With the overthrow of the Orleanist monarchy, in consequence of the uprising of February 24, 1848, France entered upon a period of aggravated political unsettlement. Through upwards of five years the nation experimented once more with republicanism, only at the end of that period to emerge a monarchy, an empire, and the dominion of a Bonaparte. By the provisional government which sprang from the revolution a republic was proclaimed tentatively and the nation was called upon to elect, under a system of direct manhood suffrage, an assembly to frame a constitution. The elections-the first of their kind in the history of France-were held April 23, 1848, and the National Constituent Assembly, consisting of nine hundred members, eight hundred of whom were moderate republicans, met May 4 in Paris.
The Constitution of 1848 declared the Republic to be perpetual and the people to be sovereign. It asserted, furthermore, that the separation of powers is the first condition of a free government. In respect to the organs of government it provided, in the first place, for a legislative assembly consisting of a single chamber of 750 members1 chosen integrally for three years, directly by secret ballot on the principle of departmental scrutin de liste, and by electors whose only necessary qualifications were those of age (twenty-one years) and of non-impairment of civil rights. Executive powers were vested in a president of the Republic, elected for a term of four years by direct and secret ballot.
Save after a four-year interval, the president was ineligible for re-election. Upon him were bestowed large powers, including those of proposing laws, negotiating and ratifying treaties with the consent of the Assembly, appointing and dismissing ministers and other civil and military officers, and disposing of the armed forces. With respect to the functions and powers of the ministers the constitution was not explicit, and whether the instrument might legitimately be interpreted to make provision for a parliamentary system of government was one of the standing issues throughout the days of its duration.
December 10,1848, Louis Napoleon, nephew of the first Napoleon, was chosen president by an overwhelming vote, and ten days later he assumed office. In May, 1849, an Assembly was elected, two-thirds of whose members were thoroughgoing monarchists; so that, as one writer has put it, both the president and the majority of the Assembly were, by reason of their very being, enemies of the constitution under which they had been elected. The new order, furthermore, failed completely to strike root throughout the nation at large. In this state of things the collapse of the Republic was but a question of time. By an electoral law of May 31,1850, requiring of the elector a fixed residence of three years instead of six months, the suffrage arrangements of 1849 were subverted and the electorate was reduced by three millions, or virtually one-third.
December 2, 1851, occurred a carefully planned coup d'etat, on which occasion the Assembly was dissolved, the franchise law of 1849 was restored, and the people, gathered in primary assemblies, were called upon to intrust to the President power to revise the national constitution.3 December 20, by a vote of 7439,216 to 640,737, the people complied. Thereafter, though continuing officially through another year, the Republic was in reality dead. November 7, 1852, the veil was thrown off. A senatus-consulte decreed a re-establishment of the Empire,4 and by a plebiscite of eleven days later the people, by a vote of 7,824,189 to 253,145, sanctioned what had been done. December 2, Napoleon III was proclaimed Emperor of the French.
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