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Second Empire

Charles Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, the second emperor of the French, was born at Paris on the 20th of April 1808. His father was Louis Bonaparte, king of Holland, brother of the first emperor, and his mother Hortense Beauharnais, Napoleon I's step-daughter. Louis Napoleon and his elder brothers were heirs-presumptive to the imperial throne till the birth of a son to the emperor cast them into a secondary position, whence Louis Napoleon, the only survivor, was drawn in 1832, at the death of Napoleon's only son, to become head of the House of Napoleon. For sixteen years he sued for the hand of France and the attention of the world, interrupting twice the method of literary courtship to make personal raids upon the kingdom of Louis-Philippe.

A crisis of public disaffection was reached in 1848. The government determined to suppress the popular uprising, which resulted in the Revolution of February, 1848. King Louis Philippe, believing it useless to resist the mob, abdicated and fled to England. In December, 1848, Prince Louis Napoleon, a nephew of Napoleon I, was elected president of the second French Republic for four years by universal suffrage. He declared, "My name is a symbol of order, nationality, and glory"; the country people believed in him as they had believed in the first Napoleon. On December 1, 1851, the chief opposition members of the Legislative Assembly were arrested, and Louis Napoleon promulgated a new constitution. On November 21, 1852, by an almost unanimous vote, France made him emperor.

The period from the Revolution to the Second Empire was characterized by profound economic and social transformations. While it is true that the political upheavals which took place in France from 1789 to 1815 had afforded Great Britain a certain economic advantage, France too had entered the industrial age of coal, steam, modern foundries, large-scale textile factories and railways. With hindsight, the Second Empire appears to have been a crucial period, particularly from 1860 onwards.

The people had been deprived of democracy, racketeering was rife and the colonial adventure begun in 1830 with the conquest of Algeria was continuing; but, at the same time, the country was undergoing the rapid yet profound changes that were to turn it into a modern power - industrial development, the creation of banks and the department stores which heralded modern retailing, the transformation of towns and cities, substantial extension of the rail network, a reforestation policy and measures against soil erosion. But whilst the economic boom was undeniable, social progress lagged behind and, during this first half of the nineteenth century, living conditions were tough and the working classes endured acute poverty and overcrowding in the industrial towns.

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. Under the leadership of Napoleon III, the French Second Empire saw Paris transformed into a city of grand boulevards and monumental buildings that were imitated in Europe. Where there had been mazes, of narrow, crooked, and filthy streets he laid out magnificent boulevards, straight as an arrow - a clear field for grapeshot if needful - and paved with asphalt, which no mob could dig up for barricades.

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).

The Second Empire style imitated the latest French building fashions and was considered very modern. In the United States, French Second Empire first became popular in the 1860s, and remained popular until around 1895. French Second Empire often incorporated elements of other styles. An essential characteristic, however, that distinguishes French Second Empire from other styles is a mansard roof, which is a double-pitched, hip roof with a steep lower slope. Named for Louis Mansart, its French inventor, the mansard roof provides an extra floor where wasted attic space would be. Dormer windows are used to provide light to this floor. A mansard roof was essentially all that was needed to make a house French Second Empire, and the style was adaptable to houses of many types. Elaborate mansions, urban row houses, and simple cottages are found in both working class and affluent neighborhoods.

Lesseps, a French diplomatist and civil engineer, accomplished one of the greatest engineering triumphs ever undertaken. After ten years' labor and the expenditure by a stock company of three hundred million francs ($60,000,000) he completed (1869) the Suez ship canal, by which the waters of the Mediterranean and the Red seas are united. The work had been pronounced impossible by many good judges, and even the most eminent English engineers were skeptical of its accomplishment.

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.

In politics, the line was sharply drawn between the republicans of the Left, who wished to maintain the Republic and with it a liberal measure of democracy, and the reactionaries of the Right, who began by insisting upon a restoration of clerical privilege and bourgeois rule. After the coup d'etat of 1851 both groups were silenced, though even in the politically stagnant era of the early Empire they did not lose altogether their identity. With the revival, however, after 1860, of a vigorous political life the two worked together, and with success, to accomplish the overthrow of the personal government of Napoleon III.

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 favor 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).

Since the beginning of the year 1868, a very influential party had sprung up, which, opposing itself to personal rule, urged the adoption of the principle of Parliamentary government. The views of this party were shared not only by the opponents of the Napoleonic dynasty, but also by some of its most devoted adherents.

In Europe, the Emperor of the French chose an 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.

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Page last modified: 08-11-2017 17:50:08 ZULU