The French Second Empire: An Anatomy of Political Power

By Roger Price | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 3
The system of government

MINISTERS

Under the terms of the 1852 constitution, ministers were to be appointed and dismissed at will by the Emperor. They were not to be members of the Corps législatif and were not required to defend the government's policies before it. Napoleon's conception of their role was spelled out in his letter dismissing General Espinasse as Interior Minister in June 1858: '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. '1 Furthermore, ministers were responsible to the Emperor as individuals and not on a collective basis. The Emperor convoked ministerial meetings once or twice a week. At these, ministers presented dossiers. There was no real discussion and generally Napoleon postponed decisions, to give himself time to reflect.2 The real influence of ministers depended a great deal upon their personal relations with Napoleon and on face-to-face meetings or personal correspondence. In this the Emperor's private office and his secretaries, Mocquard and later Conti, played an important part, controlling access and the flow of information. Unfortunately its archives have not survived. It is clear, nevertheless, that the Emperor intervened frequently in the working of such key ministries as Interior and demanded regular and detailed reports on the state of public opinion. Considerable stamina was required on the part of ministers like Billault and Rouher who were frequently expected to attend on the Emperor and to appear at an exhausting round of official and private functions. These were the essential means of acquiring social and political credit, building client networks and accumulating and diffusing information in the rarefied world of high politics. In an autocratic system

____________________
1
Quoted F. Caron, La France des patriotes de 1851 à 1914 (Paris 1985), p. 23.
2
See e.g. M. de Maupas, Mémoires sur le Second Empire (Paris 1884), II, p. 19.

-54-

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