Napoléon le Petit

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Two centuries after his death, Napoleon Bonaparte still casts a long shadow over France. Over the course of those two hundred years, various French leaders have tried to harness this legacy by presenting themselves as the new Bonaparte. All have fallen pitifully short. However, no Frenchman has drawn so much upon the power of Napoleon’s memory, or ended their career in such ignominy, as the Emperor’s own nephew, later known as Napoleon III. Idolising his uncle, Napoleon III would spend much of life attempting to replicate his rise to power, but there was always something, an almost intangible element, which the first French Emperor possessed but Napoleon III lacked. Accordingly, Napoleon III’s rise was not a repeat of the glories of Italy and Egypt cemented by the dramatic Brumaire coup, but a chain of complex, contradictory and often absurd events, which only demonstrated his weaknesses to the world and prophesied what was to come from the reign of Emperor Napoleon III.

Napoleon III was born on 20 April 1808, the nephew of the then French Emperor (who will be referred to as Napoleon I). His idyllic life was turned upside down after his uncle’s abdication and not long after that, he and his mother moved to Germany and then Switzerland. He would spend the remainder of his childhood here, and would speak with a German accent for his whole life. At age fifteen, he and his mother moved to Rome, where for eight years he led a dissolute lifestyle. However, when he was twenty-three years old, he joined the Carbonari, a shadowy Italian organisation, dedicated to establishing a liberal, nationalist and unified Italy through revolutionary means. To further this goal, the Carbonari attempted to overthrow the Papal government in 1831, but Metternich, the Austrian foreign minister who was determined to preserve the conservative order, sent troops in to crush the uprising. Papal authority was restored, and Napoleon had to flee.

With his mother, he sought refuge in France. King Louis-Phillipe generously accepted their petition, provided that their stay was “brief and anonymous.” However, on the tenth anniversary of the death of Napoleon I, loyal Bonapartists staged a commemoration of the Emperor’s life. Unfortunately, the venue they chose was the Place Vendôme, directly outside Napoleon’s house, which strongly suggested that he had failed to keep a low profile. Frustrated, Louis-Philippe forced him to move to London, then Switzerland. Yet for all the setbacks they had caused him, Napoleon had been convinced by the commemorations that the French people wished to be ruled by a descendant of the great Emperor. Now, his ambition drove him to ensure that he would be that descendant. 

The most significant years of Napoleon’s life were spent in Switzerland. He enrolled in the artillery, like his famed uncle, and would learn under tutelage of the famed Swiss General Guillaume Henri Dufour. At the same time, Napoleon wrote on his political philosophy in Rêveries Politiques (Political Dreams) and Les Idées Napoléoniennes (Napoleonic Ideas). In these, he aimed for a “monarchy which procures the advantages of the Republic without the inconveniences” and outlined his vision for a strong and stable regime. 

In October 1836, Napoleon decided to make his vision a reality. Modelling his efforts on those of Napoleon I during the Hundred Days, he aimed to rally the support of the troops in Strasbourg and, with these, gain control of the rest of France. Initially, the plan went well; he swayed the garrison to his cause, and took the town. However, he made a key mistake in allowing news of his coup to leave Strasbourg. Before Napoleon fully realised the ramifications of this, the city was rapidly surrounded by the French army, and Napoleon had to flee back to Switzerland. 

Although the Swiss government wouldn’t bow down to French extradition requests, Napoleon was forced to flee to London when Louis Philippe threatened war with the Alpine nation. In London, Napoleon continued his machinations to gain eventual control of the French throne. Secretly, he financed a Bonapartist newspaper in Paris and aimed to use it to rally his supporters in France for another attempt to seize power. 

This second coup began in 1840. The plan was for him and a mighty force five dozen strong setting sail for Boulogne, storming the city and advancing on Paris from there. Shockingly, attempting to perform the 19th Century’s D-Day with sixty men failed, and this attempt was an even greater fiasco than the disaster at Strasbourg. On this occasion, he couldn’t even persuade the town’s garrison to join him and he and his men were promptly imprisoned. He was widely and rightly ridiculed across Europe for this attempt, and many labelled him delusional, with Le Journal des Débats noting “One doesn’t kill crazy people, one just locks them up.”

The King agreed with this observation, and imprisoned the incompetent usurper. Yet even being kept behind bars for six years didn’t halt Napoleon’s ambitions. He wrote L’extinction du Pauperisme, which aimed to resolve inequality in France by giving the working class “rights and a future.” This helped Napoleon build a reputation as a friend of the common Frenchman, whilst also helping him shake the “crazy man” label he had earned as a result of his two failed coups.

In May 1846, Napoleon managed to escape prison disguised as a lumberjack and returned to London yet again. Two years later, the Revolutions of 1848 unleashed chaos across Europe, and France experience the turmoil of the June Days, which culminated in the flight of the French King, the defeat of the government and the founding of the Second Republic. Napoleon returned in time for the September 1848 elections, in which he won a seat and became a member of the French Assembly. Napoleon’s opportunity had finally come, and, despite his earlier blunders, he seized it with both hands. 

The primary advantage Napoleon now had over his political rivals was that he had been in London during the June Days, and thus could not be blamed for either starting or suppressing the Revolution. He was also a Bonaparte, and by now that name had become the symbol of France’s glorious past. His mistress, Harriet Howard, had a sizeable fortune and was able to use this to fund his rise to power. Napoleon played the political chameleon, assuring all the disparate factions in France that he was their true champion. To the socialists, he pointed to his writings and reputation as a defender of the disenfranchised, while at the same time he stressed his famous lineage to the conservatives.

In December 1848, his dexterity was rewarded with a landslide victory in the 1848 Presidential elections, in which Napoleon took 74.3% of the vote. Once more, a Bonaparte ruled France. Yet upon taking power, Napoleon found himself severely restricted by the Assembly.  

The Assembly was dominated by the Party of Order, who were among the few not impressed by the new Napoleon. Instead, they had been backing their own candidate, the unpopular Louis Eugene Cavaignac. Napoleon still required the Assembly’s consent to form a government, and under popular pressure this was granted, but only because the Party of Order was convinced it had created a Constitution with strong enough checks on the Presidency that they would still dominate French politics. Napoleon would be, they said, “a cretin whom we will lead by the nose.”

However, Napoleon held no great fondness for checks or balances, as evidenced by his decision to refer to himself Prince-President of France. It was further revealed when, in 1849, he decided to unconstitutionally send soldiers to restore Papal authority in Rome. This was a cynical move, designed to shore up his support amongst French Catholics. The cost was that Napoleon was now involved in killing some of those who supported his attempted coup in Italy in 1831, and he was accordingly regarded as a traitor by the Carbonari. This is once again an example of his lack of political values, and his tendency to fervently support whichever way the wind was blowing.

The power struggle between Napoleon and the Assembly continued for the next three years, but the legislature believed they had one key advantage over the Prince-President – Napoleon could only serve one four year term. In order to run again, Napoleon would have needed the support of the ultra-conservative Party of Order to amend the Constitution. Unfortunately, Napoleon had earned that faction’s eternal enmity when he had tried to stop their voter suppression bill in 1849, which had introduced measures so extreme that the Prince-President was ineligible to vote in elections. His motion to amend the constitution failed, and it appeared Napoleon was trapped. 

However, he had one card left to play. Adopting the belief that third time is the charm, Napoleon decided to lead a military coup to overthrow the government which he was theoretically the head of. Had things gone awry, as they had done so often in the past, he would have been executed. Napoleon’s half brother Charles quietly enlisted the aid of the French Foreign Legion, then stationed in Algeria, and had it shipped to Paris without anyone noticing. At the same time, Napoleon appointed staunch loyalists to the positions which controlled all the armed forces stationed in Paris. On the night of 2 December 1851, the anniversary of Napoleon I’s coronation, Operation Rubicon began. All the key points in the city were seized, the Assembly was forcibly dissolved and Napoleon declared himself the new power in France.

The first act of the new Napoleon’s reign was repression, and about 300 Frenchmen died in the next week. In order to consolidate power, he swiftly arrested 26,000 political opponents, and deported 9,530 of them to Algeria. However, much like his uncle had before, Napoleon felt he needed to shroud his coup in a veneer of legitimacy, and so he held a plebiscite. In a referendum characterised by significant voter fraud and intimidation, 75% of eligible voters backed the coup. After this, a new constitution was written, and Napoleon was granted the chance to serve as President for another ten years, with no term limits.

Still, Napoleon was not yet satisfied with his position and began touring France, crying out for the need for a new empire and preaching that France could finally be restored to its past glory, once again evoking memories of his late uncle. In November, another referendum was put to the people, who voted 97% in favour of Napoleon Bonaparte becoming the next Emperor of the French, and on 2 December 1852, he accepted his new position. The Republic was dead, long live the Empire and Emperor Napoleon III.

The story of Napoleon III’s rise to power is that of a man constantly comparing himself to his famed uncle. He managed to unite France through romanticised visions of past glories, and through his vision of a modern, forward-thinking and prosperous future. But he was also a man who lacked principles, whose only true belief was that it was his destiny to rule France, and would support whatever positions would bring him closer to the power he craved. He was, in every sense of the word, an opportunist, capable of flashes of brilliance when circumstances proved favourable. Yet he was also a bungler, whose insecurities often drove him to reckless action. These traits would dominate his reign, and too late Napoleon III learned that in the game of nations, second chances are rare and third chances non-existent. He died in 1873, once more an exile in England. 

Randell, K., 1986. France 1814-70 Monarchy, Republic and Empire. Hodder

Tombs, R., 1996. France 1814-1914. Routledge