III, Emperor of the French (1808-1873)


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Napoleon III was born in Paris on 20 April 1808. Named Charles Louis Napoleon, he was the third son of Louis Bonaparte (the third brother of Napoleon) and of Hortense de Beauharnais (daughter of Empress Josephine by her first marriage). His parents’ arranged marriage was not very happy, and his father Louis, king of Holland from 1806 to 1810, lived mostly separately from his wife and their sons Napoleon-Charles (born in 1802, died in 1807) Napoleon-Louis (born in 1804, died in 1831) and Charles Louis Napoleon (who was known simply as Louis-Napoleon).

After the fall of the First Empire in 1815, the Bonapartes were obliged to leave France. Queen Hortense chose to live in Switzerland, in Château d’Arenenberg, from 1817 to 1826 and then in Rome in Italy. She inculcated her son Louis-Napoleon with the spirit of the Empire and respect for the dynasty that Napoleon has established: she must have thought: ‘Who knows? Maybe the Bonapartes would one day return to power in France?’

Plots and Coups d’état
In Italy, Louis-Napoleon and his elder brother Napoleon-Louis were passionate about politics. At that time, Italy was not a unified country and Italian territory included several kingdoms, some of which were under the jurisdiction of Austria. The two Bonaparte brothers were involved in conspiracies organised by supporters of the Unification of Italy. In 1831, they found themselves marooned in Forlì (south-east of Bologna), where a measles epidemic had broken out. This disease was very serious in those days. Louis-Napoleon recovered but Napoleon-Louis died of the disease in March 1831.

In July 1832, the son of Napoleon I and the Empress Maria-Louise died in Austria, the mother’s homeland, where the child had been brought up since 1814. Since neither Louis-Napoleon’s father, Louis, nor his uncle, Joseph, wanted to take the title, Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte became the heir to the Imperial crown.

OK, you’re right, it’s a bit confusing all these Bonapartes! This family tree should help you get it all straight.

With his military background (he even wrote an artillery manual used by the Swiss army …) and with the support of the Bonapartist activists, Louis-Napoleon tried twice to seize power by force. The first time (in Strasbourg 30 October 1836) he failed and was taken prisoner. King Louis-Philippe I of France had him released from prison on condition that he go into exile in the United States!

In August 1837, Louis-Napoleon returned to Switzerland where he saw his mother Queen Hortense die a few months later in October. Instead of returning to the United States, he settled in London, England.

In December 1840, the remains of Napoleon I, who had died in 1821 in exile on St Helena, were brought back to France to be buried in Paris in Les Invalides. Louis-Napoleon decided this was the right time to try to take power. He arrived in Boulogne-sur-Mer on the night of 5 to 6 August 1840, but this attempt was also a failure. He was sentenced to life imprisonment, and incarcerated in the fortress of Ham in the Somme (northern France). Though imprisoned, Louis-Napoleon was allowed to read, study, and receive visits. He lived in a small apartment, which he called “The University of Ham”. There he wrote an important book, a political manifesto against the poverty of the working class, entitled: “The Extinction of pauperism.”
But, Louis Napoleon escaped from Ham on 25 May 1846. And it was quite an adventure! Since renovation work was being done on his cell, he was able to escape disguised as one of the labourers, walking out the main gates of the prison carrying a large plank on his shoulder to hide his face. Louis-Napoleon took refuge in London. In July 1846 his father, Louis Bonaparte, died in Italy, in Livorno.

The conquest of power: a Bonaparte president of the Republic! (1848-1852)
In 1848 a revolution caused the downfall of King Louis-Philippe I, known as the July Monarchy. The Second French Republic was established, to be headed by a President of the Republic elected by universal male suffrage (all men over 21 could vote, regardless of their earnings). The president was to govern with the help of a council of ministers; a National Legislative Assembly was to be formed in which to discuss and pass laws. Backed by the Party of Order, Louis-Napoleon presented himself as Presidential candidate, and on 10 December 1848 he won the election with 74% of votes. He became President of the new Republic, for a single term of four years. In 1851, he tried to change the constitution in order to run again but the Legislative Assembly refused. Moreover, Napoleon did not approve the Law of 31 May 1850, which limited the universal male suffrage.

Louis Napoleon decided to organize a coup d’état (a French term meaning, the overthrow of the government, usually by military means), and he chose the date of 2 December 1851. This was an important symbolic date: his uncle, Napoleon, had been crowned Emperor on 2 December 1804, and a year later, on 2 December 1805, Napoleon was to win the battle of Austerlitz.

On the morning of 2 December 1851, Louis Napoleon proclaimed the dissolution of the National Legislative Assembly, the restoration of universal male suffrage, and announced new elections. He asked the army to occupy Paris in order to prevent any opposition. Parisians revolted and put up road blocks, but the opposition was even greater in the rest of the country: several thousand people were arrested, and many were sent to Algeria or Guyana (though a large majority of these would be pardoned the following year).
On 20 and 21 December 1851, Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte held a referendum, in other words, he asked French voters if they approved of the coup (voters had to answer “yes” or “no” to the question). Seventy-six percent of voters accepted the coup and thus confirmed Louis-Napoleon in power.

In January 1852, a new constitution gave power to the Prince President for a period of ten years.
In December 1848, Louis-Napoleon lived at the Palais de l’Elysée (the Presidential Palace). In January 1852, he moved into the Tuileries (the New Imperial Palace).

Napoleon III, Emperor of the French (1852-1870)
A year later, on 21 and 22 November 1852, the Prince-President asked the French to accept the return of the Imperial regime; it would be the Second French Empire. The referendum was favourable, and thus Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte became Emperor Napoleon III on 2 December 1852.

Why then, did he call himself Napoleon “III”, since only one other Napoleon – his uncle – had really reigned over France? Well, after his defeat at Waterloo on 18 June 1815, Napoleon I abdicated (he renounced the throne) declaring that he handed it on to his young son who therefore became “Napoleon II”. But Napoleon II only reigned officially for a few days, after which the imperial regime was replaced by the monarchical regime of the Restoration.
On, 30 January 1853, Napoleon III married the Spaniard Eugénie de Guzman y Palafox, Countess of Teba. On 16 March 1856, their only son, the Prince Imperial, was born. He was called Napoleon-Louis.

Napoleon III governed with the help of a government made up of ministers that he himself chose. The Assembly of Deputies was called the “Corps legislative” (the Legislative body): members of this were elected for six years. The body had one sitting per year which lasted three months. They would study any proposed laws and had the power to reject them but were not able to propose any new ones. The “Sénat” (Senate) was composed of 150 senators appointed for life and usually chosen by the Emperor. Finally, the “Conseil d’État” (State Council) was made up of senior judges chosen by the Emperor. Their job was to study the new laws, but only in an advisory capacity.

The first period of his reign, up to 1860, is often called the authoritarian Empire. Members of the Legislature were mostly in favour of the Emperor. The opposition, either republican or monarchist, did not get much of a say, because of the censorship of the press.
After 1860, Napoleon III began to govern more openly; this is the period known as the “liberal Empire”. The Legislature was allowed to propose new laws, or ask the government to justify its policy choices, and minutes of such discussions even appeared in newspapers. Censorship was less heavy, new newspapers appeared including some opposed to the regime, and “freedom of assembly” was restored (public meetings could again take place).

Emperor of the French? Watch out!
There were conspiracies to overthrow the regime, and terrorist attacks threatened the life of Napoleon III.
The deadliest of these occurred on 14 January 1858. The Italian Republican Felice Orsini and three accomplices threw three bombs onto the Imperial carriage when Napoleon III and the Empress Eugenie were on their way to the opera. They survived the attack but twelve other people were killed and 144 wounded. Orsini was arrested and sentenced to death. Before his execution, he wrote to Napoleon to try to persuade him to support the establishment of a republic in Italy.

An Emperor with varied interests, leading to modern policies
Louis Napoleon had always been interested in social issues, poverty and unemployment, education, economy. When he became Emperor, he created pensions for civil servants, favoured mutual aid societies or social housing, and authorized the right to strike in 1864. With his Education Minister Victor Duruy, he made primary education compulsory and free and made further education available also to girls as well as boys.

He enthusiastically encouraged the development of agriculture, industry and commerce, including notably the creation of banks such as the Credit Lyonnais and Societe Generale, which still exist. Napoleon III promoted the development of the railways, which facilitated the transportation of raw materials for factories, carriage of goods and persons. As he had lived for a long time in Switzerland, England, Germany and the USA, he was very interested in economic and political relations between countries. He encouraged trade by signing a commercial treaty for free trade with Britain in 1860, both countries accepting the movement of raw materials and products without paying duty.

Napoleon III also undertook major work to improve life in cities. With Baron Haussmann, the Prefect of the Seine department, the Emperor transformed Paris (whose population was 2 million): wide boulevards were created; magnificent buildings were built all on the same model. He also wanted housing for workers and their families, and public gardens open to all.

Patchy foreign policy: the successes and the failures
Napoleon III led several military campaigns. In the Crimean War (1854-1856), France allied itself with Britain and the Ottoman Empire against Russia, and won a victory that gave it an important place in Europe. In Italy, Napoleon III supported the efforts of Victor Emmanuel II (1820-1878), king of Piedmont-Sardinia, to unify Italy. The French armies defeated the Austrians at Magenta (4 June 1859) and Solferino (24 June 1859). In exchange for his help, France was given the Savoy and the County of Nice (March 1860).

Other operations were less successful.
Between 1861 and 1867, Napoleon III tried to conquer Mexico to install a regime that would be favourable to France and help him develop his business in the Americas. But it was a failure.

The colonial Empire continued to expand under Napoleon III: in New Caledonia (1853), Africa (Senegal, creation of the port of Dakar in 1857; Gabon, 1862), Asia (Cochin campaign, now Vietnam, 1858-1862); and the French protectorate Cambodia (1863-1949). After a conquest started in 1830, Algeria was annexed in 1848 and divided into three provinces, which then became French departments, namely Oran, Algiers and Constantine. Kabylie was conquered in 1857.

The fall of the Second Empire and Napoleon III’s exile
On 19 July 1870, France declared war on Prussia, which had been trying for several years to bring the German states together into a unified German Empire. Napoleon III, whose health was failing, was the head of a badly-prepared French army, which suffered a succession of defeats. On 1 September 1870, the Prussians were victorious at Sedan and Napoleon III was taken prisoner. In Paris, the Third Republic replaced the Second Empire on 4 September.
The Emperor was sent to Wilhelmshöhe Castle in Westphalia (a region of Germany), where he remained until March 1871. He was then allowed to go to England, where he lived in a small country house, Camden Place, in the village of Chislehurst (near London) with his wife and son. Napoleon III died on 9 January 1873, after a failed operation.

In 1881, Empress Eugénie had an abbey built at Farnborough (50 km south of London) to accommodate more honourably the remains of Napoleon III and the Prince Imperial (who died in 1879) which had been hurriedly placed in the small parish church of Chislehurst. The Empress was also buried at St Michael’s Abbey in 1920. The abbey is still home to Benedictine monks, and the abbey and the Imperial crypt are open to the public.

They called him the Sphinx …
His entourage described Napoleon III as a small man, with a long, fat face, broad drooping shoulders, a fat torso, and very short legs. He walked slowly, with his feet pointing out, and his body tilted to the left side. Not a very flattering portrait! But the Emperor also had a lot of charm and charisma; he knew how to win over his entourage. His small, light-blue eyes had a kind expression; he was a good listener and was genuinely interested in people. In private, he could be down to earth and had a sense of humour. In public he controlled his emotions and spoke little, but often guessed what others were thinking: his mysterious and enigmatic attitude reminded them of a sphinx, the creature from Greek mythology who challenged passersby to answer riddles … and devoured those who did not know the right answer.

Napoleon III worked hard; he did a lot of research and reading before making a decision. Up at seven, he would drink a cup of coffee and work alone until nine, then with his ministers until eleven. Every Tuesday and Saturday morning, without fail, he would meet the whole Cabinet at the Tuileries Palace. After lunch, he worked again or received visitors. In the afternoons, he might also go horse riding or inspect the various building work in progress in the city of Paris. Before and after dinner, he was back at work. In the evening, he sometimes went to the theatre or the opera with the Empress Eugenie.

Napoleon III was not really interested in the art, painting or sculpture of his time. But he was passionate about history and archaeology; he even created the Musée des Antiquités Nationales (National Antiquities Museum) at the Château de Saint-Germain-en-Laye.

Irène Delage and Nebiha Guiga, February 2016
(English translation R.Y.)

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