The French Second Empire: An Anatomy of Political Power

By Roger Price | Go to book overview

Conclusion to Part III

Prior to the 1869 election, the state prosecutor at Toulouse typically complained that government supporters were 'irresolute, divided and profoundly alarmed: its enemies have never been so confident and so assured of their coming success'. He added plaintively that 'things cannot continue this way … but what is to be done?'1 His colleague at Aix warned that, however firm peasant support might appear to be, it was impossible 'to ignore the wishes of the enlightened part of the nation … the lever with which one takes action'.2 There was a real danger that the electorate would emancipate itself from official control. Not all reports were as blunt, but most shared this essential pessimism. The results of the election appeared to confirm the urgent need to make concessions to liberal opinion, to reconstruct a conservative alliance, and to isolate the irreconcilable republicans.3

For liberals, particularly those of the younger generation influenced by American and British constitutional theories and lacking any personal ties to the Orleanist princes, what mattered was the restoration of the political influence of the social elites. This might be achieved by means of the Emperor's recognition of the 'necessary liberties' defined by Thiers in 1864. An alliance with the moderate republicans around the notion of 'the best of republics' was the only alternative.4 The reform of existing institutions remained, however, the preferred, and certainly the least disruptive, option.5 The liberal Bonapartist Chesnelong, deputy from the Basses-Pyrénées, declared that 'in spite of its faults, the Empire is still the pivot of order in France and in Europe. We need to know how to maintain it in resisting it, in developing within it if possible, and I believe it to be possible, the spirit of purified conservatism represented

____________________
1
8 Jan. 1869, ANBB30/389.
2
11 April 1869, ANBB30/389.
3
E.g. PG Colmar, 18 Jan. 1870, ANBB30/390.
4
E.g. PG Rouen, 12 Jan. 1867, ANBB30/387.
5
E.g. L. Prévost-Paradol, La France nouvelle (Paris 1868), p. 133.

-395-

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