The coup d’etat of December 2, 1851, was skillfully timed to coincide with the anniversaries of the coronation of Napoleon I and the greatest Napoleonic victory, Austerlitz.
In control of the army and the police, Louis Napoleon and his supporters arrested seventy-eight noted anti-Bonapartists. Street fighting in Paris ended with hundreds of casualties, mainly bystanders fired upon by panicky soldiers. It gave Louis Napoleon the chance to act as the champion of order against armed insurrection. He strengthened his position by massive arrests, which ultimately sent twenty thousand to prison or into exile.
Napoleon restored universal male suffrage for a plebiscite; by 7.5 million votes to 640,000 it gave him the right to draw up a new constitution. The plebiscite was accompanied by skillful propaganda. Many opponents of Napoleon simply did not vote, and a substantial majority of French men over twenty-one were apparently willing to accept authoritarian rule rather than face renewed upheaval.
For nearly three decades the full force of fashionable French literature had been at work embellishing the Napoleonic legend and identifying the name of Napoleon with an elite French patriotism. Many voted yes, not to Louis Napoleon, nor to any approval of dictatorship in the abstract, but to the music of the “Marseillaise,” the cannon of Austerlitz, the growing cult of Joan of Arc—to all the intangible glories of France.
In 1852 another plebiscite authorized Louis Napoleon to assume the title of emperor and to inaugurate the Second Empire, which he did on December 2. The new constitution sponsored by the two plebiscites set up a lightly veiled dictatorship very much like that of Napoleon I. The emperor, who was responsible only to “the nation,” governed through ministers, judges, and bureaucrats—whom he appointed. The popularly elected assembly, the Corps Legislatif, was filled with candidates whose success at the polls was assured by the pressure of the emperor’s loyal prefects. The Assembly had little power to initiate or amend legislation.
Urban France still bears the stamp of the Second Empire, especially in Paris, where the emperor’s prefect, Georges-Eugene Haussmann (1809-1891) cut broad straight avenues with splendid vistas through the medieval maze of streets. The Second Empire also helped with housing and encouraged workers’ mutual aid societies.
Still, the legal protection of labor in the France of 1860 was less generous than that of Britain, and the standard of living of the working class in French cities remained below that in Britain, Germany, and the smaller European democracies. Although French labor benefited from the general prosperity of the 1850s, the gains in wages were partly offset by rising prices, and by 1868 demonstrations and strikes, once again legal, were commonplace.
The bourgeoisie may have gained the most from the Second Empire, assisted as it was by capital supplied through the government-sponsored Credit Foncier and Credit Mobilier. Napoleon’s government also encouraged improvements in banking facilities, helped the rapid extension of French railways by state guaranties, and in general furthered the rise of industry. Yet many of the French remained loyal to older methods of doing business, to small firms under family control, to luxury trades in which handicraft skills remained important despite the machine. The industrial growth of France in most heavy industries was somewhat slower than that of the leading economic powers; in the 1860s France was losing its Continental leadership in iron and steel production to Germany and ultimately was far outdistanced by the burgeoning economy of the new United States.
The French rate of population growth also lagged between 1840 and the 1880s, and an exodus to the cities from impoverished rural departments accelerated under the Second Empire. At the end of the nineteenth century France was not much more than 50 percent more populous than at the beginning, in great part because of a steep decline in birth rate. Britain, despite considerable outward migration to its empire, had about tripled its population, and Germany, too, was growing rapidly.
Though the reasons for French demographic changes are imperfectly understood, one major factor in a country of many small proprietors appears to have been the determination to avoid the division of already modest inheritances among many heirs. This meant that methods of birth control spread quickly. Late marriage, the practice of birth control by coitus interruptus, and continuing high levels of infant mortality, were also features of the French demographic pattern until the 1890s.
Despite demographic weakness, the France of the Second Empire was still a great power. Although the French gained little from the Crimean War, they had the satisfaction of playing host to the postwar congress at Paris in 1856. And the Paris Exposition of 1855 was an international success that showed Napoleon III at the height of his diplomatic powers. In 1859 he joined Piedmont in a war against Austria for the liberation of Italy. French armies won victories at Magenta and Solferino, but the defeated Austrians refused to yield. Fearful that Prussia might come to Austria’s assistance, Napoleon III suddenly made a separate peace with Austria, which agreed to relinquish Lombardy, but not Venetia, to Piedmont.
In 1860 the Italians set about organizing most of the peninsula, including papal Rome, into a single kingdom. Napoleon depended too much on Catholic support at home to permit the extinction of papal territorial power; he therefore permitted the union of most of Italy under the house of Savoy, but he protected the pope’s temporal power with a French garrison in Rome and left Venetia in Austrian hands. In 1860 he received from Piedmont the French-speaking part of Alpine Savoy plus the Mediterranean city of Nice and its hinterland. In the end Napoleon III had offended most Italians, Austria and Prussia, liberals everywhere, and most of his Catholic supporters at home.
To make matters worse, in 1861 Napoleon used the Mexican government’s default on payments of its foreign debt as the pretext for what proved to be a foolish imperialist venture. A French expedition installed the Austrian archduke Maximilian as emperor of Mexico, and French arms and men continued to assist him.
The Europeanized Mexican upper classes were in part willing to support this venture, but from the start most other Mexicans resented foreign intruders, and Maximilian had to rely heavily on French support to reach Mexico City, where he was formally proclaimed emperor in June 1863. The United States, preoccupied by a crippling civil war, could do nothing at the time against what Americans regarded as an infraction of the Monroe Doctrine.
But after peace had been restored in the United States, the American government protested strongly. The able Mexican republican leader Benito Juarez (1806-1872) had no difficulty in prevailing, especially after American pressure forced Napoleon to abandon Maximilian and his Mexican supporters. Maximilian fell before a firing squad in 1867.
By this time Napoleon realized that he could not function as a dictator-emperor in France. He could not be a republican. Nor could he act as a legitimized monarchist, for much of conservative France was loyal to the Bourbons or to the house of Orleans. He could only head an “official” party, relying on the manipulative skills of his bureaucrats to work the cumbersome machinery of a parliamentary system originally designed as a disguise for authoritarian rule.
Napoleon slowly abandoned the repressive measures with which he had begun. An act of 1860 gave the assembly power to discuss freely a reply to an address from the throne, and from 1867 to 1870 these powers were extended. Gradually, political life in France began to assume the pattern of a parliamentary or deliberative government, with parties of the right, center, and left.
After the general election of 1869, the government faced a strong legal opposition, many of whom declared themselves to be republicans. On July 12 Napoleon granted the assembly the right to propose laws and to criticize and vote on the budget. A plebiscite in May 1870 overwhelmingly ratified these changes.