The French Second Empire: An Anatomy of Political Power

By Roger Price | Go to book overview

Introduction

This is a book about a major historical figure, Napoleon III, and about a political regime—the French Second Empire. It is a book both about great figures in history and the contexts, the political institutions and social networks, within which they were located. It is a study of the exercise of power, of the institutions of the state and the mechanisms through which these interacted with the enveloping society. Part I examines the circumstances which made it possible for Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte to secure election as president of the Republic and subsequently to launch a coup d'état, as the prelude to an Imperial restoration. Historians have frequently presented this Second Empire as a political drama in two acts — authoritarian and liberal — focusing on high politics and the character of Napoleon III.1 The regime's ignoble origins in a coup d'état and the tragedy of its final ignominious collapse in the war of 1870 have loomed large. At first the dominant trend, as republicans struggled to secure the Third Republic, was one of bitter hostility. The combination of a carefully researched political narrative with moral indignation — the construction of the 'black' legend — was exemplified by Eugène Ténot's studies of the coup d'état, published even before the empire had disappeared. By the 1930s and 1940s the Second Empire was described as a precursor of fascism. However, more positive assessments were also beginning to appear. Thus, from the inter-war years of the twentieth century and during the period of reconstruction which followed the devastation of the Second World War, historians' interests shifted to reflect a concern with French 'backwardness' and 'stagnation'. They looked for inspiration to the Imperial regime's 'technocratic' achievements and particularly the reconstruction of Paris, the creation of a modern transportation infrastructure, and, more broadly, the establishment of the conditions for rapid economic growth. This 'revisionism' culminated in 1990 in

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1
On the historiography see S. Campbell, The Second Empire Revisited. A Study in French Historiography (London 1978).

-1-

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