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Age of Realism

France's 2nd Empire
& 3rd Republic

Keith Tankard
The Time Traveller
Updated: 14 December 2009
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Louis Napoleon owed his rise to power to the Bonapartist movement in France. The French people remembered only the glory which Napoleon Bonaparte had brought to their land but had forgotten all the hardships, and they longed for the strong and "glorious" government which legend claimed Napoleon had given them. Consequently, when Napoleon III stood in the presidential election in 1848, after the long and inglorious reign of Louis Philippe, he received overwhelming support on account of his name alone.


The election was for a period of four years, after which time the president had to retire and could not be re-elected. Napoleon III, however, immediately set about altering the constitution and his policy up until 1851 was aimed at gaining more support for himself.

In 1848 and 1849, for example, he gained the support of the Catholics by sending troops into Rome to crush Mazzini's republic and restore the Papacy, with a French army of occupation for protection. He then set about re-organising the French army and improving communications. He also gave attention to improvements to agriculture and industry.

In 1851 the Legislative Assembly restricted the franchise but Napoleon III ordered the repeal of the law and thereby gained more support from the people. When the Legislative Assembly refused to accept his veto, he dissolved it and presented a new constitution which made allowance for a president to rule for 10 years, with powers to appoint all ministers. He then held a plebiscite on the constitution and received unanimous support. In 1852, by decree of the Senate, Napoleon changed his name to Emperor.


In order to bring back strength and stability to France, Napoleon placed various curbs on the people. The press was censored and political meetings banned. The power to command the army and navy, to declare war and to legislate, fell entirely in his hands. The cabinet was dissolved and the ministers were consulted individually by Napoleon. As a result of these policies, France underwent an initial period of prosperity.

Napoleon III's eventual downfall was due ultimately to the fact that the French people desired glory and prestige. He had to give the French their glory and that led to a number of unnecessary wars. In 1854 he declared war on Russia in alliance with Britain and Sardinia (Crimean War) but achieved very little from the hostilities. On the contrary, France paid heavily through losses in the war and at the same time lost the friendship of Russia.

The war with Austria in 1859 likewise achieved little and ultimately led to a loss of prestige because of France's sudden withdrawal. Indeed, the Italians were angered because they had been deserted, and the war lost France the friendship of Austria. French Catholics were also aggrieved because Napoleon's policy had led to the weakening of the powers of the Pope. Furthermore, the maintenance of the French garrison in Rome was resented by the Italian nationalists.

Napoleon's Mexican campaign was a hopeless failure. Mexico had been a Spanish colony which became independent in 1821. In 1861 civil war broke out and due to its unstable financial position, Mexico stopped payments to its creditors for two years. Britain, Spain and France protested and jointly attacked Mexico while the American Civil War prevented the United States from protesting against European interference in American affairs in terms of the Monroe Doctrine.

Britain and Spain soon achieved what they had wanted and withdrew but Napoleon III continued the campaign as he hoped to regain his dwindling prestige. His aim was apparently to turn Mexico into a French colony and so create a market for French commerce.

In 1863 Napoleon accused Juarez, ruler of Mexico, of abusing the Catholic Church and invaded the country. After a long and hard war, Mexico City fell in 1864. Napoleon then placed an Austrian duke, Maximilian, on the throne of Mexico, hoping to regain Austrian friendship but, because of very limited support, Maximilian was kept on the throne only by means of a French garrison.

In 1865, with the American Civil War over, the United States warned France that she was violating the Monroe Doctrine. Rather than risk a war with the United States, Napoleon withdrew his forces from Mexico, leaving Maximilian unprotected. The duke was overthrown and executed, an event which angered Austria and further estranged that territory from France.


Napoleon had suffered a great humiliation by having to bow before the threat of the United States. Furthermore, the Mexican campaign crippled the French economy and kept France out of European affairs for a further five years, during which time Prussia rose to a dominant position in Europe. The Austro-Prussian War was fought in 1866 without Napoleon's being able to intervene in any way, and even his claim for territorial compensation in return for neutrality was spurned.

From 1859 Napoleon attempted to regain diminishing support by making liberal concessions. He granted greater political and press freedom but thereby created a situation in which the opposition could oppose him more openly.

In 1869 the opposition obtained a majority over Napoleon's party in the Legislative Assembly to which Napoleon responded by bringing in an entirely new liberal government. The Senate was allowed to discuss policy and the Legislative Assembly was allowed to legislate freely and to keep control of finance.

French foreign policy, however, was clearly on the wane and suffered further humiliation from Germany: misjudgment over Prussian strength in the Austro-Prussian War; humiliation over the Biarritz Agreement and the Prussian refusal to compensate France for neutrality; the Spanish Throne question and the humiliation at Ems.

Napoleon saw his only way to restore lost prestige was through a victorious war with Germany. France was isolated, however, and when Napoleon declared war in August 1870, his armies were no match for the Germans. A revolution broke out in Paris, the Empire was overthrown and a 3rd Republic established in its place.


In September 1870 Napoleon III surrendered to the Prussians at Metz. Almost immediately a bloodless revolution took place in Paris and a provisional government, the Government of National Defence, was established. Under pressure from the Parisian mob, a republic was proclaimed with the Governor of Paris as president.

Peace, however, was not forthcoming because territorial loss was unacceptable to the French. Yet the Germans would receive nothing but territorial compensation. Feelings were also high in Paris that the new republic could imitate that of 1792 and repulse the invading forces. There was the determination that even if Paris should fall, France would continue fighting.

On 23 September Paris was besieged and remained virtually cut off from the rest of France for four months. Gambetta eventually managed to escape from Paris in a hot-air balloon and began to reorganise the resistance in the country but, after initial success, the French forces suffered renewed defeats until, in January 1871, Paris capitulated.

Elections were held in February 1871. France was weary of war and so the elections were first and foremost a vote for peace. The people turned to the monarchists and conservatives who won two-thirds of the seats in the Assembly. Only a dispute as to who should be King prevented a return to a monarchy. Instead Thiers was elected as "Chief of the Executive Power" and undertook to form a government to make peace with Germany.

The peace terms were particularly severe. France had to surrender Alsace and Lorraine to Germany, pay a war indemnity of 5 billion francs and support a German army of occupation until the indemnity had been paid off. The terms were nevertheless ratified by the National Assembly in March 1871 and peace was restored.

Almost immediately a socialist revolution erupted in Paris. It had its roots in the 1848 uprising when a ruthless suppression of the working classes by the bourgeoisie had left a great deal of resentment. Economic distress during the Second Empire had then fed the dissatisfaction and had led to the creation of socialist trade unions in Paris as well as the other cities in France. These had quickly fallen into the hands of the extremists.

With Paris cut off during the Franco-Prussian War, the government there became subject to continual criticism and the eventual capitulation of Paris led to a violent reaction, exaggerated by the overwhelming victory of the conservative element in the February elections. The Paris socialists wished to throw off the "backward" government dominated by the conservative French rural districts.

Eighteen days after the signing of the peace treaty, Paris revolted. Thiers thereupon withdrew his government to Versailles and lay siege to the city. With the government removed from Paris, the socialists set up their own authority, known as the Commune. The moderate members soon withdrew, however, allowing the Commune to fall into the hands of the extremists who raised the red flag of the socialists and called on the other cities to follow suit to create a confederation of communes which would be able to dominate the conservative countryside.

The communes, however, were easily suppressed. Disagreement soon broke out in Paris and, as the government forces began to gain ground, a new Terror spread through the city, bringing slaughter and bloodshed. Eventually, after an existence of only two months, the Commune collapsed. Thereafter, by means of execution and deportation, the French government eliminated the extremist element and was able to concentrate on the development of order and peace.

France's first aim was internal reconstruction, the payment of the war indemnity and the establishment of a stable form of government. As in 1815, the country recovered remarkably after the war so that the indemnity was paid off in only two years. Priority was then given to military re-organisation, the establishment of compulsory military service, the building of fortresses and the modernisation of equipment.

With the royalist domination of the Assembly, attention was now devoted to the re-establishment of a monarchy. The throne was offered to the Comte de Chambord as Henry V but he refused the crown except under the white Bourbon flag, a situation clearly unacceptable to either the republicans or the socialists. A new constitution was therefore drawn up in August 1871 which re-established the Republic but in such a way as to allow the re-creation of the monarchy should Chambord change his mind over the flag issue.

Thiers was proclaimed president but fell foul of the Assembly because he refused to combat the rapidly growing republican and radical elements. Indeed, in 1872 he declared himself in favour of a republic and announced that the establishment of any other form of government would be tantamount to a revolution.

As a result, the Assembly gradually removed his powers and he was forced to resign in May 1873. Marshall MacMahon then became President and the constitution was altered to keep him in office for seven years, so as to await the death of Chambord who, being childless, would be succeeded by the Orleanist Comte de Paris as the heir to the French throne.

By 1875, however, circumstances had changed. The Republicans were calling for new elections which the monarchists feared, and the Bonapartists were again becoming a force with the coming of age of the Prince Imperial. The Orleanists saw that a republic was preferable to another empire and so sided with the republicans.

As a result yet another new constitution was drawn up which officially bore the term "Republic". Furthermore, the elections of 1876 returned a republican majority to the House of Representatives, thereby making a return to the monarchy out of the question.


By 1880 France was still predominantly peasant and the rural majority was not interested in social reform. Moreover, because the government depended for support on the Orleanists (and therefore on the bourgeoisie), the republicans did not pre-occupy themselves with social change but aimed instead at consolidating their political victories by promoting political liberties. They also concentrated on a reform in education so as to take it out of the hands of the Church and place it under state control.

In 1882 Jules Ferry became Prime Minister. He favoured a vigorous colonial policy and found unexpected support from Bismarck who desired to distract French attention from Alsace and Lorraine while at the same time hoping to lead France into clashes with Britain.

Opposition from the radicals, who found colonisation unacceptable because it drew attention from the lost provinces, saw the fall of Ferry's government that same year. He returned to power in 1884, however, and the French colonial policy continued, with France gaining Tunisia, Madagascar, the French Congo and a protectorate over Aman but the cost in blood and money was great and it led again to the fall of Ferry's government.

The achievements of the first ten years of republic were considerable but towards 1889 a severe agricultural depression was caused by drought and crop disease. Thousands of farmers also lost their savings when the Union Generale Bank went bankrupt, which accelerated the drift to the cities, bringing with it recession, social discontent and a further growth of socialism.

Critics of the regime increased. Instability in the government also meant that there could be no uniform policy. A vote against the government, even on trivial issues, meant that the government was expected to resign. Government followed on government in rapid succession so that between 1871 and 1914 there were no fewer than 52 governments in France, averaging only nine months each.

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