About France Category: History
The Second French Empire or Second Empire was the imperial Bonapartist regime of Napoleon III from 1852 to 1870, between the Second republic and the Third Republic, in France.
Steps towards Empire
The anti-parliamentary constitution instituted by Napoleon III on January 14, 1852 was largely a repetition of that of the year VIII. All executive power was entrusted to the head of state, who was solely responsible to the people, now powerless to exercise any of their rights. He was to nominate the members of the council of state, whose duty it was to prepare the laws, and of the senate, a body permanently established as a constituent part of the empire.
One innovation was made, namely, that the Legislative Body was elected by universal suffrage, but it had no right of initiative, all laws being proposed by the executive power. This new political change was rapidly followed by the same consequence as had attended that of Brumaire. On December 2, 1852, France, still under the effect of the “Napoleonic virus”, and the fear of anarchy, conferred almost unanimously by a plebiscite the supreme power, with the title of emperor, upon Napoleon III.
Ideals of Napoleon III
Although the machinery of government was almost the same under the Second Empire as it had been under the First, its founding principles were different. The function of the Empire, as he loved to repeat, was to guide the people internally towards justice and externally towards perpetual peace.
Holding his power by universal suffrage, and having frequently, from his prison or in exile, reproached former oligarchical governments with neglecting social questions, he set out to solve them by organising a system of government based on the principles of the “Napoleonic Idea”, i.e. of the emperor, the elect of the people as the representative of the democracy, and as such supreme; and of himself, the representative of the great Napoleon I of France, “who had sprung armed from the French Revolution like Minerva from the head of Jove,” as the guardian of the social gains of the revolutionary period.
Napoleon III soon proved that social justice did not mean liberty. He acted in such a way that the principles of 1848 which he had preserved became a mere sham. He paralysed all those active national forces which create public spirit, such as parliament, universal suffrage, the press, education and associations. The Legislative Body was not allowed to elect its own president or to regulate its own procedure, or to propose a law or an amendment, or to vote on the budget in detail, or to make its deliberations public. Napoleon III during the Second French Empire
Similarly, universal suffrage was supervised and controlled by means of official candidature, by forbidding free speech and action in electoral matters to the Opposition, and by a skilful adjustment of the electoral districts in such a way as to overwhelm the Liberal vote in the mass of the rural population. The press was subjected to a system of cautionnements, i.e. “caution money”, deposited as a guarantee of good behaviour, and avertissements, i.e. requests by the authorities to cease publication of certain articles, under pain of suspension or suppression; while books were subject to a censorship.
In order to counteract the opposition of individuals, a surveillance of suspects was instituted. Felice Orsini’s attack on the emperor in 1858, though purely Italian in its motive, served as a pretext for increasing the severity of this régime by the law of general security (sûreté générale) which authorised the internment, exile or deportation of any suspect without trial. In the same way public instruction was strictly supervised, the teaching of philosophy was suppressed in the lycées, and the disciplinary powers of the administration were increased.
For seven years France had no political life. The Empire was carried on by a series of plebiscites. Up to 1857 the Opposition did not exist; from then till 1860 it was reduced to five members: Darimon, Emile Ollivier, Hénon, Jules Favre and Ernest Picard. The royalists waited inactive after the new and unsuccessful attempt made at Frohsdorf in 1853, by a combination of the legitimists and Orleanists, to re-create a living monarchy out of the ruin of two royal families.
Prosperity and Culture
But it was not enough to abolish liberty by conjuring up the spectre of demagogy. It had to be forgotten, the great silence had to be covered by the noise of festivities and material enjoyment, the imagination of the French people had prosperity to be distracted from public affairs by the taste for work, the love of gain, the passion for good living.
The success of the imperial despotism, as of any other, despotism, was bound up with that material prosperity which would make all interests dread the thought of revolution. Napoleon III, therefore, looked for support to the clergy, the great financiers, industrial magnates and landed proprietors.
He revived on his own account the “Let us grow rich” of 1840. Under the influence of the Saint-Simonians and men of business great credit establishments were instituted and vast public works entered upon: the Credit foncier de France, the Credit mobilier, the conversion of the railways into six great companies between 1852 and 1857.
The rage for speculation was increased by the inflow of Californian and Australian gold, and consumption was facilitated by a general fall in prices between 1856 and 1860, due to an economic revolution which was soon to overthrow the tariff wall, as it had done already in England. Thus French activity flourished exceedingly between 1852 and 1857, and was merely temporarily checked by the crisis of 1857.
The Exposition Universelle (1855) was its culminating point. The great enthusiasms of the romantic period were over; philosophy became sceptical and literature merely entertainment. The festivities of the court at Compiègne set the fashion for the bourgeoisie, satisfied with this energetic government which kept such good guard over their bank balances.
If the Empire was strong, the Emperor was weak. At once headstrong and a dreamer, he was full of rash plans, but irresolute in carrying them out. An absolute despot, he remained what his life had made him. In his opinion the artificial work of the Congress of Vienna, involving the downfall of his own family and of France, invited destruction, and Europe should be organised as a collection of great industrial states, united by communities of interests and bound together by commercial treaties, and expressing this unity by periodical congresses presided over by himself, and by universal exhibitions.
In this way he would reconcile the revolutionary principle of the supremacy of the people with historical tradition, a thing which neither the Restoration nor the July monarchy nor the Republic of 1848 had been able to achieve. Universal suffrage, the organisation of Romanian, Italian and German nationality, and commercial liberty; this was to be the work of the Revolution.
The Crimean War
But the creation of great states side by side with France brought with it the necessity for looking for territorial compensation elsewhere, and consequently for violating the principle of nationality and abjuring his system of economic peace. Napoleon III’s foreign policy was as contradictory as his policy in home affairs, L’Empire, c’est la paix, was his cry; and he proceeded to make war.
So long as his power was not yet established, Napoleon III made especial efforts to reassure European opinion, which had been made uneasy by his previous protestations against the treaties of 1815. The Crimean War, in which, supported by England and the king of Sardinia, he upheld against Russia the policy of the integrity of the Turkish empire, a policy traditional in France since the days of Francis I, won him the adherence both of the old parties and the Liberals. And this war was the prototype of all the rest. It was entered upon with no clearly defined military purpose, and continued in a hesitating way. This was the cause, after the victory of the allies at the Battle of Alma (September 14, 1854), of the long and costly siege of Sevastopol (September 8, 1855).Napoleon III leading his troops during the Second French Empire
Napoleon III, whose joy was at its height owing to the signature of a peace which excluded Russia from the Black Sea, and to the birth of Eugene Bonaparte, which ensured the continuation of his dynasty, thought that the time had arrived to make a beginning in applying his system. Count Walewski(son of Napoléon I and Maria Walewski), his minister for foreign affairs, gave a sudden and unexpected extension of scope to the deliberations of the Congress of Paris (1856) by inviting the plenipotentiaries to consider the questions of Greece, Rome, Naples, etc. Cavour and Piedmont immediately benefited by it, for thanks to Napoleon III they were able to lay the Italian question before an assembly of diplomatic Europe, and before Napoleon in particular.
The Italian Question
It was not Orsini’s attack on January 14, 1858 which brought the question of Italian unification before Napoleon. It had never ceased to occupy him since he had taken part in the patriotic conspiracies in Italy in his youth. The triumph of his armies in the East now gave him the power necessary to accomplish this mission upon which he had set his heart. The suppression of public opinion made it impossible for him to be enlightened as to the conflict between the interests of the country and his own generous visions.
The sympathy of all Europe was with Italy, torn for centuries past between so many masters; under Alexander II, Russia, won over since the interview of Stuttgart by the emperor’s generosity rather than conquered by armed force, offered no opposition to this act of justice; while England applauded it from the first.
The emperor, divided between the empress Eugénie, who as a Spaniard and a devout Catholic was hostile to anything which might threaten the papacy, and Prince Napoleon, who as brother-in-law of Victor Emmanuel II of Italy favoured the cause of Piedmont, hoped to conciliate both sides by setting up an Italian federation, intending to reserve the presidency of it to Pope Pius IX as a mark of respect to the moral authority of the Church.
Moreover, the very difficulty of the undertaking appealed to the emperor, elated by his recent success in the Crimea. At the secret meeting between Napoleon and Count Cavour (July 20, 1858) the eventual armed intervention of France, demanded by Orsini before he mounted the scaffold, was promised.
The ill-advised Austrian ultimatum demanding the immediate cessation of Piedmont’s preparations for war precipitated the Italian expedition. On May 3, 1859 Napoleon declared his intention of making Italy “free from the Alps to the Adriatic.” As he had done four years ago, he plunged into the war with no settled scheme and without preparation; he held out great hopes, but without reckoning what efforts would be necessary to realise them.
Two months later, in spite of the victories of Montebello, Magenta and Solferino, he suddenly broke off, and signed the patched-up peace of Villafranca with Francis Joseph (July 9, 1859). Austria ceded Lombardy to Napoleon III, who in turn ceded it to Victor Emmanuel; Modena and Tuscany were restored to their respective dukes, and the Romagna to the pope, now president of an Italian federation. The mountain had brought forth a mouse.
The reasons for this breakdown on the part of the emperor in the midst of his apparent triumph were many. Neither Magenta nor Solferino had been decisive battles. Further, his idea of a federation was menaced by the revolutionary movement which seemed likely to drive out all the princes of central Italy, and to involve him in an unwelcome dispute with the French clerical party.
Moreover, Napoleon had forgotten to reckon with the German Confederation, which was bound to come to the assistance of Austria. The mobilisation of Prussia on the Rhine, combined with military difficulties and the risk of a defeat in Venetian territory, rather damped his enthusiasm, and decided him to put an end to the war.
The armistice fell upon the Italians as a bolt from the blue, convincing them that they had been betrayed; on all sides despair drove them to sacrifice their jealously guarded independence to national unity. On the one hand the Catholics were agitating throughout all Europe to obtain the independence of the papal territory; and the French republicans were protesting, on the other hand, against the abandonment of those revolutionary traditions, the revival of which they had hailed so enthusiastically.
The emperor, unprepared for this turn of events, attempted to resolve the confusion by suggesting another congress of the Powers, to reconcile dynastic interests with those of the people. After a while he gave up the attempt and resigned himself to the position, his actions having had more wide-reaching results than he had wished. The Treaty of Zürich proclaimed the fallacious principle of non-intervention (November 10, 1859); and then, by the Treaty of Turin of May 24, 1860, Napoleon threw over his ill-timed confederation.
He conciliated the mistrust of the United Kingdom by replacing Walewski, who was hostile to his policy, by Thouvenel, an anti-clerical and a supporter of the English alliance, and he counterbalanced the increase of the new Italian kingdom by the acquisition of Nice and Savoy. Napoleon, like all French governments, only succeeded in finding a provisional solution for the Italian problem.
This solution would only hold good so long as the emperor was in a powerful position. Now this Italian war, in which he had given his support to revolution beyond the Alps, and, though unintentionally, compromised the temporal and propower of the popes, had given great offence to the Catholics, to whose support the establishment of the Empire was largely due.
A keen Catholic opposition sprang up, voiced in Louis Veuillot’s paper the Univers, and was not silenced even by the Syrian expedition (1860) in favour of the Catholic Maronites, who were being persecuted by the Druses. On the other hand, the commercial treaty with the United Kingdom which was signed in January 1860, and which ratified the free trade policy of Richard Cobden and Michel Chevalier, had brought upon French industry the sudden shock of foreign competition.
Thus both Catholics and protectionists made the discovery that moral absolutism may be an excellent thing when it serves their ambitions or interests, but a bad thing when it is exercised at their expense.
But Napoleon, in order to restore the prestige of the Empire before the newly-awakened hostility of public opinion, tried to gain from the Left the support which he had lost from the Right. After the return from Italy the general amnesty of August 16, 1859 had marked the evolution of the absolutist empire towards the liberal, and later parliamentary empire, which was to last for ten years.
Napoleon began by removing the gag which was keeping the country in silence. On November 24, 1860, – by a coup d’etat matured during his solitary meditations, like a conspirator in his love of hiding his mysterious thoughts even from his ministers, he granted to the Chambers the right to vote an address annually in answer to the speech from the throne, and to the press the right of reporting parliamentary debates. He counted on the latter concession to hold in check the growing Catholic opposition, which was becoming more and more alarmed by the policy of laissez faire practised by the emperor in Italy.
The government majority already showed some signs of independence. The right of voting on the budget by sections, granted by the emperor in 1861, was a new weapon given to his adversaries.
Everything conspired in their favour: the anxiety of those candid friends who were calling attention to the defective budget; the commercial crisis, aggravated by the American Civil War; and above all, the restless spirit of the emperor, who had annoyed his opponents in 1860 by insisting on an alliance with the United Kingdom in order forcibly to open the Chinese ports for trade, in 1863 by his ill-fated attempt to put down a republic and set up a Latin empire in Mexico in favour of the archduke Maximilian of Austria, and from 1861 to 1863 by embarking on colonising experiments in Cochin China and Annam.
Similar inconsistencies occurred in the emperor’s European policies. The support which he had given to the Italian cause had aroused the eager hopes of other nations. The proclamation of the kingdom of Italy on February 18, 1861 after the rapid annexation of Tuscany and the kingdom of Naples had proved the danger of half-measures. But when a concession, however narrow, had been made to the liberty of one nation, it could hardly be refused to the no less legitimate aspirations of the rest.
In 1863 these “new rights” again clamoured loudly for recognition: in Poland, in Schleswig and Holstein, in Italy, now indeed united, but with neither frontiers nor capital, and in the Danubian principalities. In order to extricate himself from the Polish impasse, the emperor again had recourse to his expedient – always fruitless because always inopportune – of a congress. He was again unsuccessful: England refused even to admit the principle of a congress, while Austria, Prussia and Russia gave their adhesion only on conditions which rendered it futile, i.e. they reserved the vital questions of Venetia and Poland.
Thus Napoleon had yet again to disappoint the hopes of Italy, let Poland be crushed, and allow Germany to triumph over Denmark in the Schleswig-Holstein question. These inconsistencies resulted in a combination of the opposition parties, Catholic, Liberal and Republican, in the Union libérale. The elections of May-June 1863 gained the Opposition forty seats and a leader, Adolphe Thiers, who at once urgently gave voice to its demand for “the necessary liberties”.
It would have been difficult for the emperor to mistake the importance of this manifestation of French opinion, and in view of his international failures, impossible to repress it.
The sacrifice of Persigny, minister of the interior, who was responsible for the elections, the substitution for the ministers without portfolio of a sort of presidency of the council filled by Eugène Rouher, the “Vice-Emperor”, and the nomination of Jean Victor Duruy, an anti-clerical, as minister of public instruction, in reply to those attacks of the Church which were to culminate in the Syllabus of 1864, all indicated a distinct rapprochement between the emperor and the Left.
But though the opposition represented by Thiers was rather constitutional than dynastic, there was another and irreconcilable opposition, that of the amnestied or voluntarily exiled republicans, of whom Victor Hugo was the eloquent mouthpiece. Thus those who had formerly constituted the governing classes were again showing signs of their ambition to govern.
There appeared to be some risk that this movement among the bourgeoisie might spread to the people. As Antaeus recruited his strength by touching the earth, so Napoleon believed that he would consolidate his menaced power by again turning to the labouring masses, by whom that power had been established.
His industrial policy was conceived as much from motives of interest as from sympathy, out of opposition to the bourgeoisie, which was ambitious of governing or desirous of his overthrow. His course was all the easier, since he had policy only to exploit the prejudices of the working classes.
They had never forgotten the loi Le Chapelier of 1791, which by forbidding all combinations among the workmen had placed them at the mercy of their employers, nor had they forgotten how the limited suffrage had conferred upon capital a political monopoly which had put it out of reach of the law, nor how each time they had left their position of rigid isolation in order to save the Charter or universal suffrage, the triumphant bourgeoisie had repaid them at the last with neglect.
The silence of public opinion under the Empire and the prosperous state of business had completed the separation of the labour party from the political parties.
The visit of an elected and paid labour delegation to the Universal Exhibition of 1862 in London gave the emperor an opportunity for re-establishing relations with that party, and these relations were to his mind all the more profitable, since the labour party, by refusing to associate their social and industrial claims with the political ambitions of the bourgeoisie, maintained a neutral attitude between the parties, and could, if necessary, divide them, while by its keen criticism of society it aroused the conservative instincts of the bourgeoisie and consequently checked their enthusiasm for liberty.
A law of May 23, 1863 gave the workmen the right, as in England, to save money by creating co-operative societies. Another law, of May 25, 1864, gave them the right to enforce better conditions of labour by organising strikes. Still further, the emperor permitted the workmen to imitate their employers by establishing unions for the permanent protection of their interests.
And finally, when the ouvriers, with the characteristic French tendency to insist on the universal application of a theory, wished to substitute for the narrow utilitarianism of the English trade unions the ideas common to the wage-earning classes of the whole world, he put no obstacles in the way of their leader Tolain’s plan for founding an International Association of Workers (Société Internationale des Travailleurs). At the same time he encouraged the provision made by employers for thrift and relief and for improving the condition of the working classes.
Assured of support, the emperor, through Rouher, a supporter of the absolutist régime, refused all fresh claims on the part of the Liberals. He was aided by the cessation of the industrial crisis as the American Civil War came to an end, by the apparent closing of the Roman question by the convention of September 15, which guaranteed to the papal states the protection of Italy, and finally by the treaty of October 30, 1864, which temporarily put an end to the crisis of the Schleswig-Holstein question.
After 1865 the temporary agreement which had united Austria and Prussia for the purpose of administering the conquered duchies gave way to a silent antipathy. Although the Austro-Prussian War of 1866 was not unexpected, its rapid termination and outcome came as a severe shock to France.
Napoleon had hoped to gain fresh prestige for his throne and new influence for France by an intervention at the proper moment between combatants equally matched and mutually exhausted. His calculations were upset and his hopes dashed by the Battle of Sadowa (Koniggratz) on July 4, 1866. The Treaty of Prague put an end to the secular rivalry of Habsburg and Hohenzollern for the hegemony of Germany, which had been France’s opportunity; and Prussia could afford to humour the just claims of Napoleon by establishing between her North German Confederation and the South German states the illusory frontier of the Main.
The belated efforts of the French emperor to obtain “compensation” on the left bank of the Rhine at the expense of the South German states, made matters worse. France realised with an angry surprise that on her eastern frontier had arisen a military power by which her influence, if not her existence, was threatened; that in the name of the principle of nationality unwilling populations had been brought under the sway of a dynasty by tradition militant and aggressive, by tradition the enemy of France; that this new and threatening power had destroyed French influence in Italy, which owed the acquisition of Venetia to a Prussian alliance and to Prussian arms; and that all this had been due to Napoleon, outwitted and outmanoeuvred at every turn, since his first interview with Otto von Bismarck at Biarritz in October 1865.
All confidence in the excellence of imperial régime vanished. Thiers and Jules Favre as representatives of the Opposition denounced the blunders of 1866. Emile Ollivier split the official majority by the amendment of the 45, and made it understood that a reconciliation with the Empire would be impossible until the emperor granted entire liberty. The recall of French troops from Rome, in accordance with the convention of 1864, led to further attacks by the Ultramontane party, who were alarmed for the papacy.
Napoleon III felt the necessity for developing “the great act of 1860” by the decree January 19, 1867. In spite of Rouher, by a secret agreement with Ollivier, the right of interpellation was restored to the Chambers. Reforms in press supervision and the right of holding meetings were promised. In vain did Rouher try to meet the Liberal opposition by organising a party for the defence of the Empire, the Union dynastique. The rapid succession of international reverses prevented him from effecting anything.
The year 1867 was particularly disastrous for the Empire. In Mexico the greatest idea of the reign ended in a humiliating withdrawal before the ultimatum of the United States, while Italy, relying on her new alliance with Prussia and already forgetful of her promises, was mobilising the revolutionary forces to complete her unity by conquering Rome. The chassepots of Mentana were needed to check the Garibaldians.
And when the imperial diplomacy made a belated attempt to obtain from the victorious Bismarck those territorial compensations on the Rhine, in Belgium and in Luxembourg, which it ought to have been possible to exact from him earlier at Biarritz, – Benedetti added to the mistake of asking at the wrong time the humiliation of obtaining nothing. Even in Japan, the Bakufu government, which Napoleon had supported by sending a Military mission, finally lost to Japanese Imperial forces in the Boshin War,leading to the Meiji restoration.
Napoleon did not confess his weakness. France, reduced to a state of weakness, courted the mockery of Europe by a display of the external magnificence which concealed her decline. In the Paris transformed by Baron Haussmann, a city of pleasure and frivolity, the opening of the Universal Exhibition (1867) was marked by Berezowski’s attack on Tsar Alexander II of Russia, and its success was clouded by the tragic fate of the unhappy emperor Maximilian of Mexico. Thiers exclaimed, “There are no blunders left for us to make.” The emperor managed to commit still more, and the consequences were irreparable.
Old, infirm and embittered, keeping his ministers in suspense by the uncertainty and secrecy of his plans, surrounded by people whose sole concern was pleasure, and urged on by a growing opposition, there were now two courses open to Napoleon III: either to arrange a peace which should last, or to prepare for a decisive war.
Napoleon drifted in the direction of war, without making the necessary preparations. Count Beust unsuccessfully revived, on behalf of the Austrian government, the project abandoned by Napoleon since 1866 of a settlement on the basis of the status quo with reciprocal disarmament. Napoleon refused, on hearing from Colonel Stoffel, his military attaché at Berlin, that Prussia would not agree to disarmament; but he was more anxious than he was willing to show.
A reconstitution of the military organisation seemed to him to be necessary. This Marshal Niel was unable to obtain either from the Bonapartist Opposition, who feared the electors, whose old patriotism had given place to a commercial spirit, or from the Republican opposition, who were unwilling to strengthen the despot. Both parties were blinded by political interest to the outside dangers.
The emperor was abandoned by men and disappointed by events. He had vainly hoped that, though by granting the freedom of the press and authorising meetings, he had conceded the right of speech, he would retain the right of action; but he had played into the hands of his enemies. Victor Hugo’s Châtiments, Rochefort’s Lanterne, the subscription for the monument to Baudin, the deputy killed at the barricades in 1851, followed by Léon Gambetta’s speech against the Empire on the occasion of the trial of Delescluze, soon showed that the republican party was irreconcilable.
On the other hand, the Ultramontane party were becoming discontented, while the industries formerly protected were dissatisfied with free trade reform. The working classes had abandoned their political neutrality, which had brought them nothing but unpopularity, and gone over to the enemy. Despising Pierre-Joseph Proudhon’s impassioned attack on the slavery of communism, they had gradually been won over by the collectivist theories of Karl Marx and the revolutionary theories of Mikhail Bakunin, as set forth at the congresses of the International.
At these Labour congresses, the fame of which was only increased by the fact that they were forbidden, it had been affirmed that the social emancipation of the worker was inseparable from his political emancipation. The union between the internationalists and the republican bourgeois became an accomplished fact.
The Empire, taken by surprise, sought to curb both the middle classes and the labouring classes, and forced them both into revolutionary actions. There were multiple strikes. The elections of May 1869, which took place during these disturbances, inflicted upon the Empire a serious moral defeat.
In spite of the revival by the government of the cry of the “red terror”, Ollivier, the advocate of conciliation, was rejected by Paris, while 40 irreconcilables and 116 members of the Third Party were elected. Concessions had to be made to these, so by the senatus-consulte of September 8, 1869 a parliamentary monarchy was substituted for personal government. On January 2, 1870 Ollivier was placed at the head of the first homogeneous, united and responsible ministry.
But the republican party, unlike the country, which hailed this reconciliation of liberty and order, refused to be content with the liberties they had won; they refused all compromise, declaring themselves more than ever decided upon the overthrow of the Empire.
The murder of the journalist Victor Noir by Pierre Bonaparte, a member of the imperial family, gave the revolutionaries their long desired opportunity (January 10). But the émeute ended in a failure, and the emperor was able to answer the personal threats against him by the overwhelming victory of the plebiscite of May 8, 1870.
This success, which should have consolidated the Empire, determined its downfall. It was thought that a diplomatic success would make the country forget liberty in favour of glory. It was in vain that after the parliamentary revolution of January 2, 1870, Comte Daru revived, through Lord Clarendon, Count Beust’s plan of disarmament after the Battle of Königgratz. He met with a refusal from Prussia and from the imperial entourage. The Empress Eugénie was credited with the remark, “If there is no war, my son will never be emperor.”
The desired pretext was offered on July 3, 1870 by the candidature of a Hohenzollern prince for the throne of Spain. To the French people it seemed that Prussia was reviving against France the traditional policy of the Habsburgs. France, having rejected for dynastic reasons the candidature of a Frenchman, the duc de Montpensier, was threatened with a German prince. Never had the emperor, now both physically and morally ill, had greater need of statesmanlike advice and the support of an enlightened public opinion. He could find neither.
Ollivier’s Liberal ministry, wishing to show itself as jealous for national interests as any absolutist ministry, bent upon doing something great, and swept away by the force of that opinion which it had itself set free, at once accepted the war as inevitable, and prepared for it with a light heart, In face of the decided declaration of the duc de Gramont, the minister for foreign affairs, before the Legislative Body of July 6, 1870, Europe, in alarm, supported the efforts of French diplomacy and obtained the withdrawal of the Hohenzollern candidature.
This did not suit the views either of the war party in Paris or of Bismarck, who wanted the other side to declare war. Gramont’s ill-advised action in demanding from King Wilhelm I of Germany a guarantee of future conduct, gave Bismarck his opportunity, and the king’s refusal was transformed into an insult by the “editing” of the Ems telegram. The chamber, in spite of the desperate efforts of Thiers and Gambetta, now voted by 246 votes to 10 in favour of the war.
France was isolated, as much through the duplicity of Napoleon as through that of Bismarck. The disclosure to the diets of Munich and Stuttgart of the written text of the claims laid by Napoleon on the territories of Hesse and Bavaria had since August 22, 1866 estranged southern Germany from France, and disposed the southern states to sign the military convention with Prussia.
Owing to a similar series of blunders, the rest of Europe had become hostile. Russia, which it had been Bismarck’s study both during and after the Polish insurrection of 1863 to draw closer to Prussia, learnt with annoyance, by the same indiscretion, how Napoleon was keeping his promises made at Stuttgart. The hope of gaining a revenge in the East for her defeat of 1856 while France was in difficulties made her decide on a benevolent neutrality. The disclosure of Benedetti’s designs of 1867 on Belgium and Luxembourg equally ensured an unfriendly neutrality on the part of the United Kingdom.
The emperor counted on the alliance of Austria and Italy, for which he had been negotiating since the Salzburg interview (August 1867). Austria, having suffered at his hands in 1859 and 1866, was not ready and asked for a delay before joining in the war; while the hesitating friendships of Italy could only be won by the evacuation of Rome. The chassepots of Mentana, Rouher’s “Never”, and the hostility of the Catholic empress to any secret article which should open to Italy the gates of the Italian capital, deprived France of her last friend.
Marshal Leboeuf’s armies were no more effective than Gramont’s alliances. The incapacity of the higher officers of the French army, the lack of preparation for war at headquarters, the irresponsibility of the field officers, the absence of any contingency plan, and the reliance on chance, previously a successful strategy for the emperor, instead of on scientific warfare, were all apparent as early as the insignificant engagement of Saarbrucken.
Thus the French army proceeded by disastrous stages from Weissenburg, Forbach, Froeschweiler, Borny, Gravelotte, Noisseyule and Saint-Privat to the siege of Metz and the slaughter at Illy.
By the capitulation of Sedan the Empire lost its only support, the army. Paris was left unprotected and emptied of troops, with a woman at the Tuileries, a terrified Assembly at the Palais-Bourbon, a ministry, that of Palikao, without authority, and leaders of the Opposition who fled as the catastrophe approached. On September 4, 1870 the republican deputies of Paris at the hotel de ville constituted a provisional government. The Empire had fallen, the emperor was a prisoner in Germany, and France now embarked on the era of the Third Republic.