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The Second French Empire (1852-1870)

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The second French empire lasted from 1852 to 1870. On December 2, 1852, as a result of a plebiscite, a constitutional monarchy was established, headed by Napoleon’s nephew, I Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, who adopted the name of Emperor Napoleon III. Previously, Louis Napoleon was President of the Second Republic (1848-1852). The second empire was overthrown by the September Revolution. Napoleon III, during the Franco-Prussian War, fell into German captivity near Sedan (September 2, 1870).Workers came out on the streets of Paris demanding the deposition of Napoleon III.

Epoch of the Second Empire

At first (until 1860) Napoleon III was almost an autocratic monarch. The Senate, the State Council, ministers, officials, even mayors of communities (the latter – on the basis of the laws of 1852 and 1855, which restored the centralization of the first empire) were appointed by the emperor. The legislative body was elected, but the elections did not take place between free and equal rivals, but between an official candidate, supported by the entire government mechanism, and his opponent, who at the same time only acted as an opponent of the government; Electoral assemblies were banned as an encroaching on the freedom of elections; the distribution of electoral proclamations was not allowed; the count of the ballots submitted was made by the mayor, a government official who almost always had the full opportunity to falsify election results. Finally, from the deputies, from 1858, an oath of allegiance to the emperor was required from all candidates for this title. In view of all this, in the first legislative Republicans had no representatives at all; few elected refused to take the oath.

Before the elections of 1857, Bilo, the Minister of the Interior, announced to the prefects that, “With some exceptions, the government considers it fair to mandate the re-election of all the members of the House, that so helped the emperor and the country.” Nevertheless, in the legislative building of 1857-63, there were five Republicans who agreed to swear allegiance.

The emperor believed and declared that his empire was the continuation of the empire of Napoleon I, but there was a huge difference between them. Napoleon I approved many of the achievements of the revolution, and cemented the fall of feudalism. He relied on the peasantry and the petty bourgeoisie and, in the eyes of all Europe, and parts of France, was a product and manifestation of the revolutionary spirit. Napoleon III, having achieved power through the coalition of various elements up to and including the socialists, was the keeper of the altar, order, and property. At the same time he was the heir to the monarchy of Louis Philippe and relied on the union of the upper bourgeoisie with the nobility and the church.


The main business of the government was the construction of railways (by the year of 1860 – 9430 km, by 1870 – 17 460 km), the establishment of joint-stock companies, and the organization of all kinds of large enterprises.

The economic policy of Napoleon III sharply differs from that of previous governments, not excluding Napoleon I. Until then, France was a country of enhanced protectionism. Napoleon III was a staunch supporter of free trade, whose exercise, however, was difficult. Napoleon declared that, “Customs patronage is necessary, but it should not be excessive.” In 1853-55 he, although not without protest from the usually obedient legislative body, lowered the customs rates for coal, iron, steel, wool;  primarily indispensable industries.

In the following years, the decline affected agricultural products: wine, livestock, and alcohol. In 1860, using the rights granted him by the constitution in 1852, Napoleon concluded, without the approval of the legislature, a trade agreement with England.

The numerical growth of the working class, which corresponded to the growth of industry, continued across the board; but the workers’ situation did not improve. The wages of factory workers rose, on the whole, by 30-40%, but at the same time, prices for apartments and foodstuffs rose at a greater pace. However, in most of the factories, the working day slightly decreased, although without direct participation of the legislature.

And yet, under Napoleon III, an important measure was taken in favor of the workers; granting the right to strike in 1864. This single measure did not satisfy the workers, and they, in mass, soon abandoned their faith in Napoleon III.


The Italian policy of Napoleon III, which led to the war with Austria, aroused the strongest irritation of the Pope and clerics. Afraid to lose all support of the people, Napoleon III began to make some concessions to the liberals, initially weak and cautious.

In the elections of 1863, the struggle was vigorously conducted by both the opposition and the government. The Minister of the Interior issued a warning to newspapers, prohibiting free press and persecuting election committees. He finally addressed the prefects with a circular, describing the flourishing position of France, liberated by the emperor from a state of anarchy and poverty, into which she had been plunged by inflammatory rhetoric, and  attacked by a coalition of anger, hatred and enmity.

The failure of the Mexican expedition and the attempts to annex Luxembourg to France, as well as a severe deficit brought about by the aggressive policies of Napoleon III, increasingly contributed to the growth of discontent.

In May 1869, new elections were held to the legislative body. The government resorted to some of the previous methods of opposition, added to them the bribery of several newspapers. But still, the relative freedom of the press and the right of electoral meetings greatly facilitated the cause of the opposition.

Everything proved that the empire was threatened with collapse if it did not change its’ policies. The composition of the legislative body forced concessions.

War with Prussia

Partly in order to divert public attention from internal turmoil, partly in the hope of defeating the Mexicans, Luxembourg and other issues in military laurels; Napoleon III, under pressure from the extreme right, maintained an aggressive policy toward Prussia, that ended with war. The war clearly revealed all the fragility of the empire; from the very beginning, it took an extremely unfavorable turn; and on September 2, 1870, Napoleon III himself, with his entire army, surrendered himself to the Prussians.

When news of this came to Paris, it caused an outburst of indignation. In a night session of the legislative body on September 3-4, in the town hall, the republic was proclaimed, and without any election, par acclamation, a temporary “government of people’s defense” was appointed, which included all the deputies of Paris. At the same time, similar events took place in Lyons, Marseilles, Bordeaux and other cities, where a republic was also proclaimed, called the Third Republic.


Smirnov A. Yu. The Empire of Napoleon III

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