Louis Napoleon was born in Switzerland in 1808 during the height of his uncle's, Napoleon Bonaparte's, success. He grew up in a life of privilege, and developed very liberal (border-line socialist) idealism. After an incredibly unsuccessful (and incredibly stupid) coup in the 1830's, he was exiled from France by the then King Louis Philippe (he went in the U.S.A.). From then, until his return to France (for the revolutions of 1848), he became a well-published, and well-respected liberal.
Rise to Power
After the somewhat disappointing revolutions of 1848, and as a result of the notorious Bloody June Days, France found itself under the rule of a republican government, cleverly named the Second Republic. Elections were held in 1849 to elect a president for France. The overwhelming victor was one, Louis Napoleon. Louis Napoleon, or Napoleon III, was the nephew of the famed Conqueror Napoleon Bonaparte. He possessed a relatively sagacious idea of how to rule France. Napoleon III realized that after decades of class struggle, there needed to be a strong national leader to unify (and mollify) the people of France. He harnessed French Nationalism to accomplish this, and was the first of many leaders to come who realized the value of Nationalism.
Looking back at the actual election, it is useful to see that Napoleon III was elected for three main reasons:
1. His name was Napoleon. After the inglorious reign of the Bourgeois king Louis Philippe, the horrible reign of Charles X, and the tumultuous reign of Louis XVIII, the French people longed for the glory they had known so well in the days of Napoleon Bonaparte.
2. Men of property saw him as a protector. There had been a large socialist movement during the revolutions of 1848, and many people had feared for the security of their property.
3. He had a clear and published plan for running France, which was outlined in his two books.
Louis Napoleon’s concept of an ideal government would later influence such men as Bismarck, Cavour, and others. He believed in one strong national leader who was relatively unchecked. He did not believe the government should be tainted by the ‘corruption of a legislature’, for it would impair the leader/president from enforcing his will. He believed that a farseeing minority, who knew what was best, should and could rule over the majority. (Mussolini later used this idea in the creation of his Fascist government.)
Almost immediately, Napoleon III found one thing about his government that upset him, the four-year term limit. He had aspirations to be another Bonaparte, such as the case, this stunted term would just not do! Knowing that the legislature would have no part in changing the constitution, he staged a coup d’Etat, and took Paris by force. On December 2, 1849 (not coincidentally the anniversary of Napoleon Bonaparte’s coronation) he administered a plebiscite to the people of France. The question was whether or not to elect Napoleon III as the President for 10 years. With a 92% majority, he was elected. Exactly one year later, another plebiscite declared him Emperor for life. Already he had started to resemble his notorious uncle. The rest of Europe started to worry.
Domestically, Napoleon III was an extremely popular, as well as successful, Emperor. He was relatively intelligent, and thus focused on pleasing the four main groups that made up his constituency: the Catholics, the working class, the bourgeoisie, and the old landed nobility. The conservative Catholics were pleased by the fact that he put more of a religious role into education. He would also act as the so-called Papal protector throughout his reign. To the workers he gave unions and universal male suffrage. He also created many jobs by administering lots of public works and internal improvements (most notably the reconstruction of Paris). These internal improvements also improved France’s economy, which helped to please the bourgeoisie. Protective tariffs were his other tool that he used to appease the Business class. His most crafty domestic achievement, however, was his creation of land banks. Land banks allowed the old nobility (who were in decline) to gain back some of their wealth and status by taking out favorable loans on their land. Napoleon III was not the fool domestically, that he so obviously was in regards to his foreign policy.
As a “Napoleon,” he needed glory. This is French for, ‘he needed to fight a war’. However, not only did he need to fight in a war, he needed to win. The problem was that Europe was already wary of ‘the next Bonaparte’, and he could not afford to piss off his European neighbors. He found his opportunity when Russia attacked the Ottoman controlled Hellespont (opening between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean Sea): the Crimean War. Allied with England (and Italy) in a naval war, Louis was sure to come out on top, and he did. The peace negotiations for the war were held in Paris. It was a wonderful time to be in Paris. Paris’ reconstruction, orchestrated by the famous Georges Haussmann, had just been finished. The whole world was there to acknowledge his victory, and also his success in urban development. This was the pinnacle in Napoleon III’s career. France loved him for these victories, and was filled with nationalism.
In remainder of his career, Napoleon III was not nearly as successful. In the following decade, the various other leaders of Europe made a fool out of him. The most notable example of this was Otto von Bismarck’s wily manipulation of him to achieve German Unification. Bismarck saw Napoleon III as a "sphinx without a riddle". This was not an entirely false statement. Despite his early success, Napoleon III was not a great leader, diplomatically. He was naive and credulous. His career abruptly ended during the Franco-Prussian War. At the battle of Sedan, in a brutal German victory, he was embarrassingly captured. Thus in 1870, Napoleon III's career came to an abrupt end, as he would never again serve in the French government.
Napoleon III was indeed a complex individual. He was infinitely less impressive than his immortal uncle. However, he was cunning enough to take advantage of the Napoleonic persona. He folded like a cheap chair, though, when matched up against a much more shrewd Bismarck. History should recall on him as a fool, who in spite of his credulousness, had some major successes, and as a result benefited France.