Napoleon III is one of the most influential people in French history. From his rise to power through the Presidency to his military defeat against Prussia, Napoleon III shaped and influenced the scope of France. During the early years of his reign his economic policies brought about prosperity and renewal for the country, while he hammered out a strong position in foreign affairs. The structural reforms of the country as a result of his economic policy proved to be long-standing, but cost his approval ratings to sink over time as France?s economy gradually weakened. The economic problems he was facing, coupled with the disappointing foreign policy resulted in the Emperor?s eventual defeat. However, for the first ten years of his rule Napoleon III did have substantial success in reaching the goals set forth by his economic and foreign policies, while maintaining the public?s approval. This was not meant to last and ultimately his empire crumbled. To understand Napoleon III?s policies, one must first examine his rise to power. At the time when he appealed so much to the people of France, Napoleon III was known as Louis Napoleon. He had been elected president after the revolution of 1848, and was serving his term of four years after soundly defeating four republicans by receiving 5 500 000 of the nearly 7 500 000 votes .
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This defeat was greatly due to the appeal he generated among the working class individuals of France and the sense of nostalgia that his name carried . Napoleon was the only candidate that obtained votes from all the classes. The promise of prosperity to the middle class and assistance to the poor greatly appealed to the people of France. Once he had obtained the presidency, Napoleon continued to gain the support of the French people. To do this he used the government as a tool in order to gain the loyalty of the army and the Catholic church, as well as to defend the right of universal male suffrage against the wishes of the National Assembly to reduce it. Napoleon?s political career was progressing along a positive path, yet he realized he would have to amend the constitution if he was to maintain his position of President. The resulting action was the coup d?etat, wherein men loyal to Napoleon arrested important members of the opposition in the Assembly and gained control of executive holdings. Napoleon knew the people of France would not allow these actions to persist, since they were illegal, so he called a referendum which would allow him to reorganize the present government with the support of the people .
During Napoleon?s appeals to the French people he engaged in widespread use of propaganda, utilizing liberal and nationalistic ideals to strengthen his disguised philosophy of authoritarian government, which he would head. This is most evident in his decree?s to the people in 1851. In his proclamation Napoleon attacked the National Assembly, portraying it as a weak, conspiring body of ignorant men that weakens his authority as President and jeopardizes the peace of France, as well as that of Europe. If the constituents of France want a government that will lead them into a future of unease, tension and depression than they should vote to have the National Assembly restored to its previous state of confusion, but he would have no part in it. However, Napoleon glorified the possibilities, should he remain their leader, by stating that he will bring the era of revolutions to a halt, protect the French government against backward action, and establish enduring, long-standing institutions in order to aid men in varying forms. He further argued that to restore stability to the French government he would revive the system created by the First Consul. This system would install him as the elected ?chief? of the government for a duration of ten years, create weighty dependence among the Ministers in the government upon executive power, assert a Council of State (refined members of society) to fabricate laws and have a legislative body, elected by universal male suffrage, to vote on the laws.
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These principles appealed to the people of the nation due to the expression of universal male suffrage, a very liberal conception. He further appealed to the sense of national pride among the French people by indicating that by voting for him you voted for the belief in the cause of his name, referring to the grandeur of the French nation under the leadership of his uncle, Napoleon I, but a vote against him was a vote for weak, incompetent government . This sense of restoring the country to past glories appealed to a vast number of people who believed that Louis Napoleon could restore French influence throughout Europe, like Napoleon I did. Napoleon continued to entice support with his promises of peace, freedom from anarchy, the crumbling of barriers and the disappearance of rivalries in France, as well as throughout Europe. These cumulative appeals to the population of France resulted in an astounding victory for Napoleon. One year after the successful coup d?etat he was successfully elected Napoleon III, Emperor of France by a whopping ninety-seven percent of the population . With the coup d?etat a success and the restoration of the Empire, the emperor could now focus on the new foreign and economic policies he had planned for France.
His plan of combining nationalism with liberalism had worked, establishing himself as the chief authority of the Second Empire. Napoleon III intended to be always ahead of public opinion so as to be able to understand the requirements of his time and to create laws and institutions in accordance with these opinions. He accomplished this through the procureurs generaux, secret unbiased reports reflecting public opinion of the way the government was being conducted and other important economic questions . Napoleon III also attempted to divert French attention away from the political policies of the recent coup d?etat, by focusing more upon the economic policies he had developed and the new ones he was promoting. These economic policies would allow France to prosper, during which his opinion ratings rose under the first ten years of the emperor?s rule. The standard of living (mainly in Paris) was also vastly improved from previous years under Napoleon III?s rule. Napoleon III had grand dreams for the future of France in the economic world, and in the beginning he had extravagant success. One of his major economic policies was the restructuring of banking and other financial institutions, and the creation of new ones within the country.
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Two such institutions were the Credit Mobilier and the Credit Foncier or Land Bank, both of which were designed to aid in promoting economic recovery . The Credit Mobilier, an early pioneer in joint stock investment banking with a large capital base, became a driving force in French finance during the first half of the Second Empire and a great international power. Frenchmen of all classes were encouraged to invest their money in it, thereby becoming a silent partner in the public works that Napoleon III was undertaking . The Credit Foncier, however, was a mortgage bank which provided long term loans to landowners for agriculture and public works . These two institutions were not the only source of funding for public projects, the government of France also contributed greatly to the economic recovery of the country. Entrepreneurs and industry still needed to be encouraged to borrow money to create the positive economic effects that these establishments were meant to have. Napoleon was able to get things rolling through a decree that would drop interest rates, thus advocating entrepreneurial activity and industrial growth. These reduced interests rates guaranteed investors a dividend when buying shares .
With these new policies in effect people borrowed freely and the effects of these changes were seen across the country. One industry that immediately benefited from the impact of these policies was the French system of railways. During Napoleon III reign the railroads of France increased by five times, most of this occurred in the first half of the Second Empire. The Emperor knew that the railway was a significant piece in the rebuilding of the French economy. The growth and development of so many other industries relied heavily on the railway system for work, transportation of raw materials and products, as well as increasing the mobilization of business men together with the general population of France. Two industries that utilized the railway to expand their scope of influence within the French economy were the iron and textile industries. Although, Napoleon III had no intention of antagonizing Britain into a confrontation for economic dominance in the world, he still chose to ardently develop these two enterprises as the two main industries of France. By subsidizing these enterprises jobs were created, technological advancements were made and the value of stock in the corporations involved in these industries rose. By the second half of the 1850?s France was the leading industrial power on continental Europe (11).
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Napoleon III was also interested in the technical projects of stimulating the economy, such as enhancing the public works departments within the country and the rebuilding of Paris as well. His economic mandates made provisions for various public undertakings in towns and cities. He was able to mobilize France?s savings to pay for the construction of roads, canals, embankments, the commission on ports, and regenerate and expand the telegraph system which linked Paris with all her departments and surrounding countries. Paris was the city that benefited the most from these community restructuring allocations. Napoleon III spent two and a half billion francs to repair and restructure the countries public works and transform the city of Paris from medieval to modern. Streets were widened to prevent the easy use of barricades during revolts or riots, markets were established, buildings were erected and plazas were all over the town (12).
Along with the rebuilding of the city came a rebuilding of it?s police force. The police department in Paris was increased three times in size and the detective branch was reconditioned, thereby creating a solid reputation for keeping order and detecting crime. The gangs of thugs that controlled the streets of Paris were gone, replaced by working class and business men (13).
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The rebuilding of Paris is one of the statutes that Napoleon is most widely known and accredited for and stands as a testament to his commitment to the restructuring of France to bring the country into the modern era. Although the country?s capital had been transformed, it had been done at an immense cost, something that would come back to hurt France economically, which would then begin to stir negative public opinion about the emperor. For the most part, Napoleon III?s policies had held a positive impact on the country of France, in addition to it?s people. Things began to change during the economic crisis of 1857. One problem causing the crisis is the minimal returns on the massive investments the French people made to develop the railway system and expand public works departments. This hurt the Credit Mobilier as railway shares fell in value, resulting in a decline in railway construction. The problems in the railway industry affected many other industries. For example the metallurgical industry was hindered because of a decline in demand, followed by the textile industry which could no longer maintain it?s present rate of growth and production with the problems in the other industries. To combat these problems the Emperor awarded contracts and loans to a wide variety of private firms and by lowering interest rates (14).
The economic problems in France had become deeply rooted in the lavish spending that Napoleon III had undertaken and he intended the drop in interest rates to be just a temporary fix to the country?s economic problems. The lower interest rates was only to be a temporary fix because Napoleon III had planned to change the monetary system in France from the silver to the gold standard. He wanted to do this to halt the flow of silver out of France and remove international difficulties with her trading partners. Unfortunately, he met strong opposition from bankers and ministers and the best he could do was aid in establishing the Latin Monetary Commission. This created a new standard of reduced silver content in subsidiary coins, promoted international trade and increased the economic dependence of Belgium, Switzerland and Italy on France (15).
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The Latin Monetary Union did not have the effects Napoleon III had desired. Napoleon III had intended this to be the first step towards an international monetary union, at which France would be the head. This was to help strengthen and secure France?s weakening economy. In the economic crisis of 1867, the Latin Monetary Union alienated Britain and the Scandinavian countries because they refused to drop the gold standard or accept a decimal currency. There was also no way of dealing with any problems that may arise between the nations. A final blow to the union is that it was responsible for provoking the decline in gold, in relation to silver (16).
Accumulatively, the economic and domestic policies of Napoleon were successful in the beginning, but waned along with his approval rating as his years of rule wore on. As one can see many of his solutions and policies provided a quick fix and lacked the solid base required to develop into long-standing, healthy institutions and administrative bodies. His foreign policies functioned in much the same way. As in domestic policy, the Emperor immediately took the initiative in foreign affairs. One of Napoleon III chief objectives in his opening years as ruler was to restore French nationality and establish the country as a great power in European affairs (17).
He intended to do this by ridding the European system established by the Congress of Vienna, which was an embarrassment to France. Napoleon III wanted an international congress to reconstruct the balance of power and bolster nationalism throughout Europe (18).
The Emperor?s stance on nationalism may not have been so eagerly pursued if he could have seen the impacts it would have, however, this would not be evident until the second half of his reign. For the most part of his reign as Emperor, Napoleon III favored two things in particular: a strong alliance with Britain, so he could employ their help in creating a European congress, and a halt to expansion toward Russian the Mediterranean sea (19).
He also aspired to transform the Mediterranean into a ?French Lake?. Napoleon III intended to bring to life the ?French Lake? idea via economic not military action. This would encourage trade with countries with the notion that France would become a senior trading partner (through the Latin Monetary Union).
Napoleon III postulated that this system would cultivate foreign investment and be strengthened by financial institutions (Credit Mobilier).
Other countries saw this policy as the groundwork of another Napoleonic conquest (20).
The ?French Lake? was never fully realized, however, the Crimean War (1854-56) did bring to a conclusion the questions of an alliance with Britain and if Russian expansion was to be checked. Intrigued by the commercial opportunities and the possibility of naval bases on the Mediterranean with the disintegration of Ottoman Empire, French and British forces joined Turkey in a war against Russia, only after a peaceful resolution could not be met. The poorly planned and executed war resulted in several outcomes. Primarily, Russia was defeated and Britain drew back from continental affairs, while France gained prestige and the Emperor took on a role as Europe?s arbitrator. Napoleon III also significantly realized the power of nationalism and what it meant. Foreign policy would now abdicate national movements. This is evident during the Italian War of 1859 (21).
Napoleon III was very sympathetic to Italy in the country?s quest to form it?s own, independent nationality, while at the same time hostile to conservative Austria. He wanted to aid in driving the Austrians out of Italy, plus obtain some sort of land compensation in return. France had the upper hand early in the war with the aid of her modernized artillery, and at the chance of the German Confederation intervening Napoleon quickly made peace with the Austrians. The impacts of Napoleon III decision to enter the war were that Italy become much more unified than he had expected, therefore France only received Nice and Savoy in compensation, plus he had reneged on an agreement with the Prime Minister of Piedmont, therefore losing some international confidence. Another important realization is that relations with Britain, which were not all that strong to begin with, were strained. Even after the Anglo-French Commercial Treaty (1860) (22) Britain suspected France of having alterior motives. Britain was right to suspect France, on account of Napoleon stepping up construction of his war ships and expanding his colonial policies. Napoleon III also hoped to develop new ways of commerce by establishing new outlets for European products overseas and intensifying the progress of Christianity and civilization. This new way of commerce led to the higher commercial interests and the creation of more French bases overseas. French influence was expanded to Indochina and West Africa with the establishment of bases on their coasts (23).
These motives of expansion would alienate Britain as a natural ally. Napoleon III needed an ally in order to reach his ultimate goals of establishing a European congress that would reorganize the balance of power in Europe (by revising the Treaties of 1815) and confront major European problems before they had a chance to lead to war. This congress would never come to be. After the disastrous intervention in Mexico (24) and the rise of Prussia after the Austro-Prussian War of 1866 came the point where Napoleon stopped thinking of the congress in revisionary terms, but more as a means of maintaining the status quo. His foreign policy was becoming extremely ineffective as a means to reach his goals. For example, during the Austro-Prussian War Napoleon acted as a benefactor to Prussia in Prussia?s attempt to expand her power in Northern Germany. Napoleon figured he would receive some sort of compensation for this, such as cessions in Belgium or Luxembourg. Otto von Bismark refused, seeing it as too high a price to pay just for France?s neutral actions (25).
This along with the threat of a Hohenzollern prince on the Spanish throne, which would surround France by Prussian influence, and mounting opposition to the French government from within, resulted in war. Napoleon III fought the war for two reasons, one was to humiliate Prussia for the attempt to place a man of Prussian descent on the throne of Spain, and to strengthen his weakened foreign policy to generate public approval in his government.. The Franco-Prussian War (1870) brought an end to the Second Empire of Napoleon III. Many of his foreign policies failed to do what they were supposed to do, which was to aid France and her people. In the early years of his reign Napoleon III?s foreign policies benefited France by establishing a natural ally with Britain, expanding trade and commercialism, restoring French prestige and allowing France to become a major player in the concert of Europe. During this time the approval ratings rose for Napoleon III. However, things began to decline in the second half of his reign during the Liberal Empire. In liberalizing the Empire, Napoleon III had hoped to put a halt to the growing public disapproval of his government, yet at the same time his foreign policies caused neighboring nations to become suspiciously hesitant, and exploitatious of him.
This all resulted in the end of Napoleon III?s regime and the establishment of the Third Republic. In conclusion Napoleon III?s reign as Emperor of France is a significant time period in French history. He was indirectly or directly responsible for many of the positive outcomes for France. He was a major factor in the driving force behind the expansion of the industrial revolution in France. He created many jobs, rebuilt and modernized cities, furthered the development of the police force in France, and established commercial trade abroad. Napoleon really did want what was in the population of France?s best interests, but as his rule wore on he found it more and more difficult to meet these goals. Weakened alliances, foreign humiliation and military weakness were to become his downfall, making the following years difficult for France to recover as an influential power.
Abbott, J. S. The History of Napoleon III: Emperor of the French. Toronto, ON: Maclear & Co., 1873. Corley, T. A. Democratic Despot: Life of Napoleon III. London: Barrie and Rockliff, 1961. Denholm, M. France in Revolution: 1848. Toronto, ON: The Griffin Press, 1972. Echard, W. E. Historical Dictionary of the French Second Empire, 1852-1870. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 1985. Gooch, G. P. The Second Empire. London: Longmans, Green and Co. Ltd, 1960