Napoleon III and His Regime: An Extravaganza 
by David Baguley.
Louisiana State, 392 pp., £38.50, December 2000, 0 8071 2624 1
Show More
The French Second Empire: An Anatomy of Political Power 
by Roger Price.
Cambridge, 507 pp., £55, January 2002, 0 521 80830 8
Show More
Show More

On the morning of 5 August 1840, a large pleasure boat chartered by a Frenchman was under steam at London Bridge. The owners of the Edinburgh Castle seem to have been remarkably incurious about the expedition. The day before, guns and ammunition, bundles of printed proclamations, a large amount of cash, sixty uniforms and several horses had been taken on board. The passengers wore civilian clothes but were obviously not embarking on a picnic.

The Edinburgh Castle sailed to Gravesend, where a tame vulture was purchased on the quayside, then crossed the Channel to Wimereux, three miles north of Boulogne. After changing into their uniforms, sixty men, led by a tricolour and a vulture masquerading as an imperial eagle, advanced on the barracks of the 42nd Regiment. It was five o’clock in the morning. One of the party was a lieutenant in the Regiment. He had the soldiers roused and assembled and then proclaimed his leader, Prince Louis-Napoléon, nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte, to be the new Head of State. There were a few sympathetic cries of ‘Vive l’Empereur!’ Since the ashes of the first Napoleon were about to be returned from Saint Helena, Bonapartism was thriving, especially in the Army. It should have been the ideal moment to conduct a Bonapartist coup. Unfortunately, the captain in charge at the barracks refused to recognise the imperial nephew and stole the scene by shouting: ‘You may kill me, but I will do my duty!’

The would-be new Head of State, who was pointing his gun, accidentally shot one of the soldiers in the face. The invasion force panicked and decided to retreat. Louis-Napoléon was determined to march on the upper town and had to be dragged away. ‘This is where I must die,’ he is supposed to have said. When they reached the coast, the Edinburgh Castle had disappeared and the lifeboat in which they tried to escape capsized. One man was shot dead. The others waded back to shore and were easily rounded up. By the time the ashes of Napoleon I had been paraded in front of the largest crowd ever seen in Paris and enshrined in Les Invalides, his nephew was two months into a life sentence in the fortress of Ham, in the swampy part of the Somme. Boulogne had been his second attempted coup. The first, at Strasbourg in 1836, was just as feeble and ended with his deportation to America.

The future Napoleon III, Louis-Napoléon (1808-73), the third son of Louis Bonaparte and Hortense de Beauharnais, considered himself a man of destiny. He had grown up in Bavaria, Italy and Switzerland, where he served as a captain of artillery. His mother, the daughter of Joséphine’s first husband, instructed him in the practical, Napoleonic notion of history: ‘Nobody studies it and everybody believes in it. One has every opportunity to arrange it however one wishes.’ It was hardly a heroic view. Louis-Napoléon sometimes seemed to contemplate his ‘destiny’ like the heir to an irksome family business. When he dreamed that he stood on top of the Vendôme Column in place of his uncle’s statue, he was struck, as David Baguley points out in Napoleon III and His Regime, not by the glory but by the loneliness.

In Ham, he wrote a pamphlet on ‘L’Extinction du paupérisme’, explaining, in effect, how much better everything would be if he could just be allowed to get on with his coup d’état in peace. It was a dictatorial socialist plan for ‘introducing the masses to all the benefits of civilisation’: stop taxing the poor, save on defence and prison-building, prepare the people for democracy by creating a new class of representative prud’ hommes, one to be elected for every ten workers. The prud’hommes would own and organise ‘model farms’ or ‘colonies’. Following the example of the sugar industry, workers would divide their time equally between factory and field. When all the cheap land had been colonised, ‘branches’ would be set up in Algeria or America and ‘perhaps one day invade the world!’

This blueprint for world domination without tears must have seemed the perfect solution to the ‘destiny’ problem. The new Napoleon would be a peace-loving despot, and the extinction of poverty would justify his coup. He hardly bothered to disguise the expediency of his humanitarianism. Today, he wrote, ‘one can govern only by the masses.’ It was important therefore to make the masses happy: ‘When opulence is no longer oppressive, oppositions will disappear.’ ‘Poverty will no longer be seditious.’

Baguley accurately describes this pamphlet as a typical example of 1840s utopian reformism – a combination of grand ambition, self-interest and petty detail: the thickness of walls in the work-camps, the necessary quantities of animal dung, the projected income from potatoes and vegetables. It is also typical of the future Napoleon III. Like most of his acts and utterances, it manages to be dull, grandiose, ridiculous and sinister at the same time, but without giving any clear impression of his personality.

In 1846, the man of destiny escaped from Ham wearing a labourer’s smock and hiding his face behind a plank of wood. He fled to London, where he signed up as a special constable and helped to control Chartist demonstrators. After the 1848 Revolution, he returned to France, determined to take charge of the new Republic – ‘dreaming, as usual’, according to his cousin Marie. Amazingly, he won 74.2 per cent of the vote in the Presidential election of December 1848. As Roger Price says in The French Second Empire, this was the first time that the entire male population of a major European state had been able to vote. The fact that it voted for a Bonaparte reflects the political, economic and social fragility of France in the 1840s. Bonapartism was whatever wishful thinking wanted it to be, and Louis-Napoléon’s vagueness allowed him to embody the hopes of very different groups. He was, Alexis de Tocqueville said, ‘a dwarf on the crest of a great wave’.

By the time his term of office ended in 1851, a new law had reduced the electorate by one third, eight départements were under martial law, and the political Left was fragmented and widely believed to be plotting coups. The machinery of repression was already in place. When he failed to gain enough support in the National Assembly for a second term of office, Louis-Napoléon dissolved Parliament and conducted his own coup d’état (2 December 1851). This time, he stayed in the wings. No one knows for certain where he was while the troops arrested three hundred députés and shot several hundred insurgents and bystanders on the boulevards.

Louis-Napoléon proved extremely adept at presenting himself as an improvement on democracy. Tales of bloodthirsty ‘Reds’ seem to have made a lasting impression, especially on the rural population. After the revolutionary mayhem of 1848, a moderate autocracy was an appealing prospect. In any case, as Price points out, few people were willing to risk their lives trying to depose a man who promised to restore universal suffrage. The huge ‘yes’ vote in the plebiscite which was held less than three weeks after the coup looks like an extraordinary vote of confidence in a political kleptomaniac. But the question to which 7.5 million voters answered ‘yes’ was this: ‘Do the people wish to maintain the authority of Louis-Napoléon and delegate to him the powers necessary to establish a constitution?’

On 2 December 1852, Louis-Napoléon became Emperor Napoleon III. The man himself managed to remain inscrutable and apparently quite vacant. It was said that he could go for days without saying a word: ‘he knew five languages and could be silent in all of them.’

Baguley and Price approach this mysterious nobody from different directions. Baguley mingles with the crowd and explores ‘the conflicting visions and interpretations’. His book is not ‘an attempt to uphold a particular view’, except the view that Napoleon III cannot be reduced to a particular view. He therefore tends to favour descriptions that confuse rather than clarify: Flaubert is praised for the ‘indeterminacy’ of his ‘fractured discourse, haunted by the fundamental unnarratability and incomprehensibility of history’; Victor Hugo is teased and disparaged for his melodramatic portraits of ‘Napoléon le Petit’ and his ‘thundering certainties’, though the effect of Hugo’s mad caricatures can scarcely be described as comforting.

The result is a valuable account of Napoleon III and his regime, with particular reference to the construction and dismantling of the Emperor’s image, during and after the Empire. Baguley shows how much of what we seem to know about him comes from tendentious, self-deluding works of semi-fiction and from the spectacular public displays and propaganda of the Empire itself. Long after it had ended, ‘Napoleon III’ was still operated like a glove-puppet. The historian Henri Guillemin even made the coup d’état the subject of a children’s story in 1944, and his histories for grown-ups were just as imaginative: Louis-Napoléon ‘allowed a subtle smile to spread beneath the hair that covered his mouth. To think that the silly fools would really take him seriously.’

Through the forest of subjectivities, one particular view does eventually emerge: Louis Napoléon was a well-meaning, old-fashioned man who was comical in daily life and epic only in disaster. If, as Baguley claims, there was ‘something essentially literary in the course of the Second Empire’, it is appropriate that Louis-Napoléon was at his most energetic and efficient when working on his Histoire de Jules César (1865-66): he co-ordinated teams of experts, organised excavations, and built a Roman war galley on which he and Empress Eugénie took a short ride on the Seine. Baguley himself has some novelistic fun, especially with Eugénie, whose luxurious underwear, according to her husband the economic optimist, was ‘a source of wealth for the workers’. History may be ‘unnarratable’, but Baguley’s own romantic-ironic embellishments – ‘But true love’s course never runs smoothly. Not that the prince lacks ardour’ – suggest that narrative is a necessary evil, even in a deconstructive history.

Baguley’s late 20th-century ‘floating signifier’ Emperor is remarkably similar to the slippery salesman of anti-imperialist myth. On the last page of his book, Napoleon III ‘must doubtless remain one of history’s most elusive and controversial figures, ever resisting final assessment’. But is this a sign of the essential literariness and unnarratability of the Second Empire or a testament to the Emperor’s wiliness? The problem, as Baguley puts it in a chapter on Napoleon III’s love life, is still ‘one of historical veracity, of the gaps that are even more yawning in matters of the private lives of historical figures’.

Roger Price takes a more direct approach in his wide-ranging and remarkably enjoyable study of the machinery of power in the Second Empire. For Price, Napoleon III is a problem with a solution. The simplest aspects of his portrait turn out to be the most revealing. For instance, he finds a good working explanation of Napoleon III’s initial success in the memoirs of Charles de Rémusat: ‘He lacks so many of the qualities of an ordinary man of merit . . . but this idiot is endowed with a rare and powerful ability . . . Whoever is able to decide to intervene in the affairs of the world . . . possesses an indefinable gift of boldness or strength which . . . raises him to the rank of a historical personality.’ A ‘grotesque mediocrity’ (Marx’s expression) with a fondness for coups d’état was bound to succeed. This was also Baudelaire’s view: ‘The great glory of Napoleon III will have been to prove that the first person to come along can, by seizing control of the telegraph and the Imprimerie Nationale, govern a great nation.’

In Price’s history, Napoleon III is still ‘elusive’ but not entirely immune from ‘final assessment’. His ‘natural indolence’ and dislike of administration made for inefficient government, especially towards the end of the Empire, when poor health prevented him from attending to business. Napoleon I held meetings while dressing or taking a bath, never spent more than twenty minutes on a meal, and sacrificed everything to ambition: ‘I would kiss a man’s arse if I needed him.’ It is hard to imagine Napoleon III having a similar thought. Napoleon I sought out different opinions and sometimes took the side of the most idiotic ‘expert’ in order to produce an interesting debate. His nephew found divergent views a nuisance and always blamed failure – by which he usually meant personal unpopularity – on other people. His notes for an article to be planted in subsidised newspapers are almost pathetically self-confident: ‘the representatives of the government, instead of imitating the benevolence displayed by the Head of State, his modesty and simplicity, have become infatuated with the powers delegated to them.’

Price’s book makes it easier than before to separate Napoleon III from the actions of his government. He was apparently sincere in his desire to introduce a more liberal regime, but he seems never to have questioned his right to rule. When sacking his Interior Minister in 1858, he told him in a letter: ‘Ministers are an important part of the machinery of state and I change them whenever I believe it to be necessary for the public good . . . I have no need to offer further explanation to a minister than to thank him for his services.’

This inflexible approach created a paradise for spies and local despots. Price is mindful of the tricky situations in which individuals found themselves and avoids the moralising tone taken by some historians of the Second Empire. Yet many of the secondary figures in his account appear to have been genuinely unpleasant people – marshal de Castellane, for instance, who enjoyed riding past groups of workers in Lyon, ‘feeling that even if they hated him “they politely doffed their caps because they are afraid of me.”’ In Baguley’s book, Victor Hugo sounds like the last word in acrimonious distortion; Price’s book makes Hugo’s description of the regime as a gang of crooks look entirely realistic. At elections, all civil servants – mayors, teachers, postmen and bill-stickers – were instructed to stamp out neutrality as well as opposition. Policemen tore down opposition posters, which were easy to spot because only official candidates were allowed to use white paper. Gendarmes, most of whom were ex-soldiers, collected rumours of secret meetings and recorded subversive comments made by drunken peasants. Many democrats shaved off their beards and stopped wearing red. The chief organiser of the coup d’état, the duc de Morny, wrote merrily to the President of the Conseil d’Etat: ‘the police at the moment are so incredibly zealous . . . that I would not be surprised to be arrested myself!’

Louis-Napoléon’s model farms were never built. The ‘extinction of poverty’ was left to private charity and the hypothetical benefits of economic modernisation. Library catalogues were inspected, letters were opened, plays were censored and the number of seats in theatres reduced (an anti-assembly measure disguised as a safety regulation). Newspapers were forced to censor themselves by a law banning anonymous articles. Most writers complied; many grovelled. Price has discovered an embarrassing ode written by Théophile Gautier on the baptism of the Prince-Imperial in 1856: ‘a fair-haired Jesus who holds in his little hand . . . the peace of the world and the happiness of the human race.’

Price’s 150 pages on ‘The Rise of Opposition’ – monarchist and liberal as well as republican – show that coercion and corruption were not peculiar to government officials. Opposition newspapers were ‘funded’ and voters were ‘treated’: the Anzin mining company helped Adolphe Thiers to win elections by threatening its miners with redundancy and giving them drinks on polling day. To succeed in Second Empire politics, it was more important to be socially privileged than in favour of the government: ‘The vote for opposition candidates, just like that for official nominees, was to a large degree determined by the fear, respect, and deference implicit in relationships of dependency.’

The radical republican revival was frustrated by growing prosperity and by cautious liberalisation: increasing the powers of the Corps législatif, restoring the right to strike and to hold meetings. These measures were not a sop to republicans but a concession to conservative liberals, many of whom were also monarchists. Republican divisions were stronger than ever at the end of the Empire, especially after the devastating plebiscite of 1870, when Louis-Napoléon once again showed his talent for asking trick questions: ‘Do you approve of the liberal reforms introduced into the constitution since 1860?’ Almost 68 per cent of voters approved.

If Napoleon III had not declared war on Germany and tried to ‘restore France to its proper rank’ in Europe, France might have been governed by a Bonaparte for the rest of the 19th century. The fall of the Second Empire was not an inevitable dénouement. He was defeated, as one of his foreign ministers put it, by his ‘immense desires and limited abilities’. ‘Destiny’ was his downfall, but only because he believed in it.

At Boulogne in 1840, Louis-Napoléon lost a chartered pleasure boat and 59 men. At Sedan in 1870, he lost 400 guns and 100,000 men. After spending six months as a prisoner in Germany, he was back in England, holding court at Camden Place in Chislehurst. He received visits from Gladstone and Queen Victoria, perfected an economical stove for heating the homes of the poor, and planned his next coup d’état. He died, still plotting, on 9 January 1873. A huge propaganda campaign in support of Napoleon IV came to nothing: the Prince-Imperial died, fighting Zulus with the British Army, in 1879. In 1882, Empress Eugénie moved to Farnborough Hill in Hampshire. She added a wing of 18 rooms to house her collection of Napoleonica and founded an abbey, to which the remains of her husband and son were transferred. She died in 1920.

The Gaullist politician Philippe Séguin is campaigning for the return of these remains to France. Since he has the support of about two hundred politicians, writers and historians, this may well happen, perhaps in 2008, which will be the bicentenary of Louis-Napoléon’s birth. Baguley nicely imagines ‘Napoléon le Petit’ lying ‘in the Panthéon, less than a stone’s throw away from the remains of his arch enemy, Hugo, to the eternal discomfort and indignation of the poet’. In Séguin’s view, the rehabilitated ‘Louis-Napoléon le Grand’ could inspire a populist party that might attract voters from both the Far Right and the Far Left. That would be the greatest coup of all.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences