Louis Napoleon elected President of France

Prince Louis Napoleon was forty when he won the election for the French presidency on December 10th, 1848.

Louis Napoleon Bonaparte
Louis Napoleon Bonaparte

Prince Louis Napoleon was forty when he won the election for the French Presidency in 1848, a small, reserved, enigmatic man with chestnut hair, brown beard and a pointed moustache. Polling well over 5 million votes, he won one of the most remarkable victories in French history, though he had never held public office or distinguished himself in any worthwhile capacity. The nostalgic vote which carried him to power looked back to the greatness of France under his uncle, Napoleon I, whose name he carried and whose heir he claimed to be.

Charles Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, born in Paris in 1808, was both the nephew of Napoleon I and the grandson of the Empress Josephine. His father, who was king of Holland at the time (and who had doubts about whether the boy was really his), was Napoleon I's brother Louis. His mother was Hortense de Beauharnais, Josephine's daughter by her first husband.

Louis Napoleon last saw the first Napoleon as a boy of seven and grew up in exile in Switzerland and Germany, imbibing from his mother a profound admiration for his uncle's genius and a romantic longing for France, his lost homeland. The death in Vienna in 1832, at the age of twenty-one, of Napoleon I's only son, the Duke of Reichstadt, allowed Louis Napoleon to regard himself as the true Bonaparte heir and he made vain attempts to bring off coups in France in 1836 and in 1840. Though comically unsuccessful, these failures brought him useful publicity and in prison at the castle he called 'the university of Ham' he was allowed to correspond with politicians in opposition to the government under Louis- Philippe, publish articles in newspapers and issue self-promoting leaflets. People in the know considered him an ass, but in 1846 he escaped and took refuge in Britain. He installed a riding teacher as his mistress, had his corns treated by a chiropodist named Eisenberg, to whom he gave enthusiastic endorsement in French in The Times, and bided his time.

It came after Louis-Philippe was dethroned in the revolution of February 1848 and elections were held for a constituent assembly. A Bonapartist faction nominated Louis Napoleon as a candidate and he won a seat and arrived in Paris in September. At this point a new political group called the Party of Order, formed by a desperate anti-socialist alliance of Roman Catholics and monarchists, adopted him as its candidate for the presidency, more because they could not agree on anyone else than for any better reason. Adolphe Thiers, the distinguished historian who was the party's leading figure, considered Louis Napoleon a cretin.

The cretin seized the opportunity astutely. He was a fresh figure on the scene, which was a great advantage, he had total faith in his destiny, which was another, and he could parade as a person above party politics. Karl Marx sourly remarked that because Louis Napoleon was nothing, he could appear to be everything. His opponents' attempts at ridicule, caricaturing him riding a goose he was trying to transform into an imperial eagle, merely rebounded to his advantage by reminding people of his Napoleonic connection. He wooed the electorate with promises to restore France's lost glory, and assurances of prosperity, advancement and a happy future for every group and social class in the country. As one of his biographers commented, he came down impartially on all sides.

The strategy worked like a charm with all classes, but especially among the peasantry. Country people marched about firing guns and drinking in support. Grizzled veterans of his uncle's armies proudly donned their uniforms and growled their approval. Crowds flocked to the polls on December 10th, bawling, 'Death to the rich!' and 'Aristos and usurers to the guillotine!'. Of the total vote cast, by 75 per cent of the electorate, Louis Napoleon won three-quarters and was swept into office.

Professional politicians were shocked, but the new president and most of France had had quite enough of them. He went on to rid himself of the Party of Order and destroy the Second Republic with the support of a handful of Bonapartists in the National Assembly. Steering his own men into key positions in the army and the administration, he took advantage of an economic down-turn in 1851 to present himself as the strong man who would save France from socialism and collapse. In December he carried out a successful coup, put down his opponents by force and sent the assembly packing. In 1852 he made himself Emperor of France as Napoleon III and the following year married the beautiful Eugenie de Montijo. The stage was set for the substantial achievements and the ravishing style of the Second Empire.

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