Napoléon III

Portrait of Napoleon III. Source: SHD

NAPOLEON III (Paris, 20 April 1808-Chiselhurst, 9 January 1873)

Third son of Louis Bonaparte, king of Holland and Napoleon I's brother, and of Hortense de Beauharnais, the Emperor's sister-in-law. His tutor was the son of Convention member Le Bas, who instilled him with a love for the history of the French Revolution. In 1830 he left for Italy in his uncle's footsteps, joined the carbonari movement and took part in Menotti's uprising against Pope Gregory XVI in Romagna. The mantle of Bonapartist legitimacy passed to Louis Napoleon after the Duke of Reichstadt's death in 1832. With Persigny's help, on 30 October 1836 he unsuccessfully tried to rouse an uprising of the Strasbourg garrison. Louis-Philippe exiled him to Brazil. From there he went to the United States, moving in 1837 to England, where he defended his idea of "democratic Caesarism" in his book Les Idées napoléoniennes (1839) and took advantage of the Bonapartist fervour sweeping France after word spread that Napoleon's ashes would be brought to Paris. After another unsuccessful attempt to lead an uprising, this time in Boulogne on 6 August 1840, he was arrested, tried before the Court of Peers, sentenced to life in prison and locked up in Fort Ham (Somme). In May 1846 he escaped and fled to England. Although judged undesirable on French soil, in June 1848 Louis Napoleon was elected to the assembly in five departments, taking his seat three months later.

The ambitious deputy was a dreadful public speaker but worked hard to win the conservatives' backing. He harangued crowds and grew closer to the army, which was feeling nostalgic for the Empire. In December 1848 he was elected president with a five-million vote lead over his rivals. On 2 December 1851 Louis Napoleon staged a coup d'Etat, approved by plebiscite on the 20th and 21st. Having amended the constitution beforehand, he became president for 10 years and concentrated all power in his hands. He began a series of forays into the French provinces in order to prepare public opinion for the plebiscite on 21 and 22 November 1852, which proclaimed him emperor. He became Napoleon III on 2 December 1852. Like Napoleon I, he wanted to join the small circle of European dynasties, marrying a Spanish aristocrat, Eugénie Marie de Montijo, on 30 January 1853. From 1852 to 1860, Napoleon III held absolute power on the basis of universal suffrage, which always gave him overwhelming majorities but whose orientation was guided by the mechanism of the "official candidacy". The regime's pillars of support were the old Orleanist bourgeoisie, Catholics and business circles. Political life stagnated and a sense of oppression came over the whole country: the legitimist opposition remained silent, observing the Count of Chambord's instructions to abstain; the republican opposition was decapitated; civil servants were forced to swear a loyalty oath to the emperor; the prefects had nearly unlimited power; the press was gagged by censorship, the high price of stamps and the system of "warnings"; and literature met with a similar fate. But it was also a gilded age of pomp and lavish splendour. Offenbach was the toast of Paris and seaside resorts became fashionable. Haussmann, the prefect of Paris from 1853 to 1869, reshaped the city's face: the result remains the symbol of the economic upsurge during this period. France entered the industrial age: big banks sprang up (Crédit foncier and the Pereire brothers' Crédit mobilier in 1852, Crédit industriel et commercial in 1859, etc.); transport developed (3,100km of railroad tracks in 1851, 17,000 by the end of the Empire); and department stores opened (Le Bon Marché, Le Louvre, Le Printemps, La Samaritaine). Napoleon III's bargaining skills at the Congress of Paris put an end to the Crimean War (1854-1856), boosting his international prestige. He intervened in the creation of the kingdom of Romania and took an active part in Italy's unification, in exchange for which France annexed Nice and Savoy. His Italian policy cost him support among Catholics, who defended the pope's temporal power. Orsini's assassination attempt (14 January 1858) did not damage the Empire but symbolised the conservatives' discontent and enabled the emperor to tighten his grip on power: the general security act of 19 February 1858 allowed him to intern or deport political prisoners without trial.


With conservative support waning, from 1860 to 1870 Napoleon III turned to the liberals. The decree of 24 November 1860 gave the legislature more independence and power of initiative and heralded the return to public life of the republicans, who demanded the repeal of the general security act, restoration of freedom of the press and assembly, and won 32 seats in the 1863 elections. The government bowed: the anticlerical professor Victor Duruy was named education minister (1863-1869), the right to strike and assemble was granted in April 1864, the independence of the press was restored in May 1868, etc. But Napoleon III kept exclusive control of foreign policy and started building an empire, which eventually alarmed the other powers. During the Mexico expedition (1861-1867) he tried to create a great Latin, Catholic empire in Central America in order to curry favour with the Vatican. It came to a tragic end with the execution of the emperor of Mexico, Maximilian von Habsburg. During the Battle of Camerone on 30 April 1863, the three officers and 62 foreign legionnaires of Captain Danjou's company held off 2,000 Mexicans for a whole day; the date has become the Foreign Legion's anniversary. Napoleon III also completed the conquest of Algeria, tightened France's colonial grip on New Caledonia and Senegal, annexed Obock (Red Sea), posed as the defender of Syria's Christians, encouraged the building of the Suez Canal (1859-1869), intervened in China alongside England (1860) and took possession of Cochinchina (1863). In Europe, the Emperor of the French chose a more ambiguous policy, pursuing his goal of weakening Austria. He contributed to the formation of Italy and in October 1865 backed Prussian chancellor Bismarck's push to create a German State during their meeting in Biarritz, trying to negotiate the annexation of land on the other side of the Rhine.

It was not until Prussia's stunning defeat of Austria at Sadowa (3 July 1866) that Napoleon III became aware of the threat from that country and gave his foreign policy a new thrust. He began reorganising the army with the 1867-1868 Niel reform and helped Pius IX in Rome in order to win the backing of French Catholics and Orleanists. In the 1869 elections the republicans increased their ranks in the Assembly: Emile Ollivier joined the government in January 1870. The Empire became parliamentary. Abroad, French policy annoyed Italy and Prussia, which became closer as Bismarck discredited France and Europe. A Hohenzollern filled the vacant Spanish throne, threatening France with encirclement. Bismarck used the hostility caused by France's demands to complete Germany's unification. In the "Ems dispatch" the Iron Chancellor changed the report on the meeting between Benedetti and the Hohenzollerns in such as way as to leave Napoleon III with no other choice but to declare war, which he did on 19 July 1870. Prussian troops dealt the Empire a death blow, capturing Froeschwiller, Forbach and Rezonville-Gravelotte in the first half of August and surrounding Bazaine in Metz. Napoleon III surrendered in Sedan on 2 September, narrowly escaping the firing squad. Gambetta announced the fall of the empire at the Bourbon Palace. On 4 September the Republic was proclaimed at the Paris city hall. Charles Louis Napoleon Bonaparte was brought to Wilhelmshöhe, Hesse in captivity. Released shortly thereafter, he joined Eugénie de Montijo at Camden Place in Chislehurst, Kent. Like his uncle, he died of disease in exile (of progressive fiber dysplasia).

  • Entrevue de Donchery entre Napoléon III et Bismarck. 2 septembre 1870. Source : SHD