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Napoleon III and the second Empire


Napoleon III and the second Empire
Second Republic

Napoleon III enjoyed the political benefits of ruling during a period of rising prosperity, but his success was due equally to his considerable political talents. He built a well-oiled political machine that made him master of France, and he had sufficient insight to see that his success depended on distributing patronage widely. Moreover, he had the unusual foresight to anticipate and forestall opposition before it became a real threat.

Recognizing that the authoritarianism of his early reign would eventually be challenged, he gradually liberalized his regime, relaxing controls on the press, allowing workers to organize, and widening the power of the legislature. Although the opposition exploited these concessions and grew stronger, Napoleon III continued on his liberalizing course. In 1870 he proposed a new constitution that further increased the power of the legislature. It was heartily endorsed by the electorate, thereby lending fresh authority to the regime. Had Napoleon III shown as much wisdom in foreign affairs, France might well have evolved fairly smoothly into a regime resembling the Third Republic, with the emperor assuming a supervisory role above party politics. As it happened, Napoleon III’s regime, like that of his uncle, died of battle injuries. Since 1815 France had pursued a cautious foreign policy, surprising the rest of Europe, which had expected France to continue being a disruptive force in international affairs.

Although allied loosely with Britain, France remained isolated under the July Monarchy. Napoleon III conceived of a grander French role in Europe and elsewhere.

Between 1854 and 1856 he joined forces with England to fight Russia in the Crimean War. Imagining himself the godparent to Italian and German nationalism, he supported the efforts of Piedmont to form a northern Italian league, and in 1866 he helped arrange an Italian-Prussian alliance.

In the 1860s he also backed an ill-fated effort to put a Habsburg prince, Maximilian, on the throne of Mexico. This venture ended in 1867 with the withdrawal of French troops, the execution of Maximilian, and the insanity of Maximilian’s wife. But his fatal blunder was to engage militarily the growing power of Prussia under the able leadership of Otto von Bismarck. Napoleon III allowed a dispute with Prussia over the Spanish succession to become a matter of national prestige.

Bismarck used the issue to elicit from France a declaration of war (see Franco-Prussian War). Vastly underestimating Prussian military strength and overestimating his own, Napoleon III saw his army beaten soundly at the Battle of Sedan in September 1870, and he became a prisoner of war. Sedan set off political demonstrations in Paris that ended the Second Empire. On September 4, 1870, a new provisional government was declared. As minister of interior in the new government, the republican leader Léon Gambetta worked vigorously to mount patriotic opposition to the advancing Prussian troops, which laid siege to Paris. He escaped from besieged Paris in a balloon in order to organize provincial defenses. But French resistance crumbled. During the winter of 1870 to 1871, starving Parisians were reduced to eating zoo animals. In January, some members of the provisional government split with Gambetta and sued for peace. A hastily called election in February 1871 produced a legislature that was overwhelmingly monarchist, largely because the right favored a quick end to the war, as did most French people. The left, on the other hand, called upon a weary nation to keep on fighting. The new assembly chose Adolphe Thiers, a seasoned Orléanist politician, to be executive of the provisional government. Thiers negotiated the peace terms for ending the Franco-Prussian War. France was required to pay 5 billion francs, allow Prussian forces to temporarily occupy eastern France, and cede to Prussia all of Alsace and part of Lorraine. Although the assembly reluctantly approved the terms, the republicans disavowed them.

In March 1871 Paris rose in the revolt of the Commune, which turned a foreign war into a civil one (see Commune of Paris, 1871). Lasting 72 days, the revolt was largely motivated by opposition to the peace terms and to the monarchist assembly. But to the radical left, it became a symbol of proletarian insurgency against the ruling classes. In May Thiers unleashed troops against the Commune and crushed it. The result was 20,000 people dead and 50,000 sent to trial. Such repression had not been seen since the Reign of Terror, and bitter memories of the atrocities committed by both sides endured. "France" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia.

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